Alastair Mor by D. Rory MacDonald

He was described as a man of “gigantic stature, being the tallest man in Scotland and not less celebrated for his brave exploits than his prodigious height.” Indeed after his first trial in Aberdeen, part of his appeal was that he had been manacled in Court and that this was contrary to normal Court procedure. Living however in the troubled times of James VII and King William, Alastair Mor seems to have been like his contemporaries Rob Roy MacGregor and James Macpherson, as much a hero and cult figure to the Highlanders – especially those who supported the Stuarts as he was a hated robber and villain to the lairds and farmers of Moray and the Mearns, who supported King William and whose cattle he ‘lifted.’

Alastair Mor, as he was called, was a MacDonald from Glen Roy and when he was a young man, his clan, the MacDonalds of Keppoch claimed to hold their lands by the sword and they revelled in the freedom which had returned to the Western Highlands following the removal of Cromwell’s hated garrison at Inverlochy. He would have been trained in many cattle-lifting forays, including the famous and dramatic ‘spulzie’ into Angus, when they lifted and successfully drove back across the mountains the cattle of Lindsay of Glen Esk. That raid in 1667 was a deliberate challenge to their Mackintosh enemies, who claimed the Keppoch lands. The Mackintosh, who had married Lindsay’s daughter, was to avenge that insult with a massive invasion of Keppoch but after a brief occupation he had to return to his own new house at Dunachton and the raids continued. For Alastair Mor, as for many Highlanders whose own inhospitable glens were ill suited to farming, cattle were “God’s creatures made for the use of man, for which the earth yields grass and herbs in plenty without the labour of man and therefor they ought to be in common.”

The relatively easy days for the western clans came to an end with the so called “glorious revolution” of 1689 and the arrival of William of Orange. The Keppoch MacDonalds had had one final moment of glory when they fought and won their last clan battle against the Mackintoshes in 1688. A year later they were out with Dundee and then after Killiecrankie, were forced to watch the slow collapse of the Stuart cause, culminating in the establishment of a new fort and garrison at Inverlochy, now Fort William , and the savage example of the massacre of Glen Coe.

We have no record of Alastair Mor’s age. Clan tradition has it that he was at Mulroy, the great battle with the Mackintoshes. If so he may have been at Killiecrankie and he would certainly have been with the Glencoe and Keppoch MacDonalds in their raid on Glen Lyon which so inflamed the Campbell Earl of Breadalbane before the massacre. He would also have been with his chief, Coll, when he had burnt the Mackintosh’s house at Dunachton during the campaign before Killiecrankie. Now a hostile government in Edinburgh and a powerful garrison in Fort William had avenged Breadalbane and were determined also to avenge the Mackintosh. The next ten years were to be years of outlawry and bare survival for Coll of Keppoch and his clan. For Alastair Mor they were to present a need and an opportunity to leave his embattled clan and establish himself elsewhere.

The first major affray, in which Alastair Mor is mentioned in the records of the time is the infamous Lovat rape case. Simon Fraser of Beaufort, later the celebrated Lovat of the ’45 attempted to legitimise his claim to the Lovat title by seizing the widow of the previous chief and forcibly ‘marrying her’. In the subsequent inquiries into the seizure of the lady and the capture of her brothers and others sent to protect and avenge her, there are the names of many Fraser tacksmen and others outlawed for assisting Simon Fraser. The only names of accomplices outwith the clan are those of Alastair Mor and of Angus the brother of his chief, Coll. The Fraser historians give Alastair Mor credit for much of the success of these campaigns and both he and Simon Fraser subsequently escaped capture. What they do not say however but what came out in the enquiries is that while they were successfully helping Simon Fraser, their chief, Coll was simultaneously seeking favour with the government and Lady Lovat’s powerful father, the Earl of Atholl, by offering to capture Fraser. Clearly as in many contemporary affrays with the MacGregors the campaigns of these declared ‘outlaws’ were carefully co-ordinated.

When Alastair Mor left Glen Roy, he established himself on the upper Avon, above the present village of Tomintoul. The sheilings of Inchrory provided good summer grazings but more importantly they are protected from behind by the bulk of Cairngorm, while there is easy access down the Don to the flat lands of Buchan and down the Spey to the Laigh of Moray, where in the words of an earlier Lochiel “all men take their prey.” Politically, it was also a good choice. It was part of the estate of the Jacobite Duke of Gordon and the tacksman was Gordon of Camdell, not only the Duke’s bailie but the husband of Silis, the sister of Coll of Keppoch.

It is not possible now to disentangle the mixture of politics, cattle lifting and protection that involved bands like that of Alastair Mor. There had always been an element of what became known as “Black Meal” or blackmail. Some lairds and farmers were probably friendly and themselves supporters of King James, many like Breadalbane accepted the “payment of the Watch, which is neadfull to preserve our friends and tenants from having their throats cut or being harried.” Others like the Lord Forbes, a leading Whig and Strachan of Glenkindie refused to pay and suffered in consequence. These were the seven ill years of famine, with the crops failing across Scotland from the summer of 1695 and men like Lord Forbes must have been especially bitter at the inability of the authorities to protect them and by the tacit support given to their plunderers.

It was the same when the blackmailers were finally caught. Rob Roy was continually shielded by Breadalbane. James Macpherson was indeed hanged at the Bridge of Banff in November 1709 but tradition and the famous ballad has it that his enemies only managed to carry out the hanging by altering the clock so that they could anticipate the arrival of his pardon. When Alastair Mor was himself betrayed and captured on a visit to Keppoch, there were again many who were determined to intervene on his behalf. In a dramatic series of trials, he was to be convicted again and again but on each occasion reprieved from hanging. Whether it was the threats of his supporters still active in Inchrory or whether it was the concern of many in high places that his conviction seemed “political” at a time when the Stuart Queen Anne was the heir to the throne – on each occasion he was to survive. Lord Forbes in one letter makes it clear that even Alastair himself did not expect to escape with his life; “he was in a very good temper when expecting death and confesses all that was proven against him and much more that he now denies.”

Alasdair was taken in October or November 1700 and sent to the Tolbooth in Edinburgh. There was great rejoicing in Aberdeenshire on his capture; “from his youth up to now this many years, beginning with the rebellion against his majesty, he hath been a continual depredator and ring-leader of Robbers, robbing with convocations of armed men and wresting the poor country in all corners thereof.” It took a year however before he was brought to trial before the Commissioners for Northern Justice in Aberdeen. He appeared on Nov 23 on a single charge of “breaking and robbinga house and tying man wyffe and famillie. The assyse found the libel proven but there being only one cryme, it was thought fit to prorogat sentence against him, he being guilty of a great many oyr crimes. Therefor the fiscall of court gave him a new indytment for 13 oyr roberries all heinious.” He was tried for these on Dec. 16th, again convicted and condemned to death.

The grounds of Alastair’s appeal to the Scottish Privy Council were various. He had been manacled in court; they had been unable to find a Gaelic speaking lawyer and his defence had ultimately been conducted by a man who had never appeared in a court before. Perhaps however more significant was his appeal for clemency on the grounds that “he had proceeded either from necessity or his blind complyance with and following those on whom the petitioner depended. By the time the court met, Lord Forbes was in a fury of letter writing, condemning those “my relations and allies should have made such appearance, I may say in the face of Justice. They have amazed the world as if the government had a mind to maintain this famous robber and villain Alastair More.” The Privy Council met on Jan 13th and on the Chancellor’s casting vote, Lord Forbes appeared to triumph and Alastair was condemned to die. A few days later however they reversed their decision and the sentence was commuted to banishment. The Aberdeen Commissioners promptly arraigned him again on fresh charges and meanwhile they appealed to King William against the Privy Council’s decision. Again the Aberdeen court found him guilty and the sombre reply from the king in London was that he “had not pardoned robbery or thefts in England or in Holland and would not begin in Scotland.” Then on March the eighth King William himself died.

Queen Anne ordered that the latest verdict from Aberdeen should be investigated by the Privy Council, noting that even the Aberdeen Commissioners were not united in their verdict on these charges. Again the death sentence was waived and finally on July 23rd, Alastair Mor was sentenced to banishment and the Earl Marischal, a noted north-eastern Jacobite found caution of £500 until a passage was found for him. Alastair Mor does not appear again in the Public Records and five years later the Scots Privy Council itself was to be abolished. The genealogy of Alastair’s family, the MacDonalds of Bohuntin, compiled almost two hundred years later, has a brief note – Alastair Mor, banished to Holland for his part in the battle of Mulroy.