Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie

Sir Alexander Mackenzie – the first European to cross North America – is buried in Avoch Churchyard (the church with the tall spire, up the hill from the main street). His large stone enclosure has many interesting features and can be easily pinpointed by the display of flags (these are stored in the winter).

Mackenzie was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, in 1764, reputedly in Luskentyre House (below). His father, Kenneth Mackenzie was a member of the family of tacksmen, the Mackenzies of Melbost. Tacksmen were tenant farmers, who had both an economic and a social role as middlemen between the large landowners or clan chiefs and the large number of small subsistence farming families, or clansmen.

Luskentyre House, Stornoway

Kenneth was a merchant in Stornoway, with the nickname of Kenneth Cork. He married Isabella MacIver, and together they had four children – Murdoch, Alexander, Margaret and Sybilla

At the time, there was a good parish school in Stornoway, where the master, Alexander Anderson, taught some forty pupils including not only Alexander but another Mackenzie, Colin, who was to find fame and fortune in the East India Company, eventually becoming Surveyor General of India.

The 1760s were not an easy time in the Highlands – after the collapse of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the fabric of the old clan system began to unravel, and the tacksmen class found itself increasingly marginalised, as landlords preferred to deal directly with the small farmers. A succession of poor harvests in 1770 to 1773, with cold wet winters, brought much suffering. For many, the prospect of a new life in America began to look increasingly attractive.

Alexander’s father, Kenneth left for America in 1772 or 1773, and on 14th November 1774, Alexander, too, set sail for New York on the “Peace and Plenty”. Alexander’s mother had died about this time. But peace was not what Alexander found – in 1775, the first shots of the War of Independence were fired. Alexander moved to a community in the Mohawk valley, in upper New York State, on the lands of Sir William Johnson who kept open house in Johnson Hall. He recognised the qualities of loyalty and hard work of the highlanders, and had excellent relations with the local native American Indians. In the unrest that followed, many of the inhabitants from that community moved north to Montreal, including Alexander Mackenzie. Alexander spent a year at school in Montreal, and in 1779 was apprenticed to the Montreal fur trading company of Finlay, Gregory and Co.

First expedition

On June 3, 1789, Mackenzie started on the first of his expeditions from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, to open up new trading routes for the fur trade. His intention was to find a route from East Canada to the Pacific Coast.

Mackenzie, “endowed with an inquisitive mind and enterprising spirit was animated by the desire to undertake the perilous enterprise”. He set off from Fort Chipewyan with a party of voyageurs, native hunters and interpreters, travelling in birch-bark canoes. They followed the Slave River, encountering many hazards but eventually found themselves in a river flowing north-west. As they progressed up the river, it became clear that they were in a very northern latitude and they soon reached the Arctic Ocean. It was a great disappointment to Mackenzie that he had reached the north coast instead of the west. The river he had followed, initially called the River of Disappointment by him, was later to become the Mackenzie River in his honour.

Second expedition

In 1791, he returned to England to study navigational techniques and to buy new equipment. On returning to Canada he set out on his second expedition from Fort Chipewyan with a party of voyageurs, two native hunters and interpreters and a dog. There was no respite from danger and hardship including the wrecking of their canoe, hostile natives and walking for two weeks with loads of up to 90lbs on their backs plus guns and ammunition, and passing over a mountain pass in a snowstorm. “Saturday 20 July, our stock was, at this time, reduced to twenty pounds of pemmican, fifteen pounds of rice, and six pounds of flour, among ten half-starved men, in a leaky vessel and on a barbarous coast”. After wintering in Fort Fork, on the Peace River, they continued along the Peace River, again encountering many hazards, but they finally reached the Pacific Coast near Bella Coola where he inscribed on a rock, “Alexander Mackenzie from Canada by land, 22 July 1793”. His inscription can still be seen today.

Plaque commemorating Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Avoch

Alexander Mackenzie was the first person to make the journey from the east to the west of Canada over the Rockies. As well as the Mackenzie River, other areas of Canada bearing his name include Mackenzie Mountains, Mackenzie Bay, and Mackenzie Island.

In 1801 he published his journals, dedicating them to the King, and he was knighted for his explorations in Canada by King George III in 1802. After some years in politics in Canada, he returned to England in 1808, marrying Geddes Mackenzie of Avoch in 1812. Geddes was 14 at the time of the marriage, Mackenize was 48. He bought the estate of Avoch, but they spent part of the year in their house in London, and the other part in Avoch House. The Avoch estate covered two thirds of the village and Mackenzie proved to be a good and popular Laird. He was responsible for building Avoch’s first harbour, bearing half the cost himself. He was also instrumental in the building of the Congregational Church and in laying down the oyster beds in Munlochy Bay. He took ill and died in 1820 in Perthshire on his way home from Edinburgh.

Geddes and her sister inherited the estate in Avoch when their father died

Gregor Mackintosh

Through the efforts of local war veteran, Gregor Mackintosh, the Mackenzie grave, which had fallen into decay, was restored, and interest in the great explorer has increased steadily since then. In 1993, Gregor was invited over to Canada to join in the Bicentennial celebrations of Mackenzie. Gregor met Wayne Smith, acting out the part of Alexander Mackenzie at Fort Fork, Peace River, before motoring down to Bella Coola, visiting the town of Mackenzie en route. Taken by float plane, he also visited the Mackenzie Rock at Dean Channel.

Unveiling the plaque

Geddes Mackenzie

Lady Geddes Mackenzie, along with her sons and daughters lived on at Avoch House after her husband’s death. In 1832, when the house was unoccupied, a fire broke out and many of Sir Alexander’s personal items – maps, instruments, and irreplaceable records – were lost, despite efforts by local people to rescue the contents.

The remains of Avoch House, along with the servant’s wing, remained untouched until the 1960s when it was nearly completely demolished. The only original stonework to remain intact is the battlement shaped frontage.

Alexander George

In 1854, Alexander George, son of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, opened the woollen factory in Rose Street in Avoch, naming it Geddes Mill after his mother. Its fortunes fluctuated from the beginning, never reaching commercial viability, and in spite of James Douglas Fletcher’s efforts in forming the Avoch Tweed Mill Company in 1895, with the intention that the proceeds would go to the needy, it finally closed in 1907. He converted the building to 14 accommodation units to help with housing in the area and these were ready for occupation in 1910. The building no longer stands and in its place some sheltered housing has been built