A Letter to Argyll

The Scottish parliamentary register for this day in 1689 records an interesting incident in which Alexander Macalister of Loup was involved. A French ship had arrived in Kintyre from Ireland, and Loup along with Angus Campbell of Kilberry had “secured and detained” the vessel and its passengers. These West Highland lairds then wrote to the Earl of Argyll asking him what they should do.[1]

Loup and Kilberry are described in Parliament’s response as ‘the searchers’, which suggests that they may have been told to watch for unusual arrivals from Ireland. This is not unlikely. Less than six months had passed since the Glorious Revolution installed the Protestant William of Orange on the throne in London. An attempt by James VII to retake his kingdom, if it was to be made, would come from Ireland (where the ousted king was gathering his forces), and its success would depend heavily on help from Catholic France. A French ship arriving from Ireland was therefore not a welcome development at all, and Parliament responded quickly to the letter from Kintyre. Loup and Kilberry were authorised to bring both the ship and its passengers to Glasgow, enlisting the help of as many people as necessary to sail the ship and guard the prisoners, and to use whatever was carried in the ship to cover any expenses incurred. It was decreed that “the thanks of the estates be returned to the searchers for their diligence”.[2]

What makes this event particularly interesting for Macalisters is that in November 1688 – about the time William of Orange was landing in England – Alexander of Loup was among the Kintyre lairds who had signed an address of loyalty to King James. Yet here he is only five months later, apparently helping Argyll to prevent James’s return. In fact, Loup’s behaviour makes perfect sense in context. In an interesting article of 1991, Paul Hopkins suggested that the men who signed November’s address to King James were probably less concerned about who sat on the throne in faraway London than about its local repercussions. Specifically, they feared that if James were ousted, the Argyll family (whose extensive lands and enormous power had been taken from them after the 1685 rebellion) would rise again.[3] By March of 1689 those fears had proven justified; those who wished to survive in Kintyre were wise to remain on Argyll’s good side.

But Hopkins also noted that although the “non-Campbell clans” of Kintyre consistently served the House of Argyll when it was too powerful to resist, they were quick to rebel when the opportunity arose. Indeed, only two months after being thanked by Parliament for his diligence in defending the kingdom against the Catholic threat, Loup was in arms against both Argyll and the new king, fighting for James VII in the first of the Jacobite risings.

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]Records of the Parliaments of Scotland: 14 March 1689 (NAS. PA2/33, f.83v-84). 
[2]RPS: 14 March 168 (NAS. PA2/33, f.84).  
[3]Paul Hopkins, “Loup Hill, 16th May 1689: The First ‘Battle’ of Dundee’s Jacobite War”, Kintyre Magazine, Issue 29 (Spring 1991).

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.

Macalisters and the Ulster Covenant

On this day in 1912, the Ulster Covenant was signed by nearly half a million people, including more than 900 Macalisters (McAllisters, McAlesters, etc.) – nearly 1,000, if you count some of the Alexanders and Alisters.  Although the Covenant was signed by people in places as diverse as China and the United States, the only Macalister signators outside of Ireland were in England and Scotland – and nearly all of them gave Irish addresses.[1]

The Ulster Covenant was a response to Prime Minister Asquith’s introduction of the third Irish Home Rule Bill on 11 April 1912, which aimed to set up a parliament to govern all of Ireland from Dublin. The proposed Dublin parliament would have limited powers, but many in Ulster saw it as the first step towards Irish independence. Although the majority of those in what is now the Republic of Ireland supported independence, Ulster was in many ways a very different place. Primarily Protestant and more heavily industrialised than the counties further south, Ulster was home to a large pro-Union constituency. Many there feared that an independent Irish parliament would impose Catholicism and create economic difficulty in the north. Emotion was high – so much so that for many years it was widely believed quite a few people had signed their names in blood.[2] Those who signed the covenant pledged to resist the establishment of government from Dublin ‘by all means which may be found necessary’. 

There is a degree of irony in all of these Macalister signatures. The Ulster Covenant was initially patterned on the Scottish National Covenant of 1638. That Covenant was aimed at limiting control from London (in the form of King Charles) over the Presbyterian church of Scotland. It led to the later Solemn League and Covenant (1643) and ultimately to Scotland’s Civil War, in which the Macalisters were among those violently resisting the Presbyterian government. In fact, some Macalisters settled in Northern Ireland after the war to escape the victorious Covenanters. Other Irish Macalisters descended from Scots who had come as mercenaries to support the MacDonalds of Antrim in their fight to keep the English (and, to be fair, most of the Irish) out of northeast Ulster. Yet centuries later, their descendants queued up all across the north to sign a Covenant aimed at maintaining English control of Ireland and protecting the mostly Presbyterian Protestant establishment.

Asquith’s Home Rule bill was defeated in the House of Lords in January 1913, though it is not clear that the Ulster Covenant contributed directly to its defeat. World War I ultimately led to a different solution for Ireland, but the Covenant did have other results. For one thing, with the defeat of the 1912 bill, Unionists began to organise and train a military force whose members were drawn from men who had signed the document. Called the Ulster Volunteer Force, it was a forerunner of the numerous paramilitary groups that perpetuated the late 20th-century Troubles; indeed, one of the pro-union paramilitaries even adopted the UVF name. However, for modern Macalisters whose roots are in Ireland, the signing of the Ulster Covenant had another, very different kind of result – one completely unrelated to politics or religion and probably not anticipated by those who signed it: It provides us with a rich source of genealogical information, which, thanks to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, can now be searched on-line. 


Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] Chris Paton, in his blog post on this topic, suggests that the ‘address’ column is best read ‘place of origin’; if so, these Macalisters were probably permanent – and maybe recent – migrants to England and Scotland rather than visitors. Also see How Ulster Covenant Drew Support across England and Scotland.

[2] According to an article on the PRONI website: “Contrary to popular belief, only one signature is believed to have been signed in blood, that of Frederick Hugh Crawford, who was to become the  Ulster Volunteers’ Director of Ordnance”. However, even this is now disputed.

No Macalisters Allowed!

On this day in 1652, the Marquess of Argyll gave Campbell of Lochnell a fifteen-year tack of Ardnamurchan and Sunart, together with the castle of Mingary.[1] The tack included “restrictions on subletting to anyone who was called MacDonald, MacRonald, Macalister, MacEan or Mackay.” A similar restriction had been part of the nineteen-year tack for Largie in Kintyre given the previous December to Dougall Campbell of Inverawe, who was not to sublet to “anyone named MacDonald, Macalister, MacKay or MacEan or any islander without the Marquess’s written consent.”[2] Such restrictions were nothing new – nearly fifty years earlier (1609), a charter granted to John Boyle by the Marquess’s father, the 7th Earl of Argyll, included a condition that no part of the land be let to anyone named Macdonald, Maclean, Macneill or Macalister. But while the reasons behind restrictions in the earlier tack were probably more political than personal, in these later examples the reverse was true.

At the time of the 1609 tack, the major conflict in the southwestern Highlands had not been between the Campbells and Macdonalds, but rather between the Clan Donald South and Maclean of Duart. The 7th Earl of Argyll was friendly with both chieftains and in fact stood as security for their good behaviour on more than one occasion. But King James at that time was attempting to colonise Kintyre, part of a larger ‘Plantation’ strategy by which he hoped to separate the Gaels of the West Highlands and Isles from those in the north of Ireland, replace them with ‘civilised’ people (i.e., loyal, English-speaking Protestants) where possible, and in this way bring these areas under government control. As early as 1597, Kintyre had been identified as one of the areas that had to be brought to heel, and the ongoing Macdonald-Maclean feud was one of the primary reasons. Although the Campbells were just as much Highlanders as any of their neighbours[3], and were in fact related by blood to several of the more troublesome clans (including the Clan Donald), they had long since thrown in their lot with the Crown. Politically, therefore, it was in their own interest to ensure that their lands were inhabited by people amenable to the king’s rule. Therefore, when Kintyre was granted to Argyll in the early 17th century, the earl himself agreed to bring in Lowland tenants, such as John Boyle; allowing them to sublet land to the very clans who had caused such unrest would have rather defeated the purpose.

By 1652, the situation was a bit different. Clan Donald and its minions had fought for the king during the recent civil wars and thus were not, for once, under government censure. Longer term, these clans continued to be seen as a problem by the king, but at this point, the Campbell chieftain had his own reasons for wanting them kept off his lands. For one thing, there was a religious motive: The Marquess of Argyll was a staunch Protestant, one of the Covenanters who had fought for Presbyterian church government in Scotland; many of the western clans on the other hand still clung to Catholicism. But there was more to it than that. The entire period between 1550 and 1650 appears to have been one long Macdonald uprising. Their late 16th-century feud with the Macleans wreaked havoc across Kintyre; periodic attempts by various Clan Donald chieftains to regain lost clan lands had caused problems clear across Scotland; and MacColla’s rising at the end of the civil war had specifically targeted Campbell lands and lives for destruction. With history as a guide, Argyll knew as well as anyone that the Macdonalds were not likely to settle down and live in submission to anyone, let alone the clan that had gradually replaced them as the great power in the west. The simple fact was that Clan Donald was trouble, the Macalister branch of it no less so, and the clan most likely to suffer as a result was his own. This is not to say, of course, that the Campbells hadn’t caused just as much trouble over the centuries as any other clan. Regardless of the reasons, however, it was Argyll who was now the primary landholder in Argyllshire, and he can hardly be blamed for thinking that these particular clans were less than ideal tenants.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]A tack was a sublease of a portion of the land that had been granted by the monarch to a major landholder. Those who held tacks were called tacksmen, and they were usually relatives or allies of the chieftain. Traditionally they operated as middlemen between the chieftain and the ordinary people, though that role declined in the 16th and 17th century.
[2]These tacks are found in the Argyll Transcripts at Inveraray Castle and are quoted in volume 2 of Alistair Campbell of Airds’ History of Clan Campbell (pp. 262, 260). Other than the Mackays, all of the clans mentioned in both tacks are branches of the Clan Donald.
[3]The idea that the Campbells were Lowlanders who had ‘taken over’ is unfounded. Although their origins, like those of many clans, continue to be a matter of debate, the leading families of what became the Clan Campbell had settled in Argyllshire by 1300, a time when the clans as we know them had only just begun to form and some of the locals still spoke Norse. They can hardly be considered anything but Highlanders. Politically, however, they saw that the future lay in Edinburgh and not Islay, and for this reason they were more involved in Lowland affairs than were other Highland families.

A Titanic Connection

One hundred years ago today, Hugh McAllister, 34, of Carrickfergus and Daniel McAllistor, 29, of Belfast disembarked the RMS Titanic, on which they had temporarily served as crew.[1] Both men were stokers (‘firemen’) on the ship’s journey from its Belfast birthplace to Southampton, England, where it would take on passengers for its very first Atlantic crossing.

After arriving at Southampton, some of the engine crew stayed on for the remainder of the voyage. Whether by choice or because they had not been hired for the longer job, Hugh and Daniel headed home to Ireland. Perhaps this was a disappointment – after all, Titanic was one of the most remarkable (and luxurious) ships that had ever been built, its passenger list a contemporary Who’s Who, and its maiden voyage the event of the season. But any disappointment they might have felt surely changed to relief – and perhaps disbelief – twelve days later, when they learned of the ship’s fate. Had they stayed on for the rest of the journey, they would probably have perished – only 17 of the Titanic‘s 321-man engine crew survived.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

Death of a Redshank Chief

On this day in 1572, Sir William FitzWilliam, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, wrote to Queen Elizabeth with an update on the situation in that country. The letter included a number of enclosures, among them “Note of Aghen M’Owen Duffe M’Alastran, otherwise called the Lord of Loope, more esteemed than Sorley Boy, and other chief Scots, slain at the overthrow of their footmen by Cheston.”[1]

Although most historians who record the incident call this laird of Loup John M’Owen Duffe, the Macalister chieftain in this year was in fact Hector, 3rd of Loup.[2] The death of Hector Macalister was evidently seen by the Lord Deputy as a significant loss to the Scots. He is named, while others killed in the battle are simply ‘chief Scots’. To say that he was ‘more esteemed’ than Clan Donald hero Somhairle Buidhe (Sorley Boy) – who had seized his late brother’s Ulster estates for himself and proceeded to make an enormous nuisance of himself to the English authorities in Ireland – might have been an exaggeration, but Hector was certainly “a considerable figure in Clan Donald South”.[3]

The particular battle in which Hector was killed probably took place near Carrickfergus. It does not appear to have been especially notable, just another episode in the ongoing conflict between the Macdonnells of the Glens of Antrim and the English forces in Ireland. But the record of Loup’s death in this clash is significant to Macalister history because it highlights two longstanding Macalister traditions: military service in Ireland, and support for the Clan Iain Mòr. 

Macalister chieftains had been leading their clansmen to battle in Ireland since the very founding of the clan. Alasdair Mòr, the clan’s progenitor, appears to have spent much of his adult life fighting in Ireland, and generations of Clan Alasdair chieftains followed in his footsteps. Unlike the gallòglaich, who settled permanently in Ireland to serve as mercenary forces for whoever would pay them, the Macalister chiefs were among those later described as Redshanks: seasonal warriors, coming to fight for a time before returning to their homes in the Highlands and Western Isles. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Hector of Loup happened to be there when Captain Thomas Cheston defeated a force of Scots.

Hector’s death in the service of Somhairle Buidhe (Sorley Boy), younger brother of Sir James Macdonald of Dunyvaig, illustrates the Macalisters’ continued alliance with the Dunyvaig family – chiefly family of the Clan Iain Mòr or Clan Donald South. Somhairle Buidhe was head at this time of the Macdonnells of Antrim and the Glens, the Ulster branch of Clan Iain Mòr. As the Macalisters reliably supported the Dunyvaig family against its foes in Scotland (including the Scottish king), they also gave Somhairle Buidhe “their most strenuous support”[4] against his foes in Ireland (including the English Queen). 

By dying in Ireland, following his military forebears in support of his clan’s closest allies, ‘Aghen M’Owen Duffe, Lord of Loope’, gave us a snapshot of the clan in its historical context.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Ireland, of the Reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, 1509-1573 (Vol. XXXV, p. 466).
[2] Apparently these writers took Aghen to be a variant of Ewen or Owen, and these names to be equivalent to Iain (the Lord Deputy himself used Owen for Iain in the chief’s patronymic); accordingly they assumed his English name was John. However, even if Ewen/Owen were the same name as Iain (which they’re not), Aghen would not be a logical variant. Irish –gh– equates in Scots Gaelic not to –w– but to –ch– (compare Irish lough/Scottish loch), which makes Aghen much closer phonetically to the Scots Gaelic name Eachainn than to Iain. Eachainn was always rendered Hector in English. 
[3] A. Campbell of Airds, A History of Clan Campbell, vol. 2, pp. 72-3.
[4] Donald J. MacDonald of Castleton, Clan Donald, p. 166

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