James Alexander, Earl of Caledon

On this day in 1800, James Alexander was created Earl of Caledon in the peerage of Ireland.

James was born at Londonderry in 1730. His great-great-great-grandfather, John Alexander, was an Ayrshire tenant farmer who followed his landlord, James Cunningham, to northern Ireland in the early 1600s. By his grandfather’s time the family had acquired land of its own, and his father became an alderman in Londonderry. James made his fortune with the Honourable East India Company, a relatively unusual path for an Irishman, holding several important positions in India before he returned to Ireland[1] with enough money to purchase the Caledon estate, as well as several other properties, in 1776. Caledon House was built in 1794.[2]

Although earlier genealogies claimed that the Caledon family descended from the Alexanders of Menstrie, no details of this descent were given, and as John Alexander’s parentage is not known, this connexion cannot be proved.[3] If they are related, then the Alexanders of Caledon, like the Menstrie family, belong to the Clann Alasdair. Regardless of their ancestry, however, the two Alexander kindreds are linked by history. James Cunningham, who obtained the Donegal lands on which John Alexander originally settled, had sold his family’s properties in Scotland to pay off his debts. The purchase of his Irish lands was made possible by means of two substantial loans: one from Robert Alexander, ‘a scion of the Menstry family’, and the other from Sir William Alexander himself. Several years later, when Cunningham’s creditors caught up with him, Sir William foreclosed on the loan. By doing so, he kept the property out of the creditors’ hands until Cunningham’s son was able to purchase it back in 1629, allowing the tenants, including the ancestors of the Earl of Caledon, to remain on the land.[4]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Service with the HEIC was quite common for younger sons of landed families in Scotland and England, and more than a few family fortunes were established or restored in this way, but few Irish families followed this path (Introduction to the Caledon Papers, p. 5, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland).

[3]Sources for the information about James’s descent from John are given at The Peerage.

[4]C. Rogers, ed., Memorials of the Earl of Stirling and the House of Alexander (Edinburgh, 1885), pp. 59-63

Macalister Clan Centre Established

In September of 1984, Angus Macalister of Glenbarr presented his home, Glenbarr Abbey, to the Macalister clan worldwide for use as a clan centre.

The Macalisters of Glenbarr descend from Ranald Mòr, a younger son of Angus vic Ean Dhù who was chief of the clan c. 1515. More specifically, their ancestor was Ranald Macalister of Skerinish (1715-1762), factor to the MacDonalds of Kingsburgh in Skye. Ranald married Anne MacDonald, Kingsburgh’s daughter, and together they had twelve children, although not all of them survived. The family is most famous for its role in sheltering Prince Charles Edward Stuart as he escaped after Culloden: Flora Macdonald (Anne’s future sister-in-law) brought him to Skye disguised as her maid; he left the following morning wearing one of Ranald’s kilts.[1]

But the family’s later adventures were also impressive. One of their sons, Norman, became the governor of Prince of Wales Island (now Penang). Another, Alexander, purchased the Strathaird estate in Skye (his daughter Janet married into the dispossessed Tarbert line), and Keith purchased the initial properties from which his brother Matthew would build up the Glenbarr estate. Later generations were prominent in the East India Company and in law, and they played a key role in colonising New South Wales. Two of them died in shipwrecks.

The Abbey, which was built by Ranald’s son Matthew (and completed in the 1840s by Matthew’s son Keith), is on the Glenbarr estate in western Kintyre. Glenbarr itself was purchased bit by bit during the early 19th century; it includes most of the lands that once made up the Loup estate. It is the last property in Kintyre to be owned by one of the clan’s leading families. (Nearby Torrisdale Castle was owned by the Strathaird family, but it was sold by them in the late 19th century. The current owners are called Macalister Hall.) By 1843, Keith Macalister was the only heritor in Killean & Kilkenzie parish who lived on his property year-round rather than leaving it to the care of factors.[2]

Angus Macalister died in 2007.[3] Today as he wished Glenbarr Abbey serves as a clan centre, and Macalisters come from all over the world to learn about their history and celebrate their heritage.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Kingsburgh manuscript, copy in my possession. Original copies are held at Glenbarr Abbey.
[2]New Statistical Account, vol. 7, p. 391 
[3]Angus MacAlister of Glenbarr“, the Scotsman, 17 April 2007. 

Macalister Hall and the Campbeltown Library

On this day in 1899, James Macalister Hall was awarded the Freedom of Campbeltown. He was only the third person to receive this honour (the first two having been the Duke of Argyll and the Marquess of Lorne), which suggests that his contribution to the area must have been felt to be considerable. According to the Scotsman, the award was presented to Macalister Hall at his home because of his age and ill health.[1]

Macalister Hall grew up in Campbeltown, the son of a grocer. His mother, Grace, belonged to a family of Macalisters from one of the Cumbrae Islands. They have no obvious connection to any of the leading clan families. Like the Strathaird family, however, these Macalisters made names for themselves in the British East India Company, of which James eventually became Director. They then set about acquiring property. James Macalister Hall purchased the estates of Killean and Tangy in 1875; at his death in 1904, the property passed first to his brother Stuart, who died childless, then to a nephew, and eventually to James and Stuart’s sister, Grace. The estate was broken up about 1940. Another brother, Peter, rented Torrisdale Castle in the 1860s; Peter’s son William actually purchased Torrisdale, changing his name to Macalister-Hall in the process, and that estate remains in the Macalister-Hall family to this day.

James Macalister Hall was very successful and became quite wealthy. He used his resources to benefit his hometown. About 1895, when local civic groups declared the absence of a public library “an affront to civic dignity”, James Macalister Hall offered to fund the building of a library. “Campbeltown’s new Library and Museum was formally handed over to the town” in January 1898.[2] The building, constructed by Glasgow architect J. J. Burnet, is known as the Burnet building.

In its early days, the museum was operated by the librarian. Donations were accepted of almost anything, the result being a rather eclectic collection. Although the library was eventually moved to a new leisure centre, the Campbeltown Museum remains in the Burnet building[3] – the most visible of the contributions for which this clansman was given the Freedom of Campbeltown on 20th January 1899.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] “Freedom of Campbeltown”, the Scotsman, 19 May 1945, p. 4
[2] “Campbeltown’s New Library and Museum, 1899″, Michael Davis, in Kintyre Magazine web edition, issue 45: Spring 1999

Col. Macalister, Governor of Penang

Col. Norman Macalister of the Kingsburgh family was sworn in as lieutenant-governor of Penang on this day in 1807. This made him ruler of part of the British Empire, but not an employee of the British government. In fact, Penang, then known as Prince of Wales Island, was governed by the Honourable East India Company, a nineteenth-century mega-corporation that resulted from several mergers of similar companies in the preceding century.

Like those it absorbed, the HEIC began as a commercial venture, trading with the far-flung colonies of the British Empire. Although its commercial activities continued, by 1807 the Company had found a new role in the Empire: serving as proxy government to a good number of Britain’s colonial possessions in the east. It had its own armies, fought its own wars, and in some places it even issued its own money.

The Kingsburgh family was deeply involved with the Company. Five of Col. Macalister’s brothers served the Company in India; three of them died there. One of his nephews served with him in Penang; a second nephew would die in the Company’s service in 1825 in Italy. His younger daughter married an HEIC man. 

As for Governor Macalister himself, he served in Penang’s top post until 24 March 1810, when he was appointed second member of the governing council and commandant of local forces. The legacy of his time in office includes the present structure of Fort Cornwallis, built by convict labour during his term, and two streets named in his honour in the capital city. But he, too, was destined to die in the Company’s service – or at least on its ship: Shortly after his term as governor ended he went down with the HEI Ocean in the South China Sea, apparently on his way home to Scotland.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011