Into the brazen world of the Highland bandit
Vagabonds, thieves and sometime killers operated throughout the Highlands for hundreds of years, writes Alison Campsie
They were violent hustlers and thieves and then, later, often crowned as folk heroes for their challenges to authority.
Bandits were active all over Scotland for hundreds of years with organised robbery, and in particular cattle lifting, regarded as a right of passage for young men on the road to manhood, said Dr Allan Kennedy, of Dundee University.
It was also a way of boosting the income of your people at the expense of your rivals, he added.
“The golden age of this real-world banditry in Scotland was the late 17th and early-18th centuries, with most of it concentrated in Scotland’s very own Wild West, the Highlands,” Dr Kennedy wrote in an earlier article for History Scotland magazine.
By the mid 17th century, the big threat of “predatory robbery” came not from a rival clan but from lone, jobless men who survived on stealing livestock. Such men tended to “drift together”.
“Larger groups could then begin to diversify, moving from cattle-rustling into extortion, blackmail and highway robbery,” Dr Kennedy, the consultant editor of History Scotland magazine said.
Dr Kennedy said a peak of bandit activity was recorded around 1660 with political and economic changes brought by the end of the Cromwellian regime, the restoration of Charles II and the second Anglo-dutch war possibly drawing some men into a life of crime.
Feared figures of the day included Calum oig Macgregor, of Menteith, a notorious ‘sorner’ who extorted free lodgings under the threat of violence.
However, no one reached the same level of notoriety as the Mackintosh mac greg or
gang, the historian said.
Lachlan Mackintosh and Patrick Roy Macgregor operated this gang on the eastern fringes of the Highlands, around Moray and Speyside, and worked with “brazen confidence”.
In summer 1665, Mackintosh launched a major cattle-lifting raid against John Lyon of Muiresk, a laird at Balchirie in old Banffshire, when he and around 25 armed men rounded up 60 oxen and 17 cows.
Mackintosh was declared an outlaw after he failed to appear at court in Edinburgh following the robbery and a manhunt was launched. He was captured four months later and then executed in Edinburgh in January 1666 with gang leadership passed to Macgregor, who launched a “personal vendetta” against Muiresk.
Macgregor and around 20 men broke into the landowner’s barn, removed sheaves of corn and piled them around the house, dusting them with gunpowder and setting them on fire. Muiresk, his son and several servants were then taken prisoner as they rushed from their home.
Muiresk and his son were taken deep into the country, stripped of money and clothes and starved of food. After four days, both men were killed with their bodies found, naked and pitted with stab and gunshot wounds around 16 miles away.
Macgregor and his men were unrelenting. In 1667, they unashamedly marched into the town of Keith, led by a piper, in an attempt to extort money from its residents. He was chased out of town, captured and removed to Edinburgh and tortured using the ‘Boot’ with his lower leg placed in a metal sheath with a series of wedges hammered down the side to “slowly and agonisingly” crush the leg, Dr Kennedy said.
A confession followed but the executions of Macgregor and an accomplice were delayed amid rumours that the gang operated under the patronage of powerful individuals in the North East.
The executions of four men went ahead on 13 May, 1668 with declarations given that the crimes were committed under the instruction of Charles Gordon, 1st Earl of Aboyne, with two other lairds also accused of benefiting from the gang’s activities. No direction action was taken against these men, Dr Kennedy said.