Donald of Langilwenach

On this day in 1506, ‘Donaldo Makalester’ is named among the numerous men in the Isle of Bute to whom the king gave new grants of lands they held there. The grant describes those named as hereditary tenants and tells us they have held their lands ‘ab antiquo’ (from ancient times).[1] Many of these men do indeed bear names like Stewart and Bannatyne that are strongly associated with Bute. Macalisters have also been described as one of the ‘old native families of Bute’[2], but it is likely that in Bute, as in Arran, Macalisters in the early sixteenth century were still better known as ‘cursed invaders from Kintyre’, having raided there for generations.

The lands that are granted to these men are to be held in feu-ferm. Feu-ferm was a type of feudal arrangement in which tenants agreed to pay a specified rent in cash to their superior – in this case, the king — in return for which they had the right to occupy the land for the rest of their lives and often to pass the property on to their ‘heirs male’ (sons or grandsons). Although the king mentions that these tenants held their lands by earlier grants, it is not clear what kind of arrangement existed previously. During the middle ages, land was more often held by ward-holding, whereby the property was granted to the vassal in return for military service, with rent being being paid in kind (i.e., with food, livestock, crops, etc.). This made perfect sense in a pre-cash society that was prone to conflict over land and limited resources. But times were changing, and the Scottish king was perpetually short of cash. In 1464, James III convinced Parliament to revoke the grants issued by his father, who had been ‘misled by certain men then around him during his minority’, and allow him to feu them out.[3] Professor Mitchison tells us that although the Crown ‘had been feuing land occasionally since the thirteenth century … in the late fifteenth century the practice became more frequent. The tenants got security and the king got cash. . . .’[4]

Though I have no direct evidence, I suspect that this Donald was Donald Dùbh, younger brother of the laird of Loup and eventual founder of the Tarbert family. Most of the early landholding Macalisters in Bute and Arran seem to have had connexions to one or another of the leading families (indeed, the leading families were the only ones in this clan to hold land anywhere at this point), and I am unaware of another Donald of note in the clan at this time. It’s possible that before he was appointed keeper of Tarbert castle in 1540, Donald Dùbh had made his home in Bute, much as two hundred years later his descendant Charles, of Tor in Arran, made his home on that island before succeeding as the 8th laird of Tarbert.

Whoever Donaldo Makalester was, his lands (the southern part of a property called Langilwenach in the parish of Kingarth[5]) were not be passed on to his heirs — male or female. In or before 1555, Macalister sold his Bute property to John M’Wyrartie and his wife Katherin Glas.[6]

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, AD 1424-1513 (James Balfour Paul, ed.; H M General Register House, 1882), pp. 635-636.

[2] James King Hewison, Isle of Bute in the olden time (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1893), p. 225.

[3] RPS, 1464/10/1
R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1982), p. 78.
[5] Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, pp. 635-636.
[6] Origines Parochiales, vol. II, part I, p. 216.

In Victory, Defeat

On this day in 1689, Jacobite forces under John Graham, Viscount Dundee, inflicted a spectacular defeat on the forces of William of Orange at Killiecrankie in Perthshire. Among Dundee’s forces, fighting with the young MacDonald of Largie in a regiment led by Sir Alexander Maclean, were Alexander Macalister of Loup, and (probably) Alexander Macalister of Kinlochkellisport.[1] (Tarbert and Balinakill – the other two Macalister lairds who had participated in the rising’s early stages – had remained in Ireland with King James.) The Grameid, a Latin poem written shortly after the battle, names in flowery language the various clans that joined Dundee; lines 394-396 tell us: “The hero Loupe was one most faithful to the King, among those whom the rebel land of Argyll begat. The mighty M’Alister, second to none in warlike spirit, summons his clan from the paternal fields.”[2]

Killiecrankie was the climactic battle in the first Jacobite rising, which began a few months earlier when the Argyllshire clans learned that William of Orange had taken the throne and King James VII had fled to Ireland. In fact, nearly the entire force of ca. 2000 raised by Dundee consisted of (mostly West Highland) clansmen – some, but not all, following their chiefs. The clansmen rallied to Dundee for a variety of reasons, including religion (most of the Jacobites in all of the rebellions were Episcopalians) and politics.  But Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds is probably correct in his assertion that their immediate motivation, “neither for the first nor the last time, seems to have owed much to a shared antipathy to Argyll and his Clan”.[3] Indeed, with a new, Protestant king in place partly thanks to the Earl of Argyll, the chiefly line of Clan Campbell seemed poised to rise from the ashes yet again, and a resurgent House of Argyll threatened most of its neighbours for one reason or another. When Sir Alexander Maclean was granted a commission by the king in Ireland to raise a force in Kintyre, he found what Paul Hopkins calls the ‘non-Campbell clans’ in the north of the peninsula “unable to resist alone for long . . . but anxious to rise”.[4]

Dundee’s force seems not to have been taken all that seriously initially. Although General Mackay, the head of William’s forces in Scotland, “considered the highlanders the finest untrained soldiers in Scotland”, according to Hopkins, “he did not understand their manner of fighting, and had an incredibly crude and mechanical picture of a chief’s powers”, believing that no clansman would dare to act independently of his chief – let alone against his wishes.[5] Mackay thus assumed that most of Dundee’s clansmen were there under duress rather than by conviction and would give way when faced with experienced military power. This view was shared by some in the government, who expected the Viscount’s clansmen would betray him when they learned there was a price on his head.[6] But the Highlanders did neither.

The immediate cause of the battle at Killiecrankie was the seizure of Blair Castle, ancestral home of the Murrays of Atholl, by Patrick Steuart of Ballechin on Dundee’s orders. Learning of the castle’s fall, Lord Murray hurried to its defence, but with a small force and little ammunition, he could only set up a blockade and write to the new government for help. In response, General Mackay headed north. On the 26th of July, Lord Murray withdrew by several miles, and Dundee with his Highland army arrived at Blair Castle. By the following afternoon, Mackay’s force – six battalions of foot and two troops of horse, with some ‘leather’ cannons[7] (about 3,500 men) – had arrived.

Mackay’s army considerably outnumbered Dundee’s, but the Highlanders had several advantages. First, in the words of John Roberts, “Dundee had executed what can only be described as a brilliant tour-de-force”[8]: instead of taking the main road to the site of battle, he had led his troops up a back way, so that by the time Mackay saw them, they were uphill from the government forces, gaining a tactical advantage. Then, Dundee withheld the command to attack for two hours. Although there was a practical reason for this – the setting sun was in his warriors’ eyes – it must have been unnerving for those awaiting attack below. Third, Mackay was overly confident in the ability of his trained soldiers and horse to defeat what was (despite the image of Highland clans as violent, feuding warriors) essentially an untried force, most of whom had never before faced a battle.

But the greatest advantage Dundee had at Killiecrankie was that a generation had passed since Montrose and MacColla overwhelmed their opponents with the Highland Charge. Lessons learned in previous wars had been forgotten, and Mackay’s army, arranged so that they stood only three deep (not nearly strong enough to withstand the charge), was unprepared for what was about to hit it.

Raymond Campbell Paterson tells us

Just after 7 o’clock, as the summer sun was sinking just beyond Strath Garry . . . Dundee ordered a charge. Rushing downhill in the fashion of those who had followed Montrose and MacColla, the Jacobites let off a single volley, before falling on the enemy with their broadswords, slicing into Mackay’s line, and carrying away virtually the whole of his left wing and much of the centre.[9]

Mackay’s forces didn’t even have time to attach their bayonets before the Highlanders were on them, causing appalling injuries with their swords. The whole thing was over in about ten minutes.[10]

For the Jacobites, it was an astonishing victory, but it came at a cost that would prove unsustainable. Mackay’s total losses were greater, but he had more men to lose: The 600 or so Highlanders lost made up roughly a third of their army. Worse, Dundee himself was killed. Although others stepped in to command the Jacobites after the Viscount’s death, there was simply no one else who could truly lead them. The momentum that should have followed such a victory failed to develop; within a month the Jacobites would be scattered at Dunkeld, and although the rising would stumble on for another year, any real hope of success had died with John Graham at Killiecrankie.

“[D]ispersed like flies are King William’s men,” wrote Gaelic poet Iain Lom, an eye-witness; “And we are in grief though we chased them away.”[11]

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Macalister of Kinloch, as he was also known, is not named specifically in connexion with Killiecrankie. However, we know that he was with Loup and MacDonald of Largie at the start of the rising, that unlike Tarbert and Balinakill he apparently returned with Loup from Ireland, and that he was still with Loup and Largie (or Largie’s successor) when they finally surrendered the following year. It seems likely therefore that he also fought with them.

[2] James Philip of Almerieclose, The Grameid: An Heroic Poem Descriptive of the Campaign of Viscount Dundee in 1689 and other pieces, 1691 (published in 1888 by the Scottish History Society), p. 154.

[3] Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds, A History of Clan Campbell (Edinburgh University Press, 2004), vol. III, p. 65; other writers also stress the threat posed by Argyll to the clans involved.

[4] Hopkins, Glencoe and the End of the Highland War (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1998), p. 140.

[5] Hopkins, ibid., p. 137

[6] Hopkins, ibid., p. 151

[7] Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families, collected and arranged by John, Seventh Duke of Atholl, KT (Edinburgh: Ballantyne Press, 1908), p. 299.

[8] Roberts, Clan, King and Covenant: History of the Highland Clans from the Civil War to the Glencoe Massacre (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 188.

[9] Campbell Paterson, A Land Afflicted: Scotland and the Covenanter Wars, 1638-1690 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1998), p. 288.

[10] Roberts, ibid., p. 190

[11] A. H. Millar: “Killiecrankie described by an eye-witness.” Scottish Historical Review, no. 4 (1906): 63-70.

The Ascent of Tarbert

On this day in 1619, a bond was signed among the barons of Argyll. The bond dealt primarily with relationships within the Clan Campbell, so it is not surprising that all but three of the signators are Campbells. Among those who are not, however, is Archibald Macalister of Tarbert.[1]

The bond in question concerned a serious breach that had taken place within the Clan Campbell during the minority of the clan’s chief, the 7th Earl of Argyll. Competition between the various branches of that clan had resulted in the murder of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor in 1591 as part of “a foul conspiracy against Archibald, the seventh Earl”.[2] There were a number of people involved in the plot, but most of the blame fell on Sir John Campbell of Ardkinglas. Understandably this had caused hard feelings between the two families, and with their chief indefinitely out of the country,[3] there was a reasonable concern that the feud could lead to further violence. As part of the clan’s efforts to maintain law and order in Argyll during the earl’s absence, it was agreed that there should be a formal reconciliation between the families involved.[4]

Why Macalister of Tarbert was included is not clear. He and his chief, Macalister of Loup, had both been appointed a month earlier to help Campbell of Kilberry police Kintyre, but neither Loup nor Kilberry himself appear to be connected to this bond. It is possible that he simply happened to be on hand when witnesses were needed, but Campbell historian Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds indicates that he was actually party to the bond,[5] in the company of such men as Campbell of Auchinbreck, Campbell of Lochnell and Campbell of Otter. Evidently by this point Tarbert was seen as the head of a distinct house.

Although the Macalister connexion to Tarbert went back to the 1540s, it was not until the very end of the sixteenth century that these Macalisters began to act as a separate branch of the clan. They were not required to sign the General Band of 1587, suggesting that they were still very much under the authority of the Macalister chief, and as of 1591, they still held their lands as tenants of Loup rather than directly from Argyll. In 1596, they were included in a list of Kintyre landholders, but not given any particular prominence.[6] In fact, we first find Tarbert lairds acting independently at the start of the 1600s, when two of them, Hector and Archibald successively, are in trouble for raiding in Arran and Bute. Interestingly, in Archibald’s case his associates included the Earl of Argyll, suggesting that he was already on good terms with the chief of Clan Campbell.

I suspect the key to the Tarberts’ rise to prominence might lie in the status of the Loup family at this time. The head of our clan at the turn of the century was Godfrey 5th of Loup – a troublemaker in general (it was he who murdered his tutor in 1597 and instigated the Askomil incident) and a close associate of the even-more-troublesome Dunyvaig Macdonalds. Godfrey was followed as chief by Hector, who was a minor until about 1617. Thus for nearly twenty years the Tarbert Macalisters appear to have simply gone their own way. While the Loup family continued to adhere to the House of Dunyvaig, the Tarbert branch apparently deemed it wiser to cultivate the friendship of their Campbell neighbours. (Clearly, friendship with the Campbells did not keep the Tarbert lairds out of trouble, but getting into trouble with those in the king’s favour was likely to be less permanently disastrous than following the Macdonalds, who seemed to go out of their way to attract royal wrath.) It’s possible that it was during Godfrey’s tenure that some of the Tarbert lands were granted directly to that family, which would make Argyll their immediate landlord. Proximity to the Campbell heartland might also have been a factor. Whatever the reasons, in this period the Tarbert Macalisters appear more frequently in connexion with various Campbell lairds than with anyone else.

Although Hector of Loup was finally an adult by this time, recognised as one of the primary Kintyre lairds and included in the peace-keeping arrangement of 1618, it makes sense that it would be Tarbert rather than Loup who was called upon to be party to the Campbell bond. Though loyalties would vary from generation to generation, from this point on the Tarbert family were their own men, and they continued to play a prominent role in events in Kintyre well into the 18th century.

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1]My information about this bond comes entirely from Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds (A History of Clan Campbell, vol. II, pp. 175-6).

[2]John Taylor, The Great Historic Families of Scotland (London, 1889), vol. I, p. 287; Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 100-103.

[3]Argyll had been granted permission to travel to England. Instead, he went to Spain, and he did not return when ordered to do so. In view of his dire financial situation – caused partly by other people’s failure to pay him rents and debts owed – it is hardly surprising that he wanted to escape, and as he had converted to Catholicism, Spain was a logical place to start again. Spain was not seen as a friend of Scotland at this time, however, and to make matters worse, once he was there the earl established friendly relations with a number of the king’s enemies, among them his own erstwhile foe, Sir James Macdonald of Dunyvaig. Eventually he was declared a traitor by King James, and although he spent his final days in London, he was never allowed to return to Scotland. (Wm. Anderson, The Scottish Nation, vol. I (1867), p. 555; Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 174-5)

[4]Campbell, History, vol. II, pp. 175-6

[5] Ibid.

[6]Way & Squire, p. 204; Castleton, p. 167; MacPhail, pp. 75-78.

A Register of Sasines

On this day in 1699, three sasines [SAY-zins] were registered at Dumbarton involving Macalisters as local officials, as parties to the agreements or as witnesses.

A sasine was originally a sort of ceremony whereby possession of a property was transferred from the owner to the purchaser. It involved the actual handing over of clumps of dirt or stone to represent the new holder taking possession. Later the ceremony was often skipped and possession was transferred by a document called an instrument of sasine; these instruments were then entered into a register. The register of sasines for a particular area provides a fantastic resource for anyone researching that area or the people who lived there.[1]

What these three sasines demonstrate is how closely connected were the various Macalister families in Kintyre, and how involved they were in each other’s public lives. The first of the three was written by Archibald Macalister of Tarbert, who granted to John McKinnie, minister at Kilcalmonell, a plot of land for the building of a manse. The legal overseer of the process was Ronald McAlester, who was baillie in Clachan, and the document was witnessed by Ronald’s son Colin and by another of the clan who came from Lochhead (Campbeltown).

This Ronald might have been Tarbert’s brother, Ronald of Dunskeig, who had a son named Coll. The role of baillie was generally filled by men of some influence locally, which suggests a connexion to one of the more important families, and Dunskeig, like Balinakill (which this family also owned at times), is in the neighbourhood of Clachan. There is more certainty on the identity of another of the witnesses, Angus Campbell of Skipness. He was Tarbert’s brother-in-law, having married Macalister’s sister Elizabeth.

The second instrument registers a grant of liferent given by Alexander McAlester of Loup to his wife, Jean. Liferents were a way of transferring property (or the rental income from a property) to someone for that person’s lifetime only, often as a way to ensure that that person would be cared for after the grantor had died. This instrument of sasine was written by Alexander of Loup at Tarbert and was witnessed by, among others, Archibald of Tarbert and three other Macalisters. One of them was the above mentioned Colin, son of Ronald Macalister and so possibly Tarbert’s nephew. There was also another Lochhead Macalister. Again, Tarbert’s brother-in-law, Campbell of Skipness, was also a witness.

The third sasine registered on this day was a grant of various Kintyre lands by the Earl of Argyll to Archibald of Tarbert. There are fewer obvious links here to the Macalisters, possibly because it was written at Inveraray and those involved were connected to the Argyll family. In this case, however, we find Alexander of Loup acting as baillie.[2]

These instruments of sasine follow a pattern that can be seen again and again. They give us a glimpse into the past and reveal the kin-based networks that made up the lives of the leading Macalisters in the early modern era.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]More information about the sasine registers can be found at the website of the National Archives of Scotland.

[2]Transcripts of these sasines and many others are available online to members of the Clan McAlister of America at their website

Commissioner of Supply

On this day in 1667 an Act of Parliament named commissioners of supply for each county in Scotland. David Moody describes the commissioners as “a committee of wealthy landowners” whose primary task was the valuation of property and the collection of the cess, or land tax, based on these valuations.[1] In conjunction with the office of Justice of the Peace, the appointment of commissioners of supply marked the beginning of formal local government in Scotland.[2] Among those named for the county of Argyll in 1667 is “Ronald Mcalaster, captane of Tarbert”.[3]

Commissioners of supply were first created in the mid 1600s, and according to Gordon Donaldson, it was not long before “the potentialities of the commissioners for purposes other than raising money were realised”.[4] Over time their duties expanded into areas unrelated to taxation or land value. In 1669, for instance, they were made responsible for the building and maintenance of roads and bridges; in 1696 they were empowered to enforce the Education Act. Their role continued to grow through the 18th century and into the 19th. By the 1850s, however, elected officials were assuming many of their functions, and with the establishment in 1889 of county councils, the commissioners’ role had become redundant. The position was abolished in the early 1900s.

The inclusion in this list of Ronald of Tarbert suggests that, although the Clan Alasdair didn’t rampage through history quite as conspicuously as the Campbells, Macdonalds and Macleans, they were nonetheless men of considerable standing in Argyll. It is therefore interesting to note that the primary branch of the clan, Macalister of Loup, is missing. I suspect, although it is just a guess, that in 1667 the clan was between chiefs. Hector Macalister of Loup last appears in Parliamentary records in the year 1661; I believe he is also the Macalister of Loup named Justice of the Peace in 1663. After that the family disappears until 1669, by which point Godfrey Macalister had succeeded his father as chief.  

[1] David Moody, Scottish Local History: An Introductory Guide (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986) p. 60.
[2] ibid., p. 50
[3] RPS, 1667/1/10
[4] Donaldson, Scotland, p. 399

Macalisters, Campbells, Lamonts – oh my!

On this day in 1661, Ronald Macalister of Tarbert and John Dow Macalister of Glenakill submitted to the arbitration of several men, chosen by Tarbert to judge between them. They agree in this document to refer “all their differences and Claims” from that point on to be decided by the men so named.[1] It is interesting, although perhaps not surprising considering Tarbert’s connexion to the Argyll family, that all of the men named as arbitrators are Campbells.

The document recording this decreet, or legal agreement, appears in the Inventory of Lamont Papers (1231-1887), which was published by the Scottish Record Society in 1914 and is now available on line. The Inventory was compiled from papers held by the Lamont family of Inveryne in the Isle of Bute. The Lamonts were frequently involved with the Kintyre Macalisters, and various members of our clan appear in charters and other documents listed in the Inventory.

Because the relevant documents often specify how these Macalisters were related to one another and to the Lamonts, the Inventory is quite useful to anyone interested in the genealogy of leading Macalisters. It tells us, for example, that although he more often appears in the company of Tarbert, Macalister of Glenakill was in fact the “brother German to Gorrie M’Alister of Loup”[2], so here we have representatives of the two primary Clan Alasdair families. What connects them is that John Dow was married (or would soon be married) to Ronald’s first cousin, Barbara Lamond. The connection of these three families can be seen again the following year (12 May 1662), when the marriage contract of Barbara’s sister Mary was made “with Consent of Ronald M’Alister of Tarbert and John M’Alister of Glenakill her friends”.[3]

The nature of the differences between Ronald and John Dow is not indicated in the decreet recorded 7 December 1661, but apparently the arbitration arrangement resolved the conflict as no more is heard of it.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]Lamont Papers, Inveryne Inventory, Shuttle 3rd, Bundle 5th, no. 802 (p. 243)
[2]Ibid., Shuttle 4th, Bundle 2nd, no. 844 (p. 253). ‘German’ in this case has nothing to do with nationality; it is used in historical documents and genealogy to mean full-blood: they share both parents.
[3]Ibid., no. 809 (p. 245)

A Tarbert Legacy

On this day in 1705, the Scottish Parliament granted an “Act for four fairs and a weekly mercat in favor of Archbald Mackalester of Tarbet”. This act established four yearly fairs (as well as a weekly market) in the town of East Tarbert in Argyll. It was felt that such events, held “in convenient places”, were of significant benefit to the areas involved. The Tarbert Fairs were to begin on 10th May, 16th July, 19th August, and the 16th of October, and they were to continue for two days. Macalister and his heirs were granted the right to hold these events, to collect tolls and customs and to enjoy other privileges connected with the events.1

The Tarbert Fair did benefit the area – so much so that it outlasted both the original Scottish Parliament (which voted itself out of existence in 1707) and the Macalisters of Tarbert. In 1886, Dugald Mitchell called it “a great institution of the village”, and noted that although livestock and goods were still sold there, Tarbert Fair for most people had become a social event, a chance to meet up with friends and family from other parts of Kintyre and the Isles. By Mitchell’s time, the fair was being held only once a year, on the last Thursday in July, and lasted for three days.2

Today, Tarbert Fair remains one of Tarbert’s most important annual events. It now begins the last Wednesday of July and runs for four days; livestock have disappeared entirely, and instead the fair features music, carnival rides, and other entertainments.3 Instead of drawing visitors from only Kintyre and the south Isles, Tarbert Fair now draws people from all over the world. Archibald Macalister might not recognise the modern incarnation of the Tarbert Fair, but it is his legacy to the town nonetheless.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]RSP,14 September 1705
[2]Mitchell, pp. 99-100; 77

A Baronet at Glasgow University

On this day in 1854 Donald (later Sir Donald) Macalister was born in Perth. Because of his long association with Glasgow University, he is probably the best known descendant of the Tarbert family, but the direct line of descent is unclear. He lived briefly in Aberdeen as a child before moving with his family to Liverpool at the age of ten.[1] 

Donald was the eldest of eight children and the brother of Sir John Young Walker Macalister. Like his brother he dreamt of a medical career; unlike John, Donald eventually fulfilled this dream, earning his doctorate from Cambridge in 1884 and being elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London two years later.[2] However, much of his career was spent in academia, first as a tutor and lecturer at Cambridge, and later at Glasgow, where he was appointed principal in 1907 and chancellor in 1929. Sir Donald oversaw “an ambitious building programme” at Glasgow and the establishment of more than twenty new academic chairs,[3] including obstetrics and gynaecology, pathology, Scottish History and literature, bacteriology, mercantile law, and applied physics.[4] He published works on a similarly wide variety of topics, and was fluent in quite a number of languages. His many achievements were recognised formally with a knighthood in 1907 and a baronetcy in 1924.

Donald Macalister married later in life, and when he died in 1934, he left no children.[5] He was buried in Cambridge.[6]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1] The Incomparable Mac: A Biographical Study of Sir John Young Walker Macalister, p. 11 
[2]Obituary: Sir Donald MacAlister, Bt., K.C.B., M.D., D.C.L., LL.D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., Chancellor of the University of Glasgow; late President of the General Medical Council’ in the British Medical Journal (20 January, 1934): 125-6. 
[3] University of Glasgow web site 
[4] obituary 
[5] obituary 
[6] Find-a-Grave

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.

Loup & Tarbert, J.P.

On this day in 1663, Mcalaster of Loup and Mcalaster, Captain of Tarbert, were among those appointed justices of the peace for Argyllshire. These commissions were to last until the king decided to issue new orders.[1] The appointment of these men to a position of civic responsibility suggests that for the moment, both of the clan’s main branches were on the right side of the law. That might have had something to do with the company they were keeping: Most of the other appointees were either Campbells or Macleans. Apparently Clan Alasdair’s leaders had distanced themselves from the Macdonalds after MacColla’s rising ended in disaster in 1647. 

Neither Macalister’s personal name is given in transcription, so perhaps they were illegible. I think this is probably the last record of Hector Macalister, 6th of Loup. He was certainly dead by June 1665, when his son is called ‘Laird of Loup’ in a land document (13 June 1665) and ‘Gorrie M’Alister of Loup’ in his brother’s wedding contract (30 June 1665).[2]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] Records of the Parliament of Scotland, 1663/6/144 (

[2] Inventory of Lamont Papers, p. 253, items 843, 844