The Clan on the Little River by Robert E. McDonald, Texas

From “Searching for Emigrant Ancestors” in The Clan Donald News published by the Clan Donald of America.

Not long after the fateful year 1746 the Highlanders of Scotland began emigrating to the colony of North Carolina and settling along the Cape Fear River. Not many of those MacDonalds of the Sleat branch of the Clan of the Island of Skye came prior to about 1770. During a very few years they came in great numbers, and they selected for their community the Little River, further west than the drainage into the Cape Fear. The Little River flows south through Montgomery and Richmond counties and empties into the Yadkin.

At this stage of the study, it is not known whether or not McDonalds from other branches of the Clan in other parts of Scotland and Ireland made any distinctive settlements. This deals with that very large group which settled on the Little River to establish a complete self-sufficient community. Before the completion of the project the Revolution came on and put a stop to emigration before all had arrived. It also resulted in a considerable number going back to Scotland or to Canada during and after the war. Many remained but the colony never reached the size intended.

In the course of my study of my own ancestor, Donald McDonald, who settled on Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Little River, in 1774, it occurred to me to study those coming with him. This soon revealed the part of Scotland they came from, the branch of Clan Donald of which they were a part, and the place in society they occupied. In other words the area to be searched for them was reduced from all over Scotland to the Island of Skye; and only the tacksman class was involved.

In Texas there are many descendants of the McDonalds who came to America through North Carolina and who are interested in the background of their emigrant ancestors. It is for them that the following is prepared.

Our emigrants arrived on Little River in the early 1770’s. Hence conditions on Skye and happenings previous to that date will be discussed.

The word Clan is derived from a Gaelic word meaning family, and that is what it is. But it was, and is, used in a broader sense. Originally the family owned a tract of land, a district, not individually but all together. The land area was subdivided into parcels called tacks. Each man of the clan, or family, was entitled to a tack. Tacks were named and the holder was usually called by the name of his tack as Cuidreach, Kingsburgh, etc. Later on, titles came to be issued for clan lands, and these were made to the Chief and his successors. However, that made no difference in the use.

At the period of this discussion all people everywhere believed in, or at least accepted, the theory that some people are born noble and others common.

Such being the custom there was little or no marriage between the classes but much intermarriage of cousins. To illustrate this let us look at those early settlers on Little River and see how they were related to one another. We can use only the few whose records are clear. Among these early arrivals we find Hugh, usually referred to as one-eyed Hugh; Sorlie (Somerled); Alexander of Cuidreach, Allan of Kingsburgh, and Donald, son to Rorie, all McDonalds.

Hugh married Marion, daughter of Parson Angus McDonald. Marion’s mother was also a Marion McDonald. Hugh was Marion’s second husband. Her first was Ranald McDonald of Milton. Flora, the famous girl, was their daughter. Hugh and Marion had a daughter. Annabelle. She married Alexander McDonald of Cuidreach. Their daughter, Emily, married James McDonald of Heisker. They had a daughter also named Emily who married James McDonald, son of Flora and husband Allan. Then Annabelle and Alexander had a son, named Donald. This was Hugh’s grandson and Hugh, being old gave him 500 acres of land on Mountain Creek, another tributary of Little River. Also, he put up money and built Donald a gristmill on Mountain Creek, which kept the colony in bread during the Revolution. Donald later married Fannie McDonald, daughter of Flora and Allan.

Sorlie (Somerled) was the son of Alexander McDonald of Ardnamurchan who had married Margaret McDonald, Hugh’s sister. Hence Sorlie was Hugh’s nephew.

Rorie was the son of John McDonald, a first cousin of Hugh. John married Margaret McDonald. After John’s death she married Ranald, a brother of Hugh. We do not know who Rorie’s first wife was. It could possibly be she was not a McDonald. His second wife was Anne McDonald, daughter of William the Tutor. Her father was a first cousin of Hugh. Donald, who settled on Buffalo Creek, was a son to Rorie and Anne. She and her husband were second cousins.

Rorie’s sister, Margaret McDonald, married Alexander McDonald of Sartle [F1], Hugh’s nephew.

In addition to these there was a General Donald McDonald who came into the colony during the Revolution to recruit what was called the Highland Emigrant Regiment. He was Rorie’s grandnephew that is the grandson of Rorie’s brother, Donald.

Having accumulated the above data, I still do not know exactly the degree of kinship these people were to one another. Also there were three examples where McDonald men married women not named McDonald. Hugh’s father married Mary McLeod, John’s father married Janet Ritchie and the Donald, son of Rorie, married Kezia Robertson.

The fact that all of the above are Skye McDonalds, together with other facts hereinafter given leads to the conclusion that the people of the McDonald colony were of the Sleat branch of Clan Donald, which means they were from the estates of Sir Alexander McDonald. If some may later be found from other branches, they will be rare exceptions. Therefore, for the time being at least, we can confine our studies in Scotland to the Isle of Skye.

For this we have three books:

1. A Description of the Western Isles by Martin Martin. This was published about the year 1700, and has been reprinted. Martin was an educated man and a native of the Isle of Skye. He gives the first account of the people and the country we have. Dr Samuel Johnson of London read this book as a boy and always wanted to visit these strange and faraway places, as little known in his day in England and the Lowlands as Borneo and Sumatra, he says. So in 1773 with James Boswell he went and they spent the month of September on Skye. He had Boswell write down notes of the happenings each day. On returning he used these notes together with his own observations and wrote;

2. The Tour of the Hebrides. It was published first in 1774. The notes Boswell made were lost; but a few years ago were found and published in 1936 by the Viking Press as edited by Pottle and Bennett as;

3. Tour of the Hebrides. Also Boswell published an abridgement shortly after the trip. This is less valuable, because it is less complete. I recommend these three to all who are interested in learning first-hand about the Highlanders who came to North Carolina.

The last two are the most useful to the genealogist. Johnson is more scholarly, but Boswell gives a wealth of details about names, relations, ages etc. For example, he says the skipper on the boat taking them from Armadale to Mull was Hugh McDonald, an old man with one eye. Of Rorie he says he was 68, had a son Donald, a son James, and a daughter Kate by a former marriage and a son of his wife by a former marriage, McQueen, who was going to America. Also be says Donald was a lieutenant in Montgomery’s regiment. The particulars he gives sometimes prove very useful in genealogy.

On Skye the tacksmen were people of education and culture for that day. Johnson says he was in no house that did not have books in more than one language, except one where people were not at home. As to how the tacksmen lived we will let Boswell tell about one. This was a tack on the MacDonald estates named Coirechatachan, called Corrie for short. The tacksman was Lachlan McKinnon whose wife was Anne, daughter of Alexander MacDonald of Kingsburgh, and of course sister to Allan, above mentioned. Boswell and Johnson stopped there to spend a night on the way from Armadale to visit McLeod on the island of Raasay; but being detained by weather they stayed longer.

Boswell gives a good picture of the sort of people who were then embarking for North Carolina. This is especially useful to us, because these are the sort of people, the tacksmen, who went to Little River. McKinnon was going when his lease was up in five years, but by that time the American Revolution stopped all travel.

“The house was of two stories. We were carried into a low parlour, with a carpet on the floor, which we had not seen at Armadale. We had tea in good order, a tray, silver teapot, silver sugar dish and tongs, silver teaspoons enough. Our landlord’s father had found a treasure of old silver coins, and of these he bad made his plate. Mrs McKinnon was a decent well-behaved old gentlewoman in a black silk gown. At sight we had the company of Corre and his wife; Mr [F2] McKinnon’s daughter to his wife and widow of his son; Mr [F3] Macpherson, minister of Sleat, and his wife, daughter of Corre; a niece of Corre, Mrs McKinnon, Miss Macpherson, sister to the minister; and Dr Macdonald, a physician, as also young Mr McKinnon, son to Corre. We had for supper a large dish of minced beef collops, a large dish of fracassee of fowl, I believe a dish called fried chicken or something like it, a dish of ham or tongue, some excellent haddocks, some herrings, a large bowl of rich milk frothed, as good a bread pudding as I ever tasted, full of raisins and lemon or orange peel, and sillabubs made with port wine and in sillabub glasses. There was a good tablecloth with napkins, china, silver spoons, and a large bowl of very good punch. It was really an agreeable meeting.

“Mr Johnson got a good bedroom to himself. When I went upstairs, Mrs McKinnon received me in an opposite bedroom with three beds in it, and with an air of hearty cordiality said, ‘Come away and see if you can sleep among a heap of folks,’ then kissed me on each side of the face and bid me good night. I had a good clean bed with red and white check curtains to myself. In a bed with blue worsted stuff curtains lay Donald McLeod and Dr MacDonald, in a red one of the same kind, the minister and young McKinnon.”

The houses and living conditions of the lowest class of people offer us quite a contrast. Dr Johnson, in commenting on these things and more, says people do not miss conveniences they have never known. Everything indicates that all classes were satisfied to stay where they had always lived. Further to show this universal satisfaction there had never been much emigration from Skye to any other place until about 1770. By 1773 many had already gone, many others constantly leaving on boats sailing at frequent intervals. Still others planned to go at a later date. Johnson calls it “an epidemic spreading its contagion from valley to Valley.” He expressed the fear that the depopulation would be complete and wrote forceful arguments for means to be found to stop it. He points to the fact that the dissatisfied, and on the way, or fluttering on the wing, were the tacksmen, the only people of education to impart civility and give direction to the lower classes. It was the tacksmen who were leaving and nearly all did leave from over Scotland and go to one or another of the British colonies. These seen by Johnson and Boswell on Skye were to go to North Carolina and we find the part was the Little River area. However, it is reasonable to suppose that some would find other parts of North Carolina to their liking. Now we have not only the place of residence in Scotland of these emigrants, but also we have definite and authentic information about the class they sprang from.

We need to inquire about the cause of this sudden dissatisfaction that applied to one class.

In 1746, following the Battle of Culloden, the Parliament of Great Britain passed some harsh laws to abolish the Highland Clans as early as they could do that by laws. The use of the tartans and the wearing of kilts were prohibited. These measures were endorsed by the occupying army. Local government thereafter was to be by Government appointed officials. No Highlander was allowed to own any arms. All this meant that henceforth the chief would have no further use for the tacksmen except as tenants. A clan could survive only so long as the chief adhered to the ancient principles, and they all had a perfectly valid legal right to lay those principles aside and rent the land for the best price it would bring. Sooner or later every Highland chief adopted the new order of things. The tacksmen, to a man, did not like it. They were throughout as equally determined to emigrate rather than accept.

Exactly what happened in the case of the Sleat or Skye branch of Clan Donald was this: In 1746 Sir Alexander MacDonald, the Chief, died the very year of the new laws. His oldest son, James, was a minor. Old Kingsburgh was his tutor. James was given a good education, and when he took over the reins, he had not the remotest idea of doing differently from the long established custom.

Every clansman loved him and it was reciprocal. But Sir James took consumption and died in 1766 at the age of 26 and unmarried.

The next in line to inherit the chiefship was the next brother. Alexander. He had been educated in London, and perhaps no thought had been given to the possibility that he might some day be chief. Anyhow, he began to rent his land for the best price he could get regardless of kinship. As rapidly as leases expired the tacksmen were to pay higher or leave. They left.

There was also propaganda widely circulated that greatly hurt the pride of the tacksmen, to the effect that they were robbing the chiefs with one hand and the poor people with the other. Dr Johnson discusses the fallacy of this and at length. It should be read, rather than paraphrased here.

Prudent people, as these were, do not pack up and go to a new country, radically different, until they know what to expect. When they left Skye they knew what the place was like and where they were going. Some had to go to the place, learn and report back. In some way the Cape Fear River in North Carolina became a place for the displaced Scots of the Protestant faith and was quite well known in the Highlands. Before 1770 there were frequent boats between Scotland and the mouth of the Cape Fear. But these Skye McDonalds became attracted to a place further on, in what is now Richmond and Montgomery counties and along a tributary of the Yoakin, called Little River [M1]. That was on the frontier. We will inquire how they came to learn about this particular locality.

Prime Minister William Pitt decided to try to enlist some of the Highlanders by allowing them to organise pure Highland regiments and permit them to wear kilts and be led by their own officers.

One such regiment was arranged to be raised on the estates of Sir James MacDonald, and led by Montgomery, a brother of the mother of Sir James. Fourteen hundred men volunteered: officers were commissioned, and Sir James no doubt had a good deal to say who they should be. All was done and Montgomery’s was ready for action by 1759. They first saw action in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1761 a report came in that the Cherokees were molesting the western Carolinas. Montgomery, with 700 of these Skye-men, went down and were there for about a year. Returning north they were discharged at the close of the French and Indian War 1763. They were offered free land if they wanted to settle in America, or passage if they wanted to go home. I have heard of none who elected to stay. These men would naturally learn much about the country they were in during the stay in the Carolinas and would tell about it back in Skye.

Some years later and during the Revolution a letter came to the Colonial Government to the effect that the Cherokees were again on the warpath. This letter is published in the North Carolina Colonial Records. It was written by Charles Robertson, who lived on the Little River. In addition Donald McDonald, son to Rorie above, was a lieutenant in Montgomery’s Regiment. He married Kezia, a daughter of Charles Robertson. So it seems the Skye men who were with Montgomery must have carried back information on this section.

In 1771, James McDonald of Heisker [M2], Hugh McDonald and several others of the name applied for a grant of 40,000 acres of public land in North Carolina for themselves and families. This acreage shows that a large number had decided to emigrate and they had in mind to go to the frontier where public land was available, and they were thinking of settling down together. In other words the Clan was about to move its place of abode, and as Johnson expresses it, carry along their kindred, their customs, their language, etc., and “change nothing but their place of abode and of that they see the advantage.”

One-eyed Hugh came over in 1772, bought land on Mountain Creek, returned to Skye and was there in October 1773 to ferry Johnson and Boswell to Mull, came back in 1774 to build a grist mill for the new settlers.

John Bethune, a preacher, came along and was on hand in 1775. So it is true they were settling up in the new land not only individual homes but also a community to their liking.

We understand, of course, that people leaving Europe to settle in the wilds of America always came in groups or colonies consisting of a few to many families. They had to do this for mutual protection and aid. Any exception was rare. On arrival they settled down together; but occasionally some would find places somewhat distant. For the same reasons Scots or others later moved westward in groups.

These facts seem to indicate an advantage for descendants of a group in working together on genealogy when they can do it.

In view of the above and the advantage of teamwork I recommend that interested persons, descendants of people of the Little River McDonald Colony, band themselves together in such a way as to accomplish maximum results. In my opinion after we get going we can best work out details as we proceed, and may want to include others whose inquiries would overlap ours. Anyhow every member should be a working member and our goal should be to find out more about the people “from whom we sprang.”

Manuscript notes by RM Gorrie.

These manuscript notes were made in the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh library copy of the original magazine:

[M1] Between Winston-Salem and Blue Ridge [unintelligible word] near N. Carolina / Virginia State boundary line.

[M2] One of two N. Uist men ‘out’ in 1745.

Footnotes to the online edition:

The original article, as published in the magazine is not without typographical errors. The more obvious of these, I have corrected without comment here. The less obvious, or those open to interpretation are commented on here. – RKWM.

[F1] Given as “Alexander McDonald of Sarthe” in the original magazine. I know of no tack named Sarthe and have assumed a misprint of Sartle.

[F2] Given as “Mrs McKinnon’s daughter to his wife and widow of his son.” in the original magazine.

[F3] Given as “Mrs Macpherson, minister of Sleat, and his wife, daughter of Corre;” in the original magazine.