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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.

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