This item appeared in the Galloway News on May 5th 1922 and outlines the story of the first Scottish attempts at colonising the Canadian coast at Nova Scotia.

The Nova Scotia ‘Gentlemen Adventurers’

An Interesting Stewartry Connection.

There are probably few more fascinating studies in the realm of politics than the rise and expansion of the British Empire. It is safe to say that few Stewartry people realise what a great part the county has played in the colonisation of the great Dominion of Canada, and how intimately the Ancient and Royal Burgh of Kirkcudbright is connected with it. The first ship sent out to explore the then wilds of Nova Scotia set sail from the port, and nearly 200 years later there was the settlement at Red River, the nucleus of the prosperous state of Manitoba, under the great Earl of Selkirk. Both settlements had to contend with many difficulties; but Nova Scotia had the more chequered career, and had finally to be abandoned owing to the hostilities of France and the mean duplicity of Charles I and his ministers, the result being that in many cases the ‘adventurers’ were ruined. It was, however, finally added to the British Dominions, after many bloody Colonial wars, at the Peace of Utrecht in 1713.

It was in the year 1621 that Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, near Stirling, a favourite Minister of James I. and Charles 1., and afterwards created Earl of Stirling, received a grant of what is now known as Nova Scotia, and one of the most flourishing of the Canadian Provinces The Province consists of a long narrow peninsula and the celebrated island of Cape Breton, and comprises about a third less area than Scotland, containing many flourishing towns, the chief of which is the modern capital Halifax. The first recorded colonisation of the Province was in 1604, when the French attempted to form settlements at Port Royal, now Annapolis. The settlers were finally expelled by the Virginians, who claimed the country by right of its discovery or visit by Sebastian Cabot in 1497.

In the early days of the seventeenth century the English Government planned to institute a colony, but the French in the succeeding year took possession of it as forming part of New France, when it received the name of Acadia, celebrated by Longfellow. When Sir William Alexander received his charter little or nothing was known of the land, of its magnificent harbours and trackless virgin forests, abounding in practically all that makes for the welfare of man. Alexander, referring to the scheme of colonisation, says :- “Being much encouraged thereunto by Sir Ferdinand Gorge and some utheris of the undertakers for New England, I show them that my countrymen would never adventure in such an enterprise unless it was as there a New France, a New Spain, and a New England, that they might likewise have a New Scotland.”

Resolving to attempt a settlement in Canadian territory, Alexander obtained the Royal sanction that his field of operations should be designated “New Scotland.” The Company of New Plymouth having made the necessary surrender, Sir William procured a royal grant of all that vast district of the mainland to the east of the river St. Croix, and south of the river St. Lawrence, lying between the colonies of New England and Newfoundland. On 5th August 1621, King James communicated with the Scottish Privy Council declaring his purpose in regard to the Colony. In the forefront he declares that it is on account of “the honour or froffete of all that our kingdom might be advanced, and considering that no kynde of conquest can be more easie and innocent than that which doth proceede from Plantations ... many might be spared who might be fit for such a foreign plantation, all that was required was the transportation of men and women, cattle and victuals!” (The king had had good experience of plantations in the north of Ireland.) He had therefore harkened to the motion made to him by his well loved Counsellor Sir William Alexander, Knight, and asked the Council to “grant to Sir William, his heirs and assignees, or to anie other that will joyne with him in the whole or any part thereof the signatour under our Great Seale of the said landes ... to be holden of us from our kindome of Scotland as a part thereof.”

The Council accepted of the royal request, and a warrant for a charter was granted at Windsor Castle on 10th September 1621. Among Sir William Alexander’s closest friends was a remarkable man. Sir Robert Gordon of Lochinvar, a man of a somewhat turbulent nature, but shrewd and far seeing, and one of the foremost Scottish statesmen of the day, being much consulted on Scottish affairs. Six years later, however, Sir Robert was in serious trouble with the Privy Council. In the spring of 1627 a privateer belonging to him brought into Kirkcudbright a ship of Middleburg which he had captured, thinking it belonged to Spain. Piracy was quite a common practice at that period and it is more than probable that the Knight of Lochinvar knew very well that the vessel belonged to the Dutch. In the records of the Privy Council it is mentioned under date 25th April, 1627, that the ship of Middleburg, pertaining to His Majesty’s friends in the Netherland, along with Sir Robert’s own ship, were in the port of Kirkcudbright, and that the Provost and Bailies had been charged to keep both ships in safe custody until further instruction. A month later John Gordon, apparent of Lochinvar, is cited to appear and answer for his detention of Gerard Scorar, merchant and owner of the ship, and in June a warrant was granted to the Lord High Admiral to release the ship.

Sir Robert was withal a man of business and a keen believer in colonisation, and was the author of a once well known, now exceedingly rare and valuable, entitled “Encouragement for such as shall have intended to be undertakers in the new Plantation of Cape Breton now New Galloway, in America, by me Lochinvar. Edinburgh : 1620.” The date of this book shows that Sir Robert must have been considering a scheme of colonisation long prior to the granting of the charter for the colonisation of Nova Scotia, and also that the new lands in that province were called New Galloway nine years before the Royal Burgh of New Galloway joined the ranks of the Convention of Royal Burghs.

Exploring Vessel sails from Kirkcudbright.

Of this there can be no doubt, that Sir Robert Gordon was a man of enlightened views, and that it was largely due to his advice, that Sir William Alexander, in March 1622, provided a ship at London, and sent it round the coast to Kirkcudbright. Sir Robert Gordon, along with Sir Robert McClellan of Bombie, exercised the greatest territorial influence in the Stewartry at this period, and he was asked by his friend to recruit a body of emigrants. Possession of land in the new Dominion was strictly hedged about with conditions. Purchasers only were to have any right in the soil, and farmers might obtain leases. The lieutenant-general was, after a specified time, was to receive the thirteenth portion of the revenues, and artisans were to receive their holdings during their lives only. Although many a Galloway man was forced, during the “killing times,” to take the voyage to the Plantations, they do not, in this particular instance, appear to have been very enthusiastic in making the voyage to what then was practically an unknown land. It is recorded that only one artisan, a blacksmith, and one educated person, a Perth minister, elected to join the colonists. The others were agricultural labourers, said to be of the lowest grade. In addition to the difficulties of obtaining recruits for what was at best a very dubious experiment, provisions had lately increased in price, due no doubt to a semi-famine, of which we have so many examples in the records, and the means of procuring a sufficient supply of what the King said was one of the four essentials was consequently diminished. The vessel however, weighed anchor in the end of June, and proceeded first to the Isle of Man. One can almost picture the scene as the little vessel lay “under the Fieiris of the town” (i.e. the Moat Brae, then known and more properly, as The Mote) the partings between the emigrants and their friends, the last longing glances at the Stewartry hills as the vessel proceeded down the bay to the open sea. Many of them were, alas, never again to see the old scenes. Who they were there is no record to tell. The flit across the scene for a short space of time and are swallowed up in oblivion beyond the record that the great majority left their bones in the far off Dominion to which they were bound, the first of a great army of colonists from those shores who founded the mighty colonies in the far West. The vessel appears to have rendezvoused in the vicinity of the Isle of Man, and it was not till early in August that the voyage was resumed, and about the middle of September till St Peter’s Island, to the south Newfoundland, was sighted. Sailing westward, the approached the shore of Cape Breton, but were driven back by a storm to Newfoundland, where they sought refuge in what is now the harbour of St. John. There they resolved to pass the winter, while the vessel was sent back to Britain for additional men and supplies necessary to the emigrants. The relief ship, the St. Luke, was dispatched from London in the end of March 1623, with additional colonists and supplies, but could not sail from Plymouth till the 28th April, and did not reach St. John till 5th June. About 8 months had passed since the Galloway emigrants had landed at the port. The clergyman was dead, and the others were scattered far and wide earning a scanty subsistence as fishermen.

A Land of Promise

Notwithstanding the earlier disasters, exploring voyages were undertaken, but without great result. Sir William Alexander lost £6,000 by the adventure, and no doubt Sir Robert Gordon also lost heavily. Alexander was, however, recompensed by royal warrant, and it was resolved to persevere.  Alexander, ever fertile of brain, issued his “Encouragement to Colonists,” accompanied by a map of New Scotland. In his book he traces the history of colonial enterprise from the period of the sons of Noah (!) through the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. The discovery of America, he held, was a call of Providence to Britain to extend her boundaries by occupying a new country. He described New Scotland as composed of “very delicate meadows, with roses white and red,” and a “very good fat earth.” He invited occupation of the new paradise, and appealing more particularly to his Scottish countrymen, he said that Scotland, “like a beehive, yearly sent forth swarms of her people, but heretofore had expended her energies in foreign wars.” He received no encouragement, however, and the English Treasury refused to make composition for a loss in which they had no concern.

The Nova Scotia Baronets.

Alexander then fell back on King James’s method of raising money by the sale of titles, and in this he proved as great an adept as his master. From 1611 to 1622 two hundred and five English landowners become baronets of Ulster, with a benefit to the Exchequer of £225,000. But the cadets of the old Scottish nobility were not to be mulcted in anything like the same proportion, and Alexander had to offer much less costly terms to entice the Scottish landowners or the younger sons of the nobility to enrol themselves in a new Order of Baronets of New Scotland. Accordingly, the royal order was issued on 30th November 1624; the Privy Council of Scotland made proclamation, but the response was slow. The creation of one hundred and fifty Baronets was contemplated, but a very much smaller number took the opportunity of being enrolled. The earliest creation of Baronets was in May 1625, among the first being Sir Richard Murray of Cockpool, and on May 1st 1625, Sir Robert Gordon of Lochinvar. Unlike the rest, however, the situation of his land is not indicated, and we are left to guess where the New Galloway of North America was. In 1627 Sir James Stewart of Corsewall was created a Baronet; in 1629 Sir Patrick Agnew of Agnew; in 1630 Sir Robert Hannay of Mochrum; and in 1636 Sir Alexander Abercomby of Birkenbog, the progenitor of the superior of Castle Douglas. Between 1625 and 1637 a hundred and eleven Baronets were created, many of them bearing names which are familiar in the ranks of the nobility today. By arrangement lands and titles were obtained direct from the Crown. It was also provided that infeftment in the lands should be expede at Edinburgh Castle, so that technically the Esplanade there is part of Nova Scotia. To each of the Baronets territory was granted extending six miles in length and tree in breadth. Sir William Alexander, now for a number of years Earl of Stirling, sent out a further expedition in 1627, composed of a small fleet of vessels, which sailed from Dumbarton, one of the vessels being loaded with ordnance and provisions for the use of a plantation. To bring in money (none of the £6,000 had been discharged) a roll containing the names of the ancient gentry and those who had succeeded to good estates, or had “acquired them through industry,” was made up, and more baronets were created.

The Colony ceded to France.

Whatever prosperity might have been in front of the infant colony had the adventures got justice no one can say. The Earl of Stirling and his co-adventurers were thwarted on every hand, and eventually, through the hostility of the French, the colony perished, at least for the time being. The French, on the counsel of Cardinal Richelieu, reasserted their right to Acadia, which embraced every part of the Scottish colony. War broke out between rival colonists, which somewhat revived interest in the Earl’s scheme. Soon more baronets were created, and, incidentally, more money flowed in, which was applied to chartering vessels. After great difficulty with the crews deserting, the vessels sailed from the Thames round the north of Scotland, and proceeded on their voyage in May 1628, carrying seventy colonists who were safely landed at Port Royal. Shortly after Sir William Alexander, the Earl’s son, obtained a patent for the colony as “sole traders in the Gulf and River of Canada,” but the project was a constant drain on the slender resources of a poor country like Scotland. Lack of means, and the low duplicity of Charles I., ruined the colony, and on the conclusion of peace between France and Britain, some of the settlements fell into the hands of the French. By that time thirty of the Scottish colonists had perished from exposure. Shortly thereafter Port Royal was ceded to the French, although the King assuredthe Privy Council of Scotland that he was resolved to maintain the colony. Finally the entire colony of New Scotland was ceded to France.

So perished the dream of a New Scotland beyond the seas. Even then the King maintained to his Scottish subjects that the colony would be persevered in. The Earl of Stirling and his fellow colonists were ruined. This is not the place to follow the Earl’s fortunes to their melancholy end. Weighed down with debt and worry, and thwarted by greed courtiers, he made further attempts at colonising, but without success. Stripped of his American possessions, he and his family sank. He passed away at his residence of Covent Garden on 12th February 1640. The body was embalmed and conveyed by sea to Stirling, and buried in the family vault there. Robert, the first Lord Kirkcudbright, was one of his creditors. It may be on interest to state that one of the many branches of the Alexander family were possessed of the estate of Glenhowl, in the Glenkens.


In the year this item was publised in the newspaper a volume of original research, written by G.P. Insch, entitled Scottish Colonial Schemes 1620 to 1686, was published. This book contains a more in depth study of all the circumstances. Click here to read an electronic version of this book.

In the same year a reprint of the Charter given to Sir William Alexander was published. This too is available in an electronic version.

The name of the ship that sailed from Kirkcudbright had not been recorded, nor had the name of the Captain. However, in 2007, the significance of documents auctioned by Sotheby's in New York was recognised. These documents identified the ship as "the good shippe called the 'Planter' of London ," and that she sailed from Rotherhithe on the Thames, the same port that the Mayflower sailed from two years earlier. The Planter's captain was Thomas Hopkins. Unfortunately the newspaper account of this has been removed but an archive of it can be viewed here.