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
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
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
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