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Issue 35 - The Earls of Argyll

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Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


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The Earls of Argyll

James Irvine Robertson looks at the dramatic history of the noble Campbells

Every Highlander knows that the greatest of all Scottish clans is their own. Many of us are prepared to concede that Clan Donald has had its moments. And what we think of the Campbells is really best left unsaid in a family magazine such as this - which is grossly unfair.

The Campbells are unpopular simply because, when the music stopped in 1746, they were the most successful of the Highland kindred. Their chiefs were no more ruthless, devious, or treacherous than those of any other clan, but they made fewer political mistakes and they had a solid and unchallenged power base in the western Highlands that gave the earls of Argyll 20,000 followers and a national importance unique amongst clan chiefs. But, in the late 1600s, two successive heads of the family lost their heads to the Maiden, Edinburgh’s guillotine. So what went wrong?

The Campbell family had been prominent for centuries. The 1st Earl was created in 1487; the 5th was Lord High Chancellor in 1572 and a leading supporter of Mary Queen of Scots. The 7th lost the plot a bit, took a Catholic wife, entered the Spanish service and converted, so the estates were taken over by his son who became 8th Earl in 1638. Like his forebears and descendants, he was Archibald Campbell and his Protestant and Presbyterian faith provided the template for his life. So did his clan’s expansion, and he greatly extended his control in the west, taking land from Macdougalls, Macdonalds, Stewarts, Macleans, and the properties of the abolished bishoprics of the Isles and Argyll.

He even ousted his brother from Kintyre.

Archibald’s growing political influence coincided with the attempts of Charles I to impose bishops on Scotland, which led to the signing of the National Covenant for the preservation of the Presbyterian Church.

Argyll went to London and counselled his monarch to leave the Scots Kirk alone. This was not to the King’s taste, and he encouraged the 2nd Earl of Antrim, a chief of Clan Donald, to harry Campbell lands, but the plan miscarried; its only result was to turn Argyll against Charles and encourage him to sign the Covenant.

Within a couple of years, Archibald emerged as head of the Covenanting Party in control of the Scots Parliament and representing the nation against the King. In 1640, he harried the royalist clans in the central Highlands. He captured the 1st Earl of Atholl and burnt the House of Airlie. With Civil War looming, Charles tried to buy his support by making him a Marquis, and giving him property and commissions. But Argyll consolidated his hold of Scotland and brought its army into the war on the side of Parliament. The King sent his supporter, the charismatic 1st Marquis of Montrose north, and his military genius wreaked havoc on the Scots armies. He also inflicted terrible wounds on the properties and fighting strength of Clan Campbell, but he was beaten at the Battle of Philiphaugh, and his army of Macdonalds exterminated. “Dead men don’t bite,” said Argyll.

As head of the Scots Government in 1648, Argyll welcomed Oliver Cromwell into Scotland, but the execution of Charles turned the Scots against the English Parliament.

Negotiations began with the heir to the throne, now the de jure King Charles II, who sent Montrose north again to pressure the Scots; he was captured and hanged. Argyll watched Montrose go to the scaffold, and the poet Aytoun’s description of the event and the soubriquet ‘Master-fiend’ which he applied to Argyll has stuck. Charles repudiated his general, signed the Covenant, and it was Argyll who organised his coronation as King Charles II.

But the new King did not trust the Marquis who retired to Inveraray. He had watched Cromwell’s takeover of Scotland, and had failed to dissuade his son from becoming involved in Glencairn’s ineffectual rising of 1652.

At the Restoration of Charles II, Argyll went to London where he was arrested for treason, shipped to Leith and, in February 1661, was tried. The prosecution tried to implicate him in the death of Charles I, but there was no evidence and indeed, he had been as appalled as the rest of Scotland by the execution. However, he was proved to have opposed Glencairn, and that was enough. He was beheaded on the Maiden, and his head famously decorated the spike so recently occupied by that of Montrose.

The 8th Earl of Argyll was obviously an alarming man who made things happen. His son, the 9th Earl had things happen to him.

He had returned from his Grand Tour of Europe aged 20, in time for the execution of Charles I. Unlike his father, he had always been high in the favour of Charles II, but he fell foul of those who wanted to deprive him of the lands his father had accumulated during his time in power. Argyll resisted, and wrote a letter critical of new Scots administration. He was arrested and sentenced to death for treason. It was unjust, seen as unjust, and he was released after a year in prison, but the returned estates carried crippling debts.

In 1681, the Duke of York, who had been sent to run Scotland by his brother, Charles II, introduced a Test Act which excluded those from office who were not subservient to the Royal will. It was unpopular, and had inconsistencies built into it by its opponents that made it a nonsense. Argyll took the Oath, but added a rider pointing out its anomalies – and he was again charged with treason, again imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle and again sentenced to death. This time it looked as though he could well lose his head, so he escaped in the traditional way by disguising himself as a servant, and joined other Protestant exiles on the Continent.

Charles II died in 1685. The Duke of York became the Catholic James II of Great Britain.

The Duke of Monmouth was the late King’s illegitimate son, and the focus of attention for those prepared to rebel to ensure a Protestant monarch. He was persuaded to invade England to topple James. Argyll was to support this with a simultaneous invasion of Scotland. By the time that Monmouth had organised himself and landed in Dorset on the south coast of England on 11th June 1685, Argyll had been in Scotland nearly a month.

He had found Argyllshire under the control of the 1st Marquis of Atholl, and his own clansmen unwilling, or unable, to join him.

His rebellion was already in its terminal stages before Monmouth’s had begun.

Monmouth lost the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6th July, was caught cowering in a ditch and lost his head at the Tower of London on 11th July. Argyll never really had a battle; what army he gathered disintegrated round him. He was caught at a ford disguised as a servant and, after peacefully enjoying his customary morning nap, was decapitated on the afternoon of 30th June. In a gruesome postscript, his body, spouting blood from the neck, leapt to its feet and strutted round the execution platform. The executioner tackled it and bore it to the ground.

His son, the 10th Earl, was refused the return of the family estates, so he supported William of Orange when he landed in Torbay, some 20 miles west of Monmouth’s touchdown, in 1688. William took the throne.

Argyll became the incoming King’s chief Scottish Councillor, was rewarded with a Dukedom, and he and his Clan lived happily ever after.