COLONSAY HISTORY No 1. (originally "Colonsay Cornucopia") September 2014 contents:
Colonsay Emigration, Prof. J. Sheets
Colonsay Regatta 1892
Donald McMillan, Kevin Byrne
An Oronsay Grave
Colonsay Fire Station
The following material was kindly shared with some local researchers a few years ago and is reproduced here by kind permission.
"In Rusk's Cemetery of Elderslie are more than one hundred Colonsay emigrants and their descendants, most of them members of the Baptist congregation at Williscroft. One of the oldest gravestones reads "Lachland [sic] McNeill…Age 69 Native of Colonsay"; the Baptist leader died on 14 September 1854, a year or two after arriving with his large family. Rusk's largest monument is "Sacred to the memory of John McNeill second son of Archie McNeill Esq PCS and grandson of John McNeill Esq of Colonsay Born June 15, 1839 Died July 9, 1872." He was an unmarried grandson of the Old Laird who joined the descendants of his grandfather's tenants in "Canada West" only to die from injuries received in a farming accident." - Prof. John Sheets.
THE COLONSAY DIASPORA
The remote island of Colonsay lies off Scotland's Argyll coast, a part of the Inner Hebrides sandwiched between much larger Mull, Islay, and Jura. Its twenty or more square miles was the medieval home of Clan McFee (or McDufee), whose chief found himself between the powerful McLeans of Mull and the even more powerful McDonalds of Islay, the legendary Lords of the Isles (Byrne 1997). A mid-16th century description claimed "ane fertill ile guid for quhte fishing ... this ile is bruikit [owned] be ane gentle capitane, callit McDuffyhe..." Soon the Campbells of Argyll had toppled Islay's McDonalds and displaced the last McFee chief in Colonsay. James VI of Scotland (I of England) "for services rendered to him and his forefathers, and for sums of money received" sold Colonsay to the 7th Earl of Argyll in 1610. Near the end of the century Martin Martin included Colonsay in his Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, not quite so favorably: " ... the middle is rocky and heathy ... the cattle bred here are cows, horses, and sheep all of a low size. The inhabitants are generally well proportioned, and of a black complexion; they speak only the Irish [Gaelic] tongue... they are all protestants, and observe the festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Good-Friday... "
In 1701 Malcolm McNeill of Crear (in Argyll) purchased Colonsay from the 10th Earl of Argyll, specifically its "houses, biggings, yards, orchards, mills, multures, mosses, muirs, meadows, woods, fishings, grazings, pasturages, annexis, connexis, outsetts, insetts, parts, pendicles and their universal pertinents whatsoever lying in the Parish... " (Loder 1935: 212, 219-20, 236-7, 261-2) Thus began in Colonsay two centuries of McNeill lairds over McNeill tenants, whose entirely separate ancestry originated in Barra of the Outer Hebrides, and a perennial point of confusion for those Colonsay descendants in search of their McNeill roots.
In 1688, England's "Glorious Revolution" effectively ended the Stuart line, as 20% of Scotland's young men went to the Continent's markets and mercenary service (Brock 1999:15). In the 1690s, cold weather, bad harvests and general recession contributed to the eventual Union of Scotland's Parliament with England's in 1707; meanwhile, the Highlands and islands suffered higher rents, too many people, and the demise of clan society. Predictably, the Campbells of Argyll dominated the Scottish delegations to London, serving the Court and themselves faithfully. They influenced any policy over the rebellious and dispossessed Highlanders who sought opportunity elsewhere. The Colony of Carolina had not prospered under its Royal Charter of 1663 from Charles II; its absentee Proprietors certainly did, leaving an idle territory of unhappy settlers amid the Indians and pirates. A truly Royal Navy needed more pitch, resin, tar and turpentine for its growing fleet, so Parliament offered "bounty payments" for all of these commodities. William Gordon, an Anglican missionary touring the Cape Fear region in 1709, conveyed the great potential within the forests of Pinus palustris , the long-leaf pine. When "North Carolina" attained Royal Colony status in 1729, it already provisioned the Empire with these naval stores, attracted more settlers, and housed more slaves for such labor-intensive work; "Tar Heel" culture had commenced. (Merrens 1964:89; Taylor 1999:1-4) That same year in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin's printing partner left him for the "Great Wagon Road" to the Carolina frontier. From Franklin's Autobiography, "I gave him what he demanded and he went soon to Carolina; from whence he sent me next year two long letters, containing the best Account that had been given of that Country... I printed them in the Papers, and they gave grate Satisfaction to the Publick." (Masur 1993:76).
North Carolina's popularity flourished under its second (and longest serving) Royal Governor, Gabriel Johnston (1699-1752), who arrived at Port Brunswick on 27 October 1734. According to his English investors and colonial critics, the St. Andrews-educated Scotsman shamelessly recruited fellow Highlanders to settle throughout the Cape Fear valley. Apparently true, since he moved inland during March 1739 and a large group from Argyll followed him. Under "Black Neil" McNeill, the "Thistle" departed Campbeltown at the tip of Argyll's Kintyre peninsula in July. Among its 350 passengers were McAllisters and McNeills from the Argyll coast, and possibly Colonsay, plus many named Buie, Campbell, McCranie, and McDougal probably from Jura; McNeill of Colonsay owned Jura's northern district of Ardlussa where a number of Colonsay people lived and worked. They reached Port Brunswick in September and quickly established their "Argyll Colony" one hundred miles up the Cape Fear River. By January 1740 the colonial Council recommended one thousand pounds "be paid of the Publick money, by his Excellency's warrant…among the several families" and "they shall be exempted from payment of any Publick or County tax for the space of Ten years... " On 28 February 1740, the Council and Governor Johnston convened with a first order of business "directed to... Duncan Campbell, Dugold McNeil, Dan McNeil, Col McAlister, Neil McNeil... hereby constituting and appointing them Justices of the Peace... " Typically, some of these men were "Tacksmen" from Argyll's faltering clans, the subordinates to a chief or laird who likewise were losing land or status at home.
In Colonsay, Angus McNeill petitioned the Sheriff-Substitute of Argyll in June 1739 about his father's brother Archibald, "Tacksman of Garvard." The uncle had granted his nephew a bond in 1730 for £100, but young Angus now sought any tangibles since "the said Archibald McNeill has lately sold off his effects in order to go to America." (Cunningham 1944:1-14; Fowler 1986:20-4; Budge 1960:69-70; Meyer 1961:54-9; Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol 4, Pt 1, pp 447 and 490; Dobson 1989:227; SC54/2/53/1739, National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh)
The 1745 defeat of "Bonnie Prince Charlie" at Culloden, near Inverness, dashed any hopes for a Stuart restoration to the British throne. But it did accelerate the flow of Highlanders bound for North Carolina into a torrent of emigrants welcomed by Governor Johnston. There followed complaints to London's Privy Council in 1749: " ... the Governor's not living at the seat of Government, his house being near 100 miles distant" and "[his] failing to call for public celebration over the defeat of the Rebels at Culloden" (Colonial Records, Vol 4, Pt 2, pp 934 and 1081). Regardless, under him the colony doubled its population to over 70,000 and Argyll emigrants continued to flock near his home at the inland fork of the Cape Fear River. One of them was Archibald McNeill from Ardlussa who put his family and belongings on a flat boat then, for two weeks, poled their way upriver (www.rootsweb.com/~nccumber/mcneilbridg.htm ) . In 1754, Blacks, Buies, Lindsays, McCranies, McDonalds, McDougalds, McGilreaches (and McIlriaches), McLeans, and Shaws came from Jura (and Colonsay?) to "Cross Creek" of "Cumberland County" (Dobson 1989:20-1, 25, 159, 171, 173, 182, 188, 191, 216-7, 299). They were followed by fifty more from Jura landing at Port Brunswick on 4 November 1767; each man, woman and child received 100 acres, without fees, in Cumberland and Mecklenburg counties (Graham 1956:95; Meyer 1961:86).
The "Scots Magazine" reported "fifty-four vessels full of emigrants from the Western Islands and other parts of the Highlands sailed for North Carolina between April and June 1770, conveying twelve hundred emigrants." Five hundred more from "Islay and the adjacent islands" prepared to leave in the summer of 1771 (MacLean 1900:419). From Port Askaig, Islay, on 24 May 1773 (just before Johnson and Boswell toured the Hebrides), "Scotus Americanus" published "Informations concerning the Province of North Carolina" for any and all future emigrants from the islands of Argyll. Where "lairds, unlike their fore-fathers, live at a great distance from their estates" and "natives are exclaimed against, as an intractable, idle, and useless set of beings... " no wonder "of late, numbers have gone, who show no inclination to return... " Of North Carolina, " ... it is the most proper [colony] for Highlanders of any degree to remove to, if they want to live in a state of health, ease, and independence." Of Cross Creek "at a 100 miles from the sea, where it begins to grow hilly... the soil is of an amazing fertility, fitted for every purpose of human life." There is "good profit in pitch, tar, and turpentine"; "Some lands give three crops in a year"; " ... it is the best country in the world for a poor man to go to, and do well." (Boyd 1927: 430-1, 435, 440-1, 444, 448) A popular and contemporary Gaelic song promoted " Dol a dh'iarruidh an fhortain do North Carolina (Going to seek one's fortune in North Carolina)" (MacLean 1900:108). Only the American Revolution stemmed this trans-Atlantic tide of Hebrideans, including Colbhasaich or "People from Colonsay."
Why did so many Gaelic-speakers in North Carolina remain loyal to the King? When General Donald McDonald raised the Royal Standard in Cross Creek's public square on 1 February 1776, former clansmen joined the regiment, perhaps painfully yet with good reasons. After Culloden, the English had forcefully applied both "the stick and the carrot." Prisoners were executed, lands confiscated, people banished, and Gaelic culture outlawed; Highlanders coming to North Carolina feared and never forgot the reprisals. But the King and William Pitt also formed the Highland Regiments who fought gallantly against the French on the Continent and in Canada. In fact, many Regiment officers retired to North Carolina and its profitable land. One of the first to volunteer at Cross Creek was Allan McDonald, husband of Flora McDonald who famously arranged the escape of "Bonnie Prince Charlie" from Skye in the Outer Hebrides! For these Loyalists, any advantage disappeared on February 27th, within a few minutes at Moore's Creek Bridge, just north of Wilmington. The Rebels (or Patriots, based on perspective) disabled the bridge, then waited in elevated positions for McDonald's regiment. In place of a sick McDonald, Colonel Donald McLeod foolishly charged the bridge. The rifle and artillery retort cleared the field with nearly 900 Highlanders captured. The Rebels jailed them, raided their farms, and scattered their families; many later fled by ship to Nova Scotia. The skirmish at Moore's Creek permanently compromised the British strategy in North Carolina and thoroughly diluted any sympathy among the surviving Highlanders; they did not respond to Cornwallis when he arrived in 1781. (Meyer 1961:146-61)
America's independence from the British Empire carried irreversible consequences for transplanted Gaels from Argyll and their descendants. A state religion no longer existed; no one lived in "Cross Creek" (once "Campbeltoun") because the Americans re-named it "Fayetteville" to honor their foremost French ally. The new nation also generated new documents and often ignored, or destroyed, those from its colonial past. A search for one's Argyll ancestors in pre-Revolutionary North Carolina can end with bits and pieces, or sometimes a surprise ripe for speculation and story. One of the oldest gravestones in Fayetteville's "Cross Creek Cemetery Number One" records Jura's Colin Shaw "native of Scotland came to Cross Creek in 1744, twice commissioned in King's Army... Loyal in word and deed" (Sherman and Lepine 1988:1).
As a prelude to war, the British had terminated emigrations to the American colonies by September 1775. Afterwards, the 1783 Treaty of Paris coincided with poor harvests and widespread famine in Scotland. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin warned "those who would remove to America" that "the Government does not at present, whatever it may have done in former times, hire people to become settlers by paying their passages [or] giving land... " (Cooper 1795:231-2) The renewed trans-Atlantic emigrations merely revived the drain on rural populations; this time the passengers were more destitute and often without plans or leaders. So severe was the depopulation in Colonsay that the parish minister complained in the First Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-96, XII:329 and 332): " ... in the summer 1791, a considerable proportion of the inhabitants crossed the Atlantic... Instead of trying the effects of industry at home, they foster the notion of getting at once into a state of ease and opulence, with their relations beyond the Atlantic." The ministers worried about shrinking congregations, the lairds about a shrinking workforce, and the government about shrinking Highland regiments. One overt tactic with covert purpose was the Ship's Passenger Act of 1803. Ostensibly to combat the notorious overcrowding and rotten rations on emigrant ships, it instigated the inspections, licensing, and paperwork of any bureaucratic reform. The regulations meant to decrease the number of emigrants and their ships; they failed in application once ship owners and their investors understood the profit of turning an emigrant ship into a timber ship on its way home to Britain.
An exception to such Home Rule was Thomas Douglas, Scotland's 5th Earl of Selkirk (1771-1820). He vigorously supported planned emigration as a cure to the chronic problems in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland - to the point of securing land in Prince Edward Island, finding over 800 emigrants for his three ships in Mull, then travelling with them in 1803 to supervise the new settlements. His ulterior motive, though, was geographical and political. Selkirk feared the flow of disaffected Highlanders to America. He considered the nation of Washington and Jefferson "a set of lawless vagabonds, straggling upon the frontiers of our provinces" who must be stopped (Bumsted 1984:53-4). The success of "Selkirk's Settlers", plus the island's timber, altered the route of more emigrant ships to Maritime Canada, just as he wished. In May, June and July of 1806, no less than five ships collected almost 500 people in "the West Highlands & Islands - esp. Mull and Colonsay" bound for Prince Edward Island. To obey the Passenger Act, each ship maintained its Register Code and a Passenger List; in one case, they offer vivid witness to the exodus from Colonsay.
The "Spencer" of Newcastle was a 330-ton, 3-masted, fully rigged vessel of "E1" code, meaning "Second Class, Perfect Repairs [in 1803], with Satisfactory Equipment." Constructed in 1778, it measured 100 feet long, 25 feet wide, 17- 18 feet deep, with four "4-Pounder" guns. A "deck with beams" allowed planking for an extra level to accommodate the emigrants; the planks were removed to carry timber and other cargo on the return. The "Spencer" left Oban, on the Argyll coast, in late July for Colonsay's harbor at Scalasaig where over a hundred islanders waited. And they were not a random sample of the local population. Many came from the isolated north of Colonsay at Balnahard; they were mostly McMillans, McNeills, and Munns tied into a Gordian knot of kinship. Their common property and shared provisions for the 40-50 days at sea consisted of "72 chests, 4 trunks, 35 barrels, 8 boxes, 1 hogshead, 1 kettle, 40 parcels, wearing apparel/bedding." The current laird, John McNeill (1767-1846), was busy draining, enclosing, improving and populating the interior of Colonsay, Kilchattan around Loch Fada; but these tenants chose relocation across the Atlantic, not elsewhere on their native island. The "Spencer" reached Pinette Harbor in the southeast of Prince Edward Island on 22 September 1806. The Collector of Customs carefully enumerated its 115 surviving passengers: 64 males and 51 females, with 43 "under 16," 68 "from 16 to 60," and only 4 "above 60." They spent the winter in quarters and with provisions provided by Selkirk's agent. The next spring these Colonsay settlers moved to the nearby Wood Islands area (on "Lot 62") to begin their new lives in a New World. (Campey 2001:135, 140-2; Sheets 2001-02).
Colonsay and John McNeill exported plenty of cattle, oats and potatoes during the Napoleonic wars, yet young men and extended families still followed their friends to Prince Edward Island; Colonsay's population fluctuated from 805 in 1801, down to 786 in 1811, then up to 904 in 1821 (Loder 1935: 168-80). Once the post-war markets collapsed, more islanders boarded the ships for seemingly more free land along the new frontier of "Upper Canada" - also called An Talamh Fhuar (The Cold Land). From the Maritimes, Colonsay people ventured into the wilderness north of Ontario's "York" (later Toronto) where "by 1815 [Highland Scots] had made Gaelic the third most common European language in British North America [after English and French]" (Bumsted 1991:388). Like the "pioneers" to Prince Edward Island, they too left a recoverable record in property surveys, parish registers and rural cemeteries. For example, in the1820s, Catherine, Donald, Duncan, John, Lachlan and Sarah McKinnon (with their elderly parents) moved to Kilchattan from Mull. Except Duncan, the brothers and sisters migrated to Erin Township of Wellington County, Ontario, in 1831, where their large families established contiguous 100-acre farms. They were soon followed by others in Colonsay like Angus Bell and Margaret McCalder, married at the Scalasaig church on 30 October 1835 and settled in nearby East Gwillimbury Township the next year. Donald, John, Lachlan and Sarah McKinnon are buried in Erin's Coningsby Cemetery "together in death as they always were in life." (Sheets 2000:81; Old Parish Register of Colonsay)
In Colonsay, the first household census of 1841 recorded 979 residents, or nearly 50 per square mile. For those staying, John McNeill was forever the affectionate "Old Laird" of paternal instincts, Gaelic speech and staunch Presbyterianism. His favorite district of Kilchattan boasted 255 in 43 households while Balnahard struggled with 32 in just 6 houses. An image of success continued in print. For cattle going to Canada, an 1841 "Emigrant's Guide to North America" (in Gaelic) designated "the best variety... at the Falkirk cattle market, which came from Colonsay... " (Thompson 1998:102) Scotland's Second Statistical Account (1845, VII:546) applauded him: "Mr McNeill has thus, by judicious, persevering and well-directed efforts, not only brought his estate in a high condition of cultivation and productiveness, but he has likewise much improved the condition of the small crofters, and afforded constant occupation to a numerous and comfortable population." Actually, he had witnessed a decade or more of falling prices for Colonsay's exports and mercifully died on 24 February 1846, the eve of the Potato Famine. That year the islanders received a shipment of American corn, and the next year young men and women went to find seasonal work in mainland towns and cities. Rather ominously, the parochial Death Register for Colonsay starts in 1848. By the 1851 census, the population had declined by 15% to 837, signaling more decades of emigration and 150 years of depopulation. (Loder 1935:179; Sheets 1984)
The influx of famished Irish and Scots around Lake Ontario forced the provincial government to survey Bruce and Grey counties near Lake Huron. In 1852 the Crown Lands Department opened "Canada West" for "Ten shillings per Acre... occupation to be immediate and continuous... " Among the earliest to settle in Elderslie Township of Bruce County were Galbraiths, McLugashes and McNeills from Kilchattan in Colonsay. They would stop at Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island, and/or Wellington County, Ontario, to meet previous settlers from Colonsay, perhaps stay awhile, and learn the ways of life in Canada. This "Chain of Migration" insured the arrival of other Colonsay people to Elderslie, and many were Baptists fleeing a contentious climate. The "Old Laird" had objected when Baptist missionaries from Mull came to Colonsay. They not only established a local congregation, they converted two of his daughters in Loch Sgoltaire near his Colonsay House. He even denied one of the Baptist men employment, then rehired him since the man proved indispensable to the estate. More Baptists exited Colonsay by the family reconnaissance proven successful for previous migrations to Canada. For example, Donald Blue quickly bought 100 acres in Elderslie, five brothers and sisters followed him, and each family owned 15-20 acres instead of renting 4-5 in the south of Colonsay. One Baptist leader in Kilchattan, Lachlan McNeill, sent his son John to Bruce County; his letters home convinced the entire family of ten (and growing) to emigrate within a year. Lachlan died there on 14 September 1854, 69-years old, and became one of the first (of many) Colbhasaich buried at Rusk's Cemetery in rural Elderslie Township. (McNeill 1914; Sheets 2000). - Prof. John Sheets
The inscription on the back reads: "Sketched and organised by Angus McNeill (aged 18 years), son of Duncan McNeill of Oransay and nephew of Sir John McNeill V.C, of Colonsay". Presented to Kevin and Christa Byrne by the late General "Jock" McNeill.
A report in "The Missionary Herald " of April 1, 1885 announced the death at Underhill Station on the Congo River, from fever, of the Rev. Donald Macmillan "after a few days illness". This brief entry referred to Donald MacMillan of Colonsay, who had been born in November 1858, the son of Alexander McMillan, a 42 yr old. rabbit catcher in Garvard.
Baptist and McMillan roots in Colonsay
The McMillan family has very ancient roots in Colonsay - they are traditionally remembered for their stoicism in resistance to the 16th century assaults of the MacLeans and the name occurs no less than ten times amongst a list of some 200 inhabitants of Colonsay in 1625. A large part of the extended family emigrated to Prince Edward Island in the summer of 1806 with the voyage of "The Spenser", but their numbers recovered quickly. Despite the famine, disease and emigration of the mid-1800s, the national census of 1881 shows no less than 73 persons of that name who had been born in Colonsay, although admittedly 18 of those individuals were by then resident in the lowlands.
Donald MacMillan was not the first of his family to devote himself to the church - the very name "MacMhaolain" (usually rendered in English as either "Bell" or MacMillan) means "Son (of the servant) of the Tonsured Person", i.e. the acolyte to a priest or monk. More recently, another Colonsay MacMillan had devoted himself to Christ, amongst many residents of Colonsay who had been inspired by the missionary work of Rev. Dugald Sinclair. This one was the youthful son of Angus McMillan and Margaret Galbreath of Kiloran, grandson of Malcolm and Pegy McMillan. He was John McMillan, baptised into the Presbyterian faith on 16th October 1801 but converted to the Baptist Faith in the following circumstances:
"About the year 1812 the Rev. Dugald Sinclair made a tour through a part of the Highlands and Western Islands, and after coming as far north as Tiree joined with Malcolm Maclaren (a member of the Independent Church ), and the two came over to Colonsay in a small sailing boat. They were well received by the people, and a number of meetings were held in different parts of the island. These were productive of much good, many being brought to believe in the Saviour.
"After a stay of some days they left again in a small sailing boat for Islay, but before reaching the point of Rhu Vaal the wind had risen so much that they were compelled to turn back. Again they tried, but again failed. Three times, indeed, did they try, but were always driven back. This circumstance so impressed Mr. Sinclair at the time that he believed the Lord had need for him in Colonsay.
"The following year the two returned to the island, when their labours were greatly blessed, many conversions taking place. One sermon, preached by Mr. Sinclair, so impressed the people that it has been handed down from generation to generation; many times did the writer afterwards hear his uncle speak of it in admiration. The text of the discourse was Acts xxviii.22:""But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest; for as concerning this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against." Preaching Baptism by immersion from it - which was something quite new to the people and which no one had thought of - he made a deep and lasting impression upon their hearts. They began to search the Scriptures daily upon this point, for the people of Colonsay were very much like the Athenians and strangers of old we are told of in Acts xvii.21, who spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear something new.
"John McMillan, son of Angus McMillan, butler to the laird, spoke to Mr. Sinclair, afterwards asking to be baptized, and one after another came forward until there were eight of them. These were all baptized on the following Sunday in Loch Fada. McMillan was a fine young fellow, and afterwards went through College. He was placed as a missionary in Inveraray. But after only a few years' ministering to the people he died, on 10th April 1829, at the early age of twenty-seven. His illness was only of a few days' duration."
The college which John MacMillan attended was probably Rawdon College (formerly Horton), where Rev. Sinclair had been trained himself. The funding of his education must have presented problems, but things were to be no easier for his distant kinsman Donald, half a century later. John's father had been the butler to Sir John McNeill, a man of spectacular wealth and ability who might possibly have helped (in spite of his considerable antipathy to the Baptist Faith); whereas Donald's father, Alexander McMillan, was a humble rabbit catcher with a large family on his hands.
Possible identification of "Finlay of Colonsay"
Nonetheless, Donald's family, although quite modest, may have a considerable claim to fame. A probable relation, Finlay McMillan, may prove to be "Finlay of Colonsay, a deerstalker to Campbell of Islay", a man whose image is amongst the treasures of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. This was the work of Robert Adamson (1821 - 1848), a pioneer photographer whose studies included portraits of two Colonsay members of the Colonsay ruling family, Archibald McNeill (1803 - 1870) and Rt. Hon. Sir John McNeill G.C.B. (1795 - 1883). In all, three images of "Finlay of Colonsay" survive, all taken on 17th April 1846. This is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that photography was in its infancy at the time, having been only invented in 1839 and introduced to Scotland barely four years later.
Colonsay is very fortunate that one of her inhabitants was selected as a subject at such an early date; the portrait was taken in a studio, probably at Rock House, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, and one might imagine that Finlay was recommended for the study because of his occupation. Clad in plaid and sporran and complete with trademark telescope, his weather-beaten features and powerful bearing make him a striking subject, but it was probably his stalker's ability to remain motionless for three or four minutes which led to his selection.
Family Background of Donald McMillan
Rev. Donald McMillan was descended from another Finlay McMillan, a "Wood Ranger", who had married "Pegy" Smith on 23 rd December 1808. Their eldest son was Alexander, born 18 th July 1812 and baptised 30th January 1813, and the next recorded child was John, baptised 23rd September 1821. Finlay McMillan, the grandfather, died at "Black Park" (i.e. Loch End, Colonsay) on 6th June 1868, aged 80 yrs. He was therefore born c. 1788 and we know that his parents were Archibald MacMillan and Margaret Galbraith. Perhaps this was the same MacMillan family that has come to be associated in Colonsay with the events of 1745, when two McMillans were reputedly invited to help guide the forces of Prince Charles.
From the 1841 census we see that "Findlay McMillan" (50 yrs.) and his wife "Margret" (50 yrs.) were both living at Garvard and that their 25 yr. old son, Alexander McMillan, was still living in their household, together with a "Kirsty McMillan, 2 yrs"” The census was taken in early June, and later that year, September 26th, this natural daughter was baptised as: "Hester, daughter of Alexander McMillan by Margaret Stewart"; she would therefore become a half-sister to the future Rev. Donald McMillan.
A few years later, May 31st 1845, Alexander McMillan married Mary "McDougald" and she gave him five additional children, Flora, Finlay, John and twins Archibald and Mirren. In the 1851 census, Alexander McMillan is listed as a "gamekeeper" and living in Garvard, but his wife is not recorded as present. In fact, Mary is a shadowy figure, as was Hester's mother, Margaret Stewart - they are hard to identify in the available records. Alexander and Mary's children, however, are clearly listed as Flora (6 yrs.), Findlay (4 yrs.), and John (18 months). Janet Galbreath, 30 yrs, was a visitor to the house, presumably helping with the children. Alexander's wife Mary was certainly still alive, because twins were born a few months later. Possibly she was staying with her parents in the pre-maternity period? The baptismal entry for the twins appears as follows: "Born Octr. 20th to Alexr. McMillan and Mary McDougal his spouse residing in Garvart, their two infants Archibald and Marion, and Baptised 8th Decr. '51".
The 1851 census also shows us that Alexander's parents, Finlay and Margaret McMillan, had now moved from Garvard to Lochend and were evidently raising his first child for him there – she appears as "Chirsty", their 11 yr. old grand-daughter, but confusingly their own ages are now given as 48 yrs. and 50 yrs. respectively. ("Lochend" is shown on old maps, but no trace of it survives).
These were difficult times in Colonsay - smallpox in the 1820s had been followed by years of grinding poverty and near-famine, then the potato blight had been followed by an outbreak of cholera; tuberculosis had become a scourge, and the records seem to suggest that death, like emigration, was centred upon the most vigorous age group, persons in their late teens to mid-thirties. Alexander seems to have been widowed at about this time, although it is unclear as to whether Mary was lost through disease, or in childbirth. She was evidently still a young woman when she died, either in or soon after October 1851.
Childhood of Donald McMillan
By the time of the next census, young Donald McMillan himself is included in the entries, son to Alexander by a second wife, Christine. The new bride had undertaken the charge of at least four surviving children from the first marriage (identified in 1861 as Finlay, John, Archibald and Mirren), and a further nine siblings were to be born to the new family - of whom the first were Alexander (1856), Donald himself (1858) and Peggy (1861). So it was a large household and perhaps initially reasonably prosperous, to judge from Alexander's ability to attract a second wife. Nonetheless, as the family grew and the breadwinner aged, there will have been little enough to spare and young Donald was to be unable to enjoy much of an education.
In the days of "The Old Laird" and his successors, some children had gone on to great achievements - John MacMillan has already been mentioned, another example would be Professor Donald Mackinnon (1839 - 1914), a crofter's son who prospered to become first Chair of Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University. A closer contemporary of Donald McMillan was Doctor Roger McNeill (1853 - 1924), an authority upon epidemiology and one of the first to realise that tuberculosis was not in fact an hereditary condition. Rather later would come Murdoch McNeill (1873 - 1959), a noted botanist and Gaelic scholar. All these people rose to prominence in their chosen fields from the humblest of beginnings; despite all the odds, Donald McMillan was to do the same.
At the census of 1871, the family was still in the cottage at Garvard. Alexander (57) is still listed as a rabbit catcher, living with his wife "Christina" (34). By then they had six unmarried children staying in the house: Mary (17), Alexander (14), Donald (12), Catherine (7), Peter (5) and Elizabeth (3). His obituary states that only a little later, at the age of 13 yrs., young Donald McMillan left Colonsay and went "to a neighbouring island to begin an apprenticeship as a gamekeeper", presumably referring to a period spent in Oronsay.
The family appears again in the census of 1881, although by now young Donald is long-gone from the nest. Alexander (68) is now a "labourer", with his wife Christina (45) and their children Peter (15), Maggie (9), Ann (7), and Roger (4); the house, ("Tigh Mhairi Ruaidh"?) still stands and was re-roofed in recent years to provide a possible nest-site for choughs; it had just two rooms with windows. Alexander died soon afterward that census and by 1891 the family has disappeared.
Donald's conversion and faith
By his own account, Donald was 16 yrs of age when "I was brought to know the Saviour. Some months after my conversion I was baptised and admitted into the fellowship of the Baptist Church in my native isle, Colonsay." This would have been in 1875, and that date is supported by a statement that he made in 1884: "At the age of sixteen I was led to think of my need of a Saviour through a Christian friend speaking faithfully to me. On the day after I was spoken to I found peace through believing on Jesus. I have been a church-member for nine years. Although having fellowship with Adelaide Place Baptist Church, while attending the Glasgow University, I have always retained my membership in the Church at home in Colonsay."
After his conversion, young Donald still remained in Colonsay: "for fully two years I was at home, fishing in summer and doing farm-work in winter. By this time I had a desire of devoting myself to the work of the ministry but my father was only a gamekeeper with a large family and I could not think of it, or rather, I could only think of it."
Thus it was not until 1877 that Donald left Colonsay, and in that summer he was engaged as an under-gamekeeper at Oban, where he attended the "Independent Chapel", there being no Baptist one. The minister in Oban took an interest in him and, over a meal, learned of Donald's ambition. He knew of an Independent minister who was prepared to train young men in preparation for Higher Education, Dr. Flett of Paisley. "So, on 7th July 1877, I was accepted as a student of what was then called "The Highland College". It was very Highland I must say, there were nine of us and we were all very "green"".
In the summer of 1879, after two years at the college, Donald was accepted as a student of Glasgow University and commenced the five-year course which he completed in 1844. In 1882, he was enrolled as a student of the Baptist Union. Throughout this period, Donald experienced a secret but growing desire to devote himself to work of the Foreign Mission; eventually he sought guidance from a mentor for whom he had an especial respect, Dr. Culross of Bristol, and noted his somewhat equivocal response: "I would cherish the desire and seek the Lord's guidance. He will make your way plain."
By the summer of 1881, with two years of university training, Donald was able to be employed in the service of the Home Missionary Baptist Society and he entered enthusiastically into the work; indeed, for the first few seasons, he acted as a missionary at home in Colonsay. By 1884 he was able to record some growing success elsewhere: "My labours have been much blessed last summer and more especially this summer. During the four months I have been with the Church here [Branderburgh, Lossiemouth] I have had the joy of seeing not a few led to put their trust in the Saviour and twenty-six added to the Church".
Donald applies to the Overseas Missions
It was whilst he was still fulfilling his six months placement at Lossiemouth that Donald acted upon his growing desire to commit totally to his vocation. On 6th August 1884 he wrote from Ivy Cottage, Stotfield, Lossiemouth N. B. ["North Britain"] to A. H. Baynes of the Baptist Missionary Society, London. "I have perused with much interest the pages of the Missionary Herald for the last two months. In this number, the question is asked "Who will go?", followed by an appeal. Conscious of my own weakness and inability for a work so noble and important, still, I am compelled to answer "I will go. Here am I, send me". "Go and preach" is the command of Jesus my Master, and go I must."
(This communication is, of course, clearly inspired by Isaiah 6:8"Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me." Also by Mark 16:15 " And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.")
Although India figured largely in the appeal, Donald made it clear that he would go wherever he might be sent, save that he was anxious to be able to "preach Christ" at once"" - in other words, to be sent where English could be understood. All the same, he was not afraid to learn: "All the knowledge I have of English is acquired. I have a liking for Greek. Gaelic is my mother tongue". The actual destination was to be left in the hands of the Committee: "All I have to say is "Here am I, Lord; send me where Thou wilt". I do not wish to have anything whatever to do with the matter." His natural diffidence was further exemplified in the naïf response to a questionnaire: "I thought to answer some of these questions in my former note but I always feel that the less I say about myself the better." In all fairness, he did feel obliged to mention that although in generally good health "I had a break down during one session. I may say however, that I consulted a doctor privately and he told me that I could go to any part of India perfectly well ..." Later that month he repeated that "I also consulted a medical friend who told me that my constitution would suit a tropical climate."
Events moved rapidly and by 6th September he had been interviewed and soon afterwards had informed his congregation and referees of his decision. He was somewhat unsettled by their reaction - evidently there were some who felt that he had work to which he was perhaps better-suited here in Scotland, others who wondered if he had fully considered his decision. He had another, and much graver, cause for concern, as will shortly be seen. By 14th September he was writing urgently to A H Baynes for help in this turmoil: "I should like to get a "definite word" from you by return." He was evidently struggling with severe doubts, palpable in his over-stated protestations: "As I said before, I am entirely in the hands of my Lord and Master; if He wants me to go, then my own prayer is that nothing whatever may keep me, while on the other hand if He would not have me go, then may He Himself put some stumbling block in the way to keep me back." He also agonises about parting from his congregation, and "that I have to part with a widowed mother with three little ones. But the Lord who knows all this says "If a man love father or mother more than me, he is not worthy of me."" [Matthew 10:37]
Doubts about his health
By now, the referees had been consulted. One of his lecturers, I McLellan, held him in high esteem and noted the "evangelical character of his views of divine truth." He had heard him preach: "his sermon was well put together, simple in style and earnest in tone. He spoke with apparent ease, and with no small power." But the writer voiced reservations about Donald's physique: "He does not appear to me to be sufficiently robust for the tear and wear of missionary work, especially in Africa."
Another person, John Urquhart, knew Donald especially well and had formed "a very high estimate of his Christian character and zeal.... 'Tho' not a brilliant student he has been painstaking and has done his work well. He is intelligent and conscientious and would find no insuperable difficulty in acquiring the language." On the other hand, John Urquhart mentions that "Mr McM. does not look strong and, as a matter of fact, is not strong", having had to suspend his studies for a time in consequence of overwork.
George W. Emslie. Secretary of the Baptist Home Missionary Society for Scotland, was next to write, on 7th September 1884. He referred to Donald McMillan's seasonal postings to his native isle, Colonsay: "[From] reports which he from time to time forwarded and the results which, under the Holy Spirit, appeared to follow his labours there, the Committee came to entertain a very high opinion of his ability to undertake the duties of a missionary of the Cross." Mr. Emslie wrote at some length and spoke very highly of the candidate, but did feel obliged to add a note of caution. "Mr McMillan had a serious illness during last winter brought on by overwork which necessitated his residence at McQuarriers Homes at Glenoan(?) for a short time in the early spring." Mr. Emslie urged that "your medical men should satisfy themselves that he possesses the necessary physique to enable him to face the climate of the "Congo"".
It was, perhaps, remarkable that all three referees had felt obliged to query Donald's physical capacity for the work. What was even more remarkable was that George Emslie wrote again almost immediately (9th September), to enclose a letter which had just come into his hands. The letter was from Donald McMillan's physician, Dr. Dun, who had attended him in his illness the previous year; it seems that Donald had contacted Dr. Dun to intimate his intentions and to seek reassurance as to his suitability. Dr. Dun had evidently replied in no uncertain terms, and had taken it upon himself to write under separate cover to the Baptist Home Missionary Society to avoid any misunderstanding. His letter, dated 8th September, was brief and to the point: "With reference to Mr. Donald McMillan, I think he is not at all physically suited for missionary work on the Congo , and I feel sure he is making a mistake in ever thinking of taking such a step as he proposes. I am, yours very truly Wm. G. Dun M.D."
On September 23 James Culross, Donald's original confidant and advisor, wrote from Bristol. His letter, although belated, was supportive: "Having known him for some years I look upon him with sincere respect for his character, piety and general deportment. Throughout my intercourse with him I found him unassuming and sensible. He had early educational disadvantages, which probably he has not fully overcome, but while under my observation he was uncommonly diligent and anxious to learn … I think his conscientiousness may be trusted, whatever he undertakes." But, once again, there is a note of caution: "Whether he is constitutionally fit for work on the Congo I should not like to give an opinion - Dr. Roberts will decide that question."
Thus it was that, barely 8 weeks after he had penned his application, Donald McLennan presented himself at the premises of Dr. Roberts of 53, Harley Street, on October 1st 1884. The report was brief: "I have examined Mr. Donald McMillan this morning - his health is quite satisfactory and I consider him fit for work on the Congo." Under the circumstances, this seems to be a surprising assessment.
The journey to Africa
Everything was now in place and Donald began to make his final arrangements. He was invited to a surprise "Farewell Meeting" in Glasgow; he was a little disappointed that he was unable to invite Mr. Baynes to be present, but was evidently greatly heartened by the support and encouragement that he received. On 23rd October he was informed that he would be sailing from Liverpool on board the S.S. "Corisco" (Govan built, 1876), and that at least one Livingston Missionary would be on the same ship. He is asked to claim his expenses, but it is clear from his reply that he is somewhat lacking in confidence in this and practical matters - he is unsure where he will find lodging in Liverpool or how much it will cost to transport his boxes etc.
On the 1st November 1884, Donald wrote again to A.H.Baynes, thanking him for money received and for various communications. "I shall pay scrupulous attention to all the instructions given. Only three days more now, and I shall be on my way to the Congo. Let me thank you most heartily for all the kindness you have shewn me since I first wrote you. The Lord Himself reward you for your kindness. I trust if the Lord spare me to work on the Congo I may be an honour to the Society which sends me and above all an honour to the cause of Jesus Christ my Master, whose I am and whom I serve."
Unfortunately, it was not to be. On 4th November he sailed for Africa on board the West African Mail steamer, having said in his parting address: "If I be spared, and come back, then all is well; if not, then all is well." On the voyage, it was noted that Donald "spoke faithfully to each one of the crew about the way of Eternal Life." He kept a diary, recording his hopes and worries; after his arrival at "Masuto" (Matadi?) he made his way the short distance "upstream" to Underhill Baptist station, named in honour of E.M. Underhill, a noted academic and former Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society. (E.M. Underhill is perhaps most famous for his edition of a seminal work by Roger Williams: The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience , originally published at London, 1644). On New Year's Day 1885, Donald wrote: "How is this year to be spent? In useful service in the vineyard of my Lord, or called home to see Him as He is and behold His glory and majesty for ever? Lord, Thou knowest best... "
Donald McMillan arrived at a critical period. He must have joined the team of John H. Weeks (1860 - 1924), who had arrived there in 1881 and had founded the mission station at Underhill. Weeks was to have a long and distinguished career, and is widely respected for his opposition to the outrages committed in the name of King Leopold II of the Belgians, who was ruthlessly engaged in carving out an empire in the region. We are told that: "Weeks' name is also associated with the earliest production, in the Congo Free State, of travelogues, amateur ethnographies and sensational accounts of exotic Africa. Weeks was a prolific writer, his œuvre including the voluminous Among Congo Cannibals (London, 1913), Among The Primitive Bakongo (London, 1914), Congo Life and Jungle Stories (London, s.d.), and many contributions to the BMS journal The Missionary Herald ." It was in fact Weeks who had first codified the local language and committed it to writing.
The area was, of course, immensely remote but it was of great strategic importance. As a consequence, a regular postal service was introduced in the very year of Donald's arrival, and although it was not until 1898 that the telegraph arrived it is noteworthy that its route lay close at hand: "The line has to make two very important crossings of water, one across the Congo a little above Underhill Point (Hell's Kettle), the other across the Kassai near its mouth. At the crossing of the river at Underhill the wires are supported by trellised steel towers, the piers of which are distant 800 metres from each other; and they are placed 73 and 63 metres respectively above the bed of the river at the highest flood." Today, as then, the significance of the area is due to the important port of Matusi, the highest navigable part of the river for ocean-going ships.
Donald's tragic death
Donald threw himself into the work of the mission, studying the language (Boloki), teaching in the school and spreading the Christian message. But within weeks he fell a victim to fever, and thereafter was dead within a very few days. Later that month, another missionary died of the same cause and we have a harrowing account of the circumstances: "He took to his bed on Tuesday... and on Friday morning he was too weak to stand the bilious fever. His temperature was almost down to normal in the morning, but it at once commenced to rise... when it reached 106 degrees be became delirious.... He soon became comatose; I poured in quinine, brandy, beef-tea etc. per enema; applied blisters etc., wrapped him in a wet sheet and plenty of blankets, but all to no purpose. Just after one I took his temperature, and it was 110 degrees, and I knew then his recovery was beyond hope... his heart beat very irregularly, and at two o'clock ceased to beat altogether." In just such a way, on 9th March 1885, Rev. Donald McMillan of Colonsay met his end at Underhill Station beside the mighty waters of the River Congo . Seven short months had elapsed since he had answered the call - "Who will go?"
The Annual Report of the Baptist Missionary Society to March 31st 1885 was published before news of the death could be recorded, and it was very positive: "Doubtless King Leopold's greatest joy is this, that not only is he benefitting millions of his fellow creatures, but that he is the chosen instrument in God's hand of accomplishing this end.... At Underhill, Mr. Hughes has just been joined by our new brother, Mr. McMillan. The beautiful wooden house sent out from England is complete and the station is in good working order." In the accompanying accounts one can see that Colonsay Baptists had raised £1.0.0 for work in China, and had also forwarded a donation in the amazing sum of £76.9s.5d for Naples Distress ( i.e. cholera epidemic).
It fell to a fellow student, M. Duncan, to pen the biographical notice which was to appear a few months later, in the June 1885 edition of "The Missionary Herald " under the heading "Further Loss on the Congo". In his opening remarks, the author states plainly that his subject was "Naturally meek, quiet, and affectionate, he was thoroughly ingenuous and free from that sophistry which veils character." After an admirable and considered tribute to his late colleague, he urges: "Let the heroic example of McMillan and other young Congo martyrs stimulate us to like noble service.... The millions that people the Congo Basin must not be left in hopeless night, to pass, benighted and sorrow-stricken, in a never-ending procession from their cradle to their grave."
Finlay McMillan was baptised on April 4 1824, to parents Donald McMillan and Mary Buie, who had married on February 9 1806. Donald McMillan and his wife Mary (aged "60" and "55") appear in Kilchattan in the 1841 census, together with Malcolm (35), Alexander (20), Findlay (15), Angus (12), Ann (25) and Francy (5 months) - Malcolm, Ann and Francy may be a new family unit. By 1851, only the widowed Donald McMillan (70) and one son, Angus (22) remain on the croft. One might imagine that young Finlay had moved away, in pursuit of his career as "stalker to Campbell of Islay".
MacMillans and the '45: Ian McMillan is said to have acted as a pilot for the Young Pretender, married a French woman and settled in Dunkirk, but his brother Hector reneged on the assignment. Hector is said to have hung onto an advance with which he had been entrusted, and to have enjoyed a prosperous life in Colonsay.
S.S. "Corisco" was wrecked the following year, 23rd July 1885, on the coast of Liberia. All on board were saved, including the notably anti-christian King Oko Jumbo, who was returning from Liverpool to Bonny (now part of Nigeria).
Donald's Grave: Is there a Colonsay grave on the banks of the Congo to mark the sacrifice of this remarkable man? The site of the old Baptist station is at Pointe Underhill, less than 4km from the important port of Matadi and the author has made numerous attempts to obtain information. Unfortunately the location is close to a strategic bridge and power-line and to date there has been no response from religious, diplomatic or local sources.
"The Baptist Church in Colonsay 1812 – 2012" by John McNeill and Eleanor McNeill was published in a limited edition by House of Lochar, Colonsay (2013) ISBN 978-1-904817-10-9
In the grounds of Oransay priory one can see the grave of "A. Fisher", who was lost at sea (HMS "Viknor", 13th January 1915). On 13 March 1994 the following detail was recorded: "Flora (MacNeill)'s Aunt Bogie took a photo of this grave and sent it to the widow who actually came to Oransay.... and laid flowers on the grave." Years later, ca. 1960, a family member expressed interest and contacted Islay Police, who contacted Oransay and received immediate information because Flora's uncle, Punch (Drumclach), happened to be there at the time. "The Islay Sgt. received a bumper chitty for instant action... about 30 mins elapsed 'tween XXX phoning Islay and receiving the return information."
In the days of the Internet and instant gratification, this will seem unremarkable. One must remember that in the 1960s even a reliable water supply was a distant dream, mains electricity would not come until the 1980s and such "instant" information retrieval was unheard-of.
The present Fire Station was opened on 19th August 1998, and the programme included the following note:
Colonsay Volunteer Unit: The first Volunteer Unit at Colonsay was formed by Western Area Fire Brigade in 1948. The first leader was Neil MacMillan, the local roadman. He was followed by Jasper Brown who also worked on the roads.
Charlie MacKinnon, a local crofter and man of many other parts took over as leader in the early 1970s. He remained as leader until his retiral in 1993. Charlie was awarded the British Empire Medal for his services to the community.
Ross Moodie, the current leader, took over from Charlie in 1993.
The original fire equipment was stored inside a box at Kiloran Farm. However, shortly after its issue, someone noticed that it had been sited directly above a 500 gallon petrol tank. The fire box was quickly removed to another part of the farmyard.
In the 1960s, Western Area Fire Brigade provided a hut to store the fire equipment - this was also sited at Kiloran Farm. Following a fire at Charlie MacKinnon's house at Kiloran, both Charlie and the hut moved to upper Kilchattan.
As part of the Volunteer improvement programme, Strathclyde Fire Brigade provided a LandRover for Colonsay in 1996. the LandRover was garaged at Kiloran Farm.
Anecdotal material, diaries or unpublished material of an historical nature will be much appreciated for this site - please feel free to get in touch with byrne[at]colonsay.org.uk
A sister site exists at www.colonsay.info which promotes accommodation but which also hosts information about Colonsay Family History; to avoid confusion, it is hoped to keep to more general material on the present site.
Material published here counts as "work in progress"; please do not accept it as fact without recourse to original sources.
This site is owned by Kevin Byrne and every attempt is made to respect copyright; feel free to link to this site but please do not copy material for republication without prior consent. Wherever possible, such consent will be given happily and without charge.