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AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL JOURNAL Of JOHN MACDONALD
Part V


In March 1810 I consulted the minister of the parish about leaving the district of Skerray, who agreed to my removing to the Melness side, another district in the same parish, where a schoolmaster was wanted; and Mrs Mackay, considering it would be better for me, gave her consent. She agreed the more willingly as her second son James, who attended my school, was to be sent to a Latin school, and her eldest son Hugh was at the University of St Andrews. She likewise intended sending her eldest daughter to a boarding-school at Inverness, so that her youngest daughter only could attend my school; but the distance being rather far, the road bad and wet, and the child but delicate, she could reap but little benefit from the school, especially in the winter season.

Another inducement I had for leaving this place was that I could procure very little sustenance for my family in it. Even potatoes I had to fetch from the Melness side, the carrying of which cost me very dear notwithstanding Mrs Mackay gave me the use of her boat gratis. This difficulty I hoped to be freed from by removing to the Melness side, as they rear and sell a great quantity of potatoes, and the land in general yields a better crop than that of the district of Skerray. My stepson, Robert Macpherson, enlisted in the 93rd regiment of foot in the latter end of September 1809, and his brother Hugh followed his example in March 1810, so that I was deprived of the only help I had, which rendered it the more necessary for me to remove my family where I could procure the necessaries of life near hand.

Accordingly, I agreed to go to Melness at Whitsunday after, and on the 15th Mary got the most part of my furniture and my whole family carried by boat to a place called Talmin on the Melness side, where the schoolhouse stands; but there being no school kept in it since Whitsunday 1808, the roof of it was entirely out of repair, and the people being busy with their labour could only spare time to repair the principal room of the dwelling house in the meantime. As the people were willing, however, the other room and the school-room were soon repaired, and I commenced school in the beginning of June. During the month of May and June this year, there was a great mortality in this parish: no less than thirteen heads of families died in that short space, besides some women. In short, all the counties of Sutherland and Caithness were in a less or more degree infected by an uncommon fever that swept away families, especially on the coast side of Sutherland. Very few recovered of those that were seized, nor did the greater part of those that died survive eight days, and some even died on the third day after they were taken sick. The Almighty has been pleased to bestow on me and my family a great portion of health during the time that these fevers prevailed, for which we can never be thankful enough, although some of our neighbours were called off the stage of life on all sides.

About the beginning of July the sickness abated, and health was restored to a few who had been ill; and much about the same time the coast of Sutherland and Caithness became more healthy. On the 9th April 1811 my wife was safely delivered of a fourth daughter, and on the 17th, the mother being somewhat recovered, the child was baptized Marion, in memory of the late Mrs Mackay of Skerray, a gentlewoman of exemplary piety, hospitality, and charity. My wife continued tender till about the beginning of June.

In the beginning of July 1815 I received a letter from the elder of my stepsons, who had served as grenadier in the 93rd Highlanders, informing me that he was wounded in the right knee and had his right leg shattered by a grape-shot on the 8th of January 1815, in the unsuccessful attempt against New Orleans [The general commanding bungled dreadfully at New Orleans. The Sutherland Highlanders were ordered to advance in close column towards the centre of the enemy’s line in face of a terrific storm of grape and ball. When within 100 yards of the breastworks, they were ordered to half and left thus exposed for some time, mowed down meanwhile by the cross fire of a protected foe. In this inferno their casualties were 18 officers and 483 rank and file, considerably more than half their number. Yet strange as it may appear, five brothers from the parish of Farr came out of this bloody action, and though some of them were wounded they all answered to their names in the evening when the roll was called. The editor knew one of these brothers intimately, George Mackay, Newland. When the Strathnaver men for the 93rd were being sworn in at Langdale, George was rejected because of his youth; but when the men afterwards set out for Inverness, George cut through the hills and followed them. He first served as a drummer, and after a time took his place in the ranks.] in North America, and was at the same time, along with some others of the different regiments composing that expedition, taken prisoner and robbed by the American soldiers while lying on the field of battle. After all fruitless endeavours to preserve his leg he was obliged to undergo the painful operation of an amputation on the 27th of March, and on the 24th of June arrived at Hilsea Hospital, where he lay under cure when he wrote me. He lay there until the 21st October, when he was removed to Chelsea to pass the Board on the 4th May 1816. His passage being paid by Government to Cromarty, he procured a passage from thence to Thurso and from thence to this place, where he arrived on the 28th May, after an absence of seven years and two months.

His arrival proved a great blessing to my family, for being naturally adventurous and very industrious, as soon as he came home he set about fishing or any other employment by which he might help the family; for although he lost the limb above the knee he travels remarkably well with a wooden leg, especially on even ground, and is very handy in a boat either in rowing or sailing. He bought a share of a boat soon after he came home, which proved very useful to us in such hard times, this year being the dearest and scarcest ever known in this part of the country. In short, it appeared to me an instance of the Almighty’s providential care for us, that this lad came home at the critical juncture of time when we most wanted his assistance.

He continued with ourselves until the beginning of December 1817, when he went to teach a Gaelic school in the parish of Durness, and there continued till the middle of March 1818 (the time for which he engaged), and on the 3rd of April was married to Catherine Mackay, daughter of the deceased Hugh Mackay, in Hope.

About the break of day on Sunday, the 22nd of March, the roof of the principal room in the house we occupied fell in, the couple having given away, being old and rotten, but it pleased God that none of us were hurt. There were five of us all asleep in the room at the time: when the couple broke it came down gradually till it rested upon the top of the bed wherein my wife and I, together with our youngest child, slept. The first crash it gave wakened us so that we had time to escape to the next room.

The room remained in that ruined state until the 22nd of November following; the people of the place, whose business it was to repair it, not being willing to trouble themselves about it till I applied to Lord Reay, who gave orders for its immediate repair. About the middle of January 1819, Mr Robert Clarke, schoolmaster of Tongue, applied to me to act as his substitute during the time he should attend the Divinity Hall at Aberdeen, to which I agreed though with some reluctancy, my stepson, Robert Macpherson, having previously agreed to teach my school in my absence.

On the 21st January I entered on my new duties of teaching the parochial school, and continued to do so until the end of April when Mr Clarke returned; but being licensed to preach on the 6th April, he did not take charge of the school until the 1st May, as he was constantly preparing for his ministerial office, which he was in a short time to commence. Meantime I returned to my family to follow my usual course of teaching, and to relive my substitute of a charge he was not very fond of, not being used to such confinement as the teaching of a school requires, and having some family affairs of his own to attend to, for he has taken a piece of land close by the place where I lived, into which he removed his family at Whitsunday 1819.

Nothing remarkable happened in my family until the beginning of November 1821, when my daughter Caroline was taken ill. Her sickness was supposed to proceed from --, as she always complained of a pain in her bowels accompanied with a continual looseness. Medicines were used but she gradually grew worse, the pain in her bowels shifting from thence to her sides and left shoulder, till her body was entirely emaciated to a skeleton. She seemed to be sensible of her approaching dissolution and to be quite resigned. She died on the 4th August 1822. She was an obedient child, and died in a most pleasant manner without a struggle, at the age of fourteen years two months and twenty-four days.

My son James has been employed in teaching children in different districts of this parish for several years past with great success, and is now settled by the minister of the parish with a salary from a society in Glasgow, the people to afford him boarding. The salary at present is rather small, but the minister hopes it may be augmented provided the reports of the school are favourable.

About the beginning of November 1822 a malignant fever broke out in our quarter of the parish, which proved fatal to several families, and among them was my stepson’s, who lost his wife on the 10th day of February. She left him only one child, a boy of upwards of three years of age. On the 29th of July following, Donald Mackay, a very close neighbour of mine, was carried off by the fever in the space of ten days, and on the 2nd August John Grant, a Gaelic teacher sent here last year by a society in Edinburgh, died after nine days’ sickness.

My son has been teaching the school I formerly taught since May 1823, at a salary of 10 pounds annually, besides school fees. On the 10th day of December 1824 he was married to a respectable farmer’s daughter, an agreeable young girl, who was for several years in Lord Reay’s service. Her father, John Mackay, was ground officer to Lord Reay for many years, and maintained a reputable character to his dying day, being greatly esteemed both by proprietor and tenants. His youngest son now occupies the same office with caution and credit. The young couple are still with ourselves.

The youngest of my stepsons, Sergeant Hugh Macpherson of the 93rd Highlanders, has been employed on the recruiting service from some time back in Thurso and Wick, Caithness, and on the 23rd of December 1824 married a young woman who was at service in Wick, and soon after his marriage was ordered to take charge of a recruiting party in Edinburgh. He continued at Edinburgh until January 1826, and was then ordered to remove to Cupar in Fife.

On the 4th December my son’s wife was safely delivered of a son, who was called John after both his grandfathers; and on the 23rd my daughter Betty was married to John Mackay, a young man of an excellent character, one of the posts between Tongue and Thurso. They live at present at his father’s house.

In May 1826 my son was ordered to go to Glasgow to be examined as to his qualifications for teaching, and after being found qualified was ordered to teach in the parish of Reay, in the county of Caithness, where he and his family are now settled. He is well satisfied with his situation, though his salary is yet only 12 pounds a year besides quarter fees and a cow’s grass and wintering. He commenced teaching in August last.

After my son was settled in his situation he was very solicitous that I should remove from Melness and come to live with himself, as my natural abilities were failing me. After mature deliberation I agreed to do so, and on the 2nd of May I left my old dwelling, where I resided for seventeen years, and on the 5th arrived at my son’s home, where I was received with filial affection. My wife and youngest daughter, however, having some business to finish, and not caring to come by sea with me, did not join us till the 19th May.

About the middle of March 1830 my stepson, Robert Macpherson, wrote me to come and live with himself, and it being rather inconvenient for James that I should live with him as his accommodation was so small, I consented, especially as my wife was willing to leave Caithness. Accordingly, on the 9th April I and my stepson left Caithness, and came to the parish of Tongue about 10 o’clock that night. We now live happily with my stepson, but how long that happiness may continue time only can tell.

The narrator of the foregoing journal, my father, died upon the 18th day of April 1832, aged eighty years. He was a most affectionate, dutiful, and exemplary parent.

(Signed) JAMES MACDONALD.


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