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.

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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

A Letter to Argyll

The Scottish parliamentary register for this day in 1689 records an interesting incident in which Alexander Macalister of Loup was involved. A French ship had arrived in Kintyre from Ireland, and Loup along with Angus Campbell of Kilberry had “secured and detained” the vessel and its passengers. These West Highland lairds then wrote to the Earl of Argyll asking him what they should do.[1]

Loup and Kilberry are described in Parliament’s response as ‘the searchers’, which suggests that they may have been told to watch for unusual arrivals from Ireland. This is not unlikely. Less than six months had passed since the Glorious Revolution installed the Protestant William of Orange on the throne in London. An attempt by James VII to retake his kingdom, if it was to be made, would come from Ireland (where the ousted king was gathering his forces), and its success would depend heavily on help from Catholic France. A French ship arriving from Ireland was therefore not a welcome development at all, and Parliament responded quickly to the letter from Kintyre. Loup and Kilberry were authorised to bring both the ship and its passengers to Glasgow, enlisting the help of as many people as necessary to sail the ship and guard the prisoners, and to use whatever was carried in the ship to cover any expenses incurred. It was decreed that “the thanks of the estates be returned to the searchers for their diligence”.[2]

What makes this event particularly interesting for Macalisters is that in November 1688 – about the time William of Orange was landing in England – Alexander of Loup was among the Kintyre lairds who had signed an address of loyalty to King James. Yet here he is only five months later, apparently helping Argyll to prevent James’s return. In fact, Loup’s behaviour makes perfect sense in context. In an interesting article of 1991, Paul Hopkins suggested that the men who signed November’s address to King James were probably less concerned about who sat on the throne in faraway London than about its local repercussions. Specifically, they feared that if James were ousted, the Argyll family (whose extensive lands and enormous power had been taken from them after the 1685 rebellion) would rise again.[3] By March of 1689 those fears had proven justified; those who wished to survive in Kintyre were wise to remain on Argyll’s good side.

But Hopkins also noted that although the “non-Campbell clans” of Kintyre consistently served the House of Argyll when it was too powerful to resist, they were quick to rebel when the opportunity arose. Indeed, only two months after being thanked by Parliament for his diligence in defending the kingdom against the Catholic threat, Loup was in arms against both Argyll and the new king, fighting for James VII in the first of the Jacobite risings.

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]Records of the Parliaments of Scotland: 14 March 1689 (NAS. PA2/33, f.83v-84). 
[2]RPS: 14 March 168 (NAS. PA2/33, f.84).  
[3]Paul Hopkins, “Loup Hill, 16th May 1689: The First ‘Battle’ of Dundee’s Jacobite War”, Kintyre Magazine, Issue 29 (Spring 1991).

This Week in Macalister History . . .

Major events in the history of the Macalisters take a bit of a break in October, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at what’s happening in the Macalister world at the start of October of this year. Macalisters in the arts and entertainment have certainly been busy. David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, is hard at work preparing for the 10 October opening of Romeo and Juliet. The company celebrates its 50th anniversary on 2 November of this year, which has led to quite a bit of media attention. Back in the UK, Irish actress Amy McAllister (whose television work includes roles in Call the Midwife and Emmerdale) is currently appearing as Nellie, the female lead in The Man on Her Mind at Charing Cross Theatre in London’s West End. Performances are given six nights a week, with an additional matinee performance Saturdays. The play runs through 27 October. To the north, award-winning Scottish comedian Keir McAllister (whom the Edinburgh Evening News called “…a gifted comedian destined for much bigger things”) has been touring the west coast with his Walking in My Shoes tour. This week he appeared in Tyree, Fort William and the Isle of Mull.

Macalisters were also busy studying insects, of all things. Dr Erica McAlister, curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London, undertook the last Specimen Collecting Field Trip of the season. This is part of a research project she and others in her department have been doing for the Ministry of Defence at a ‘top secret military testing station called Porton Down’. Details of the excursion can be found in her blog. Meanwhile, in the US, mosquito control expert Janet McAllister of the Center for Disease Control has been kept quite busy working to contain this year’s deadly outbreak of the West Nile Virus.

Charitable undertakings by members of this clan were also celebrated this week. On Sunday, the Wellesley (Mass.) Mothers Forum celebrated its 21st birthday; this non-profit community organisation, now 600-members strong, was established in 1991 by Lisa Macalaster and Maureen Bousa. Also on Sunday, but across the ocean, Leona McAlister, her daughter Maria McAlister, and her sister Pauline Murty, all of the Isle of Bute, were featured in the Buteman for their participation in September’s Great Scottish Run (a half-marathon), by which they raised £2,676 for the Beatson Oncology Centre.[1] Taking a slightly different approach to helping others was Don McAlister in Cape Town (S. Africa), whose latest editorial beseeched his readers to pay building contractors fairly.

Other Macalisters have been occupied with violence prevention this week. On Monday Detective Sergeant Randy McAlister of the Cottage Grove (Minn.) Police Department was interviewed by the local television news after a recent workplace shooting in that state. McAlister is a pioneer in the emerging field of threat assessment, which attempts to predict and prevent such events. He and his colleague spoke about the ‘red flags’ that often precede these tragedies and how to recognise them in time. The next day, Fort Morgan (Colo.) mayor Terry McAlister signed a proclamation making October National Domestic Violence Awareness month in his town. Various activities and programmes have been planned “to work toward improving victim safety and holding perpetrators of domestic abuse accountable”. The town council will be working in conjunction with S.H.A.R.E., Inc., a nonprofit group that serves battered women and their children in northeast Colorado.

And finally, Macalisters were also busy in politics this week. Wayne McAllister, Controller of Naugatuck Borough in Connecticut, reported on Wednesday that the borough had finished its fiscal year with a surplus of about US$1 million. Perhaps he should be running the country. The following day the Scotsman named Colin McAllister as one of those chosen by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to serve as political advisers to the Scottish government. This follows the loss of two senior advisers who left to serve in the Scottish National Party and the Yes Scotland independence campaign. And on Friday, Sinn Féin councillor Noreen McAllister was also in the news, doing what she was elected to do: speaking for the people. Councillor McAllister is trying to get the Moyle District Council (N. Ireland) to make structural changes that will eliminate the flooding problem experienced by some of her constituents.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] This is probably cheating, as neither his accomplishment nor his media recognition took place in the past week, but 10-year-old James McAllister of Darlington (England) also ran for charity in September. He completed the 4km Junior Great North Run in 22 minutes, running to raise money for leukaemia and lymphoma research. Well done, James!

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.