Clann Alasdair Bheag (or, Walter MacAlester meets with the King)

On this date in 1585, Walter MacAlester was one of about forty men who ‘repair[ed] to [King James] at Stirling’ with ‘their friends, servants and dependents’ and whose ‘honest and comely demeanour’ convinced the king that they were ‘his obedient lawful and trusty subjects’. As a result, forfeitures and other penalties against them were overturned by an act of parliament in December.[1]

The fact that Walter MacAlester is among those mentioned by name in the relevant document suggests that he must have been a person of some note. Certainly the others in the list were prominent men. This raises the question – which I’ve not yet been able to answer – of exactly who this Walter was. He does not seem to fit into any of the main families of the clan in Kintyre. Based on the fact that more than half the others named belong to the House of Hamilton, my guess is that Walter was one of the ‘Clann Alasdair Bheag’[2] – the Macalisters of Arran and Bute.

The Isles of Arran and Bute lie to the east of Kintyre (rather than to the west, like the Hebrides) and were controlled by subjects of the Scottish kings rather than by the Lords of the Isles. Although Macalisters are named among the ‘old families of Arran’ by Mackenzie MacBride (1911) and the ‘old native families of Bute’ by James King Hewison (1893), the earliest of this clan on record in Arran to my knowledge was Ranald M’Allister, whose name first appears, as Reginald MacAlexander, in 1440. In 1506, Donald Makalester is named in a land grant in Bute. However, until well into the 17th century, the Macalisters along with the Macdonalds were best known in Arran and Bute as the ‘cursed invaders from Knapdale and Kintyre’, repeatedly inflicting destructive raids on these islands in the course of Clan Donald’s war with the Scottish Crown.

In the 1500s, a handful of Macalisters had begun to settle in Arran and Bute – about the same time that the Hamilton family began its rise to power there. In the Book of Arran, W. M. Mackenzie states that the Hamiltons “had struck an alliance with the MacAlisters” and describes a family of Macalisters who were formally installed in the Arran lands of Shiskine in 1563 as ‘henchmen’ for the Hamiltons.[3]  By the 1930s, “the M’Alisters were the most numerous clan in Shiskine”.[4]  A recent peek at the phone book showed Macalisters living there still.

The nature of Walter MacAlester’s crime and its punishment are not stated. In view of their close association, it’s possible that the Macalisters had been forfeited with the Hamiltons when the latter lost their lands in 1579 (ostensibly for their support of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been forced to abdicate; in fact it had more to do with the political finagling of the rival Stewart lords). On the other hand, the act of December 1585 was a blanket restitution for all who had incurred the wrath of the government during the minority of James VI, excluding only those involved in several high-profile murders, so Walter’s need for restitution might be completely unconnected. In any case, the record of his meeting with the king on 2 November 1585 has sparked my interest in the history of the Clann Alasdair Bheag, a subject that is relatively new to me and deserves more research.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


[1] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 (http://www.rps.ac.uk/): NAS, PA2/13, ff.40r-43r.
[2] The ‘little clan Alasdair’ – so called to distinguish them from the Macalisters of Kintyre, although they were never a separate clan.
[3] Book of Arran, p. 87.
[4] ‘Clans of Shiskine, Past and Present’, paper presented by Charles Robertson, 10th March 1936, Glasgow.
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