Angus of Shiskine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

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

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

[3] Mackenzie, ibid., p. 87

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

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

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

[7] Mackenzie, p. 45

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

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

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A Bond of Manrent

On this day in 1591, John Dùbh Macalister, son of Ranald Mòr, entered into a bond of manrent with John, Lord Hamilton, in Arran. Macalister pledged himself, his sons, and his foster son Archibald (whose father was Angus Macdonald of Dunyvaig) to assist the captain of Arran and to be his obedient servants, in return for Hamilton’s protection.[1]

Bonds of manrent were very common in 15th and 16th century Scotland. Sometimes the parties to a bond were clearly a lord and a lesser man, but in other cases the bonds were made between equals. The reasons behind them varied and are not always obvious. Unlike contemporary bonds in England and Europe, few of the bonds that survive in Scotland from this period include any mention of fealty or homage. The Scottish bonds also do not usually feature an exchange of land (from the lord) for loyalty and service (from the lesser party).[2] Instead, Scottish bonds of manrent in this period reflect a personal rather than a commercial exchange.

The reason behind John Dùbh’s bond is probably fairly obvious: As the Reverends MacDonald point out, Macalisters living in Arran “occupied the position of a stranger sept, and such a bond was needful in a region where the heads of the House of Hamilton were Lords of the soil.”[3] After centuries of raiding from Kintyre, Macalisters had begun to settle in Arran in the early 1500s. They seem to have allied themselves to the Hamiltons almost from the beginning – one writer describes the Macalister family that settled in Shishkine in 1563 as the Hamiltons’ “henchmen”[4], and when Lord Hamilton appeared before James VI in 1585, one of the men in his retinue was a Walter MacAlester. But they were clearly not welcomed by everyone: In 1572, while the Hamiltons were forfeited, the Earl of Argyll promised John Stewart (the Sheriff of Bute, who had claimed the Hamiltons’ lands) that he would “prevent any pretended claim to the lands by highland men such as the Macdonalds and Macalastairs”.[5] And Macalisters from Kintyre and Knapdale were still occasionally raiding in Arran in the early 1600s. This fact no doubt made life somewhat difficult for those of the clan who wished to live there peacefully. For those who chose to do so, entering a bond like the one between the Macalisters and Lord Hamilton provided security that their own chiefs (be they Macalister of Loup or Macdonald of Dunyvaig) could not provide from Kintyre.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]Fraser-Mackintosh, p. 35; Wormald, Lords and Men, p. 314. Without further evidence, we can only speculate about John Dùbh’s identity, but the fact that he was chosen to foster the son of Angus Macdonald suggests he was a man of some importance. The Dunyvaig connexion could also indicate a link to the Loup family, though of course it might not.

[2]Wormald, ibid., pp. 23-24

[3]MacDonald & MacDonald, vol. 2, p. 44
[4]Mackenzie, Book of Arran, p. 87
[5]Wormald, ibid., pp. 187-8

The Battle of Gruinart Strand

On this day in 1598, the Battle of Traigh Ghruinneart (Gruinart Strand) took place between the forces of Sir Lachlan Maclean and those of his nephew, Sir James Macdonald of the Dunyvaig family. Among Macdonald’s forces, inevitably, were Macalisters from Kintyre (possibly including their chief, Godfrey of Loup); they had been allies of the Dunyvaig family for a century and fought with them in many of their conflicts. But the Macdonald force also included some of the Clann Alasdair Bheag, whose ties to the Dunyvaig family are perhaps less well known. Although these Macalisters were followers of the Hamilton family at this point (quite sensibly, considering their location), James Macdonald’s brother Archibald had been fostered among them.[1]

This battle was the climactic episode of a feud between the Macleans of Duart and the Dunyvaig Macdonalds that had been running since before James Macdonald was even born. At issue was ownership of the Rhinns of Islay, which had been in Macdonald hands for centuries but to which the Macleans laid claim after the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles. Nearly all of the southwestern clans had taken sides and joined in the fighting[2], causing so much chaos in the Western Isles and Kintyre that the king (James VI) got involved. At various times the Maclean and Macdonald chiefs were arrested, fined, forced to leave hostages (including James Macdonald) at court, and threatened with forfeiture.    

The marriage of Lachlan’s sister to Angus of Dunyvaig in 1579 brought a lull in the conflict (and produced James Macdonald), but it all started up again about 1586, when Angus attempted to mediate another of Maclean’s quarrels.[3] By 1596 King James was fed up with it and assembled a force to impose a military solution. At that point, most of the other warring chiefs surrendered, but Dunyvaig and some of his vassals remained in rebellion. The king thought perhaps James Macdonald, who had won favour during his time as a hostage at court, might be able to talk some sense into his father. Instead, James simply took over leadership of theDunyvaig Macdonalds – and the feud with Maclean.  

Though certainly not averse to violence, by all accounts James did his best to make peace in this situation. He offered his uncle occupation of the Rhinns, to be held as a vassal of Dunyvaig for the rest of his life. But Maclean had decided he now wanted the whole of Islay, and so, on the 5th of August, Macdonald, Maclean, and the clans that supported them faced off at Gruinart. The ensuing battle is described by almost everyone as ‘bloody’. The Macdonald force was outnumbered but perhaps better trained, and in the end they prevailed. James Macdonald was badly wounded, but he survived; Lachlan Maclean was killed along with many of his followers. The rest of the Maclean force fled to their boats.[4] 

The Macdonald victory proved to be short-lived. Within fifteen years, all the Dunyvaig lands had been granted by the crown, or sold by Angus Macdonald, to various branches of the Campbell clan and James himself was in exile in Spain. He was to be the last chief of the Clann Iain Mhòr.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]Fraser-Mackintosh, p. 35 
[2]
McKerral, p. 15.
[3]Ibid., p. 232
[4]There is a story that some of the Macleans took refuge in a church, which was then set afire with only one survivor. This is certainly not implausible, considering James had not long ago done the very same thing at his own father’s house (with the help of Godfrey of Loup). But earlier accounts of the battle do not include this story, which one would expect to merit notice, and it is not mentioned in records of Sir James’s 1609 trial, which focused on the Askomil incident. Furthermore, if all the ‘burned down a church with enemies inside’ stories, told about nearly every clan in existence, were true, there would be no churches left in the Highlands. Although the story can’t be discounted without more evidence, it should be taken with some skepticism.

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.

Macalister Hall and the Campbeltown Library

On this day in 1899, James Macalister Hall was awarded the Freedom of Campbeltown. He was only the third person to receive this honour (the first two having been the Duke of Argyll and the Marquess of Lorne), which suggests that his contribution to the area must have been felt to be considerable. According to the Scotsman, the award was presented to Macalister Hall at his home because of his age and ill health.[1]

Macalister Hall grew up in Campbeltown, the son of a grocer. His mother, Grace, belonged to a family of Macalisters from one of the Cumbrae Islands. They have no obvious connection to any of the leading clan families. Like the Strathaird family, however, these Macalisters made names for themselves in the British East India Company, of which James eventually became Director. They then set about acquiring property. James Macalister Hall purchased the estates of Killean and Tangy in 1875; at his death in 1904, the property passed first to his brother Stuart, who died childless, then to a nephew, and eventually to James and Stuart’s sister, Grace. The estate was broken up about 1940. Another brother, Peter, rented Torrisdale Castle in the 1860s; Peter’s son William actually purchased Torrisdale, changing his name to Macalister-Hall in the process, and that estate remains in the Macalister-Hall family to this day.

James Macalister Hall was very successful and became quite wealthy. He used his resources to benefit his hometown. About 1895, when local civic groups declared the absence of a public library “an affront to civic dignity”, James Macalister Hall offered to fund the building of a library. “Campbeltown’s new Library and Museum was formally handed over to the town” in January 1898.[2] The building, constructed by Glasgow architect J. J. Burnet, is known as the Burnet building.

In its early days, the museum was operated by the librarian. Donations were accepted of almost anything, the result being a rather eclectic collection. Although the library was eventually moved to a new leisure centre, the Campbeltown Museum remains in the Burnet building[3] – the most visible of the contributions for which this clansman was given the Freedom of Campbeltown on 20th January 1899.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] “Freedom of Campbeltown”, the Scotsman, 19 May 1945, p. 4
[2] “Campbeltown’s New Library and Museum, 1899″, Michael Davis, in Kintyre Magazine web edition, issue 45: Spring 1999

Clann Alasdair Bheag (or, Walter MacAlester meets with the King)

On this date in 1585, Walter MacAlester was one of about forty men who ‘repair[ed] to [King James] at Stirling’ with ‘their friends, servants and dependents’ and whose ‘honest and comely demeanour’ convinced the king that they were ‘his obedient lawful and trusty subjects’. As a result, forfeitures and other penalties against them were overturned by an act of parliament in December.[1]

The fact that Walter MacAlester is among those mentioned by name in the relevant document suggests that he must have been a person of some note. Certainly the others in the list were prominent men. This raises the question – which I’ve not yet been able to answer – of exactly who this Walter was. He does not seem to fit into any of the main families of the clan in Kintyre. Based on the fact that more than half the others named belong to the House of Hamilton, my guess is that Walter was one of the ‘Clann Alasdair Bheag’[2] – the Macalisters of Arran and Bute.

The Isles of Arran and Bute lie to the east of Kintyre (rather than to the west, like the Hebrides) and were controlled by subjects of the Scottish kings rather than by the Lords of the Isles. Although Macalisters are named among the ‘old families of Arran’ by Mackenzie MacBride (1911) and the ‘old native families of Bute’ by James King Hewison (1893), the earliest of this clan on record in Arran to my knowledge was Ranald M’Allister, whose name first appears, as Reginald MacAlexander, in 1440. In 1506, Donald Makalester is named in a land grant in Bute. However, until well into the 17th century, the Macalisters along with the Macdonalds were best known in Arran and Bute as the ‘cursed invaders from Knapdale and Kintyre’, repeatedly inflicting destructive raids on these islands in the course of Clan Donald’s war with the Scottish Crown.

In the 1500s, a handful of Macalisters had begun to settle in Arran and Bute – about the same time that the Hamilton family began its rise to power there. In the Book of Arran, W. M. Mackenzie states that the Hamiltons “had struck an alliance with the MacAlisters” and describes a family of Macalisters who were formally installed in the Arran lands of Shiskine in 1563 as ‘henchmen’ for the Hamiltons.[3]  By the 1930s, “the M’Alisters were the most numerous clan in Shiskine”.[4]  A recent peek at the phone book showed Macalisters living there still.

The nature of Walter MacAlester’s crime and its punishment are not stated. In view of their close association, it’s possible that the Macalisters had been forfeited with the Hamiltons when the latter lost their lands in 1579 (ostensibly for their support of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been forced to abdicate; in fact it had more to do with the political finagling of the rival Stewart lords). On the other hand, the act of December 1585 was a blanket restitution for all who had incurred the wrath of the government during the minority of James VI, excluding only those involved in several high-profile murders, so Walter’s need for restitution might be completely unconnected. In any case, the record of his meeting with the king on 2 November 1585 has sparked my interest in the history of the Clann Alasdair Bheag, a subject that is relatively new to me and deserves more research.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


[1] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 (http://www.rps.ac.uk/): NAS, PA2/13, ff.40r-43r.
[2] The ‘little clan Alasdair’ – so called to distinguish them from the Macalisters of Kintyre, although they were never a separate clan.
[3] Book of Arran, p. 87.
[4] ‘Clans of Shiskine, Past and Present’, paper presented by Charles Robertson, 10th March 1936, Glasgow.