A Freeholder of Argyll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Sankey & Szechi, ibid.

[8] A. Mackenzie, p. 59.

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Orders of Protection

In the summer of 1665, the Privy Council of Scotland, “having heard and considered a petition presented for Gory McAllaster of Loup”, granted the Macalister chief an order of protection, to last until the end of July. Further orders (or extensions) of protection were issued in 1671 and 1672.[1] Similar orders were issued for numerous other chiefs at various times.

These orders of protection tell us a few things about Godfrey Macalister of Loup. Like other Highland chieftains, Loup was required by law to personally appear before the Privy Council in Edinburgh each year, to sign bonds of caution for the good behaviour of his clansmen and tenants.[2] Like many of the others, Loup appears to have tried to fulfill this obligation. By the late 17th century, however, a majority of the chiefs, including Macalister, were heavily in debt.[3] In their own lands, surrounded by kinsmen and loyal tenants, they were relatively secure from vengeful creditors, but they knew that once they ventured out of their areas of influence, they would be at the mercy of those from whom they had borrowed. Many could not hope to “travel unmolested by creditors to Edinburgh in order to give their bonds”.[4] The Privy Council, writes Michael Fry, “which liked to see them once a year, had to issue them with passes against arrest”.[5] Allan Kennedy found record of more than sixty such orders of safe conduct issued between the years of 1664 and 1678.[6]

This widespread indebtedness had a number of causes. Travel to Edinburgh, both to make bonds of peace as required by the government and to pursue their own disputes through the courts, were costly. In the latter case, there were also legal fees. Furthermore, Kennedy notes that once these men were in town, there was a “tendency to make lengthy personal sojourns” in Edinburgh, which also cost money.[7] For example, the protection granted to Macalister (among others) at the end of 1671 was extended through January and then on into March as “the said business is not yet brought to a close”.[8]

As the Highland lairds interacted more frequently with their counterparts from the Lowlands and England, they also began to acquire the habits of their southern peers, leading to significant expenditure on clothing, gambling and other indulgences, and many families in this period also undertook expensive building projects, building or improving and then furnishing homes.[9] In the late 16th century and early 17th century, inflation worked in the chiefs’ favour – income could be increased in various ways, the real cost of debt declined as the money itself was worth less and less, and credit was easy to obtain. In fact, Douglas Watt concludes, many lairds appear to have borrowed “simply because they could”.[10]

Unfortunately, the second half of the 17th century saw the pendulum swing back. Deflation set in, reducing incomes and increasing the real value of debt already accrued. To make matters worse, the utter devastation of many lairds’ properties in the wars of the 1640s left tenants unable to pay rents, further reducing their chiefs’ income right when the money was needed to rebuild. Cash-strapped lairds then borrowed more to cover the gap.

Creditors in the early part of this period were often near kinsmen of the chief, which took some of the pressure off. Kinsmen, close neighbours and friends were less likely to pursue debts with the heartless efficiency of relative strangers in the Lowlands. Furthermore, quite a few cases are recorded in which a chief’s overwhelming debts were actually bought out by his kinsmen to prevent the chief losing his lands (which were considered by most to belong to the clan as a whole). However, as the seventeenth century wore on, Highland lairds were increasingly indebted to merchants and lawyers in Edinburgh as well as to Lowland lairds.[11] These creditors often found it difficult to get hold of their Highland debtors, whose lands in some cases were literally beyond the reach of law. The only thing they could do in attempt to be repaid was to raise apprisings on the property of the borrowers – something that made it difficult for the laird involved to get more credit but did little to recover the money he had already borrowed. The annual journey of the Highland chiefs to Edinburgh therefore presented a golden opportunity for creditors to pursue their debts. This naturally made the chiefs apprehensive about fulfilling their promises to the Privy Council unless the Council would guarantee their safety.

In many cases, the debts run up by one chief were passed on to his heir. This seems to have been the situation facing Godfrey Macalister. Godfrey’s father Hector, one of our more successful chiefs despite living in difficult times, is named as a debtor to Jonet Campbell in 1631, to George Campbell of Kinnochtry in 1637 and 1641, and to Ninian Lamont in 1643.[12] There was probably a financial cost too for his willingness in the 1620s to stand as surety for the good behaviour of Coll Ciotach Macdonald (who, with his son Alasdair MacColla, proceeded to behave rather badly as far as the government was concerned). Several of these debts continued to plague Godfrey. Letters of horning were issued against him in 1664 by Colin Campbell, the son of George of Kinnochtry, in attempt to force him to repay the debt owed by his father. The following year, Campbell obtained a decreet of apprising on Macalisters’ lands in effort to collect. In 1669, someone apparently caught up with Godfrey because we find him being held in the Tolbooth at Rothesay (Isle of Bute); the nature of his crime is not specified, but in light of his otherwise good behaviour, debt is the most likely explanation. In 1671 however, he is back in Edinburgh, still in debt and requiring once more an order of protection from the Privy Council.[13]

Sometimes members of the Highland elite were able to satisfy their creditors. In May of 1675, a contract between Gory Macalister and Colin Campbell of Kinnochtry set up payment plans for the money Macalister’s father owed to Campbell’s father. In return, the letters of apprising that Campbell had against Macalister’s lands were to be turned over to Macalister.[14] In the long run, however, the indebtedness of Highland lairds would have a devastating effect on the culture of the Highlands, with many chiefs either losing their lands all together or slowly becoming simply landlords, whose estates were run for profit and whose tenants and clansmen often paid the price. Alexander Fraser notes that the late 18th century saw “an economic landslide in Mid-Argyll . . . . The accumulated difficulties of more than one hundred years proved insupportable, and the landed families . . . failed, one after another”.[15] Among those families whose debts ultimately cost them their lands were the Macalisters of Loup and the Macalisters of Tarbert.

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015

[1] Records of the Privy Council of Scotland (series iii), vol. II, p. 58; A. Kennedy, Governing Gaeldom: The Scottish Highlands and the Restoration State, 1660-1688 (Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2014), p. 37, note 84.

[2] This requirement originated with the Statutes of Iona in 1609, which charged the Gaidhealtachd‘s natural leaders with maintaining peace and order on their lands.

[3] Ranald Macalister of Tarbert was also in debt. His lands were appraised at a debt of 4,706 merks in 1668 (Beaton, “How the Tarbert Lands Passed from the Macalisters to the Campbells”, p. 15).

[4] Kennedy, p. 37, note 84

[5] M. Fry, Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History (London: John Murray Publishers, 2005), p. 36

[6] Kennedy, p. 189

[7] Kennedy, p. 37, note 84; D. Watt, “The laberinth of thir difficulties”, Scottish Historical Review, vol. 86, no. 219 (April 2006), p. 35.

[8] RPCS (series iii), vol. III, p. 430

[9] Watt, p. 36

[10] Watt, p. 37

[11] Watt, p. 40. He also points out (p. 37) that interest rates higher than 50% were not unheard of, so borrowing itself was an expensive proposition.

[12] The Clan Campbell, vol. 5: Abstracts of Entries Relating to Campbells in the Early Unprinted Records relating to Ayrshire, 1515-1650, pp. 201-2; Decisions of the Court of Session from its Institution to the Present Time, digested under proper heads, in the form of a dictionary, vol. XVII, case 15821; Inventory of Lamont Papers, p. 210, item 748.

[13] RPCS (series iii), vol. II, pp. 399, 403, 415

[14] Decisions of the Court of Session, vol. XVII, case 15821.

[15] Fraser, North Knapdale in the XVII and XVIIIth Centuries, p. 81.

Allaster Macalister and the Fall of Dunyvaig

In November 1614, several men of significance in the Clan Alasdair took part in a Macdonald rebellion in which the Islay stronghold of Dunyvaig Castle was held against the king. The Macalisters had been supporters of the Dunyvaig Macdonalds for generations. After the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles (1493), the Clan Alasdair was technically an independent clan, but “they were not sufficiently powerful to rely upon their own resources amid the turbulent conditions of the age”[1] and they sought the protection of the greatest remaining Macdonald kindred, the Clan Donald South of Dunyvaig and the Glens. Their association with this branch of Clan Donald can be seen in their involvement in the Macdonalds’ feuds, both in the north of Ireland and in the Macdonald-Maclean feud at home. Godfrey Macalister of Loup was one of the witnesses to a letter of renunciation by which Angus of Dunyvaig, facing forfeiture because of that feud, attempted to preserve his family’s position by turning his estate over to his son, Sir James.

When the same Godfrey fell out with and murdered his former guardian, the Tutor of Loup, it was to Angus of Dunyvaig that the Tutor’s sons (probably the chief’s cousins) fled, taking refuge at his home in Askomil. As close relatives of the chief, the Tutor’s family held an important position in the clan, and the Macalisters’ continued association with the Clan Donald South ensured that the Tutor’s son Allaster would play a part in that clan’s attempts to recapture their traditional stronghold at Dunyvaig.

Dunyvaig Castle had been surrendered to the Crown by Angus Macdonald in 1608 and occupied by a garrison under the Bishop of Argyll. In 1614, however, it was retaken by Ranald Og, Angus’s illegitimate son. Hearing the news, Ranald’s half-brother Angus Og gathered a force to recover the castle for the king, which was soon accomplished. “For some time the castle remained in the hands of Angus Oig, who professed his readiness to restore it to the Bishop on receiving a remission for any offences committed by him and his supporters.”[2] By November 1614, those supporters included Coll MacGillespick (father of Alasdair MacColla) and several members of the Clan Alasdair, including Allaster. But when the Bishop finally arrived, Angus Og refused to turn the castle over. Macdonald adherents were gaining in number, and the Bishop knew he was outnumbered; so, leaving his nephew as hostage, the Bishop went for help. 

At this point the Privy Council abandoned its plan to end the siege peacefully and prepared to take the castle and rescue the hostages by force. Campbell of Calder was granted a commission to accomplish this, with promises that Islay would thereafter be granted to the Campbells. With a force of mostly hired men, Calder advanced on the castle and demanded in the name of the king that it be surrendered. Instead, the rebels began firing on Calder’s men, five of whom were killed. Now there was murder to be answered for as well as treason.

The siege dragged on into February, at which point Calder stormed the castle. Quite a few of the rebels were executed on the spot, but Angus Og Macdonald and the other ringleaders were to be tried by the Privy Council. The fact that two Macalisters are among this latter group once again illustrates the connection between our clan and the Clan Donald South. Information suggesting the complicity of the Earl of Argyll and a supposed mediator named Graham was ignored[3] and the men were all convicted. Allaster Macalister is named in the Privy Council records as one of several Macalisters who were involved in the siege, and he is one of only two of this clan to be hanged with Macdonald.[4]

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] Macdonald and Macdonald, vol. II, p. 40
[2] Gregory, pp. 349-5
[3]Ibid., pp. 365-6. The Bishop had reported to the authorities that the Earl of Argyll was the one who encouraged Angus Og not to surrender the castles to him, something Angus later claimed in his own defence. At the time of the deaths of Calder’s men, there was suspicion that Angus Og had been tricked into violence by the interference of a Gaelic speaker called Graham who claimed to be mediating but who, like everyone else involved, had his own agenda.
[4] Pitcairn, vol. III, pp. 364-5; Macdonald and Macdonald, vol. II,pp. 49-50

General Band of James VI

On this day in 1587 the Scottish Parliament meeting in Edinburgh enacted a General Band (or Bond) For the quieting and keping in obedience of the disorderit subjectis, inhabitantis of the bordouris, hielandis and ilis. This legislation was the first attempt by James VI as an adult to bring these historically troublesome areas under legal control. The Band required its signators to give hostages (to be chosen by the authorities but kept at the expense of their clans) as a pledge against the good behaviour of all who lived on their lands. The penalties listed for failing to apprehend those who misbehaved included being required to make restitution to the victims, being declared rebel against the crown, and if all else failed execution of the signator’s hostage. 

Although the requirements made of the Borderers suggest slightly different issues there, feuding, raiding (theft), and blackmail are specifically mentioned as contributing to the troubles in the Highlands. What’s interesting is that many of those who signed the Band were the very chiefs and lairds whose feuds encouraged the “mischiefs . . . wasting, slaying, harrying and destroying their own neighbours” that they were now required to stamp out.[1] In the southwest Highlands, for example, that Macdonalds of Dunyvaig and the Macleans of Duart were embroiled in a long-running and violent feud over the Rinns of Islay; most of the clans around them had taken sides (Macalister of Loup, Clanranald, Macian of Ardnamurchan, Macleod of Lewis, Macneill of Gigha and Macfie of Colonsay on the side of Dunyvaig; Macleod of Harries, Macneill of Barra, Mackinnon and Macquarrie on the side of Duart), and “the whole of the West Highlands was set aflame.”[2]Lachlan Maclean of Duart was also at odds with Macdonald of Sleat[3], and in addition to his own vendetta against the Laird of Glengarry, the Earl of Argyll at one point illegally imprisoned both Duart and Dunyvaig and proceeded to plunder their lands.[4] Yet the chiefs of all but three of these clans have signed the document (Alexander Macalister appears as the ‘Laird of Lowip’).[5] 

It’s probably no surprise, therefore, that this act of Parliament does not appear to have worked, at least in the Western Highlands. Whether it was not enforced or the signators simply ignored it, it was only a year after the General Band was signed that the king found it necessary to commission a judiciary against the chief of Clan Cameron; the year after that saw Maclean and Dunyvaig arrested in Edinburgh, still pursuing their conflict; and within a decade both Macdonald of Dunyvaig and Macalister of Loup were in open rebellion.[6] 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland, 1587/7/70 (http://www.rps.ac.uk/)
[2] A. McKerral, Kintyre in the 17th Century, p. 15.  
[3] D. Gregory, The History of the Western Highlands and Islands, pp. 230-2.
[4] Ibid., pp. 216-7. Gregory notes that after 1579, when Argyll was made Lord High Chancellor, “he seems to have paid more regard to the laws”.
[5] I can’t find Macneill of Gigha, Macquarrie, or Macdonald of Sleat among those named to the bond.
[6] This was Godfrey, Alexander’s brother. The bond however was intended to apply to successive lairds.

Hector and Margaret of Kilberry

On this day in 1620, Hector Macalister, 6th laird of Loup, married Margaret Campbell. Margaret was the daughter of Colin Campbell of Kilberry, who had died the previous year.

Because of his marriage to a Campbell, Clan Donald historians have traditionally assumed that Hector sided with the Covenanters (or at least didn’t stand in their way) during Alasdair MacColla Macdonald’s 1647 reign of destruction in Kintyre, despite the fact that the Loup family had always been Royalists and followers of the Clan Donald (from whom they originally sprang). As is often the case, however, the situation was more complicated than it appears. To begin with, although his brother-in-law was a Campbell, his son-in-law was in fact Alasdair MacColla, which means Hector was equally connected to both sides.[1] If being related by marriage to a collateral branch of the Campbell clan might make him lean towards the Campbell chief, would being related by marriage to MacColla himself not make him even more inclined to support his traditional Clan Donald ally? In fact, Campbells, Macdonalds, Macalisters, Macleans and other local clans had been intermarrying for centuries, and although these marriages did occasionally succeed in forging alliances between rival families, such alliances never lasted very long. If Hector’s course were chosen based on whom he was connected to, it would have made most sense for him to simply lie low.

The few records that exist, however, suggest that Hector did not take that path. At the time that David Leslie’s force passed by Tarbert (which again has been taken as evidence that the Macalisters ‘allowed’ the Covenanters access to Kintyre), Hector was among those besieging Skipness Castle on MacColla’s orders.[2] He is later said to have been one of two clan chiefs who approached General Leslie after the Royalist defeat at Rhunahaorine, offering to renounce their allegiance to MacColla in exchange for assurances that their clans would not be destroyed by the victors.[3] This would seem to suggest that such an allegiance had in fact existed.

In any case, Hector was not at Dunaverty with those of his clansmen who died there, he did not lose his lands like longtime associates such as Macdonald of Largie, and he is on record in later years in roles of responsibility in Kintyre. Whatever his final position in the conflict of the 1640s, the marriage contracted 11 March 1620 was destined to last for many years and produce several children. One of them, Godfrey, succeeded his father as chief of the clan about 1664. Margaret outlived her husband – she is on record in 1670.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]That Hector’s daughter married MacColla seems to be accepted by everyone, including historians as respected as David Stevenson and Colm McNamee. Documentary evidence is said to exist, but I feel obligated to acknowledge that I have not yet seen it myself. However, without evidence to the contrary, I have no real reason to doubt those who have.
[2]A. Campbell of Airds, History of the Clan Campbell, vol. II, pp. 238-9
[3]Letter of 11 June 1647 from French ambassador Jean de Montereul to Cardinal Mazarin (J. G. Fotheringham, pp. 151-2). MacColla was at this time evacuating the main part of his force to Islay on its way to Ireland. In light of the fact that many of MacColla’s local supporters were massacred at Dunaverty only a couple of weeks later, making nice with Leslie was probably the wisest move these men could have made.