In the late eighteenth century, John and Helen MacDonald left the Scottish Highlands in hopes of establishing a new life in the colony of St. John's Island (renamed Prince Edward Island in 1799). The letters tell of the MacDonalds' struggle in dealing with both the Island government and their own tenants.
After the 1745 Jacobite uprising against the British Crown, which the MacDonald family supported, the British began to undermine the clan system in Scotland. Clan chiefs were stripped of their powers and pressured to convert to free-hold land tenure. To add insult to injury, the British also began to invoke measures designed to penalize Roman Catholics. When the Roman Catholic Church of Scotland asked John MacDonald, the laird of Glenaladale and a devout Catholic, to help a group of the faithful who were being persecuted by a Protestant laird, he readily agreed. He thus became the driving force in an emigration project designed to move Scottish settlers to St John's Island in British North America.
Under the proprietary system of landholding on St. John's Island, land was distributed to private proprietors who were required to bring settlers to the land and pay "quitrents" (or taxes) according to the amount of land they owned. The system worked better in theory than in practice. The Island's market economy grew slowly, and tenants had difficulty paying the rents they owed to their landlord, who, in turn, found themselves without the means to pay their property's quitrents. When quitrents fell into arrears, the Island's administrators, who relied on quitrent revenue to pay their own salaries, threatened to escheat (forfeit) proprietary grants. Tenants, meanwhile, were disgruntled because they could not hold title to their land and were beholden to a landlord.
See Articles for more information about John MacDonald, emigration to St. John's Island, and the 'land question.'
Read more about the MacDonalds' emigration from Scotland and the complex land issues they faced on Prince Edward Island.