Scandled of Treasone

In December of 1689, Alexander Macalister (8th) of Loup was among a group of men named by the Scottish Privy Council as “suspected or scandled of treasone”; his rents were to be sequestered until he could be brought to trial. Also named were his allies, MacDonald of Largie and MacNeill of Gallachoille, along with numerous others. These men were accused of being “in actual rebellion and arms against their Majesties’ government and laws”, having continued to “perpetrate and carry on their wicked designs against their Majesties”. Just for good measure they were also charged with disturbing the public peace.[1]

The ‘Majesties’ in question were, of course, William and Mary, who had taken the thrones of Scotland and England the previous year. The suspicion of treason arose from the adherence of these men to King James VII, who was holding on in Ireland despite determined opposition from most of the Protestant establishment in his other kingdoms. That adherence had led Loup, Largie and Gallachoille, as well as other local lairds, to the Battle of Loup Hill in May, to James’s court in Ireland, and then in July to Killiecrankie, where they fought in the regiment of Sir Alexander Maclean under Viscount Dundee.[2]

The astonishing victory at Killiecrankie was followed in August by defeat at Dunkeld, and that defeat led Macalister of Balinakill and Macalister of Tarbert (both of whom apparently remained in Ireland with King James when their chief returned to fight under Dundee) to surrender to the authorities and take the Oath of Allegiance to the new monarchs.[3] But Loup and his friends were not ready to give up.

The question arises of why these men, and others like them, chose this dangerous allegiance. For much of their history the Macdonald-allied clans had been at odds with the Stewart (later Stuart) kings, several of whom made significant efforts towards ‘subduing’ the Western Highlands and Islands — particularly the clans that had followed the Lords of the Isles. After the final forfeiture of the Lordship, in 1493, Clan Donald septs (including the Macalisters) and other allied clans had rebelled repeatedly in attempt to restore it; repeatedly they were defeated, forfeited, and often restored only as vassals of the Campbells of Argyll, who acted as lieutenants for the king. But in the early decades of the 17th century the relations of these clans with the House of Stuart had begun to change.

Contrary to popular belief, there was in earlier times no particular animosity between the Campbells and the Macdonalds or anyone else. The Clan Campbell had indeed grown powerful as the power of Clan Donald ebbed, but the Campbells had used that power not only to enforce the king’s will on their neighbouring clans but also at times for the benefit of these same clans.[4] In the late 16th century, however, a simmering feud between the Macleans of Duart and the Dunyvaig Macdonalds flared up. Nearly all the local clans took one side or the other, and King James stepped in to quell the violence, calling on his lieutenant in the west, the Earl of Argyll:

As disorder spread in the Western Isles, the Campbells became ‘the masters of aggressive feudalism’, especially under the eighth Earl of Argyll. Suspected of fomenting disorder and unrest among the western clans to justify his intervention on behalf of the Crown, his actions were largely responsible for the bitter enmity that subsequently divided the Campbells from the other clans in Argyll and the Western Isles, and especially the septs of Clan Donald.[5]

Thus when Alasdair MacColla arrived from Ireland in the 1640s, ostensibly to fight for King Charles I, many of the Western clans saw him not as a defender of the Stuart king or even of the Catholic faith (for many of them were now Episcopalians) but as an enemy of the eighth Earl — now Marquess — of Argyll, who was leading the opposition to Charles in Scotland.

When Charles was executed in London, even Argyll was angered; Charles’s son was declared king of Scotland and the Scots as a whole rallied to Charles II. The new king’s defeat by Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army in 1651 was followed by nearly a decade of English occupation. By the time King Charles was restored in 1660, most of the Macdonald clans were firmly in the Royalist camp, and it was Argyll, rather than the Crown, they considered a threat. None of them supported the invasion of the forfeited ninth Earl of Argyll in 1685, and all of them understood that with the ascension of William and Mary (whom the 10th Earl of Argyll supported), the Argyll family would also rise again.

John Roberts writes: “There can hardly be any doubt that the chieftains of the western Highland clans were deeply alarmed by the prospect of Argyll’s restoration, which threatened them all to varying degrees.”[6] And so in November of 1688 the Clan Alasdair lairds declared their support of Charles’s successor, James VII, and the close of 1689 found the Macalister chief facing arrest for treason. As it turned out, however, issuing a warrant for his arrest was easier than actually arresting him, and Alexander of Loup remained at liberty to fight once more for King James.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1]Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, series 3, vol. XV, pp. 2-3.

[2]The Macdonald who was ‘of Largie’ at Loup Hill was Donald, who died at Killiecrankie; it is his brother Archibald who is named in the December Privy Council register.

[3]Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, series 3, vol. XIV, pp. 235-6.

[4]D. Gregory, The History of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, from AD 1493 to AD 1625, 2nd ed., p. 192; C. Fraser-Mackintosh, The Last Macdonalds of Isla, p. 26.

[5]John L. Roberts, Clan, King and Covenant (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), pp. 9-10.

[6]ibid., p. 174

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In Victory, Defeat

On this day in 1689, Jacobite forces under John Graham, Viscount Dundee, inflicted a spectacular defeat on the forces of William of Orange at Killiecrankie in Perthshire. Among Dundee’s forces, fighting with the young MacDonald of Largie in a regiment led by Sir Alexander Maclean, were Alexander Macalister of Loup, and (probably) Alexander Macalister of Kinlochkellisport.[1] (Tarbert and Balinakill – the other two Macalister lairds who had participated in the rising’s early stages – had remained in Ireland with King James.) The Grameid, a Latin poem written shortly after the battle, names in flowery language the various clans that joined Dundee; lines 394-396 tell us: “The hero Loupe was one most faithful to the King, among those whom the rebel land of Argyll begat. The mighty M’Alister, second to none in warlike spirit, summons his clan from the paternal fields.”[2]

Killiecrankie was the climactic battle in the first Jacobite rising, which began a few months earlier when the Argyllshire clans learned that William of Orange had taken the throne and King James VII had fled to Ireland. In fact, nearly the entire force of ca. 2000 raised by Dundee consisted of (mostly West Highland) clansmen – some, but not all, following their chiefs. The clansmen rallied to Dundee for a variety of reasons, including religion (most of the Jacobites in all of the rebellions were Episcopalians) and politics.  But Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds is probably correct in his assertion that their immediate motivation, “neither for the first nor the last time, seems to have owed much to a shared antipathy to Argyll and his Clan”.[3] Indeed, with a new, Protestant king in place partly thanks to the Earl of Argyll, the chiefly line of Clan Campbell seemed poised to rise from the ashes yet again, and a resurgent House of Argyll threatened most of its neighbours for one reason or another. When Sir Alexander Maclean was granted a commission by the king in Ireland to raise a force in Kintyre, he found what Paul Hopkins calls the ‘non-Campbell clans’ in the north of the peninsula “unable to resist alone for long . . . but anxious to rise”.[4]

Dundee’s force seems not to have been taken all that seriously initially. Although General Mackay, the head of William’s forces in Scotland, “considered the highlanders the finest untrained soldiers in Scotland”, according to Hopkins, “he did not understand their manner of fighting, and had an incredibly crude and mechanical picture of a chief’s powers”, believing that no clansman would dare to act independently of his chief – let alone against his wishes.[5] Mackay thus assumed that most of Dundee’s clansmen were there under duress rather than by conviction and would give way when faced with experienced military power. This view was shared by some in the government, who expected the Viscount’s clansmen would betray him when they learned there was a price on his head.[6] But the Highlanders did neither.

The immediate cause of the battle at Killiecrankie was the seizure of Blair Castle, ancestral home of the Murrays of Atholl, by Patrick Steuart of Ballechin on Dundee’s orders. Learning of the castle’s fall, Lord Murray hurried to its defence, but with a small force and little ammunition, he could only set up a blockade and write to the new government for help. In response, General Mackay headed north. On the 26th of July, Lord Murray withdrew by several miles, and Dundee with his Highland army arrived at Blair Castle. By the following afternoon, Mackay’s force – six battalions of foot and two troops of horse, with some ‘leather’ cannons[7] (about 3,500 men) – had arrived.

Mackay’s army considerably outnumbered Dundee’s, but the Highlanders had several advantages. First, in the words of John Roberts, “Dundee had executed what can only be described as a brilliant tour-de-force”[8]: instead of taking the main road to the site of battle, he had led his troops up a back way, so that by the time Mackay saw them, they were uphill from the government forces, gaining a tactical advantage. Then, Dundee withheld the command to attack for two hours. Although there was a practical reason for this – the setting sun was in his warriors’ eyes – it must have been unnerving for those awaiting attack below. Third, Mackay was overly confident in the ability of his trained soldiers and horse to defeat what was (despite the image of Highland clans as violent, feuding warriors) essentially an untried force, most of whom had never before faced a battle.

But the greatest advantage Dundee had at Killiecrankie was that a generation had passed since Montrose and MacColla overwhelmed their opponents with the Highland Charge. Lessons learned in previous wars had been forgotten, and Mackay’s army, arranged so that they stood only three deep (not nearly strong enough to withstand the charge), was unprepared for what was about to hit it.

Raymond Campbell Paterson tells us

Just after 7 o’clock, as the summer sun was sinking just beyond Strath Garry . . . Dundee ordered a charge. Rushing downhill in the fashion of those who had followed Montrose and MacColla, the Jacobites let off a single volley, before falling on the enemy with their broadswords, slicing into Mackay’s line, and carrying away virtually the whole of his left wing and much of the centre.[9]

Mackay’s forces didn’t even have time to attach their bayonets before the Highlanders were on them, causing appalling injuries with their swords. The whole thing was over in about ten minutes.[10]

For the Jacobites, it was an astonishing victory, but it came at a cost that would prove unsustainable. Mackay’s total losses were greater, but he had more men to lose: The 600 or so Highlanders lost made up roughly a third of their army. Worse, Dundee himself was killed. Although others stepped in to command the Jacobites after the Viscount’s death, there was simply no one else who could truly lead them. The momentum that should have followed such a victory failed to develop; within a month the Jacobites would be scattered at Dunkeld, and although the rising would stumble on for another year, any real hope of success had died with John Graham at Killiecrankie.

“[D]ispersed like flies are King William’s men,” wrote Gaelic poet Iain Lom, an eye-witness; “And we are in grief though we chased them away.”[11]

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Macalister of Kinloch, as he was also known, is not named specifically in connexion with Killiecrankie. However, we know that he was with Loup and MacDonald of Largie at the start of the rising, that unlike Tarbert and Balinakill he apparently returned with Loup from Ireland, and that he was still with Loup and Largie (or Largie’s successor) when they finally surrendered the following year. It seems likely therefore that he also fought with them.

[2] James Philip of Almerieclose, The Grameid: An Heroic Poem Descriptive of the Campaign of Viscount Dundee in 1689 and other pieces, 1691 (published in 1888 by the Scottish History Society), p. 154.

[3] Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds, A History of Clan Campbell (Edinburgh University Press, 2004), vol. III, p. 65; other writers also stress the threat posed by Argyll to the clans involved.

[4] Hopkins, Glencoe and the End of the Highland War (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1998), p. 140.

[5] Hopkins, ibid., p. 137

[6] Hopkins, ibid., p. 151

[7] Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families, collected and arranged by John, Seventh Duke of Atholl, KT (Edinburgh: Ballantyne Press, 1908), p. 299.

[8] Roberts, Clan, King and Covenant: History of the Highland Clans from the Civil War to the Glencoe Massacre (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 188.

[9] Campbell Paterson, A Land Afflicted: Scotland and the Covenanter Wars, 1638-1690 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1998), p. 288.

[10] Roberts, ibid., p. 190

[11] A. H. Millar: “Killiecrankie described by an eye-witness.” Scottish Historical Review, no. 4 (1906): 63-70.

Orders of Protection

In the summer of 1665, the Privy Council of Scotland, “having heard and considered a petition presented for Gory McAllaster of Loup”, granted the Macalister chief an order of protection, to last until the end of July. Further orders (or extensions) of protection were issued in 1671 and 1672.[1] Similar orders were issued for numerous other chiefs at various times.

These orders of protection tell us a few things about Godfrey Macalister of Loup. Like other Highland chieftains, Loup was required by law to personally appear before the Privy Council in Edinburgh each year, to sign bonds of caution for the good behaviour of his clansmen and tenants.[2] Like many of the others, Loup appears to have tried to fulfill this obligation. By the late 17th century, however, a majority of the chiefs, including Macalister, were heavily in debt.[3] In their own lands, surrounded by kinsmen and loyal tenants, they were relatively secure from vengeful creditors, but they knew that once they ventured out of their areas of influence, they would be at the mercy of those from whom they had borrowed. Many could not hope to “travel unmolested by creditors to Edinburgh in order to give their bonds”.[4] The Privy Council, writes Michael Fry, “which liked to see them once a year, had to issue them with passes against arrest”.[5] Allan Kennedy found record of more than sixty such orders of safe conduct issued between the years of 1664 and 1678.[6]

This widespread indebtedness had a number of causes. Travel to Edinburgh, both to make bonds of peace as required by the government and to pursue their own disputes through the courts, were costly. In the latter case, there were also legal fees. Furthermore, Kennedy notes that once these men were in town, there was a “tendency to make lengthy personal sojourns” in Edinburgh, which also cost money.[7] For example, the protection granted to Macalister (among others) at the end of 1671 was extended through January and then on into March as “the said business is not yet brought to a close”.[8]

As the Highland lairds interacted more frequently with their counterparts from the Lowlands and England, they also began to acquire the habits of their southern peers, leading to significant expenditure on clothing, gambling and other indulgences, and many families in this period also undertook expensive building projects, building or improving and then furnishing homes.[9] In the late 16th century and early 17th century, inflation worked in the chiefs’ favour – income could be increased in various ways, the real cost of debt declined as the money itself was worth less and less, and credit was easy to obtain. In fact, Douglas Watt concludes, many lairds appear to have borrowed “simply because they could”.[10]

Unfortunately, the second half of the 17th century saw the pendulum swing back. Deflation set in, reducing incomes and increasing the real value of debt already accrued. To make matters worse, the utter devastation of many lairds’ properties in the wars of the 1640s left tenants unable to pay rents, further reducing their chiefs’ income right when the money was needed to rebuild. Cash-strapped lairds then borrowed more to cover the gap.

Creditors in the early part of this period were often near kinsmen of the chief, which took some of the pressure off. Kinsmen, close neighbours and friends were less likely to pursue debts with the heartless efficiency of relative strangers in the Lowlands. Furthermore, quite a few cases are recorded in which a chief’s overwhelming debts were actually bought out by his kinsmen to prevent the chief losing his lands (which were considered by most to belong to the clan as a whole). However, as the seventeenth century wore on, Highland lairds were increasingly indebted to merchants and lawyers in Edinburgh as well as to Lowland lairds.[11] These creditors often found it difficult to get hold of their Highland debtors, whose lands in some cases were literally beyond the reach of law. The only thing they could do in attempt to be repaid was to raise apprisings on the property of the borrowers – something that made it difficult for the laird involved to get more credit but did little to recover the money he had already borrowed. The annual journey of the Highland chiefs to Edinburgh therefore presented a golden opportunity for creditors to pursue their debts. This naturally made the chiefs apprehensive about fulfilling their promises to the Privy Council unless the Council would guarantee their safety.

In many cases, the debts run up by one chief were passed on to his heir. This seems to have been the situation facing Godfrey Macalister. Godfrey’s father Hector, one of our more successful chiefs despite living in difficult times, is named as a debtor to Jonet Campbell in 1631, to George Campbell of Kinnochtry in 1637 and 1641, and to Ninian Lamont in 1643.[12] There was probably a financial cost too for his willingness in the 1620s to stand as surety for the good behaviour of Coll Ciotach Macdonald (who, with his son Alasdair MacColla, proceeded to behave rather badly as far as the government was concerned). Several of these debts continued to plague Godfrey. Letters of horning were issued against him in 1664 by Colin Campbell, the son of George of Kinnochtry, in attempt to force him to repay the debt owed by his father. The following year, Campbell obtained a decreet of apprising on Macalisters’ lands in effort to collect. In 1669, someone apparently caught up with Godfrey because we find him being held in the Tolbooth at Rothesay (Isle of Bute); the nature of his crime is not specified, but in light of his otherwise good behaviour, debt is the most likely explanation. In 1671 however, he is back in Edinburgh, still in debt and requiring once more an order of protection from the Privy Council.[13]

Sometimes members of the Highland elite were able to satisfy their creditors. In May of 1675, a contract between Gory Macalister and Colin Campbell of Kinnochtry set up payment plans for the money Macalister’s father owed to Campbell’s father. In return, the letters of apprising that Campbell had against Macalister’s lands were to be turned over to Macalister.[14] In the long run, however, the indebtedness of Highland lairds would have a devastating effect on the culture of the Highlands, with many chiefs either losing their lands all together or slowly becoming simply landlords, whose estates were run for profit and whose tenants and clansmen often paid the price. Alexander Fraser notes that the late 18th century saw “an economic landslide in Mid-Argyll . . . . The accumulated difficulties of more than one hundred years proved insupportable, and the landed families . . . failed, one after another”.[15] Among those families whose debts ultimately cost them their lands were the Macalisters of Loup and the Macalisters of Tarbert.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Records of the Privy Council of Scotland (series iii), vol. II, p. 58; A. Kennedy, Governing Gaeldom: The Scottish Highlands and the Restoration State, 1660-1688 (Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2014), p. 37, note 84.

[2] This requirement originated with the Statutes of Iona in 1609, which charged the Gaidhealtachd‘s natural leaders with maintaining peace and order on their lands.

[3] Ranald Macalister of Tarbert was also in debt. His lands were appraised at a debt of 4,706 merks in 1668 (Beaton, “How the Tarbert Lands Passed from the Macalisters to the Campbells”, p. 15).

[4] Kennedy, p. 37, note 84

[5] M. Fry, Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History (London: John Murray Publishers, 2005), p. 36

[6] Kennedy, p. 189

[7] Kennedy, p. 37, note 84; D. Watt, “The laberinth of thir difficulties”, Scottish Historical Review, vol. 86, no. 219 (April 2006), p. 35.

[8] RPCS (series iii), vol. III, p. 430

[9] Watt, p. 36

[10] Watt, p. 37

[11] Watt, p. 40. He also points out (p. 37) that interest rates higher than 50% were not unheard of, so borrowing itself was an expensive proposition.

[12] The Clan Campbell, vol. 5: Abstracts of Entries Relating to Campbells in the Early Unprinted Records relating to Ayrshire, 1515-1650, pp. 201-2; Decisions of the Court of Session from its Institution to the Present Time, digested under proper heads, in the form of a dictionary, vol. XVII, case 15821; Inventory of Lamont Papers, p. 210, item 748.

[13] RPCS (series iii), vol. II, pp. 399, 403, 415

[14] Decisions of the Court of Session, vol. XVII, case 15821.

[15] Fraser, North Knapdale in the XVII and XVIIIth Centuries, p. 81.

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.

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

Battle of Worcester

On this day in 1651, the Battle of Worcester was fought between the Royalist forces of Charles II, most of them Scots, and the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. Cromwell’s forces outnumbered the Royalists by at least two to one. It was the final battle in Charles’s attempt to retake his father’s kingdom, and Charles’s defeat marked the end of the civil wars that had been going on in England, Scotland, and Ireland for nearly a decade.

Until 1649, Scotland’s political establishment had considered the English Parliamentarians to be their allies. Both parties sought to limit royal control: the Parliamentarians believed that the king should be subject to Parliament (or at least willing to work with it), and the Scottish Covenanters believed that he should be subject to God (by which they meant the Assembly of the Presbyterian kirk). However, when the Parliamentarians tried and executed Charles I, Scots of all political stripes were outraged. Charles was, after all, not only King of England – he was King of Scotland, too, and his Scottish subjects felt that England had no right to execute Scotland’s king without a Scottish trial.

In response, the Scots proclaimed Charles’s son, currently in exile on the Continent, King Charles II.  Cromwell then gathered an army and marched into Scotland, where on 3 September 1650 – a year to the day before the Battle of Worcester – he defeated the Scots at Dunbar and took control of Edinburgh. The younger Charles was brought back to Scotland and crowned at Scone on New Year’s Day, 1651. Like the later Stuart exiles, however, the new king intended to rule all of Britain, not just Scotland. Although his general, David Leslie, urged him to remain in Scotland, where he had the greatest support, Charles decided to take his army into England. Cromwell left part of his forces in Scotland and turned south in pursuit. The Royalists’ march toward London was halted at Worcester.

Initially, the Royalists appeared to be getting the better of their enemies at the Battle of Worcester, but in the end Charles’s army was utterly defeated. Malcolm Atkin, in his study of this battle, says that “2,000-4,000 Scots [were] killed in the battle. Many more were wounded and a considerable number of these must have died in the following days or weeks. Most of the survivors were captured.”[1] With the help of English sympathisers, Charles himself escaped[2], but few of the Scots who had fought for him ever made it home. Thousands of them were shipped to the colonies – Barbados, New England, and Virginia – and sold as indentured servants, among them at least three Macalisters who landed in Boston early in 1652. (Another three of this name were sent to Virginia a few months earlier, but it’s possible they had been captured at Dunbar, which also produced many transportees, the previous year. These are the earliest Macalisters on record in the New World.)

Macalisters at home, too, were affected by this defeat. After Worcester, Cromwell quickly conquered all of Scotland outside the Western Highlands. Scotland was declared a protectorate of England, and the government in London hoped to unite the two countries formally. Discontent among the Western clans (who as Episcopalians and Catholics were excluded from the newly decreed religious toleration) and resistance to military occupation led to Glencairn’s Rising (1654), but after that had been put down, Cromwell’s General Monck “established a measure of law and order in the Highlands which had not been seen for centuries, enforcing it with the active co-operation of the clan chiefs. By offering them treaties of surrender to sign, Monck . . . implicitly recognised their own authority over their clansmen, so bolstering their positions of power.[3] In fact, in some ways the Highlanders were better off under Cromwell than they ever had been. Certainly the restoration in 1660 of Charles II “saw a return to widespread disorder”.[4]

Still, for nine years after the defeat at the Battle of Worcester, Scotland was a conquered nation, subdued by a military presence and ruled directly from London. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Cromwell’s Crowning Mercy: The Battle of Worcester, 1651 (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1998), p. 113. 

[2] An entertaining and informative account of Charles’s escape back to France can be found in Richard Ollard’s book, The Escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester (London: Robinson, 1966, 1986). It is well worth reading if this era is of interest.

[3] John Roberts, p. 127

[4] Ibid., p. 134

A Register of Sasines

On this day in 1699, three sasines [SAY-zins] were registered at Dumbarton involving Macalisters as local officials, as parties to the agreements or as witnesses.

A sasine was originally a sort of ceremony whereby possession of a property was transferred from the owner to the purchaser. It involved the actual handing over of clumps of dirt or stone to represent the new holder taking possession. Later the ceremony was often skipped and possession was transferred by a document called an instrument of sasine; these instruments were then entered into a register. The register of sasines for a particular area provides a fantastic resource for anyone researching that area or the people who lived there.[1]

What these three sasines demonstrate is how closely connected were the various Macalister families in Kintyre, and how involved they were in each other’s public lives. The first of the three was written by Archibald Macalister of Tarbert, who granted to John McKinnie, minister at Kilcalmonell, a plot of land for the building of a manse. The legal overseer of the process was Ronald McAlester, who was baillie in Clachan, and the document was witnessed by Ronald’s son Colin and by another of the clan who came from Lochhead (Campbeltown).

This Ronald might have been Tarbert’s brother, Ronald of Dunskeig, who had a son named Coll. The role of baillie was generally filled by men of some influence locally, which suggests a connexion to one of the more important families, and Dunskeig, like Balinakill (which this family also owned at times), is in the neighbourhood of Clachan. There is more certainty on the identity of another of the witnesses, Angus Campbell of Skipness. He was Tarbert’s brother-in-law, having married Macalister’s sister Elizabeth.

The second instrument registers a grant of liferent given by Alexander McAlester of Loup to his wife, Jean. Liferents were a way of transferring property (or the rental income from a property) to someone for that person’s lifetime only, often as a way to ensure that that person would be cared for after the grantor had died. This instrument of sasine was written by Alexander of Loup at Tarbert and was witnessed by, among others, Archibald of Tarbert and three other Macalisters. One of them was the above mentioned Colin, son of Ronald Macalister and so possibly Tarbert’s nephew. There was also another Lochhead Macalister. Again, Tarbert’s brother-in-law, Campbell of Skipness, was also a witness.

The third sasine registered on this day was a grant of various Kintyre lands by the Earl of Argyll to Archibald of Tarbert. There are fewer obvious links here to the Macalisters, possibly because it was written at Inveraray and those involved were connected to the Argyll family. In this case, however, we find Alexander of Loup acting as baillie.[2]

These instruments of sasine follow a pattern that can be seen again and again. They give us a glimpse into the past and reveal the kin-based networks that made up the lives of the leading Macalisters in the early modern era.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]More information about the sasine registers can be found at the website of the National Archives of Scotland.

[2]Transcripts of these sasines and many others are available online to members of the Clan McAlister of America at their website

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.

Sic Transit Gloria

On this day in 1640, Sir William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling, died in London, bankrupt.[1]

Sir William belonged to the Menstrie family, whose exact origins are unclear but who have always been recognised as a branch of the Clann Alasdair (the Macalisters). He was to be the most prominent of that family. He was well educated, a noted poet and a close friend of the Earl of Argyll, who introduced him to King James VI. The king also became a friend, and Sir William followed him to London in 1603. He was tutor to both of James’s crown princes, collaborated with the king on a version of the Psalms of David[2], and held numerous important posts under both James and his son, Charles I, including Secretary of Scotland. In 1621, James gave him an extensive land grant in North America, and Sir William set about establishing a colony there, which he called New Scotland. Today it is the province of Nova Scotia.

Sir William’s close association with the royal family continued throughout his life, but in the reign of Charles I his fortunes began to change. Articles of peace signed in 1629 to end a war with France ultimately involved the return to France of the lands on which New Scotland had been established. Sir William’s personal fortune had been significantly reduced in the effort to establish the colony and promised compensation never materialised. Although he spent the rest of his life trying to restore the family’s wealth, he was never able to do so. (Even if he’d managed, political changes were brewing in Scotland and England that would sweep his royal patron from the throne and would probably have left his family ruined.) Added to financial disaster was personal loss: his two eldest sons died within a year of each other.[3]

Sir William’s final years are described by Rev. Slafter in his memoir of the earl:

The disappointments which he had met in his colonial undertakings, the melancholy aspect of the civil affairs of the nation, especially the dark and menacing cloud that hung over his native Scotland, . . . the sudden death of his eldest son, in whom were wrapt up his chief hopes for maintaining the distinction of the family for which he had assiduously labored so many years, the financial embarrassments that had been gradually accumulating, and were now overwhelming his private fortune, all these burdens . . . were more than he could well sustain.[4] 

Sir William Alexander’s body was taken home to Scotland, where he was buried in the Grey Friars’ Church in Stirling.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014


[1]The date is debated, but most reputable sources agree it was in February and this seems to be the generally accepted date.
[2]This version of the Psalms later formed a part of the prayer book that Charles attempted to impose on Scotland, sparking the Bishop’s wars (Edmund F Slafter, Sir William Alexander and American Colonization. . . . [Boston: the Prince Society, 1873], pp. 14-5).
[3]The third son, Robert, had already died.
[4]Slafter, pp. 100-101

Commissioner of Supply

On this day in 1667 an Act of Parliament named commissioners of supply for each county in Scotland. David Moody describes the commissioners as “a committee of wealthy landowners” whose primary task was the valuation of property and the collection of the cess, or land tax, based on these valuations.[1] In conjunction with the office of Justice of the Peace, the appointment of commissioners of supply marked the beginning of formal local government in Scotland.[2] Among those named for the county of Argyll in 1667 is “Ronald Mcalaster, captane of Tarbert”.[3]

Commissioners of supply were first created in the mid 1600s, and according to Gordon Donaldson, it was not long before “the potentialities of the commissioners for purposes other than raising money were realised”.[4] Over time their duties expanded into areas unrelated to taxation or land value. In 1669, for instance, they were made responsible for the building and maintenance of roads and bridges; in 1696 they were empowered to enforce the Education Act. Their role continued to grow through the 18th century and into the 19th. By the 1850s, however, elected officials were assuming many of their functions, and with the establishment in 1889 of county councils, the commissioners’ role had become redundant. The position was abolished in the early 1900s.

The inclusion in this list of Ronald of Tarbert suggests that, although the Clan Alasdair didn’t rampage through history quite as conspicuously as the Campbells, Macdonalds and Macleans, they were nonetheless men of considerable standing in Argyll. It is therefore interesting to note that the primary branch of the clan, Macalister of Loup, is missing. I suspect, although it is just a guess, that in 1667 the clan was between chiefs. Hector Macalister of Loup last appears in Parliamentary records in the year 1661; I believe he is also the Macalister of Loup named Justice of the Peace in 1663. After that the family disappears until 1669, by which point Godfrey Macalister had succeeded his father as chief.  


[1] David Moody, Scottish Local History: An Introductory Guide (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986) p. 60.
[2] ibid., p. 50
[3] RPS, 1667/1/10
[4] Donaldson, Scotland, p. 399