Argyll’s rebellion

On this day in 1685, Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll, wrote a letter to the Laird of Loup. Argyll was writing from Campbeltown, where he was trying to gather forces to join him in rebellion against James VII. In his letter, he reminded the Macalister chief[1] of the “great friend-ship” his father had shared with Argyll and of their common commitment to the Protestant faith. He urged Macalister to leave the Duke of Atholl, whose forces apparently included our clan, and join Argyll in the fight against Popery. Similar letters were written to several other local lairds and chiefs.[2]

The fact that Argyll was attempting (in conjunction with the Monmouth Rebellion about to begin in England[3]) to overthrow the king was a complete turn of events. Up to this point he had actively supported the king, and he certainly does not appear to have been unduly concerned about James’s Catholicism. Unlike his father, the Marquis, who was executed in 1661, the 9th earl was not a Covenanter – at one point he objected to even being called a Presbyterian.[4] James’s brother and predecessor, Charles II, had restored to Argyll most – but not all – of the lands and titles that had been forfeited by his father, and until fairly recently the earl had been on good terms with both kings.

Unfortunately for the earl, there were many in Scotland who had no desire to see Campbell power restored. In the west Highlands, clan feuds going back generations and more recent resentment over acquisition of land combined to create a small army of “anti-Campbell” clans[5]; in Edinburgh there were political opponents whose own power depended on Argyll remaining out of favour. Additionally, although some of the lands once owned by his father were not restored to him, the debts against those properties were,[6] leaving the 9th earl with numerous creditors eager to see him forfeited. Eventually Argyll’s enemies convinced James that he was not to be trusted. The earl was convicted of treason (unjustly, as many said even at the time) and sentenced to death,[7] but he escaped, taking refuge with a growing number of Scottish and English exiles in Amsterdam. It was there, finally realising that he had no hope of restoration while James remained on the throne, that the previously loyal earl turned on the king.

It was not, perhaps, unreasonable for Argyll to hope that he would find support among the men of Kintyre. For one thing, an awful lot of them were Campbells, of whom he was at least nominally the chief. Beyond that, local opinion held that several of the clans currently with the Duke of Atholl “were affected to Argyll”, including the Macalisters.[8] And then, of course, there were histories of friendship such as the one he had shared with Loup’s father. But times change, and Macalister of Loup was not his father. It was already clear by late May that things were not going well for Argyll. In hindsight, it is also clear that this particular Laird of Loup was a genuine supporter of James VII.[9] When he received the earl’s letter, he did not rush to support Argyll. Instead, he forwarded the letter to the authorities.[10]

Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll, was captured at Kilpatrick about the 19th of June and executed on the 30th of that month. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1] This was probably Alexander; Godfrey was roughly the same age as Argyll and it is hard to believe the two would not have known each other, having come from closely linked families and spent much of their lives in the same small area. Godfrey’s testament was registered in 1686, but he could have died considerably earlier.

[2] Raymond Campbell Paterson, No Tragic Story: The Fall of the House of Campbell (John Donald Publishers, 2001), p. 106.
[3] The Duke of Monmouth, James Scott, was one of Charles II’s many illegitimate offspring. He had claimed for some time that as the king’s eldest son, and a Protestant, he rather than James VII belonged on the throne. His supporters claimed that the king had actually married James’s mother, which would make him a legitimate son and heir, but Charles denied this publicly and no evidence was ever found to support it.
[4] J. Willcock, A Scots Earl in Covenanting Times: Being Life and Times of Archibald, 9th Earl of Argyll (1629-1685) (Andrew Elliot, 1907), p. 147. 
[5]This is Paterson’s term; I think Dr Hopkins’s “non-Campbell clans” is probably more accurate. They were not all, and not always, hostile to the Campbells. 
[6] Paterson, p. 28
[7] There is some question about whether or not the king would have allowed the execution to take place. He had specifically instructed the Privy Council not to act on any verdict until they heard from him, as the final decision was to be his.
[8] Historical Manuscripts Commission: The Manuscripts of the Duke of Athole, KT, and the Earl of Home (London, 1891), p. 13. 
[9] See Kintyre Macalisters Support James VII and Battle of Loup Hill
[10] Willcock, pp. 353, 434. At least one other laird did the same thing (Paterson, 101).


On this day in 1685, the testament of Elizabeth Campbell was registered in Argyll. Elizabeth was the wife of John M’Alester ‘of Kendloch of Kelisport’, one English rendering of Ceannochcaolisport. This is one of the very few records I’ve been able to find concerning this family, but the little information available does tell us a few things. 

For one thing, we know where they lived. Ceannlochcaolisport means ‘at the head of Loch Caolisport’, which is exactly where this family’s lands were. Where they originated is less clear. Loch Caolisport is a fair bit north of either the Tarbert or the Loup lands, which makes it difficult to even guess which family these Macalisters belonged to – if either. But the fact that they are ‘of’ Ceannlochcaolisport tells us that they were a significant family in their own right by the time they first appear on record. Another piece of evidence for this is the inclusion of ‘Hector McAlister, son to Kenlochkeillisport’, in a list of those permitted to act as cattle drovers from June to October of 1684. Cattle rustling was not a new problem in the Highlands – one writer has called it a national sport – but at this point the government was making a fresh attempt to establish its authority in these parts, and “strict controls were enforced on the movement of beasts. . . . [A] drover was frequently a man of some standing, reflecting the importance of the cattle trade in the economy, even at this period.”

Available evidence also gives us a glimpse of the family’s politics. Government lists of those who took part in the Earl of Argyll’s rebellion in May 1685 include ‘McAlaster, fiar of Kin-lochshallifort at Kilmichael’.[2] This is interesting in light of the fact that both the Laird of Loup and the Captain of Tarbert actively (if ineffectively) opposed Argyll’s mostly-Lowland forces. Perhaps it reflects this family’s location, which put them closer to the lands traditionally owned by the Campbell chiefs. Or it might indicate a Presbyterian bent that those Macalisters further south had yet to acquire.

What happened to this family requires more research. It’s possible that their involvement in the Argyll rebellion cost them their lands. Although they are mentioned in the Statistical Account of Scotland (“there are four ancient chapels, which have suffered but little from the rust of time. A fifth was removed by the Macalisters of Ceannlochcaolisport, on account of its contiguity to their house”
[3]), by the time of the New Statistical Account (1840), the Macalisters of Ceannlochcaolisport appear to be no more.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] Alistair Campbell of Airds, A History of Clan Campbell, vol. 3, pp. 38-9; source is Register of the Privy Council.
[2] ibid., vol. 3, p. 56, from a combined list held by Argyll archives
[3] Stat. Acct., parish of South Knapdale, pp. 313-4.