Selkirk Settlers 3

Following the Battle of Culloden, Highland life changed dramatically. The government enacted the Highland Dress Proscription Act in 1746. The Act reads:

"That from and after the First Day of August 1747, no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers of His Majesty's Forces, shall on any pretext whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes, commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little kilt, Trowes, Shoulder-Belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for Great coats or upper coats, and if any such person shall presume after the first said day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garments or any part of them, every person so offending.... shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty's plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years."[1]

On the heels of this, the landowners made a swift move from tenant farming to sheep farming. This resulted in thousands of crofting families being evicted from their homes and set adrift. Some families moved to rocky crofts along the shore where they made attempts at kelp farming. Yet others migrated into the cities where they tried in vain to learn enough skills to work in the factories, foundries, and mines. Given the already overcrowded cities, many families found themselves destitute. Many of the highlanders ended up losing their loved ones in the process of migrating either through hunger, fatigue or disease.

Young Thomas Douglas first became aware of these displaced farmers and their families when he visited the highlands as a young lad. He later ran into even more of them when he was studying law in Edinburgh. He watched their struggle for survival and knew something had to be done. Thomas’ father was the 4th Earl of Selkirk. Thomas was the youngest of 5 living sons. However, in an unlikely turn of events, his elder brothers perished (two of yellow fever and two of TB), leaving young Thomas the heir to the Selkirk estate, thus becoming the 5th Earl of Selkirk. Thomas used his inheritance to assist the displaced highland farmers in emigrating to Canada.

In 1802, Lord Selkirk approached the Colonial Office for a subsidized settlement grant in Sault-Ste Marie, Upper Canada, with the hopes of establishing a settlement where the displaced Highlanders could once again farm their own land. The Colonial Secretary instead offered a land grant in Prince Edward Island, in the Belfast area, near Wood Islands on the southwest shore. Upon receipt of this notice, Selkirk wasted no time in recruiting highland emigrants or in contracting ships and supplies.

Wanted a shipping vessel 

In July 1803, three ships, the Dykes, the Polly, and the Oughton sailed to Canada with eight hundred former highland crofters and headed to Prince Edward Island. The Polly arrived in the harbour of Orwell Bay, Prince Edward Island on Sunday, August 7th, 1803, carrying 250 adults and 150 children. Most of these passengers were from Skye. The Dykes, which also brought Lord Selkirk, arrived in Charlottetown two days after the Polly. Most of the passengers on the Polly were from Mull. The Oughton arrived on August 27th, 1803, carrying another 40 or 50 passengers, this time from Uist.

The land given to these new settlers consisted primarily of evergreen forest. Each family was given between 50 and 150 acres for a nominal fee. The lots were laid out so that four or five families were grouped together. Each parcel of land granted access to the waterfront. Many families spent their first winter in makeshift lean-tos. However, come spring, the new immigrants worked together to clear their lands, build their houses, and settle into their new lives.

Being able to work the land once again became somewhat of a tonic for them. Because these settlers had come with their families or members of their communities, they arrived with their social support system and this made the transition to life in the new world much easier for them. These Highland Scots were a self sufficient community within a year of their arrival.

Later generations moved to the Bruce County area of Ontario, setting up communities along the Saugeen River near Paisley as well as along the south coast of Lake Huron from Southampton to Kincardine.

Having used his land on the southwest shore of PEI for the initial settlers, Selkirk was eager to continue to pursue his original desire to find land in Upper Canada. He was eventually able to purchase land in Southern Ontario, near the junction of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, in what is now Wallaceburg. This was a problematic scheme in that the land was very different than granted in PEI. The first winter saw deaths of 15 people through malaria from the mosquitoes in the damp, forested lands. Selkirk soon abandoned this settlement. However, the Scots remained and became very successful in their new country. The Scottish influence of these early settlers can be seen throughout the south western most part of Ontario.

Selkirk later managed to persuade the Hudson Bay Company that an agricultural settlement would lower their costs since local farmers would be able to produce goods which, at the time, the company was having to import at great expense. Selkirk was able to purchase 116,000 square miles in the Red River Valley and along the Assiniboine River in Manitoba and what is now Northern Dakota and parts of Northern Minnesota. This land mass was five times the size of the whole of Scotland. Selkirk purchased this land at a cost of 10/s ($26.50 in today’s currency).

This settlement was not without its difficulties and there were many physical battles as well as court battles between the early settlers and the Hudson's Bay Company, Canada's largest retail trading post. Many of the early settlers married into the local aboriginal communities, creating the Metis nation.

If you have ancestors who were Selkirk Settlers, here are some resources to assist you in your genealogy research:

  1. Passenger List reconstruction for ship Polly <>
  2. Passenger List reconstruction for ship Dykes <>
  3. Passenger List reconstruction for ship Oughton <>
  4. Passenger List reconstruction for ship Spencer <>
  5. Hudson's Bay Company Archives <>

There are some archives regarding the men from Orkney, Scotland, who were recruited as indentured workers with the Hudson's Bay Company in the archives in Stromness, Orkney. These are not available online.

Some records are also available at Library and Archives Canada:

And on 


[1] Highland Dress Act Proscription

Education Scotland

About Christine Woodcock

Scottish born, Canadian raised, Christine Woodcock is a genealogy educator with an expertise in the Scottish records. She enjoys sharing new resources to assist others in their quest to find and document their heritage. Christine is also a lecturer, author and blogger. She is the Director of Genealogy Tours of Scotland ( and enjoys taking fellow Scots “home” to do onsite genealogy research and to discover their own Scottish heritage.

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3 thoughts on “Selkirk Settlers

  • Linda Griffn

    Thank you for this very well written and concise summary of Lord Selkirk’s work. The links will let us get to our personally most pertinent information. My ancestors were those earliest settlers in the Red River settlement. One is an Orcadian who started his work for the HBC at York Factory and went to Red River and married the daughter of a settler, had his own land grant from Selkirk also. I’ll follow these links to see what I can find.

  • Cherie Tobon

    HI Christine,

    Enjoyed reading through your website. I came across it while researching my family. MacKenzie’s and Macraes in Nova Scotia.

    Thank you, Cherie Tobon