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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Historical Letter No 1 (by George Watson)
The following letter, dated March 1809, addressed to Lt Col Williamson, was found several years ago among some papers in a desk which had originally come from Banniskirk. It illustrates how Caithness soldiers kept in touch during the Peninsular War and supported each other by lending money at a period when banking was still undeveloped. For the soldiers evacuated from Corunna the voyage home was almost as hazardous as battle.

Benjamin Williamson had been the officer in charge of the second regiment raised by Sir John Sinclair, known initially as the Rothsay & Catenes Fencibles and later as the Caithness Highlanders. When the Fencibles were disbanded in July 1802 he return to his estate at Banniskirk and played an active role in the administration of the County. His sons mentioned in the letter were, Captain Donald who attained the rank of major in the 42nd Regiment and was killed at Burgos in 1812 and James who eventually became a Captain in the 94th Regiment and was killed at the storming of Cuidad Rodrigo.

The writer was his cousin Captain Donald Campbell who later rose to be a Lt Col. At one time he farmed Harland near Wick and died, unmarried, at Creich in Sutherland.

The letter had been folded and sealed with red wax impressed with the initials D C. It had been sent under Sir John Sinclair’s cover because as an MP Sir John was allowed free postage. On the outside Williamson had noted.

“Capt Dond Campbell, no date, Recd 22 March 1809”
“As to his accts”
“Wrote him 10 April”

Weely Bks
March 1809
My Dear Colonel
Your very kind letter of 11th Feby did not reach me till 2nd March (it had gone to Portsmouth) I was very glade indeed to find that you were all well & so happily relieved of your uneasiness about your ffriends who were in Spain, I was but little known to the Captain before I met him in Portugal after which I saw him frequently - you I am sure have a very adequate Idea of the dificulties the army suffered on their retreat so that I shall say say nothing on that subject, but cannot help observing to you how uncommonly well your two sons stood the fatigues & privations of every kind they met with, I saw the Capt just before the action began, he looked fatigued (to be sure) but I may safely say fiew in the army less so, and as for Jas it hardly made any impression upon him, he only reached this place a fiew days ago having put into Plymouth, whence he sailed to the Downs & landed at Ramsgate. The Body of the Regiment got to Spithead before the gales of 29th & 31st - on the former day my Ship was drove from her anchors & went on the shore where she was beating for six hours, the sea made a complete breach over her & I had made myself ready for swimming expecting the next sea would knock us to staves, however she stuck together till the return of the Tide floated us into the Harbour - On 31st about twenty sail were drove on shore from Spithead, but only one went to pieces. I mentioned to Coll Fulton that it would be very pleasing to see Jas at home on the Recruiting Service (for the leave expires 10th April) when he promised that he should have a party how soon they all return from the Malitia Volunteering, but in consequence of Calders great success the Coll will not move him from Thurso & I do not see that it will make any great differance to Jas to have his head Qrs at Wick - I am happy to hear that Lord Moira is positively to have a 4th Battn to be raised for Rank & I hope James will commence raising for himself, in which case he will get home at all events -- The loss of baggage in Spain has been pretty general but I fear your friends have suffered severely, I know James has lost his all I mean his light articles for the principle part was left at Lisbon, but I dout much if the allowance will be at all adequate to the loss, we at one time expected to be handsomly treated but now that a Board of General Officers are ordered to sit, I fear our chance is small, as they will naturally adhere to the Kings Regulations on that head - James is compleating his Kitt again & I have told him that I can supply him with some cash without drawing upon you, he has not yet taken any. he has taken every precaution to restore his health & is now as well if not better then you ever saw him - I do sincerely thank you for your kind wish to see me in caiths but I have no Idea of it at present, their are certainly some good ffriends whom I would go a long way to see, but their are other circumstances which would make my visit rather unpleasant, so that I will stick by my company.
I do not touch upon our operations in Spain & on the Retreat as of course you have had them fully detailed from the Capt & James, as to the business at Corrunna the French certainly did not do their Duty or they would have made it a very dificult matter for any of us to get away. The people of Spain certainly beheaved very ill & do not deserve the support this country has afforded them, the only time we had an opertunity of seeing any body of them was at Lugo & when we went out to offer Battle to the Enimy, they threw away their arms & uniforms & run into the country - I asked for a state of my accnt from you my Dear Colonel merely that I might have some Idea of how my Sisters were going on, & I must certainly acknowledge to you I was astonished to find that they were so void of all feeling as to run accots to such an amount, intirely without my knowledge or sanction, they had no reason whatever for thinking that I would pay them or any part of them, when I was informed they were in Debt, I had no Idea it could possibly exceed a fiew pounds each However let me assure you I am happy they are paid, & feel much indebted for the trouble you have taken. It is unpleasant to my feelings to be oblidged to have recourse to such measures, but I do tell you candidly that I have done with them both, let them take their chance for I will not have them to suppose that from my Pay I am to contribute in the smallest to support them in their Idleness, the inclosed letter which I beg you will send is a full disclosure of my sentiments & of my determination how to act in future.-
I have frequently spoke to some of my Recruits about not writing regularly to their Friends, as far as I can learn they are all well at Weely Bks except the following viz Wm Suthd dead Lisbon, Jno Campbell dead on Passage out, P Swanson dead, Wm Forbes, Wm McKay & Jas Sutherland, fell into the hands of the Enimy from Fatigue, Jas Bakie, Jno Gerry & Robt Gunn left sick in Lisbon, Jno Cornor (alias Grant) an officers servt in Lisbon, and old Jno McKay (alias Read) gone to a Garrison Battn - James is going to Town to learn what he can as to 4th Battn 27th - & I send this by him to get it put under Sir Jno Sinclairs cover - with my sincere best respects to your Ladies & all other Friends

I remain
My Dear Colonel
Yours most sincerely
Don Campbell

P.S. Notwithstanding what I have said, will you be so good as continue the usual allowance to Peggy for sometime, but I would not wish her to know that it was from me or by my wish that she recd it as I have wrote them both very fully not to look to me for a shilling in future - D C

Notes on the above letter:-
(1) Weely Bks, probably a contraction for Wellington Barracks London.
(2) The retreat mentioned had been led by Sir John Moore and ended on the 16th Jan 1809 at the battle of Corunna.
(3) The original letter is now P 322 in the North Highland Archive Wick.

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