The Scotsman

Into the brazen world of the High­land ban­dit

Vagabonds, thieves and some­time killers op­er­ated through­out the High­lands for hun­dreds of years, writes Ali­son Camp­sie

- ali­son.camp­sie@jpi­me­dia.co.uk Scotland · University of Dundee · Dundee · Oliver Cromwell · Charles II of England · Patrick Roy · Moray · Lyon · Edinburgh · John F. Kennedy · Banffshire

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.

 ?? PIC­TURES: WOOD­LAND TRUST/JOHN MACPHER­SON/CREATIVE COM­MONS ??
PIC­TURES: WOOD­LAND TRUST/JOHN MACPHER­SON/CREATIVE COM­MONS
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 ??  ?? 0 Parts of the High­lands were awash with ban­ditry with the op­er­a­tors of­ten later hailed as folk he­roes, such as Rob Roy Macgre­gor (right). Pro­fes­sor Al­lan Kennedy (above).
0 Parts of the High­lands were awash with ban­ditry with the op­er­a­tors of­ten later hailed as folk he­roes, such as Rob Roy Macgre­gor (right). Pro­fes­sor Al­lan Kennedy (above).

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