15th Century

1400:  1. Records mention Alexander mac Ranald MacAlasdair, 5th chief of the Clan Alasdair (I have no details).

2. Some descendants of Godfrey, second son of Alasdair Mòr, settle in the Carrick district of Ayrshire at about this time; like the Stirlingshire Alexanders (see 1330), these MacAlasdairs become MacAlexanders, dropping the mac in later generations [Black, p. 16].

3. Power base of Clan Donald South begins to shift to Northern IrelandJohn Mòr Tanister[1], brother of Donald, second Lord of the Isles, marries Marjorie Bisset, heiress of lands in the Glens of Antrim. This “territorial expansion, . . . reinforced by subsequent marriages, open[s] up the Glens as a place of refuge and resettlement for Clan Donald and its associate families right down to its disintegration in the seventeenth century”[Martin, p. 93; McKerral, p. 7[2]; Grant/Cheape, p. 72]. P. L. Henry argues that “[t]he Glens of Antrim were in the hands of Scottish Macdonalds by 1400″ [Wood, ed., p. 10]. Note: These are the Macdonalds of Dunyvaig, or Clan Iain Mhòr; Clan Alasdair is one of the main ‘associate families’ of this branch of Clan Donald, and many Macalisters do in fact follow them to Antrim.

c. 1417: death of Dugald Campbell, Dean of Argyll and bastard son of the Campbell chief; his wife is the daughter of an Abbot MacAlaster [Thomson, Feud, p. 26; Campbell of Airds, History, vol. 1, p. 104].

1427:  Menstrie, the old family seat of the Campbells, is traded by them for another property [Thomson, Feud, p. 27]; however, some branch of that clan seem still to have ownership of Menstrie in the next century (see 1517; 1526, #2).

1429: Under Alexander, third Lord of the Isles, the campaign to win back the Earldom of Ross resumes. MacDonalds lay waste to Crown lands in Inverness and burn down the town itself before being defeated at Lochaber; here again, Gregory suggests that most of Alexander’s vassals are involved [pp. 36-7],which would include members of the Clan Alasdair. MacDonald’s allies, the Camerons and MacIntoshes, desert him, but beyond this no details of the battle are known. At this point, King James I “take[s] some steps towards dismembering the lands of the Lordship” [Thomson, Feud, p. 30-31]. Alexander is forced to submit in humiliation and is put under lock and key [Gregory, p. 37].

1431: Battle of Inverlochy : Though the Lord of the Isles is still imprisoned, his kinsman Donald Balloch (son of John Tanister and Marjorie Bisset) surprises the royal forces occupying Lochaber and defeats them, killing many, including the Earl of Caithness; the Earl of Mar is badly wounded, and the king is not at all pleased. Donald Balloch flees to Ireland, but “[t]he other leaders of the insurgents, dreading the determined character of [King] James, c[o]me to meet him at Dunstaffnage, eager to make their submission, and to throw the whole blame of the insurrection upon Donald Balloch, whose power, as they affirmed, they had dared not resist” [Gregory, p. 38]. Whether or not there are MacAlasdairs involved is not clear, although there is no doubt they are involved in all the mischief Balloch’s clan gets up to after 1493. It is also not clear whether or not Balloch truly acted on his own. As Alexander MacDonald is pardoned for all his crimes later the same year, he is evidently not seen by the king as responsible for Balloch’s insurrection [Gregory, p. 39; Kintyre Rentals, p. 1], but he certainly causes more grief later; see 1445.

1439: Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, is granted the Earldom of Ross [Thomson, Feud, p. x].

1440: ‘Reginald MacAlexander’ appears on record for the first time this year in Arran. He is holding nine farms on the west side of the island, for which he is three and a half years behind on his rent. The location of his lands makes them particularly vulnerable to raids from Kintyre, and the destruction to his property has rendered him unable to pay. As far as I know, this is the earliest record we have of Macalisters settled in Arran. Mackenzie believes that Ranald (the ‘Reginald’ of record) is probably connected to the family of Loup [Mackenzie, Arran, p. 45].

1444–7: Rent books, etc., for this period show a “melancholy record of losses in the island [of Arran] through devastations by the ‘cursed invaders from Knapdale and Kintyre’ ” [Mackenzie, Arran, p. 42; M’Arthur, pp. 153, 170]. These ‘cursed invaders’ consist primarily of MacDonalds and MacAlasdairs, for whom Arran and Bute, held by supporters of the king, ‘positively invit[e] attack’ by the Clan Donald [Mackenzie, Arran, ibid.].

1445: Alexander MacDonald, Earl of Ross and, under James II, Justiciar of Scotland north of the Forth, “enter[s] into a secret and treasonable league with the Earls of Douglas and Crawford. The details of this instrument have not been preserved; but there is little doubt that the confederate nobles . . . agre[e] to the dethronement of James II. . . . [B]efore any overt acts of treason [a]re committed in consequence of this conspiracy, the Earl of Ross die[s] at his castle of Dingwall” [Gregory, pp. 39-40].

1452: John MacDonald, 4th Lord of the Isles, joins the murdered Earl of Douglas’s successor in rebellion against James II; he “lead[s] a force of some 10,000 MacDonalds onto the mainland and [i]s defeated by the Earl of Sutherland amid considerable slaughter” [Thomson, Feud, p. 25]. The Highland Papers note that the Clan Donald at this time comprises “many irregular tribes of people” [Munro, p. xxii].

1455: 1. Ranald Makalestyr (aka Ranald Alexandri, Reginald McAlestir [McAlestere, McAlestre]) now holding extensive lands in Arran [Black, p. 449; Fraser-Mackintosh, p. 34].

2. John, Lord of the Isles, and Donald Balloch lead a joint rebellion against James II. Balloch raids and plunders the Isle of Arran and parts of Ayrshire, but accomplishes little; MacDonald’s ally the Earl of Douglas then leaves for England, and MacDonald, finding himself alone in rebellion, appeals for forgiveness from the king [Gregory, p. 44].

1456: Lord of the Isles “submit[s] to the king and [i]s pardoned for both his own and Donald Balloch’s invasions”; Castle Urquhart and Greenan Castle are restored to him [Thomson, Feud, p. 35; Gregory, p. 45;  Thomson puts this in 1455].

1457: In this year, John MacDonald is “one of the Wardens of the Marches, an office of great trust and importance, but obviously intended to weaken his influence in the Highlands and Isles, by forcing him frequently to reside at a distance from the seat of his power” [Gregory, p. 45].

1458: (early) Ranald Macalister of Arran (see 1440) dies, after managing to not pay rent on his lands for more than 15 years. These lands at one point included the keepership of Lochranza Castle, and for a time, the entire island of Arran. At the time of his death, however, he is propertyless, presumably finally evicted by his feudal superiors [Mackenzie, Arran, pp. 47-8; Robertson, part 1; Reid, p. 63].

1459: John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, and 3,000 of his men (possibly including MacAlasdairs) fight with the king against the English at Roxburgh [Gregory, p. 46; Thomson, Feud, pp. 35-6].

1460: John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, and some of his men (possibly including MacAlasdairs) are part of the Scottish force that retakes Berwick after almost a century of English control [Thomson, Feud, pp. 35-6].

1461:  The Earl of Ross, along with “all the Island chiefs”, according to Tytler and the Auchinleck Chronicle, attends a Parliament at Edinburgh. “Apparently, Ross perceive[s] that the new government [i]s not strong enough to command his obedience, and th[inks] this a favourable opportunity to pursue his schemes of personal aggrandisement” [Gregory, p. 46].

1462: 1. Treaty of Westminster-Ardtornish : John MacDonald, along with the banished Douglas family, secretly negotiates this treaty with Edward IV of England by which Scotland would be divided between the Scottish parties with Edward IV as overlord; this eventually costs him most of his lands [Keay, p. 548; Grant, p. 157]; see 1475–6. Also involved in this treaty are Donald Balloch and his son, John [Gregory, pp. 46-7]. Regarding MacDonald’s behaviour, a recent Campbell historian observes that “[w]hile a charge of over-inflated self-importance might well be justified . . . one of downright treachery might be naive in view of the overwhelming priority given to self-interest over mere loyalty by so many of the Scottish leaders over the centuries”. However, its discover in 1475 proves to be “the final straw which was to prove fatal to the Lordship” [Campbell of Airds, History, vol. 1, pp. 141-2]. 

2. John MacDonald takes the castle of Inverness; he and his kinsmen “procee[d] to issue proclamations, in the name of the Earl of Ross, to all the inhabitants of the sheriffdoms and burghs of Inverness and Nairn, couched in such a manner as to show that Ross . . . [has] already assumed the powers of a king in the north” [Gregory, p. 48; Thomson, Feud, p. 37]. It is unclear how this rebellion is suppressed. “It is certain, however, that the Earl d[oes] not, at this time, receive an unconditional pardon, although allowed to retain the undisturbed possession of all his vast estates” for another fifteen years [Gregory, p. 49].

1475–6: 1. First submission of the Lord of the Isles to the Scottish king [Keay, p. 643; Thomson, Feud, p. x; McKerral, p. 4]: After discovery of the 1462 Ardtornish Pact, “John MacDonald [i]s pardoned but deprived of the Earldom of Ross and control of Kintyre and Knapdale” [Thomson, Feud, p. 37; Mitchell, p. 38; Kintyre Rentals, p. 2]. At this time the “Earldom of Ross [i]s . . . inalienably annexed to the Crown, and a great blow [i]s thus struck at the power and grandure” of the MacDonalds [Gregory, p. 50].

2. “The sacrifices made by [John MacDonald] in 1476, when he gave up the Earldom of Ross and the lands of Kintyre and Knapdale, [a]re very unpopular among the chiefs descended of the family of the Isles, who further alleg[e] that he . . . impaired his estate by improvident grants of land to the Macleans, Macleods, Macneills, and other tribes. Thus the vassals of the Lordship of the Isles c[o]me to be divided into two factions—one comprehending the clans last mentioned, who adher[e] to the old lord—the other consisting of the various branches of the Clandonald, who ma[k]e common cause with the turbulent heir of the Lordship”, John’s son Angus [Gregory, p. 61; Campbell of Airds, History, vol. 1, p. 143].

1478: (11 Aug.) Lands of Loup included in the Kintyre lands granted by James III to John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles.  “[T]hese bec[o]me the initial lands occupied by the McAlesters.” They are Ardpatrick (3 merklands[3]), Cuildaynoch (1 merkland), Barnellan (4 merklands), Culnashemrog (1 merkland), and Balliner, Balliemeanoch, & Glenralloch (totalling 3 merklands) [CMS, p. 29].

late 1470s: Apparently to spite his wife and his (illegitimate) heir-apparent, “John sign[s] over some MacDonald properties in Kintyre and Knapdale, which [a]re not legally his anyway, to the Campbells” [Thomson, Feud, p. 38].

1480s: 1. This decade is not well documented and the dates are unsure. Angus MacDonald “behave[s] with great violence to his father, [and] involve[s] himself in various feuds, particularly with the Mackenzies”. He undertakes another invasion of the Earldom of Ross, and after being driven back to the Isles engages in “a sea-fight between the contending factions in the Isles, in which the adherents of John [a]re routed with great loss by Angus and his followers”, a battle known in tradition as the Battle of the Bloody Bay [Gregory, pp. 52-3].

2. Donald Dubh, the infant son of Angus MacDonald, heir to the Lordship, is carried off by the Earl of Athole and given into the custody of Angus’s father-in-law, the Earl of Argyll. This puts Angus on the warpath again, going after the Earl of Athole with great destruction [Gregory, pp. 53-4].

1481:  (10 July) Tarlach MacAlexander, head of the Macalesters of Loup” appointed Constable of Tarbert &  Steward of Kintyre : James III, redistributing some of the lands confiscated from the MacDonalds after the submission of the Lord of the Isles in 1475, puts Charles MacAlister in charge of the area [Munro, pp. xxvii, 2, 218; Keay, p. 643; McKerral, p. 5; Kintyre Rentals, p. 2]; Charles is later appointed Sheriff of south Kintyre, with Dunaverty Keep as his HQ [DMM; CMS, p. 27; McKerral, p. 6]; at the same time, he receives a charter for “a considerable grant of lands in that district” [Castleton, p. 165]; the 40 merklands granted him include “Machquhuirymore of Dounaverty, the Twa Ramills, Edine, Knockstappilmore, Kiranbeg, Glenemuklach, Kildavy, Polmulyne, Eradell, Solkauch, Glenahervy, Feadaig, Corpaig, Barfarnay, Auchnaglek, Kilmichael, and Crag [Kintyre Rentals, ibid.; Munro, p. 218]. “Charles must have been a man of some hereditary standing in the district prior to this appointment, and it is probable that his ancestors during the unrecorded generations occupied the position of unchartered freeholders under the Lords of the Isles” [Macdonald & Macdonald, vol. II, p. 38]See mid-1500s. 

late 1480s: According to a fragmentary manuscript history of the MacDonalds (which Donald Gregory says intentionally distorts most of its genealogies but is otherwise fairly reliable), Angus Og takes “a journey south, where he kill[s] many of the Macalisters in Arran, and also [some] of his own name, for seizing and intromitting with some of his lands without his consent” [Collectanea, pp. 317-8, 325].

c. 1490:  Angus MacDonald “assassinated by an Irish harper” according to contemporary records. “The aged Lord of the Isles [John] . . . resume[s] possession of his estates, from which he ha[s] been for some time excluded by the unnatural violence of his eldest son, Angus”. John’s nephew, Alexander of Lochalsh, becomes the heir and, “apparently with the consent and approbation of his uncle, . . . place[s] himself at the head of the vassals of the Isles, and, with their assistance, endeavour[s] . . . to recover possession of the Earldom of Ross” [Gregory, pp. 54-5; Kintyre Rentals, p. 3]. 

1493(ff.) : Forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles

1. “King James [IV, 1473–1513] decide[s] that . . . John of the Isles c[an] no longer control his vassals[4] and step[s] in to strip him of all his remaining titles” [Thomson, Feud, pp. 40-41; Stat. Acct.: Campbeltown, p. 531]; “all the extensive possessions of that nobleman f[a]ll into the hands of the Crown” [Gregory, p. 86]. At this point “Clan Donald broke up into warring factions, allowing the Clan Campbell to take over the headship of the Gael” [Campbell of Airds, “Early Families”, p. 185]. Before the lordship fell, however, “the mantle of MacDonnell leadership had passed to Clan Ian Mor”, the southern branch of Clan Donald [J M Hill, p. 19].

2. Campbells make use of royal favour to extend their Highland territories more aggressively in the power vacuum that results from the Forfeiture [Thomson, Feud, p. 43]. James IV appoints Argyll[5]. Crown Chamberlain over all lands claimed by the MacDonalds, and a period of conflict is unleashed on Kintyre: “There is probably some truth . . . in the belief that the immediate aftermath of the forfeiture . . . was one of the most unruly periods ever known” [Munro, p. xlvi; McKerral, p. 9; Kintyre Rentals, p. 2]. MacLeod describes the period following the forfeiture as “a century of virtual anarchy” in the Highlands and Islands [p. 7]. This is not so much the fault of the Campbells as of the refusal of Clan Donald and its adherents to accept the forfeiture. “Despite the position of authority into which the Campbells then rose, there is no evidence of hostilities between them and the clans of the former Lordship between 1493 and 1529” [C. Dalglish, “Rural Settlement in the Age of Reason”, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2000].

3. Several principal Clan Donald families take refuge in the Glens of Antrim, “br[inging] with them MacNeills, MacAllisters, Mackays, and Macrandalbanes from Kintyre and Gigha.” Others of these clans “rang[e] backwards and forwards from the Isles to serve as mercenaries for the Gaelic lords of Ulster” [Bardon, p. 68, emphasis mine; G Hill, pp. 38-9].

4. Holding a parliament in Kintyre, James IV ‘emancipate[s] part of the vassals of the Macdonalds in Argyll, and grant[s] them, de novo, charters holding of the  Crown” [Stat. Acct.: Campbeltown, p. 531; Gregory, p. 59]. Many MacDonald kindreds establish themselves as independent clans at this point, including the Clan Alasdair, whose reigning chief is Iain Dùbh[[6] [CMS, p. 27; Grant, p. 157; Gregory, ibid.]; his seat is at Ardpatrick, S. Knapdale [MacKinnon, p. 162]. “As for the many cadet branches of the Clan Donald, King James was willing to regrant their lands as long as they accepted royal authority” [BPhilip Smith, “On the Fringe and in the Middle: The MacDonalds of Antrim and the Isles, 1266-1586” in History Ireland, vol. 2, no. 1 (spring 1994): 17]. The association with Clan Donald continues, however – two hundred years later the Macalisters are still referred to as “Mcdonald of Lowp . . . called Mcallesters” [Sir George Mackenzie, The Families of Scotland, trans. & ed. by J. Irvine and J. Munroe (Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society, 2008), p. 130]. NOTE: Iain Dùbh was chief at the time of the first forfeiture (1475), but must have been either dead or incapacitated by 1481, when his son is described as head of the clan.

1494: 1. Royal visits to Tarbert : In the course of this year, James IV “visit[s] the Isles no fewer than three times, so great [i]s his anxiety to establish the authority of law and government in these remote districts. On two of these occasions, at least, James reside[s] at Tarbert for a time” [Mitchell, pp. 32-3].  “[N]otwithstanding the frequent efforts then made for the pacification of the rival clans, Kintyre and the Southern Hebrides continu[e] in a state of lawlessness and bloodshed” [ibid., p. 35].

2. During his first visit to Kintyre, King James knights John Cathanach Macdonald of Dunnyveg, “who apparently t[akes] this honour as a portent that his lands in Kintyre . . . as also the keeping of the Castle of Dunaverty, [a]re to be restored to him” [McKerral, p. 5].

3. (April)  Second royal visit; “extensive repairs” are made to Tarbert Castle by James IV, who also provides the castle “with artillery and skilful gunners” [Mitchell, p. 33; Gregory, p. 88].

4. During a visit to Kintyre, King James stays at Dunaverty Castle. “[F]ar from returning it to Macdonald [of Dunyvaig], he install[s] his own governor. . . . At this Sir John appears to have taken mortal offence, and when the King [i]s in his boat, preparatory to his departure, . . . Macdonald t[akes] the Castle by surprise and hang[s] its governor over the walls in sight of the King” [McKerral, p. 5;Stat. Acct.: Campbeltown, pp. 531-2[7]].

1495: Dunyvaig (MacDonald) family outlawed[8]; John and some of his sons are executed for treason in Edinburgh [Thomson, Feud, pp. 42-3; Bardon, p. 68; MacDougall, p. 178; McKerral, p. 8]. Two of his sons escape to the family’s lands in Antrim [McKerral, p. 14; Gregory, p. 90], but for some time they have no lands in Scotland [Gregory, p. 108].

1497: Fall of Lochalsh : Alexander MacDonald of Lochalsh invades Ross. He attempts to raise support among the Islesmen, but is unable to do, possibly because the execution of John of Dunyaig was sufficiently recent to act as a deterrent. Lochalsh is pursued by Macian of Ardnamurchan (who apprehended John of Dunyvaig) and, oddly enough, John’s eldest surviving son Alexander. (Might this have been an attempt to prove that, unlike his father, he was loyal to the Crown?)

1498: King James revokes all charters granted in the previous five years to the vassals of the Lord of the Isles. The reasons for this are obscure, but it represents a sharp change in policy after a year or two of relative tranquility in the Highlands [Gregory, pp. 94-5; DMM]. Alistair Campbell of Airds points out that these lands were regranted “at a price” [Campbell of Airds, History, vol. I, p. 153],  suggesting that fund raising was at least part of it; it might also have something to do with further rebellion by the MacDonalds (see below).

1499–1500: 1. After being “repaired at considerable cost” [MacDougall, p. 104], “[t]he Castle of Tarbert [i]s used by James IV as a naval supply base during his campaign to suppress” the outlawed but still rebellious MacDonalds [Way & Squire, p. 204; DMM]. He gives Argyll and others (including Duncan Stewart of Appin and the eldest son of the Earl of Huntly) a commission to let on lease the entire lands of the Lordship at the time of forfeiture “both in the Isles and on the mainland, excepting only the island of Isla and the lands of North and South Kintyre”. Of the Islanders, only Macian of Ardnamurchan is still in favour [Gregory, pp. 94-5].

2. (1500) An Alexander Makalester is on record in the Black Isle [Black, p. 450].

[1] A tanister is the person designated a ruler’s heir under the system of tanistry, which prevailed among the Gaels before primogeniture (in which the eldest son always inherits).

[2] This information appears in the earlier version of the book (Tweeddale Court, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1948) but has been omitted from the abbreviated reprint of 2001.
[3] Merkland: the amount of land for which one would pay a merk (13s, 4d) to one’s feudal superior. This varied with the amount and quality of land available in a given area. Contemporary definitions include: “each merk-land ought to contain 1600 square fathoms” (Stat. Acct., vol. VII, p. 393); “In some instances, a merk may be less than an acre; in others, perhaps, equal to two acres” (Stat. Acct., vol. V, p. 195); “each [merkland] ought to maintain fourteen cows and four horses” (Pennant’s Tour of Scotland in 1772, p. 172; published 1774) [from The Oxford English Dictionary, Compact Edition, vol. 1 (Oxford University Press, 1971)].[4] In a feudal system of land-holding, all land belongs to the king. The king grants feus, or leases, in which a vassal, or tenant, agrees to pay a rent (either in money or in livestock or produce), to support the king in battle when called, and to make sure that all those living on the land obey the king’s decrees; in exchange, the vassal holds all rights to his land, usually in perpetuity, and is assured of the king’s protection should he, his lands, or his own vassals be threatened. The vassal could, and usually did, grant portions of his land to others on similar conditions; they in turn might do the same, the amount of land becoming smaller and smaller down the line. The Highland clan system operated in a similar way, although there were significant differences in the focus of, and assumptions underlying, the arrangement.
[5] “Argyll”: Earl of Argyll; this was the title of the Campbell chiefs until 1701, since when they have been Dukes of Argyll; the 8th earl was elevated to Marquess of Argyll in 1641 but after his execution in 1661, that title was forfeit.
[6] Iain Dubh: ‘Black John’ (‘black’ referring probably to hair colour or perhaps a dark complexion — such tags are common among Gaels, although ‘black’ as a descriptive name can also indicate a penchant for evil deeds); successive generations of MacAlasdair chiefs bear the appellation vic Ean Dhu, ‘son of Black John’, and are sometimes called John, Black John, or John Dous in historical records regardless of their personal names; see 1515, 1532, 1541, 1542, etc.

[7] The Statistical Account says this occurred in 1536 at Kilkerran Castle. However, the paragraph in which the story is told begins with an account of James’s visit in 1494, so it may be an outsider’s mix-up. David Caldwell claims the source for this is late and unreliable [p. 69], but there does seem to be documentary evidence for something like this being behind the execution of John of Dunnyveg, and most historians (not only the MacDonalds) seem to accept it.

[8] Someone who failed to appear at the High Court of the Justiciary when summoned — roughly the equivalent of jumping bail — was outlawed: he was “disqualified from bearing testimony or holding a place of trust or taking part in any legal process, and his moveables escheated (i.e., returned to the feudal lord); if he remained rebel for a year, his heritage also was forfeited” [Donaldson/Morpeth, p. 167]. In theory, his enemies (or opportunists) could attack him more or less with impunity, although often allies and friends were willing to risk legal trouble themselves by sheltering the outlaw.
Compilation/Commentary © 2009-2015 by Lynn McAlister, MA, FSA (Scot)

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