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The Appin murder - were MacGregors involved?

By Peter Lawrie, ©1996

An enduring mystery in Scottish History is the question “Who killed the Red Fox?” Without a doubt it was not the man who was punished for it!

Perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson has muddied the waters forever in his famous novels, “Kidnapped” and “Catriona”, in which James Mòr MacGregor, as father of Catriona,  and Robin Og MacGregor, his brother, both feature. Though there is much invention in the novels the gist of the story is there. However, I have used as my source, “The Trial of James Stewart (The Appin Murder)” by D N Mackay, Glasgow 1907.

After the ‘45 rising, Charles Stewart of Ardsheal, the chief of the Appin Stewarts went into exile in France. His estate was forfeited and Colin Campbell of Glenure, known as the “Red Fox” was appointed as factor in 1749 by the Forfeited Estate Commisioners. Glenure was younger brother to Campbell of Barcaldine, their mother was a Cameron, related to Lochiel who was of course, a principal figure in the rising, and hence Glenure and Barcaldine may not have been entirely trusted by the Government

James Stewart, known as Seumas a’ Ghlinne or James of the Glen, was a ‘natural’ brother to Ardsheal and though he had served as a Captain in the Appin Stewart regiment in  the ‘45, had managed to remain in Appin, seemingly unmolested by the authorities. He was, it seems, collecting some of the Appin rents and remitting them to his brother in France, much to the annoyance of the Commisioners. Allan Breac Stewart, who features as a principal character in Stevenson’s novels was a foster son of  James Stewart, following the death of his father, a cousin of James. Allan Breac was a deserter from Lee’s regiment and  joined the Appin Stewarts after  being taken prisoner by the Jacobites at the Battle of Prestonpans. Following the Battle of  Culloden, Allan Breac went into exile and entered Ogilvy’s regiment in French Service. However, though a deserter and attainted rebel, he seems to have been able to make a number of trips back to Appin on recruiting  missions, and perhaps acting as a courier for the Jacobites. 

Glenure and James Stewart were in fact, distantly related and Glenure employed James as Assistant factor, though he had an inkling of what James had been doing. However, in 1751 Glenure dispossessed James of his farm at Glenduror in favour of a Campbell tenant and James removed to Acharn. At this time the possibility of a further rising or invasion still existed and the authorities may have forced Glenure’s hand. Glenure may also have been under a cloud for being thought too lenient with “the disaffected”, so that in spring 1752 a number of former Jacobites were ordered to remove from their farms. In April 1752 James was in Edinburgh, pleading before the Exchequer Court on behalf of these tenants, but without success.

On the 14th of May, Glenure with a lawyer, a sheriff-officer and a servant as escort was travelling from Fort William into Appin to carry out the evictions. He had crossed Loch Leven by Ballachulish Ferry between 4 and 5 in the evening. He remarked, “I am safe, now that I am out of  my  mother’s country”. But he was shot at from the wood of Lettermore not far from the ferry. Two musket balls struck him near the spinal cord and he died within minutes. A man in a short, dark coat was seen climbing up through the woods away from the scene. The servant, Mackenzie, rode for help and informed James of the Glens at his farm of Acharn of the murder, within an hour of the event.

Two men were initially suspected, Sergeant Mòr Cameron, a noted outlaw and Allan Breac Stewart, who was known to have been in the neighbourhood. Very soon the murder was the talk of the Highlands and it was widely regarded as more than the work of just any ruffian outlaw. Conspiracy was the cry and the Campbells wanted vengeance. Twelve people were arrested on the 16th including James Stewart and his eldest son. Allan Breac could not be found despite a huge search for him.  Questions were asked in Parliament and the Government Ministers were closely involved. It quickly became apparent that nothing could save James Stewart and although  there was no evidence of his actual involvement, he was to be made the scapegoat, as being the principal mover in a conspiracy.

To cut this part of the story short, he was put on trial at Inveraray on September 21st 1752. (new style - for Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar on September 3rd, thus “losing”  11 days.) The jury was packed with Campbells with the Lord Justice General - the Duke of Argyll himself - presiding. The verdict was a foregone conclusion and on November 8th, James of the Glen was executed at Ballachulish and his body hung in chains there, where it remained for three years. At some unknown date in 1755 his bones were secretly removed and interred by his friends at the Keil Chapel burial ground.

Now where is the Clan Gregor interest in this. I have heard a number of people over the years mention James Mòr as a suspect. However, James had a wonderful alibi, he was in prison at the time! Campbell of Barcaldine did interview James Mòr in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh on this matter and I have set out a precis of his evidence.

First of all, a small digression. James Mòr and Robin Og had kidnapped an heiress, called Jean Key. They married her to Robin Og and took her to Balquhidder. This procedure was not all that uncommon at the time and in some cases the couple might live happily ever after. However, in this case, Jean Key’s relatives were not content to accept a fait-accompli and had the MacGregors condemned in the courts as kidnappers. In due course Jean Key was returned to her home, but died of measles shortly afterwards.

In May 1751, James Mòr and Robin Og had a warrant of Fugitation passed on them, thus making them  fugitives from Justice. Robin Og, was a deserter from the 42nd regiment in 1745, and the unpunished killer of MacLaren of Invernenty in 1736 and so was already outlawed as a result of that. On December 18 1751, James Mòr was arrested near Fort William and sent to Edinburgh. He was lodged initially in the Tolbooth and later in Edinburgh Castle. On November 16th 1752, he made his escape, assisted by his daughter Mally (Stevenson’s Catriona)  and made his way to Ireland and thereafter to France. Glenure was of course, murdered on May 14th and James Stewart had been hanging in chains at Ballachulish for a week by the time James Mòr escaped.

Robin Og was not arrested until May 26th 1753, he was tried on December 24th and executed on February 16th for the kidnap of Jean Key. Robin Og, was therefore at large during the period in question. Stevenson places him in Balquhidder when Allan Breac and David Balfour meet up with him and has them near to coming to blows but they decide to have a piping competition instead. Allan Breac confesses himself laid low by the beauty of  Robin Oig’s pibroch playing. James Mòr certainly wrote in one of his final letters from France, asking for a set of pipes so that he could console himself. Perhaps both of them were pipers. They may have inherited this from their mother Mary, who wrote “Rob Roy’s Lament” - the tune is now lost.) As both Robin Og and Allan Breac had served together during the ‘45 and for some of the time the MacGregors and Appin Stewarts were a single formation,  Stevenson‘s account does not ring true here.

Now for James Mor’s interview with Barcaldine in August 1752. According to Barcaldine’s memorial, James Stewart visited James Mòr in the tolbooth. James Mòr told Barcaldine that James Stewart had asked him to write to his brother Robin Og requesting him to murder Glenure with a gun to be provided by James Stewart.  In return James Mòr would receive a lease of land on good terms from some relative of James Stewart and Robin Og would be given money to travel to France and a commission in French service. Barcaldine went on to state that James Mòr would need to be pardoned for his crime if he was to be released in time to give evidence at James Stewart’s trial.  This memorial was submitted to the government and their reply on September 14th (NS), refusing such a pardon included this statement: “The Lords Justice are easily induced to believe that James Drummond (or MacGregor) has been instrumental for and privy to several atrocious crimes and very possibly to that in which the said James Stewart is supposed to have been concerned, and tho’ James Drummond has not yet received the judgement of the court for aiding and assisting in the carrying away of a young woman from her own house and causing her to be married to his brother against her consent, yet their Excellencies hope that sentence will at last be pronounced against him to the utmost extent of that justice he shall appear to have deserved. And they have directed me to acquaint you that the prayer of the Memorial above mentioned cannot be complied with in this case as there will not be time sufficient before the trial of James Stewart to apply to His Majesty for his royal  pardon in order to capacitate James Drumond to give evidence upon that occasion altho’ the circumstances had been still more strong and persuasive to make their Excellencies imagine that the testimony of the one would materially tend to the conviction of the other”.

Well, what can we make of that? James  Mòr was a noted liar and obviously anxious to save his own skin. Would that go as far as seeking to incriminate his own brother, Robin Og?  Against that, as James Stewart was supposed to have visited him in the tolbooth, the gaolers would have been witnesses to his visit to a prisoner, so that could not have been fabricated and why else would James Stewart visit him unless it was to ask for such assistance. However, the prosecution did fabricate evidence against James of the Glens and accepted arguments that no modern court could possibly allow. It would not have been improbable for the authorities to concoct a story with James Mòr in return for promises of his release.  Especially as James Mòr would know that a conviction would be obtained no matter what - so why should he not gain from it?.

A letter from Campbell of Achallader to his brother-in-law, Campbell of Barcaldine, dated 5th May 1753. “We hear from Balquhidder that Robin Og is returned in good plight to that country well mounted, It looks as if he had been plying on the Highway in England, He gives out, at least ‘tis given out in his name that he saw Breck in France who got there in March, and says ‘twas Allan beg that actually committed the murder and that Breck is to publish a vindication of himself.”

James Mòr found himself in poverty in France and sought to gain favour from the Government in London. His attempts failed, but in June 1753 an unsigned  letter, presumably  from him was written to Barcaldine from Dunkirk, “... Mr Breack Stewart who landed  in this country in March last and went to Lille ... I was actually informed that he was sent over to murder your brother and money given for that purpose .... I am informed that poor Robb is taken up. I am much affraid unless your friends will interpose they will endeavour to reach at his life. If he (Breadalbane) could procure banishment for him it would be a great favour done one and all of us, for he has nothing to support his trial, and this would save the court the expense of a trial ... “

Among the people of Appin, it is said that the real secret of the murder is still passed by word of mouth from father to son. It is belived that Glenure knew of a plot against him but thought that the attempt would take place in the Cameron country, between Corran and Ballachulish. It is said that he remarked when he reached the south side of Loch Leven, “I am safe, now that I have left my mother’s country.” The tradition of Appin is that, first, James Stewart had no part whatever in the planning or accomplishment of the assassination; second, Allan Breac was an accessory, but did not fire the fatal shot; third, several young men were concerned, and possibly two guns were used as Glenure was hit twice;  fourth, the whole facts were  known to several persons before the execution and at least one was bound with ropes by his friends to prevent him going to the place of execution to make those facts known. As to the identity of the plotters and murderer, Mr Mackay states that the real truth is known to  a few members of the Appin Stewart clan and that James Stewart was wholly innocent. It is said that Allan Breac deliberately took the blame on himself and that James Stewart also knew who the murderer was but would not say, even to save his own life. It is clear that they were protecting some-one dear to the whole clan. I cannot believe that the person could have been Robin Og MacGregor. A man who would have been far from home, with no powerful interest to protect him. An ideal scapegoat in fact if the evidence could be pinned upon him.

Finally, a last word on the murder weapon. Many years later a young girl named Seonaid Nic Aonghais  or Janet MacInnes, when tending her father’s cattle in Gleann a’ Chaolais, the glen behind Ballachulish,  found a gun in the hollow of a large Elder tree. She took the gun home and showed it to old Mr Stewart of Ballachulish, who said. “‘Se sin gunna dubh a mhi-fhortain -  That is the black gun of the misfortune” This gun was known in the district as “An t-slinneanach” - literally ‘the shoulder’ hence a heavy musket which would be carried on the shoulder and can now be seen in the West Highland Museum in Fort William.