Early 16th Century

“By the outset of the sixteenth century, the Lordship of the Isles had effectively split into eight autonomous branches. In addition to the ClanDonald South, who held lands in Kintyre, Islay and Jura as well as Antrim, seniority was contested by the MacDonalds of Clanranald, the MacDonalds of Glengarry and the MacDonalds of Sleat; while the MacIans of Ardnamurchan, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, the MacDonalds of Keppoch and the MacAllisters of Knapdale remained disruptive kinsmen” [A. Macinnes, British Confederate, pp. 45-6].

[A]part from the MacIains of Ardnamurchan, nearly all these septs rallied to Clan Donald in its repeated attempts to regain the Lordship of the Isles during the first half of the sixteenth century”[John L. Roberts, Clan, King and Covenant, p. 2].  

1500s:  Charters granted to vassals of the Lord of the Isles are revoked [DMM; Gregory, pp. 94-5].

1. MacAlasdairs in Scotland : During much of the 16th century, the MacAlasdairs “seem to have sheltered themselves under the protection of the Macdonalds of Dunnyveg and the Houses of Argyll and Hamilton. They [a]re not crown vassals, but h[o]ld their possessions from Dunnyveg and Argyll, especially Dunnyveg” [Castleton, p. 166].

  • “After the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles, [the Clan Allaster] attache[s] itself, for about a century, to the more powerful Clan Ian Vor” (Clan Donald South, or the MacDonalds of Dunyvaig) [Gregory, p. 68]. J. Michael Hill says that “With the possible exception of the Campbells of Argyll or the O’Neills of Ulster, no clan or Gaelic family exerted more influence during the sixteenth century than Clan Ian Mor (Clan Donald South)” [“The Rift within Clan Ian Mor”].
  • Other MacAlasdairs become “vassals of the Campbell earls of Argyll and surviv[e] Campbell hegemony in their homelands with more success than most”, among them the Tarbert family and the Stirlingshire Alexanders” [Grant, p. 148]; see 1330s, mid-1500s.
  • MacAlasdairs are raiding in Bute, where some of them settle [Grant, p. 148]; “a considerable number” also settle in Arran [DMM; CMS, p. 27], where they give bonds of manrent to the Hamiltons[1] [Grant, ibid.].  19th century historians describe Macalister as an old, native name in these places, but in Arran it first appears on record in 1440, qv.
  • It is probably in this century that the Macalisters of Ceannlochcaolisport remove one of five ancient chapels near the parish of South Knapdale, relics of the “primitive Christianity” once found in the area, “on account of its contiguity to their house” [Stat. Acct.: S. Knapdale, pp. 313-4].

2. MacAlasdairs in Ulster : After three generations of marriage between Macdonald South[2] chiefs and Irish heiresses, and the settlement by that family of “several cadets of their own house as tenants in the territories of the Glens” [Gregory, p. 193], “[b]y the beginning of the sixteenth century the MacDonalds of the Glens, Islay, and Kintyre rul[e] a formidable lordship in the north” of Ireland [Bardon, p. 68].

  • The Clan Alasdair is “recognised as one of the leading galloglas clans during the 16th century” [“News”, no. 35, p. 2;History of the Royal Galloglas]; see mid-1500s. This no doubt results from their continued alliance with the House of Dunyvaig, whose interference in Ireland is almost continuous [Gregory, pp. 193-201].

1502:   1. Donald Dhù, grandson & nearest heir of the last Lord of the Isles, is sprung from Inchconnell Castle by his clansmen, who hope to reestablish the forfeited Lordship [Thomson, Feud, p. 44; MacDougall, p. 104]; see 1543/5. Gregory puts this a bit differently, saying that the combination of “all the necessary steps [being] taken preparatory to the expulsion of many of the vassals of the old Lordship of the Isles from their possessions” and the appearance in their midst of Donald Dhù, who has escaped from his prison and “whom they regar[d] as their hereditary Lord” serves to unite them behind him; his “adherents . . . increas[e] daily” [pp. 95-6].

2. “At the same time the commissioners ha[ve] strict injunctions to expel all broken men from these districts, which, in the state of affairs at that time, [i]s equivalent to an order to expel the whole population” [Gregory, p. 97].

1505:   1. (July) Macallasters listed as one of the principal Kintyre families : Earl of Argyll, now Crown Chamberlain of the forfeited Lordship, comes to Ceanlochport [now Campbeltown] with the Bishop of Argyll and draws up a rental of the lands to settle accounts. “This is the earliest Kintyre rental in existence, and is of great historical value and interest, in that it gives in detail the names and extents of each holding, the names of their occupants, and the rents paid by each. From this rental we are enabled to obtain a clear picture of the principal Kintyre families in the fifteenth century.” Among those listed is MacAlasdair of Loup, occupying “the estate of that name on West Loch Tarbert, and also . . . tacks of other holdings in Kintyre. Branches [a]re the Macallasters of Tarbert, and the Clan Allaster Beg of Arran” [McKerral, p. 9; Stewart, List, p. vi; Kintyre Rentals, p. 3]. Alexander Makalexander apparently holds the lands granted to his grandfather in 1481 [Munro, pp. 218-9], though his father Angus (of Loup) is still alive. Roderick McAlester has a grant of Kilkevan in South Kintyre [Kintyre Rentals, p. 5]; this is probably Alasdair’s uncle or brother.

2. Thomas Alexander ‘de Menstray’ is named as an arbiter in a dispute between the Abbot of Cambuskenneth and Sir David Bruce of Clackmannan [“Fortiter”, June 1982, p. 2]. This suggests that the Alexander family was already holding the Menstrie property, or part of it, at this time, though no charters have survived before 1526.

3. See 1511

1506:  In this year, despite the government’s aims and a number of forfeitures, “the clans of the Isles and adjacent coasts continu[e] to occupy, many of them, perhaps, contrary to law, their ancient possessions” [Gregory, p. 102].

2. Donald Makalester named in a land grant in Bute [Reid, p. 267].

1508:  (16 June) A Donald Mole Makalester is convicted of “the cruel slaughter of John Russell, Patrik Weddale, and sundry other persons” and various thefts; hanged [Pitcairn, vol. 1, p. 51].

1511:  First known charter relating to Tarber Castle/keepership [CMS, p. 19], though Mitchell [pp. 36, 73] believed the castle was given into Argyll’s keeping in 1505.

1513:  (9 Sept.) Battle of Flodden : death of James IV; Scotland’s leadership is “almost entirely eliminated”, leaving an infant on the throne and destabilising the country overnight [Mason, p. 112]. Few MacDonalds are present [Thomson, Feud, p. 46]. At this point Alexander Macdonald of Dunyvaig and the Glens returns to Scotland from Antrim [McKerral, p. 14].

1515:   ‘John’ McAlester of Loup mentioned in a charter as a “servitor of Colin, Earl of Argyll . . . to receive special protection by Regent Albany”[3] [CMS, p. 2]. This ‘John’ is Angus vic Ean Dhù M’Alester, the first to be styled ‘of Loup’ (see 15th century, note #6), whose own name appears in the Register of the Privy Seal [Mitchell, pp. 72-3].

1517/18: 1. William Alexander holds the lands of Tullibody and Menstrie from the Earl of Argyll [“Fortiter”, June 1982, p. 2; Castleton, p. 173].   

2. Donald of Lochalsh proclaims himself Lord of the Isles; the Dunyvaig Macdonalds and their followers join in his rebellion against the government [Anderson, vol. II, p. 717].

1519:   1. Name appears as “McAllestyr” [Black, p. 450].

2. Rebellion involving the Dunyvaig MacDonalds takes place this year [Thomson, Feud, p. 54].

1520: (7th May) Dowgall Mcane Mcalester appears as a witness to a bond of gossipry [friendship] between Sir John Campbell of Calder and the Clan Donald [Smith, pp. 36-7].

1524:  Name appears as “Makallestir” [Black, p. 450].

1526:  1. James V gives to the Earl of Argyll the lands of South Knapdale and the keeping of “the Castle of Tarbert when built” [DMM].

2. (8th April) charter for the lands of Menstrie granted by the Earl of Argyll to Andrew Alexander and his wife, Catherine Graham, in liferent, and to their son Alexander in fee [Castleton, p. 173][4]; see 1427.

1527:  Andrew Alexander of Menstrie succeeded by his son, Alexander [Castleton, p. 173].

1528:   King James V, in his 17th year, assumes personal control of the government. At this point “the policy of the Government seems to have undergone a considerable change”. Among other things, all grants made during his minority are declared void. This leads inevitably to more disorder in the Highlands [Gregory, pp. 128-9].

1529:  Alexander, 2nd of Loup, involved in Dunyvaig insurrection : “The Clandonald of Isla, and their present chief, . . . were probably among the number of those rewarded by the Earl of Angus with grants of Crown lands. But the late Act of Council having declared all such grants null, the efforts of Argyle to enforce an act so favourable to himself, and a sense of the injustice with which they conceiv[e] themselves to have been treated, soon dr[i]ve Alexander [MacDonald] of Isla and his followers into insurrection” [Gregory, p. 132; Thomson, Feud, p. 54]. Along with Macleans and the Dunyvaig MacDonalds, Alexander Macalister of Loup is involved in an invasion of Campbell lands (Roseneath, Lennox, and Craignish), “which they ravage with fire and sword, killing at the same time many of the inhabitants”, according to the Registry of the Privy Seal [Gregory, p. 132]. For this they all come under the displeasure of the government (23 July) [“Fortiter”, Jan. 1982, p. 2; Castleton, p. 166].

1531: 1. (24 April) Parliament summoned to Edinburgh to pass sentence of forfeiture on those insurgents who continue in disobedience. Preparations begin for a royal expedition to the West Highlands to bring the troubles under control [Gregory, pp. 135-6].

2. (26 April) Donald McAlester named with others in a continuation of summons, ordered by parliament to appear and answer to ‘certain treasonable actions’ [RSP, 1531/4]. This could be the brother of Alexander of Loup, future Constable of Tarbert. In any case, he doesn’t turn up.

3. Alexander MacDonald of Islay and Hector MacLean of Duart travel to Stirling to submit to the king. By summer, the other principal chiefs, “finding that the King would gladly avoid measures of extreme severity, follo[w] the example of Alexander of Isla and Maclean of Dowart, and ma[k]e their personal submission to the Sovereign, by whom they [a]re pardoned, upon giving security for their obedience in future” [Gregory, pp. 137-8]. Unable to find security (hostages, see 13th century, note #8) for his future behaviour, Alexander of Loup is put to the horn along[5] with his companions until James Macdonald, son of Alexander of Dunyvaig, is accepted by the Justice Clerk [“Fortiter”, Jan. 1982, p. 2; Castleton, p. 166]. Note: Among the things that James Macdonald learns during his time a hostage at court was to read and write, “knowledge that most Highland chiefs lacked” at this time [J M Hill, p. 20].

1532:  1. ‘John’ McAlester of Loup[6] signs bond of fealty to Earl of Argyll (document still preserved at Inverary) [CMS, p. 1].

2. John Dous (Iain Dùbh) MacAlaster of Auchandarroch (10 miles north of Tarbert) and Alexander MacAlaster are “principle witnesses to a [bond of manrent] signed at Ardcarradill (i.e., Carradale in Kintyre)” [CMS, p. 19]. Note: This Iain Dùbh is not the chief, who would be “of Loup”; Iain is common, and common names are often followed by colour descriptions like dùbh (“black”) as a means of distinguishing one bearer of the name from another. It’s possible that the bond these men witnessed was in fact the bond of fealty made by McAlester of Loup to Argyll.

1538: According to Rev. A. Maclean Sinclair, a feud was pursued in this year by Alexander Macalister of Loup, his brother Ranald, and two leading MacDonalds of Largie against the Macneills of Gallachaillie. Several people on both sides were killed, but it seems to have ended there. Sinclair does not tells us what led to the feud, only that the “Macalisters and the Macdonalds seem to have been the aggressors” [“The Macneills of Argyllshire”, in Celtic Review, vol. VI (July 1909 to April 1910): 55-64]. Sir Alastair Campbell of Airds gives more detail on this feud [A History of Clan Campbell, vol. 2, pp. 23-4].

1539:  1. A new attempt is made “to restore the Lordship of the Isles and Earldom of Ross to one of the old family”, this time Donald Gorm[7] of Sleat. The “conspiracy . . . soon embrace[s] a majority of the Island chiefs” [Gregory, pp. 144-5], but just as soon ends, when Gorm is fatally wounded attempting to take Eilean Donan castle.

2. Chief of the Clan Alasdair outlawed — along with his brother, nephew, and 300 men—for their involvement in an affray on Campbell lands in Knapdale [DMM]. Note: This was Alexander—not, as D. M. MacDonald claims, the second chief, but rather the second to be styled ‘of Loup’. (Is this in connexion with the Donald Gorm insurrection?)

1540:   1. Name appears as “McAlestare” [Black, p. 450]

2. (16 August) Alexander, Laird of Loup, granted remission for “treasonably abiding from the army at Sullaway”, i.e. Solway[8] [Pitcairn, vol. 1, p. 255: Register of the Privy Seal of Scotland, vol. II, p. 538 (item 3618)].

3. This year sees “the annexation of the Lordship of the Isles, with North and South Kintyre, inalienably to the Crown” [Gregory, pp. 148-9].

1541: (25 June) Exchequer Rolls of Scotland (vol. XVII) show Alexander McAllester of Loupe holding 4 merklands at Artardill; Renaldmoir (Ranald Mòr) McAllester rents the adjoining lands of Dewpin [Kintyre Rentals, p. 10]. Ranald is the youngest son of ‘John’ [i.e., Angus vic Ean Dhù]; the lands of Dewpin will later be the Torrisdale family seat. Alexander has also Armot (Amod) in Barr Glen from the Crown [CMS, pp. 21, 30].

1542:   Scots are defeated by the English in the Battle of Solway Moss

1. James V dies after this battle. His successor, Mary Queen of Scots, is an infant; control of the government falls to her French mother, Mary of Guise, and her allies, most notably the Earl of Arran who serves as regent. “The leading party in Scotland [i]s that of the Catholic clergy”, led by Cardinal Beaton and guided by “a determined opposition to the progress of the Reformation, and a devotion to the Papal see; friendship with France; hostility to England; and a resolution, which all must applaud, of preserving the ancient independence of their country”. Opposing them are “all the supporters of the Reformation; and at their head [i]s the Earl of Arran”. This Protestant opposition supports closer ties with England, including a dynastic marriage proposed by King Henry. Argyll, though not among the men of influence at this time, realises that this would mean Scotland’s absorption into England and speaks against it [Gregory, pp. 151-4].

2. (21 February) Donald McAlester of Largie, Kintyre, along with his son John and 27 others are granted remission for “treasonably abiding from the Raid of Sullway”, i.e., Solway, “[a]nd for all other crimes” [Pitcairn, vol. 1, p. 258];  ‘McAlester’ here is a patronymic – this was Donald, the son of Alasdair MacDonald of Largie. Later, a precept of remission is recorded in the register of the privy seal of Scotland for John Makalester and 15 of his clansmen (v. 1-2 [1488– 1542] RSS., II, 4454), possibly for the same crime [Black, p. 450; “Fortiter”, Jan. 1982, p. 2].

1543/5: Donald Dhù rebellion : “[A] force of 1,800 MacDonald allies hit[s] the Campbell heartlands with considerable loss of life”; this is part of another rising designed to establish Donald Dhù as Lord of the Isles (see 1502); his death (possibly of measles) “end[s] the last serious attempt to restore the Lordship of the Isles” [Thomson, Feud, pp. 49-50; Gregory, p. 176]. This rebellion has the support of Henry of England, still trying to push through a marriage treaty, and it is interesting to note that James Macdonald of Islay (i.e., Dunyvaig & the Glens), almost alone among the Clan Donald, supports Argyll and the Scottish government against the Islanders (though he appears at the end to have been wavering) [Gregory, pp. 157, 171-7]. Note: Not sure where the Clan Alasdair stood, though in this period they generally followed the Dunyvaig family.

1544:   Invasion of Western Highlands and Isles by English troops under the Earl of Lennox, supported by most of those Islanders backing Donald Dhù, but opposed by Argyll and Dunyvaig, both of whose lands are plundered and burnt by the invaders [Gregory, pp. 166-7].

1545: 1. Death of Donald Dubh, which “brought not only the direct line of the Lords of the Isles to an end, but also ended any chance of Clan Donald regaining the lost glory of the Lordship”[Roberts, p. 2]. Even so, Roberts contends that the various branches of the Clan Donald “preserved a united front, rarely if ever feuding with one another” [ibid.]

2. Ruairidh (or Roderick) MacAllaster appointed Bishop of the Isles. Some Macalister historians have assumed that this is a son of [Angus] vic Ean Dhù [e.g., CMS, p. 2], but nearly every contemporary source says that Ruairidh MacAllaster was the brother of John ‘MacAllaster’ of Clanranald, a completely different branch of Clan Donald. If so, he is not part of the Clann Alasdair at all. Ruairidh is only Bishop for a year: “This gentleman called Roderyke . . . is by the great part of the country there, as we be informed, chosen to be bishop of the Isles, which bishopric is now void; and, as he informeth us, the lord Governor of Scotland hath nominated another. . . .” [letter from the Deputy and Council of Ireland to Henry VIII].

3. James McConnell (Macdonald of Dunyvaig & the Glens) receives a “huge land grant which must have included all the Crown Lands in Kintyre . . . in the Barony of Barr”; evidentally, some of these are in turn granted by Macdonald to MacAlasdairs [“News”, no. 14, p. 2; McKerral, p. 14], perhaps indicating that the MacAlasdairs supported the Dunyvaig family against the rest of the MacDonald host during the Donald Dhù rebellion.

1546: 1. Alexander of Loup involved in a brief rebellion by James of Dunyvaig. “[W]hen Donald Dubh died James’s patriotism evaporated and many of Donald’s supporters recognised him as lord of the Isles. . . . James’s rebellion was short-lived” [Maclean-Bristol, Murder under Trust, pp. 37-8].

2. (8 August) Alexander Macalister of Loup is named among the followers of James Macdonald in a ‘respitt’ granted to Dunyvaig et al for burning the town of Saltcoats in Cunningham. In return, Dunyvaig relinquishes his claim to the lordship of the Isles [Maclean-Bristol, Murder under Trust, p. 38].

1548:   Name appears as “M’Alstar” [Black, p. 450]

mid-1500s: 1. Tarbert family established : Donald, 2nd son of (Angus) vic Ean Dhù, becomes first Laird and Constable of Tarbert, an official position under the Scottish Crown [CMS, p. 2; Mitchell, p. 73], and the MacAlasdairs hold Tarbert Castle as vassals of Argyll. The Tarbert Macalisters, a cadet branch of the Loup family, date from this time; see 1511.

2. After the failure of the Donald Dhù rising, “we find no trace in the records of any attempt on the part of the Islesmen to restore the ancient dynasty of the Isles. The different branches of the family of the Isles, and the other tribes inhabiting the Lordship, bec[o]me gradually more estranged from each other, and more desirous each to extend its own power at the expense of its neighbours” [Gregory, p. 180]. Nonetheless, we see Macalasdair chiefs acting in concert with the Dunyvaig family for some time after this (qqv. 1580, 1598).

3. MacAlasdairs serve as gallòglaigh in the North of Ireland : “In their endeavours to maintain and to extend their Irish possessions, the Clandonald [a]re not only involved in frequent feuds with the Irish of Ulster, but [a]re occasionally brought into hostile contact with the English forces” [Gregory, p. 193]. “Whether in making war themselves, or in aiding the Irish chiefs to make war, they ke[ep] Ulster in constant unrest”.[9] In 1533, the Dublin Council wrote to London in alarm that “The Scots also now inhabit busily a great part of Ulster, which is the king’s inheritance, and it is greatly to be feared that unless they are soon driven out, then, bringing more of their number daily, will little by little so far encroach in acquiring and winning possessions there, with the aid of the king’s disobedient Irish rebels, who do now aid them in such activity, that at length they will put the king out of his whole lordship there [G Hill, p. 37, quoting from the State Papers (English modernised)].

  • “During the period 1540–72 [the MacAlasdairs are] very active in the North of Ireland which [i]s in a state of constant warfare. . . . The Clan Alasdair g[i]ve Sorley [Buidhe[10], the brother of James of Dunyvaig, who acts as manager on the family’s Irish estates] their most strenuous support” [Castleton, p. 166; Gregory, pp. 194-201].
  • Alexanders of Antrim also ally themselves with Dunyvaig Macdonalds in support of Sorley Buidhe’s attempts to drive the English from Ulster [CMS, p. 42]. Note: As noted above, it was really more a matter of the English trying to drive them out; the presence of the MacDonalds stirred up trouble, contributing to the general unrest caused by Irish opposition to the English presence in Ulster. The English objected to “the inconvenience that had arisen from a powerful Scottish subject having influence in a province already sufficiently disinclined to the English yoke” [Gregory, pp. 197-8]. 


[1] Bond of manrent: agreement whereby a man of lesser rank pledged himself to assist one of greater rank in return for that person’s protection. Any time one lived in lands not primarily controlled by one’s own clan or chief, it made sense to establish such a bond with the area’s principal landowner. The Hamiltons were one of the most powerful families in Scotland under the later Stewarts.
[2] This is the Dunyvaig family.
[3] Regents: Scottish noblemen appointed to rule the country when the king or queen was a minor—which between 1406 and 1587 was almost always. John Stewart, Duke of Albany, was appointed Regent during the minority of James V; he was also second in line to the throne — a very powerful man indeed.
[4] Liferentthe right to “hold and enjoy heritable property during the holder’s lifetime on the understanding that the property will be returned to the fiar without its substance being wasted” [Keay, p. 611]; in fee:  in Scotish law this meant “in complete subjection” at one time; it now means “in absolute ownership”. Which is meant here is unclear —probably the former.
[5] Someone ‘put to the horn’ was sentenced to horning: the ‘[p]rocess of technical outlawry (by blasts of horn by a messenger) whereby the goods of a debtor could be escheated to the crown and made available to his creditors’ [Donaldson/Morpeth, p. 100]. 
[6] Probably Alexander; he was already styled ‘of Loup’ in 1529, which suggests that he had succeeded his father by this time.
[7] ‘Gorm’  means blue (or sometimes green) and in this case would probably refer to eye colour.
[8] Remission: discharge or release from penalty, obligation, etc.’ [Collins English Dictionary, 3rd edition (Glasgow: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1991)]. ‘Treasonably abiding from the army’ must be something like going AWOL — throughout Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials one finds people being charged with ‘treasonably abiding from the army’ at various places, often with no obvious connexion to any particular military action. Highlanders were notorious for deciding that their military service had ended and simply taking off for home when they got too far from their own lands; perhaps this is an example of such behaviour. It might also mean that he fled from those trying to apprehend him for the raids of the previous years.
[9] ‘The History of Ulster’, http://www.electricscotland.com/history/ulster/vol1chap22.htm, accessed 6 June 2009.

[10] Buidhe is generally anglicized Boy, but in fact is the Gaelic world for ‘yellow’ and would have been a nickname based on hair colour or possibly a fair complexion. Somhairle Buidhe (Sorley Boy) was an Ulster MacDonnell who in the mid-16th century fought with other Gaels against the Anglo-Irish lords who sought to expel the growing population of Scottish Gaels from the Glens of Antrim. He was, among other things, “one of the most astute politicians in the Gaelic world” [Bardon, p. 83], but his efforts to win English recognition of MacDonnells’ rights to the Glens were ultimately unsuccessful (see 1568; 1569, #1)

Compilation/Commentary © 2017 by Lynn McAlister, MA, FSA (Scot)

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