The Identity of “Red” George by Norman H. MacDonald FSA Scot.

The life of Lt. Col. “Red” George MacDonell who was largely responsible for raising the Glengarry Light Infantry in Canada to fight against the Americans in the War of 1812-14 and who so distinguished himself at the storming of Ogdensburg, which had been used as a base by the Americans for harassing the British, and particularly at the battle of Chateauguay, for which he was awarded a gold medal and later made a Companion of the Bath, would make an excellent adventure novel.

That “Red” George was a MacDonell of the family of Leek, a cadet of the Glengarry branch of Clan Donald there is no doubt; but his exact relationship with that family is less easy to determine.

“Red” George was born at St. John’s, Newfoundland, On 12th August 1780 and was a son of Captain John MacDonell, designated as “of Leek”, who died a Captain of Invalids at Berwick on 16th October 1807. In his obituary, Captain John is said to have begun his military career as an acting Aide-de-Camp to Lord Loudon at the siege of Bergen-op-zoom in 1747 and to have taken part in most of the battles in the American campaigns including that of the Plains of Abraham where he was the officer who received Montcalm “when sinking under his wounds, by the interposition of his own body between him and the bayonets of an infuriated soldiery, rowsed to madness by the loss of their beloved General (Wolfe). The plans and papers which he had the good fortune to secure in the French General’s portfolio, were essentially important to the reduction of the invaluable province of Canada.” There is no mention here of his having taken part in the Forty-Five.

W.C. Scott KC, in a pamphlet on “The MacDonells of Leek, Collachie and Aberchalder” (reprinted from the Report of the Canadian Catholic Historical Association for 1934-35) also gives an account of the life of this John of Leek whom he says

“fought at Culloden, where he was on the Prince’s staff and was wounded in the thigh …He remained in hiding for six months, until his wound healed, after which he walked in disguise the whole way to Hull, where he embarked for Holland and soon after rejoined the Prince at St. Germaine. He subsequently served in the Garde Ecossaise, but returned home shortly after the Act of Idemnity and entered the British Army as a Lieutenant in Fraser’s Highlanders. His commission is dated January 5th 1757. He fought under …Wolfe at … Quebec in 1759, where he had the good fortune to take as a prisoner an aide-de-camp of Montcalm’s carrying important dispatches. He had been a friend of Wolfe’s before the ’45 (an incredible statement) and was beside the great General when he fell.  During the Revolutionary War he served as a Major and later, commanded a veteran’s corps in Newfoundland. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Patrick Leslie Duguid of Balquhain and died a Captain of Invalids, at Berwick in 1818″ (1807).

An account somewhat similar to that given by Scott is related by the Revs. A. and A. MacDonald (“Clan Donald. Vol.3 p.348 in connection with another older John MacDonell of Leek who, in 1773, emigrated with his brothers Allan MacDonell of Cullachy (Collachie) and Alexander MacDonell of Aberchalder with their families and several hundred other Highlanders on board the “Pearl”, a frigate of the Royal Navy to Tryon County (now Montgomery) in the State of New York from which they removed on the outbreak of the American War and settled in what is now Glengarry County in Eastern Ontario. Scott rightly states:

The chief source of errors that have been current regarding the Leek family has been an ambitious work entitled “The Clan Donald”. The pedigrees there given for Leek, Collachie and Aberchalder are hopelessly astray. The Leek tree starts correctly with John Og, but the subsequent links are not reconcilable with the known facts. It is said that Angus, the holder of the tack, … , left seven sons, John, Allan, Ranald, Archibald, Alexander, Donald and Roderick. It is, however, quite evident from the context, that five of these seven, namely, Archibald, Allan, Roderick, Ranald and Alexander, are the sons, not of any Angus of Leek, but of John of Leek, the oldest of the three brothers… John said in ‘The Clan Donald” to have been the oldest son of Angus and to have been fifth of Leek, is there identified with a gallant officer (Capt. John of Leek) who was the father of a distinguished son (“Red” George).

It is clear, therefore, that there were two distinct Johns of Leek; the older John, eldest of the three brothers who emigrated in 1773, and the younger John, of Fraser’s Highlanders, father of “Red” George.

It is the present writer’s opinion that Captain John of Leek, the father of “Red” George was the second eldest son of the older John of Leek, eldest of the three brothers and it is now proposed to show how he has arrived at that conclusion.

W.C. Scott says that the older John of Leek married Jean, daughter of Alexander Chisholm of Muckerach, brother of Roderick, The Chisholm, and died at Montreal on 11th November 1782; his age being given in the old Parish Church Register as “about 72” (Scott claims he was 75). This John of Leek, therefore could not, as stated in “Clan Donald”, have been the father of “Red” George who, as we have seen, undoubtedly died at Berwick in 1807.

Further, in the will of Alasdair Ruadh MacDonell of Glengarry, dated 29th April 1761, that Chief directs “Angus MacDonell of Greenfield, John MacDonell  of Leek, and Allan MacDonell of Cullachy … to see that all the political and useless letters among his papers are burnt and destroyed”. As John MacDonell of Fraser’s Highlanders was in America at the date of this will and had been there for at least the two previous years, he cannot possibly have been the John of Leek to which the deed refers. Scott says:

I was told by my aunt, my father’s elder sister, that Colonel George MacDonell was a frequent visitor at my grandfather’s house and that he was a cousin of my grandmother’s, she being a grand-daughter of John of Leek, the brother of Collachie and Aberchalder …Colonel George’s sister married Sir Joseph Radcliffe, Bart., and her grandson, the late Sir George Armitage, Bart.    Told me that his grandmother always maintained that her father was John MacDonell of Leek, and that she had no doubt whatever that her grandfather was another John MacDonell of Leek.

Thus, from the foregoing statements it seems certain that the father of Captain John MacDonell of Leek, (father of ‘Red” George) who died at Berwick in 1807, could be no other than John of Leek, the eldest of the three brothers who emigrated on board the “Pearl”.

Scott assumes that there must have been three successive generations of Johns of Leek and attempts to eliminate Angus, stated by the “Clan Donald” authors to have been the father of the three brothers: Leek, Collachie and Aberchalder. But the public records show that the Laird of Leek in 1734 and in 1744 was Angus and not John. A John of Leek does, however, appear in “Bonds and Hornings” between 1721 and 1725; probably the father of Angus and grandfather of the three brothers.

Scott further states that the eldest son of the older John of Leek was named Angus, and that he died before the family left Scotland. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that John of Leek named his eldest son after his father (Angus) and his second son John (Capt. John, father of “Red” George) after himself, a very normal custom in the Highlands until very recently.

In conclusion it may be pointed out that the regimental history of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders is in error in stating that “Red” George rose to the rank of Major General. It was his son John Ignatius MacDonell, who at the time of his father’s death was Colonel Commanding the 71st Highlanders, who became a Major General. “Red” George was latterly a Lt. Col. in the 79th Highlanders. He married in 1820 the Hon. Laura Arundell, second daughter of Lord Arundell of Wardour, by whom he had one son, and died at Wardour Castle on 16th May, 1870 aged ninety years.