He Said, She Said . . .

On this day in 1756, Angus Macalister of Loup married his widowed cousin Jean (or Jane – the names were interchangeable). Jean was the daughter of John Macdonald of Ardnacross and Grace McAlester, whose father had been the seventh laird of Loup. To put it mildly, the marriage got off to a rocky start.

The first hint we have of trouble between them comes in April 1758, when Jean went before the Commissaries of Edinburgh to institute a Declarator of Marriage and Adherence.[1] By doing so, she was asking the Commissariot to rule that her marriage to Angus was valid, because by this point he was claiming that it had never taken place.

Perhaps she could have seen this denial coming, as she was certainly not the first eighteenth-century bride to find herself in this situation.[2] Theirs was an ‘irregular’ marriage (although Angus had procured a minister to perform the ceremony),[3] and the young groom insisted that the marriage be kept secret until he could talk to his uncle, a Lamont of that Ilk. Angus was afraid Lamont would object to the union because of his youth and because Jean did not have a fortune.[4] Angus therefore returned to Argyllshire, urging his new wife to follow.

Before she could join him, however, Jean discovered that Angus had given her a venereal disease. Angus wrote to his surgeon in Edinburgh, asking the doctor to give his new wife the best treatment available, but to keep the marriage itself a secret. Eventually Jean set off for Argyll, no doubt anxious to share the news of her marriage with her family and friends. Angus, however, insisted the secret still be kept. Jean asked that she at least be allowed to tell her mother, to whose house she now retired, but when the news began to get out, Angus denied that there had been a wedding at all.

It was precisely this sort of conflict that the Commissariot of Edinburgh existed to resolve,[5] and so it was to the Commissariot that Jean first turned in effort to force Angus to recognise her as his wife. Initially, the Commissaries ruled in Jean’s favour, but when Angus appealed they reversed their verdict, determining that in fact no marriage had taken place. Jean then took her case to the Court of Sessions.[6] On the 4th of January, a decreet was issued in her favour. But Angus was having none of it: He appealed directly to the House of Lords.

In an interesting 1999 article, Leah Leneman notes that written evidence, “particularly in the man’s own handwriting”, carried a lot of weight when an irregular marriage was disputed.[7] The letter Angus had written to his doctor, naming Jean as his wife, was an important factor in the Lords’ decision to throw out his appeal, which they did on 2 May 1759.

With no one else to turn to, Angus seems to have given up trying to dissolve the marriage — but he didn’t exactly rush back to Jean’s side. In the summer of 1761, Hector McAlister in Arran wrote to his brother Alexander in North Carolina that “he [Loup] does not cohabit with her nor own her, but she has an annuity of thirty pounds a year off him” and that “his estate is much encumbered defending that unhappy plea with his wife”.[8]

As is probably to be expected, this was the usual result of a marital lawsuit. Leneman points out that winning such a case was unlikely to lead to a “happy married life, for the bitterness engendered in the course of the legal action usually made any prospect of an amicable relationship in the future out of the question”.[9] In this, however, Angus and Jean diverge from the norm. At some point not long after the correspondence of 1761, the couple evidently reconciled. In 1765, their son Charles (future 12th of Loup) was born. In 1772, Angus granted a bond in favour of “Mrs Jean McDonald his spouse”, making sure she would be provided for should she outlive him.[10] By 1775, there were three daughters in addition to Charles. And when Jean died in 1812, she was described simply as the “relic [widow] of Angus MacAlester of Loup, Esq.”[11]

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Thomas S. Paton, Reports of Cases Decided in the House of Lords upon Appeal from Scotland, from 1757 to 1784, Vol. II (Edinburgh, 1851), p. 31.

[2] Leneman, “Wives and Mistresses in Eighteenth-century Scotland”, in Women’s History Review, vol. 8, no. 4 (1999): 674.

[3] According to Leneman, a ‘regular’ marriage was “one for which banns had been called, and which was subsequently performed in church by a minister”. An ‘irregular’ marriage required neither banns nor a minister, simply the exchange of consent to marry – or even a promise to marry in future – followed by consummation of the relationship. Although fines were sometimes imposed to discourage irregular marriages, they were perfectly legal and recognised by the authorities (p. 673).

[4] Reports of Cases Decided, p. 30

[5] Leneman, p. 673

[6] Patrick Fraser, A Treatise on the Law of Scotland, as Applicable to the Personal and Domestic Relations, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1846), p. 157.

[7] Leneman, p. 675

[8] McAllister Family Papers, Cumberland County, NC, 1747-1935 (North Carolina Division of Archives & History, July 1996), appendix II, no. 6, p. 3.

[9] Leneman, p. 687

[10] Argyll Particular Register of Sasines, RS 10, vol. 11 (25th March 1778); transcribed by the Clan McAlister of America Scottish Records Project.

[11] The Scots Magazine, vol. 74 (1812), p. 806


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