Teàrlach MacAlexander, Steward of Kintyre

On this day in 1481, Teàrlach MacAlexander (Charles Macalister) received a charter for 40 merklands in Kintyre from King James III, who was parcelling out the lands he had taken from John Macdonald, Lord of the Isles, upon that chief’s first submission to the Crown in 1475. Although most of the lands included in this grant are easy to identify on a map today (e.g., Macquhuirymore of Dounaverty is Machrimore in Southend parish), a few are less clear and their locations are still debated. As a result, the geographical extent of Charles’s grant is hard to determine.[1]

However, this charter gave Charles “a wider jurisdiction” than that of simple landholder. Charles was appointed Steward of Kintyre, which meant he was answerable directly to the Crown rather than to a higher landlord such as Macdonald, and he had some degree of legal authority over those who lived on these lands. The fact that, shortly after the mighty Lord of the Isles was brought to his knees (literally) in Edinburgh, “we find a member of clan Donald receiving a crown appointment as steward of Kintyre” is interesting. It suggests that at this point the various branches of the Clan Donald were seen as semi-separate units quite capable of acting independently. Other Macdonald chieftains, such as Macian of Ardnamurchan and Macdonald of Dunyvaig, also gained new charters and increased authority.[2] 

It appears that the Macalister Stewardry survived the final forfeiture of 1493, as Alexander Makalexander is called ‘the Steward’ in the Kintyre Rentals of 1505 and is holding the lands “pretaining to the Steward”. By 1510, the Earl of Argyll had possession of all the lands in Kintyre, North and South, and in 1515, Angus vic Ean Dhù Macalister appears on record as a Servitor of Argyll, suggesting that the family’s influence had decreased substantially. In the Rentals of 1541, none of the lands “pertaining to the Steward” appear to be held by this clan and the head of the family is simply called McAllester of Loup. Still, the Loup family’s prominence is indicated by the fact that they are among those specifically named in 1653 as having “big houses” on the land they hold, and that “Lowpes hous” is the location chosen by several local tacksmen to submit their tacks to Argyll in that year.[3]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

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[1] The grant did not include Tarbert castle, with which a branch of the clan was later associated.

[2] Munro, Acts of the Lords of the Isles, pp. xxvii, li

[3] Stewart, List of Inhabitants upon the Duke of Argyle’s Property in Kintyre in 1792, pp. 3, 6,  49, 54.

Murderous Macalisters

The 16th of June appears to be a bad day for Macalisters in court. On this same day, but 112 years apart, two murder convictions were handed down to members of this clan. The first was in 1508, when Donald Mole Makalester was convicted of “the cruel slaughter of John Russell, Patrik Weddale, and sundry other persons” in Innermessane, as well as the “hereschip” (plundering and destruction) of their goods; he was also convicted of violent theft against the MacMartins in Kintyre, and of general theft and oppression of “the lieges”.[1] This sort of report is met with somewhat regularly in records of the time. The early 16th century was a particularly lawless period, following immediately upon the forfeiture in 1493 of the Lordship of the Isles. The fall of the Macdonalds had left a power vacuum in the Western Highlands, and the Campbells had not yet been able to establish real control. There were several fairly widespread risings in favour of one or another branch of the Clan Donald, and the events of this period appear to have been something of a free-for-all. The actions of this Macalister were not, therefore, as shocking as we might imagine. As might be expected, Donald Mole was hanged for his crimes.

Things were somewhat different in 1620, when Neill McEan McAllaster, along with Donald Neilson and Donald’s son, was found guilty of drowning Donald McAllaster vic Ean vic Henrie.[2] At this point, the Plantation of Kintyre was well underway, with the Earl of Argyll having had some success in importing English-speaking, Protestant Lowlanders to settle in the area around what is now Campbeltown; many members of previously troublesome clans like the Macalisters had lost their lands. The chaos of the previous century had been brought under some control, and the chaos that would come with the Wars of Religion (1640s) had not yet begun. This crime, then, appears to have been less the result of general lawlessness than perhaps a personal quarrel. The victim was bound hand and foot and put into a ‘boit’ (boat?) which was then thrown into the water. No mention is made of any of these men being a repeat offender, as was clearly the case with Donald Makalester in 1508. The punishment was also less severe: Each man was fined 100 merks.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials in Scotland, vol. I, p. 51; whose lieges were being oppressed is not specified.
[2] Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials in Scotland, vol. III, p. 489

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

Battle of Largs

On this day in 1263/4, Norwegian ships that were part of an invasion force under Haakon IV were driven ashore by a storm at Largs; over the next three days they engaged in a military confrontation with a Scots force under Alexander III. The men of the western seaboard were divided; Angus Mòr, first chief of the Clan Donald, supported Haakon (either enthusiastically or reluctantly, depending on which history you read).

What actually happened is still debated. Earlier historians tended to view it as a major massed battle, but archaeological evidence does not support this. It was probably little more than a skirmish, and mostly fought at sea. Equally unclear is which side actually won: 800 years later, both Norway and Scotland still claim the victory.  What is known, though, is that Haakon died in Orkney less than two months later, and in 1266 his successor ceded the Western Isles to Scotland by the Treaty of Perth. Largs is thus seen by historians as a turning point in Scottish history. 

To the clans in the Isles, however, it probably made little difference whether their king was far away in Bergen or far away in Edinburgh. Angus Mòr submitted to Alexander, and his influence went unchecked; his descendants, the Lords of the Isles, would be the real power in the west for the next three centuries.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011