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

Men of Their Time

On this day in 1615, two Macalisters were hanged at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh. They had been sentenced to death five days earlier, along with Angus Og Macdonald and three others, for seizing Dunyvaig Castle and holding it against the king.

Although quite a few Macalisters were involved in the complicated and ongoing Dunyvaig rebellion, Angus and Allaster MacAllaster were the only two considered sufficiently important to be brought to Edinburgh and tried along with Angus Og, the ringleader. This would suggest not only that they were deeply involved with the events at the former Macdonald stronghold but also that they held roles of some prominence among the allies of Clan Donald South, who at this point were a constant headache for the government. Angus’s identity is unclear to me, although he was probably a close relative of the chief, but Allaster is easier to trace: He belonged to the Loup family (he was probably the chief’s cousin) and had come to the attention of the authorities before.

These men lived at a time of transition, when Macdonald power in the west was rapidly subsiding and various Campbell families were slowly bringing the area under government (or at least Campbell) control. The Statutes of Iona (1609) would alter traditional Gaelic society in the space of a generation, limiting several principal elements of Highland culture and, by requiring that the heir of each chieftain be educated in the Lowlands, beginning to culturally separate the leading families from their followers. The only successful ‘plantation‘ in Scotland, that in southern Kintyre, was about to be established, replacing many of the ‘wild Irish’ (including Macdonalds and Macalisters) with Lowland settlers from the south west of Scotland, and making Kintyre one of the earliest parts of the Highlands to lose Gaelic as its primary language.[1] Soon the upheavals of the 17th and 18th century would bring national concerns to the attention of the West Highlanders and draw them into a different world.

It makes sense, then, that the events for which Allaster is known to history are very much typical of a fading era, of clan feuds and raids and the last desperate attempt of the Clan Donald South to keep its foothold in Scotland.

The first of these events was the Askomil Incident (1598), in which Godfrey of Loup, having killed Alexander’s father Charles, the Tutor of Loup, joined Sir James Macdonald and a group of armed men in pursuit of the Tutor’s sons. They had fled to Askomil House, the home of Angus of Dunyvaig (James’s father), who had offered the fugitives his protection.[2] When Angus refused to turn them over, Godfrey and Sir James attempted to burn down the house. Although Sir James was eventually brought to trial for the attack on Askomil House, Godfrey’s murder of his former guardian is only mentioned in passing as having led to that attack — it does not seem to have greatly concerned the authorities in Edinburgh.

Of more concern, because the victim made a fuss, was the 1600 raid on the lands of Knockransay in Arran. Allaster and his followers reputedly did a great deal of damage to the lands and property of Robert Montgomery, who was away at the time. They also held Montgomery’s wife and children prisoner, at least temporarily. Montgomery described the Clan Alasdair as “sic unhappy people”, warning that if Allaster were not turned over to the authorities, the whole country would be “disquyetit be the insolence of that Clan”![3]

But it was the Dunyvaig rebellion in 1614 that finally caused the government to take Allaster (and Angus, whoever he was) seriously. By that time Godfrey of Loup was dead and his son, the new chief, was a child — too young to get involved. But his kinsmen were right in the middle of it, supporting the leaders of Clan Donald South (led by Angus Og, Sir James’s younger brother) in their attempts to maintain their former position in the Isles. When the castle was recaptured, most of the rebels were imprisoned or tried in the Highlands, but Allaster and Angus were among the five “principals . . . reserved to be sent to Edinburgh for trial” with Angus Og himself.[4]

That two of the five men most deeply involved with Angus Og in his rebellion were Macalisters illustrates how closely the clan adhered to the Clan Donald South and its leading family. Their execution on this day in 1615 shows the leaders of the Clan Alasdair very much involved in the turbulent events of their times.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]“Estimates based upon a Rental of 1678 show that some thirty per cent of the population of southern Kintyre were Lowlanders, and even many native Gaelic speakers were speaking English and adopting English names by that period” (C. W. J. Withers, Gaelic in Scotland, p. 38).

[2]Charles’s sons are named in a bond dated 29 July 1600 as Alexander (Allaster), Ranald Mor, Eachin, Gillesoic Bernache, and Aidan. How many of them were involved in the Askomil incident is unknown.

[3]Records of the Privy Council of Scotland (vol. 6, p. 303) identifies the perpetrator as “Allaster McAllaster, son of the late Charles McAllaster, sometime tutor of Loup”.

[4]Records of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. 10, p. xlii.

A McAllister (Almost) in the World Cup

On this day in 1990, Scotland’s national football team lost 0-1 to Brazil in the first round of the World Cup in Italy. Although Scotland had qualified for the Cup on six previous occasions — and would do so again in 1998 this was the only time that the name McAllister has appeared on the roster of any qualifying team in World Cup history.  

The McAllister in question, Gary McAllister of Motherwell in Scotland, was born on Christmas day, 1964. He started his football career with his hometown side, but spent the rest of his professional career with a succession of English clubs, among them Liverpool FC and Leeds United, before retiring from play to take on managerial responsibilities.[1]

However, McAllister also played for nine years on the Scottish national team, serving for part of that time as captain. His abilities on the field helped Scotland get to the World Cup in 1990, but he did not take the field in the first game and the team’s failure to advance to the next round cost him his chance to play in the Cup. The next time Scotland qualified, eight years later, he was recovering from a serious knee injury and unable to participate.

Although he missed the chance to play in a World Cup, Gary McAllister had a successful career and was well regarded as a player. In 2001 he was awarded an MBE for his services to the game. He retired from play in 2004, but he continues to contribute to the world of football as a commentator for BT Sport. His prediction for the winner of the 2014 World Cup? Argentina or Brazil, he thinks, probably Argentina.[2]

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]Details of McAllister’s career can be found at a number of web sites, including Wikipedia, Football Aid, and Premier League.

[2]BT Sport’s World Cup Predictions’, BT Sport online, 4 June 2014.

In the Line of Duty

On this day in 1895, Sgt. Henry H. McAllister, a three year veteran of the Manchester, New Hampshire, police department, was shot by former officer Fred Stockwell, to whom McAllister had been supervisor. Bullets struck the sergeant’s aorta, spleen, and kidney[1], killing him instantly. McAllister was 49.

The shooting took place in the police station, and Stockwell, who had resigned a week earlier, was immediately arrested. According to a news report at the time, he had made threats against not only McAllister but also “other members of the department”.[2] However, he had a particular grudge against Sgt. McAllister, who had recently reprimanded him for “intemperance and untruthfulness”, and at the time of the shooting, he said that this was the reason for his crime.[3] Stockwell was sentenced to 30 years in prison for second-degree murder, but in 1914 he was pardoned without explanation and promptly disappeared. Henry McAllister, an Irish immigrant survived only by his sister[4], was gradually forgotten.

Thanks to a current member of the Manchester police force, however, the story does not end there. More than a hundred years after McAllister’s death, Capt. Nick Willard began to wonder why the long-dead sergeant’s name did not appear on New Hampshire’s memorial for policemen killed in the line of duty. He decided to investigate, and he discovered that there was a bit more to the story.

Stockwell’s statement that he had killed McAllister because of the charges brought against him seems to have been accepted by everyone at the time, but Capt. Willard learned that Stockwell later changed his story. Several years into his sentence, Stockwell began to claim that McAllister had had an affair with his wife and that was the reason for the shooting. Willard found no evidence to support Stockwell’s claim, and he believes the killer was simply trying to smear his victim’s name. McAllister had no one around to defend him, however, and “over the course of time, the rumor morphed into fact”.[5] Willard concluded that this slur is the main reason McAllister was not included on the memorial, and he put in a request to have McAllister’s name added. In a television interview last June, Willard said he wanted the fallen officer to know that his reputation has been restored and his service with the Manchester Police Department is remembered.[6]

On Monday 19 May 2014, 119 years after he died, McAllister was among the 286 officers killed in the line of duty whose sacrifice was recognised in the New Hampshire Law Enforcement Officers Memorial ceremony.[7]

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] New Hampshire Death and Disinterment Records, 1754-1947, online database, Ancestry.com (accessed 19 May 2014); record for Henry McAllister.

[2] “A Police Sergeant is Shot Down by an Ex-Policeman”, Sandusky (Ohio) Register, 23 May 1895, p. 2; digital image, Ancestry.com (accessed 20 May 2014); Historical Newspapers Collection. 

[3] “Fallen Officer to Be Added to NH Law Enforcement Memorial: Sgt. Henry McAllister shot in line of duty in 1895“, news report dated June 13, 2013, WMUR New Hampshire web site (www.wmur.com/news).

[4] ODMP Remembers . . . Sergeant Henry McAllister“, Officer Down Memorial Page web site (www.odmp.org), accessed 20 May 2014. A brief search of online records turned up a family of McAllisters who arrived in the US as famine immigrants in 1850 and settled in Manchester. The family had a son named Henry about the right age; according to McAllister’s death records, the father’s name, and the mother’s maiden name, are also right. If this is indeed Sgt. McAllister’s family, then his mother also survived him—although not by long: That woman died in 1898 “from Melancholia” [New Hampshire Death and Disinterment Records, 1754-1947, online database, Ancestry.com (accessed 19 May 2014); record for Jane McClelland McAllister]. However, none of the names involved are particularly unusual and it is very possible that these records pertain to an entirely different family. If McAllister left his homeland as an adult, it is also possible that he had family in Ireland.

[5] “Fallen Officer”, WMUR New Hampshire.

[6] Ibid.

[7] New Hampshire Law Enforcement Officers Memorial“, press release dated May 1, 2014, state of New Hampshire government web site (https://www.nh.gov). 

Mutineers on Trial

On this day in 1779, a court martial sat in Edinburgh Castle to try three soldiers for mutiny. The soldiers were additionally charged with having “instigated and incited others to be guilty of the same, in which mutiny several of his Majesty’s subjects were killed, and others wounded”.[1]

The charges against these soldiers stemmed from an incident in April, which historian Max Hastings summarises as follows: “Highland soldiers of the 42nd and 71st regiments, abruptly drafted to serve with a detested Glasgow Lowland regiment, refused the order and fought a brief, bloody battle with men of the South Fencibles.”[2] Several people died and many were taken prisoner, but these three alone faced a death sentence.

Among the men who made up the court was Captain Angus M’Alister of the West Fencibles. This M’Alister’s identity is unclear to me, but the fact that he was a captain in the Western (or Argyll) Fencible Regiment provides some clues. Fencible regiments “were different in constitution from the militia, afterwards substituted, as the men were regularly enlisted, and the commissions of the officers signed by the King.”[3] Although raised at time of war, the fencibles did not serve outside of Scotland itself; rather, “[t]hey formed a splendid army of reserve”.[4] The Western Fencible Regiment in which M’Alister served was raised in 1778 by members of the (Campbell of) Argyll family. The majority of its men were recruited from Argyll and the surrounding Highland areas, and leadership of the regiment was overwhelmingly Campbell. Although it is possible that M’Alister might be one of the minority recruited from the southwest Lowlands, the fact that he was an officer, in a regiment whose officers were almost entirely Argyllsmen, suggests that he belonged to one of the West Highland Macalister families who were tenants of the Duke of Argyll.

The soldiers on trial pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. Their defence makes clear how much still separated Highlanders from Lowlanders in the late 18th century. Two of the men, a native of Argyllshire and another of western Invernesshire, spoke no English; the third, from Caithness, could get by in broken English but was certainly not fluent. Furthermore, all three were accustomed to wearing the fillibeg and uncomfortable in Lowland garb. They had enlisted willingly, but each had specifically chosen a Highland regiment, where their own language was spoken and they were allowed to wear the clothes they had always worn.

Upon arriving at Leith in April, however, they were told that they were now to serve under English-speaking officers in regiments that required Lowland dress. This was more than an inconvenience. A “great number of the detachment” protested that they were “incapable of wearing breeches as part of their dress”[5], and for some of them it would have been impossible to understand orders given in English, let alone follow them adequately. It was certainly not what they had signed up for.

It is hard to imagine that M’Alister and his colleagues (more than half of whom belonged to regiments that drew men from the Gaidhealtachd and wore Highland dress) were unsympathetic. Until the sudden change of regiment, all of the accused had behaved impeccably, and they all indicated that they were happy to serve in any other Highland unit. The change of orders had not been clearly explained to them, nor were they told that they could appeal. Furthermore, several witnesses testified that they did not know whether the first shot in the altercation had been fired by the rebels or by the South Fencibles who had been sent to deal with them.[6] Nonetheless, the behaviour of these soldiers and their comrades violated several of the articles of war, and the court had no choice but to declare them guilty and sentence them to death.

Probably to everyone’s relief, this story ended happily. Right before the condemned were to be shot, a message arrived from the king; in light of their previous good behaviour, a full pardon was granted and the prisoners were released to return to their units.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (May, 1779), p. 271.

[2] Hastings, The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 176.

[3] Peter Handyside MacKerlie, An Account of the Scottish Regiments with Statistics of Each, from 1808 to March 1861, Compiled from the old regimental record books, and monthly returns of each regiment, now rendered to the war department (Edinburgh, 1862), p. 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (May, 1779), p. 272.

[6]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (June, 1779), pp. 305-6.

Eight Days in Abu Ghraib

On this day in 2003, British journalist Matthew McAllester, in Iraq to cover the war for Newsday, was arrested in Baghdad along with his colleague, Peruvian-born photographer Moises Saman. It was the beginning of a difficult, and still unexplained, eight-day ordeal.

McAllester and Saman were taken from their hotel in handcuffs along with two other photographers, Molly Bingham (an American) and Johann Spanner (a Dane). No explanation was given for their arrest. At first, the prisoners were told they would be taken to Syria, but instead they were taken to Abu Ghraib prison, where they were held in separate cells and unable to talk to each other. “We thought we were going to be killed at any moment,” McAllester told his own paper later.[1]

In fact, they had good reason to be afraid. Abu Ghraib was “the biggest, most feared prison in Iraq, perhaps the Middle East”.[2] It was known as a place into which men disappeared for decades, if they ever came out at all; where prisoners were tortured and executed “without recourse to any normal concept of law”.[3] Indeed, from his cell McAllester could hear people being beaten and tortured in the room next to his. Living conditions were difficult, food minimal, and — with their cells flooded with light, and the noise of bombs falling near the prison and anti-aircraft missiles being shot from within nearly constant — sleep hard to get. And yet, although they were interrogated for several days and pressured to admit that they had been sent by the CIA, none of them were tortured. “It wasn’t much fun,” McAllester told CNN after his release, “but we were not physically hurt.”[4]

While Matt McAllester and his colleagues languished in Abu Ghraib, a remarkable assortment of people were working for their release. Moises Saman’s grandfather was a Palestinian, and he still had family living on the West Bank. Those relatives appealed to the PLO to intervene.[5] According to a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat himself got involved[6], sending a former Palestinian ambassador to speak with the head of Iraqi military intelligence. Also working for the group’s release were the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Red Cross, the Vatican, and even Mohammed Aldouri, Iraqi ambassador to the UN, who “expressed his concern about the situation and his desire to help.”[7] 

Eight days after they were arrested, again with no explanation, the prisoners were given their clothes and possessions, driven to the Jordanian border and set free.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014


[1]Missing Journalists Safe in Jordan, CNN on line (1 April 2003).

[2]Matthew McAllester, “Eight Days In an Iraqi Prison“, L. A. Times (April 23, 2003), chapter 2, p. 3. (The first ever Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism was awarded to McAllester and Saman for this article. McAllester also wrote about his experiences, and about life for the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, in the book Blinded by Sunlight: Emerging from the Prison of Saddam’s Iraq.)

[3]Washington Post Book World review, (quoted here). Later, of course, it became known in the west as the place where a group of American soldiers tormented their own prisoners.

[4]“Missing Journalists. . . .” 

[5]Bart Jones,Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman freed with help from Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, Newsday (April 2, 2003).

[6]Rome Neal, “Joy for Journalists’ Families“, CBS News on line (31 March 2003). 

[7]“Missing Journalists. . . .”

Sic Transit Gloria

On this day in 1640, Sir William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling, died in London, bankrupt.[1]

Sir William belonged to the Menstrie family, whose exact origins are unclear but who have always been recognised as a branch of the Clann Alasdair (the Macalisters). He was to be the most prominent of that family. He was well educated, a noted poet and a close friend of the Earl of Argyll, who introduced him to King James VI. The king also became a friend, and Sir William followed him to London in 1603. He was tutor to both of James’s crown princes, collaborated with the king on a version of the Psalms of David[2], and held numerous important posts under both James and his son, Charles I, including Secretary of Scotland. In 1621, James gave him an extensive land grant in North America, and Sir William set about establishing a colony there, which he called New Scotland. Today it is the province of Nova Scotia.

Sir William’s close association with the royal family continued throughout his life, but in the reign of Charles I his fortunes began to change. Articles of peace signed in 1629 to end a war with France ultimately involved the return to France of the lands on which New Scotland had been established. Sir William’s personal fortune had been significantly reduced in the effort to establish the colony and promised compensation never materialised. Although he spent the rest of his life trying to restore the family’s wealth, he was never able to do so. (Even if he’d managed, political changes were brewing in Scotland and England that would sweep his royal patron from the throne and would probably have left his family ruined.) Added to financial disaster was personal loss: his two eldest sons died within a year of each other.[3]

Sir William’s final years are described by Rev. Slafter in his memoir of the earl:

The disappointments which he had met in his colonial undertakings, the melancholy aspect of the civil affairs of the nation, especially the dark and menacing cloud that hung over his native Scotland, . . . the sudden death of his eldest son, in whom were wrapt up his chief hopes for maintaining the distinction of the family for which he had assiduously labored so many years, the financial embarrassments that had been gradually accumulating, and were now overwhelming his private fortune, all these burdens . . . were more than he could well sustain.[4] 

Sir William Alexander’s body was taken home to Scotland, where he was buried in the Grey Friars’ Church in Stirling.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014


[1]The date is debated, but most reputable sources agree it was in February and this seems to be the generally accepted date.
[2]This version of the Psalms later formed a part of the prayer book that Charles attempted to impose on Scotland, sparking the Bishop’s wars (Edmund F Slafter, Sir William Alexander and American Colonization. . . . [Boston: the Prince Society, 1873], pp. 14-5).
[3]The third son, Robert, had already died.
[4]Slafter, pp. 100-101

Commissioner of Supply

On this day in 1667 an Act of Parliament named commissioners of supply for each county in Scotland. David Moody describes the commissioners as “a committee of wealthy landowners” whose primary task was the valuation of property and the collection of the cess, or land tax, based on these valuations.[1] In conjunction with the office of Justice of the Peace, the appointment of commissioners of supply marked the beginning of formal local government in Scotland.[2] Among those named for the county of Argyll in 1667 is “Ronald Mcalaster, captane of Tarbert”.[3]

Commissioners of supply were first created in the mid 1600s, and according to Gordon Donaldson, it was not long before “the potentialities of the commissioners for purposes other than raising money were realised”.[4] Over time their duties expanded into areas unrelated to taxation or land value. In 1669, for instance, they were made responsible for the building and maintenance of roads and bridges; in 1696 they were empowered to enforce the Education Act. Their role continued to grow through the 18th century and into the 19th. By the 1850s, however, elected officials were assuming many of their functions, and with the establishment in 1889 of county councils, the commissioners’ role had become redundant. The position was abolished in the early 1900s.

The inclusion in this list of Ronald of Tarbert suggests that, although the Clan Alasdair didn’t rampage through history quite as conspicuously as the Campbells, Macdonalds and Macleans, they were nonetheless men of considerable standing in Argyll. It is therefore interesting to note that the primary branch of the clan, Macalister of Loup, is missing. I suspect, although it is just a guess, that in 1667 the clan was between chiefs. Hector Macalister of Loup last appears in Parliamentary records in the year 1661; I believe he is also the Macalister of Loup named Justice of the Peace in 1663. After that the family disappears until 1669, by which point Godfrey Macalister had succeeded his father as chief.  


[1] David Moody, Scottish Local History: An Introductory Guide (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986) p. 60.
[2] ibid., p. 50
[3] RPS, 1667/1/10
[4] Donaldson, Scotland, p. 399