A Royal Summons

On this day in 1531, Donald Macalister was one of several men from the West Highlands and Hebrides summoned to appear before the king to answer for ‘certain treasonous actions’. None of those named turned up, and a new summons was issued on the 28th. When they once again failed to appear, parliament granted them until the following year.[1]

The nature of Donald’s ‘treasonous actions’ is not specified, but the early 1530s was a time of general turmoil in the Highlands. Two events of significance had occurred in 1529. First, James V, whose kingdom had been run during his childhood by several competing noblemen, began his personal rule. Among the first things he did was revoke all the land grants that had been made during his minority. This made both political and economic sense. Extensive grants had given too much power to regional strongmen such as (in Kintyre) the third Earl of Argyll, and the rentals collected by these men from their tenants often failed to reach the king’s purse.[2] Nonetheless, revoking the grants inevitably meant a lot of unhappy, newly landless families, some of whom – such as the various branches of Clan Donald – were bound to cause trouble. 

Second, the Earl of Argyll himself died in 1529. As occasionally happened, the Macdonalds of Islay and their allies – including the Macleans and the Macalisters (in the person of Donald’s brother, Alexander of Loup) – took advantage of the situation to express their resentment of Argyll’s rule: According to the Register of the Privy Seal, “they ravage[d] with fire and sword” the properties of Roseneath, Lennox, and Craignish, “killing at the same time many of the inhabitants”.[3] For this they all came under the displeasure of the government and were ‘put to the horn’ in 1531.[4] It seems likely that Donald’s crimes were similar to his brother’s.

The fact that Donald et al. ignored the royal summons so blatantly illustrates the difficulties James faced in bringing his kingdom to heel. Whether the matter was ever resolved or not is unclear. Although both of his brothers were involved in the next Macdonald rising, in 1539, I’ve found no evidence yet of Donald’s involvement. Perhaps he had learned his lesson. In any case, by 1540 they had all made their peace with the king – but while James granted Alexander and Ranald remission for their crimes, it was Donald he appointed Constable of Tarbert.[5]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland [1531/4]

[2] Donaldson, Scotland: James V-James VII, p. 43

[3] Gregory, p. 132

[4] Castleton, p. 166; someone ‘put to the horn’ was declared a rebel and subject to the forfeiture of his goods and property.

[5] Tarbert Castle had been given to the Campbells of Argyll in the previous century, and in later times the Macalisters held the castle as tenants of Argyll. However, James V had intentionally turned away from dependence on the Argyll family and had given more power to the Dunyvaig Macdonalds, to whom the Macalisters were allied. It seems likely that this is the explanation for Donald coming into possession of the castle at this time.

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