No Macalisters Allowed!

On this day in 1652, the Marquess of Argyll gave Campbell of Lochnell a fifteen-year tack of Ardnamurchan and Sunart, together with the castle of Mingary.[1] The tack included “restrictions on subletting to anyone who was called MacDonald, MacRonald, Macalister, MacEan or Mackay.” A similar restriction had been part of the nineteen-year tack for Largie in Kintyre given the previous December to Dougall Campbell of Inverawe, who was not to sublet to “anyone named MacDonald, Macalister, MacKay or MacEan or any islander without the Marquess’s written consent.”[2] Such restrictions were nothing new – nearly fifty years earlier (1609), a charter granted to John Boyle by the Marquess’s father, the 7th Earl of Argyll, included a condition that no part of the land be let to anyone named Macdonald, Maclean, Macneill or Macalister. But while the reasons behind restrictions in the earlier tack were probably more political than personal, in these later examples the reverse was true.

At the time of the 1609 tack, the major conflict in the southwestern Highlands had not been between the Campbells and Macdonalds, but rather between the Clan Donald South and Maclean of Duart. The 7th Earl of Argyll was friendly with both chieftains and in fact stood as security for their good behaviour on more than one occasion. But King James at that time was attempting to colonise Kintyre, part of a larger ‘Plantation’ strategy by which he hoped to separate the Gaels of the West Highlands and Isles from those in the north of Ireland, replace them with ‘civilised’ people (i.e., loyal, English-speaking Protestants) where possible, and in this way bring these areas under government control. As early as 1597, Kintyre had been identified as one of the areas that had to be brought to heel, and the ongoing Macdonald-Maclean feud was one of the primary reasons. Although the Campbells were just as much Highlanders as any of their neighbours[3], and were in fact related by blood to several of the more troublesome clans (including the Clan Donald), they had long since thrown in their lot with the Crown. Politically, therefore, it was in their own interest to ensure that their lands were inhabited by people amenable to the king’s rule. Therefore, when Kintyre was granted to Argyll in the early 17th century, the earl himself agreed to bring in Lowland tenants, such as John Boyle; allowing them to sublet land to the very clans who had caused such unrest would have rather defeated the purpose.

By 1652, the situation was a bit different. Clan Donald and its minions had fought for the king during the recent civil wars and thus were not, for once, under government censure. Longer term, these clans continued to be seen as a problem by the king, but at this point, the Campbell chieftain had his own reasons for wanting them kept off his lands. For one thing, there was a religious motive: The Marquess of Argyll was a staunch Protestant, one of the Covenanters who had fought for Presbyterian church government in Scotland; many of the western clans on the other hand still clung to Catholicism. But there was more to it than that. The entire period between 1550 and 1650 appears to have been one long Macdonald uprising. Their late 16th-century feud with the Macleans wreaked havoc across Kintyre; periodic attempts by various Clan Donald chieftains to regain lost clan lands had caused problems clear across Scotland; and MacColla’s rising at the end of the civil war had specifically targeted Campbell lands and lives for destruction. With history as a guide, Argyll knew as well as anyone that the Macdonalds were not likely to settle down and live in submission to anyone, let alone the clan that had gradually replaced them as the great power in the west. The simple fact was that Clan Donald was trouble, the Macalister branch of it no less so, and the clan most likely to suffer as a result was his own. This is not to say, of course, that the Campbells hadn’t caused just as much trouble over the centuries as any other clan. Regardless of the reasons, however, it was Argyll who was now the primary landholder in Argyllshire, and he can hardly be blamed for thinking that these particular clans were less than ideal tenants.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]A tack was a sublease of a portion of the land that had been granted by the monarch to a major landholder. Those who held tacks were called tacksmen, and they were usually relatives or allies of the chieftain. Traditionally they operated as middlemen between the chieftain and the ordinary people, though that role declined in the 16th and 17th century.
[2]These tacks are found in the Argyll Transcripts at Inveraray Castle and are quoted in volume 2 of Alistair Campbell of Airds’ History of Clan Campbell (pp. 262, 260). Other than the Mackays, all of the clans mentioned in both tacks are branches of the Clan Donald.
[3]The idea that the Campbells were Lowlanders who had ‘taken over’ is unfounded. Although their origins, like those of many clans, continue to be a matter of debate, the leading families of what became the Clan Campbell had settled in Argyllshire by 1300, a time when the clans as we know them had only just begun to form and some of the locals still spoke Norse. They can hardly be considered anything but Highlanders. Politically, however, they saw that the future lay in Edinburgh and not Islay, and for this reason they were more involved in Lowland affairs than were other Highland families.
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