Sutherland & The Road South

Life had always been hard in the highlands but the strength of the Clan system had bound the community together to provide a sustainable way of life. Each township, often no more than seven or eight families, was able to provide enough to sustain itself by means of a mixture arable crops like oats, a few vegetables and the black highland cattle.  There were even enough cattle to spare to be sent to market in the south which provided enough cash to purchase the few things that needed to come in from outside the village.  Yes life was hard but there was enough to support the local way of life as it had been for generations.

But things were already changing.  After the Battle of Coloden, the landowners and chiefs were increasingly drawn towards life in Edinburgh and London and that sort of life needed money in a way that had not previously been required to support a chief's life in the Highlands.  The traditional way of life just couldn't provide the necessary surpluses to enable the chiefs to enjoy the lifestyle to which they aspired.  So from around 1760 onwards there was a gradual move towards the introduction of sheep farming which required lots of land but very few people.   The Countess of Sutherland was the largest landowner in Scotland and she married the Duke of Stafford who had inherrited a fortune and enourmous revenues from the Duke of Bridgewater's canal system.  From 1808 to 1819 the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland followed the trend established elsewhere and sought to introduce intensive sheep  rearing as a means of improving the revenue generated by their Scottish Estates.  To make way for the sheep the people would need to move to the marginal areas at the coast - whether they liked it or not!

Small crofting comunities  were established along the northern and then the eastern coasts of Sutheland.  The plots were smaller, the soil less fertile and the land could no longer provide the food needed by each family but there was the sea and fishing could be used to provide additional food or even a saleable commodity.  Even so the crofters needed to maximise the yield of their small fields by concentrating on the growing of potatoes. Their limited income was further suplimented by harvesting kelp (a form of seaweed which at the time was a saleable product).

For some, the struggle was too much and they chose to leave the land of their fathers for a new life in the U.S., Canada  or elsewhere in the growing Empire. (See the Canadian Boat Song)  Some chose to move to the towns and industrial centres in the south but most managed to get by - just.

And so the clearances of the people continued. Sometimes they went quietly sometimes, as in Strathnaver, they had to be forced and their old houses burnt to stop them returning, but one way or another they went and with them went the way of life that had existed for generations.


William McDonald had been born in Tongue arround 1830. At this stage nothing is known about his family or their circumstances and the next we see of William is his marriage to Margaret Michie in Lonmay, Aberdeenshire. Six months after this their first son William was born in Lonmay followed by Margaret the following year and then James in 1853 , by when the family were living in Aberdeen. By 1855 when son George was born the family were living in Fraserburgh (see copy of birth registration) and in 1857 daughter Isabella was born (also in Fraserburgh).

Sadly William's wife Margaret died in 1857 (probably related to the birth of Isabella) and the next reference we have to the family is in the 1861 census. The family is dispersed and as a consequence were quite hard to find. The first to show up were the children, William aged 10, James aged 7, George aged 5 and little Isabella aged 3, all living in Braeheads, Fraserburgh in the care of 50 year old Jessie Mckay, housekeeper. The father William and eldest daughter Margaret were mising. Next to be found was Margaret aged 9 at Cairnshina near Lonmay. She was shown in the census as a domestic servant living in the household of George Maurice (farmer of 21 acres) but I believe that George Maurice's wife, Isabella was in fact Margaret's aunt. We can only guess whether Margaret was treated as one of the family or whether she was treated as a servant.

By 1871 life has moved on and Margaret is re-united with her father and two brothers and living now in Soulby, near Kirkby Stephen in Westmorland (now Cumbria). The father and sons are labouring, building the Settle to Carlise Railway.

Four or five miles away, living in a Labour camp just south of Ormside , in a hut shared with twelve others was a burly highlander called Donald Matheson. The 1871 census gives Donalds name as Archibald and his place of birth as Elmsdale (Helmsdale) but this can probably be explained by the fact that the surviving census rcords were already a copy of a copy and Donald would have been a Gaelic speaker with English as a second language. We can only speculate how Donald and Margaret met - perhaps through Donald working with her brothers, perhaps they shared the same church. They certainly did on 21st May 1872 when they were married in St. Stephens church in Kirkby Stephen!

At the time of the wedding Donald had already moved to Barrow in Furness the nearby boom town attracting people from far and wide to make use of the local supplies of coal and iron in the rapidly expanding shipyards. Such was the growth rate of the town that there were more people than there were homes so many had to be accomodated in crudely built huts. Fifteen or sixteen people shared a cooking area at one end and and earth privy at the other with a communual living area in betwen. Here in April 1874, William McDonald Mathieson was born. Subsequent censuses show that William McDonald came to live with his daughter and her husband. Brothers James and George also moved to Barrow before 1881.

Family History
Photo Album
* Background

* William McDonald

* The Move to England