Men of Their Time

On this day in 1615, two Macalisters were hanged at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh. They had been sentenced to death five days earlier, along with Angus Og Macdonald and three others, for seizing Dunyvaig Castle and holding it against the king.

Although quite a few Macalisters were involved in the complicated and ongoing Dunyvaig rebellion, Angus and Allaster MacAllaster were the only two considered sufficiently important to be brought to Edinburgh and tried along with Angus Og, the ringleader. This would suggest not only that they were deeply involved with the events at the former Macdonald stronghold but also that they held roles of some prominence among the allies of Clan Donald South, who at this point were a constant headache for the government. Angus’s identity is unclear to me, although he was probably a close relative of the chief, but Allaster is easier to trace: He belonged to the Loup family (he was probably the chief’s cousin) and had come to the attention of the authorities before.

These men lived at a time of transition, when Macdonald power in the west was rapidly subsiding and various Campbell families were slowly bringing the area under government (or at least Campbell) control. The Statutes of Iona (1609) would alter traditional Gaelic society in the space of a generation, limiting several principal elements of Highland culture and, by requiring that the heir of each chieftain be educated in the Lowlands, beginning to culturally separate the leading families from their followers. The only successful ‘plantation‘ in Scotland, that in southern Kintyre, was about to be established, replacing many of the ‘wild Irish’ (including Macdonalds and Macalisters) with Lowland settlers from the south west of Scotland, and making Kintyre one of the earliest parts of the Highlands to lose Gaelic as its primary language.[1] Soon the upheavals of the 17th and 18th century would bring national concerns to the attention of the West Highlanders and draw them into a different world.

It makes sense, then, that the events for which Allaster is known to history are very much typical of a fading era, of clan feuds and raids and the last desperate attempt of the Clan Donald South to keep its foothold in Scotland.

The first of these events was the Askomil Incident (1598), in which Godfrey of Loup, having killed Alexander’s father Charles, the Tutor of Loup, joined Sir James Macdonald and a group of armed men in pursuit of the Tutor’s sons. They had fled to Askomil House, the home of Angus of Dunyvaig (James’s father), who had offered the fugitives his protection.[2] When Angus refused to turn them over, Godfrey and Sir James attempted to burn down the house. Although Sir James was eventually brought to trial for the attack on Askomil House, Godfrey’s murder of his former guardian is only mentioned in passing as having led to that attack — it does not seem to have greatly concerned the authorities in Edinburgh.

Of more concern, because the victim made a fuss, was the 1600 raid on the lands of Knockransay in Arran. Allaster and his followers reputedly did a great deal of damage to the lands and property of Robert Montgomery, who was away at the time. They also held Montgomery’s wife and children prisoner, at least temporarily. Montgomery described the Clan Alasdair as “sic unhappy people”, warning that if Allaster were not turned over to the authorities, the whole country would be “disquyetit be the insolence of that Clan”![3]

But it was the Dunyvaig rebellion in 1614 that finally caused the government to take Allaster (and Angus, whoever he was) seriously. By that time Godfrey of Loup was dead and his son, the new chief, was a child — too young to get involved. But his kinsmen were right in the middle of it, supporting the leaders of Clan Donald South (led by Angus Og, Sir James’s younger brother) in their attempts to maintain their former position in the Isles. When the castle was recaptured, most of the rebels were imprisoned or tried in the Highlands, but Allaster and Angus were among the five “principals . . . reserved to be sent to Edinburgh for trial” with Angus Og himself.[4]

That two of the five men most deeply involved with Angus Og in his rebellion were Macalisters illustrates how closely the clan adhered to the Clan Donald South and its leading family. Their execution on this day in 1615 shows the leaders of the Clan Alasdair very much involved in the turbulent events of their times.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]“Estimates based upon a Rental of 1678 show that some thirty per cent of the population of southern Kintyre were Lowlanders, and even many native Gaelic speakers were speaking English and adopting English names by that period” (C. W. J. Withers, Gaelic in Scotland, p. 38).

[2]Charles’s sons are named in a bond dated 29 July 1600 as Alexander (Allaster), Ranald Mor, Eachin, Gillesoic Bernache, and Aidan. How many of them were involved in the Askomil incident is unknown.

[3]Records of the Privy Council of Scotland (vol. 6, p. 303) identifies the perpetrator as “Allaster McAllaster, son of the late Charles McAllaster, sometime tutor of Loup”.

[4]Records of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. 10, p. xlii.

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3 thoughts on “Men of Their Time

  1. I enjoy your posts Lynn. If you are ever in Edinburgh I can show you exactly where they were executed. There are three sites I know of in the city. The two most likely sites are outside St Giles Cathedral or in the Grassmarket where the Covenanters were hung.

    • Thanks very much, Fraser. I really enjoy writing them.

      I spent a summer in Edinburgh while I was living in Aberdeen – twenty years ago now – and (being students on holiday) we spent most of our time in the Grassmarket, so I’m familiar with that site. I don’t know the St Giles site, though. Where is the third?

      We hope to be in Scotland at some point this autumn, though our time must now be juggled between Kintyre, Ayrshire (where my husband has friends) and Aberdeen, so we probably won’t make it to Edinburgh this time. I will let you know if we decide we will, though!

      • Thank you for your reply Lynn. The third site is up in the Braids housing area, to the south of the city. That will be from the 1800’s. It was well into the 19th century before this area was built up.

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