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Issue 39 - The last bandit

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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The last bandit

Ian R.Mitchell looks at the tale of Ewan Macphee, Scotland's last true outlaw

Scotland’s most famous outlaw is undoubtedly Rob Roy MacGregor.

Rob has inspired countless books since Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy and, a decade ago, was the subject of a successful Hollywood film. But who knows that a century after Rob Roy’s death in the 1730s, there existed an equally colourful bandit in the Scottish Highlands, Ewan MacPhee of Glenquoich? Surprisingly, we know less about MacPhee than we do about Rob Roy’s well documented life Even the precise date of Ewan MacPhee’s birth is not known, though it took place in Glenquoich at a place called Corrie Bhuidhe, in the 1780s. His father, like many of the broken MacPhee clan, was a small time outlaw who was reputedly ‘out’ with the Jacobites in the 1745 Uprising.

Ewan was born on the ancestral lands of the MacDonnells of Glengarry. Previously tainted with Jacobitism themselves, the MacDonnells were anxious to prove their loyalty to the Hanoverian dynasty and forcibly enrolled many of their tenants in the militias raised to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. One of these so pressed, around the year 1808, was Ewan.

Little is known of his military service, though some of MacDonnell’s recruits saw service overseas. MacPhee deserted his regiment, a capital offence in wartime, after reputedly striking – some versions say killing – an officer, another capital offence.

Meanwhile, his family had moved to a place called Fedden, on the remote border of the MacDonnell lands, and Ewan lived there, and at various other locations, until captured in the early 1820s.

He was taken to Fort William, and was to be transported south for trial, after being chained to the deck of one of the recently introduced steamships plying the Highland coasts. As the boat left the shore, MacPhee wrenched his manacles free from the deck and swam towards the shore, escaping under a fusillade of bullets. The primitive rebel escaping from the steamship – the symbol of the modern age – made his reputation.

Henceforth, he was a hero to the population of Lochaber, where he lived in outlawry for another 25 years.

This was the time of the Highland Clearances, where the local population was being evicted from the glens to be replaced first by sheep and later by deer. There was very little resistance to this process, but MacPhee became a hero to the victimised population, who protected his oftenchanging locations. MacPhee hunted the deer and rustled the sheep (both then additional capital offences) that were replacing the people. He was thus seen as the enemy of the landlords who were evicting the peasantry. In addition, he was reputed to be a sorcerer, with various potions and spells for curing or harming, and was always heavily armed at a time when the population was disarmed. He was thus probably admired and feared in equal portion.

Because every crime in Lochaber was attributed to MacPhee – and because he took these deeds upon himself to enhance his reputation – it is unclear as to whether many of the tales told about him are true, or if they refer to other, lesser bandits. He was accused of killing a peddler because the peddler was asking too many questions and MacPhee suspected him, and there is also a story of him killing his own son who had come to see him in disguise. But this tale is told of many outlaws, and so may well be apocryphal. One story that is true, however, is that concerning the kidnapping of his wife.

She was a girl of only 14 years age, and whether through lack of inclination on her part, or due to her parents’ opposition, MacPhee felt compelled to take her forcibly from Knoydart and carry her over the mountains to where he lived. This was on an island in Loch Quoich, near to where he had been born. By the 1880s, this island was known on Ordnance Survey maps as Eilean MacPhee, or MacPhee’s island, a name it held until it was drowned by hydro workings in the 1950s. Whether forcibly taken or a willing accomplice, the girl made the bandit a loyal wife, bearing him several children.

As time passed MacPhee, becoming older, engaged in less outlawry and appears to have become a trader in goat meat and cheese from the herdhe kept at Loch Quoich.

He was also helped by the fact that the estate was bought in the 1830s from the bankrupt MacDonenlls by Edward Ellice, formerly of the Hudsons Bay Company. Ellice was a humane man, and became fond of MacPhee, and they often met for a chat and dram in the lodge at Glenquoich which the new landlord built. Their first meeting was, however, less friendly.

Ellice was entertaining a guest at his new home, when in walked MacPhee, in full Highland dress and armed to the teeth, and presented to Ellice a cheese as token of his status as landlord of MacPhee’s island – which lay directly across the waters of the loch. Ellice, who had no idea the estate came with a resident bandit, asked the Highlander by what right he held the island. In response MacPhee stepped forward and plunged his dirk (dagger) into the table between Ellice and his guest, exclaiming, before storming out magnificently: “By this right I have it, and by this right I will hold it!” Under Ellice the ageing MacPhee became a celebrity; articles appeared in the newspapers about him, and artists visiting Glenquoich drew portraits of him, for a fee which Ewan pocketed. The whole story appeared to be ending with a whimper rather than with a bang, but at that point entered the grazer,Cameron of Corriechoille.

This man, the ‘King of the Drovers,’ was buying up the grazing rights over much of the Lochaber area, and raising huge herds of cattle and sheep which he drove yearly to the trysts at Falkirk for sale. Though they were on a small scale, MacPhee continued his sheep stealing activities and Corriechoille decided to make an example of him pour encourager les autres.

MacPhee’s goats were grazing on land to which Cameron had the rights, and he obtained an order to seize MacPhee’s animals as compensation. When his men went to round them up (at a time when MacPhee was not at home) they found his wife an equal opponent. She fired on the men and forced them to retreat. At that point, Cameron called upon the civil authorities and with a posse of soldiers they went to Eilean MacPhee and after an exchange of fire, MacPhee surrendered.

Had the outlaw been brought to trial, the proceedings would have provided a wonderful source for the story of his life, as he would have been charged with crimes dating back almost 40 years. However, (joined by his family in jail) MacPhee contracted cholera and died, along with his wife, at Fort William in 1850 – giving Corriechoille a rather shabby victory over his enemy. Corriechoille himself was bankrupted by the end of the cattle droving trade due to the coming of the railways, and lost his fortune.

Rob Roy lived at a time when clan society was still strong: by contrast MacPhee was a bandit and outlaw in the era of steamships and railways, the last real representative of the Old Highland Order.

Let us remember him.