McAllister’s Mill

On this day in 1836, a group of local abolitionists gathered at the home of James McAllister in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. McAllister and his family operated a mill on this property, and in the decades to come, the mill itself would serve the anti-slavery cause. 

The abolitionists who gathered at McAllister’s home went on to form the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society, one of the earliest such societies. The society did more than attend meetings, though. Society members established a network of safe houses around Gettysburg where slaves escaping from the south could find rest, food, and a place to hide between the legs of their journey. Between 1850 and 1858, hundreds of escaping slaves were hidden in McAllister’s mill, which became one of the first Underground Railroad stops north of the Mason-Dixon line.[1] This was risky not just for the slaves but also for the McAllisters. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a crime to harbour an escaped slave, even in ‘free’ states like Pennsylvania, and with bounty hunters using hound dogs particularly active in Adams County, the risk of being caught was fairly high.

Helping their father shelter the fugitives made a deep impression on McAllister’s children, who grew up hearing the harrowing stories of the people who hid in their mill. “Is it any wonder I grew up to young manhood hating slavery with a mortal hatred?” James’s son Theodore wrote years later.[2] When the American Civil War broke out, five of McAllister’s sons went to fight for the Union, and one of them died in battle. Theodore himself was a prisoner of war at the notorious Andersonville camp in Georgia.

But history was not finished with McAllister’s property – or his family. On the first of June 1863, twenty-seven years after the meeting at James McAllister’s house, Union soldiers faced off against Confederate soldiers right on McAllister’s doorstep. Macalisters (of various spellings) fought on both sides. The Battle of Gettysburg – one of the best-known battles in US history (partly because of President Lincoln’s famous speech there) – continued for three days, causing the deaths of many soldiers and considerable damage to the property.[3] As the battle went on, James McAllister’s house became a de facto hospital for wounded Union soldiers; a confederate hospital was set up near the mill. McAllister’s daughters Mary and Martha were at home during the battle and did whatever they could to help the wounded. Many of the dead were buried near their home. 

James McAllister died in 1872. The mill had not been used in years, and after the family left, it sank into disrepair. Today, almost nothing remains of the buildings that saw so much action in the fight against slavery. Although the actual battlefield has been preserved as a historical monument, McAllister’s property, which is privately owned, was forgotten; for much of the 20th century, it was used as a municipal dump. In 2002, a local preservation group began pushing for the dump to be moved and the property to be marked as a historic site. Though the borough initially dragged its feet, McAllister’s Mill was finally recognised in 2011 by the federal government as one of several hundred US properties that have a verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad. A marker was erected, and with the cooperation of the current owner, tours began the following year. Gettysburg National Military Park hopes to purchase the property eventually.[4]

More information about McAllister’s Mill can be found at the McAllister’s Mill Underground Railroad site and the web site of the Historical Gettysburgh-Adams County preservation society


copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] The Mason-Dixon line, established in the early 1700s to resolve a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, took on new meaning in the 19th century, when it became a symbolic division between states where slavery was allowed and Pennsylvania, where it was not. Technically, once a slave crossed the Mason-Dixon line, he or she was no longer a slave. However, after 1850 people fleeing slavery could still be hunted down north of the line.

[2] McAllister’s Mill finally gets historical recognition” 

[3] After it was all over, McAllister put in a claim for $1,200 in damages, according to the Battle of Gettysburg website (accessed 29 June 2015).

[4] Scot Andrew Pitzer, “Underground Railroad site recognizedGettysburgh Times on-line (4 May 2011). 

Orders of Protection

In the summer of 1665, the Privy Council of Scotland, “having heard and considered a petition presented for Gory McAllaster of Loup”, granted the Macalister chief an order of protection, to last until the end of July. Further orders (or extensions) of protection were issued in 1671 and 1672.[1] Similar orders were issued for numerous other chiefs at various times.

These orders of protection tell us a few things about Godfrey Macalister of Loup. Like other Highland chieftains, Loup was required by law to personally appear before the Privy Council in Edinburgh each year, to sign bonds of caution for the good behaviour of his clansmen and tenants.[2] Like many of the others, Loup appears to have tried to fulfill this obligation. By the late 17th century, however, a majority of the chiefs, including Macalister, were heavily in debt.[3] In their own lands, surrounded by kinsmen and loyal tenants, they were relatively secure from vengeful creditors, but they knew that once they ventured out of their areas of influence, they would be at the mercy of those from whom they had borrowed. Many could not hope to “travel unmolested by creditors to Edinburgh in order to give their bonds”.[4] The Privy Council, writes Michael Fry, “which liked to see them once a year, had to issue them with passes against arrest”.[5] Allan Kennedy found record of more than sixty such orders of safe conduct issued between the years of 1664 and 1678.[6]

This widespread indebtedness had a number of causes. Travel to Edinburgh, both to make bonds of peace as required by the government and to pursue their own disputes through the courts, were costly. In the latter case, there were also legal fees. Furthermore, Kennedy notes that once these men were in town, there was a “tendency to make lengthy personal sojourns” in Edinburgh, which also cost money.[7] For example, the protection granted to Macalister (among others) at the end of 1671 was extended through January and then on into March as “the said business is not yet brought to a close”.[8]

As the Highland lairds interacted more frequently with their counterparts from the Lowlands and England, they also began to acquire the habits of their southern peers, leading to significant expenditure on clothing, gambling and other indulgences, and many families in this period also undertook expensive building projects, building or improving and then furnishing homes.[9] In the late 16th century and early 17th century, inflation worked in the chiefs’ favour – income could be increased in various ways, the real cost of debt declined as the money itself was worth less and less, and credit was easy to obtain. In fact, Douglas Watt concludes, many lairds appear to have borrowed “simply because they could”.[10]

Unfortunately, the second half of the 17th century saw the pendulum swing back. Deflation set in, reducing incomes and increasing the real value of debt already accrued. To make matters worse, the utter devastation of many lairds’ properties in the wars of the 1640s left tenants unable to pay rents, further reducing their chiefs’ income right when the money was needed to rebuild. Cash-strapped lairds then borrowed more to cover the gap.

Creditors in the early part of this period were often near kinsmen of the chief, which took some of the pressure off. Kinsmen, close neighbours and friends were less likely to pursue debts with the heartless efficiency of relative strangers in the Lowlands. Furthermore, quite a few cases are recorded in which a chief’s overwhelming debts were actually bought out by his kinsmen to prevent the chief losing his lands (which were considered by most to belong to the clan as a whole). However, as the seventeenth century wore on, Highland lairds were increasingly indebted to merchants and lawyers in Edinburgh as well as to Lowland lairds.[11] These creditors often found it difficult to get hold of their Highland debtors, whose lands in some cases were literally beyond the reach of law. The only thing they could do in attempt to be repaid was to raise apprisings on the property of the borrowers – something that made it difficult for the laird involved to get more credit but did little to recover the money he had already borrowed. The annual journey of the Highland chiefs to Edinburgh therefore presented a golden opportunity for creditors to pursue their debts. This naturally made the chiefs apprehensive about fulfilling their promises to the Privy Council unless the Council would guarantee their safety.

In many cases, the debts run up by one chief were passed on to his heir. This seems to have been the situation facing Godfrey Macalister. Godfrey’s father Hector, one of our more successful chiefs despite living in difficult times, is named as a debtor to Jonet Campbell in 1631, to George Campbell of Kinnochtry in 1637 and 1641, and to Ninian Lamont in 1643.[12] There was probably a financial cost too for his willingness in the 1620s to stand as surety for the good behaviour of Coll Ciotach Macdonald (who, with his son Alasdair MacColla, proceeded to behave rather badly as far as the government was concerned). Several of these debts continued to plague Godfrey. Letters of horning were issued against him in 1664 by Colin Campbell, the son of George of Kinnochtry, in attempt to force him to repay the debt owed by his father. The following year, Campbell obtained a decreet of apprising on Macalisters’ lands in effort to collect. In 1669, someone apparently caught up with Godfrey because we find him being held in the Tolbooth at Rothesay (Isle of Bute); the nature of his crime is not specified, but in light of his otherwise good behaviour, debt is the most likely explanation. In 1671 however, he is back in Edinburgh, still in debt and requiring once more an order of protection from the Privy Council.[13]

Sometimes members of the Highland elite were able to satisfy their creditors. In May of 1675, a contract between Gory Macalister and Colin Campbell of Kinnochtry set up payment plans for the money Macalister’s father owed to Campbell’s father. In return, the letters of apprising that Campbell had against Macalister’s lands were to be turned over to Macalister.[14] In the long run, however, the indebtedness of Highland lairds would have a devastating effect on the culture of the Highlands, with many chiefs either losing their lands all together or slowly becoming simply landlords, whose estates were run for profit and whose tenants and clansmen often paid the price. Alexander Fraser notes that the late 18th century saw “an economic landslide in Mid-Argyll . . . . The accumulated difficulties of more than one hundred years proved insupportable, and the landed families . . . failed, one after another”.[15] Among those families whose debts ultimately cost them their lands were the Macalisters of Loup and the Macalisters of Tarbert.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Records of the Privy Council of Scotland (series iii), vol. II, p. 58; A. Kennedy, Governing Gaeldom: The Scottish Highlands and the Restoration State, 1660-1688 (Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2014), p. 37, note 84.

[2] This requirement originated with the Statutes of Iona in 1609, which charged the Gaidhealtachd‘s natural leaders with maintaining peace and order on their lands.

[3] Ranald Macalister of Tarbert was also in debt. His lands were appraised at a debt of 4,706 merks in 1668 (Beaton, “How the Tarbert Lands Passed from the Macalisters to the Campbells”, p. 15).

[4] Kennedy, p. 37, note 84

[5] M. Fry, Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History (London: John Murray Publishers, 2005), p. 36

[6] Kennedy, p. 189

[7] Kennedy, p. 37, note 84; D. Watt, “The laberinth of thir difficulties”, Scottish Historical Review, vol. 86, no. 219 (April 2006), p. 35.

[8] RPCS (series iii), vol. III, p. 430

[9] Watt, p. 36

[10] Watt, p. 37

[11] Watt, p. 40. He also points out (p. 37) that interest rates higher than 50% were not unheard of, so borrowing itself was an expensive proposition.

[12] The Clan Campbell, vol. 5: Abstracts of Entries Relating to Campbells in the Early Unprinted Records relating to Ayrshire, 1515-1650, pp. 201-2; Decisions of the Court of Session from its Institution to the Present Time, digested under proper heads, in the form of a dictionary, vol. XVII, case 15821; Inventory of Lamont Papers, p. 210, item 748.

[13] RPCS (series iii), vol. II, pp. 399, 403, 415

[14] Decisions of the Court of Session, vol. XVII, case 15821.

[15] Fraser, North Knapdale in the XVII and XVIIIth Centuries, p. 81.

He Said, She Said . . .

On this day in 1756, Angus Macalister of Loup married his widowed cousin Jean (or Jane – the names were interchangeable). Jean was the daughter of John Macdonald of Ardnacross and Grace McAlester, whose father had been the seventh laird of Loup. To put it mildly, the marriage got off to a rocky start.

The first hint we have of trouble between them comes in April 1758, when Jean went before the Commissaries of Edinburgh to institute a Declarator of Marriage and Adherence.[1] By doing so, she was asking the Commissariot to rule that her marriage to Angus was valid, because by this point he was claiming that it had never taken place.

Perhaps she could have seen this denial coming, as she was certainly not the first eighteenth-century bride to find herself in this situation.[2] Theirs was an ‘irregular’ marriage (although Angus had procured a minister to perform the ceremony),[3] and the young groom insisted that the marriage be kept secret until he could talk to his uncle, a Lamont of that Ilk. Angus was afraid Lamont would object to the union because of his youth and because Jean did not have a fortune.[4] Angus therefore returned to Argyllshire, urging his new wife to follow.

Before she could join him, however, Jean discovered that Angus had given her a venereal disease. Angus wrote to his surgeon in Edinburgh, asking the doctor to give his new wife the best treatment available, but to keep the marriage itself a secret. Eventually Jean set off for Argyll, no doubt anxious to share the news of her marriage with her family and friends. Angus, however, insisted the secret still be kept. Jean asked that she at least be allowed to tell her mother, to whose house she now retired, but when the news began to get out, Angus denied that there had been a wedding at all.

It was precisely this sort of conflict that the Commissariot of Edinburgh existed to resolve,[5] and so it was to the Commissariot that Jean first turned in effort to force Angus to recognise her as his wife. Initially, the Commissaries ruled in Jean’s favour, but when Angus appealed they reversed their verdict, determining that in fact no marriage had taken place. Jean then took her case to the Court of Sessions.[6] On the 4th of January, a decreet was issued in her favour. But Angus was having none of it: He appealed directly to the House of Lords.

In an interesting 1999 article, Leah Leneman notes that written evidence, “particularly in the man’s own handwriting”, carried a lot of weight when an irregular marriage was disputed.[7] The letter Angus had written to his doctor, naming Jean as his wife, was an important factor in the Lords’ decision to throw out his appeal, which they did on 2 May 1759.

With no one else to turn to, Angus seems to have given up trying to dissolve the marriage — but he didn’t exactly rush back to Jean’s side. In the summer of 1761, Hector McAlister in Arran wrote to his brother Alexander in North Carolina that “he [Loup] does not cohabit with her nor own her, but she has an annuity of thirty pounds a year off him” and that “his estate is much encumbered defending that unhappy plea with his wife”.[8]

As is probably to be expected, this was the usual result of a marital lawsuit. Leneman points out that winning such a case was unlikely to lead to a “happy married life, for the bitterness engendered in the course of the legal action usually made any prospect of an amicable relationship in the future out of the question”.[9] In this, however, Angus and Jean diverge from the norm. At some point not long after the correspondence of 1761, the couple evidently reconciled. In 1765, their son Charles (future 12th of Loup) was born. In 1772, Angus granted a bond in favour of “Mrs Jean McDonald his spouse”, making sure she would be provided for should she outlive him.[10] By 1775, there were three daughters in addition to Charles. And when Jean died in 1812, she was described simply as the “relic [widow] of Angus MacAlester of Loup, Esq.”[11]

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Thomas S. Paton, Reports of Cases Decided in the House of Lords upon Appeal from Scotland, from 1757 to 1784, Vol. II (Edinburgh, 1851), p. 31.

[2] Leneman, “Wives and Mistresses in Eighteenth-century Scotland”, in Women’s History Review, vol. 8, no. 4 (1999): 674.

[3] According to Leneman, a ‘regular’ marriage was “one for which banns had been called, and which was subsequently performed in church by a minister”. An ‘irregular’ marriage required neither banns nor a minister, simply the exchange of consent to marry – or even a promise to marry in future – followed by consummation of the relationship. Although fines were sometimes imposed to discourage irregular marriages, they were perfectly legal and recognised by the authorities (p. 673).

[4] Reports of Cases Decided, p. 30

[5] Leneman, p. 673

[6] Patrick Fraser, A Treatise on the Law of Scotland, as Applicable to the Personal and Domestic Relations, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1846), p. 157.

[7] Leneman, p. 675

[8] McAllister Family Papers, Cumberland County, NC, 1747-1935 (North Carolina Division of Archives & History, July 1996), appendix II, no. 6, p. 3.

[9] Leneman, p. 687

[10] Argyll Particular Register of Sasines, RS 10, vol. 11 (25th March 1778); transcribed by the Clan McAlister of America Scottish Records Project.

[11] The Scots Magazine, vol. 74 (1812), p. 806

The Ascent of Tarbert

On this day in 1619, a bond was signed among the barons of Argyll. The bond dealt primarily with relationships within the Clan Campbell, so it is not surprising that all but three of the signators are Campbells. Among those who are not, however, is Archibald Macalister of Tarbert.[1]

The bond in question concerned a serious breach that had taken place within the Clan Campbell during the minority of the clan’s chief, the 7th Earl of Argyll. Competition between the various branches of that clan had resulted in the murder of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor in 1591 as part of “a foul conspiracy against Archibald, the seventh Earl”.[2] There were a number of people involved in the plot, but most of the blame fell on Sir John Campbell of Ardkinglas. Understandably this had caused hard feelings between the two families, and with their chief indefinitely out of the country,[3] there was a reasonable concern that the feud could lead to further violence. As part of the clan’s efforts to maintain law and order in Argyll during the earl’s absence, it was agreed that there should be a formal reconciliation between the families involved.[4]

Why Macalister of Tarbert was included is not clear. He and his chief, Macalister of Loup, had both been appointed a month earlier to help Campbell of Kilberry police Kintyre, but neither Loup nor Kilberry himself appear to be connected to this bond. It is possible that he simply happened to be on hand when witnesses were needed, but Campbell historian Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds indicates that he was actually party to the bond,[5] in the company of such men as Campbell of Auchinbreck, Campbell of Lochnell and Campbell of Otter. Evidently by this point Tarbert was seen as the head of a distinct house.

Although the Macalister connexion to Tarbert went back to the 1540s, it was not until the very end of the sixteenth century that these Macalisters began to act as a separate branch of the clan. They were not required to sign the General Band of 1587, suggesting that they were still very much under the authority of the Macalister chief, and as of 1591, they still held their lands as tenants of Loup rather than directly from Argyll. In 1596, they were included in a list of Kintyre landholders, but not given any particular prominence.[6] In fact, we first find Tarbert lairds acting independently at the start of the 1600s, when two of them, Hector and Archibald successively, are in trouble for raiding in Arran and Bute. Interestingly, in Archibald’s case his associates included the Earl of Argyll, suggesting that he was already on good terms with the chief of Clan Campbell.

I suspect the key to the Tarberts’ rise to prominence might lie in the status of the Loup family at this time. The head of our clan at the turn of the century was Godfrey 5th of Loup – a troublemaker in general (it was he who murdered his tutor in 1597 and instigated the Askomil incident) and a close associate of the even-more-troublesome Dunyvaig Macdonalds. Godfrey was followed as chief by Hector, who was a minor until about 1617. Thus for nearly twenty years the Tarbert Macalisters appear to have simply gone their own way. While the Loup family continued to adhere to the House of Dunyvaig, the Tarbert branch apparently deemed it wiser to cultivate the friendship of their Campbell neighbours. (Clearly, friendship with the Campbells did not keep the Tarbert lairds out of trouble, but getting into trouble with those in the king’s favour was likely to be less permanently disastrous than following the Macdonalds, who seemed to go out of their way to attract royal wrath.) It’s possible that it was during Godfrey’s tenure that some of the Tarbert lands were granted directly to that family, which would make Argyll their immediate landlord. Proximity to the Campbell heartland might also have been a factor. Whatever the reasons, in this period the Tarbert Macalisters appear more frequently in connexion with various Campbell lairds than with anyone else.

Although Hector of Loup was finally an adult by this time, recognised as one of the primary Kintyre lairds and included in the peace-keeping arrangement of 1618, it makes sense that it would be Tarbert rather than Loup who was called upon to be party to the Campbell bond. Though loyalties would vary from generation to generation, from this point on the Tarbert family were their own men, and they continued to play a prominent role in events in Kintyre well into the 18th century.

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1]My information about this bond comes entirely from Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds (A History of Clan Campbell, vol. II, pp. 175-6).

[2]John Taylor, The Great Historic Families of Scotland (London, 1889), vol. I, p. 287; Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 100-103.

[3]Argyll had been granted permission to travel to England. Instead, he went to Spain, and he did not return when ordered to do so. In view of his dire financial situation – caused partly by other people’s failure to pay him rents and debts owed – it is hardly surprising that he wanted to escape, and as he had converted to Catholicism, Spain was a logical place to start again. Spain was not seen as a friend of Scotland at this time, however, and to make matters worse, once he was there the earl established friendly relations with a number of the king’s enemies, among them his own erstwhile foe, Sir James Macdonald of Dunyvaig. Eventually he was declared a traitor by King James, and although he spent his final days in London, he was never allowed to return to Scotland. (Wm. Anderson, The Scottish Nation, vol. I (1867), p. 555; Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 174-5)

[4]Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 175-6

[5] Ibid.

[6]Way & Squire, p. 204; Castleton, p. 167; MacPhail, pp. 75-78.

La Rochelle and the Highland Bowmen

On this day in 1627, Hector M’Allester, Lieutenant, arrived in Lochkilkerane (now Campbeltown) in response to a government levy of Highland bowmen. The Anglo-French War (part of the Thirty Years’ War) had broken out earlier in the year: Since June, troops under the Duke of Buckingham had been trying to take over Île de Ré in support of French Huguenots, who were under siege by their own government in nearby La Rochelle. Although many in Charles I’s realms might have genuinely sympathised with the persecuted Huguenots, the war had more to do with the breakdown of the 1624 Anglo-French treaty and English fears that France was building up its navy.

Gordon Donaldson writes that in the early 17th century, “it was a common occurrence for the Scottish government to grant licences to individuals for the raising of specific numbers of men for service” in the continental wars.[1] In fact, for centuries, service in foreign armies was a not-unusual career choice for Scots whose prospects at home seemed less than rosy. So when efforts began to relieve La Rochelle, it would not have seemed strange that King Charles commissioned the MacNaughtan chief, Alexander of that Ilk, to raise 200 men to assist Buckingham’s troops.

In retrospect, however, there are two things about this levy that seem a bit odd. First, as 19th-century historian Donald Gregory pointed out, by this point a request for bowmen is unusual. Although Scottish kings had tried in earlier times to encourage archery as a defence against the English long-bow, by the turn of the 17th-century weapons had come into use that rendered archery, if not obsolete, certainly far less useful. A list of required weapons for Highlanders being raised by levy in 1552 does not even mention bows. Nonetheless, “[w]hatever may have been the cause, . . . the bow continued to be made use of in the Highlands long after it had been forgotten in England and the Lowlands,” a fact made clear “from innumerable passages in the Criminal records, and the record of the Privy Council of Scotland”.[2]

Which brings us to the second point: Why resort to Highlanders at all?[3] Things in the Highlands had improved somewhat after 1603, when James VI became James I of England and suddenly had resources available to tackle Highland lawlessness, but it was still a dodgy place. The young century had already seen one major Clan Donald rising, in 1614, and the Macdonalds were certainly not the only clan still sporadically causing trouble in the western Highlands. In fact, one of the incentives Charles offered to encourage enlistment was the promise that he would grant remission to ‘suche highland personis as ar fugutive from our lawes for criminal causes’ should they join MacNaughtan’s company.[4]

In the end, only about 100 men were raised for this expedition, and they drifted in over the course of the next two weeks. On the 21st, Lieutenant Hector was joined by four more of his clan (though one, Duncan M’Allester Bane, might have really been a Macdonald). I am not sure who any of these Macalisters were. MacNaughtan himself described his soldiers as “men of personagis”, suggesting that some of them were at least locally important. Two of the group, a Robert Gordoun and a Robert Naper, are listed as ‘gentlemen’, and one – John Colhoun of Camstradane – was clearly a landholder, but the others are only identified by military title or role.[5] On the other hand, at least one of those identified only by military title – ‘Alexander M’nachtane, Capt.’ – is MacNaughton of that Ilk himself. The leading military role of Hector M’Allester (and perhaps his prompt arrival) makes it possible that he was one of our clan’s leaders at the time – perhaps even the chief, Hector, 6th of Loup – but I have no real evidence of this and have found no mention of it elsewhere.

Whoever these men were, they were too late for Buckingham’s attempts in La Rochelle. Their ship left Lochkilkerane on the 28th of December and almost immediately ran into severe weather. By the 15th of January they had only got as far as Cornwall, where MacNaughtan appealed to the Earl of Morton to provide them with clothes and food when they reached the Isle of Wight.[6] What happened after their stopover there is unclear. Gregory supposed that they took the course so often followed by Scots and joined their many compatriots fighting in the German wars. 

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Donaldson, Scotland: James V- James VII, p. 253

[2] Donald Gregory, “Notices regarding Scottish Archery, particularly that of the Highlanders; together with some Original Documents relating to a levy of Highland Bowmen to serve in the war against France, in the year 1627”, in Archaeologia Scotica, vol. 3 (1831): 250-251.

[3] According to P. Hume Brown, “This extraordinary notion had been put in the King’s head” by MacNaughtan himself (Brown, ed., Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, second series, Vol. II: 1627-1628, p. xii).

[4] Charles I to the Privy Council of Scotland, dated 12th August 1627 (Brown, ed., Register, p. 56).

[5] Gregory, “Notices”, pp. 253-4

[6] Brown, Register, xii

Siege of Sevastopol

On this day in 1854, the Siege of Sevastopol got under way with allied artillery and naval bombardment of the Crimean capital. The siege, which had technically begun the previous month, saw French and British armies attempting to take the port city of Sevastopol from Russia during the Crimean War. Although the most famous names associated with this conflict are those of Florence Nightingale and Leo Tolstoy, the thousands of soldiers from Britain included many members of our clan.

The 19th-century Crimean conflict is not well remembered these days, but it was significant in a number of ways. Historian Orlando Figes observes that it was both “the earliest example of a truly modern war” — making use of industrial technologies and weapons; being recorded for the folks at home by reporters and photographers on the spot; and foreshadowing the kind of trench warfare that would characterise WWI — and “the last war to be conducted by the old codes of chivalry, with . . . truces in the fighting to clear the dead and wounded from the killing fields”[1] and military commands primarily drawn from the upper levels of society.

More importantly, it was a turning point in European history. Although it had its roots in Russia’s relations with (and general European interference in) the Muslim east, it upset the political balance in Europe, creating new tensions that ultimately led to the First World War. Crimea, Figes writes, was “located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world” and was “continuously in contention”.[2] Russia’s long-held belief that Moscow was the Third Rome, destined to rule Christendom, required that Constantinople be retaken from the Muslim Ottomans and Turks. Conflicts over Ottoman treatment of Greeks earlier in the century had been tempered by Tsar Alexander’s commitment to his treaty agreements, but his brother Nicholas I was more concerned with his perceived responsibility for his co-religionists.[3] Taking advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, Russia invaded, declaring itself the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Muslim territories. The tsar apparently expected Prussia and Austria (his erstwhile allies) and Britain (which, like Russia, was at odds with the French) to support him. But Russian control of the area threatened these countries more than the Ottomans, and they gave the tsar a deadline to withdraw his forces. While Europe sought a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, the Ottomans — against the advice of everyone — declared war on Russia. This left Britain and France, who had pledged support, little option but to “set aside their ongoing enmity [with each other] and support another former enemy, the Ottoman Turks”.[4] British, Turkish and French troops began arriving in Crimea in August 1854.

From the beginning, this war was characterised by a “catalogue of misunderstandings and misapprehensions”.[5] For example, an early opportunity to end the siege was missed because the French and English weren’t sure who was supposed to act first. The campaign was also badly planned, at least on the British side (the French army — having more recently fought a war — was somewhat better organised). British military command took for granted that the men would be home before winter, so they didn’t bother to learn about the severity of Crimean winters before sending their thousands of soldiers to war without adequate food, clothing or shelter.[6] Through bad communication, and sometimes the incompetence of commanders, lives were lost that might have been saved. On the other hand, the war was marked on all sides by acts of courage and an ability to improvise that won the admiration of enemies and countrymen alike.

Of the numerous Macalisters who took part in the Siege of Sevastopol, nine were awarded the Baltic Star for naval service, and at least 36 received awards for their infantry and support service.[7] Macalisters serving in English, Irish and Scottish regiments fought in all of the three major battles (Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman) during the siege. Many of these died in battle, or because of it, and others were severely wounded. But illnesses such as cholera and exposure to the elements killed more British soldiers than battle did. By the end of November, the 46th Regiment of Foot (of which Charles McAlister, future 14th of Loup, was captain[8]), had buried 10 percent of its men, according to Lt.-Col. Colin Campbell[9]; on the first of December Campbell reported that eighty-five men from the 46th had died of a bowel complaint; of the men still living, McAlister is named among “those who have suffered most”.[10]

Despite six naval bombardments of the city, seemingly endless trench warfare at the city’s edge and two full-fledged battles nearby, it was not until September of 1855 that the city was taken, effectively ending the war.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Figes, Orlando, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), pp. xix-xx.

[2] Ibid., p. 20

[3] Ibid., pp. 35-6 

[4] Brudenell, Anna Maria, “Lessons in leadership: the Battle of Balaklava, 1854” in Military Review (Mar.-Apr. 2008): 77+. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

[5] History of the 46th Regiment, 1854-1858

[6] Figes, p. 197

[7] UK, Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1949 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010; UK, Naval Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1972 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

[8] Hart, H. G., The Army List and Militia List Exhibiting the Rank, Standing, and Various Services of Every Regimental Officer in the Army serving on full Pay . . . (London: John Murray, 1858), pp. 133ff.

[9] Campbell, Colin Frederick, Letters from Camp to His Relatives during the Siege of Sebastopol (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1894), p. 28.

[10] Ibid., pp. 34-5

Name Games

On this day in 1576, bonds of manrent were drawn up between the Earl of Argyll and John Mudeortach (Muirdearach) Macalastair.[1] At first glance this appears to be a member of our clan, but this ‘Macalastair’ was in fact a Macdonald – John of Moidart, Captain of Clanranald. In this case, what appears to be John’s surname is in fact his patronymic, and it illustrates the importance of caution when identifying Highlanders before about 1650. 

Although many of the fixed surnames that came to be associated with the Gaidhealtachd[2], including Macalister, are called patronymics, a real patronymic is not passed down generation after generation the way that surnames are. In its truest sense, a patronymic changes with each generation, so that John’s son Michael is Michael Johnson, whose son is Paul Michaelson, whose son is Stephen Paulson, and so on. (This system is still used in places like Iceland – where Stéfan Jónsson really is the son of someone called Jon – and, in addition to a regular surname, Russia.) But Gaelic patronymics could be flexible, incorporating the name of a noteworthy recent ancestor even if that person were not the individual’s actual father. Thus most clan chiefs also had a ‘chiefly patronymic’ that honoured an early or important chief of their clan. Angus mac Teàrlach M’Allester (Angus, son of Charles Macalister) was also known as Angus vic Ean Dhù (grandson or heir of black John), because the first independent chief of the clan was named Iain Dùbh, or black John. (Contemporary records sometimes went further and used the chiefly patronymic exclusively, leading some historians to conclude that several lairds of Loup were named John, when in fact none of them were, after Iain Dùbh himself.)

Alasdair has always been a common name throughout the Highlands, used by nearly every Gaelic family at one point or another, so it is hardly surprising that there were an awful lot of people being called mac Alasdair in the years before permanent surnames came into general use. Furthermore, in the case of the Macdonalds, some of these families were neighbours of the Clan Alasdair and confusion easily arises. In 1542, for instance, we find Donald McAlester of Largis [Largie] in Kintyre, who is “probably one of” the Clanranaldbane of Largie[3]; this family of Macdonalds were closely associated with the primary Macalister families during MacColla’s rising in the 1640s and in the later Jacobite era, but they were never part of the Clan Alasdair. During the Dunyvaig rebellions of the early 1600s, one of the primary troublemakers was Ranald Og McAlester, also called Ronald Og McAngus, who was an (unacknowledged) illegitimate son of Angus of Dunyvaig[4] and was clearly understood at the time to be one of the Dunyvaig MacDonalds.

Other Macdonald ‘Macalisters’ were less closely involved with us but have caused trouble for those who wrestle with our clan’s genealogy. In family trees posted on line, I have seen dates and events given for Alexander Macalister, Laird of Loup, that in fact apply to Alexander MacEan MacAlister of Glengarry. The two men lived at the same time, but Loup never held lands in Glengarry or, as far as I can tell, had much direct interaction with the Glengarry Macdonalds. Then there is Roderick (or Ruairidh) McAllester, briefly Bishop of the Isles, who has often been claimed by Macalisters as one of our clan. However, this Roderick is known elsewhere as Roderick Ranaldson, a patronymic not used by the Clan Alasdair but naturally in regular use among the Clanranald. A more careful look reveals that he was in fact the brother of the above-mentioned John Muidearach.[5]

When the apparent surname cannot be relied upon, historians must look for other clues to distinguish individuals from others using variations of the same names. Such clues can be found in a person’s other names and property designations, but understanding them requires a wider knowledge of an area’s history and people. Ranaldson was not used as a patronymic by any of the Macalister families in this era, so the fact that Bishop Roderick McAllester is elsewhere called Roderick Ranaldson should be an immediate tip-off. As for his brother, what appears to be John’s second name, Muidearach, is really a designation meaning ‘of Moidart’, a part of the West Coast not associated with any of the leading Macalisters. A McAlester of Largie or MacAlister of Glengarry is similarly unlikely to belong to the Clan Alasdair, as neither of these properties were held by members of our clan. Although there might well have been Macalisters in Largie, Glengarry or Moidart, no members of our clan were of any of those places.[6] 

Looking at this from the opposite direction, the same clues can be used. Leading Macalisters can often be spotted easily by the designations ‘of Loup’, ‘of Tarbert’, ‘of Balinakill’, etc., even when they appear without the Macalister name. The Clan Donald cadet described by Sir George Mackenzie as ‘M’donald of Lowp’ was the chiefly family of the Clan Alasdair[7]; and the un-named ‘Laird of Lowip’ who signed King James’s General Band was the clan’s chief, Alasdair Macalister.

By the early 17th century, surnames had begun to solidify. All of Dunyvaig’s acknowledged sons are called Macdonald, as are the Largie family and the Glengarry and Clanranald branches by the mid-1600s. By the time of the Jacobite risings (1689-1745), someone whose name appears as a variation of Macalister is almost sure to be a Macalister. In the earlier period, however, that was not always the case.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Wormald, Lords & Men in Scotland, pp. 189-90

[2] Gaidhealtachd refers to places where the Gaelic language was prevalent or Gaelic culture prevailed. For much of written history, it is more or less synonymous in Scotland with the Highlands, but was once much more extensive; it can also have a wider meaning that incorporates Ireland and even parts of Nova Scotia.

[3] Origines Parochiales, vol. 2, p. 26

[4] Smith, Book of Islay, p. 263

[5] Munro & Munro, pp. 288-9

[6] Someone is said to be ‘in’ a place when he or she lives there, probably as a tenant, but has no legally connection to the property. Someone who is ‘of’ a place is the laird or tacksman of the property.

[7] Mackenzie, The Family Names of Scotland (Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society, 2008), p. 130

Battle of Worcester

On this day in 1651, the Battle of Worcester was fought between the Royalist forces of Charles II, most of them Scots, and the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. Cromwell’s forces outnumbered the Royalists by at least two to one. It was the final battle in Charles’s attempt to retake his father’s kingdom, and Charles’s defeat marked the end of the civil wars that had been going on in England, Scotland, and Ireland for nearly a decade.

Until 1649, Scotland’s political establishment had considered the English Parliamentarians to be their allies. Both parties sought to limit royal control: the Parliamentarians believed that the king should be subject to Parliament (or at least willing to work with it), and the Scottish Covenanters believed that he should be subject to God (by which they meant the Assembly of the Presbyterian kirk). However, when the Parliamentarians tried and executed Charles I, Scots of all political stripes were outraged. Charles was, after all, not only King of England – he was King of Scotland, too, and his Scottish subjects felt that England had no right to execute Scotland’s king without a Scottish trial.

In response, the Scots proclaimed Charles’s son, currently in exile on the Continent, King Charles II.  Cromwell then gathered an army and marched into Scotland, where on 3 September 1650 – a year to the day before the Battle of Worcester – he defeated the Scots at Dunbar and took control of Edinburgh. The younger Charles was brought back to Scotland and crowned at Scone on New Year’s Day, 1651. Like the later Stuart exiles, however, the new king intended to rule all of Britain, not just Scotland. Although his general, David Leslie, urged him to remain in Scotland, where he had the greatest support, Charles decided to take his army into England. Cromwell left part of his forces in Scotland and turned south in pursuit. The Royalists’ march toward London was halted at Worcester.

Initially, the Royalists appeared to be getting the better of their enemies at the Battle of Worcester, but in the end Charles’s army was utterly defeated. Malcolm Atkin, in his study of this battle, says that “2,000-4,000 Scots [were] killed in the battle. Many more were wounded and a considerable number of these must have died in the following days or weeks. Most of the survivors were captured.”[1] With the help of English sympathisers, Charles himself escaped[2], but few of the Scots who had fought for him ever made it home. Thousands of them were shipped to the colonies – Barbados, New England, and Virginia – and sold as indentured servants, among them at least three Macalisters who landed in Boston early in 1652. (Another three of this name were sent to Virginia a few months earlier, but it’s possible they had been captured at Dunbar, which also produced many transportees, the previous year. These are the earliest Macalisters on record in the New World.)

Macalisters at home, too, were affected by this defeat. After Worcester, Cromwell quickly conquered all of Scotland outside the Western Highlands. Scotland was declared a protectorate of England, and the government in London hoped to unite the two countries formally. Discontent among the Western clans (who as Episcopalians and Catholics were excluded from the newly decreed religious toleration) and resistance to military occupation led to Glencairn’s Rising (1654), but after that had been put down, Cromwell’s General Monck “established a measure of law and order in the Highlands which had not been seen for centuries, enforcing it with the active co-operation of the clan chiefs. By offering them treaties of surrender to sign, Monck . . . implicitly recognised their own authority over their clansmen, so bolstering their positions of power.[3] In fact, in some ways the Highlanders were better off under Cromwell than they ever had been. Certainly the restoration in 1660 of Charles II “saw a return to widespread disorder”.[4]

Still, for nine years after the defeat at the Battle of Worcester, Scotland was a conquered nation, subdued by a military presence and ruled directly from London. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Cromwell’s Crowning Mercy: The Battle of Worcester, 1651 (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1998), p. 113. 

[2] An entertaining and informative account of Charles’s escape back to France can be found in Richard Ollard’s book, The Escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester (London: Robinson, 1966, 1986). It is well worth reading if this era is of interest.

[3] John Roberts, p. 127

[4] Ibid., p. 134

A Register of Sasines

On this day in 1699, three sasines [SAY-zins] were registered at Dumbarton involving Macalisters as local officials, as parties to the agreements or as witnesses.

A sasine was originally a sort of ceremony whereby possession of a property was transferred from the owner to the purchaser. It involved the actual handing over of clumps of dirt or stone to represent the new holder taking possession. Later the ceremony was often skipped and possession was transferred by a document called an instrument of sasine; these instruments were then entered into a register. The register of sasines for a particular area provides a fantastic resource for anyone researching that area or the people who lived there.[1]

What these three sasines demonstrate is how closely connected were the various Macalister families in Kintyre, and how involved they were in each other’s public lives. The first of the three was written by Archibald Macalister of Tarbert, who granted to John McKinnie, minister at Kilcalmonell, a plot of land for the building of a manse. The legal overseer of the process was Ronald McAlester, who was baillie in Clachan, and the document was witnessed by Ronald’s son Colin and by another of the clan who came from Lochhead (Campbeltown).

This Ronald might have been Tarbert’s brother, Ronald of Dunskeig, who had a son named Coll. The role of baillie was generally filled by men of some influence locally, which suggests a connexion to one of the more important families, and Dunskeig, like Balinakill (which this family also owned at times), is in the neighbourhood of Clachan. There is more certainty on the identity of another of the witnesses, Angus Campbell of Skipness. He was Tarbert’s brother-in-law, having married Macalister’s sister Elizabeth.

The second instrument registers a grant of liferent given by Alexander McAlester of Loup to his wife, Jean. Liferents were a way of transferring property (or the rental income from a property) to someone for that person’s lifetime only, often as a way to ensure that that person would be cared for after the grantor had died. This instrument of sasine was written by Alexander of Loup at Tarbert and was witnessed by, among others, Archibald of Tarbert and three other Macalisters. One of them was the above mentioned Colin, son of Ronald Macalister and so possibly Tarbert’s nephew. There was also another Lochhead Macalister. Again, Tarbert’s brother-in-law, Campbell of Skipness, was also a witness.

The third sasine registered on this day was a grant of various Kintyre lands by the Earl of Argyll to Archibald of Tarbert. There are fewer obvious links here to the Macalisters, possibly because it was written at Inveraray and those involved were connected to the Argyll family. In this case, however, we find Alexander of Loup acting as baillie.[2]

These instruments of sasine follow a pattern that can be seen again and again. They give us a glimpse into the past and reveal the kin-based networks that made up the lives of the leading Macalisters in the early modern era.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]More information about the sasine registers can be found at the website of the National Archives of Scotland.

[2]Transcripts of these sasines and many others are available online to members of the Clan McAlister of America at their website