Macalisters on the Government’s Mind

The Parliamentary Register for this day in 1649 makes two separate mentions of Macalisters. First a warrant was issued to the magistrates of Edinburgh to keep Lord Reay and others, including John McAlester, ‘in sure prison’. Lord Reay was John Mackay, the second to hold that title. Like his father, he had joined the Royalists in the recent Civil Wars, and as a result, he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle.[1] John McAlester being held with him makes sense in light of the fact that the Macalisters also had been active Royalists. I’m not sure, however, who this John actually was.

In the middle ages, the Macalister chieftain was often called Iain Dùbh, John Dous (or Dow), or even just John in records regardless of his personal name — this is because the first chief actually was named Iain Dùbh[2], so mac Iain Dùbh is our chiefs’ patronymic. However, in a different document written by Charles II on the same day, Hector McAlexander of Loup is granted commission, along with other leading men of Argyll, to re-establish parish boundaries and build new churches where needed.[3] Aside from the fact that the same individual could hardly be kept in prison in Edinburgh and running about having church meetings in Argyll, by this time the chiefs were generally given their own names in official documents. Therefore John in this case was not the chief. 

It’s possible that the Macalister being held with Lord Reay in Edinburgh was Hector’s son, John Dow McAlester, who appears on record twice in 1665, in both cases called ‘Brother German to Gorrie M’Alister of Loup’ (Hector’s successor). A John McAlester also appears in 1674 as witness to a bond of fosterage between Coll McAlester, ‘brother to the Laird of Loup’, and John & Mary McPhale; the fact that the bond is also witnessed by Gorrie himself suggests that this John is probably the third brother.

Of course, none of these records tie John Dow McAlester, son of Hector, to the John McAlester imprisoned with Lord Reay. John is a common name, and quite a few Macalisters were in the government’s bad books after MacColla’s defeat in 1647. Which leads us back to Hector, who should have been one of them but instead by 23 May of 1649 appears in a position of responsibility, in the company of most of the leaders of clan Campbell. Despite his support for MacColla right up until MacColla left for Ireland, Hector seems to have emerged from the conflict more or less unscathed. This suggests to me that accounts of his having surrendered to General Leslie at the last minute might have some basis in truth, particularly as there are also several Macneils in this list, and the chief of that clan, too, is said to have surrendered right before Dunaverty.[4]

In any case, on this particular day parliament apparently had Macalisters in mind!

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] King Charles I had been executed in January, and although Charles II was almost immediately proclaimed king in Scotland, at this point he was still in France and the radical Kirk Party were running the government. “When Cromwell came north, every prisoner except John [Mackay], 2nd Lord Reay, was released, and parliamentary forces were quartered in Tongue at Mackay’s expense. He was released in December, 1650.” (
[2] Dùbh is ‘brown’ in Gaelic; such colour nicknames are common among Gaels as a means of distinguishing numerous people with the same name. They usually, though not always, refer to hair colour or skin tone.
[3] Warrant: to the magistrates of Edinburgh for keeping Lord Reay and others in prison (23 May 1649); Act and commission for uniting and disuniting the kirks of the province of Argyll (21 June 1649), in Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 (
[4] The story of these chiefs’ surrender was related by Jean de Montereul, the French ambassador, in a letter of 11 June 1647 to Cardinal Mazarin (J. G. Fotheringham, pp. 151-2). It was also part of the testimony given by the Maclean chief at the 1661 trial of the Marquess of Argyll.


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