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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.

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The Highlands had, from the reign of James IV been the subject of intermittent hostility. In 1493 James had forfeited the MacDonald Lords of the Isles and created a political power vacuum which he sought to fill with a new political power, that of the Campbells. The Campbells were to be the beneficiaries of a new royal policy which encouraged their aggrandisement of land and gave them the might of royal authority and legal right to do so.

The Campbell Earls of Argyll used their royal status to increase their power in many ways. Chiefs desperate for money would look to their neighbours for loans offering land through a wadsett or service in the form of bonds of manrent as a security. A problem arose however when the Campbells began to buy up these debts from other clans, so increasing their hold over neighbouring clans and thereby putting pressure on them.

The MacLeans in particular felt this to their cost, and as enemies of Clan Campbell this particularly annoyed them. The Campbells were masters of feudal tenure laws, they would buy the feudal rights to the lands of other clans who had only held the land purely on a historical basis with no charter to prove their holding. This meant that these clans became vassals of the Campbells bound by feudal law.

The social and economic situation in the Highlands in the later half of the seventeenth century was much the same as it had been in the preceding centuries. The basic unit of society was the clan. This term, in Gaelic "clann" means 'children'. Popular history has painted this to mean that every member of a clan was related to its particular clan chief. In reality however, only the higher echelons of the clan were related to the chief and his immediate family, the majority were simply the ordinary men, not necessarily related to the chief but who looked to him as their leader and most importantly their father.

The clan system was a mixture of early Celtic and feudal ideas, the key to which was land ownership. The chief held all of the clan lands, he could then grant this land out to members of his family, who could in turn grant the land out to others who could then grant the land out again, and so on down what was a feudal pyramid. The chief might however hold this land as the feudal subject the king. The Campbells were able to increase their influence by buying up the feudal superiorities to land thereby making smaller clans vassals to them. This however meant that the delicate balance of power in the Highlands was becoming unsettled and was to cause many of the problems which were to manifest themselves in the later part of the century.

The status of a clan was determined by the numbers of fighting men which could be mustered in time of war. Because Highland society was very militaristic they tended to be looked to for the fighting men which could be raised when conflict between the King and his opponents arose. This meant however that the Highlands were to become embroiled in lowland politics and be seen as both good and evil depending on who was in control.

The civil war brought about a polarisation within Highland politics. The majority of the Highland clans were to declare their support for the King, however the Campbells did not and in so doing were to herald the beginning of period of intense and bloody conflict. For the majority of the chiefs, the politics of the civil war meant little to them. They saw a chance to extract some revenge for previous injustices done to them and perhaps seize land back from the Campbells. However, ever present in their minds was the threat that the Campbells could pose to their lands while they were away. in many cases this prevented their joining of the kings party. The anti-Campbell factions were to see their birth in this era. A clan would now take a particular side simply on the basis of which side the Campbells were on.

Highland society was, from the reign of James VI on to be seen as inherently barbarous and a threat to the peace and stability of the realm. However it was at the same time viewed as an essential part simply because of the military aspect. James VI was to create a system of government for the Highlands which relied upon the establishment of particular clans as royal lieutenants in particular areas. Argyll and Huntly were to share this task. However problems were caused by the abuse by them of their delegated and feudal power which allowed them to expand their influence rapidly.

James however, had an intense hatred of Gaeldom and always sought ways to bring the errant chiefs to heel. In 1603 he had ordered the extirpation of the MacGregors as a clan following their battle at Glen Fruin with the Colquhouns. This act of what amounted to genocide was a warning to the Highlands that the government could if it wished extirpate them all. He followed this up in 1609 with the Statutes of Iona. These aimed to break-up the traditional society in the Highlands. Chiefs were now forbidden to move with their retinues, the bards were forbidden to travel on the cuairt, or journey, and the sons of chiefs had to be educated in the lowlands. Highland society was to become more stabilised after James' death. The chiefs who were regularly called south to Edinburgh could now do so as their safe conducts were less likely to be broken by the Privy council as had been the case under James. Moreover clans were now tending to refrain from engaging in internal warfare preferring the Edinburgh lawyers to sort out the disagreements.

Debt was to be a serious and mounting problem as the seventeenth century wore on. As has already been pointed out this gave powerful clans such as the Campbells the chance to increase their hold over their neighbours and put extra pressure on them, thereby increasing tension.

The campaign of Montrose and Alasdair MacColla in 1645 ostensibly on behalf of Charles I was in many ways an attempt to settle some old scores. The royalist army at Inverlochy in 1645 were MacDonalds and MacLeans, many branches of Clan Donald had joined in on the Royalist side because the Campbells were on the Parliamentarian side, and they saw the chance of regaining land from the Campbells. The subsequent massacre of the Campbells was to cause a realignment of the balance of power in the Highlands. The Campbells were now so reduced in manpower and for the time being political power that they simply had to take a back seat and lick their extensive wounds.

Cromwell was to try and subjugate the Highlands through the age old policy of the mailed fist. He gave General Monck a free hand and allowed him to set up garrisons in the Highlands to try and hold the country down. The royalists were also licking their wounds, the MacLeans had lost many men in an heroic but suicidal stand at Inverkeithing trying to stop Monck crossing the Forth. Large numbers of Highlanders had fallen at Worcester against Cromwell and there was a general feeling of exhaustion in the Highlands.

With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the political situation in the Highlands changed again. Argyll had been on the covenanting side during the interregnum and with his return Charles had him beheaded for treason. Charles' return was to see a return to the old problems in the Highlands. 20 years of war had put the Highland chiefs even further into debt and with their estates ravaged were unable to try and reduce these debts.

The government under Charles II was to find it increasingly difficult to deal with the Highlands let alone the religious problems of the lowlands between episcopasy and presbyterianism. The government were to use the military resources of the Highlands in an attempt to bring conventicles under control in the south west by using the Highland host. However this was to renew fears amongst lowlanders of the wild barbarian Highlander and to increase resentment to them.

The situation in the Highlands at this time was complex. The principle cause for complaint in the lowlands was the cattle reiving which went on. This preyed on lowlander and Highlander alike and was largely due to the economic situation at the time. The Highlands were pastoral in their nature with a basic level of subsistence due to the shortage of good arable land, consequently this fertile land was constantly in dispute. The Highlanders therefore relied on cattle for their income. By selling their cattle at the lowland trysts, they could buy grain to use for bread. This situation meant that the Highlands were especially susceptible to famine.

Cattle reiving became an important aspect of survival, it also had a social aspect. As an example of military skill it was to become common. This involved the driving off of a neighbours cattle at night. The lowlands tended to be the main target for this activity, what was especially aggravating to the lowlanders was that counter raids would fail to produce the same level of material damage and also find the cattle.

In the 1660's and 70's the new Earl of Argyll was to see his fortune pick up again, under the regime of Lauderdale. Argyll had been restored in 1663 after the fall of his father and was to be used as royal lieutenant in the Highlands. The various branches of Clan Campbell were owed approximately 1M merks1 with the largest debt of 200,000 being owed by MacLean. This debt was to be the cause of a full scale clan war during the 1670's as Argyll tried to take control of Morvern, Mull and Tiree instead. Argyll had the support of both the law and the government while MacLean was to receive the support of Clan Donald.

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


  1. M.Lynch, Scotland - A New History pp291
  2. W.R. Kermack The Scottish Highlands: A Short History (1957)


Hopkins, P. Glencoe and the end of the Highland war (1986)
Kermack, W.R. The Scottish Highlands: a short history (1957)
Lenman, B. The Jacobite risings in Britain, 1689-1746 (1980)
Lynch M. Scotland A new History (1991)
Stevenson, D. Alasdair MacColla and the Highland problem in the seventeenth century (1980)