In Victory, Defeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Campbell Paterson tells us

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

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

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

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

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

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

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

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

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

[5] Hopkins, ibid., p. 137

[6] Hopkins, ibid., p. 151

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

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

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

[10] Roberts, ibid., p. 190

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

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A Register of Sasines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

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

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

Macalisters in Pigot & Co.’s Commercial Directory of Scotland

In August 1837, Pigot & Co. published their National Commercial Directory of the Whole of Scotland and the Isle of Man. Like the directories of various counties in England and Wales and of Ireland, this pre-telephone directory was intended to be an aid to business, and both businesses and individuals are listed with their addresses. General information is given about the towns or parishes listed, and other useful data – such as the names of postmasters, costs of shipping, and timetables for coaches and ships – is also included.

Macalisters by this time are to be found throughout Scotland, but the main Macalister families are still mostly in the west: Charles Somerville McAlester of Kennox, who had been recognised in 1808 as clan chief and proper representative of the Loup family, is in Stewarton, Ayrshire; Keith Macalister is found at Glenbarr, and his mother, the widowed Mrs Matthew Macalister, living in Campbeltown; Angus Macalister is at Balinakill. Keith Macdonald Macalister of Inistrynich – whose wife, Flora, was the daughter of Norman Macalister, late Governor of Prince of Wales Island (Penang) – is named in both Bonawe and Inverary; it is unclear to me whether he held two properties, or whether his property simply lay between the two places and was included in both lists.

Representing the Clann Alasdair Bheag are Major M’Alister of Springbank (Arran) andJames M’Alister of Rothesay (Isle of Bute). Also identified as ‘gentry’ by the directory but of unclear connexion to the others are several Macalisters in Dunbartonshire: James M’Alester and Mrs John M’Alester in Auchincarroch, and Mrs William M’Alester in Dumbarton proper.

Unlike the Directory of Noblemen’s and Gentlemen’s Seats published twenty years later, however, this directory lists not only the landholdersand representatives of the major families but also ordinary people, working ordinary jobs in numerous places. Members of this clan in 19th-century Scotland appear to have been an industrious lot. Macalisters are well represented in the professions, as schoolmasters in Ardnaw, Rothesay, and Lochwinnoch; two solicitors and a depute session clerk in Dumbarton and Glasgow; surgeons in the Isle of Skye; insurance agents in Paisley and Dumbarton; and clergymen in Edinburgh and Dundee (both Presbyterian, but also apparently both Gaelic speakers, suggesting that their origins lay further west).

Macalisters can also be found as makers and sellers of all sorts of things: They are merchants of food and wine or spirits; ironmongers; tailors and milliners; makers of shoes and household furnishings; of linen, cambric & muslin; of cabinets, candles and trunks. There are stonemasons, tin- and coppersmiths, joiners, coopers and painters. There is a M’Alester selling timber in the shipbuilding trades of the west cost; numerous bakers and an innkeeper. A surprising number of the merchants are women, apparently running their own businesses. Only two of those listed appear to be directly connected to agriculture – one as a cowkeeper and the other milling corn – though there were no doubt numerous tenant farmers who would have had no need to attract business through a directory. 

The directory published by Pigot & Co. in 1837 offers us a contemporary record of the position of early 19th-century Macalisters in Scotland.  It is now available for free online.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

Macalisters in the 1857 Gentlemen’s Directory

In March of 1857, the Directory to Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Seats, Villages, etc. etc. in Scotland: Giving the Counties in which they are situated, the post-town to which each is attached, and the name of the resident was published in Edinburgh under the patronage of the Scottish post office. The information for this directory was obtained by means of questionnaires sent to post offices and individual residences. If a questionnaire was not returned, no information could be given about the residents, but the place was listed anyway so that the information could be included later.

The Directory gives us a glimpse of the location of significant Macalister families in Scotland at this time. The chiefly family had settled in Ayrshire some time before this, and there they are found in 1857: Major Somerville Macalister, proprietor of Kennox House, is the clan chief, Charles the 13th of Loup; also living at Kennox House is C[harles] S[omerville] M’Allister, the future 14th of Loup. James Macalester of Chapelton, near Stewarton (Ayrshire) is the brother of the chief – he is erroneously called John in the index.

N. M. Macalister, MD, represents both the Tarbert family (on his father’s side) and the Strathaird family (through his mother). This is Norman, brother of Alexander of Torrisdale who had by this year removed himself and his family from Scotland. Norman seems to have been left in charge of the Strathaird estate, although most historical references to the estate indicate that Alexander was the actual proprietor.

The Clan Alasdair Bheag is represented by James D. Macalister, a farmer in Kilcattan (Bute), and Robert Macalister of Ascog (also Bute). There are also three whose origins are not clear: Reverend D. M’Allister at Stitchell Manse (4 miles from Kelso in Roxburghshire); Archibald Macalister of West Clyth Cottage, Caithness; and William & John Macalister, thread manufacturers in Paisley, who I’m guessing were probably brothers.

It appears that Glenbarr, Balinakill, and Inistrynich were among the questionnaires not returned. The places are listed, but no further information is given. This is unfortunate, because aside from Glenbarr (which was owned by Keith Brodie Macalister), I am not sure who was living in the other two locations. Angus of Balinakill had died in 1839; his only child, Charlotte, married Edward Seaton in 1846, and by 1861 was living in England.[1] The Inistrynich estate had passed on the death of Keith Macdonald Macalister (about 1855) to his daughters Ann Amelia Crichton and Margaret Frances North. However, Ann and Charles Crichton were living in Fort William and Margaret and Brownlow North in Oxford, so neither seems to have taken up residence on their father’s estate.[2] It’s possible that their step-mother and young half-sister were still living there, but by 1858, when the property was rented by the painter Philip Gilbert Hamerton, ownership had evidently passed to William Campbell Muir.

The Directory of 1857 can be found online here.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] Sir William MacKinnon did not purchase the Balinakill estate until 1867.
[2] Journal of the House of Lords, vol. 88 (1856-7), pp. 49-50ff.

Scuffle at Balinakill

In February of 1827, an altercation took place at Balinakill House between Angus Macalister, whose home it was, and Alexander Campbell, Messenger at Arms in Lochgilphead. Macalister’s brother John was also involved. The meeting was “disastrous” and led to charges being filed by each party against the other: The Macalisters charged Campbell with ‘hamesucken’ (forced entry to a man’s home with intent to assault him) and assault; Campbell charged the Macalisters with assault as well, along with interfering with a Messenger in the course of his duties. 

The purpose of Campbell’s visit is unclear, but in light of this last charge, it seems that he had come to deliver some sort of court document.[1] He then had a considerable wait for his transport to return from Campbeltown on its way back north. Angus Macalister refused to let him stay for the evening meal, so Campbell went to nearby Clachan for food. Afterwards he returned to Balinakill House, and this seems to be where the trouble began.

At this point, the accounts given by those involved diverge. Mr Campbell reported that when he returned to Balinakill (“on pretence of seeking for something”, according to John Macalister), Angus Macalister “knocked him down, repeatedly leaped upon his body, cut and bled him, and . . . called out ‘Murder’ six or seven times”. Campbell’s assistant, Donald Jackson, backed up this version of events.

Upon investigating, however, the Procurator Fiscal heard a very different story from servants who were in the house at the time. They told him that they “heard no noise or quarreling or cries of Murder. One of them who was in the room saw Campbell asleep on a sofa and heard Ballinakiel refuse to give him dinner and no person saw marks of violence on Campbell except Jackson”. John Macalister claimed that, rather than being attacked by Balinakill, Campbell upon returning had struck both Macalisters violently, apparently for no real reason; a doctor confirmed that the blow was serious enough to put John’s life in danger for several days.

For the modern reader, with little knowledge of the individuals and personalities involved, it is hard not to conclude that everyone involved behaved badly. The Macalisters were inhospitable, Campbell was vindictive, and all of them were evidently prone to exaggeration. It is likely, however, that these men knew one another and had histories together that might have led to ill will. The Procurator Fiscal, who investigated, reported to the Sheriff that “ ‘I am disposed to believe that Campbell is the guilty person and that he is the one who ought to be taken up in place of Ballinakiel. For my own part however, I would not venture to apply for a warrant against either.’

“The same view was taken by the Lord Advocate’s office and no proceedings took place.”[2]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012 


[1] A Messenger at Arms is a civil officer of the court responsible for serving documents (such as summonses and letters of horning) and enforcing court orders. The fact that the Macalisters were clearly not happy to have him there might be further evidence of this.
[2] This story comes from A. I. B. Stewart’s article “The Duel”, in Kintyre Magazine (issue 18, Spring 1985). Links to the web version of this publication keep disappearing, but you can find the article at http://www.ralstongenealogy.com/number18kintmag.htm#second

Macalisters in the 1694 Hearth Tax lists

On this day in 1694, Alexander McArthur, subcollector of the hearth tax in the shire of Argyll and Bute, presented to the authorities his list of ‘hearths’ (or dwellings) in these shires. The hearth tax was levied in the 1690s to raise money for one of William II’s wars against Catholic France. Each hearth was assessed at 14 shillings, so that bigger dwellings – those with multiple hearths – paid more. (The very poor were not required to pay the hearth tax.)[1] The lists compiled for this purpose thus give the name of the landholder, the location of the dwelling, and the number of hearths in each.

These lists provide a glimpse into who was living in the area at this point, but some caution is needed as the accuracy and completeness varies from shire to shire. There are nine Macalisters listed in Kintyre; in Knapdale (part of which is now considered North Kintyre) there are eleven. They are settled in small clumps from as far north as Lochgilphead all the way south to the Mull of Kintyre.  The Alexander McAllester residing at Ardpatrick, which is where the Loup family lived at this time, probably represents that family; and John McAllester ‘of Lochead’ – Macalister of Ceannlochcaolisport – is also named. But some Macalister families known to have been in the area are omitted. The Balinakill estate is not listed under any name at all, although it’s possible that Balinakill was between residents and therefore lacked inhabitants to tax.[2] A more glaring omission is Archibald Macalister of Tarbert. There are two Macalisters in Tarbert proper, but neither is an Archibald, and the only Archibald living on Tarbert lands is found not in the castle but on a multiple-tenant farm at Glenakill.

There are also Macalisters who appear on the list in disguise, such as Isobel Campbell of Daill. Isobel was the daughter of Archibald Macalister of Balinakill. She married Malcolm McKellar, wadsetter of Daill, in 1673; staying on the property after his death in 1686, she married again, this time to a Mr Campbell.

Macalister hearths in Kintyre:

Hector & Angus McAlester – 2 hearths in Kilcolmkill (now Keil)

Ronald McAllester & Charles McAllester, 1 each in Kilirvan

Ronald McAllester – 1 in Campbelton

Donald McAllister – 1 in Ulodell (parish of Killean, Saddell & Kilchenzie)

Archibald McAllester – 1 in Bellochger (same)

Allexander McAllister – 1 in Auchaluskin & Killean (same)

Angus McIllester – 1 in Drumore (near Campbelton)

Hendrie McAllester – 1 in Putachan (Killean)

Macalister hearths in Knapdale:

Allexander McAllester – 5 hearths in Ardffadrick (Ardpatrick)

John & Hector McAllester (along with three Smiths, possibly brothers) – 5 hearths in Ashens

Archibald McAllester (along with three other men) – 4 hearths in Glenakill

Allexander and Coll McAllester (along with quite a few others) – 12 hearths in Tarbert

Charles McAllester – 1 in Lochhead

John McAllester of Lochead (probably Ceanlochcaolisport family) – 1 in Lochead

Allexander McAllester – 1 in Ellary

Ranald McAllester – 1 in Brenfeorlin

Duncan McAllester – 1 in Barbe (Barbrae Ross)


Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[2]John Dow Macalister of Balinakill died in 1693; five years later the estate was purchased from a Campbell family by Archibald Macalister.