Changes at Keppoch 1680 – 1745 by Rory MacDonald.

After the rising of 1715 and more especially after 1719, the politics of the West Highlands were affected by three, effective and new powerful forces. The most obvious was the presence of Garrisons not only at Fort William but also at Fort Augustus and Ruthven (1718) and from 1722 Bernera. These were supplemented by Wade’s Highwaymen or road-squads of soldiery and after 1725 by the new “Watches” of organised Whig clansmen. Secondly there was the absence in England and the consequent need for money of the great feudal Chiefs – Argyll and Huntly. The reforms in Tiree and Mull for the Argyll estate were clearly largely dictated by financial need and the same need was driving the Duke of Gordon, as he was after 1716, to treat his feudal holdings in Lochaber and Badenoch as settled estates rather than a feudal base for political and military power. Lastly the work of the Assemblies of the Church of Scotland and the active counter-Reformation drive of the Catholic Church was producing a religious activity and concern in areas where there had been no effective religion for more than a Century.

The Macdonells of Keppoch, relatively secure in the Braes of Lochaber and Badenoch had sustained their traditional ways after the restoration of Charles II but with growing difficulty. Following a brief halcyon period in the 1680s and his notable victory over the Mackintosh at Mulroy, in 1688. The Chief “Coll of the Cows” had learnt the power of the Crown when in the last days of James VII’s reign the lands of Glen Roy were laid waste by Dalziell’s Dragoons. Two years later in 1690, Major General McKay established a garrison in the new Fort William – only 14 miles from Keppoch; it was a constant threat to Coll who had no title to his lands but that of the sword. The story of Coll’s struggle firstly during the famine years of the late 1690s when he was an outlaw and later under Queen Anne and after the failure of the 1715 Rising, when he was a nominal tenant of the Mackintosh although he paid no rent, is that of a man out of his time.

Nevertheless, supported by a formidable band, led by his brother Angus and Donald Donn of Bohuntin, both poets as well as cattle-lifters and by such legendary figures as the giant “Alasdair Mor” and the “Young Halked Stirk”, a Macdonald of Fersit, Coll retained effective independence until after 1719. Politically he was uncommitted. Only one man could offer support against Argyll and the Mackintosh and that was not the King but the Duke of Gordon. Although from his politics and religion, the Duke was in retirement from court, his position in Lochaber was still that of Feudal Lord. Coll supported the Duke and his friend and neighbour Breadalbane. In return they gave him such protection as they could in the Privy Council and in Parliament.

After 1719, however the situation changed radically. The new Duke was married to Lady Henrietta Mordaunt, daughter of the Earl of Peterborough and accustomed to life at Court. To meet his growing expenses the Duke turned to his lands in Lochaber and Badenoch for increased revenues. It was a policy that met fierce resistance. The Macphersons, squeezed by the Dukes agent, [1] Gordon of Glenbuchat, fell upon him, dirked him and left him for dead. This was in March 1724 and the Duke, then, declared almost total war on the Macphersons, forcing them into an alliance with their and his traditional enemies the Mackintoshes so that when in May 1725 the Duke’s Speyside farm of Garvamore was let to one of the Iain Dubh Macdonalds, it was with the specific command that they were [2] “not to sell any parts of the same lands to any person of the name of MacIntosh or Mackintosh”. Glenbuchat also evicted one of the MacMartins of Letterfinlay but the new minister of Kilmonivaig, the first since the Reformation had to hurriedly remove to Fort William, when he unwisely took the farm on at the required higher rent. [3] The MacMartins haughed his cattle, shredded his nets on the Lochy and offered similar treatment to his own person, At Keppoch, [4] Coll himself was, on May 14th 1724, forced to resign his Glenspean lands to his son Alastair, after an enquiry showed that no rent had been paid for much of these lands since the 1690’s.

It was not just the change in Gordon policy however or Wade’s soldiers that made Alastair’s period as Chief at Keppoch different from that of his father. It was not either, education, in the Academic sense since, while Alastair had been at Glasgow University, Coll too had been at University at St. Andrews and indeed besides writing and speaking good English as well as Gaelic, he could find fair Latin for a legal phrase. Education was now more general however and indeed there was a school up Glen Roy at Bohuntin by 1729 possibly supported by the SPCK since the teacher had the very un-highland name of James Thomson. Certainly there was very much more Religious activity.

Despite his poor start with the MacMartins, the minister the Rev. Skeldoch stayed at Kilmonivaig, complaining that he had found “neither Glebe, nor manse nor Kirk nor competent stipend”. The Catholics priests, who had visited from Glengarry, were also now established; the Argyll Synod complaining in 1720 that [5] Mr Peter Macdonald had now taken up his full residence at Keppoch and had even preached at Achindaul within tour miles of Fort William itself. By 1745, the bulk of the Keppoch people, if possibly not their Chief, were practising Catholics, unlike their fathers, who had lived in a world of old beliefs but bereft of the benefit of clergy of any faith.

Perhaps it is a reflection of these changes that like his neighbour, the gentle Locheil, Alastair Keppoch took pains to ensure that the discipline of his regiment in 1745 was exemplary. Nor was it only the chiefs who set an example; Donald Cameron of Locheil was possibly excelled in popularity by his brother the famous “Dr Archie” and another brother was even a Jesuit priest. Likewise Alastair’s cousin Donald of Tirindrish who led the first fight of the ’45 at High Bridge is described by Bishop Forbes as “given to pious practices” and his speech before his execution at Carlisle is a study both in loyalty to his Prince and in piety.

Yet religion alone does not explain the complete change in style between the robust Sir Ewan Cameron and the gentle Locheil or between Coll of the Cows and Alastair. It may have been the settled ways of a time of peace and comparative affluence. It may have been Romantic writings, drifting over from the continent. Lachlan Shaw, historian of the Province of Moray writing of Coll says “Colonel Macdonald, who was ever keen for plunder but never once fought for the king” and yet Alastair wrote to his cousin Dalchosnie on August 12th 1745, a week before the standard was raised and four days before High Bridge [6] “I have an affair of the highest consequence of yours as well as my honour, credit and reputation depends to inform you off”. It must have been a considerable romantic fire, which forced family men in their forties like Alastair and Donald of Tirindrish to recklessly involve themselves at High Bridge taking arms in a revolt, which was universally acknowledged to be hopeless. Indeed the care Donald took to entrust his family to Breadalbane’s factor Campbell of Achallader shows how little faith he had in the enterprise. Bishop Forbes quotes Alastair as saying “Since the Prince has risked his person by giving himself into the hands of his friends therefore it was their duty to raise their men instantly for the protection of his person, let the consequences be what they would.” [7]

Perhaps Alastair and Donald had been inspired by new romantic principles but it is almost reassuring to see that not all their clansmen had changed and that whatever the cause Clan loyalty was still paramount. In 1742 there was a notable confrontation between Donald Macdonell of Corriechoillie and Ewan Macpherson, younger of Cluny. [8] Corriechoillie, who seems to have been a feckless character, accused of the murder of his father-in-law, as well as cattle-lifting and extortion, was the son of Alastair’s sister Margaret who had married her cousin Archibald, brother of Donald of Tirindrish. When a struggle with the Macphersons seemed inevitable, the clan gathered behind him until he was supported not only by his uncle Donald and his other uncle Dellafour but also by the wealthy and settled farmers like Aberarder and Alastair Tullochcrom. The fight was finally averted but the gathering proved that the internal loyalty of the Clan had not been dissolved by the strange ways of the peace. It was to take a further generation of disruption to loose the bonds weakened by this first generation of stability.

[1] See A. Lang “Companions of Pickle”.

[2] Scottish Record Office – Gordon MSS CD/44/10.

[3] A. Lang.

[4] Gordon MSS.

[5] National Library of Scotland. Lee MSS 220.

[6] More Culloden Papers. Vol. IV.

[7] Lyon in Mourning.

[8] National Library GD50/121/Cluny Papers.