The Askomil Incident

On this day in 1598, Godfrey Macalister of Loup, Sir James Macdonald of Dunyvaig, and several hundred armed retainers—“barbarous wikked and bludie Hieland men”, according to records of the trial[1]—attacked and burned Askomil House, with James’s parents and Godfrey’s cousins inside.  Everyone escaped, although James’s father, Angus Macdonald, was badly burned.

A year and a half earlier, Angus had renounced his lands and position to his son in effort to protect the family’s position from his own forfeiture. Angus probably saw this as a temporary measure, a way to get through the crisis with as little damage as possible. James, however, seems to have felt that the lands were now his, and he was attempting to take over his father’s role as the chieftain of Clan Donald South. “A quarrel among the Macallasters of Loupe favoured his designs, and seems to have suggested to him the idea of procuring his father’s death, as if by accident. . . .”[2] Angus had taken in the sons of the Tutor of Loup, whom Godfrey had recently killed. But Godfrey was “verrie desyrous to haif thair lyves”[3], and when Angus refused to turn them over, the two rebels set fire to the house.

We do not know what happened after this between Godfrey and his kinsmen, but Sir James apparently never patched things up with his parents. His mother and father both testified against him when he was put on trial in 1609, for the Askomil incident and various other misdeeds. Sir James was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out. After six years in prison, he was allowed to go abroad; he died in London in 1626, the last of the Dunyvaig chieftains.[4]

As for Godfrey, although he was probably the instigator, his role in the Askomil incident appears to have been overlooked. The transcripts of Sir James’s trial clearly state that Godfrey had murdered his tutor, but he was evidently never prosecuted for either of these crimes. Later histories often fail to mention the Loup connection at all. From the governent’s perspective, it probably made more sense to go after James. The West Highlands were still outwith anything approaching royal control, and Sir James was de facto chieftain of one of the most powerful septs of the Clan Donald – a clan whose very existence seemed to spark insurrections. It may be that the government looked on Askomil as an opportunity to finally bring down the Macdonalds of Dunyvaig. Clan Alasdair, on the other hand, could be allowed the occasional murder or house-burning. They were simply not as dangerous.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] Pitcairn’s Trials, vol. III, p. 6
[2] Gregory, pp. 280-1
[3] Pitcairn, ibid.
[4] The reason for his lenient treatment was never given, but at the time of his trial, Sir James claimed to have a letter from the king commissioning him to raise a force against his father. If this letter really existed, it throws a very different light on his actions. Some historians have suggested that James used the letter to buy his own life.

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