Spanish John McDonell
by Yvonne Divak
Webmaster note: Spanish John wrote an autobiographical narrative of his early life. The image below is the cover of that book. If you click it you will be taken to the full text of that book as published in "The.Canadian Magazine", April 1825 The picture link will take you to a Victorian novel by William Mclennan. 1898
He was known as “Spanish John,” due to his service in the Spanish Army; but he was, literally, a man of the eighteenth century world: Scotland, Rome, France, Spain, England, New York Colony, and, finally, Canada.
Born in Scottus, or Scotus, in Knoydart, Scotland, in 1728, he was the son of John of Crowlin and Janet McLeod McDonell, and a member of the enormous and still powerful McDonell/McDonald Clan, once known as the Lords of the Isles. His grandfather, Angus Macdonald of Scotus, and two of his uncles had sided with King James in 1715, an act of loyalty the Pretender would remember thirty years later when his own son, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, would attempt to regain the throne of Great Britain.
The chain of events that would eventually lead to John McDonell’s service for King and Prince actually began in 1740, when, at the age of twelve, he was sent by his parents to the Scots College in Rome in order to receive a proper Catholic education and, incidentally, perhaps become a priest in his own right. He and his fourteen-year-old cousin, Angus McDonald, of Clan Ranald, took ship from Edinburgh and travelled through France on their way to Rome. If sending two young boys who were totally ignorant of the French language across Europe on their own sounds bizarre, John tried to explain years later in his memoir:
“Please to observe that our carriage by land and water was all paid for us, and that we were recommended from one place to another and supplied with money to pay our tavern expenses at every city we came to, where we had orders to draw money from bankers of our own nation then established in the different cities.”
He did admit that he and Angus were sometimes taken advantage of by the French tavern keepers.
After nearly killing a man who tried to rob him, John arrived safely in Rome, where he spent three years as a restless scholar, ever ready to defend his honour. In the winter of 1743 he heard rumors that Prince Charles Stuart “went off privately from Rome in the habit of a Spanish courier for France, then at war with Great Britain,” and that the French, if they should win, had promised Charles the English throne. Steeped in the history of the McDonald’s devotion to King James, John assumed that “my clan would not be the last to join the young Charles.” Dreams of military glory replaced scholarly diligence. Never one to hesitate once he made up his mind, fifteen-year-old John hurried to the court of King James in Rome and notified some “noble-men” there that he was ready to fight for the Prince. Impressed by his spirit, they took him to the Pretender himself, who fondly recalled 1715 and the McDonalds’ loyalty. It wasn’t long before John received a recommendation to join the Irish Brigade.
The priests at the school tried to dissuade him, but when John’s determination was made clear, the kindly rector made sure the boy was clad in the proper clothes and periwig of a French gentleman, including a small sword. Thus, he made a favorable impression upon General McDonald, commander of the Irish Brigade in the Spanish army. General McDonald’s son, a colonel of an Irish regiment, took John in as a cadet. John never mentioned whether these McDonalds were related to him, but they treated him as if he were. The General used John as an informant concerning the activities of the regiment, questioning him carefully whenever the boy dined with him. John soon found himself one of the most popular members of the regiment, as “Every captain of Grenadiers or battalions would have me as a companion,” hoping he would put in a good word.
In 1744, John fought his first battle against members of the Austrian army. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he wrote nearly sixty years later, “I felt myself rather queer, my heart panting very strong, not with bravery, I assure you. I thought that every bullet would finish me, and thought seriously to run away, a cursed thought! I dare never see my friends or nearest relations after such dastardly conduct.”
But John did not run away. In fact he fought bravely and escaped without a wound. For the next four months, the boy, in his sixteenth year, learned to be a competent soldier. In August, 1744, during a desperate battle, John was wounded three times and left for dead on the field. His clothes were stolen and he was beaten unconscious by an enemy soldier. Lieutenant Miles McDonald found him naked and barely breathing, and took him to a nearby hospital, where it was six weeks before he was able to hobble about on crutches. When General McDonald informed King James of John’s admirable conduct and that the boy had lost all of his money and clothes, the Pretender “was pleased to order a pretty good sum of money for my immediate occasion.”
Sometime later, John decided to leave the Irish Brigade and assist Prince Charles. “By dint of application and favour,” John was granted leave to join a group of Irish soldiers on their way to Scotland, eager to fight for the Prince after hearing of his victory at Falkirk. However, news that Charles’ army had retreated from England, made most of them rejoin the Irish Brigade for the spring campaign. Believing that Prince Charles needed him more than ever, seventeen-year-old McDonell wrote the Prince’s brother, the Duke of York, in Rome, offering his services. In reply, John was ordered to Boulogne, where he met the Duke and several French officers. The French government had originally promised the Duke that it would send a “strong army” to England, “where the Stuart cause had many powerful adherents.” But the French reneged. All the Duke could offer his brother was a single ship with three hundred men and officers. John wanted to accompany them, but the Duke told him to wait. This ship left Dunkirk in early April, 1746.
On April 16th, John got his chance. Armed with letters from the Duke and £3,000 to give to Prince Charles, John left Dunkirk with twenty-five Irish officers on a French privateer. They learned the bad news of Culloden as they reached Orkney. “Many of my relations, kindred and clansmen” had been killed, including John’s uncle, Scotus Donald McDonald. The surviving Highlanders “were all dispersed and nobody knew what was become of Prince Charles Edward Stuart.”
After a conference aboard the ship, John left the others and sought to find the Prince, or, at least, someone who knew where he was. Along with the letters from the Duke, John took only half of the money, £1,500, with him, sending the rest back to France with the Irish officers. After a series of misadventures which included having a good share of the money stolen, and nearly being captured by Cumberland’s marauding troops, John discovered Secretary John Murray and “the rest of Charles’s party” hiding at the home of Cameron of Lochiel, who had been seriously wounded at Culloden. John gave Secretary Murray what remained of the money, carefully receiving a receipt for both the money and the letters. He was informed that the Prince had survived the battle but had disappeared into the Highlands. The English had put out a reward of £30,000 sterling “for his head.” Sixty years later John was still proud that not one Highlander had ever betrayed his Prince.
Freed from his responsibility, John went home to Knoydart to see his family for the first time in six years. He had vowed that he would never leave Scotland until the Prince had reached safety in France. After hearing of Charles’ good fortune, John was ready to depart himself; but his father was mortally ill with consumption, and he was the eldest surviving son. John was persuaded to remain at home to care for his family and his aged grandfather.
In 1751, John married Catherine McDonell, daughter of Donald, who had been killed at Culloden. By 1753, he was the father of one, perhaps two daughters, (They would eventually have twelve children.) and fairly settled as a farmer. There were stories of arbitrary arrests of former adherents to Prince Charles, but the isolated area where John’s family lived seemed safe enough. He learned better when during a careless fishing trip with one of his cousins, he was apprehended by the notorious Captain Ferguson and sent to Fort William on the accusations of high treason by another relative, Allan McDonald of Knock in Sleat, who, according to John, “was the greatest spy and informer in all Scotland and by all accounts the greatest coward.” John spent nine months in a small room in Fort William, not exactly in distress, as other victims of Allan McDonald’s revenge came and left through lack of evidence. John, himself, was eventually freed and made his way home again. He did call out Allan McDonald in public, but the man refused to fight him: a sure sign of cowardice in the Highlands.
In 1774, John and his family were part of a group of over 600 Highlanders, most from the McDonald Clan, who sailed on the ship Pearl to the American colonies. Some of the lands in Glengarry were being sold and the rents had risen dramatically, so attracted by letters written by earlier immigrants telling of rich farmlands at more than reasonable prices, they decided to make their home in America. They were welcomed by Sir William Johnson, an Irishman, and British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who owned thousands of acres in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere in what is now New York State. Johnson offered them good farmland at low rents, with an option to purchase. Later, John bought five hundred acres in the Charlotte River Valley, in present day Delaware County: an area of rich, fertile soil ringed by blue tinted mountains.
The deal was great; the timing terrible. Sir William died suddenly in 1774, and the following year, the American Revolution began. Sir William’s son, Sir John, remained loyal to King George III, and most of his Scottish tenants followed him, ironically fighting for the very dynasty they had battled in Scotland. Spanish John became a Captain then a commander of grenadiers in the Royal Yorkers. Later, he fought in Butler’s Rangers. Left alone, without protection, McDonell’s wife and younger children were harassed by the Americans and finally driven from their home. They managed to make their way to Canada, where, with thousands of other Loyalist refugees, they waited out the seemingly endless war, homeless and close to starvation. John and other Scots fought hard against the Americans, and his eldest son, John, was killed; but to no avail. Great Britain lost the war, and Loyalists like John McDonell were proscribed by the new United States and their land and homes forfeited.
Thanks to the British government and the strong efforts of Sir John Johnson, who also lost all of his property, the Scots were granted land in present day Ontario Province, Canada. There were no mountains, but the soil was good, and John McDonell built a home for his family. They prospered both in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. His son, Miles, was the first governor of the western province of Manitoba. John McDonell died April 15, 1810, in his eighty-second year and was buried in the Pioneer Graveyard, in St Andrews West, Ontario.