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HUGH, 6TH LORD REAY

1768 - 97

As the 5th Lord Reay died without issue, Hugh, his only brother, succeeded to the estate and to the title. In early boyhood Hugh was a bright, sharp fellow, foremost in youthful sports, and very fond of music, which latter he cultivated in the Manse of Durness, where he was boarded under the tuition of the Revd. Murdo Macdonald. He afterwards went to reside with maternal relatives at North Berwick, and there studied for two more years. About that time he came by an accident, hurting the head and brain so seriously that he eventually became fatuous.

In consequence of this misfortune, which rendered Lord Hugh incapable of managing his own affairs, his three uncles were appointed curators, viz., Hugh of Bighouse, George of Skibo, and General Alexander. The curators entrusted his Lordship to the care of a worthy gentleman, James Mackay, tacksman of Skerray, in whose house he lived all the rest of his life. The curators also appointed one of their number, George Mackay of Skibo, factor for the estate, with liberty to reside at Tongue House [Reay Papers]. When Skibo died in 1782, he was succeeded in the factorship by General Alexander Mackay, who continued to discharge this duty until 1789, and from the later date until 1797 Lieut.-Col. George Mackay of Handa, afterwards of Bighouse, acted as factor.

On the death of the Hon. Hugh Mackay of Bighouse, heir presumptive of Lord Hugh, in 1770, the succession devolved upon Skibo and his heirs male, so that from that date Skibo became to all practical purposes proprietor of the Reay estate. Skibo had two hobbies: politics and commercial speculation. In the former he had some success, in the latter he had very little. Owing to severe losses in speculative transactions, he had to part with the estate of Skibo, which he inherited from his maternal uncle, Patrick Doull, and which was heavily encumbered at the time.

In the MS. Journal of John Macdonald, a native of Argyleshire, who came as a teacher to Skerray, near Tongue, in the summer of 1776, we read as follows: -

"I was very genteely received by Mr. and Mrs. Mackay of Skerray, and by their daughter Anne, who was a widow, having been but a short time married to Mr. Mackay of Melness, and lived in her father's house since his death. This lady, I may venture to say, was as well accomplished as any that ever I was acquainted with The kindness and civility I met with in this family is beyond my expression; in short, I was offered to live in the family, and you may think that a stranger, as I then was, would be glad of the offer. This gentleman had two promising boys, his grandchildren, both fatherless and motherless These two boys I had under my tuition both at school and at home, and being extraordinarily liked in the family I was introduced to the best company in the country. This part of Sutherlandshire is inhabited by the Mackays, a clan remarkable for their loyalty and their hospitality to strangers, which I experienced very much".

Here Macdonald lived for two years "very happy, and might live so all my life only for my rambling inclination". The recruiting sergeant was abroad, and Macdonald, like many another in that countryside, embarked upon an adventurous military career. But we shall let him tell his own story in his own words: -

"About this time (1778) His Grace the Duke of Gordon had got a commission to raise a Highland regiment, which was to be called the North Fencibles, and Mr. Mackay of Bighouse having a Captain's commission in that regiment, I was determined to go with him, let the consequence be what it would So on the 4th Jun 1778, I enlisted with Captain Mackay as pipe-major, and to have a shilling a day. We staid in the country recruiting till September, and then our party, consisting of one captain, two lieutenants, one ensign, five sergeants, five corporals, and one hundred and three privates, marched from their different rendevouzes, and all joined at the Meikle Ferry."

Thence they marched by stages to Elgin, where the regiment was embodied and quartered for some time, but in November they proceeded to Fort George.

"We marched to Fort George in three divisions, and being all arrived took, up our quarters there for the winter. Everything was reasonable in Fort George that year, so that we might have made a very comfortable living of it . but what through indolence and excess of drinking a great many of them fell sick, and some died."

The chatty piper and quondam teacher, disliking the idleness of garrison duty, got transferred into Lord Macleod's Highlanders, and had the fortune to take part in the memorable defence of Gibraltar under General Elliot, and to serve for a time as the body servant of that officer.

[Footnote: Macdonald gives a graphic account of the prolonged defence of Gibralter, and of his own adventurous career in India and China. In 1794 he returned to London, and hearing that his old officer, Mackay of Bighouse, was there making arrangements for the raising of the Reay Fencibles, joined that regiment and served with it for some time in Ireland. After eighteen years of righting and wandering, he returned again to the parish of Tongue and once more took up the role of dominie among the Mackays. His curious and most interesting Journal, extending to about 120 pages of closely written MSS., is well worthy of publication.]

The military excitement which sent Macdonald piping away to the wars was felt in every hamlet of Strathnaver. Besides the company under Bighouse serving in the Gordons, another under his brother joined Lord Macleod's Highlanders, another joined Fraser's Highlanders, and two companies joined the Sutherland Highlanders, making a total of five companies raised in Strathnaver at that time. The gallantry of the Frasers in America and of the Macleods in India is so well known to readers of General Stewart of Garth that we need not enlarge on the matter here.

In 1782 General the Hon. Alexander Mackay, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Scotland, a man of large governing experience both at home and abroad, became commissioner or administering factor for the Reay estate, and with great humanity devoted himself to the improvement of the lot of the smaller tenantry. All over the Highlands at that time many of the smaller holders were sub-tenants of the larger tacksmen, bound not only to pay rent but to render certain services, often oppressive, and subject to capricious eviction at the hands of what was practically their masters. The sub-tenant had to do spring and harvest work for the tacksman, to cut and lead his peats, to go with letters long distances, and to take charge of some of his wintering cattle. The sub-tenant was often not at liberty to dispose of his own cattle in the open market, but had to sell to the dealer prescribed by the tacksman. This vicious system, which enabled selfish men to grind the faces of the poor with impunity, General Mackay set himself to root up with a determination which does him infinite credit. We quote from the tack of Duartmore, in 1787, to David Nicol: -

"It is further agreed that the said David Nicol is hereby restricted from charging his sub-tenants with any more rent than he pays to Lord Reay in proportion to what the sub tenant possesses, with the addition of 5% upon the sub-tenant's whole rent for the foresaid David Nicol's trouble and risk. This clause never to be forgot by David Nicol."

A similar clause finds a place in every lease granted by General Mackay. That there was need for such a clause is very evident, for the rent of Tongue farm [Appendix No 57] in 1789 was £30, while appendix the converted services of the sub-tenants on the farm were valued at the same figure, so that the tacksman had the place practically free. No doubt other places were similarly circumstanced. In a letter, 20th Mar 1788, to a tacksman who was getting a renewal of his lease, the general writes: -

"I am certain that no people can thrive till they are perfectly free and masters of their own time. But there is still one material point which I want to put on a clear footing, which is that tacksmen shall not have the power of treating their sub-tenants in a worse manner than the rest of the tenants on the estate are. This, I am sure, you and every honest man must approve, as it is following the golden rule of doing as you would be done by. I wish particularly that every sub-tenant should have the same liberty, as every man ought to have, of selling his cattle to whom he pleases, and likewise that they should not be obliged to winter cattle for the taxman any more than tenants are for the proprietor, and they should not be subject to carry burdens or to go from home on the taxman's business, but with their own free will and paid for their trouble, as these customs are all oppressive." [Reay Papers]

In another letter to the same tacksman, 7th May 1788, the general unburdens his mind still further on the subject of sub-tenants and the services which were demanded of them: -

"Let me ask one question. Why should not the man who pays one, two, or three pounds be as free as the man who pays fifty ? By your clause there is no option left to the sub tenant, but he must do what the taxman desires, only that he is to be fed, and he must both carry burdens or carry letters if he is suitably paid [this was a suggestion of the tacksman writing], but not the liberty of refusing to go should it be inconvenient for him or his family. In short, as I said, I much rather have no clause at all in the Tack on the matter than put my hand to such a clause as yours, though at the same time I own that what you state is treating the sub-tenants better than they have been used with. But this is a subject altogether beyond the reach of a letter, and such is the force of habit and custom that though every taxman sees and feels the inconveniency of services so far as regards himself, yit he cannot see his sub-tenants in the same light.

"Where services must be paid they ought to be stipulated to guard against imposition, and accordingly I fix for the parish of Kintail half peats, that is to say, half what was usually paid. Every other thing whatever, harvest and spring work, carrying burdens, and going with letters, I totally abolish. When such are wanted, a man must be found who is willing to go for a certain hire according as he agrees. But it is a difficult matter to alter the customs of a country which has been so long upon a barbarous and cruel footing With regard to David Nicol, I have no objection to grant him a Tack of what he possesses himself, but I will never put it in his power, or any such men, to turn out or put in sub-tenants at his pleasure."

To obviate the necessity of sub-tenants going long distances as couriers carrying the tacksmen's letters, the general approached the postal authorities in London for a regular postal service throughout the estate. This appears from the following paragraph in a letter of his: -

"I have applied to the Post Office, and have every reason to believe that an allowance will be made for a post from Tongue to Thurso and from Tongue to Durness by Eriboll, which may in a great measure answer all the country; and perhaps some small allowance for a post once a week from Edderachilis to Eriboll. But as these regulations will take time, as they must be sent to London and get the sanction of the Postmaster-General there, for nothing can be done here [Edinburgh], I am endeavouring all in my power to do everything to make the inhabitants of the country free and comfortable. If the taxmen will second my endeavours I have no doubt of succeeding, as all I desire is to treat your sub-tenants as you wish to be treated yourselves."

Besides striving in this way to elevate his countrymen, the general encouraged the fishing industry by starting a Fishing Company and taking a large share in it himself; and as the general had a large private income and no family dependent, he did this purely to help the people out of the goodness of his heart. The leading members of this Fishing Syndicate were the Messrs Arbuthnot of Peterhead and Mr. Anderson of Rispond. They built a pier and storehouses at Rispond, a boatslip and stores in Edderachilis, and had a vessel trading regularly between Aberdeen and Loch Eriboll. This industry, including kelp, was for a time most successful, and brought a considerable amount of money into the country.

The general also took a great deal of interest in the ecclesiastical and educational machinery of the country. As an elder of the Kirk he represented the Presbytery of Tongue for some years at the General Assembly of the Church, and advocated the crying need of Strathnaver for more teachers and itinerant preachers with a great measure of success; while in a year of threatened famine he was instrumental in bringing corn from abroad to supply the starving tenants. Of this latter fact the Presbytery take notice in a minute, 26th Nov 1783, as follows: -

"The Presbytery taking it to their serious consideration how seasonably this country has been supplied with victuals from abroad, when the scarcity which prevailed among themselves was of a most alarming nature, and threatened most awful consequences, have appointed a thanksgiving day in their bounds on the 25th Dec for this merciful interposition of Providence."

Altogether, General Mackay was a splendid specimen of a cultured humane gentleman, and like his father, the 3rd Lord Reay, intensely interested in the moral and material welfare of his beloved countrymen of Strathnaver. The pity is that he ruled only seven short years !

The memorable French Revolution, so fraught with evil and with good, broke out in 1789, sending a flutter of anxious concern through every Cabinet in Europe. The successful Gallic revolutionists encouraged, by example and by sympathy, people with grievances everywhere to rise and do likewise. In Britain there were two danger spots; discontented Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. In the former the danger was real enough, but in the latter it existed only in the apprehension of a Government who had not yet forgotten the rising of the '45. The southern Highlands were opened up by the military roads of General Wade during the early years of the century, but the northern Highlands still lacked these necessary arteries of communication. It was in these threatening circumstances that Brown surveyed roads [Appendix No 58] for the northern counties, 1790-99, under the advice and direction of the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in North Britain.

In 1792 war broke out between Britain and France, and soon the two nations were in deadly grips. The call to arms resounded through the land, and nowhere was the call more heartily responded to than among the mountains of the north, where clans formerly divided now presented a loyal and united front to the common foe. Caithness raised her regiment, and so did Sutherland, and so did Strathnaver also. With the history of the former two regiments we have little to do here, although in both of them there were many Mackays. Our business is with the Strathnaver men and their regiment of Reay Fencibles, for which a Letter of Service was obtained on the 24th Oct 1794. We shall now quote from the MS. Journal of Macdonald, the Skerray teacher: -

"At that very time Col. Bailie of Rosehall, and Lieut-Col. Mackay of Bighouse were in London waiting for a Letter of Service to raise a regiment of Fencibles, which was obtained on the 24th Oct 1794; and on the 27th I enlisted with Lieut.-Col Mackay as pipe major of that regiment, which was afterwards called the Reay Fencibles.

"I staid in London with Lieut.-Col. Mackay till the 12th Nov, and then came with himself to Edinburgh, and was left there with Lieut. Munro and Lieut. Hunter of the same regiment, who were then recruiting for it in Edinburgh and the country round. I continued on the recruiting service till the 14th Apr 1795, and the recruiting parties belonging to the Reay Fencibles were called in to Elgin, in Morayshire, which was our headquarters.

"The regiment was embodied at Elgin on the 17th Jun 1795, and receiving arms and clothing we marched in two divisions to Fort George about the middle of July, where we remained until the beginning of October, and were then ordered to Ireland. Having left Fort George we marched to Port Patrick, and were safely landed at Donaghadee on the 3rd Nov, and on the 5th arrived at Belfast, and were inspected there by General Nugent The regiment began to do duty then, and continued so to do till the 24th Apr 1796, when there was an order for reducing all Fencible regiments then in Ireland to 500. In consequence of this redncement I was one of those discharged, on account of my lameness [received at Gibralter]."

This regiment was known as Lord Reay's Highlanders, otherwise the Reay Fencibles, and was commanded by Col. Hugh Mackay Baillie, an officer of much experience, grandson of Col. the Hon. Hugh Mackay of Bighouse. The second in command was Lieut. Col. George Mackay of Bighouse, also an officer of experience, and the vast majority of its officers and men were recruited in the country of Stratlmaver. In the following memoir we shall have more to say of General Lake's "honest Reays."

Ever since the time of the 3rd Lord Reay the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, by its teachers especially, had been doing admirable work in the country of Strathnaver, and in no other part of the Highlands did the people make more progress intellectually and morally. The following extract from the report (1796) of Dr. John Kemp, Edinburgh, secretary for the S.P.C.K., regarding the work of the Society in that country, speaks for itself: -

"A more active, vigorous, spirited people are nowhere to be found, nor to strangers more hospitable and obliging. In their general turn of mind they are sober and religious; their manners are orderly and decent; their thirst after knowledge is great, and ever since the Revolution their loyalty to the family on the throne has even in the worst of times been unshaken. Among such people it is not to be doubted that the Society's teachers are received with avidity and gratitude and their schools well attended. The secretary was happy to find the schoolmasters in general men of respectable talent and attention to their duty; nor did he find in any part of the Highlands young people who discovered a quicker genius for learning."

[The Reports of the S.P.C.K. are most interesting, and the future historian of the Highlands must devote a considerable amount of attention to them.] Hugh, 6th Lord Reay, died at Skerray, unmarried, 26th Jan 1797, and was buried in the family vault at Tongue. He was succeeded in the title and in the estate by his cousin Eric son of the Hon. George Mackay of Skibo.

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