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

Battle of Worcester

On this day in 1651, the Battle of Worcester was fought between the Royalist forces of Charles II, most of them Scots, and the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. Cromwell’s forces outnumbered the Royalists by at least two to one. It was the final battle in Charles’s attempt to retake his father’s kingdom, and Charles’s defeat marked the end of the civil wars that had been going on in England, Scotland, and Ireland for nearly a decade.

Until 1649, Scotland’s political establishment had considered the English Parliamentarians to be their allies. Both parties sought to limit royal control: the Parliamentarians believed that the king should be subject to Parliament (or at least willing to work with it), and the Scottish Covenanters believed that he should be subject to God (by which they meant the Assembly of the Presbyterian kirk). However, when the Parliamentarians tried and executed Charles I, Scots of all political stripes were outraged. Charles was, after all, not only King of England – he was King of Scotland, too, and his Scottish subjects felt that England had no right to execute Scotland’s king without a Scottish trial.

In response, the Scots proclaimed Charles’s son, currently in exile on the Continent, King Charles II.  Cromwell then gathered an army and marched into Scotland, where on 3 September 1650 – a year to the day before the Battle of Worcester – he defeated the Scots at Dunbar and took control of Edinburgh. The younger Charles was brought back to Scotland and crowned at Scone on New Year’s Day, 1651. Like the later Stuart exiles, however, the new king intended to rule all of Britain, not just Scotland. Although his general, David Leslie, urged him to remain in Scotland, where he had the greatest support, Charles decided to take his army into England. Cromwell left part of his forces in Scotland and turned south in pursuit. The Royalists’ march toward London was halted at Worcester.

Initially, the Royalists appeared to be getting the better of their enemies at the Battle of Worcester, but in the end Charles’s army was utterly defeated. Malcolm Atkin, in his study of this battle, says that “2,000-4,000 Scots [were] killed in the battle. Many more were wounded and a considerable number of these must have died in the following days or weeks. Most of the survivors were captured.”[1] With the help of English sympathisers, Charles himself escaped[2], but few of the Scots who had fought for him ever made it home. Thousands of them were shipped to the colonies – Barbados, New England, and Virginia – and sold as indentured servants, among them at least three Macalisters who landed in Boston early in 1652. (Another three of this name were sent to Virginia a few months earlier, but it’s possible they had been captured at Dunbar, which also produced many transportees, the previous year. These are the earliest Macalisters on record in the New World.)

Macalisters at home, too, were affected by this defeat. After Worcester, Cromwell quickly conquered all of Scotland outside the Western Highlands. Scotland was declared a protectorate of England, and the government in London hoped to unite the two countries formally. Discontent among the Western clans (who as Episcopalians and Catholics were excluded from the newly decreed religious toleration) and resistance to military occupation led to Glencairn’s Rising (1654), but after that had been put down, Cromwell’s General Monck “established a measure of law and order in the Highlands which had not been seen for centuries, enforcing it with the active co-operation of the clan chiefs. By offering them treaties of surrender to sign, Monck . . . implicitly recognised their own authority over their clansmen, so bolstering their positions of power.[3] In fact, in some ways the Highlanders were better off under Cromwell than they ever had been. Certainly the restoration in 1660 of Charles II “saw a return to widespread disorder”.[4]

Still, for nine years after the defeat at the Battle of Worcester, Scotland was a conquered nation, subdued by a military presence and ruled directly from London. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Cromwell’s Crowning Mercy: The Battle of Worcester, 1651 (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1998), p. 113. 

[2] An entertaining and informative account of Charles’s escape back to France can be found in Richard Ollard’s book, The Escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester (London: Robinson, 1966, 1986). It is well worth reading if this era is of interest.

[3] John Roberts, p. 127

[4] Ibid., p. 134

Hector and the Synod of Argyll

On this day in 1649, ‘Hector mc Alister of Lowpe’ was among those commissioned by the Synod of Argyll to visit the Isle of Arran and examine that parish’s minister, if they could find him. The synod wanted the Rev John Knox questioned concerning his position during the ‘recent rebellion’.[1] The significance of Loup’s inclusion on this committee depends on which view is taken of Hector’s own involvement in the rebellion. It certainly refutes the frequently made claim that Loup was the Hector Macalister hanged by the Marquis of Argyll in 1647.[2] In fact, it appears to support the theory that Hector had stayed out of the rebellion entirely, despite his clansmen having fought and died for MacColla. After all, how could someone who had been in rebellion himself now be seen as sufficiently reliable to question others on their own involvement? A closer look at available records, however, hints at a more complicated story.  

The Laird of Loup is first mentioned as an elder of the Kirk in May of 1643.[3] Such a position suggests that his commitment to the Presbyterian church, in terms not only spiritual but also political, was considered reliable. In the years after this, however, he disappears from church records, as do several of the Kintyre churchmen. In fact, it seems that something was amiss in the presbytery of Kintyre.[4] This is probably no coincidence. As has been mentioned previously, the loyalty of the Kintyre clans to the House of Argyll – and thus probably to his convictions – depended a great deal on their perception of Argyll’s ability to enforce it. By May of 1644, the marquis was distracted by military matters and often out of the area. Meanwhile Alasdair MacColla had returned, supported by well-trained Irish troops and determined to regain at least some of the lands of his ancestors. The displaced Dunyvaig Macdonalds, to whom MacColla was closely related, had many friends in Kintyre – the Macalisters among them. By September of 1646, when “the troubles of the countrey” had left most of the parishes in the Synod of Argyll in chaos or abandoned, the presbytery of Kintyre was “under the power of the rebells”.[5] 

Although no documentary evidence exists of the position taken by Hector of Loup, the hints we have suggest that at this point, he had abandoned the Covenanters[6] and was himself one of those rebels. ‘Macalister of the Loup’ is named by a witness to the siege of Skipness Castle as one of those sent by MacColla to capture that Campbell stronghold[7], and the French diplomat Jean de Montereul also identified the Macalister chief as one of MacColla’s men.[8] Based on the Macalisters’ historical association with the Dunyvaig Macdonalds (and the fact that his daughter had recently married Alasdair MacColla himself), it is quite possible that Hector, like his clansmen, genuinely supported MacColla’s efforts to recapture Macdonald lands. On the other hand, it’s also possible that, finding himself surrounded by vengeful and destructive Macdonalds, he simply thought it prudent to bury his true allegiance and assume his forefathers’ role as Clan Donald supporter. 

In either case, the Macalister chief knew that his own survival depended on backing the victorious faction, and after MacColla’s defeat at the Battle of Rhunahaorine Moss (27 May 1647) Hector appears to have switched sides again. According to Montereul’s letter of 11 June 1647, “the same night two chiefs of the clans, Macneil and Macalister” went privately to General Leslie and offered to abandon MacColla, “with all their followers, if they were assured of their lives and of their property, which the Marquis of Argyle . . . promised them.”[9]  

Whether or not Argyll was really in a position to make such a promise is unclear. Leslie, not the marquis, was in charge. Certainly there were Macalisters killed, evicted or excommunicated for their part in MacColla’s rising. But whatever his personal feelings, Macalister of Loup ultimately chose to align himself with Argyll and the Presbyterians. In return, as they did with many others, the Synod of Argyll apparently accepted as sincere his repentance for straying from the Covenant and restored him to the communion of the kirk. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]Minutes of the Synod of Argyll, vol. 1, p. 126 
[2]The Hector Macalister hanged after Dunaverty was Hector of Glenlussa.
[3]Minutes, vol. 1, p. 65 
[4]See for example Minutes, vol. 1, pp. 87, 93. 
[5]Minutes, vol. 1, p. 99 
[6]Readers unfamiliar with the role of the Covenants in Scottish history and the English Civil War can find a brief summary here.
[7]Campbell of Airds, vol. 2, pp. 238-9 
[8]Fotheringham, p. 151 
[9]ibid. 

The Last Earl of Stirling

On this day in 1739, Henry Alexander, the fifth Earl of Stirling, died. The earls of Stirling belonged to the Alexander family of Menstrie Castle in Stirlingshire. They are thought to descend from Gilbert ‘de Insula’, a son of Alasdair Mòr, who settled in the Lowlands in the mid-1300s. Although the exact descent is unclear, it has always been accepted that the Menstrie family – unlike many other Scottish Alexanders – do in fact belong to the Clann Alasdair. Certainly earlier generations of this family had a good deal of interaction with the Macalisters of Kintyre.

The fifth earl was a private individual who refrained from civic participation, and little is known of his life. His family, however, once wielded considerable influence. They first appear on record in 1505, when Thomas MacAlexander ‘de Menstray’ is named as arbiter in a local land dispute. The fact that he is ‘of’ Menstrie suggests he was the owner of this property; his role as arbiter suggests some degree of local authority. Thomas’s descendant Sir William Alexander (d. 1640) was part of James VI’s court in Scotland and in 1603 he followed the king to London, where he served as tutor to both of James’s crown princes.[1]He was acclaimed as a poet and was an active coloniser, establishing a settlement in Ireland and a colony at Nova Scotia. He already held several titles by the time he was named Earl of Stirling in 1633. Sir William’s eldest son was knighted, briefly governed the Nova Scotia colony, and served on the Privy Council; the second son, a noted architect who served as King’s Master of Work in Scotland, was also knighted. Henry’s grandfather, the third earl, succeeded his brother as Master of Work[2]and established a trading company, and his father was elected Member of Parliament for Berkshire.

The Alexanders’ close association with the Stuarts cost them their position in Scotland after the Civil Wars, and by Henry’s time Menstrie Castle had long since passed out of their possession. With Henry, the family’s titles too would be lost. The fifth earl left no heirs, nor did his brothers, and when Henry Alexander died on this day in 1739, his titles fell dormant. Although the earldom has been claimed by other branches of the family[3], none of these claims have ever been recognised.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Sir William’s first charge was James’s eldest son, Crown Prince Henry. After Prince Henry died in 1612, William became tutor to the second son, the future Charles I.
[2]R. S. Mylne, ‘The Masters of Work to the Crown of Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. xxx (January 10, 1896).  
[3] Unlike titles in the English and, later, British peerage, some Scottish titles can pass to female heirs should the male lines fail. Although none of the 4th earl’s sons had children, some of his daughters did.

Macalisters on the Government’s Mind

The Parliamentary Register for this day in 1649 makes two separate mentions of Macalisters. First a warrant was issued to the magistrates of Edinburgh to keep Lord Reay and others, including John McAlester, ‘in sure prison’. Lord Reay was John Mackay, the second to hold that title. Like his father, he had joined the Royalists in the recent Civil Wars, and as a result, he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle.[1] John McAlester being held with him makes sense in light of the fact that the Macalisters also had been active Royalists. I’m not sure, however, who this John actually was.

In the middle ages, the Macalister chieftain was often called Iain Dùbh, John Dous (or Dow), or even just John in records regardless of his personal name — this is because the first chief actually was named Iain Dùbh[2], so mac Iain Dùbh is our chiefs’ patronymic. However, in a different document written by Charles II on the same day, Hector McAlexander of Loup is granted commission, along with other leading men of Argyll, to re-establish parish boundaries and build new churches where needed.[3] Aside from the fact that the same individual could hardly be kept in prison in Edinburgh and running about having church meetings in Argyll, by this time the chiefs were generally given their own names in official documents. Therefore John in this case was not the chief. 

It’s possible that the Macalister being held with Lord Reay in Edinburgh was Hector’s son, John Dow McAlester, who appears on record twice in 1665, in both cases called ‘Brother German to Gorrie M’Alister of Loup’ (Hector’s successor). A John McAlester also appears in 1674 as witness to a bond of fosterage between Coll McAlester, ‘brother to the Laird of Loup’, and John & Mary McPhale; the fact that the bond is also witnessed by Gorrie himself suggests that this John is probably the third brother.

Of course, none of these records tie John Dow McAlester, son of Hector, to the John McAlester imprisoned with Lord Reay. John is a common name, and quite a few Macalisters were in the government’s bad books after MacColla’s defeat in 1647. Which leads us back to Hector, who should have been one of them but instead by 23 May of 1649 appears in a position of responsibility, in the company of most of the leaders of clan Campbell. Despite his support for MacColla right up until MacColla left for Ireland, Hector seems to have emerged from the conflict more or less unscathed. This suggests to me that accounts of his having surrendered to General Leslie at the last minute might have some basis in truth, particularly as there are also several Macneils in this list, and the chief of that clan, too, is said to have surrendered right before Dunaverty.[4]

In any case, on this particular day parliament apparently had Macalisters in mind!

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] King Charles I had been executed in January, and although Charles II was almost immediately proclaimed king in Scotland, at this point he was still in France and the radical Kirk Party were running the government. “When Cromwell came north, every prisoner except John [Mackay], 2nd Lord Reay, was released, and parliamentary forces were quartered in Tongue at Mackay’s expense. He was released in December, 1650.” (http://www.magma.ca/~mmackay/reay.html)
[2] Dùbh is ‘brown’ in Gaelic; such colour nicknames are common among Gaels as a means of distinguishing numerous people with the same name. They usually, though not always, refer to hair colour or skin tone.
[3] Warrant: to the magistrates of Edinburgh for keeping Lord Reay and others in prison (23 May 1649); Act and commission for uniting and disuniting the kirks of the province of Argyll (21 June 1649), in Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 (http://rps.ac.uk).
[4] The story of these chiefs’ surrender was related by Jean de Montereul, the French ambassador, in a letter of 11 June 1647 to Cardinal Mazarin (J. G. Fotheringham, pp. 151-2). It was also part of the testimony given by the Maclean chief at the 1661 trial of the Marquess of Argyll.

Thanks, but Can’t We Just Go Home?

In December of 1651, Alister MacAllister, Daniel (probably Donal) MacAllister, and John MacAllister arrived in New England, becoming the first Macalister immigrants to the future United States on record, as far as I know.  This does not mean, of course, that they were the first to arrive:  Many 17th-century Scots who arrived in the colonies did so as indentured servants, and their arrival went unrecorded.

Emigrating was costly, and some of those who had the best reasons to leave were the very ones who couldn’t possibly afford to do.  Indentured servitude – essentially a form of temporary slavery – made emigration possible.  Indentured servants contracted with a master who would pay their passage for them; in return they would work for the master for a specified amount of time (often seven years).  There was no escape clause; the indentured servant was stuck no matter how bad the situation turned out to be.  Still, at the end of the indenture the individual usually would be given a small parcel of land and the basic tools to start his or her new life.  Many of those who hoped for a better or less uncertain future took the long view and decided it was worth the price.

But indentured servitude – even emigration itself – was not always voluntary.  When there were entire continents out there with land that cost almost nothing (to the Europeans, anyway), transporting undesirables to far-off places offered the authorities both a solution to crime and a workforce for the colonies.  It was a solution they made good use of.  In these cases, emigration itself was part of the punishment:  Those being sent to the New World didn’t necessarily want to go, and many of them would never be able to afford a return home.

Apparently the arrival of people headed for indentured servitude was not always deemed worthy of recording.  But those who were sent to the colonies for some crime or another were more likely to be noted, and the Macalisters who arrived in December of 1651 fall into this category.  They came not as criminals but as prisoners of war.  Like many of the West Highland clans, the Macalisters had fought for Charles II in Scotland’s civil war; evidently some of them followed the king into England to fight on in theirs. After the Royalists were finally defeated at Worcester, these Macalisters were among the many taken prisoner and transported.[1] How they felt about this is unknown.  They might have spent the rest of their lives as broken, disillusioned men.  Or they might have seen it as a wonderful opportunity to start anew.  But the fact that they came to the New World as prisoners of war may well be the only reason we know they existed at all.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


[1]Their arrivals specify that they were prisoners of war, but they might have been taken at Dunbar the previous year.  Most of the Dunbar prisoners seem to have been shipped out in 1650, though.