SS Clan Macalister at Dunkirk

On this day in 1940, the steamer SS Clan Macalister was destroyed by the Luftwaffe while taking part in ‘Operation Dynamo’, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in France. Eighteen people died in the attack and fourteen were wounded.[1]

The evacuation of the B E F, which had been fighting with France and the Low Countries against the advancing German army, became necessary when the Germans broke through the Allied line and overran Belgium and France in a matter of days. Germany now held most of the coast. As unoccupied territory shrank by the day, nearly the entire British Expeditionary Force, as well as French troops and fleeing Belgian units, began to converge in desperation on the tiny strip of coast that remained free. Sir Winston Churchill recalled, “The whole root and core and brain of the British Army . . . seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity”[2] – and if the war against the Third Reich was to be won, there would have to be an army left to win it. On Sunday, 26th May, no other options remaining, an emergency evacuation got underway.

Unfortunately, the coast at that point is blocked by sandbars and shoals, so larger ships could not approach at all; even smaller craft were hindered by the wreckage of what had once been a port:

[T]he docks were useless. Bombed incessantly over a period of weeks they were a mass of battered metal and broken walls; the basins were open to the tide; the gates wrecked and jammed; the cranes stood weakly on three legs or lay like stricken birds along the quays. And over them, all through the evacuation, hung the pall that was lit on its underside by the red flame of the burning warehouses.[3]

This meant that some method had to be found for picking up hundreds of thousands of men straight off the beaches. Part of the answer was the use of the now-famous “little ships” – more than 700 mostly private-owned yachts, lifeboats, fishing boats, etc., whose owners responded immediately to the government’s request for small craft that could be used closer to the shore.[4] But these boats could take only small numbers of passengers, and those they carried were vulnerable to attack from above.

What was really needed were small motor craft to ferry men out to the bigger ships that waited off shore – ideally something armoured, to offer some protection from the shells coming at them from enemy planes. As luck would have it, about a dozen such craft had been built recently, and crews were being trained to operate them. These assault landing craft [ALCs] “could carry 50 men per trip. . . . [they] had the shallow draught needed for moving over the shallows between beach and ships. They had twin engines and steel armour which was to prove its worth” under nearly constant shelling and bombs.[5] “[T]he Admiralty . . . said they wanted the lot,” Bernard Fergusson reports, “and were sending a ship to collect them”.[6]

That ship was the SS Clan Macalister, a British cargo steamer built in 1930 for Clan Line Steamers, Ltd., of Glasgow. It was the third ship owned by the Clan Line to be so named. The first Clan Macalister had been sold in 1902; the second was a casualty of the first world war, torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915. At 6,787 tons, the third Clan Macalister was “nearly twice the size . . . of any other ship that took part” in the evacuation, according to A. D. Devine,[7] and it had been requisitioned by the military specifically for Operation Dynamo. Its size, and the fact that it carried cranes, made it better suited than most to transport and then unload the ALCs. The ship also carried 45 sailors and two officers to manage and operate the ALCs.[8] W J R Garner calls the landing craft that were brought by Clan Macalister “[t]he most important arrivals” of 29 May.[9]

The scene into which the Clan Macalister sailed with its valuable cargo was chaotic and hazardous. Thick smoke from weapon fire made it extremely difficult to see, adding to the challenge of navigating around the shoals and sandbars (which had always been there) and the wreckage of the docks and of other ships that now littered the harbour. The ship’s captain, Captain Mackie, felt uneasy about “proceeding in the dark through the Downs among those wrecks and so many ships at anchor without lights. . . .”[10] Worst of all, the ships and the harbour were under nearly incessant attack. Churchill told Parliament,

Pressing in upon the narrow exit, both from the east and from the west, the enemy began to fire with cannon upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their eyes for shelter. Their U-boats . . . and their motor launches took their toll.[11]

But arriving in one piece was only half the battle. From the start, the Clan Macalister‘s mission ran into trouble. Captain Mackie remembered that “We started to discharge the [ALCs] and had just lifted our first into the air when the destroyer Vanquisher dashed past at full speed and set up so much wash as to cause the ship to roll . . . heavily”[12]; the men moving ALC no. 4 lost control of it and it crashed down on ALC no. 18, leaving both unfit for service.

At 15.45, as the other ALCs were being unloaded, the Clan Macalister was hit three times in an air raid, setting boilers on fire and igniting part of the magazine.[13] Most of the evacuees who had been transferred to Clan Macalister from smaller ships, and some of the military personnel who had arrived with the ALCs, were taken on board the destroyer HMS Malcolm. Though Capt. Mackie resisted giving up on his ship and valiant attempts were made to put out the fires, eventually he was convinced to abandon ship and was picked up with the rest of the survivors by the minesweeper HMT Pangbourne. The Clan Macalister did not sink straight away; still visible from the air, the ship was hit repeatedly by German aircraft and burned for days. When it finally went down, it took five of the badly needed ALCs with it.

Yet despite being sunk on its first run to Dunkirk, the SS Clan Macalister had made a significant contribution to the mission. Its cargo, the surviving ALCs, ferried thousands of troops from the beaches over the remaining days of the evacuation. It was partly because of these landing craft that nearly twice as many soldiers were rescued on the 29th (and again in the days that followed) than on the first days of the operation put together. Fergusson concludes, “the new landing-craft had proved their worth”.[14]

Though necessitated by military disaster, Operation Dynamo itself was an unparalleled success. Instead of the 20,000 – 50,000 men that those in the know thought might, at best, be evacuated, nearly 350,000 British and French soldiers were taken from the beaches of Dunkirk over the course of nine days. Devine, who was there, called it “the greatest rescue expedition in the history of mankind”.[15] Stephan Wilkinson suggests that were it not for the evacuation of “almost the entire British Expeditionary Force and tens of thousands of French poilus” from Dunkirk, Britain might well have fallen to the Nazis, leaving the US, when it finally entered the war, to fight alone, without allies and without a staging ground for its air war against the enemy. There would have been no D-Day invasion, and the world might look very different today.[16] 

As Churchill told the British people, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance. . . .”[17]. The SS Clan Macalister played a part in that victory.

Today the ship lies on the ocean floor, classified by the UK Hydrographic Office as a ‘dangerous wreck, depth unknown’.[18]

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2016

[1] Wreck report 138 (pdf): ‘SS Clan MacAlister’ (, accessed 19 May 2016); p. 3.

[2] Winston Churchill, speech delivered to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940; published in the Guardian, 20 April 2007.

[3] A.D. Devine, Dunkirk (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. 1948), p. 27.

[4] This aspect of Dunkirk is so remarkable that it remains the image most people associate with the evacuation. A. D. Devine remarks that “the vast majority [of boat owners] made free and unconditional offers of their vessels for any purpose for which the Admiralty might see fit to use them; and with their boats a very remarkable proportion of the owners offered their own services” (Dunkirk, p. 34). Some – like the estuary cruiser the Elvin – were “refused [by the Navy] . . . and went anyway” (‘29th May 1940 – Nightmare‘, from The Dunkirk Project: An interactive installment by Liz Mathews).

[5] An account of the last days in the life of Robert Owen Wilcoxon

[6] Bernard Fergusson, The Watery Maze: The Story of Combined Operations (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1961), p. 44.

[7] Devine, p. 107. Presumably he means ‘non-military ships’, because the destroyers at least were considerably larger.

[8]Clan MacAlister‘ in “Carte: Les épaves au large de Dunkerque”

[9] W.J.R. Gardner, The Evacuation from Dunkirk: ‘Operation Dynamo’, 26 May-June 1940 (Routledge, 2014), pp. 51-2.

[10] Devine, p. 93

[11] Churchill, speech, 4 June 1940

[12] Devine, p. 93

[13] Mechanic FC Turner of the HMS Malcolm, in ‘Dunkirk: A Personal Perspective – HMS Malcolm‘ (BBC Overseas Service, first broadcast 29 May 1950)

[14] Fergusson, p. 44

[15] Devine, p. 33

[16] S. Wilkinson, ‘From Dunkirk, 1940‘ in Military History, November 2013: 23. General Reference Center, Web. 14 May 2016.

[17] Churchill, speech, 4 June 1940

[18] wreck report 138 (pdf): p. 5.

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.

McAllister’s Mill

On this day in 1836, a group of local abolitionists gathered at the home of James McAllister in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. McAllister and his family operated a mill on this property, and in the decades to come, the mill itself would serve the anti-slavery cause. 

The abolitionists who gathered at McAllister’s home went on to form the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society, one of the earliest such societies. The society did more than attend meetings, though. Society members established a network of safe houses around Gettysburg where slaves escaping from the south could find rest, food, and a place to hide between the legs of their journey. Between 1850 and 1858, hundreds of escaping slaves were hidden in McAllister’s mill, which became one of the first Underground Railroad stops north of the Mason-Dixon line.[1] This was risky not just for the slaves but also for the McAllisters. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a crime to harbour an escaped slave, even in ‘free’ states like Pennsylvania, and with bounty hunters using hound dogs particularly active in Adams County, the risk of being caught was fairly high.

Helping their father shelter the fugitives made a deep impression on McAllister’s children, who grew up hearing the harrowing stories of the people who hid in their mill. “Is it any wonder I grew up to young manhood hating slavery with a mortal hatred?” James’s son Theodore wrote years later.[2] When the American Civil War broke out, five of McAllister’s sons went to fight for the Union, and one of them died in battle. Theodore himself was a prisoner of war at the notorious Andersonville camp in Georgia.

But history was not finished with McAllister’s property – or his family. On the first of June 1863, twenty-seven years after the meeting at James McAllister’s house, Union soldiers faced off against Confederate soldiers right on McAllister’s doorstep. Macalisters (of various spellings) fought on both sides. The Battle of Gettysburg – one of the best-known battles in US history (partly because of President Lincoln’s famous speech there) – continued for three days, causing the deaths of many soldiers and considerable damage to the property.[3] As the battle went on, James McAllister’s house became a de facto hospital for wounded Union soldiers; a confederate hospital was set up near the mill. McAllister’s daughters Mary and Martha were at home during the battle and did whatever they could to help the wounded. Many of the dead were buried near their home. 

James McAllister died in 1872. The mill had not been used in years, and after the family left, it sank into disrepair. Today, almost nothing remains of the buildings that saw so much action in the fight against slavery. Although the actual battlefield has been preserved as a historical monument, McAllister’s property, which is privately owned, was forgotten; for much of the 20th century, it was used as a municipal dump. In 2002, a local preservation group began pushing for the dump to be moved and the property to be marked as a historic site. Though the borough initially dragged its feet, McAllister’s Mill was finally recognised in 2011 by the federal government as one of several hundred US properties that have a verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad. A marker was erected, and with the cooperation of the current owner, tours began the following year. Gettysburg National Military Park hopes to purchase the property eventually.[4]

More information about McAllister’s Mill can be found at the McAllister’s Mill Underground Railroad site and the web site of the Historical Gettysburgh-Adams County preservation society


copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] The Mason-Dixon line, established in the early 1700s to resolve a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, took on new meaning in the 19th century, when it became a symbolic division between states where slavery was allowed and Pennsylvania, where it was not. Technically, once a slave crossed the Mason-Dixon line, he or she was no longer a slave. However, after 1850 people fleeing slavery could still be hunted down north of the line.

[2] McAllister’s Mill finally gets historical recognition” 

[3] After it was all over, McAllister put in a claim for $1,200 in damages, according to the Battle of Gettysburg website (accessed 29 June 2015).

[4] Scot Andrew Pitzer, “Underground Railroad site recognizedGettysburgh Times on-line (4 May 2011). 

Siege of Sevastopol

On this day in 1854, the Siege of Sevastopol got under way with allied artillery and naval bombardment of the Crimean capital. The siege, which had technically begun the previous month, saw French and British armies attempting to take the port city of Sevastopol from Russia during the Crimean War. Although the most famous names associated with this conflict are those of Florence Nightingale and Leo Tolstoy, the thousands of soldiers from Britain included many members of our clan.

The 19th-century Crimean conflict is not well remembered these days, but it was significant in a number of ways. Historian Orlando Figes observes that it was both “the earliest example of a truly modern war” — making use of industrial technologies and weapons; being recorded for the folks at home by reporters and photographers on the spot; and foreshadowing the kind of trench warfare that would characterise WWI — and “the last war to be conducted by the old codes of chivalry, with . . . truces in the fighting to clear the dead and wounded from the killing fields”[1] and military commands primarily drawn from the upper levels of society.

More importantly, it was a turning point in European history. Although it had its roots in Russia’s relations with (and general European interference in) the Muslim east, it upset the political balance in Europe, creating new tensions that ultimately led to the First World War. Crimea, Figes writes, was “located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world” and was “continuously in contention”.[2] Russia’s long-held belief that Moscow was the Third Rome, destined to rule Christendom, required that Constantinople be retaken from the Muslim Ottomans and Turks. Conflicts over Ottoman treatment of Greeks earlier in the century had been tempered by Tsar Alexander’s commitment to his treaty agreements, but his brother Nicholas I was more concerned with his perceived responsibility for his co-religionists.[3] Taking advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, Russia invaded, declaring itself the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Muslim territories. The tsar apparently expected Prussia and Austria (his erstwhile allies) and Britain (which, like Russia, was at odds with the French) to support him. But Russian control of the area threatened these countries more than the Ottomans, and they gave the tsar a deadline to withdraw his forces. While Europe sought a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, the Ottomans — against the advice of everyone — declared war on Russia. This left Britain and France, who had pledged support, little option but to “set aside their ongoing enmity [with each other] and support another former enemy, the Ottoman Turks”.[4] British, Turkish and French troops began arriving in Crimea in August 1854.

From the beginning, this war was characterised by a “catalogue of misunderstandings and misapprehensions”.[5] For example, an early opportunity to end the siege was missed because the French and English weren’t sure who was supposed to act first. The campaign was also badly planned, at least on the British side (the French army — having more recently fought a war — was somewhat better organised). British military command took for granted that the men would be home before winter, so they didn’t bother to learn about the severity of Crimean winters before sending their thousands of soldiers to war without adequate food, clothing or shelter.[6] Through bad communication, and sometimes the incompetence of commanders, lives were lost that might have been saved. On the other hand, the war was marked on all sides by acts of courage and an ability to improvise that won the admiration of enemies and countrymen alike.

Of the numerous Macalisters who took part in the Siege of Sevastopol, nine were awarded the Baltic Star for naval service, and at least 36 received awards for their infantry and support service.[7] Macalisters serving in English, Irish and Scottish regiments fought in all of the three major battles (Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman) during the siege. Many of these died in battle, or because of it, and others were severely wounded. But illnesses such as cholera and exposure to the elements killed more British soldiers than battle did. By the end of November, the 46th Regiment of Foot (of which Charles McAlister, future 14th of Loup, was captain[8]), had buried 10 percent of its men, according to Lt.-Col. Colin Campbell[9]; on the first of December Campbell reported that eighty-five men from the 46th had died of a bowel complaint; of the men still living, McAlister is named among “those who have suffered most”.[10]

Despite six naval bombardments of the city, seemingly endless trench warfare at the city’s edge and two full-fledged battles nearby, it was not until September of 1855 that the city was taken, effectively ending the war.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Figes, Orlando, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), pp. xix-xx.

[2] Ibid., p. 20

[3] Ibid., pp. 35-6 

[4] Brudenell, Anna Maria, “Lessons in leadership: the Battle of Balaklava, 1854” in Military Review (Mar.-Apr. 2008): 77+. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

[5] History of the 46th Regiment, 1854-1858

[6] Figes, p. 197

[7] UK, Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1949 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010; UK, Naval Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1972 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

[8] Hart, H. G., The Army List and Militia List Exhibiting the Rank, Standing, and Various Services of Every Regimental Officer in the Army serving on full Pay . . . (London: John Murray, 1858), pp. 133ff.

[9] Campbell, Colin Frederick, Letters from Camp to His Relatives during the Siege of Sebastopol (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1894), p. 28.

[10] Ibid., pp. 34-5

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

The Battle of Gruinart Strand

On this day in 1598, the Battle of Traigh Ghruinneart (Gruinart Strand) took place between the forces of Sir Lachlan Maclean and those of his nephew, Sir James Macdonald of the Dunyvaig family. Among Macdonald’s forces, inevitably, were Macalisters from Kintyre (possibly including their chief, Godfrey of Loup); they had been allies of the Dunyvaig family for a century and fought with them in many of their conflicts. But the Macdonald force also included some of the Clann Alasdair Bheag, whose ties to the Dunyvaig family are perhaps less well known. Although these Macalisters were followers of the Hamilton family at this point (quite sensibly, considering their location), James Macdonald’s brother Archibald had been fostered among them.[1]

This battle was the climactic episode of a feud between the Macleans of Duart and the Dunyvaig Macdonalds that had been running since before James Macdonald was even born. At issue was ownership of the Rhinns of Islay, which had been in Macdonald hands for centuries but to which the Macleans laid claim after the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles. Nearly all of the southwestern clans had taken sides and joined in the fighting[2], causing so much chaos in the Western Isles and Kintyre that the king (James VI) got involved. At various times the Maclean and Macdonald chiefs were arrested, fined, forced to leave hostages (including James Macdonald) at court, and threatened with forfeiture.    

The marriage of Lachlan’s sister to Angus of Dunyvaig in 1579 brought a lull in the conflict (and produced James Macdonald), but it all started up again about 1586, when Angus attempted to mediate another of Maclean’s quarrels.[3] By 1596 King James was fed up with it and assembled a force to impose a military solution. At that point, most of the other warring chiefs surrendered, but Dunyvaig and some of his vassals remained in rebellion. The king thought perhaps James Macdonald, who had won favour during his time as a hostage at court, might be able to talk some sense into his father. Instead, James simply took over leadership of theDunyvaig Macdonalds – and the feud with Maclean.  

Though certainly not averse to violence, by all accounts James did his best to make peace in this situation. He offered his uncle occupation of the Rhinns, to be held as a vassal of Dunyvaig for the rest of his life. But Maclean had decided he now wanted the whole of Islay, and so, on the 5th of August, Macdonald, Maclean, and the clans that supported them faced off at Gruinart. The ensuing battle is described by almost everyone as ‘bloody’. The Macdonald force was outnumbered but perhaps better trained, and in the end they prevailed. James Macdonald was badly wounded, but he survived; Lachlan Maclean was killed along with many of his followers. The rest of the Maclean force fled to their boats.[4] 

The Macdonald victory proved to be short-lived. Within fifteen years, all the Dunyvaig lands had been granted by the crown, or sold by Angus Macdonald, to various branches of the Campbell clan and James himself was in exile in Spain. He was to be the last chief of the Clann Iain Mhòr.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]Fraser-Mackintosh, p. 35 
McKerral, p. 15.
[3]Ibid., p. 232
[4]There is a story that some of the Macleans took refuge in a church, which was then set afire with only one survivor. This is certainly not implausible, considering James had not long ago done the very same thing at his own father’s house (with the help of Godfrey of Loup). But earlier accounts of the battle do not include this story, which one would expect to merit notice, and it is not mentioned in records of Sir James’s 1609 trial, which focused on the Askomil incident. Furthermore, if all the ‘burned down a church with enemies inside’ stories, told about nearly every clan in existence, were true, there would be no churches left in the Highlands. Although the story can’t be discounted without more evidence, it should be taken with some skepticism.

Hector and the Synod of Argyll

On this day in 1649, ‘Hector mc Alister of Lowpe’ was among those commissioned by the Synod of Argyll to visit the Isle of Arran and examine that parish’s minister, if they could find him. The synod wanted the Rev John Knox questioned concerning his position during the ‘recent rebellion’.[1] The significance of Loup’s inclusion on this committee depends on which view is taken of Hector’s own involvement in the rebellion. It certainly refutes the frequently made claim that Loup was the Hector Macalister hanged by the Marquis of Argyll in 1647.[2] In fact, it appears to support the theory that Hector had stayed out of the rebellion entirely, despite his clansmen having fought and died for MacColla. After all, how could someone who had been in rebellion himself now be seen as sufficiently reliable to question others on their own involvement? A closer look at available records, however, hints at a more complicated story.  

The Laird of Loup is first mentioned as an elder of the Kirk in May of 1643.[3] Such a position suggests that his commitment to the Presbyterian church, in terms not only spiritual but also political, was considered reliable. In the years after this, however, he disappears from church records, as do several of the Kintyre churchmen. In fact, it seems that something was amiss in the presbytery of Kintyre.[4] This is probably no coincidence. As has been mentioned previously, the loyalty of the Kintyre clans to the House of Argyll – and thus probably to his convictions – depended a great deal on their perception of Argyll’s ability to enforce it. By May of 1644, the marquis was distracted by military matters and often out of the area. Meanwhile Alasdair MacColla had returned, supported by well-trained Irish troops and determined to regain at least some of the lands of his ancestors. The displaced Dunyvaig Macdonalds, to whom MacColla was closely related, had many friends in Kintyre – the Macalisters among them. By September of 1646, when “the troubles of the countrey” had left most of the parishes in the Synod of Argyll in chaos or abandoned, the presbytery of Kintyre was “under the power of the rebells”.[5] 

Although no documentary evidence exists of the position taken by Hector of Loup, the hints we have suggest that at this point, he had abandoned the Covenanters[6] and was himself one of those rebels. ‘Macalister of the Loup’ is named by a witness to the siege of Skipness Castle as one of those sent by MacColla to capture that Campbell stronghold[7], and the French diplomat Jean de Montereul also identified the Macalister chief as one of MacColla’s men.[8] Based on the Macalisters’ historical association with the Dunyvaig Macdonalds (and the fact that his daughter had recently married Alasdair MacColla himself), it is quite possible that Hector, like his clansmen, genuinely supported MacColla’s efforts to recapture Macdonald lands. On the other hand, it’s also possible that, finding himself surrounded by vengeful and destructive Macdonalds, he simply thought it prudent to bury his true allegiance and assume his forefathers’ role as Clan Donald supporter. 

In either case, the Macalister chief knew that his own survival depended on backing the victorious faction, and after MacColla’s defeat at the Battle of Rhunahaorine Moss (27 May 1647) Hector appears to have switched sides again. According to Montereul’s letter of 11 June 1647, “the same night two chiefs of the clans, Macneil and Macalister” went privately to General Leslie and offered to abandon MacColla, “with all their followers, if they were assured of their lives and of their property, which the Marquis of Argyle . . . promised them.”[9]  

Whether or not Argyll was really in a position to make such a promise is unclear. Leslie, not the marquis, was in charge. Certainly there were Macalisters killed, evicted or excommunicated for their part in MacColla’s rising. But whatever his personal feelings, Macalister of Loup ultimately chose to align himself with Argyll and the Presbyterians. In return, as they did with many others, the Synod of Argyll apparently accepted as sincere his repentance for straying from the Covenant and restored him to the communion of the kirk. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]Minutes of the Synod of Argyll, vol. 1, p. 126 
[2]The Hector Macalister hanged after Dunaverty was Hector of Glenlussa.
[3]Minutes, vol. 1, p. 65 
[4]See for example Minutes, vol. 1, pp. 87, 93. 
[5]Minutes, vol. 1, p. 99 
[6]Readers unfamiliar with the role of the Covenants in Scottish history and the English Civil War can find a brief summary here.
[7]Campbell of Airds, vol. 2, pp. 238-9 
[8]Fotheringham, p. 151 

Sam McAllister’s Sacrifice, or, Greater love hath no man . . .

On this day in 1799, Irishman Sam McAllister gave his life at the siege of Derrynamuck in Wicklow so that nationalist hero Michael Dwyer could escape. Dwyer, a Wicklow-born United Irishman, had taken to the wilderness after the rebels of 1798 were defeated and spent the next few years engaged in a guerrilla war against the king’s forces. Although he was not especially prominent among the leaders of the actual rebellion, his refusal to accept defeat made him locally beloved during his lifetime, and a legend after his death. 

About Sam McAllister, one of Dwyer’s closest associates, not much is known.[1] Based mostly on the fact that he had deserted from the Antrim militia, it has always been assumed that he came from the north; indeed, contemporary reports referred to him as a northerner. He seems to have been highly regarded by everyone, though this might be due partly to his heroic death. Dwyer himself claimed that McAllister’s spirit appeared to him on several later occasions, at least once saving his life again.[2]

What actually happened at Derrynamuck on the night of the 15th is not entirely clear. However, reports of the incident agree on a number of points.[3] Dwyer and his men had taken shelter from a cold, snowy night in three cottages clustered together. Someone tipped off the authorities, and before the men had time to flee the cottages were surrounded. Dwyer asked that the families who lived in these houses be allowed to leave, as they had not sheltered the outlaws willingly, and this was granted. Thereafter, those of Dwyer’s men in the first two cottages surrendered fairly quickly, leaving Dwyer and three others – including Sam McAllister – holed up in the third cottage. The house was set fire and a gunfight ensued, during which two of the men were killed and McAllister’s shooting arm rendered useless by a bullet. At that point, the Antrim desesrter made a fateful decision: He opened the door of the cottage and deliberately stepped into the line of fire. He was killed immediately.

If McAllister’s intention was to buy Dwyer time, it worked. Apparently acting on his comrade’s suggestion, Dwyer used the distraction to duck out of the house and run for his life. He alone escaped capture or death at Derrynamuck, and his campaign against British rule continued until 1803. According to Wicklow historian Chris Lawlor, the importance of that campaign is to be found not in its negligible accomplishments but in the hope it gave to “a Nationalist Ireland that was crying out for heroes” after the defeat of the 1798 rising.[4] If not for McAllister’s self-sacrifice, that hope might have died at Derrynamuck on this day in 1799. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]McAllister is the spelling now accepted for his name, but contemporary reports also used McAlister and McCallister [Charles Dickson, The Life of Michael Dwyer with Some Account of His Companions (Dublin: Browne & Nolan Ltd., 1944), pp. 180, 218]. If his life is not well known, his death has not been forgotten: Aside from numerous songs written about it (most recently ‘Michael Dwyer’s Escape’ in 1991), McAllister was honoured in 1904 with a memorial statue in nearby Baltinglas.
[2]Dickson, p. 180; J T Campion, Michael Dwyer, or the Insurgent Captain of the Wicklow Mountains: A tale of the rising in ’98 (Dublin: H. G. Gill & Son Ltd.), p. 79.
[3]In the 1940s, Charles Dickson searched out the records and accounts that survive; he summarise their content and quotes from many of them in his Life of Michael Dwyer. ‘Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow Chief’,  a paper delivered by Chris Lawlor at the University of Melbourne in 2006, and intended to separate what facts can be known from the many fictions, reached the same conclusion.
[4]Chris Lawlor, ‘Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow Chief’, a paper delivered at the University of Melbourne, 1 August 2006.

Death of Samuel McAllister

On this day in 1903, Samuel McAllister, Irish-born recipient of the American Medal of Honor, died at sea. Samuel was born in Belfast on the 23rd of January 1869, though both of his parents were born in Scotland.[1] He moved to the United States in 1886, and by the time of the 1900 federal census, he was already serving in the US Navy. In June of that year, when the Boxer Rebellion in China finally broke out into open war, Samuel was serving on the USS Newark

The Boxer Rebellion was a war against foreigners. The spread of foreign influence through trade, religion, and (in one case) actual invasion was resented by many Chinese, and this resentment led to the rise of a nationalist movement called the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists – soon dubbed ‘Boxers’ by the Europeans. The Boxers comprised mainly peasants and artisans whose jobs or land had been lost as a result of foreign involvement in China, but they had friends in high places: In early June 1900, as violence increased, the Dowager Empress authorised war on foreign powers. By the end of that month, hundreds of foreigners from various places, and literally thousands of Chinese Christians, were trapped in two locations in Beijing, where they remained under siege for 55 days.[2]

The governments of eight nations, including the US and Great Britain, sent military forces to try to free their besieged citizens. Among the ships carrying American troops was the Newark. According to his citation, on “20 June 1900, while . . . [c]rossing the river in a small boat while under heavy enemy fire, Ordinary Seaman McAllister assisted in destroying buildings occupied by the enemy.” This “extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy at Tientsin, China” earned him the Medal of Honor, which he received from President Theodore Roosevelt on the 22nd of March 1902.[3]

Just over a year later, while serving aboard the USS Wisconsin, Samuel McAllister was lost at sea.[4]
Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012.

[1] “1900 United States Federal Census,” database, (accessed 12 December 2012), entry for Samuel McAllister, [b.] 1869, in Ireland. 
[2] For more information on the Boxer Rebellion, see Cultural China, “Origins of the Boxers, and Department of the Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command, “The Boxer Rebellion and the U.S. Navy, 1900-1901“. (This site also links to an extensive bibliography.)
[3] Military Times Hall of Valor:  Samuel McAllister (accessed 10 December 2012).
[4] Find-a-Grave: Samuel McAllister

Battle of Loup Hill

On this day in 1689, the Battle of Loup Hill was fought in Kintyre. This battle was part of the first Jacobite rising, in which those loyal to James VII/II hoped to instigate counter-revolution and drive William of Orange from the throne. The ‘battle’ was really just a skirmish, and today it is more or less forgotten, but Loup Hill would prove strategically decisive because the loss of Kintyre cut the Scottish Jacobites off from Ireland, where the exiled King James had established his court.[1] It was the last battle ever fought in Kintyre.

Although there were many who felt that James was the rightful king, this first Jacobite rising “managed to attract fewer than 2000 men. Most of these were drawn from a small number of West Highland clans”[2], specifically those Paul Hopkins calls ‘the non-Campbell clans’, including the Macalisters.[3] Early in May, expecting the arrival of reinforcements from Ireland, Alexander Macalister of Loup and Archibald Macalister of Tarbert, along with Macneill of Gallachoille and Macdonald of Largie, had seized Skipness Castle on the eastern side of the peninsula. There they were joined by others, including the Macalister lairds of Balinakill and Kenloch – but not by the promised Irish regiments. The Jacobites eventually totalled about 400 and controlled a good part of northern Kintyre. They were thus able to block the southward advance of a hurriedly assembled government force sent to retake the peninsula under Capt. William Young. Young opted instead to cut across to the west, where he could threaten the estates of Loup and Largie. Loup and Largie had posted about 200 men on Loup Hill, and as Young’s force passed to the south, the Jacobites attacked.

Accounts of the actual fighting are few, and those that exist are contradictory, but despite the advantage of height, the Jacobites fought ineffectually and were routed. Some fled into the hills and some north into Knapdale; some headed back to Skipness to take shelter in the castle. With his inexperienced force, Young opted not to pursue, and he and his men continued on to Clachan for the night. There, local supporters who had been waiting for outside help began to join the government force. Two proposals (one of them from Loup) arrived that night for surrender on terms, but Young insisted on complete and immediate submission and the Jacobite chiefs abandoned Kintyre.

The Macalister lairds fled to King James in Ireland. Tarbert was back by autumn to take the Oath of Allegiance, along with Balinakill. But Loup and Kenloch remained in arms, returning to fight at Killiecrankie, where Viscount Dundee was killed and the rising effectually came to an end. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] Much of the information in this post comes from Dr. Paul Hopkins, ‘Loup Hill, 16th May 1689: The First “Battle” of Dundee’s Jacobite War’, Kintyre Magazine, issue 29 (Spring 1991).
[2] T. M. Devine, The Scottish Nation, p. 32
[3] The Earl of Argyll had supported William, mainly because King James had refused to restore his family’s forfeited estates. William had agreed to support Presbyterianism in Scotland, mainly because the bishops of the Episcopalian church refused to renounce James. Neither the restoration of Argyll nor the imposition of Presbyterianism sat well with these clans.