This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

December 2003



Fortune was with Alasdair's little task force as it headed from Co. Waterford to Scotland. Liverpool had fallen to royalists and thus minimized the possibility that ships from the parliamentary navy would intercept his force. Further on, the escort frigate the Harp intercepted a ship making the passage from Ulster to Scotland. Most of the passengers were allowed to continue with the vessel. Eight of the passengers, a group of Presbyterian ministers and businessmen, were considered important enough to keep in the event of the opportunity for prisoner exchange. One of these prisoners was John Weir, a Presbyterian minister who had been in Ulster imposing the Covenant. His diary, which he kept through his ordeal, is an essential source of information on Alasdair's Scottish campaign.

On July 4 1644 Alasdair's fleet anchored off Islay. Alasdair may have planned to initiate his campaign with a glorious liberation of the MacDonald duthus, the ancient clan homeland. Local fisherman, however, reported of the massacre of Alasdair's men after they escaped Rathlin Island and the subsequent campaign of intimidation waged by the Campbells throughout the Hebrides. Islay was firmly under the thumb of the MacCailein Mor. Alasdair then sailed on to the Isle of Mull and anchored off the Castle of Duart, the seat of the Macleans of Duart. Hoping to enlist the support of this clan, another enemy of Clan Campbell, Alasdair was soon disabused of any such notions. Clan Maclean had also suffered from the vengeful rampage of Clan Campbell in the wake of Alasdair's previous raid on the Hebrides. Lachlan Maclean, the clan chief, was not going to pay the price for Alasdair, a man he saw as having nothing left to lose in Scotland, someone who could again exit back to Ireland if things got desperate.

The question was, what next? Alasdair could not wait for other clan chiefs to declare for his uprising. Time was of the essence and if his campaign was to succeed he had to demonstrate his staying power to the cowed clans of the western seaboard of Scotland. He had learned from the fishermen of Islay and the Macleans that two strategic castles across the narrows off northeast Mull on the mainland were under-garrisoned and vulnerable. These were the small blockhouse type structure of Kinlochaline Castle in Morvern and Mingarry Castle on the Ardnamurchan peninsula at the confluence of the narrows and Loch Sunart. Alasdair landed about 400 men under Manus O'Cahan in Morvern and then sailed on to Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of mainland in Great Britain.

It was reported that upon Alasdair's landing a loud clap of thunder was heard throughout Scotland despite the sky being clear. In modern times we could easily attribute such a phenomenon to atmospheric elements such as "summer thunder" or possibly a sonic boom attributable to a meteorite. But in Alasdair's day such phenomenon were seen as portends of devine providence. Alasdair MacColla, the great Highland warrior, was returned to avenge the mythic Lordship of the Isles. And striking at Ardnamurchan could not have been a better symbol, save Islay herself. For Mingarry Castle had formerly been the seat of the MacIains of Ardnamurchan, a once powerful branch of the MacDonald dynasty. Convinced by the Campbells that the MacDonald cause was lost they cast their allegiance to the MacCailein Mor only to have the Earl of Argyll nullify their legal rights to their lands and hand it over to Campbell relatives. The MacIains of Ardnamurchan tried to hold out in their lands by resorting to piracy, but were eventually cast to the four winds, a broken clan. Entering the English-speaking world they often Anglicized their name to MacCain. One of their descendants would become a United States senator and run for president: John MacCain.

Alasdair landed and proceeded to launch a punitive campaign against the Campbell settlers. After securing booty and provisions from the now cowed locals on July 10, 1644 he began his siege of Mingarry Castle. Mingarry is not a particularly large fortress. It impresses as more of a large blockhouse or armory than a majestic castle. Yet it is strategically located on a cliff with only one side facing landward. It covers the mouth of Loch Sunart as well as the sound of Mull. With guns it could impede all sea travel in the area. On the landward side was a broad ditch with a bridge or drawbridge. However, the garrison was weak and poorly prepared for the coming fight. On July 13 the final assault began.

Alasdair's men began their assault by focusing on the main gate. Charging through gunfire they piled up combustibles against the gate and ignited them. To the surprise of the assault force, the defenders began pouring barrels of Ale over the fire. It seems that their water source, a small spring or well had dried up. Resistance did not last long. Soon the defenders were allowed to surrender under honorable terms. The commander and the warders were kept hostage for prisoner exchange, but the rest of the garrison was let free. On July 15 the hostages taken in the Irish Sea and provisions on the ships were brought into the castle. At this time Manus O'Cahan arrived from Kinlochaline Castle with his men, having left said castle garrisoned well supplied.

Alasdair now had his toehold in Scotland - and he had done it with suffering only nine dead and eight wounded. Emissaries were now sent to various West Highland and Hebridean Clan chiefs. MacDonalds/MacDonnells, Macleods, Macleans and the Earl of Seaforth, chief of the MacKenzies, were entreated to join the rebellion. Yet not one positive response was received. Time was of the essence. Alasdair knew that the element of surprise was gone and hostile forces would soon be concentrating against him. Add to this a new strategic twist. On July 17 a ship was spotted from Mingarry. The frigate Harp left anchorage in pursuit. Two days later the Harp returned pursued by ships of the Parliamentary Navy. The English Navy had finally caught up with him. Tradition, Gaelic Poetry and the journal of John Weir all give differing accounts of what happened next. But what was clear was that a seaborn escape was now not a sure thing.

Alasdair knew that his toehold would become a trap if he did not exercise the most primary of Highland tactics: Mobility over firepower. After garrisoning Mingarry, Alasdair and most of his army set off for Lochaber in search of recruits and provisions. Moving from Ardnamurchan through Ardgour to the lands of the Camerons, MacIains of Glencoe (Clann Iain Abrach) and the Stewarts of Appin he found little support. He now turned north to Kintail and camped in Glen Elg, on the mainland opposite the Isle of Skye. He literally brought his cause to the doorstep of Clan Huisdean, the MacDonalds of Sleat, whose lands lay across Loch Alsh on Skye, and the Earl of Seaforth, on whose land he was camped. Seaforth initially refused entry of his lands to Alasdair and his "Irish invaders." But when his wishes were ignored, he offered Highland hospitality. But hospitality was all Alasdair would receive and lest his host were pressured by other political forces to be less than hospitable he had to move on. After sending correspondence to the Marquis of Ormand's government in Dublin, Alasdair's army was on the move.

Badenoch is a region of the north central Highlands with a wild, romantic and violent history. Once the lair of the Wolf of Badenoch, a terrible and illusive warlord, it was the home of Clan Chattan. Clan Chattan, the clan of the cats, whose motto of "touch not bot with a glove," was a confederation of MacIntoshes, MacPhersons, Farquhars and MacGillivrays, created as mutual protection against larger predatory clans. Yet by the 17th century, royal policy subverted their autonomy to that of the Earl of Huntly, the representative of the powerful lowland family, the Gordans. For that matter, official Stuart policy was to support the Campbells, the Gordans and The Earl of Seaforth and his Clan MacKenzie in the subversion of Gaelic autonomy in the Highlands and Islands. But in the new atmosphere former enemies were now allies. Huntly, the leader of the house of Gordan, was now Alasdair's ally as was the Stuart monarch. But Huntly was beaten and lying low in the far north in Strathnaver (Srathnabhair). It was to Badenoch now that Alasdair would turn seeking further reinforcements.

Leaving Glen Elg, with one eye over his shoulder at Seaforth, he traveled through Glen Shiel to Glen Morriston around the southwest corner of Loch Ness at Kilcumen (current day Fort Augustus) into the upper Speyside. Ahead of him messengers carried the Crann Tara, the fiery cross, which was in that day the sort of equivalent of the selective service notice. With the exception of the Campbell sympathizers in Ardnamurchan, Alasdair had previously treated the native populations exceedingly well. They were sympathizers whom he hoped would volunteer for the cause. He could not risk alienating them, for he never knew when he would be dependent on their good will.

The Clans of the Central Highlands, while Gaelic in speech and custom, looked much less to Ireland for cultural, political and military ties. They had much more extensive ties to the Scottish Lowlands than the West Highlander did (and their culture would vanish at a much more accelerated rate in the future). To them, Alasdair's Irish were seen as foreign invaders. Yet they were generally the tenants of one of the leading Lowland Catholics and royalists, The Earl of Huntly. Alasdair was making it clear he represented royal authority and legally could impel them to serve. To underline this point he had a Crann Tara sent to the covenanting committee of war in Moray, the Lowland district adjacent to Badenoch, on the lower Strathspey. The message was clear, Alasdair was using his royal authority to conscript local clans and any who failed to respond appropriately would be treated as the enemy. Many of the local clan chiefs were taken hostage and forced to provide 500 levies. Ewan Og, the son of MacPherson of Cluny provided 300 troops. Dugall MacPherson of Ballachroan, a sympathizer with the covenant, balked and had his lands and buildings ruined. Clansman caught on his lands were forcibly conscripted.

Alasdairs enforcement of royal authority helped imbue respect amongst the Highlanders. Members of the Clan Ranald, who had been trickling into the cause, began coming in greater numbers. Likewise MacDonnell of Keppoch brought his clansmen into the cause in strength. But as Alaslair's force swelled, the Covenanters responded in kind. The Covenanting clans of the Rosses, Grants, Frasers and Munros reinforced the Lowland forces of Moray. Most ominous of all, The Earl of Seaforth, feeling that the momentum was swinging to the Covenant forces, brought his men in on their side. Meanwhile Campbell forces were coalescing and strengthening in the west. A steel band was tightening around Alasdair's forces. He could not march down the Spey. To the North the Covenanting clans stood between him and Huntly. He could not go back the way he came and the Campbells had him checked in the west. Alasdair was a sitting duck and needed to move, but which way?

Like a beacon, the district of Atholl to the south over the Grampian mountains beckoned. The home of the Stewarts of Atholl, these Highland relatives of the monarch seemed natural allies. So to the south Alasdair and his army marched. But their reception was surprising. Argyll's forces had exacted terrible revenge in the prior conflicts. Alasdair did not look like a liberator to them. A hero in the west, here he was seen as a risky adventurer who could bring down the wrath of Clan Campbell and the Covenant army against them once again. Alasdair's Irish were not viewed as ethnic kin come from abroad to help them, but as alien invaders. To the Stewarts of Atholl and their allied clans, Alasdair's force was viewed with a mixture of dread, fear and suspicion. And complicating this the clan chief was an infant, thus leaving a power vacuum. Anticipating that Alasdair would use the power of the Crann Tara against them if they showed a lack of enthusiasm for his cause, they gathered to resist.

Entering Atholl, the garrison of Blair Atholl Castle, the seat of the Stewarts of Atholl, fled. But by the side of the river Tilt now drew a powerful and menacing army against Alasdair. Fists were shook at his men and Gaelic curses were shouted. The two armies stood there glaring at each other waiting for the other to move. Alasdair despaired. He was faced with having to fight people who should be his allies and who he had been counting on to protect and provision his army. Totally surrounded on all sides by Covenanting forces Alasdair was stranded in a world of danger. Standing aside from his army with his senior commanders, deeply and solemnly contemplating his situation, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and uttered a Gaelic prayer. And just at the split second disaster should have struck, events would change in such a way that Alasdair would be convinced that God's providence was with him.

Griogair Dubhghlas, Am Fear Cathrach Albannach
Greg Douglas, Scottish Chair of the Celtic League American Branch.

For more information on Scotland, see the Scotland Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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