La Rochelle and the Highland Bowmen

On this day in 1627, Hector M’Allester, Lieutenant, arrived in Lochkilkerane (now Campbeltown) in response to a government levy of Highland bowmen. The Anglo-French War (part of the Thirty Years’ War) had broken out earlier in the year: Since June, troops under the Duke of Buckingham had been trying to take over Île de Ré in support of French Huguenots, who were under siege by their own government in nearby La Rochelle. Although many in Charles I’s realms might have genuinely sympathised with the persecuted Huguenots, the war had more to do with the breakdown of the 1624 Anglo-French treaty and English fears that France was building up its navy.

Gordon Donaldson writes that in the early 17th century, “it was a common occurrence for the Scottish government to grant licences to individuals for the raising of specific numbers of men for service” in the continental wars.[1] In fact, for centuries, service in foreign armies was a not-unusual career choice for Scots whose prospects at home seemed less than rosy. So when efforts began to relieve La Rochelle, it would not have seemed strange that King Charles commissioned the MacNaughtan chief, Alexander of that Ilk, to raise 200 men to assist Buckingham’s troops.

In retrospect, however, there are two things about this levy that seem a bit odd. First, as 19th-century historian Donald Gregory pointed out, by this point a request for bowmen is unusual. Although Scottish kings had tried in earlier times to encourage archery as a defence against the English long-bow, by the turn of the 17th-century weapons had come into use that rendered archery, if not obsolete, certainly far less useful. A list of required weapons for Highlanders being raised by levy in 1552 does not even mention bows. Nonetheless, “[w]hatever may have been the cause, . . . the bow continued to be made use of in the Highlands long after it had been forgotten in England and the Lowlands,” a fact made clear “from innumerable passages in the Criminal records, and the record of the Privy Council of Scotland”.[2]

Which brings us to the second point: Why resort to Highlanders at all?[3] Things in the Highlands had improved somewhat after 1603, when James VI became James I of England and suddenly had resources available to tackle Highland lawlessness, but it was still a dodgy place. The young century had already seen one major Clan Donald rising, in 1614, and the Macdonalds were certainly not the only clan still sporadically causing trouble in the western Highlands. In fact, one of the incentives Charles offered to encourage enlistment was the promise that he would grant remission to ‘suche highland personis as ar fugutive from our lawes for criminal causes’ should they join MacNaughtan’s company.[4]

In the end, only about 100 men were raised for this expedition, and they drifted in over the course of the next two weeks. On the 21st, Lieutenant Hector was joined by four more of his clan (though one, Duncan M’Allester Bane, might have really been a Macdonald). I am not sure who any of these Macalisters were. MacNaughtan himself described his soldiers as “men of personagis”, suggesting that some of them were at least locally important. Two of the group, a Robert Gordoun and a Robert Naper, are listed as ‘gentlemen’, and one – John Colhoun of Camstradane – was clearly a landholder, but the others are only identified by military title or role.[5] On the other hand, at least one of those identified only by military title – ‘Alexander M’nachtane, Capt.’ – is MacNaughton of that Ilk himself. The leading military role of Hector M’Allester (and perhaps his prompt arrival) makes it possible that he was one of our clan’s leaders at the time – perhaps even the chief, Hector, 6th of Loup – but I have no real evidence of this and have found no mention of it elsewhere.

Whoever these men were, they were too late for Buckingham’s attempts in La Rochelle. Their ship left Lochkilkerane on the 28th of December and almost immediately ran into severe weather. By the 15th of January they had only got as far as Cornwall, where MacNaughtan appealed to the Earl of Morton to provide them with clothes and food when they reached the Isle of Wight.[6] What happened after their stopover there is unclear. Gregory supposed that they took the course so often followed by Scots and joined their many compatriots fighting in the German wars. 

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Donaldson, Scotland: James V- James VII, p. 253

[2] Donald Gregory, “Notices regarding Scottish Archery, particularly that of the Highlanders; together with some Original Documents relating to a levy of Highland Bowmen to serve in the war against France, in the year 1627”, in Archaeologia Scotica, vol. 3 (1831): 250-251.

[3] According to P. Hume Brown, “This extraordinary notion had been put in the King’s head” by MacNaughtan himself (Brown, ed., Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, second series, Vol. II: 1627-1628, p. xii).

[4] Charles I to the Privy Council of Scotland, dated 12th August 1627 (Brown, ed., Register, p. 56).

[5] Gregory, “Notices”, pp. 253-4

[6] Brown, Register, xii

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “La Rochelle and the Highland Bowmen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s