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Were the Highlands Politically unstable 1660 - 1700

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay describes the political situation in the Highlands during the late seventeenth century and the internal and external conflicts and influences that shaped the nature of politics in the Highlands.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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The end of the Lauderdale regime in 1679 was also to see the fall of the house of Argyll yet again. When James Duke of York took control of Scottish politics, he sought to change its face and mould it to his own designs, the Highlands were to be no exception. The power of Argyll was curbed, he lost the rights to some of his judicial powers and feudal superiorities. The MacLean debts were paid off in order to quell the simmering unrest between the two clans. In order to improve law and order the four great families in the area, Huntly, Atholl, Argyll and Seaforth, were given control in their particular districts.

The implementation of the Test Act in 1681 was to provide for the demise of Argyll. An oath of loyalty to the Protestant church but with a catholic as its head was added to the original act by James, Argyll was openly scathing of this and this was to be his downfall. Within the year Argyll fled to the Netherlands and James was free for the first time to attempt a new Highland policy. He began this by granting out Argyll's lands to the 'loyal clans'. This policy could and did backfire on the clans however if Argyll was to return to power.

In 1682 an attempt was made to deal with the problem of lawlessness in the Highlands which earlier policies had conspicuously failed to address or solve. The setting up of a Commission of Highland Justiciary, with the lairds and chiefs taking precedence over the magnates was an attempt to bypass the dispensation of justice from Campbell justiciars.

It had limited success but did help to stem the rising tide of lawlessness. It aimed to put curbs on the carrying of arms- any Highlander carrying a firearm had to have a pass to travel more than seven miles from his home. Cattle raiding was curbed through the use of troops- although it may be that the reivers simply moved further into the interior until the heat was off.

In 1685 Argyll attempted a simultaneous invasion with Monmouth. It was a complete disaster, even failing to raise the majority of his clansmen. He pressed on and was captured at Glasgow and martyred for the Protestant cause. This collapse gave new life to anti-Campbell feeling and the relative peace that had existed in the Highlands was broken, it became as uncontrollable as ever for the government.

The flight of James to France in December 1688 was to see the opening of another chapter in the politics of the Highlands. It was to be the return of the 10th Earl of Argyll from his exile which would cause an explosion in the Highlands. The rising of Viscount Claverhouse in 1689 was fundamentally an anti-Campbell rising. Locheil and the chiefs of the MacLeans and MacDonalds saw themselves as being under threat. The MacLeans would face ruin at the hands of the Campbells, Locheil would lose his new estates and with Clanranald being exposed to Campbell debt, superiorities and jurisdictions once again they saw their only option as being an open attack on them. The rising however, was to be carried out under the banner of James VII, with the hope of help from James who was campaigning in Ireland.

The decisive battle was at Killiecrankie on July 27th 1689 when Dundee met the government forces under MacKay. In a short but very bloody battle, some 600 Highlanders killed out of a total of 2000, and approximately 2000 government soldiers from their larger force of 4000 men. Dundee's rising was however, effectively ended in the last minutes of the battle when a stray bullet left him dying on the field.

The victory at Killiecrankie saw the usual increase in support for the rising. It had however, lost its initial impetus under uninspired leadership when at Dunkeld after a four hour engagement between the Highlanders and a body of Cameronians the Highlanders withdrew. The final decisive end was to be the defeat at Cromdale in May 1690.

The Williamite government saw the Highland problem with new eyes yet settled for the simplest policy it reckoned it could get away with. Yet again it involved trying to tie individual chiefs to the government by oath. This policy was advocated by Breadalbane who was made Highland commissioner in 1691. He attempted in a meeting with the leading Jacobite chiefs at Achallader to pacify the Highlands once and for all.

The principle was to be threefold. Firstly the chiefs would receive cash according to their status. Secondly, superiorities would be bought out, thereby eliminating that source of the general problems in the Highlands. Lastly an oath of loyalty to William was to be sworn by January 1 1692. The Jacobite chiefs asked to be allowed to write and get permission from James, to take the oath. This was late in arriving due to James dithering on the continent. MacIain of Glencoe having received permission set off for Fort William in time only to find that he should be Inverary sixty miles to the south. He left Fort William as the weather worsened, was arrested en route, and finally got to Inverary to find that the sheriff was not there. He was finally able to take the oath on the 6th of January.

The target for the Williamite government had been Glengarry, however it would have taken a major military campaign to have had any effect due to the strategic fastnesses of his lands. Glencoe on the other hand was a deathtrap, and a much softer target. MacIains oath was deleted from the records and letters of fire and sword were sent out by Dalrymple to extirpate the MacIains'.

By the end of January all was ready, detailed orders had been issued and a detachment of government troops under Glenlyon marched into Glencoe and were billeted there for the next two weeks. At 5am on the 13th of February the troops moved against their hosts and thirty eight MacDonalds were killed including MacIain himself. The other members of the clan fled into the snows, with many perishing as they made their escape.

Glencoe is not an isolated example of the Williamite government, having lost control in the Highlands, seeking to use the mailed fist rather than the velvet glove. In May 1690 there had been a savage attack on Eigg by a naval force engaged in attacks on the Inner Isles. The differences here are that the men were away at the time of the attack on Eigg, with rape as well as murder being carried out. Moreover there was an effective cover up in this instance, which was never to be the case with Glencoe.

Glencoe was to have a lasting effect on Highland politics, with the Campbells forever becoming synonymous with the massacre, while Clanranald were to become the focus of Jacobite activity. This was to last through the Jacobite revolts of the eighteenth century to 1746.

It is clear that Highland politics from 1660 until 1700 were if anything confused by economic, as well as the personal grievances and self interest of the clan chiefs. As to whether the situation was inherently unstable I would argue against this on the principle that it was a relatively stable structure until in an attempt to civilise the Highlands the government interfered. This meant that with clans like the Campbells being given almost free rein, the feudal structure was put under ever increasing pressure which was to eventually destroy it. The policy followed by all of the clans, but more especially the Campbells of buying up debts and superiorities was the main cause of the instability as it blurred the issue of land ownership so creating unnecessary squabbles and meant that neighbouring clans were put under increasing pressure which could and occasionally did to warfare.

Economically the famines which hit the Highlands in the late 1690's were simply an end to a generally declining situation. The west Highlands were falling further behind the rest of the country with the Eastern and Southern Highlands becoming more drawn into the sphere of their neighbours in the lowlands. This inevitably led to an increase in lawlessness and cattle raiding.

W.R. Kermack suggests that the "origins of many conflicts were economic rather than personal".2 This is I think only a half truth as there were many and varied reasons for the conflict and many of these undoubtably were personal, primarily Campbell against MacLean and MacDonald.

Ewan Innes, November 21 1991

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