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Issue 49 - The Highland Host

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


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The Highland Host

James Irvine Robertson looks at a nasty period in rebellion suppression.

Stuart kings of Britain were dictators.

They could conceive of no other form of government. Charles I lost his head for his refusal to compromise with parliament and his rule was replaced by that of Oliver Cromwell, another dictator. Not until 1688 and the Glorious Revolution was it found possible to create the beginnings of a sharing of power between the King and the people. So when Charles II regained his throne after the death of Cromwell, his priority was to ensure he had complete control of the country, and that meant both civil and religious control.

In Scotland , the church was Presbyterian but Charles imposed bishops through which he could be head of the church in Scotland as well as in England. Many Scots saw their adherence to the National Covenant of 1638 as a guarantee of their religious freedom and also, to a large measure, their civil liberty. This the King could not tolerate. His manager in Scotland was John, first Duke of Lauderdale, head of the Privy Council.

Lauderdale had spent 25 years cultivating Charles. In his younger days, he had supported the Covenant but his career compelled him to go along with Charles’s inclinations and the imposition of Episcopalianism. Lauderdale was considered an unattractive individual. so much so that the monarch kept a snuff box especially for him so that his minister’s fat and dirty fingers would not contaminate his own.

In 1677, the south west of Scotland was a hot bed of opposition to Episcopalianism.

Most of the people had abandoned the established church and its bishops to meet in the open in conventicles under the dissenting ministers. The majority of the land owners supported them and refused to sign a bond renouncing their dissenting ways.

Some of the more fiery preachers said that they might even call their congregations to arms to defend their freedom of worship. It was thought that 10,000 men could rise and violence had already targeted established ministers. Against this backdrop, Lauderdale saw a chance to ingratiate himself even further with his master. Charles had raised an army ostensibly to fight the French but people suspected the troops were to be used to ensure the succession of the Duke of York, the king’s Catholic younger brother. A rebellion of dissenters in south west Scotland would require troops raised to suppress it, proving that the King’s need for soldiers was justified. So Lauderdale took action.

He began by asking the Highland magnates to raise the Clans and their vassals in support of the regular forces, which amounted to no more than 1100 men, and be ready to march and occupy the south west of Scotland. All in all, 8,000 men mustered. The majority were Perthshire Highlanders led by the newly-elevated Marquess of Atholl and John Campbell of Glenorchy, who would soon become the Earl of Breadalbane.

The prospect of this Highland Host descending upon them filled any potential rebels with dismay. Lowland soldiers would have been bad enough but they viewed the Highlanders as alien barbarians. They spoke Gaelic, a foreign language. If they had a God at all, it was likely a Roman Catholic one.

They wore alien clothes, were brutal, dirty and as attractive as an occupying army of Apaches would be to the colonists of Virginia.

These men were to be quartered upon the civilian population who would have to feed and clothe them , and they were notorious for their ruthless plundering. The prospect was ruinous. And it was not only the army they had to fear. The Highland Host would bring with it an undisciplined horde of stragglers.

Any thoughts of resistance or rebellion vanished although little evidence existed that such thoughts were there in the first place.

A deputation of land owners went to Lauderdale to plead ‘that there was not the least tendency among the people to rebel, and that an indulgence to Presbyterians would serve to put an end to conventicles and all other irregularities,’ and to deprecate ‘that severe procedure of sending among them so inhuman and barbarous a crew.’ Some of them even declared themselves prepared to answer for the peace of the whole region, provided that the standing forces were sent without the Highlanders.

Lauderdale, however, refused to discuss matters with the deputation unless they signed the bond, not only for themselves, but for all the other lairds. And this they were unable to do.

Lauderdale was quite aware that the threat was over but he was determined to let matters take the course he wished, particularly when the lands of his political opponents, the Duke of Hamilton and the 7th Earl of Cassilis, stood to suffer and, in January 1678, the Highland Host rolled south.

It found no signs of rebellion. Troops were instructed to break up conventicles, seize arms and quarter themselves on those who could not or would not produce them. They also took horses and conducted themselves like the army of occupation they were.

Occasionally rumours of men banding together under arms was heard and the Highlanders would hurry to investigate but no such trouble makers were ever found.

For the clansmen, it was a break from the misery of half-starving in a northern winter, but their leaders soon became uneasy at leaving their own countries unguarded, especially when news came of a raid on the rich Campbell lands in Perthshire. The economic cost to the local people was immense. Passive resistance was the order of the day but few would sign bonds of loyalty to the King and the established church.

‘Wherever the Highlanders come, they destroy all,’ wrote Sir Christopher Musgrave who, as Member of Parliament for Carlisle just across the border, was in a position to know what was happening.

By the end of February, the Highlanders had done their looting. They wished, as was customary, to return home with the spoils. A few stayed behind, almost as bogeymen, but most went home leaving garrisons which were quartered on landowners who would not sign the bond. A couple of hundred hungry soldiers would have a devastating effect on anyone’s estate and people.

And the legacy of the Highland Host? The one confirmed death was that of one of Breadalbane’s men, Alexander MacGregor, who was lynched by a mob on his way home.

Lauderdale lost his supremacy in Scotland when Hamilton and his allies fled south and gained the support of parliament. At this juncture, Charles found it expedient to withdraw his endorsement of his minister, but rather too late it seems. It reinforced the hatred and contempt that already existed between Highlander and Lowlander.

As for the Covenanters of the South West of Scotland , they still erupted into rebellion a couple of years later only to be brutally crushed by the government.