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.

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The Last Earl of Stirling

On this day in 1739, Henry Alexander, the fifth Earl of Stirling, died. The earls of Stirling belonged to the Alexander family of Menstrie Castle in Stirlingshire. They are thought to descend from Gilbert ‘de Insula’, a son of Alasdair Mòr, who settled in the Lowlands in the mid-1300s. Although the exact descent is unclear, it has always been accepted that the Menstrie family – unlike many other Scottish Alexanders – do in fact belong to the Clann Alasdair. Certainly earlier generations of this family had a good deal of interaction with the Macalisters of Kintyre.

The fifth earl was a private individual who refrained from civic participation, and little is known of his life. His family, however, once wielded considerable influence. They first appear on record in 1505, when Thomas MacAlexander ‘de Menstray’ is named as arbiter in a local land dispute. The fact that he is ‘of’ Menstrie suggests he was the owner of this property; his role as arbiter suggests some degree of local authority. Thomas’s descendant Sir William Alexander (d. 1640) was part of James VI’s court in Scotland and in 1603 he followed the king to London, where he served as tutor to both of James’s crown princes.[1]He was acclaimed as a poet and was an active coloniser, establishing a settlement in Ireland and a colony at Nova Scotia. He already held several titles by the time he was named Earl of Stirling in 1633. Sir William’s eldest son was knighted, briefly governed the Nova Scotia colony, and served on the Privy Council; the second son, a noted architect who served as King’s Master of Work in Scotland, was also knighted. Henry’s grandfather, the third earl, succeeded his brother as Master of Work[2]and established a trading company, and his father was elected Member of Parliament for Berkshire.

The Alexanders’ close association with the Stuarts cost them their position in Scotland after the Civil Wars, and by Henry’s time Menstrie Castle had long since passed out of their possession. With Henry, the family’s titles too would be lost. The fifth earl left no heirs, nor did his brothers, and when Henry Alexander died on this day in 1739, his titles fell dormant. Although the earldom has been claimed by other branches of the family[3], none of these claims have ever been recognised.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Sir William’s first charge was James’s eldest son, Crown Prince Henry. After Prince Henry died in 1612, William became tutor to the second son, the future Charles I.
[2]R. S. Mylne, ‘The Masters of Work to the Crown of Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. xxx (January 10, 1896).  
[3] Unlike titles in the English and, later, British peerage, some Scottish titles can pass to female heirs should the male lines fail. Although none of the 4th earl’s sons had children, some of his daughters did.

Allaster Macalister and the Fall of Dunyvaig

In November 1614, several men of significance in the Clan Alasdair took part in a Macdonald rebellion in which the Islay stronghold of Dunyvaig Castle was held against the king. The Macalisters had been supporters of the Dunyvaig Macdonalds for generations. After the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles (1493), the Clan Alasdair was technically an independent clan, but “they were not sufficiently powerful to rely upon their own resources amid the turbulent conditions of the age”[1] and they sought the protection of the greatest remaining Macdonald kindred, the Clan Donald South of Dunyvaig and the Glens. Their association with this branch of Clan Donald can be seen in their involvement in the Macdonalds’ feuds, both in the north of Ireland and in the Macdonald-Maclean feud at home. Godfrey Macalister of Loup was one of the witnesses to a letter of renunciation by which Angus of Dunyvaig, facing forfeiture because of that feud, attempted to preserve his family’s position by turning his estate over to his son, Sir James.

When the same Godfrey fell out with and murdered his former guardian, the Tutor of Loup, it was to Angus of Dunyvaig that the Tutor’s sons (probably the chief’s cousins) fled, taking refuge at his home in Askomil. As close relatives of the chief, the Tutor’s family held an important position in the clan, and the Macalisters’ continued association with the Clan Donald South ensured that the Tutor’s son Allaster would play a part in that clan’s attempts to recapture their traditional stronghold at Dunyvaig.

Dunyvaig Castle had been surrendered to the Crown by Angus Macdonald in 1608 and occupied by a garrison under the Bishop of Argyll. In 1614, however, it was retaken by Ranald Og, Angus’s illegitimate son. Hearing the news, Ranald’s half-brother Angus Og gathered a force to recover the castle for the king, which was soon accomplished. “For some time the castle remained in the hands of Angus Oig, who professed his readiness to restore it to the Bishop on receiving a remission for any offences committed by him and his supporters.”[2] By November 1614, those supporters included Coll MacGillespick (father of Alasdair MacColla) and several members of the Clan Alasdair, including Allaster. But when the Bishop finally arrived, Angus Og refused to turn the castle over. Macdonald adherents were gaining in number, and the Bishop knew he was outnumbered; so, leaving his nephew as hostage, the Bishop went for help. 

At this point the Privy Council abandoned its plan to end the siege peacefully and prepared to take the castle and rescue the hostages by force. Campbell of Calder was granted a commission to accomplish this, with promises that Islay would thereafter be granted to the Campbells. With a force of mostly hired men, Calder advanced on the castle and demanded in the name of the king that it be surrendered. Instead, the rebels began firing on Calder’s men, five of whom were killed. Now there was murder to be answered for as well as treason.

The siege dragged on into February, at which point Calder stormed the castle. Quite a few of the rebels were executed on the spot, but Angus Og Macdonald and the other ringleaders were to be tried by the Privy Council. The fact that two Macalisters are among this latter group once again illustrates the connection between our clan and the Clan Donald South. Information suggesting the complicity of the Earl of Argyll and a supposed mediator named Graham was ignored[3] and the men were all convicted. Allaster Macalister is named in the Privy Council records as one of several Macalisters who were involved in the siege, and he is one of only two of this clan to be hanged with Macdonald.[4]

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] Macdonald and Macdonald, vol. II, p. 40
[2] Gregory, pp. 349-5
[3]Ibid., pp. 365-6. The Bishop had reported to the authorities that the Earl of Argyll was the one who encouraged Angus Og not to surrender the castles to him, something Angus later claimed in his own defence. At the time of the deaths of Calder’s men, there was suspicion that Angus Og had been tricked into violence by the interference of a Gaelic speaker called Graham who claimed to be mediating but who, like everyone else involved, had his own agenda.
[4] Pitcairn, vol. III, pp. 364-5; Macdonald and Macdonald, vol. II,pp. 49-50

Clann Alasdair Bheag (or, Walter MacAlester meets with the King)

On this date in 1585, Walter MacAlester was one of about forty men who ‘repair[ed] to [King James] at Stirling’ with ‘their friends, servants and dependents’ and whose ‘honest and comely demeanour’ convinced the king that they were ‘his obedient lawful and trusty subjects’. As a result, forfeitures and other penalties against them were overturned by an act of parliament in December.[1]

The fact that Walter MacAlester is among those mentioned by name in the relevant document suggests that he must have been a person of some note. Certainly the others in the list were prominent men. This raises the question – which I’ve not yet been able to answer – of exactly who this Walter was. He does not seem to fit into any of the main families of the clan in Kintyre. Based on the fact that more than half the others named belong to the House of Hamilton, my guess is that Walter was one of the ‘Clann Alasdair Bheag’[2] – the Macalisters of Arran and Bute.

The Isles of Arran and Bute lie to the east of Kintyre (rather than to the west, like the Hebrides) and were controlled by subjects of the Scottish kings rather than by the Lords of the Isles. Although Macalisters are named among the ‘old families of Arran’ by Mackenzie MacBride (1911) and the ‘old native families of Bute’ by James King Hewison (1893), the earliest of this clan on record in Arran to my knowledge was Ranald M’Allister, whose name first appears, as Reginald MacAlexander, in 1440. In 1506, Donald Makalester is named in a land grant in Bute. However, until well into the 17th century, the Macalisters along with the Macdonalds were best known in Arran and Bute as the ‘cursed invaders from Knapdale and Kintyre’, repeatedly inflicting destructive raids on these islands in the course of Clan Donald’s war with the Scottish Crown.

In the 1500s, a handful of Macalisters had begun to settle in Arran and Bute – about the same time that the Hamilton family began its rise to power there. In the Book of Arran, W. M. Mackenzie states that the Hamiltons “had struck an alliance with the MacAlisters” and describes a family of Macalisters who were formally installed in the Arran lands of Shiskine in 1563 as ‘henchmen’ for the Hamiltons.[3]  By the 1930s, “the M’Alisters were the most numerous clan in Shiskine”.[4]  A recent peek at the phone book showed Macalisters living there still.

The nature of Walter MacAlester’s crime and its punishment are not stated. In view of their close association, it’s possible that the Macalisters had been forfeited with the Hamiltons when the latter lost their lands in 1579 (ostensibly for their support of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been forced to abdicate; in fact it had more to do with the political finagling of the rival Stewart lords). On the other hand, the act of December 1585 was a blanket restitution for all who had incurred the wrath of the government during the minority of James VI, excluding only those involved in several high-profile murders, so Walter’s need for restitution might be completely unconnected. In any case, the record of his meeting with the king on 2 November 1585 has sparked my interest in the history of the Clann Alasdair Bheag, a subject that is relatively new to me and deserves more research.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


[1] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 (http://www.rps.ac.uk/): NAS, PA2/13, ff.40r-43r.
[2] The ‘little clan Alasdair’ – so called to distinguish them from the Macalisters of Kintyre, although they were never a separate clan.
[3] Book of Arran, p. 87.
[4] ‘Clans of Shiskine, Past and Present’, paper presented by Charles Robertson, 10th March 1936, Glasgow.

A little background

Before I start posting MacAlister-related history, perhaps I should start with a bit of background.

The MacAlister clan — more properly the Clann Alasdair — originated in the early 14th century as the senior cadet branch of the Clan Donald. They were located primarily on the Kintyre penninsula, although there were some in northern Ireland from the very beginning, fighting as galloglasses in the Irish wars. 

After the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles (1493), they became an independent clan, although they continued to be closely associated with the MacDonalds of Dunyvaig and the Glens (Clan Donald South) for centuries. If many of my posts seem a bit MacDonald-centric, this is why. One branch, however, held their lands from the Campbells of Argyll (along with Tarbert Castle, of which the MacAlisters were hereditary Constables in the 16th-18th centuries), which illustrates that relations between the west coast clans were less cut-and-dried than we tend to believe.

The MacAlisters eventually had several branches, not all of which still exist (though presumably their descendants do). You can read about them on the page labelled ‘Branches’.


Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011