He WAS the son of a milkman, who rose from humble beginnings on a Hebridean croft to play a starring role in the creation of the United States.
Alexander McDougall, born in Islay in 1732, emigrated to America with his family when he was six years old. As a child, he accompanied his father selling pails of milk around Manhattan before signing up as a merchant seaman at the age of 14.
By the time he was 25, McDougall was a captain and later he soared through the ranks of the American army to become George Washington’s right hand man in the War of Independence.
In 1784, Major General McDougall was appointed the first president of the Bank of New York, the country’s oldest bank and one of the earliest companies to be registered on the New York Stock Exchange.
But while memorials to the notable Scotsman have been erected in New York, his home island of Islay waited 225 years after his death before finally bestowing such an honour upon their native son.
This week, representatives of the Bank of New York Mellon – as it is known today – stood alongside islanders, young and old, to witness the poignant unveiling of a memorial cairn, to mark the celebrated life of this greatest of Ileachs.
The inscription on the new memorial, overlooking McDougall’s birthplace at Portintruin, near Port Ellen, uses the same wording as that on the plaque in the First Presbyterian Church of New York. It includes a tribute from Washington: “A brave soldier and a disinterested patriot.”
The plaque was unveiled by Lord Robertson, who led the campaign to win recognition for McDougall on Islay. Afterwards he said: “There is here an amazing story, of a boy from Islay who in his twenties became the captain of two privateering warships, was afterwards a successful New York merchant, and, when the revolutionary tide started to flow, was a key agitator and street leader whose provocative essay led to a jail term for libel and turned him into a hero in Britain’s 13 American colonies.
“He then became a soldier who rose to the highest rank in the American Army in just three years, serving under General George Washington.
“He was also a politician, an elected member of the first US Congress and was selected by that Congress to be the first US Minister of the Marine and was lastly a financier, first president of New York’s oldest Bank – the Bank of New York.” McDougall remained as the bank’s president for a year then quit the post, stating it was “too confining a life for me”. He returned to being a member of the New York Senate.
Another plaque in McDougall’s honour sits below one for George Washington, in the old chapel of West Point Military Academy, the premier leadership training institution of the US army. Lord Robertson said: “He died at only 53 years of age in 1786. After his death President George Washington called him a “pillar of the revolution”.
On the day of McDougall’s packed funeral, the New York Gazeteer had this to say of America’s adopted son: “Of strong intellect, prudent and sagacious in council, of deliberate courage in the field, he had equal claims as a soldier and a statesman.
“While integrity, love of country, fortitude and ability continue to be esteemed, this sentiment will be the faithful guardian of his fame.”
Carl Reavey, who is on the committee of the Museum of Islay Life, which has worked with Lord Robertson on the memorial project, said: “He was born the son of a milkman in a butt and ben – a blackhouse – in Portintruin, in Kildalton Parish, on Islay, from very humble beginnings. He left here when he was six years old to go to New York where he had a meteoric rise.
“His father obviously decided that life was so grim on Islay that he would risk this big voyage to start a new life in America.”
After a three to four month sea journey Ranald, McDougall’s tenant farmer father, worked on a New York dairy farm. Lord Robertson said: “He and the young Alick carried the pails of milk round the streets of Manhattan – then a pretty small place. McDougall went to sea at the age of 14.
“It was a rough and difficult life, but unusually he thrived. At the age of 19 he took the long, difficult journey back to Islay and married a cousin, Nancy McDougall.”
With the money he made from trading while a captain on the seas, McDougall became a prosperous New York businessman. He was wealthy enough to own tracts of land in and around New York.
McDougall died in New York in 1786 at the age of 53. He is buried in the graveyard of the city’s old Presbyterian Church.
“Alexander McDougall, a milkman’s son who helped to found a nation, blazed a trail across the American Revolutionary scene like a meteor”, said Lord Robertson. “The milkman’s son from Islay did well indeed.”