Thomas Douglas was the seventh son of the 4th Earl of Selkirk, and unexpectedly succeeded to the title in 1799 after the death of his brothers. He was born at St Mary’s Isle, Kirkcudbright, and studied law at Edinburgh University. As a young man in 1792 he travelled in the Scottish Highlands and was affected by the plight of the dispossessed populations who were beginning to suffer the effects of the Clearances after the Battle of Culloden. Travels in Ireland in 1801 increased his interest in the problems of the landless, and he developed his theory of emigration as a solution with twin aims: to relieve the hardship of the cleared Highlanders and to strengthen the British presence in North America.
Selkirk secured crown lands on the Island of St John (later Prince Edward Island) and settled 800 Scottish settlers there in 1803. He travelled extensively throughout North America and played an important role with the Hudson’s Bay Company, developing the fur trade and settlement in the west of Canada, although in rivalry with the North West Company. In 1812 he established the Red River Settlement in Manitoba, where many Highlanders homesteaded and, in spite of controversy, setbacks and conflict with the Métis, formed the beginnings of the city of Winnipeg.
Selkirk’s health suffered amidst legal difficulties surrounding his business affairs and he died in France in 1820 at the age of 48.
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