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ERIC, 7TH LORD REAY

1797 - 1847

The flame of active rebellion did not break out in Ireland until 1798, so that for three years the Reay Feneibles led an uneventful life in that distressful country, doing garrison duty and overawing the discontented in detached parties. In the spring of the latter year, however, the Irish took up arms encouraged by promises of French help, and the Reays were ordered to march from Belfast to Cavan, in order to be within easy reach of threatened Dublin. Shortly thereafter they advanced towards Dublin in two divisions. On the 24th May, the first division of two companies, having pushed on close to the capital, was suddenly attacked and lost part of its baggage, which happened to be in the rear.

When Major Scobie of Melness, who commanded the second division of five companies at Navan, heard what had happened, he immediately dispatched three companies to intercept the enemy. This force accompanied by a few Yeomanry after a forced and hungry march found the enemy 4000 strong posted on Tara Hill, on the evening of the 26th. Serious though the odds were, the Reays at once deployed and boldly pressed on to the attack, burning to avenge the petty loss of their comrades on the 24th. Sir Richard Musgrave in giving an account of that battle says, "the Reay Fencibles preserved their line, and fired with as much coolness as if they had been exercising on a field day". Under a hot ragged fire, to which they replied at regular intervals by sharp disconcerting volleys, they reached the top of the hill without a waver and got at their foes with the bayonet. The Irish were brave as usual; but the disciplined courage of the Reays prevailed, and five hundred of their Gaelic cousins bit the dust on Tara Hill before the sun went down that evening on the field of carnage. Of the Reays, the hero of the day was Lieutenant Angus Mackay of the Colonel's company, who was promoted Captain "for bravery at Tara Hill", and "to rank as from 1st Nov 1797". This brave man was a native of Kinloch, Tongue, and died at Thurso about 1834, the hereditary bannerman of the Aberach Mackays.

Towards the end of August, General Lake with the Kilkenny and Longford Militia and the Fraser Fencibles attacked a force of French and Irish at Castlebar. Lake's militia gave way in face of the enemy, and breaking into flight threw the Frasers into confusion. Poor Lake, who had left the Reays behind him at Tuam, was heard to exclaim in the bitterness of his sorrow, "If I had my brave and honest Reays here this would not have happened", as we are told by a contemporary, General Stewart of Garth. But not long after this, Lake overwhelmed the French force at Bala na Muic, capturing the survivors and scattering the rebels. Though the victory at Bala na Muic practically extinguished the rebellion, the Reays did not return from Ireland until 1802, when they were disbanded at Stirling.

In the spring of 1798, Lieutenant-Colonel George Mackay of Bighouse, commanding officer of the Reays, returned on sick-leave to Scotland and died at his brother's residence of Scotstoun, near Edinburgh, 6th Sep. So beloved was he of his comrades that they raised a tombstone to his memory in the Bighouse Aisle of Reay. The following paragraph from a letter by Mrs. Scobie, daughter-in-law of Major Scobie, which appears in Dr. Mackay 's memoir of Rob Donn, bears testimony to the character of the Reay Fencibles: -

"During their stay in that country [Ireland], I have been assured by the officers of that corps, that there was not a single barrack occupied by the private soldiers, which had not a newspaper as regularly as the commanding officers had theirs; and whoever of the inmates was esteemed the fittest to read, and explain to such as could not read for themselves, was employed to read aloud for the benefit of all. In this way passed their evenings, not in "rioting and drunkenness;" and the money thus saved, was remitted for the benefit of their families and relatives at home."

As a case in point, we may mention that our own great-grand-father, Hugh Nicol, who served in the Reays from start to finish, returned home with a Bible which cost him three months' pay. That Bible, the reader may rest assured, is a treasured possession of the godly soldier's descendants. Of such men General Lake spoke truly when he called them "honest Reays", for ri uchd tuasaid, i.e., breasting a conflict, Bible-loving lads may safely be trusted to do their duty in a tight corner.

While the Reay Fencibles were serving in Ireland, another regiment of militia was raised in the shire of Sutherland, of which Eric Lord Reay was Hon. Colonel. It went by the name of Sutherland Volunteers, but drew pay like an ordinary Fencible regiment as we gather from Macdonald's Journal, and continued in existence for some time after 1808. Of that regiment five companies were raised in the country of Strathnaver, viz., the Bighouse, Farr, Tongue, Durness, and Edderachilis companies. It seems to have swept into its ranks practically all the able-bodied men of these localities, as the following quotation from a letter, dated 1798, from Mr. Anderson of Rispond to Captain Kenneth Mackay of Torbol, shows: -

"By the way, I should think they must see little who do not see this country approaching rapidly into a state of depopulation, and that by the very means once thought favourable - I mean the volunteering establishment. Such effect has the smattering of exercise upon the rising generation, aided by their pay, that not one individual able to lift a drum-stick remains unenlisted in Durness, and I am told the same is pretty true of the rest of the estate." [Reay Papers]

Mr. Anderson's gloomy anticipations were due to his difficulty in getting men to work for the Fishing Syndicate, of which he was the acting director on the spot. The military movement also raised wages, and that was a sore blister to the complainant.

Again, in 1800 the Sutherland Highlanders, or 93rd Foot, was raised, and in that part of the shire which pertained to the Countess of Sutherland by a system of conscription. At anyrate that was the case in the parish of Farr, as we were informed by our maternal grandfather, Murdo Macdonald, whose two brothers drew black balls out of a ballot-box, as he told us, and consequently had to go. They both afterwards fell at the battle of New Orleans, 8th Jan 1815. This regiment took part in the capture of Cape Town, 1805, and remained in garrison there until 1814. While stationed at the Cape, they formed themselves into a congregation, elected office-bearers, engaged the Revd. Mr. Thorn to be their minister, paid his salary out of their own pockets, and regularly held the Communion after the Scottish fashion. Hear what the minister says of his remarkable flock, writing to the Christian Herald of Oct 1814: -

"When the 93rd Highlanders left Cape Town last month there were among them 156 members of the Church (including 3 elders and 3 deacons) all of whom, so far as man can know the heart from the life, were pious persons. The regiment was certainly a pattern for morality and good behaviour to every other corps. They read their Bibles; they observed the sabbath; they saved their money in order to do good; 7000 rix dollars (£1400 Sterling) the non-commissioned officers and privates gave for books, societies, and the support of the Gospel - a sum perhaps unparalleled in any other corps in the world, given in the short space of seventeen or eighteen months. Their example had a general good effect on both the colonists and the heathen How they may act as to religion in other parts is known to God; but if ever apostolic days were revived in modern times on earth, I certainly believe some of these to have been granted to us in Africa."

Seventy years earlier Lord Reay brought a cup to Strathnaver which split in a shower of blessing all over Sutherland, and the after-result is seen in the conduct of the 93rd at the Cape. To these men the exercises of religion became as essential as the morning tub is to the average cultured Englishman, and they saw nothing more remarkable in their own conduct than an Englishman does when he piously rubs himself down. Let not the reader imagine that the 93rd despised soap either: they were at the same time one of the smartest regiments of the Line, the afterwards immortal "thin red line" of Balaclava fame.

When the survey [Appendix No 58] of the four northern counties was under execution 1790-99, the roads in these parts were mostly mere pony-tracks, innocent of bridges and utterly unfitted for wheeled traffic. This was eminently true of the roads in the country of Strathnaver, which may yet be traced in various places winding their angular course up hill and down dale regardless of gradient. The survey was followed in 1802 by an Act of Parliament, granting £20,000 Sterling towards making roads and building bridges in the Highlands; and for enabling proprietors to charge their estates with a proportion of the expense. The proprietors were also empowered to have recourse to "statute labour", that is to forced labour, in order to carry out this scheme.

In 1805 an Act of Parliament was passed "for assisting the proprietors of land in the county of Sutherland" towards the expense of making roads, and for "converting the statute labour of the said county into money" [Reay Papers]. By this Act half of the expense was borne by the Treasury, and the other half fell upon the county after the following manner. The authorities to be organised for the purposes of this Act were empowered to assess the proprietors at not more than 2s. and not less than 1s. per pound Scots of old valued rental, yearly, until the sum required was raised. As to statute labour, tenants paying £5 or less of rent were to be charged 2s. yearly, leaseholders and tenants paying over £10 were to give in lieu of statute labour 3s. for the first ten pounds, and 3d. a pound for every pound beyond that. Heritors were assessed at the rate of 3d. in the pound for statute labour like the rest. In 1821 another Road Act was passed, making provision for the maintenance of roads already-made and for the forming of new ones. By this Act the county was divided into three districts, with Boards for each. So that from the start, tenants and proprietors bore their share in the making and the maintaining of the county roads.

Almost as soon as Lord Eric succeeded in 1797, he took steps to reduce the leases which his uncle, General the Hon. Alexander Mackay, granted to the tacksmen on the estate, and in an ensuing law-suit was successful on the plea, that a lease granted by a curator is only valid during the life-time of the ward. In 1789 the total rental [Appendix No 64] of the estate was only £1294 9s. 6d., but in 1797 a valuator reports that "if the present lord lives to the age of his father or grandfather, he may in the course of his life bring it to £5000 yearly rental". In 1815, however, so greatly had the war with France affected the price of meat, wool, meal, etc., that the rental of the Reay estate stood at £10,890 Sterling.

The great war with France, which raged intermittently from 1792 to 1815, and to which the Highlands of Scotland gave her sons in their tens of thousands, was the indirect cause of those "Highland Clearances" which many modern economists so much deplore. Proprietors all over the Highlands, finding that sheep-farms could afford to pay enormous rents, proceeded to clear the straths of their hardy peasantry and to turn them into sheep-walks. In no part was this policy carried out with greater heartlessness than in the shire of Sutherland, and especially in the valley of the Naver which runs through the parish of Farr. This was the property of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, who had married the Marquis of Stafford, and who was consequently very much of an absentee.

This policy was put into execution in a manner that was well calculated to press with unnecessary severity upon the smaller tenants, should the incoming leaseholder, who was generally a large south country capitalist, be lacking in sympathy with the people. A large tract of country was set to such a capitalist, with power to remove the old established tenantry as it suited himself. A Mr. Patrick Sellar, at one time an official of the Countess of Sutherland, in 1814 took a lease of the greater part of the valley on the east side of the river Naver, and proceeded to evict the people, burning their houses, peat-stacks, etc. During this process hundreds were rendered homeless, and an old bed-ridden woman was so severely burnt that she died soon afterwards. In due time the west side of the river received similar treatment, and by 1819 Mr. Scllar cleared that populous countryside of all its human inhabitants, burning everything before him.

To put such a power into the hands of a man like Mr. Patrick Sellar, who looked upon and treated the people of Strathnaver as banditti and sheep-stealers - see an extract of his own letter to Lord Reay in our Appendix No 60 - was a melancholy blunder if not a crime. Of the evicted some were huddled along the sea coast, a few sought an asylum in Caithness and Orkney, but swarms fled to Canada. One of the latter thus sings from distant Canada:

"When the bold kindred, in the time long vanished,
Conquered the soil, and fortified the keep,
No seer foretold the children would be banished,
That a degenerate lord might boast his sheep.

Come foreign raid ! let discord burst in slaughter !
Oh ! then, for clansmen true and stern claymore.
The hearts that would have given their blood like water
Beat heavily beyond the Atlantic roar.

Fair these broad meads, these hoary woods are grand,
But we are exiles from our fathers' land."

For the evicted ones who elected to stay in the country no provision was made for the re-building of houses, and no compensation made for the houses destroyed by fire. They were simply dumped down on land which they had to reclaim from a wild state, and practically left to shift for themselves. And yet, forsooth, this policy was, and is still by a few interested ones, called an improvement ! Although on the estate of Lord Reay large tracts of land were placed under sheep and many teuants removed, the process was not attended by such inhumanity. For further details on this painful subject, the interested reader should consult Mackenzie's Highland Clearances and Sage's Memorabilia Domestica. There is too much truth in the lurid pictures drawn in these books as we have good reason to know, for in the words of the Gaelic proverb, "Bha mi thall is chunnaic", I was over and saw.

In a previous memoir we showed that George, 5th Lord Reay, died before he was able legally to secure the estate in entail, according to his mother's marriage contract of 1732. When his brother Hugh succeeded, the curators made up his title on the lines of the agreement of 1741. Some time after Lord Eric succeeded, he found out that he had the option of making up his titles on the contract of 1732 or on the agreement of 1741, and that by the latter the estate would be a disentailed one [Reay Papers]. In 1825 he raised an action of Declarator against the heirs of entail, and was successful. Thus he secured the estate in such a fashion, that it was in his power to sell it should he desire to do so. Immediately on the conclusion of this lawsuit, his Lordship borrowed a sum of £100,000 Sterling from the Countess of Sutherland and her husband, the Marquis of Stafford, on the security of the estate. In the bond there was a proviso that if the interest due upon the same was not duly paid, the estate would have to be sold within twelve months after the failure.

When his Lordship borrowed this money he had an income of close upon £10,000 a year from his own estate, and though an unmarried man this was evidently not enough to meet his expenditure. The inevitable was not far off, for the borrowed money was all spent in about a couple of years. Lord Eric made a feeble effort to free himself from the toils that were gathering round him, and endeavoured to raise money wherewith to repay the bond to the Sutherland family, but for some reason or another he did not prosecute his intention [Reay Papers]. In 1829 he needed more money, and sold all his estate in Strathnaver to the Marquis of Stafford, afterwards Duke of Sutherland, for the sum of £300,000 Sterling Thus what the Mackays held through sunshine and through storm for about twenty generations, was at last miserably frittered away in 1829 by a degenerate son, who accidentally got the power to do so.

[Footnote: Since the above was written the Reminiscences of Evander Maciver, factor for the Duke of Sutherland, have been published, and contain at page 65 a very inaccurate account of the above transaction. It is not correct to say, as is said there, that the Marquis of Stafford "generously offered to lend money to Lord Reay, if that would suit his views, and prevent the sale of an old paternal estate". The truth is Stafford was naturally very keen to secure the estate, as a mass of letters on the subject in the Reay Papers show.
The Rev. Macintosh Mackay, LL.D., the intimate friend of the brothers of Lord Eric, gives us the other side of the shield, and it is as much entitled to publication as the factor's account. We quote from his letter in the Ben Reay Notes: - "The Sutherland family never did any good to the Reay family and I believe the correct interpretation of the transaction between the old Countess-Duchess of Sutherland and Eric, Lord Reay, who sold the estates of Reay to her, is that it was a siege of some five hundred years laid to the Reay estates by the Sutherlands, which they succeeded m winning at length in 1829. That worldly-wise woman lent money to Eric, Lord Reay, till she could turn upon him and compel him to pay the loans she had made to him, or give over his whole estate to her."]

His Lordship, who died in 1847 leaving no legitimate issue, was succeeded in the title by his brother, Major the Hon. Alexander, of whom a short account follows.

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