A Freeholder of Argyll

On the 19th July 1790, a meeting was held at Inveraray of the freeholders of Argyllshire, who gathered to choose the shire’s representative for the upcoming parliament. Among the attendees listed is Angus Macalister, 11th of Loup.

In the Scottish context, a freeholder was a tenant-in-chief — someone who held his lands directly from the king. This had nothing to do with the landholder’s local prominence or personal wealth. Many well-established families in Scotland held their lands from one of the king’s vassals rather than from the king himself[1] — including the Macalisters of Tarbert, who were vassals, or subtenants, of the Campbells of Argyll. The Loup family itself held some of its properties from the Macdonalds of Dunyvaig in earlier times, and later some from Argyll. But the Macalister chiefs’ position as freeholders was important. William Ferguson tells us that “by the late seventeenth century the term [freeholder] was used mainly with reference to the electoral system, the freeholders or barons constituting the county electorate”.[2] In fact, “[o]utside the burghs virtually all Scottish voters” belonged to this group, according to Margaret Sankey and Daniel Szechi; as a result “county electorates were small, usually less than a hundred voters”.[3] Thus despite Angus’s relative insignificance compared to magnates like Argyll, he was one of the few Argyllshire men who could vote and his family therefore wielded considerable power.

It is not clear when the Macalisters first gained possession of the property from which their territorial designation comes, but they clearly were freeholders almost from the start. The first mention we have of the lands of Loup is in 1481, when the king granted them, along with many others, to John of Islay (Lord of the Isles). The property seems to have been granted by him to the Macalisters who, as a sept of the Clan Donald living in the heart of the Lordship, were already John’s followers. Certainly by the time of the final Forfeiture, in 1493, the Macalister chief was holding Loup as a vassal of Macdonald of the Isles.[4] At that point John’s lands in Kintyre reverted to the king, who apparently regranted Loup to the Macalisters, thereafter to be held directly of him. The rentals of 1506 and 1541 show the Loup property still in the hands of the Macalisters, and in 1605, Macalister’s charter for his crown holdings was confirmed.

In 1607, Kintyre was granted to the Campbell Earl of Argyll in response to the Macdonald-Maclean feud. Argyll’s grant was ratified in 1617, after more trouble from the (now landless) Macdonalds of Dunyvaig. The earl was instructed not to let any of his new lands to anyone named Macdonald, Maclean, Macneill or Macalister. However, Hector Macalister, 6th of Loup, held his lands of the king, not Argyll; additionally, Hector had been too young to be involved in the various disorders of the early 1600s, so no punitive measures were taken against him. Still, holding one’s land in Kintyre required a diplomatic balancing act: Loyalty to the king served the Loup family well when Argyll fell from favour, but during the 17th century it was often a liability. The Macalisters didn’t always get it right; they did however seem to know when it was time to give up: As an adult, Hector narrowly avoided forfeiture (or worse) at the end of the Civil Wars by quickly switching sides when it became clear that Alasdair MacColla’s rising was at an end; his great-grandson, Alexander the 10th of Loup, was accused of treason for his involvement in the first Jacobite rising and almost certainly would have been forfeited had he not surrendered before he could be arrested.

But different types of challenge presented themselves in the centuries that followed. Allan Macinnes writes, “The acquisitiveness of the Campbells at the expense of other Argyllshire clans [was] the most pronounced feature of landholding in the eighteenth century”.[5] Indeed, of the 57 heritors who appear on the 1751 valuation of Kintyre, nearly half (23) are Campbells.[6] Among those who had fallen victim to Campbell hegemony were the Tarbert Macalisters, who by 1751 had already lost most of their lands and were being sued by Argyll for failure to meet some of the terms of their tenancy. Yet the very fact of Angus’s inclusion on the list of voters for this particular election suggests one reason he had survived. As Sankey and Szechi explain,

Being returned to Westminster as a knight of the shire for a Scottish county . . . required a successful candidate to exploit his local and family networks to produce a coalition of friends, neighbours and kinsmen sufficient to vote him in.[7]

The unanimous election of Lord Frederick Campbell, a brother of the 5th Duke of Argyll, to the post[8] suggests that the men who met on this day at Inverary — including Angus Macalister of Loup — were those who had made themselves Campbell allies.

Ultimately, however, Angus’s political realism could not save him from the biggest threat to 18th-century lairds: accumulating debt. He had already been sued, in November 1746, by creditors of his father Charles in attempt to collect on Charles’s debts. Before the end of the decade, his lands in Kintyre would be sold off by trustees. Although the designation ‘of Loup’ is still held by Angus’s successors, he was the last of this family to be called a freeholder of Argyll.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2016

[1] A. Mackenzie, A View of the Political State of Scotland at the Late General Election (Edinburgh: Mundell & Son, 1790), p. 21.

[2] W. Ferguson, Scotland: 1689 to the Present, Edinburgh History of Scotland vol. 4 (Mercat Press, 1990), p. 72.

[3] Sankey & Szechi, “Elite Culture and the Decline of Scottish Jacobitism, 1716-1745” in Past & Present, No. 173 (Nov. 2001), p. 105.

[4] Origines Parochiales, vol. 2, part 1, p. 31.

[5] A. Macinnes, “Landownership, Land Use and Elite Enterprise in Scottish Gaeldom: from Clanship to Clearance in Argyllshire, 1688-1858”, in T. Devine, ed., Scottish Elites, p. 9

[6] L. Timperley, A Directory of Land Ownership in Scotland, c. 1770 (Scottish Record Society, 2014), pp. 28-46.

[7] Sankey & Szechi, ibid.

[8] A. Mackenzie, p. 59.

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


Scandled of Treasone

In December of 1689, Alexander Macalister (8th) of Loup was among a group of men named by the Scottish Privy Council as “suspected or scandled of treasone”; his rents were to be sequestered until he could be brought to trial. Also named were his allies, MacDonald of Largie and MacNeill of Gallachoille, along with numerous others. These men were accused of being “in actual rebellion and arms against their Majesties’ government and laws”, having continued to “perpetrate and carry on their wicked designs against their Majesties”. Just for good measure they were also charged with disturbing the public peace.[1]

The ‘Majesties’ in question were, of course, William and Mary, who had taken the thrones of Scotland and England the previous year. The suspicion of treason arose from the adherence of these men to King James VII, who was holding on in Ireland despite determined opposition from most of the Protestant establishment in his other kingdoms. That adherence had led Loup, Largie and Gallachoille, as well as other local lairds, to the Battle of Loup Hill in May, to James’s court in Ireland, and then in July to Killiecrankie, where they fought in the regiment of Sir Alexander Maclean under Viscount Dundee.[2]

The astonishing victory at Killiecrankie was followed in August by defeat at Dunkeld, and that defeat led Macalister of Balinakill and Macalister of Tarbert (both of whom apparently remained in Ireland with King James when their chief returned to fight under Dundee) to surrender to the authorities and take the Oath of Allegiance to the new monarchs.[3] But Loup and his friends were not ready to give up.

The question arises of why these men, and others like them, chose this dangerous allegiance. For much of their history the Macdonald-allied clans had been at odds with the Stewart (later Stuart) kings, several of whom made significant efforts towards ‘subduing’ the Western Highlands and Islands — particularly the clans that had followed the Lords of the Isles. After the final forfeiture of the Lordship, in 1493, Clan Donald septs (including the Macalisters) and other allied clans had rebelled repeatedly in attempt to restore it; repeatedly they were defeated, forfeited, and often restored only as vassals of the Campbells of Argyll, who acted as lieutenants for the king. But in the early decades of the 17th century the relations of these clans with the House of Stuart had begun to change.

Contrary to popular belief, there was in earlier times no particular animosity between the Campbells and the Macdonalds or anyone else. The Clan Campbell had indeed grown powerful as the power of Clan Donald ebbed, but the Campbells had used that power not only to enforce the king’s will on their neighbouring clans but also at times for the benefit of these same clans.[4] In the late 16th century, however, a simmering feud between the Macleans of Duart and the Dunyvaig Macdonalds flared up. Nearly all the local clans took one side or the other, and King James stepped in to quell the violence, calling on his lieutenant in the west, the Earl of Argyll:

As disorder spread in the Western Isles, the Campbells became ‘the masters of aggressive feudalism’, especially under the eighth Earl of Argyll. Suspected of fomenting disorder and unrest among the western clans to justify his intervention on behalf of the Crown, his actions were largely responsible for the bitter enmity that subsequently divided the Campbells from the other clans in Argyll and the Western Isles, and especially the septs of Clan Donald.[5]

Thus when Alasdair MacColla arrived from Ireland in the 1640s, ostensibly to fight for King Charles I, many of the Western clans saw him not as a defender of the Stuart king or even of the Catholic faith (for many of them were now Episcopalians) but as an enemy of the eighth Earl — now Marquess — of Argyll, who was leading the opposition to Charles in Scotland.

When Charles was executed in London, even Argyll was angered; Charles’s son was declared king of Scotland and the Scots as a whole rallied to Charles II. The new king’s defeat by Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army in 1651 was followed by nearly a decade of English occupation. By the time King Charles was restored in 1660, most of the Macdonald clans were firmly in the Royalist camp, and it was Argyll, rather than the Crown, they considered a threat. None of them supported the invasion of the forfeited ninth Earl of Argyll in 1685, and all of them understood that with the ascension of William and Mary (whom the 10th Earl of Argyll supported), the Argyll family would also rise again.

John Roberts writes: “There can hardly be any doubt that the chieftains of the western Highland clans were deeply alarmed by the prospect of Argyll’s restoration, which threatened them all to varying degrees.”[6] And so in November of 1688 the Clan Alasdair lairds declared their support of Charles’s successor, James VII, and the close of 1689 found the Macalister chief facing arrest for treason. As it turned out, however, issuing a warrant for his arrest was easier than actually arresting him, and Alexander of Loup remained at liberty to fight once more for King James.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1]Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, series 3, vol. XV, pp. 2-3.

[2]The Macdonald who was ‘of Largie’ at Loup Hill was Donald, who died at Killiecrankie; it is his brother Archibald who is named in the December Privy Council register.

[3]Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, series 3, vol. XIV, pp. 235-6.

[4]D. Gregory, The History of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, from AD 1493 to AD 1625, 2nd ed., p. 192; C. Fraser-Mackintosh, The Last Macdonalds of Isla, p. 26.

[5]John L. Roberts, Clan, King and Covenant (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), pp. 9-10.

[6]ibid., p. 174

Angus of Shiskine

On this day in 1563, a bond was signed at Brodick Castle between James Hamilton, Duke of Châtelherault, and Angus M’Rannald Moir M’Allister. As in most bonds, there is a grant of land (the ‘fourtie schilling aucht penny worth land of Kilpatrick and Drumgriner land within his gracis landis of Seskene [Shiskine], Ile and erldome of Arran’[1]), in return for which Macalister promises to be an obedient tenant and to make sure his own tenants are law-abiding and loyal. Noticeably missing, however, is any promise of service to Châtelherault. Dr Jenny Wormald concludes that ‘although no doubt in practice Angus Macallaster served Châtelherault in very much the same way as did those who made bonds of manrent in Arran, nevertheless their obligations and undertakings were different’.[2] Among Macalister’s obligations was a promise to assist the Duke in evicting any ‘rebellis and dissobeyaris’ from the island, leading W. M. Mackenzie to describe this Macalister as Châtelherault’s ‘henchman’.[3] Perhaps Angus’s role was similar to that of estate factor in later times.

This association with the Hamiltons might be connected to the fact that both groups were recent settlers in Arran. After years of making devastating raids against Arran and Bute in company with the Macdonalds, Macalisters had begun to settle in Arran by the early 1500s, about the same time that the Hamilton family began its rise to power there. Perhaps as newcomers the Macalisters were less reluctant than established families to enforce the Hamiltons’ unpopular decrees on their neighbours. Whatever the reason, the lands granted to Angus in Shiskine became closely associated with this clan. Although Allan Macinnes shows Arran as the territory of Macneill of Gigha & Taynish as late as the 1650s, by the time of the Revolution in 1689 it is Macalister territory.[4] Charles Robertson, speaking in 1936, said Macalister was the clan ‘longer associated with Shiskine than any other’ and recalled that

In my boyhood days the M’Alisters were the most numerous clan in Shiskine. They occupied positions of trust in our public bodies. In fact, they ruled us both temporally and spiritually. A M’Alister would take as naturally to a Kirk Session as a Kerr or Kelso from Lochranza, would take to the water.[5]

Despite Mr Robertson’s fears nearly a century ago that the name would soon disappear from Shiskine, there are still Macalisters living there today.

The identity of Angus M’Rannald Moir M’Allister is unclear, but the most likely reading of his name indicates that he was the son of someone known as Ranald Mòr and belonged to the Clann Alasdair. The fact that those living in Shiskine continued to use the name Macalister suggests that in this case it is in fact the family name rather than a changeable patronymic such as those being used at the time by Donald McAlester (MacDonald of Largie, whose father was Alexander mac Ranald Ban) and the chief of Clanranald (who appears in contemporary records as John Moirdearach Macalastair because of his descent from an Alexander in that family).

It seems reasonably certain that Angus belonged to the Loup family or one of its branches — most early Macalister landholders in Bute and Arran were members of the leading families of the clan. One possibility is that Angus descended from the first Macalister on record in Arran, Ranald Macalister (or Reginald MacAlexander) who died in 1458. This Ranald had held extensive lands in Arran, at one point including Lochranza Castle, but for the last twenty years of his life had managed not to pay any rent at all[6], which eventually led to the loss of his holdings. We don’t know for sure who Ranald was, but Mackenzie agrees that ‘he was probably astray from’ the Loup family.[7] Considering the years involved, however, it seems unlikely that Angus was this Ranald’s son. He might have been a grandson, but Reginald MacAlexander is nowhere referred to as Mòr, and if the term was added later to distinguish him from a son named Ranald, then Angus’s patronymic should be Mac Ranald Oig.

As far as I know, the only Loup family member on record as Ranald Mòr in the early 16th century was a younger brother of Alasdair of Loup; he is named in the Assedation and Rentals of Crown Lands in Kintyre in 1541 as holder of the Dewpin property.[8] My guess – and it is only a guess – is that Angus was a son of this Ranald Mòr. One problem with this theory is that neither of Ranald Mòr’s known sons was named Angus. However, at this point the younger children of landholders often did not merit notice by keepers of records, and there is no reason to think Ranald Mòr might not have had additional children.

Whoever Angus really was, unlike Donald of Langilwenach he did not later receive a more important grant elsewhere, and so it seems that he remained in Arran and established the clan there.[9]

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] W. M. Mackenzie, The Book of Arran, vol. 2 (Glasgow, 1914), pp. 86-7.

[2] J. Wormald, Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent, 1442-1603 (Edinburgh, 1985), p. 58.

[3] Mackenzie, ibid., p. 87

[4] A. I. Macinnes, Clanship, Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788 (East Linton, Scot., 1996), pp. 242, 244. This might reflect a Macneill forfeiture, as they were unequivocally Royalists during the Civil War – as opposed to Hector Macalister of Loup, who seems to have switched sides at least once and suffered little for his early allegiance to Alasdair MacColla.

[5] C. Robertson, “Clans of Shiskine Past and Present“, speech given 10 March 1936, Glasgow; printed by the Buteman, Ltd., no date given.

[6] Many of those whose lands were devastated by raiders from Kintyre were granted relief from their rents in especially bad years. Macalister however seems to have pushed this a bit too far!

[7] Mackenzie, p. 45

[8] Kintyre Rentals, 1505-1710, transcribed by Judge A. I. B. Stewart & Andrew McKerral, 1987; p. 10.

[9] There was also in Arran the Clan Alasdair Beag, whose connexion to the Loup family, if any, is unclear.

News of the Day

On this day in 1803, issue no. 5 of the Ayr Advertiser[1] went on sale. A copy of this issue, held by the South Ayrshire County libraries, is the earliest known surviving issue of Scotland’s first weekly newspaper. It was discovered in January 2015 in an attic in Edinburgh.[2]

Issue no. 5 provides an interesting snapshot of life in Ayr in the Napoleonic period. One article noted that the Ayr races for the season had been cancelled, as “almost every Nobleman and Gentleman is doing duty with one corps or another in defence of the country”.[3]

Charles Somerville McAlester, 12th of Loup, was at this time one of the ‘noblemen and gentlemen’ of Ayrshire. In the 1790s, his father Angus had (with Charles’s consent) resigned the family’s properties in Kintyre into the hands of trustees, to be sold in order to pay off heavy debts – an unfortunate position in which many Highland landowners of this period found themselves. (Most of these properties, after several owners, ended up in the possession of the Glenbarr family.) However, Charles’s marriage in 1792 to the heiress of the Somervilles of Kennox, in Ayr, had restored the Loup family’s fortunes and brought them to live in Ayrshire, where Charles seems to have quickly involved himself in the county’s social set. It is likely that this included maintaining an interest in horse racing, which was very much a part of Ayrshire landed society.

Although horse races had taken place since the 16th century all over Scotland, it was only in 1777, when the racecourse at Ayr was built, that racing really took off.[4] Many races were part of – though not the purpose of – annual local fairs, but racing as an organised sport was controlled by the area’s landowners: the nobles and gentry mentioned in the Advertiser article. These landholders were the only ones whose horses could be spared regularly from the demands of farming, and they also had the influence needed to protect a form of entertainment that did not always meet with approval from some quarters. John Burnett, in an interesting article on this topic, points out that it is no coincidence to find horse racing developing and surviving as a sport in places like Ayrshire and Renfrewshire, which had a large number of landed proprietors, rather than in places like Aberdeen, where this class of people were fewer.[5]

As it happened, however, in 1803 there was little point in holding the races. The Peace of Amiens – a treaty signed the previous year with France – had broken down several months before this, and Napoleon was now gathering his forces and preparing to cross the Channel and invade. The men who were needed to keep the races going – and no doubt many of those who just enjoyed watching them – were all away preparing to protect the country.

On the first of September 1803, Charles of Loup was serving as a captain with one of the corps mentioned in the article, the Ayrshire Militia. This force had been formed from the core of the 7th North British (Ayr and Renfrew) Militia, which had disbanded the previous year with the Peace of Amiens. It was reactivated (and renamed) in January 1803. The militias did not serve overseas, and as we now know, Napoleon never made it to Britain. However, local militias were considered an important part of homeland defence, and the Ayrshire Militia raised in response to the Napoleonic threat was not stood down until 1816.[6] On this day in 1803, they were stationed in Perth, with more important things to worry about than missing the races.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] At this point it was actually the Air Advertiser; the spelling was changed in 1839 (British Newspapers On-line: Ayr Advertiser, accessed 31 August 2015).

[2] South Ayrshire Libraries, “Oldest known Ayrshire newspaper discovered“, South Ayrshire History blog, 10 January 2015.

[3] ibid

[4] John Burnett, “The Sites and Landscapes of Horse Racing in Scotland before 1860” in The Sports Historian, No. 18, 1 (May 1998): 64, accessed 31 August 2015.

[5] ibid, p. 57

[6] Records of the Ayrshire Militia, from 1802 to 1883 (privately printed in 1884; published 2011 by South Ayrshire Libraries).

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.

Orders of Protection

In the summer of 1665, the Privy Council of Scotland, “having heard and considered a petition presented for Gory McAllaster of Loup”, granted the Macalister chief an order of protection, to last until the end of July. Further orders (or extensions) of protection were issued in 1671 and 1672.[1] Similar orders were issued for numerous other chiefs at various times.

These orders of protection tell us a few things about Godfrey Macalister of Loup. Like other Highland chieftains, Loup was required by law to personally appear before the Privy Council in Edinburgh each year, to sign bonds of caution for the good behaviour of his clansmen and tenants.[2] Like many of the others, Loup appears to have tried to fulfill this obligation. By the late 17th century, however, a majority of the chiefs, including Macalister, were heavily in debt.[3] In their own lands, surrounded by kinsmen and loyal tenants, they were relatively secure from vengeful creditors, but they knew that once they ventured out of their areas of influence, they would be at the mercy of those from whom they had borrowed. Many could not hope to “travel unmolested by creditors to Edinburgh in order to give their bonds”.[4] The Privy Council, writes Michael Fry, “which liked to see them once a year, had to issue them with passes against arrest”.[5] Allan Kennedy found record of more than sixty such orders of safe conduct issued between the years of 1664 and 1678.[6]

This widespread indebtedness had a number of causes. Travel to Edinburgh, both to make bonds of peace as required by the government and to pursue their own disputes through the courts, were costly. In the latter case, there were also legal fees. Furthermore, Kennedy notes that once these men were in town, there was a “tendency to make lengthy personal sojourns” in Edinburgh, which also cost money.[7] For example, the protection granted to Macalister (among others) at the end of 1671 was extended through January and then on into March as “the said business is not yet brought to a close”.[8]

As the Highland lairds interacted more frequently with their counterparts from the Lowlands and England, they also began to acquire the habits of their southern peers, leading to significant expenditure on clothing, gambling and other indulgences, and many families in this period also undertook expensive building projects, building or improving and then furnishing homes.[9] In the late 16th century and early 17th century, inflation worked in the chiefs’ favour – income could be increased in various ways, the real cost of debt declined as the money itself was worth less and less, and credit was easy to obtain. In fact, Douglas Watt concludes, many lairds appear to have borrowed “simply because they could”.[10]

Unfortunately, the second half of the 17th century saw the pendulum swing back. Deflation set in, reducing incomes and increasing the real value of debt already accrued. To make matters worse, the utter devastation of many lairds’ properties in the wars of the 1640s left tenants unable to pay rents, further reducing their chiefs’ income right when the money was needed to rebuild. Cash-strapped lairds then borrowed more to cover the gap.

Creditors in the early part of this period were often near kinsmen of the chief, which took some of the pressure off. Kinsmen, close neighbours and friends were less likely to pursue debts with the heartless efficiency of relative strangers in the Lowlands. Furthermore, quite a few cases are recorded in which a chief’s overwhelming debts were actually bought out by his kinsmen to prevent the chief losing his lands (which were considered by most to belong to the clan as a whole). However, as the seventeenth century wore on, Highland lairds were increasingly indebted to merchants and lawyers in Edinburgh as well as to Lowland lairds.[11] These creditors often found it difficult to get hold of their Highland debtors, whose lands in some cases were literally beyond the reach of law. The only thing they could do in attempt to be repaid was to raise apprisings on the property of the borrowers – something that made it difficult for the laird involved to get more credit but did little to recover the money he had already borrowed. The annual journey of the Highland chiefs to Edinburgh therefore presented a golden opportunity for creditors to pursue their debts. This naturally made the chiefs apprehensive about fulfilling their promises to the Privy Council unless the Council would guarantee their safety.

In many cases, the debts run up by one chief were passed on to his heir. This seems to have been the situation facing Godfrey Macalister. Godfrey’s father Hector, one of our more successful chiefs despite living in difficult times, is named as a debtor to Jonet Campbell in 1631, to George Campbell of Kinnochtry in 1637 and 1641, and to Ninian Lamont in 1643.[12] There was probably a financial cost too for his willingness in the 1620s to stand as surety for the good behaviour of Coll Ciotach Macdonald (who, with his son Alasdair MacColla, proceeded to behave rather badly as far as the government was concerned). Several of these debts continued to plague Godfrey. Letters of horning were issued against him in 1664 by Colin Campbell, the son of George of Kinnochtry, in attempt to force him to repay the debt owed by his father. The following year, Campbell obtained a decreet of apprising on Macalisters’ lands in effort to collect. In 1669, someone apparently caught up with Godfrey because we find him being held in the Tolbooth at Rothesay (Isle of Bute); the nature of his crime is not specified, but in light of his otherwise good behaviour, debt is the most likely explanation. In 1671 however, he is back in Edinburgh, still in debt and requiring once more an order of protection from the Privy Council.[13]

Sometimes members of the Highland elite were able to satisfy their creditors. In May of 1675, a contract between Gory Macalister and Colin Campbell of Kinnochtry set up payment plans for the money Macalister’s father owed to Campbell’s father. In return, the letters of apprising that Campbell had against Macalister’s lands were to be turned over to Macalister.[14] In the long run, however, the indebtedness of Highland lairds would have a devastating effect on the culture of the Highlands, with many chiefs either losing their lands all together or slowly becoming simply landlords, whose estates were run for profit and whose tenants and clansmen often paid the price. Alexander Fraser notes that the late 18th century saw “an economic landslide in Mid-Argyll . . . . The accumulated difficulties of more than one hundred years proved insupportable, and the landed families . . . failed, one after another”.[15] Among those families whose debts ultimately cost them their lands were the Macalisters of Loup and the Macalisters of Tarbert.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Records of the Privy Council of Scotland (series iii), vol. II, p. 58; A. Kennedy, Governing Gaeldom: The Scottish Highlands and the Restoration State, 1660-1688 (Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2014), p. 37, note 84.

[2] This requirement originated with the Statutes of Iona in 1609, which charged the Gaidhealtachd‘s natural leaders with maintaining peace and order on their lands.

[3] Ranald Macalister of Tarbert was also in debt. His lands were appraised at a debt of 4,706 merks in 1668 (Beaton, “How the Tarbert Lands Passed from the Macalisters to the Campbells”, p. 15).

[4] Kennedy, p. 37, note 84

[5] M. Fry, Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History (London: John Murray Publishers, 2005), p. 36

[6] Kennedy, p. 189

[7] Kennedy, p. 37, note 84; D. Watt, “The laberinth of thir difficulties”, Scottish Historical Review, vol. 86, no. 219 (April 2006), p. 35.

[8] RPCS (series iii), vol. III, p. 430

[9] Watt, p. 36

[10] Watt, p. 37

[11] Watt, p. 40. He also points out (p. 37) that interest rates higher than 50% were not unheard of, so borrowing itself was an expensive proposition.

[12] The Clan Campbell, vol. 5: Abstracts of Entries Relating to Campbells in the Early Unprinted Records relating to Ayrshire, 1515-1650, pp. 201-2; Decisions of the Court of Session from its Institution to the Present Time, digested under proper heads, in the form of a dictionary, vol. XVII, case 15821; Inventory of Lamont Papers, p. 210, item 748.

[13] RPCS (series iii), vol. II, pp. 399, 403, 415

[14] Decisions of the Court of Session, vol. XVII, case 15821.

[15] Fraser, North Knapdale in the XVII and XVIIIth Centuries, p. 81.

He Said, She Said . . .

On this day in 1756, Angus Macalister of Loup married his widowed cousin Jean (or Jane – the names were interchangeable). Jean was the daughter of John Macdonald of Ardnacross and Grace McAlester, whose father had been the seventh laird of Loup. To put it mildly, the marriage got off to a rocky start.

The first hint we have of trouble between them comes in April 1758, when Jean went before the Commissaries of Edinburgh to institute a Declarator of Marriage and Adherence.[1] By doing so, she was asking the Commissariot to rule that her marriage to Angus was valid, because by this point he was claiming that it had never taken place.

Perhaps she could have seen this denial coming, as she was certainly not the first eighteenth-century bride to find herself in this situation.[2] Theirs was an ‘irregular’ marriage (although Angus had procured a minister to perform the ceremony),[3] and the young groom insisted that the marriage be kept secret until he could talk to his uncle, a Lamont of that Ilk. Angus was afraid Lamont would object to the union because of his youth and because Jean did not have a fortune.[4] Angus therefore returned to Argyllshire, urging his new wife to follow.

Before she could join him, however, Jean discovered that Angus had given her a venereal disease. Angus wrote to his surgeon in Edinburgh, asking the doctor to give his new wife the best treatment available, but to keep the marriage itself a secret. Eventually Jean set off for Argyll, no doubt anxious to share the news of her marriage with her family and friends. Angus, however, insisted the secret still be kept. Jean asked that she at least be allowed to tell her mother, to whose house she now retired, but when the news began to get out, Angus denied that there had been a wedding at all.

It was precisely this sort of conflict that the Commissariot of Edinburgh existed to resolve,[5] and so it was to the Commissariot that Jean first turned in effort to force Angus to recognise her as his wife. Initially, the Commissaries ruled in Jean’s favour, but when Angus appealed they reversed their verdict, determining that in fact no marriage had taken place. Jean then took her case to the Court of Sessions.[6] On the 4th of January, a decreet was issued in her favour. But Angus was having none of it: He appealed directly to the House of Lords.

In an interesting 1999 article, Leah Leneman notes that written evidence, “particularly in the man’s own handwriting”, carried a lot of weight when an irregular marriage was disputed.[7] The letter Angus had written to his doctor, naming Jean as his wife, was an important factor in the Lords’ decision to throw out his appeal, which they did on 2 May 1759.

With no one else to turn to, Angus seems to have given up trying to dissolve the marriage — but he didn’t exactly rush back to Jean’s side. In the summer of 1761, Hector McAlister in Arran wrote to his brother Alexander in North Carolina that “he [Loup] does not cohabit with her nor own her, but she has an annuity of thirty pounds a year off him” and that “his estate is much encumbered defending that unhappy plea with his wife”.[8]

As is probably to be expected, this was the usual result of a marital lawsuit. Leneman points out that winning such a case was unlikely to lead to a “happy married life, for the bitterness engendered in the course of the legal action usually made any prospect of an amicable relationship in the future out of the question”.[9] In this, however, Angus and Jean diverge from the norm. At some point not long after the correspondence of 1761, the couple evidently reconciled. In 1765, their son Charles (future 12th of Loup) was born. In 1772, Angus granted a bond in favour of “Mrs Jean McDonald his spouse”, making sure she would be provided for should she outlive him.[10] By 1775, there were three daughters in addition to Charles. And when Jean died in 1812, she was described simply as the “relic [widow] of Angus MacAlester of Loup, Esq.”[11]

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Thomas S. Paton, Reports of Cases Decided in the House of Lords upon Appeal from Scotland, from 1757 to 1784, Vol. II (Edinburgh, 1851), p. 31.

[2] Leneman, “Wives and Mistresses in Eighteenth-century Scotland”, in Women’s History Review, vol. 8, no. 4 (1999): 674.

[3] According to Leneman, a ‘regular’ marriage was “one for which banns had been called, and which was subsequently performed in church by a minister”. An ‘irregular’ marriage required neither banns nor a minister, simply the exchange of consent to marry – or even a promise to marry in future – followed by consummation of the relationship. Although fines were sometimes imposed to discourage irregular marriages, they were perfectly legal and recognised by the authorities (p. 673).

[4] Reports of Cases Decided, p. 30

[5] Leneman, p. 673

[6] Patrick Fraser, A Treatise on the Law of Scotland, as Applicable to the Personal and Domestic Relations, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1846), p. 157.

[7] Leneman, p. 675

[8] McAllister Family Papers, Cumberland County, NC, 1747-1935 (North Carolina Division of Archives & History, July 1996), appendix II, no. 6, p. 3.

[9] Leneman, p. 687

[10] Argyll Particular Register of Sasines, RS 10, vol. 11 (25th March 1778); transcribed by the Clan McAlister of America Scottish Records Project.

[11] The Scots Magazine, vol. 74 (1812), p. 806

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.

Siege of Sevastopol

On this day in 1854, the Siege of Sevastopol got under way with allied artillery and naval bombardment of the Crimean capital. The siege, which had technically begun the previous month, saw French and British armies attempting to take the port city of Sevastopol from Russia during the Crimean War. Although the most famous names associated with this conflict are those of Florence Nightingale and Leo Tolstoy, the thousands of soldiers from Britain included many members of our clan.

The 19th-century Crimean conflict is not well remembered these days, but it was significant in a number of ways. Historian Orlando Figes observes that it was both “the earliest example of a truly modern war” — making use of industrial technologies and weapons; being recorded for the folks at home by reporters and photographers on the spot; and foreshadowing the kind of trench warfare that would characterise WWI — and “the last war to be conducted by the old codes of chivalry, with . . . truces in the fighting to clear the dead and wounded from the killing fields”[1] and military commands primarily drawn from the upper levels of society.

More importantly, it was a turning point in European history. Although it had its roots in Russia’s relations with (and general European interference in) the Muslim east, it upset the political balance in Europe, creating new tensions that ultimately led to the First World War. Crimea, Figes writes, was “located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world” and was “continuously in contention”.[2] Russia’s long-held belief that Moscow was the Third Rome, destined to rule Christendom, required that Constantinople be retaken from the Muslim Ottomans and Turks. Conflicts over Ottoman treatment of Greeks earlier in the century had been tempered by Tsar Alexander’s commitment to his treaty agreements, but his brother Nicholas I was more concerned with his perceived responsibility for his co-religionists.[3] Taking advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, Russia invaded, declaring itself the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Muslim territories. The tsar apparently expected Prussia and Austria (his erstwhile allies) and Britain (which, like Russia, was at odds with the French) to support him. But Russian control of the area threatened these countries more than the Ottomans, and they gave the tsar a deadline to withdraw his forces. While Europe sought a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, the Ottomans — against the advice of everyone — declared war on Russia. This left Britain and France, who had pledged support, little option but to “set aside their ongoing enmity [with each other] and support another former enemy, the Ottoman Turks”.[4] British, Turkish and French troops began arriving in Crimea in August 1854.

From the beginning, this war was characterised by a “catalogue of misunderstandings and misapprehensions”.[5] For example, an early opportunity to end the siege was missed because the French and English weren’t sure who was supposed to act first. The campaign was also badly planned, at least on the British side (the French army — having more recently fought a war — was somewhat better organised). British military command took for granted that the men would be home before winter, so they didn’t bother to learn about the severity of Crimean winters before sending their thousands of soldiers to war without adequate food, clothing or shelter.[6] Through bad communication, and sometimes the incompetence of commanders, lives were lost that might have been saved. On the other hand, the war was marked on all sides by acts of courage and an ability to improvise that won the admiration of enemies and countrymen alike.

Of the numerous Macalisters who took part in the Siege of Sevastopol, nine were awarded the Baltic Star for naval service, and at least 36 received awards for their infantry and support service.[7] Macalisters serving in English, Irish and Scottish regiments fought in all of the three major battles (Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman) during the siege. Many of these died in battle, or because of it, and others were severely wounded. But illnesses such as cholera and exposure to the elements killed more British soldiers than battle did. By the end of November, the 46th Regiment of Foot (of which Charles McAlister, future 14th of Loup, was captain[8]), had buried 10 percent of its men, according to Lt.-Col. Colin Campbell[9]; on the first of December Campbell reported that eighty-five men from the 46th had died of a bowel complaint; of the men still living, McAlister is named among “those who have suffered most”.[10]

Despite six naval bombardments of the city, seemingly endless trench warfare at the city’s edge and two full-fledged battles nearby, it was not until September of 1855 that the city was taken, effectively ending the war.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Figes, Orlando, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), pp. xix-xx.

[2] Ibid., p. 20

[3] Ibid., pp. 35-6 

[4] Brudenell, Anna Maria, “Lessons in leadership: the Battle of Balaklava, 1854” in Military Review (Mar.-Apr. 2008): 77+. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

[5] History of the 46th Regiment, 1854-1858

[6] Figes, p. 197

[7] Ancestry.com. UK, Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1949 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010; UK, Naval Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1972 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

[8] Hart, H. G., The Army List and Militia List Exhibiting the Rank, Standing, and Various Services of Every Regimental Officer in the Army serving on full Pay . . . (London: John Murray, 1858), pp. 133ff.

[9] Campbell, Colin Frederick, Letters from Camp to His Relatives during the Siege of Sebastopol (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1894), p. 28.

[10] Ibid., pp. 34-5