The Ascent of Tarbert

On this day in 1619, a bond was signed among the barons of Argyll. The bond dealt primarily with relationships within the Clan Campbell, so it is not surprising that all but three of the signators are Campbells. Among those who are not, however, is Archibald Macalister of Tarbert.[1]

The bond in question concerned a serious breach that had taken place within the Clan Campbell during the minority of the clan’s chief, the 7th Earl of Argyll. Competition between the various branches of that clan had resulted in the murder of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor in 1591 as part of “a foul conspiracy against Archibald, the seventh Earl”.[2] There were a number of people involved in the plot, but most of the blame fell on Sir John Campbell of Ardkinglas. Understandably this had caused hard feelings between the two families, and with their chief indefinitely out of the country,[3] there was a reasonable concern that the feud could lead to further violence. As part of the clan’s efforts to maintain law and order in Argyll during the earl’s absence, it was agreed that there should be a formal reconciliation between the families involved.[4]

Why Macalister of Tarbert was included is not clear. He and his chief, Macalister of Loup, had both been appointed a month earlier to help Campbell of Kilberry police Kintyre, but neither Loup nor Kilberry himself appear to be connected to this bond. It is possible that he simply happened to be on hand when witnesses were needed, but Campbell historian Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds indicates that he was actually party to the bond,[5] in the company of such men as Campbell of Auchinbreck, Campbell of Lochnell and Campbell of Otter. Evidently by this point Tarbert was seen as the head of a distinct house.

Although the Macalister connexion to Tarbert went back to the 1540s, it was not until the very end of the sixteenth century that these Macalisters began to act as a separate branch of the clan. They were not required to sign the General Band of 1587, suggesting that they were still very much under the authority of the Macalister chief, and as of 1591, they still held their lands as tenants of Loup rather than directly from Argyll. In 1596, they were included in a list of Kintyre landholders, but not given any particular prominence.[6] In fact, we first find Tarbert lairds acting independently at the start of the 1600s, when two of them, Hector and Archibald successively, are in trouble for raiding in Arran and Bute. Interestingly, in Archibald’s case his associates included the Earl of Argyll, suggesting that he was already on good terms with the chief of Clan Campbell.

I suspect the key to the Tarberts’ rise to prominence might lie in the status of the Loup family at this time. The head of our clan at the turn of the century was Godfrey 5th of Loup – a troublemaker in general (it was he who murdered his tutor in 1597 and instigated the Askomil incident) and a close associate of the even-more-troublesome Dunyvaig Macdonalds. Godfrey was followed as chief by Hector, who was a minor until about 1617. Thus for nearly twenty years the Tarbert Macalisters appear to have simply gone their own way. While the Loup family continued to adhere to the House of Dunyvaig, the Tarbert branch apparently deemed it wiser to cultivate the friendship of their Campbell neighbours. (Clearly, friendship with the Campbells did not keep the Tarbert lairds out of trouble, but getting into trouble with those in the king’s favour was likely to be less permanently disastrous than following the Macdonalds, who seemed to go out of their way to attract royal wrath.) It’s possible that it was during Godfrey’s tenure that some of the Tarbert lands were granted directly to that family, which would make Argyll their immediate landlord. Proximity to the Campbell heartland might also have been a factor. Whatever the reasons, in this period the Tarbert Macalisters appear more frequently in connexion with various Campbell lairds than with anyone else.

Although Hector of Loup was finally an adult by this time, recognised as one of the primary Kintyre lairds and included in the peace-keeping arrangement of 1618, it makes sense that it would be Tarbert rather than Loup who was called upon to be party to the Campbell bond. Though loyalties would vary from generation to generation, from this point on the Tarbert family were their own men, and they continued to play a prominent role in events in Kintyre well into the 18th century.

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1]My information about this bond comes entirely from Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds (A History of Clan Campbell, vol. II, pp. 175-6).

[2]John Taylor, The Great Historic Families of Scotland (London, 1889), vol. I, p. 287; Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 100-103.

[3]Argyll had been granted permission to travel to England. Instead, he went to Spain, and he did not return when ordered to do so. In view of his dire financial situation – caused partly by other people’s failure to pay him rents and debts owed – it is hardly surprising that he wanted to escape, and as he had converted to Catholicism, Spain was a logical place to start again. Spain was not seen as a friend of Scotland at this time, however, and to make matters worse, once he was there the earl established friendly relations with a number of the king’s enemies, among them his own erstwhile foe, Sir James Macdonald of Dunyvaig. Eventually he was declared a traitor by King James, and although he spent his final days in London, he was never allowed to return to Scotland. (Wm. Anderson, The Scottish Nation, vol. I (1867), p. 555; Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 174-5)

[4]Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 175-6

[5] Ibid.

[6]Way & Squire, p. 204; Castleton, p. 167; MacPhail, pp. 75-78.

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