Men of Their Time

On this day in 1615, two Macalisters were hanged at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh. They had been sentenced to death five days earlier, along with Angus Og Macdonald and three others, for seizing Dunyvaig Castle and holding it against the king.

Although quite a few Macalisters were involved in the complicated and ongoing Dunyvaig rebellion, Angus and Allaster MacAllaster were the only two considered sufficiently important to be brought to Edinburgh and tried along with Angus Og, the ringleader. This would suggest not only that they were deeply involved with the events at the former Macdonald stronghold but also that they held roles of some prominence among the allies of Clan Donald South, who at this point were a constant headache for the government. Angus’s identity is unclear to me, although he was probably a close relative of the chief, but Allaster is easier to trace: He belonged to the Loup family (he was probably the chief’s cousin) and had come to the attention of the authorities before.

These men lived at a time of transition, when Macdonald power in the west was rapidly subsiding and various Campbell families were slowly bringing the area under government (or at least Campbell) control. The Statutes of Iona (1609) would alter traditional Gaelic society in the space of a generation, limiting several principal elements of Highland culture and, by requiring that the heir of each chieftain be educated in the Lowlands, beginning to culturally separate the leading families from their followers. The only successful ‘plantation‘ in Scotland, that in southern Kintyre, was about to be established, replacing many of the ‘wild Irish’ (including Macdonalds and Macalisters) with Lowland settlers from the south west of Scotland, and making Kintyre one of the earliest parts of the Highlands to lose Gaelic as its primary language.[1] Soon the upheavals of the 17th and 18th century would bring national concerns to the attention of the West Highlanders and draw them into a different world.

It makes sense, then, that the events for which Allaster is known to history are very much typical of a fading era, of clan feuds and raids and the last desperate attempt of the Clan Donald South to keep its foothold in Scotland.

The first of these events was the Askomil Incident (1598), in which Godfrey of Loup, having killed Alexander’s father Charles, the Tutor of Loup, joined Sir James Macdonald and a group of armed men in pursuit of the Tutor’s sons. They had fled to Askomil House, the home of Angus of Dunyvaig (James’s father), who had offered the fugitives his protection.[2] When Angus refused to turn them over, Godfrey and Sir James attempted to burn down the house. Although Sir James was eventually brought to trial for the attack on Askomil House, Godfrey’s murder of his former guardian is only mentioned in passing as having led to that attack — it does not seem to have greatly concerned the authorities in Edinburgh.

Of more concern, because the victim made a fuss, was the 1600 raid on the lands of Knockransay in Arran. Allaster and his followers reputedly did a great deal of damage to the lands and property of Robert Montgomery, who was away at the time. They also held Montgomery’s wife and children prisoner, at least temporarily. Montgomery described the Clan Alasdair as “sic unhappy people”, warning that if Allaster were not turned over to the authorities, the whole country would be “disquyetit be the insolence of that Clan”![3]

But it was the Dunyvaig rebellion in 1614 that finally caused the government to take Allaster (and Angus, whoever he was) seriously. By that time Godfrey of Loup was dead and his son, the new chief, was a child — too young to get involved. But his kinsmen were right in the middle of it, supporting the leaders of Clan Donald South (led by Angus Og, Sir James’s younger brother) in their attempts to maintain their former position in the Isles. When the castle was recaptured, most of the rebels were imprisoned or tried in the Highlands, but Allaster and Angus were among the five “principals . . . reserved to be sent to Edinburgh for trial” with Angus Og himself.[4]

That two of the five men most deeply involved with Angus Og in his rebellion were Macalisters illustrates how closely the clan adhered to the Clan Donald South and its leading family. Their execution on this day in 1615 shows the leaders of the Clan Alasdair very much involved in the turbulent events of their times.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]“Estimates based upon a Rental of 1678 show that some thirty per cent of the population of southern Kintyre were Lowlanders, and even many native Gaelic speakers were speaking English and adopting English names by that period” (C. W. J. Withers, Gaelic in Scotland, p. 38).

[2]Charles’s sons are named in a bond dated 29 July 1600 as Alexander (Allaster), Ranald Mor, Eachin, Gillesoic Bernache, and Aidan. How many of them were involved in the Askomil incident is unknown.

[3]Records of the Privy Council of Scotland (vol. 6, p. 303) identifies the perpetrator as “Allaster McAllaster, son of the late Charles McAllaster, sometime tutor of Loup”.

[4]Records of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. 10, p. xlii.


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.

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

Once Upon a Time in the West . . .

On this day in 1596, Godfrey MacAlister, 5th of Loup, is on record as witness to a letter of renunciation by Angus Macdonald of Dunyvaig in favour of his son, James.

After the Lord of the Isles was stripped of his power at the end of the 15th century, the government found it nearly impossible to maintain order in the western Highlands and Isles. The Highlands were still a tribal society, and in the absence of effective authority old feuds frequently flared up; a conflict between two chiefs or their clans could quickly involve everyone for miles, as neighbouring clans took sides. 

One of the ongoing feuds at this time in the southwestern Highlands was that between the Macleans and the Macdonalds of Dunyvaig, who had been fighting over the Rinns of Islay, off and on, for more than half a century. By 1587, when King James VI required the western chiefs (including Lachlan Maclean, Angus of Dunyvaig, and MacAlister of Loup) to subscribe to his General Band ‘for the quieting and keeping in obedience of the disordered subjects, inhabitants of the borders, highlands and isles’, so many clans had become involved in the Maclean-Dunyvaig war that, according to Kintyre historian Andrew McKerral, “[t]he whole of the West Highlands was set aflame.” The MacAlisters, who had been allied to the Dunyvaig family throughout the 1500s, were among the clans that sided with Macdonald.

By 1596, the government had had enough, and a military excursion to the Western Highlands was planned in hopes of suppressing the general lawlessness. As often happened, once they realised the king meant business all of the chiefs submitted to him . . . except Angus of Dunyvaig. The excursion was then aimed at Angus and his vassals alone. Angus’s son James, who had been a hostage in Edinburgh for years by this time and was well regarded by the government, was sent ahead to try to talk some sense into his father. Instead, the two of them conspired to protect the family’s landholdings and power base by turning all of Angus’s property over to James. It was the letter to this effect that Godfrey MacAlister witnessed on the 1st of October 1596.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011