SS Clan Macalister at Dunkirk

On this day in 1940, the steamer SS Clan Macalister was destroyed by the Luftwaffe while taking part in ‘Operation Dynamo’, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in France. Eighteen people died in the attack and fourteen were wounded.[1]

The evacuation of the B E F, which had been fighting with France and the Low Countries against the advancing German army, became necessary when the Germans broke through the Allied line and overran Belgium and France in a matter of days. Germany now held most of the coast. As unoccupied territory shrank by the day, nearly the entire British Expeditionary Force, as well as French troops and fleeing Belgian units, began to converge in desperation on the tiny strip of coast that remained free. Sir Winston Churchill recalled, “The whole root and core and brain of the British Army . . . seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity”[2] – and if the war against the Third Reich was to be won, there would have to be an army left to win it. On Sunday, 26th May, no other options remaining, an emergency evacuation got underway.

Unfortunately, the coast at that point is blocked by sandbars and shoals, so larger ships could not approach at all; even smaller craft were hindered by the wreckage of what had once been a port:

[T]he docks were useless. Bombed incessantly over a period of weeks they were a mass of battered metal and broken walls; the basins were open to the tide; the gates wrecked and jammed; the cranes stood weakly on three legs or lay like stricken birds along the quays. And over them, all through the evacuation, hung the pall that was lit on its underside by the red flame of the burning warehouses.[3]

This meant that some method had to be found for picking up hundreds of thousands of men straight off the beaches. Part of the answer was the use of the now-famous “little ships” – more than 700 mostly private-owned yachts, lifeboats, fishing boats, etc., whose owners responded immediately to the government’s request for small craft that could be used closer to the shore.[4] But these boats could take only small numbers of passengers, and those they carried were vulnerable to attack from above.

What was really needed were small motor craft to ferry men out to the bigger ships that waited off shore – ideally something armoured, to offer some protection from the shells coming at them from enemy planes. As luck would have it, about a dozen such craft had been built recently, and crews were being trained to operate them. These assault landing craft [ALCs] “could carry 50 men per trip. . . . [they] had the shallow draught needed for moving over the shallows between beach and ships. They had twin engines and steel armour which was to prove its worth” under nearly constant shelling and bombs.[5] “[T]he Admiralty . . . said they wanted the lot,” Bernard Fergusson reports, “and were sending a ship to collect them”.[6]

That ship was the SS Clan Macalister, a British cargo steamer built in 1930 for Clan Line Steamers, Ltd., of Glasgow. It was the third ship owned by the Clan Line to be so named. The first Clan Macalister had been sold in 1902; the second was a casualty of the first world war, torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915. At 6,787 tons, the third Clan Macalister was “nearly twice the size . . . of any other ship that took part” in the evacuation, according to A. D. Devine,[7] and it had been requisitioned by the military specifically for Operation Dynamo. Its size, and the fact that it carried cranes, made it better suited than most to transport and then unload the ALCs. The ship also carried 45 sailors and two officers to manage and operate the ALCs.[8] W J R Garner calls the landing craft that were brought by Clan Macalister “[t]he most important arrivals” of 29 May.[9]

The scene into which the Clan Macalister sailed with its valuable cargo was chaotic and hazardous. Thick smoke from weapon fire made it extremely difficult to see, adding to the challenge of navigating around the shoals and sandbars (which had always been there) and the wreckage of the docks and of other ships that now littered the harbour. The ship’s captain, Captain Mackie, felt uneasy about “proceeding in the dark through the Downs among those wrecks and so many ships at anchor without lights. . . .”[10] Worst of all, the ships and the harbour were under nearly incessant attack. Churchill told Parliament,

Pressing in upon the narrow exit, both from the east and from the west, the enemy began to fire with cannon upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their eyes for shelter. Their U-boats . . . and their motor launches took their toll.[11]

But arriving in one piece was only half the battle. From the start, the Clan Macalister‘s mission ran into trouble. Captain Mackie remembered that “We started to discharge the [ALCs] and had just lifted our first into the air when the destroyer Vanquisher dashed past at full speed and set up so much wash as to cause the ship to roll . . . heavily”[12]; the men moving ALC no. 4 lost control of it and it crashed down on ALC no. 18, leaving both unfit for service.

At 15.45, as the other ALCs were being unloaded, the Clan Macalister was hit three times in an air raid, setting boilers on fire and igniting part of the magazine.[13] Most of the evacuees who had been transferred to Clan Macalister from smaller ships, and some of the military personnel who had arrived with the ALCs, were taken on board the destroyer HMS Malcolm. Though Capt. Mackie resisted giving up on his ship and valiant attempts were made to put out the fires, eventually he was convinced to abandon ship and was picked up with the rest of the survivors by the minesweeper HMT Pangbourne. The Clan Macalister did not sink straight away; still visible from the air, the ship was hit repeatedly by German aircraft and burned for days. When it finally went down, it took five of the badly needed ALCs with it.

Yet despite being sunk on its first run to Dunkirk, the SS Clan Macalister had made a significant contribution to the mission. Its cargo, the surviving ALCs, ferried thousands of troops from the beaches over the remaining days of the evacuation. It was partly because of these landing craft that nearly twice as many soldiers were rescued on the 29th (and again in the days that followed) than on the first days of the operation put together. Fergusson concludes, “the new landing-craft had proved their worth”.[14]

Though necessitated by military disaster, Operation Dynamo itself was an unparalleled success. Instead of the 20,000 – 50,000 men that those in the know thought might, at best, be evacuated, nearly 350,000 British and French soldiers were taken from the beaches of Dunkirk over the course of nine days. Devine, who was there, called it “the greatest rescue expedition in the history of mankind”.[15] Stephan Wilkinson suggests that were it not for the evacuation of “almost the entire British Expeditionary Force and tens of thousands of French poilus” from Dunkirk, Britain might well have fallen to the Nazis, leaving the US, when it finally entered the war, to fight alone, without allies and without a staging ground for its air war against the enemy. There would have been no D-Day invasion, and the world might look very different today.[16] 

As Churchill told the British people, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance. . . .”[17]. The SS Clan Macalister played a part in that victory.

Today the ship lies on the ocean floor, classified by the UK Hydrographic Office as a ‘dangerous wreck, depth unknown’.[18]

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2016

[1] Wreck report 138 (pdf): ‘SS Clan MacAlister’ (, accessed 19 May 2016); p. 3.

[2] Winston Churchill, speech delivered to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940; published in the Guardian, 20 April 2007.

[3] A.D. Devine, Dunkirk (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. 1948), p. 27.

[4] This aspect of Dunkirk is so remarkable that it remains the image most people associate with the evacuation. A. D. Devine remarks that “the vast majority [of boat owners] made free and unconditional offers of their vessels for any purpose for which the Admiralty might see fit to use them; and with their boats a very remarkable proportion of the owners offered their own services” (Dunkirk, p. 34). Some – like the estuary cruiser the Elvin – were “refused [by the Navy] . . . and went anyway” (‘29th May 1940 – Nightmare‘, from The Dunkirk Project: An interactive installment by Liz Mathews).

[5] An account of the last days in the life of Robert Owen Wilcoxon

[6] Bernard Fergusson, The Watery Maze: The Story of Combined Operations (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1961), p. 44.

[7] Devine, p. 107. Presumably he means ‘non-military ships’, because the destroyers at least were considerably larger.

[8]Clan MacAlister‘ in “Carte: Les épaves au large de Dunkerque”

[9] W.J.R. Gardner, The Evacuation from Dunkirk: ‘Operation Dynamo’, 26 May-June 1940 (Routledge, 2014), pp. 51-2.

[10] Devine, p. 93

[11] Churchill, speech, 4 June 1940

[12] Devine, p. 93

[13] Mechanic FC Turner of the HMS Malcolm, in ‘Dunkirk: A Personal Perspective – HMS Malcolm‘ (BBC Overseas Service, first broadcast 29 May 1950)

[14] Fergusson, p. 44

[15] Devine, p. 33

[16] S. Wilkinson, ‘From Dunkirk, 1940‘ in Military History, November 2013: 23. General Reference Center, Web. 14 May 2016.

[17] Churchill, speech, 4 June 1940

[18] wreck report 138 (pdf): p. 5.

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

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).

La Rochelle and the Highland Bowmen

On this day in 1627, Hector M’Allester, Lieutenant, arrived in Lochkilkerane (now Campbeltown) in response to a government levy of Highland bowmen. The Anglo-French War (part of the Thirty Years’ War) had broken out earlier in the year: Since June, troops under the Duke of Buckingham had been trying to take over Île de Ré in support of French Huguenots, who were under siege by their own government in nearby La Rochelle. Although many in Charles I’s realms might have genuinely sympathised with the persecuted Huguenots, the war had more to do with the breakdown of the 1624 Anglo-French treaty and English fears that France was building up its navy.

Gordon Donaldson writes that in the early 17th century, “it was a common occurrence for the Scottish government to grant licences to individuals for the raising of specific numbers of men for service” in the continental wars.[1] In fact, for centuries, service in foreign armies was a not-unusual career choice for Scots whose prospects at home seemed less than rosy. So when efforts began to relieve La Rochelle, it would not have seemed strange that King Charles commissioned the MacNaughtan chief, Alexander of that Ilk, to raise 200 men to assist Buckingham’s troops.

In retrospect, however, there are two things about this levy that seem a bit odd. First, as 19th-century historian Donald Gregory pointed out, by this point a request for bowmen is unusual. Although Scottish kings had tried in earlier times to encourage archery as a defence against the English long-bow, by the turn of the 17th-century weapons had come into use that rendered archery, if not obsolete, certainly far less useful. A list of required weapons for Highlanders being raised by levy in 1552 does not even mention bows. Nonetheless, “[w]hatever may have been the cause, . . . the bow continued to be made use of in the Highlands long after it had been forgotten in England and the Lowlands,” a fact made clear “from innumerable passages in the Criminal records, and the record of the Privy Council of Scotland”.[2]

Which brings us to the second point: Why resort to Highlanders at all?[3] Things in the Highlands had improved somewhat after 1603, when James VI became James I of England and suddenly had resources available to tackle Highland lawlessness, but it was still a dodgy place. The young century had already seen one major Clan Donald rising, in 1614, and the Macdonalds were certainly not the only clan still sporadically causing trouble in the western Highlands. In fact, one of the incentives Charles offered to encourage enlistment was the promise that he would grant remission to ‘suche highland personis as ar fugutive from our lawes for criminal causes’ should they join MacNaughtan’s company.[4]

In the end, only about 100 men were raised for this expedition, and they drifted in over the course of the next two weeks. On the 21st, Lieutenant Hector was joined by four more of his clan (though one, Duncan M’Allester Bane, might have really been a Macdonald). I am not sure who any of these Macalisters were. MacNaughtan himself described his soldiers as “men of personagis”, suggesting that some of them were at least locally important. Two of the group, a Robert Gordoun and a Robert Naper, are listed as ‘gentlemen’, and one – John Colhoun of Camstradane – was clearly a landholder, but the others are only identified by military title or role.[5] On the other hand, at least one of those identified only by military title – ‘Alexander M’nachtane, Capt.’ – is MacNaughton of that Ilk himself. The leading military role of Hector M’Allester (and perhaps his prompt arrival) makes it possible that he was one of our clan’s leaders at the time – perhaps even the chief, Hector, 6th of Loup – but I have no real evidence of this and have found no mention of it elsewhere.

Whoever these men were, they were too late for Buckingham’s attempts in La Rochelle. Their ship left Lochkilkerane on the 28th of December and almost immediately ran into severe weather. By the 15th of January they had only got as far as Cornwall, where MacNaughtan appealed to the Earl of Morton to provide them with clothes and food when they reached the Isle of Wight.[6] What happened after their stopover there is unclear. Gregory supposed that they took the course so often followed by Scots and joined their many compatriots fighting in the German wars. 

copyright @ Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Donaldson, Scotland: James V- James VII, p. 253

[2] Donald Gregory, “Notices regarding Scottish Archery, particularly that of the Highlanders; together with some Original Documents relating to a levy of Highland Bowmen to serve in the war against France, in the year 1627”, in Archaeologia Scotica, vol. 3 (1831): 250-251.

[3] According to P. Hume Brown, “This extraordinary notion had been put in the King’s head” by MacNaughtan himself (Brown, ed., Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, second series, Vol. II: 1627-1628, p. xii).

[4] Charles I to the Privy Council of Scotland, dated 12th August 1627 (Brown, ed., Register, p. 56).

[5] Gregory, “Notices”, pp. 253-4

[6] Brown, Register, xii

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

Mutineers on Trial

On this day in 1779, a court martial sat in Edinburgh Castle to try three soldiers for mutiny. The soldiers were additionally charged with having “instigated and incited others to be guilty of the same, in which mutiny several of his Majesty’s subjects were killed, and others wounded”.[1]

The charges against these soldiers stemmed from an incident in April, which historian Max Hastings summarises as follows: “Highland soldiers of the 42nd and 71st regiments, abruptly drafted to serve with a detested Glasgow Lowland regiment, refused the order and fought a brief, bloody battle with men of the South Fencibles.”[2] Several people died and many were taken prisoner, but these three alone faced a death sentence.

Among the men who made up the court was Captain Angus M’Alister of the West Fencibles. This M’Alister’s identity is unclear to me, but the fact that he was a captain in the Western (or Argyll) Fencible Regiment provides some clues. Fencible regiments “were different in constitution from the militia, afterwards substituted, as the men were regularly enlisted, and the commissions of the officers signed by the King.”[3] Although raised at time of war, the fencibles did not serve outside of Scotland itself; rather, “[t]hey formed a splendid army of reserve”.[4] The Western Fencible Regiment in which M’Alister served was raised in 1778 by members of the (Campbell of) Argyll family. The majority of its men were recruited from Argyll and the surrounding Highland areas, and leadership of the regiment was overwhelmingly Campbell. Although it is possible that M’Alister might be one of the minority recruited from the southwest Lowlands, the fact that he was an officer, in a regiment whose officers were almost entirely Argyllsmen, suggests that he belonged to one of the West Highland Macalister families who were tenants of the Duke of Argyll.

The soldiers on trial pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. Their defence makes clear how much still separated Highlanders from Lowlanders in the late 18th century. Two of the men, a native of Argyllshire and another of western Invernesshire, spoke no English; the third, from Caithness, could get by in broken English but was certainly not fluent. Furthermore, all three were accustomed to wearing the fillibeg and uncomfortable in Lowland garb. They had enlisted willingly, but each had specifically chosen a Highland regiment, where their own language was spoken and they were allowed to wear the clothes they had always worn.

Upon arriving at Leith in April, however, they were told that they were now to serve under English-speaking officers in regiments that required Lowland dress. This was more than an inconvenience. A “great number of the detachment” protested that they were “incapable of wearing breeches as part of their dress”[5], and for some of them it would have been impossible to understand orders given in English, let alone follow them adequately. It was certainly not what they had signed up for.

It is hard to imagine that M’Alister and his colleagues (more than half of whom belonged to regiments that drew men from the Gaidhealtachd and wore Highland dress) were unsympathetic. Until the sudden change of regiment, all of the accused had behaved impeccably, and they all indicated that they were happy to serve in any other Highland unit. The change of orders had not been clearly explained to them, nor were they told that they could appeal. Furthermore, several witnesses testified that they did not know whether the first shot in the altercation had been fired by the rebels or by the South Fencibles who had been sent to deal with them.[6] Nonetheless, the behaviour of these soldiers and their comrades violated several of the articles of war, and the court had no choice but to declare them guilty and sentence them to death.

Probably to everyone’s relief, this story ended happily. Right before the condemned were to be shot, a message arrived from the king; in light of their previous good behaviour, a full pardon was granted and the prisoners were released to return to their units.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (May, 1779), p. 271.

[2] Hastings, The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 176.

[3] Peter Handyside MacKerlie, An Account of the Scottish Regiments with Statistics of Each, from 1808 to March 1861, Compiled from the old regimental record books, and monthly returns of each regiment, now rendered to the war department (Edinburgh, 1862), p. 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (May, 1779), p. 272.

[6]Scots Magazine, vol. 41 (June, 1779), pp. 305-6.

Sic Transit Gloria

On this day in 1640, Sir William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling, died in London, bankrupt.[1]

Sir William belonged to the Menstrie family, whose exact origins are unclear but who have always been recognised as a branch of the Clann Alasdair (the Macalisters). He was to be the most prominent of that family. He was well educated, a noted poet and a close friend of the Earl of Argyll, who introduced him to King James VI. The king also became a friend, and Sir William followed him to London in 1603. He was tutor to both of James’s crown princes, collaborated with the king on a version of the Psalms of David[2], and held numerous important posts under both James and his son, Charles I, including Secretary of Scotland. In 1621, James gave him an extensive land grant in North America, and Sir William set about establishing a colony there, which he called New Scotland. Today it is the province of Nova Scotia.

Sir William’s close association with the royal family continued throughout his life, but in the reign of Charles I his fortunes began to change. Articles of peace signed in 1629 to end a war with France ultimately involved the return to France of the lands on which New Scotland had been established. Sir William’s personal fortune had been significantly reduced in the effort to establish the colony and promised compensation never materialised. Although he spent the rest of his life trying to restore the family’s wealth, he was never able to do so. (Even if he’d managed, political changes were brewing in Scotland and England that would sweep his royal patron from the throne and would probably have left his family ruined.) Added to financial disaster was personal loss: his two eldest sons died within a year of each other.[3]

Sir William’s final years are described by Rev. Slafter in his memoir of the earl:

The disappointments which he had met in his colonial undertakings, the melancholy aspect of the civil affairs of the nation, especially the dark and menacing cloud that hung over his native Scotland, . . . the sudden death of his eldest son, in whom were wrapt up his chief hopes for maintaining the distinction of the family for which he had assiduously labored so many years, the financial embarrassments that had been gradually accumulating, and were now overwhelming his private fortune, all these burdens . . . were more than he could well sustain.[4] 

Sir William Alexander’s body was taken home to Scotland, where he was buried in the Grey Friars’ Church in Stirling.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1]The date is debated, but most reputable sources agree it was in February and this seems to be the generally accepted date.
[2]This version of the Psalms later formed a part of the prayer book that Charles attempted to impose on Scotland, sparking the Bishop’s wars (Edmund F Slafter, Sir William Alexander and American Colonization. . . . [Boston: the Prince Society, 1873], pp. 14-5).
[3]The third son, Robert, had already died.
[4]Slafter, pp. 100-101

Macalisters in the Second Anglo-Boer War

On this day in 1899, the second Anglo-Boer War began. This war was the culmination of nearly a century of conflict between the British settlers and colonial authorities in South Africa and the Boers, descendants of Dutch traders established there for centuries. Many Macalisters fought for the empire.

Tensions in South Africa had worsened considerably since the end of the first Anglo-Boer War (1880-1). The Boers felt increasingly insecure in their two nominally self-governing republics. They objected to the sudden influx of ‘uitlanders’ (non-Boer settlers) that followed the discovery of gold in Transvaal (one of the Boer republics), and recent movements of British troops appeared sinister to many of them[1], especially in light of an attempted 1895 coup by Cecil Rhodes. On its part, in an era of competing empires the British government was nervous about attempts by Germans in the southwest of Africa to link up with the Boer republics[2] — particularly with potential profits from the Transvaal mines up for grabs.

An ultimatum was presented to the British government on the 9th of October listing the demands of the Boers; the British government, to whom the demands seemed very much like a declaration of independence, replied that “the conditions demanded by the Government of the South African Republic are such that Her Majesty’s Government deem it impossible to discuss”.[3] To the Boers, this refusal amounted to a declaration of war.  

Ultimately, the result of the war that began on this day was a united South Africa under British rule. But things got pretty nasty before then. The Boers resorted to guerrilla warfare, for which imperial forces were ill prepared, and quickly inflicted several defeats which stunned the British public. In return, British authorities undertook a scorched-earth policy that destroyed Boer farms and sent thousands of displaced civilians (mostly women and children) to concentration camps, where epidemics wiped many of them out. These tactics cut Boer forces off from needed supplies, and the widespread suffering that resulted eventually brought the Boers to negotiation.

However, the immediate result of Britain’s rejection of Boer demands was a Boer offensive on Natal, one of the areas under British control.[4] Before long, imperial forces from Britain and several colonies were headed for South Africa. Even with limited access to South African records, I have found nearly 100 Macalisters (of various spellings) among them. This number included Charles Godfrey Somerville McAlester, the future clan chief, who was captain of the 3rd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers.[5]  Two McAllisters, both named William (but with different service numbers), arrived from Australia with the Army Medical Corps, and there were several of the name from New Zealand and Canada. Others of this clan fought with imperial units from Britain, Ireland, and British South Africa itself.

Macalisters were among the early casualties as well. Lance Corporal A McAllister of the Scots Guard was wounded in November, and Private D McAllister of the Highland Light Infantry was wounded 11 December; Private J McAllister and Private P McAllister of the Royal Irish Rifles were the first of quite a few of this name to be taken prisoner when they were captured on 10 December.  (Their fate is unclear, although most of the Macalisters captured during this war appear to have been released.) Over the course of the three-year war, nearly twenty Macalisters were wounded, five of them fatally: Trooper Angus Ian Macalister (Imperial Yeomanry), Private A McAllister (Liverpool Regiment), Private J McAllister (Royal Irish Rifles), Private W McAllister and Private J McCallister (both of the Cameronians, or Scottish Rifles). Additionally at least one, Corporal Arthur McAllister of the Imperial Yeomanry, died in an accident, at Standerton in September 1901. Less gloriously, Trooper H McAllister of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry was discharged for misconduct on the 8th of December 1899.[6]

The second Anglo-Boer War ended on 31 May 1902 with the Treaty of Vereeniging.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]Hugh Williams & Frederick Charles Hicks, eds., Selected Official Documents of the South African Republic and Great Britain: A documentary perspective of the causes of the war in South Africa, 1900 (available on line at Project Gutenberg and the Anglo Boer War website), preface.  
[2] The Boer Wars; see Lawrence James, Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, 1994), pp. 263-5.
[4]The Transvaal‘, the Guardian, 13 October 1899
[5] War Service of Officers, 1905. In addition, W Macalister Hall, 4th regiment of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, and E J McAllister, Army Service Corps, were captains of their units.
[6]Most of this information is taken from the Anglo Boer War website, which is an excellent source of information about this conflict, and UK, Casualties of the Boer War, 1899-1902 at

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 

A MacAlister Falsely Accused

By early 1746, Hanoverian forces led by the Duke of Cumberland had recaptured Carlisle Castle from its Jacobite garrison, and the tide appeared to be turning against Charles Edward Stuart and his followers. Eager to take advantage of the Bonnie Prince’s inexplicable retreat, and probably wishing to repay the Jacobite horde for having scared the wits out of London, Cumberland’s men set about rounding up as many of the Young Pretender’s adherents as they could find. At some time in February of that year, Archibald MacAlister of Glengarry was arrested near Perth on suspicion of being one of them. 

The reasons for suspecting MacAlister are not given, but his name and place of origin might have been part of the problem. Although the Tarbert chieftain at the time of the ’45 was a Hanoverian, the Macalisters on the whole had always been Jacobites, and most of those who actually turned out for the Rising of 1745-6 served in the regiment of Macdonell of Glengarry. A MacAlister from Glengarry might reasonably have been assumed to have Jacobite sympathies.

This particular MacAlister, however, protested his innocence. As evidence, he offered to obtain a letter from the Presbyterian minister in Glengarry attesting to his loyalty. (The denomination is significant: Although Presbyterians were certainly represented among those fighting for Prince Charles, the vast majority of the Jacobites were Episcopalians, with most of the rest professing Catholics.) In the end it seems that this letter was unnecessary. The authorities soon concluded that MacAlister was not involved with the rebels and he was released.[1]

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1] ‘Declarations of rebel prisoners at Perth’, Reference: B59/30/72(1)