Feuds of 1539

In June of 1539, a complaint was made by the Earl of Argyll against Ranald Mòr MacAngus MacEwen Dùbh, who, according to Sir Alistair Campbell of Airds, with “thirty armed men ‘in silence of nycht in maner of murthure’, the previous month had . . . murdered Gillecallum MacIan Macneill” in a night raid.[1] This Ranald (son of Angus ‘Black John’ Macalister) was the younger brother of Alasdair MacAlasdair, 2nd of Loup, who was also involved. The Reverend A. Maclean Sinclair tells us:

[T]here was a feud between the Macalisters of Loup and the Macdonalds of Largie, on the one hand, and the Macneills on the other hand. Alexander Macalister of Loup and John and Archibald Macdonald of the Largie family slew Malcolm Macneill, John MacQuarrie, and others, while Donald Balloch Macneill and his accomplices slew Finlay Carach Mac Dunsleibhe, Ewen Mac Lachlan, and others — all followers of the Macalisters of Loup or the Macdonalds of Largie. The Macalisters and the Macdonalds seem to have been the aggressors.[2]

Somerled MacMillan reports that the reason behind this feud was Macneill’s decision to become a vassal of Argyll, a decision that “incurred great displeasure among the supporters of the Islay and Kintyre branches of the MacDonalds”.[3] On the surface, this seems plausible, particularly in light of the timing: This took place immediately after the Donald Gorm rising, yet another attempt by the Macdonalds to regain the Lordship of the Isles. But the Argyll family was out of favour for most of the reign of James V, while the head of the Clan Iain Mhòr, MacDonald of Dunyvaig, had been given much of Argyll’s authority in the southwestern Highlands and Islands. Anti-Campbell sentiment thus seems a less likely explanation in this instance than at some other times. One modern historian points out that this era was particularly noted for “repeated outbreaks of violence on various scales, from small numbers of victims being killed in minor scuffles to armed expeditions that were comprised of several score of fully-armed men who descended on their neighbours with the intention of killing people, burning property and driving off beasts”.[4] And Philip Smith writes that while the Donald Gorm revolt took place in the north, “there had been feuding between families related to the Clan Ian Mór in the south”.[5] So the raid on the Macneills might have been completely unconnected to either the Macneills’ relations with Argyll or the Clan Donald rising further north.

I’m not sure why Ranald Mòr was singled out for Argyll’s complaint in this case, but the Loup family were hardly strangers to such violence. Whereas the attack on the MacNeills is described by Campbell of Airds as “a small but bloody affray and one all too typical of the times”, another incident involving the Macalisters is on record for this month and seems to have been more significant, with Alasdair, Ranald, and 300 of their men arriving in Knapdale to raid in Kellislate and leaving behind considerable death and destruction. At this point, “William Champneys, Messenger-at-Arms, was sent to proclaim them rebels and was able to seize MacAlister of Loup.”[6] Unable to find surety for their appearance in court, the troublemakers were “put to the horn for the slaughter of certain MacNeills in Gigha”[7] until the following month, when James MacDonald of Dunyvaig, as chief of the Clan Donald South, stepped up:

Bond of Surety by James MacDonald of Dunnyveg. 1539. I James M’Connel be the tennor heirof becumis souertie to ane richt honorabill man Thomas Scot of Petgorno Justice Clerk for Alexander M’Alister of Loup, Archd. M’Charle and Johne M’zonil M’crannald Bayne that thai sall compeir befoir the justice or his deputtis the third day of the next justice aire of the schire quhair thai duel [dwell] or sounar upoun xv dayis warnying quhen & quhair it sal pleis the Kingis grace & lordis of counsale to underly the lawis of art & part of the slauchter of umqle Gillecallum m’nele Johnne M’Were and thair complices. At Edinr. the 31st July 1539.[8] 

On the 15th of August the following year, Loup and two others were granted remission for these crimes[9], and by 1541 both Alasdair and Ranald were back in the king’s good books, named as landholders in the Kintyre rental of that year. It is interesting to note, however, that when the king appointed a constable for Tarbert Castle, Alasdair of Loup – the head of his kindred – was passed over in favour of his brother Donald, who does not appear to have taken part in the raids of 1539.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2016

[1] Campbell of Airds, A History of Clan Campbell, vol. 2, pp. 23-4

[2] Rev. A. Maclean Sinclair, “The Macneills of Argyllshire”, The Celtic Review, vol. VI (July 1909 to April 1910): 60; Sinclair gives the date as 1538, but all other sources say 1539.

[3] S. MacMillan, Families of Knapdale, p. 23

[4] Campbell, vol. 2, p. 23

[5] Philip Smith, “On the Fringe and in the Middle: The MacDonalds of Antrim and the Isles, 1266-1586”, History Ireland (Spring 1994): 19. The Macalisters of Loup, the Macdonalds of Largie, and the Gigha Macneills were all followers of the Clan Iain Mhòr.

[6] Campbell, vol. 2, p. 24. It is possible that these two incidents are, in fact, separate reports of the same raid. The Macneills of Gigha also held lands in Knapdale, and although the Reverends MacDonald say the Macneill attack was in Gigha, Campbell places both in Knapdale (though he treats them as distinct events). It seems odd to me that all of the charges brought against Loup seem to specify his murder of Macneill when the description of the later raid suggests that attack, if separate, would have been more charge-worthy.

[7] A. MacDonald and A. MacDonald, The Clan Donald, vol. II, p. 527

[8] Ibid., p. 749; “M’crannald Bayne” was the patronymic of the Largie Macdonalds.

[9] Register of the Privy Council, series II, vol. II (a.d. 1529-1542), p. 538

 

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A Royal Summons

On this day in 1531, Donald Macalister was one of several men from the West Highlands and Hebrides summoned to appear before the king to answer for ‘certain treasonous actions’. None of those named turned up, and a new summons was issued on the 28th. When they once again failed to appear, parliament granted them until the following year.[1]

The nature of Donald’s ‘treasonous actions’ is not specified, but the early 1530s was a time of general turmoil in the Highlands. Two events of significance had occurred in 1529. First, James V, whose kingdom had been run during his childhood by several competing noblemen, began his personal rule. Among the first things he did was revoke all the land grants that had been made during his minority. This made both political and economic sense. Extensive grants had given too much power to regional strongmen such as (in Kintyre) the third Earl of Argyll, and the rentals collected by these men from their tenants often failed to reach the king’s purse.[2] Nonetheless, revoking the grants inevitably meant a lot of unhappy, newly landless families, some of whom – such as the various branches of Clan Donald – were bound to cause trouble. 

Second, the Earl of Argyll himself died in 1529. As occasionally happened, the Macdonalds of Islay and their allies – including the Macleans and the Macalisters (in the person of Donald’s brother, Alexander of Loup) – took advantage of the situation to express their resentment of Argyll’s rule: According to the Register of the Privy Seal, “they ravage[d] with fire and sword” the properties of Roseneath, Lennox, and Craignish, “killing at the same time many of the inhabitants”.[3] For this they all came under the displeasure of the government and were ‘put to the horn’ in 1531.[4] It seems likely that Donald’s crimes were similar to his brother’s.

The fact that Donald et al. ignored the royal summons so blatantly illustrates the difficulties James faced in bringing his kingdom to heel. Whether the matter was ever resolved or not is unclear. Although both of his brothers were involved in the next Macdonald rising, in 1539, I’ve found no evidence yet of Donald’s involvement. Perhaps he had learned his lesson. In any case, by 1540 they had all made their peace with the king – but while James granted Alexander and Ranald remission for their crimes, it was Donald he appointed Constable of Tarbert.[5]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland [1531/4]

[2] Donaldson, Scotland: James V-James VII, p. 43

[3] Gregory, p. 132

[4] Castleton, p. 166; someone ‘put to the horn’ was declared a rebel and subject to the forfeiture of his goods and property.

[5] Tarbert Castle had been given to the Campbells of Argyll in the previous century, and in later times the Macalisters held the castle as tenants of Argyll. However, James V had intentionally turned away from dependence on the Argyll family and had given more power to the Dunyvaig Macdonalds, to whom the Macalisters were allied. It seems likely that this is the explanation for Donald coming into possession of the castle at this time.