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Issue 21 - Murder most horrid

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


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Murder most horrid

The Appin Murder still resonates more than 250 years after it happened. James Irvine Robertson explains why

1752 – Culloden was six years ago. The old culture was crushed, the rebel leaders dead or in exile, and their estates confiscated.

It should have been all over but rumours were rife of another impending landing by Prince Charles in the Highlands. Spies had reported to the government that he had slipped into London to inspect defences; he had ordered 26,000 muskets and his supporters were on alert.

So was the Duke of Argyll. His clan was the government’s bulwark in Scotland. His militia could still put 3,000 men in the field.

Forty four-year old Colin Campbell of Glenure was one for whom the new regime brought advancement. Aone-time officer of the Black Watch and the Argyll Militia, he was government factor, the manager, of the forfeited estates of Stewart of Ardsheal and the Cameron lands of Lochaber.

He did his best to be fair. In fact more than fair, turning a blind eye to his deputy, James Stewart, known as James of the Glen and brother to the exiled Stewart chief, who collected rents and passed them on to his family.

Nonetheless, Campbell’s job was bound to make him unpopular for he was representative of the conquerors.

On the 14th May, the factor, his nephew Mungo and a couple of servants had been collecting rents in Lochaber. They crossed Loch Linnhe into Argyllshire and rode up the track into the woods above the loch.

Without warning a shot rang out from behind. Campbell was struck, fell from his horse and died.

The crime was appalling – shot in the back, a coward’s killing. And who had a motive? Colin was hated but only for his job.

Kill him and retribution was inevitable; a harsher man was bound to follow.

The authorities reacted as if stung. This could be the beginning of serious unrest.

Other government officials were in danger. They must find the killer and make an example of him. Otherwise what might follow?

The dead man’s brother,John Campbell of Barcaldine, was in charge of the investigation. Argyllshire was swamped by soldiers who questioned 700 out of a population of 2,800.

They arrested James of the Glen, whose farm lay a brief distance from the scene . He did not fire the shot; that, the authorities decided, was carried out by Alan Breck Stewart, his foster son, who had vanished.

James had fought for Prince Charles; he had clashes with Colin and even been evicted by him from his farm. When James was in his cups, which was quite frequently because he was a convivial man, he had been heard to utter threats against the government factor.

Colin was about to serve notice of more evictions and James was leading the tenants’ fight to prevent them. Alan Breck was an adventurer, an army deserter now fighting for the French. He had been in the neighbourhood staying with his foster father and other friends for a week and had fled after the killing.

James was put on trial in Inveraray as an accessory to murder before a jury packed with Campbells, the Duke of Argyll himself sitting in judgement.

But the country was watching. The might of the Scots legal system swung into action. Reams of witness statements were taken, the best advocates were employed; Argyll had two senior judges from Edinburgh, Lords Elchies and Kilkerran, on the bench beside him. Justice as far as was politically convenient was to be seen to be done.

The trial opened on Thursday 21st September. In vain did the defence complain that they were not given fair access to their client.

In vain did they point out the impropriety of trying an accessory to a crime before the principal. If James was found guilty it would mean that Alan Breck was also guilty and that without a trial.

In vain did they point out the good character and popularity of the defendant, the almost cordial relationship he had with the deceased, his want of serious motive and the complete lack of anything beyond a chain of the most circumstantial evidence.

It was all over by Sunday night. James Stewart was found guilty.

“I am not afraid to die,” he said on the scaffold, “but what grieves me is my character, that after ages should think me capable of such a horrid and barbarous murder.” He was hanged on 8th November on a gibbet placed above the road at Ballachulish where it was visible for miles around. Fifteen soldiers guarded the body to ensure it was not taken away for burial.

It fell to the ground in 1755 and was wired back in place but it eventually disintegrated and local boys picked up fragments of bone which were collected and interred in the family grave.

The murder gave a stage for the last embers of Jacobitism to glow and die. Accounts of the trial were published and James’s friends cried judicial murder but it was too late.

The witness statements also give a detailed picture of everyday life and relationships in the Highlands before the Clearances swept everything away. And the event generated a rich layer of folklore.

The killing features in two of Robert Louis Stevenson’s finest novels – Catriona and Kidnapped – as does Alan Breck Stewart.

He disappeared into France but, in 1789, he was encountered in Paris by a friend of Sir Walter Scott who described him as a ‘tall, thin raw-boned, grimlooking old man.’ But he never mentioned the murder and posterity has decided he wasn’t the killer.

Was James guilty? By the standards of the day perhaps he was. He knew Alan Breck was wanted and suspected he might have fired the shot, yet sent him money to aid his escape – enough to hang him.

Of course the name of the true assassin was known, kept as a closely kept secret for 250 years by six local families – Stewarts of Ballachulish, Ardsheal, Invernahyle, Fasnacloich, Appin and Achnacone.

In order to win an exclusive, your reporter plied one of their representatives with strong drink to uncover the truth. Alas, the first three families are now extinct; Fasnacloich has forgotten; Appin and Achnacone still know the murderer, but each guards a different name.