A Freeholder of Argyll

On the 19th July 1790, a meeting was held at Inveraray of the freeholders of Argyllshire, who gathered to choose the shire’s representative for the upcoming parliament. Among the attendees listed is Angus Macalister, 11th of Loup.

In the Scottish context, a freeholder was a tenant-in-chief — someone who held his lands directly from the king. This had nothing to do with the landholder’s local prominence or personal wealth. Many well-established families in Scotland held their lands from one of the king’s vassals rather than from the king himself[1] — including the Macalisters of Tarbert, who were vassals, or subtenants, of the Campbells of Argyll. The Loup family itself held some of its properties from the Macdonalds of Dunyvaig in earlier times, and later some from Argyll. But the Macalister chiefs’ position as freeholders was important. William Ferguson tells us that “by the late seventeenth century the term [freeholder] was used mainly with reference to the electoral system, the freeholders or barons constituting the county electorate”.[2] In fact, “[o]utside the burghs virtually all Scottish voters” belonged to this group, according to Margaret Sankey and Daniel Szechi; as a result “county electorates were small, usually less than a hundred voters”.[3] Thus despite Angus’s relative insignificance compared to magnates like Argyll, he was one of the few Argyllshire men who could vote and his family therefore wielded considerable power.

It is not clear when the Macalisters first gained possession of the property from which their territorial designation comes, but they clearly were freeholders almost from the start. The first mention we have of the lands of Loup is in 1481, when the king granted them, along with many others, to John of Islay (Lord of the Isles). The property seems to have been granted by him to the Macalisters who, as a sept of the Clan Donald living in the heart of the Lordship, were already John’s followers. Certainly by the time of the final Forfeiture, in 1493, the Macalister chief was holding Loup as a vassal of Macdonald of the Isles.[4] At that point John’s lands in Kintyre reverted to the king, who apparently regranted Loup to the Macalisters, thereafter to be held directly of him. The rentals of 1506 and 1541 show the Loup property still in the hands of the Macalisters, and in 1605, Macalister’s charter for his crown holdings was confirmed.

In 1607, Kintyre was granted to the Campbell Earl of Argyll in response to the Macdonald-Maclean feud. Argyll’s grant was ratified in 1617, after more trouble from the (now landless) Macdonalds of Dunyvaig. The earl was instructed not to let any of his new lands to anyone named Macdonald, Maclean, Macneill or Macalister. However, Hector Macalister, 6th of Loup, held his lands of the king, not Argyll; additionally, Hector had been too young to be involved in the various disorders of the early 1600s, so no punitive measures were taken against him. Still, holding one’s land in Kintyre required a diplomatic balancing act: Loyalty to the king served the Loup family well when Argyll fell from favour, but during the 17th century it was often a liability. The Macalisters didn’t always get it right; they did however seem to know when it was time to give up: As an adult, Hector narrowly avoided forfeiture (or worse) at the end of the Civil Wars by quickly switching sides when it became clear that Alasdair MacColla’s rising was at an end; his great-grandson, Alexander the 10th of Loup, was accused of treason for his involvement in the first Jacobite rising and almost certainly would have been forfeited had he not surrendered before he could be arrested.

But different types of challenge presented themselves in the centuries that followed. Allan Macinnes writes, “The acquisitiveness of the Campbells at the expense of other Argyllshire clans [was] the most pronounced feature of landholding in the eighteenth century”.[5] Indeed, of the 57 heritors who appear on the 1751 valuation of Kintyre, nearly half (23) are Campbells.[6] Among those who had fallen victim to Campbell hegemony were the Tarbert Macalisters, who by 1751 had already lost most of their lands and were being sued by Argyll for failure to meet some of the terms of their tenancy. Yet the very fact of Angus’s inclusion on the list of voters for this particular election suggests one reason he had survived. As Sankey and Szechi explain,

Being returned to Westminster as a knight of the shire for a Scottish county . . . required a successful candidate to exploit his local and family networks to produce a coalition of friends, neighbours and kinsmen sufficient to vote him in.[7]

The unanimous election of Lord Frederick Campbell, a brother of the 5th Duke of Argyll, to the post[8] suggests that the men who met on this day at Inverary — including Angus Macalister of Loup — were those who had made themselves Campbell allies.

Ultimately, however, Angus’s political realism could not save him from the biggest threat to 18th-century lairds: accumulating debt. He had already been sued, in November 1746, by creditors of his father Charles in attempt to collect on Charles’s debts. Before the end of the decade, his lands in Kintyre would be sold off by trustees. Although the designation ‘of Loup’ is still held by Angus’s successors, he was the last of this family to be called a freeholder of Argyll.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2016

[1] A. Mackenzie, A View of the Political State of Scotland at the Late General Election (Edinburgh: Mundell & Son, 1790), p. 21.

[2] W. Ferguson, Scotland: 1689 to the Present, Edinburgh History of Scotland vol. 4 (Mercat Press, 1990), p. 72.

[3] Sankey & Szechi, “Elite Culture and the Decline of Scottish Jacobitism, 1716-1745” in Past & Present, No. 173 (Nov. 2001), p. 105.

[4] Origines Parochiales, vol. 2, part 1, p. 31.

[5] A. Macinnes, “Landownership, Land Use and Elite Enterprise in Scottish Gaeldom: from Clanship to Clearance in Argyllshire, 1688-1858”, in T. Devine, ed., Scottish Elites, p. 9

[6] L. Timperley, A Directory of Land Ownership in Scotland, c. 1770 (Scottish Record Society, 2014), pp. 28-46.

[7] Sankey & Szechi, ibid.

[8] A. Mackenzie, p. 59.

Donald of Langilwenach

On this day in 1506, ‘Donaldo Makalester’ is named among the numerous men in the Isle of Bute to whom the king gave new grants of lands they held there. The grant describes those named as hereditary tenants and tells us they have held their lands ‘ab antiquo’ (from ancient times).[1] Many of these men do indeed bear names like Stewart and Bannatyne that are strongly associated with Bute. Macalisters have also been described as one of the ‘old native families of Bute’[2], but it is likely that in Bute, as in Arran, Macalisters in the early sixteenth century were still better known as ‘cursed invaders from Kintyre’, having raided there for generations.

The lands that are granted to these men are to be held in feu-ferm. Feu-ferm was a type of feudal arrangement in which tenants agreed to pay a specified rent in cash to their superior – in this case, the king — in return for which they had the right to occupy the land for the rest of their lives and often to pass the property on to their ‘heirs male’ (sons or grandsons). Although the king mentions that these tenants held their lands by earlier grants, it is not clear what kind of arrangement existed previously. During the middle ages, land was more often held by ward-holding, whereby the property was granted to the vassal in return for military service, with rent being being paid in kind (i.e., with food, livestock, crops, etc.). This made perfect sense in a pre-cash society that was prone to conflict over land and limited resources. But times were changing, and the Scottish king was perpetually short of cash. In 1464, James III convinced Parliament to revoke the grants issued by his father, who had been ‘misled by certain men then around him during his minority’, and allow him to feu them out.[3] Professor Mitchison tells us that although the Crown ‘had been feuing land occasionally since the thirteenth century … in the late fifteenth century the practice became more frequent. The tenants got security and the king got cash. . . .’[4]

Though I have no direct evidence, I suspect that this Donald was Donald Dùbh, younger brother of the laird of Loup and eventual founder of the Tarbert family. Most of the early landholding Macalisters in Bute and Arran seem to have had connexions to one or another of the leading families (indeed, the leading families were the only ones in this clan to hold land anywhere at this point), and I am unaware of another Donald of note in the clan at this time. It’s possible that before he was appointed keeper of Tarbert castle in 1540, Donald Dùbh had made his home in Bute, much as two hundred years later his descendant Charles, of Tor in Arran, made his home on that island before succeeding as the 8th laird of Tarbert.

Whoever Donaldo Makalester was, his lands (the southern part of a property called Langilwenach in the parish of Kingarth[5]) were not be passed on to his heirs — male or female. In or before 1555, Macalister sold his Bute property to John M’Wyrartie and his wife Katherin Glas.[6]

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, AD 1424-1513 (James Balfour Paul, ed.; H M General Register House, 1882), pp. 635-636.

[2] James King Hewison, Isle of Bute in the olden time (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1893), p. 225.

[3] RPS, 1464/10/1
R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1982), p. 78.
[5] Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, pp. 635-636.
[6] Origines Parochiales, vol. II, part I, p. 216.