A Review of The Documents & Historical Events That Define It

Tag: invernenty

The Murder of John MacLaren – A Wee Bit More

Well, a wee bit more than a wee bit more!

Having finally received a copy of the indictment of Ronald (also known as Ranald) and James Drummonds (alias) MacGregor and Callum MacInlester (alias MacGregor) regarding the murder of John MacLaren in 1736, I’m excited to share some rather intriguing information that appears in the document.

As a brief reminder, John MacLaren was in his field plowing when Rob Roy’s youngest son, Robert, approached him and shot him from the rear. The reason given for this act was that John was trying to take over a land lease that was held by, and rightfully belonged to, Ronald. Turns out there was a bit more to this than meets the eye.

The Crown opens by stating that the murder was unprovoked “That the Libel [witness] does not charge the Murder to have been the Effect of any particular or personal Provocation of Injury done by the Person murdered, to the Murderer himself, which might incite him to so bloody a Revenge;”. [1]

A bit of history: The land had been owned, ancestrally, by the MacLarens. When John MacLaren was young, his uncle, Rob Roy (his mother’s brother) was charged with the management of MacLaren’s affairs. So the two were pretty closely related!

According to the transcript, it was stated that by rights, John should have been given the Tack [land] when he came of age but the elder MacGregor chose to renew the Tack to his son Ronald rather than to John. As you might imagine, this would have caused a great deal of disappointment for MacLaren and very likely animosity toward his rival cousin. 

Interestingly, in their defence, their attorney argued that this land dispute could not be a valid reason for the murder and therefore the threats made by the defendants, and heard by multiple witnesses, was nothing more than a case of blowing off steam therefore insufficient to prove motive. He stated that the disputed track of land was actually in the possession of Ronald, and the lease still had 14 years to run.  So there would have been no challenge to possession of the land by John MacLaren. 

However, it came out in court that, it was, in fact, a motive as Ronald had not been reliably paying his rent and so his mother was at the point of breaking the Tack and leasing the land to someone else. [2] And so we have a case where Ronald’s mother, unhappy with his lack of regular payment, considered breaking her lease with Ronald. John, for his part was apparently encouraging his aunt to do so and to then lease the land to him as was his birth right. So this certainly looks to be a possible basis of the animosity between the two families and the motivation behind the murder.

As the proceedings began, the prosecutor made his case that John’s murder was, in fact, a well-planned conspiracy and accused the MacGregor men of conspiring to instigate the murder employing their younger brother, Robert Òg (MacGregor) to do the actual deed, leaving the country as was planned, shortly after the murder.

He offered witness statements pointing to the threats made against John MacLaren. 

The first incidence of threat was: “That at a place in that Neighbourhod, called Drumlich, in the Month of December last, the said Ronald declared an Intention to kill the said John Maclaren and told that his Brother Robert was the Person who was to shoot him.”

The second time the desire to murder was mentioned a witness recounts: “That at an other place in the said Neighbourhood, called Innerlochlarigbeg, in the said Month, the said Ronald repeated the same Threatnings.”

And a final witness states: “That in the Month of January thereafter the said Ronald and the other Pannels, renewed the same Threatnings again at Drumlich; the said Ronald adding that though he (meaning his younger Brother Robert Macgregor) shot him (meaning the deceased John Maclaren) through the Head, he the said Robert had nothing to lose.” You’ll note that the narrative uses the word ‘shot’ as if it had already happened which it had not. So I think that was simply the way things were phrased at that time.

Further, “The indictment insists, that the said villainous and detestable Project [plan], formed by the Pannels [defendants] to put in execution by the said Robert, was avowed by the Pannel Ronald, who declared, that if the deceased John Maclaren persisted in taking a Tack of the Lands of Kirtoun, poffeft [possessed] by the said Ronald or his Sub-tenants, his said Brother Robert was determined to shoot him, so soon as he got, from Down, a Gun left him by the deceased Rob Roy his Father.”

All of that was from Ronald and James.  But Callum Macinlister had plenty to say as well; if John MacLaren “procured a Tack of land in Kirtoun, he would stick him with a Durk, “or Words to that Purpose”.

So they’ve set the stage and certainly spent time letting everyone know what they had in mind. A “Project”, as the Crown termed it, which was carried out on the 4th of March when Callum Macinlister and a teenaged Robert Òg made their way to the “Fields of Innerlochlarigbeg” with Callum carrying the gun and ammunition that Robert would ultimately use to shoot MacLaren.  They joined up with Ronald who was out ploughing in a field not a half mile from MacLaren’s location, and the three huddled together for quite some time.  Finally, Callum loaded the gun and set it down on the ground next to Robert. Robert wasted no time in picking it up and, approaching from behind shot John MacLaren in cold blood.[3]

One could suggest that he was a pretty poor shot as they clearly stated in their plans that the idea was to have Robert shoot John in the head. Further, other reports I’ve read mentioned that John had been shot in the back and left to die in the field and/or at some point being carried to his home to die later. So there have been mixed reports.  However, I’m inclined to believe the version presented in the court documents which state that he was actually shot in the thigh and left, bleeding, in the field.

Not so luckily for John, the other conspirator, Callum, was waiting nearby and rushed in allegedly to aid MacLaren, stating he had medical skills. But Callum claimed he was unable to treat the wound without knowing what kind of gun and ammunition had been used. Needless to say, the prosecutor wasted no time in catching this lie pointing out that this was the man who admitted carrying the weapon and the shot and powder.  He alone had loaded the gun prior to setting it on the ground at Robert’s feet. So it’s pretty hard to believe that he had no knowledge of the weaponry used to cause the injury.[4]

At the time of the murder Robert remained away from the action in his own field and was later reported by witnesses to have boasted “That they had drawn the first Blood of the Maclarens”.

And he wasn’t alone in making prideful statements. Ronald, James and Callum spent plenty of time after the fact publicly singing Robert’s praises for the act of he had committed.  At one point saying “that they would have been glad the said Robert had also shot the said Donald Maclaren [sic], the Deceased Friend: And that in case the Maclarens should attempt a Prosecution of the said Murder, it should fare worse with them, and they should very soon feel it to their cost.”[5]

So here we have a possible motive for the attack on Donald MacLaren’s livestock a couple of days later. It’s entirely possible that he learned of the perpetrators and notified the local authorities.  This loses impact somewhat when you consider that they spent time bragging in front of witnesses of what had been done. So any one of those people could have reported the crime. Further, because of the nature of the crime I doubt any one person would be required to “attempt a Prosecution” as the local authorities would certainly have done that themselves. That being said, unless it was pure meanness, there doesn’t appear any other likely explanation for the horrible actions they took against Donald’s cattle; an attack that would have had serious financial ramifications for MacLaren.

It isn’t hard to visualise this as a well-planned action. The three men conspiring together months beforehand to commit the murder, huddling with each other in whispered conversation as they laid out their plans. Assigning the actual task to the younger brother who, not yet old enough to have children or land, had the freedom to leave and thus avoid prosecution for the murder. As the other three cooked up alibis so none could be accused of pulling the trigger, they would not be prosecuted and hanged for the murder. Finally, on the fateful day, gathering together one last time in a field near John MacLaren, rehashing the plan and then following through.

The defence capitalised on these alibis, maintaining that there was not enough evidence to include the defendants in the indictment let alone hold them accountable for any part in the murder or the acts levied upon Donald MacLaren’s livestock.  He said:

Regarding James: In spite of witness statements, there was no evidence that he had even spoken threatening words. There was no evidence that he had any involvement in the murder.  In fact, the defence alleged that James was several miles away at the time of the murder and had been away for several days prior to the 4th of March. 

The prosecution’s response was: 

  • Although James was out of the area at the time, he heartily approved of the murder stating so a few days after it occurred. 
  • He continued to threaten Donald MacLaren. 
  • James, along with his brothers and Callum, had a bad reputation.  

The Crown argued that if it were a normal, innocent individual he could get away with claiming to be miles from the scene and thus not a part of it. However, James’ reputation and acts of thievery were just as bad as his brothers.[6] In the indictment, there were other crimes charged and one was against James for the theft of a cow from John Maccallum in Vich in November of 1731.[7] Further, having been imprisoned for said theft, took it upon himself to break out prison.[8]  This is especially interesting in that he escaped the capital charges against him in the Keys abduction case years later.

Regarding Ronald his attorney stated: His threatening words were just that; words. Empty threats made as a release of emotional anger. And since there was no charge of murder against him, his words were irrelevant and insufficient evidence to hold him accountable. Further it could not be reasoned that he went to the fields that day specifically to meet with his fellow conspirators. 

The fact that he was out plowing at the time of their arrival proved that he was there for the purpose of farming. And since the murderer was his brother it would not be considered unnatural or unusual for him to stop his plowing and go to speak with him. The way the defence phrased it was “his being in the Fields behoved to be imputed to Accident, and not to Design”.  He supported this by saying that Ronald was actually helping out his mother by plowing her field  – an excuse he would use later on as well; helping his mother.

The prosecutor responded to each of the defence points with: 

  • The threats he made go well beyond a simple spouting off.  The fact the he repeated them some four times lends weight to his seriousness in carrying them out and they were heard by a large number of people (45 witnesses are listed in the indictment papers).
  • Since the field he was plowing was only a half mile from where John was killed and his threats and reputation pointed to a man unworried about committing crimes, his innocent ‘helping his mother’ defence could easily be seen as a guise to cover up his participation in the murder. 
  • Further, his bragging after the fact and his threats of violence against Donald MacLaren did not lend weight to his comment that he was simply helping out his mother. 

Ronald was also accused in the indictment of theft; stealing a horse from Duncan Miller in Aberfoil and, in 1733, stealing two horses from Euphame Fergusson in Cullichbray.[9] Again, these additional charges helped the Crown to solidify Ronald’s reputation as nefarious and no good.

Let’s take a look at what the defence had to say about Callum: He was not to be held accountable for making threats prior to the murder because no one could pinpoint a location where he was heard making them therefore they meant nothing. And even if he did make them, how could they be taken seriously when he rushed to give medical aid to the dying man?  And here is where it really gets a bit far fetched….

He claims that being in a field with a younger man and a loaded gun that he placed upon the ground could happen to “the most innocent Man”. He said that he they had been sport shooting, killing several small birds as he taught Robert how to shoot and it would be “a danger Example to all Mankind to infer any Suspicion of Guilt from what is done every Day by the most innocent Persons”.

Yeah right.

But what about leaving MacLaren to bleed to death? Well, according to Callum, it was “necessary” to know with what the gun was loaded. And even if he knew he had no instruments with him, so he was unable to do anything to help MacLaren.  He claims to have sent for his instruments “with all possible speed” and that as soon as they arrived he gave aid to the victim to the best of his ability.

As you might imagine this did not go down well with the prosecution. The prosecutor stated that Callum’s previous threats offset any claim of innocence. And his excuse that he and Robert Òg were simply shooting birds doesn’t hold water either as what he was actually doing was teaching Robert how to use the gun. And to expect the court to believe that he simply and innocently laid the gun on the ground whereupon it was immediately picked up and carried off to commit the murder was a little over the top.  

Further, how could Callum not know the powder that was used when he himself had loaded the gun. He addressed the excuse that Callum had no instruments by stating: “As to the pretence of wanting Instruments to dress the Wound; that needed not have delayed Endeavours to stop the Blooding, which possibly might have saved the Defunct’s Life.; and though the Instruments had been at hand, it would have been absurd and wicked to have used them, until the Blooding was stopt, which was to be done only by Bandages”.[10] He went on to characterise the failure to address the wound “…it was absurd Pretence for delaying to stop the blooding of the Wound” and in essence accused the defendant Macinlester of using the lack of knowledge of the ammunition and thus fail to render aid as an excuse designed to absolve him of any participation in the crime. These were not baseless suppositions on the part of a prosecutor who clearly saw through the thin veil of guise. Because they also had proof that directly after the murder and before attending to the wounded man, Robert rejoined Ronald and Callum for a post-act “consultation”.  So clearly, Macinlester knew all there was to know about it![11]

You have to hand it to them. It really was pretty well planned and they seemed to have tried to foresee how each of their actions would be perceived and provided alibis to cover themselves.

But the prosecution was not done. And he had plenty to say. Basically he argued that the reputation and previous criminal records of the defendants must be taken into consideration. He noted that, unlike honest men, those engaging in criminal acts were well versed in “covering the Evidence of Crimes which is acquired by Habit and long Practice in Villanies.”  Good point.

That was a general statement but he continued, aligning it with the defendants’ actions. “The Pannels, all and each of them, are habite and repute, and bruited in the Country, to be common and notorious Thieves and Stealers of Horses and Cows and Refsetters [resellers] of Theives and stolen Goods, knowing them to be stolen.”  He states that “circumstances’ taken one at a time are inconclusive.  But when they are taken all together they “often give a legal Certainty in Criminal Trials”.

He then responded to the defense’s arguments point by point: 

First, that each of the defendants are habitual common and notorious thieves with reputations. 

Secondly, “the Age and Circumstances of the Person who is this Case committed the base and cowardly, as well as cruel and bloody Murder” was influenced and used by the defendants.[12]

Thirdly: The threats they made having been followed by the murder was sufficient “Proof of Guilt” to hold them accountable.

Fourth: There was sufficient time between the threats having been made and the act itself for the men to conspire and form a plan to take the “Life of an innocent Man”.

Finally, in support of his argument as to their reputations playing an important part in judging whether they were complicit in the crime, he included past offenses for which Ronald and James were charged. One of which was pretty horrific…

The severe beating to the point where he was in “Danger of his Life” of a John Stewart of Lickinscridane when he asked for restitution of a cow that the MacGregors had stolen from him.  The defence claimed the cow was purchased by John from a tenant of the MacGregors who had failed to pay his rent.  Therefore the cow could be taken by the MacGregors to cover that payment – in spite of the fact that the tenant no longer owned the cow. Apparently this was something the law allowed but only if the animal was located on the land rented by the tenant (which it was not). But even if it had been, the prosecution argued, that did not give the MacGregors the right to beat the man nearly to death.[13] I think it’s needless to say that the Crown made its point about the vicious behaviour of the MacGregor boys and their accomplices.

However, the charges didn’t stop with the murder of John MacLaren.  They also included the horrific acts against the cattle owned by Donald MacLaren.  The charges read: “That upon the 9th Day of March last, they and their Accomplices, under Cloud of Night, came to the Lands of Innernenty-Easter, possessed by the above-mentioned Donald Maclaren; and in a wicked and malicious Manner, killed, houghed [hamstrung] and destroyed near forty Head of young Cattle belonging to the said Donald”. [14] The Crown went on to propose that these acts were a result of the threats that the MacGregors made against Donald MacLaren prior to John’s murder. 

Note: The law read that, basically, harm/death caused to cattle during the season of giving birth was a capital offense. This offense was apparently committed during a season of giving birth so the consquences were pretty dire should they be convicted.

The defence, in an effort to mitigate the charges and keep his clients from the noose, argued that although this was at the time of year of calving, the animals were too young to be giving birth so these charges should be dropped. 

Further, the defendants admitted that yes, they were in the vicinity, but were simply visiting Ronald’s mother where they stayed the night. 

On the way to her house their road passed by Innernenty [sic]. But, Kirktoun and Innerlochlarigbeg are both on the north side of two lochs and a small river and the road from one to the other is a direct line along the north side of the lochs and river – roughly four miles. However, Invernenty is located on the south side of the lochs and river, barely a mile from Innerlochlarigbeg. Due to the location of these places and the evidence of their whereabouts hours before the houghing, it was apparent to the prosecution that the defendants went well out of their way if a visit to Ronald’s mother was, in fact, their intended destination and not a place they visited after committing the crime.[15]

Not surprisingly, the Crown took issue with the defendants’ argument.  He pointed out that the law actually reads horses, oxen and “other Cattle, which extends it to Cattle of all kinds”.[16] And the law relates to the barbarity of the deed, not the season in which it was committed. This was a serious matter as the punishment for houghing and killing cattle was death.[17]  Clearly they had a lot to lose if convicted on those grounds.

Ultimately, Ronald, James and Callum were held in prison and bound over for jury trial in June of 1736. Robert as nowhere to be found and would never face prosecution for his part in the murder. 

The verdict is not available in these papers but we know from other sources that these men were all acquitted with probation and a fine.

So I think you could safely argue that they got away with murder.


Information for His Majesty’s Advocate, for his Highness’s Interest Against James and Ronald Drummonds alias Macgregors, Sons to the deceased Rob Roy alias Campbell Macgregor, and Callum Macinlester alias Macgregor, Pannels. July 21, 1736

[1] Information, page 2

[2] Information, page 17

[3] Information, pg 4

[4] Information pg 5

[5] INformaton pg 5

[6] Information pg 12-13

[7] Information, pg 19

[8] Information, pg 20

[9] Information, pg 20-21

[10] Information pg 16

[11] Information, pg 15

[12] Information pg 10-11

[13] Information, pg 21-22

[14] Information pg 17

[15] Information, pg 19

[16] Information, pg 18

[17] Information, pg 19

The Murder of John MacLaren

A lot has been written about Rob Roy McGregor and much of it whitewashes his and his clan’s behaviour.  But Clan Gregor’s ongoing dispute with the MacLarens didn’t end with the 1558 massacre.  Two centuries later the MacGregors were still finding ways to inflict misery on the MacLarens.

As one story goes, Rob had three sons, James, the eldest, Ronald (or Ranald), the middle son and Robert, also called Robin Òg (Young Robin) as his youngest.  It has not been confirmed that the immediate family also included a cousin by the name of Duncan (we’ll meet him a bit later).

Back in the 1730s Ronald had found a willing woman and was preparing to marry and looking for a farm of his own.  In 1734 John MacLaren, holding the title Baron Stoibchon and Chief of Clan MacLaren was leaseholder of some very desirable farmland in Wester Invernenty.  This looked like the perfect place and Rob set about securing the land for his son. Conveniently, that year the lease was due to expire which would mean others could petition to take it over.1MacLaren, Margaret, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, pg. 67 

I say ‘one story’ because there are several conflicting versions of who was actually leasing that land.  For example: in the preface of a book entitled The Trials of James, Duncan, and Robert McGregor, Three Sons of the Celebrated Rob Roy before the High Court of Justiciary, in the Years 1752, 1753 and 1754, the authors provide a different scenario.  They write that “McLaren, a kinsman of the McGregors, though of a different tribe, had given the offense by his proposal to take a lease of some land in the possession the McGregor family”.  2The Trials of James, Duncan, and Robert McGregor, Three Sons of the Celebrated Rob Roy, before the High Court of Justiciary, in the Years 1752,1753 and 1754.  (Edinburgh: 1818), pg. civ 

According to two life of Rob Roy books that I read, the land had been held by Rob’s cousin Malcolm who had died suddenly leaving children too young to inherit the lease and work the farm.  Because of this the land reverted to its owner, the Duke of Atholl.  The Duke in turn chose to sell the land to Lord Appin.  Appin, in turn, granted the land to John MacLaren.  

This sounds good and would certainly explain the animosity between the two clans.  Yet there is a discrepancy here as well as we’ll see later in this article when we examine a letter to Atholl’s estate manager.  In that letter, the writer asked the estate manager to let Atholl know about the situation and to take actions against the MacGregors.  If Appin were, indeed the land owner, it would make no sense to petition Atholl to take action against the MacGregors as the letter requests. That responsibility would have been held by the person overseeing the land.  It would be highly doubtful that Atholl would be overseeing Appin land holdings.

Further, according to the information provided in The Trials book, in the legal indictment for the trial of James and Ronald for the killing, the motive for the murder was to prevent John from “competing with him (Ronald) for the lease”.  The prosecution went on to say that before the murder was committed, John MacLaren was threatened multiple times by the MacGregors stating that Robin would shoot him as soon as he was able to get his father’s gun which was being repaired.  John also received threats of death by dirk, if he tried to get the lease in spite of the death threats. 3The Trials, pg. cv At one point, Robert argued that the land belonged to his mother – more on that later.

After John MacLaren’s killing, the indictment reads that Robert returned to his mother’s house and bragged of his success.  Meanwhile his brother James and a relative called Callum McInlister, who apparently was part and partial to the crime, praised Robert for the crime and expressed their ‘wish’ that Donald MacLaren had met the same fate.

Since they had James and Callum as accessories to murder, the authorities also levied charges of various crimes of theft and fencing stolen goods.  The court referred to them as “notorious thieves and resetters of stolen goods”.  This included cattle rustling.  So these guys weren’t the innocent victims of persecution as some MacGregor chroniclers have painted them.4The Trials, pg. cvii

Further, it doesn’t appear that there was ever any doubt that Robert was the murderer as multiple witnesses attested at the trial of James and Callum.  As one witness, a Robert Murray of Glencarnoch testified when visiting the house of Rob Roy’s widow the same night that MacLaren died: “he saw Rob Oig there with a gun: That he asked him why he had shot McLaren? To which Rob answered, that the deceased had attempted to get his mother’s possession; and that if the McLarens persevered in giving offence, their misfortunes were only beginning.”  

All of this plus the defence’s argument that MacLaren never took possession of the land in question brings the timelines given in MacLaren’s, Murray and Trantor’s books into question because all of them state that MacLaren acquired the lease at some point prior to the killing. 5The Trials, pg cix  Yet here we have Robert claiming that the land belonged to his mother, a letter to the estate steward suggesting the land belonged to the Duke of Atholl, and three books relating that the land was under lease to John MacLaren.  So who did own this land?

Well, it was a leasehold so if Robert’s mother owned it, she would have been the lessor and there is no mention of that anywhere in any document.  From the documents I’ve read, I believe the owner was the Duke of Atholl.  Appin played no part in this event. Still, that doesn’t explain the discrepancies as to when or if John MacLaren ever took possession of the land for which he was allegedly killed.

Going back to the books on Rob Roy’s life and Margaret MacLaren’s book on the MacLaren history, we are told that at some point, having been forewarned that there would be trouble,6The Trials, pg. cxi , MacLaren called for assistance from the Stewarts ‘over the hill’, and Appin responded with 200 men.  The two groups of men met below the Kirkton of Balquhidder.

Rob Roy did not bargain for this, however, and realising that he and his men were terribly outnumbered determined that the cost in blood of battle would not be worth any gain he might achieve if he were successful.  But that didn’t mean he’d given up – far from it. He requested a meeting with Appin wherein they agreed to settle the matter through a duel. Should Appin’s man win, MacGregor pledged that Clan Gregor would relinquish any claim to the Invernenty land.  This might lead us to think all was well.  But remember, we’re dealing with Clan Gregor here and their reputation pretty much guarantees that would not be the case. And sure enough it wasn’t.  

Again, there are a couple of versions of the duel, but both Rob Roy books that I read relate the duel in pretty much the same way. In one book the author tells us that Rob Roy took the role of combatant himself so that “no one might think he had shirked a fight he offered himself for a trial at arms”. 7Murray, W.H., Rob Roy MacGregor, His Life and Times (1982) This, to me, does not sound right based on Rob’s history of avoiding fights/battles and weaselling his way out of trouble. Margaret MacLaren deviates from those renditions writing that Rob Roy was one of the finest swordsmen in the country and bragged that he’d never lost a fight.  He declared that this one would be no different. 8The MacLarens, pg. 68 This seems more reasonable to me and more what I would expect from Rob Roy MacGregor. Further, he risked nothing, as was typical for Rob, as this duel would be a duel of honour which meant it would end at the drawing of first blood not at the death of one of the combatants.

Alasdair of Invernahyle, a brother-in-law to Appin was chosen as the Appin champion.  He was a robust young man reputed to be an excellent swordsman.  The weapons agreed upon were broadswords and shields.  

The two fought in what was probably a fairly brief but well-matched battle until Alasdair inflicted a wound to Rob, thereby drawing first blood and ending the duel.  The MacGregors kept their word, relinquishing any claim to the Invernenty land and John MacLaren was left to farm in peace.  Well, almost.

It’s probably needless to say that after a bitter loss, an injury that eventually killed him and the loss of face, Rob Rob MacGregor was not a happy man and certainly had no love for John MacLaren.  In fact, when John visited him shortly before his death for reasons unknown (most sources agree the reason remains a mystery), the tension was palpable, and the meeting was highly formal.  Rob, with the help of his wife refused to meet his “enemy” looking weak so managed to get up from his bed and dress for the occasion.  It was likely the last time he rose.

Before he died, Rob had one last go at MacLaren whom he saw as the cause of all his miseries.  As I said before, it does make you wonder why Rob held such a strong hatred for MacLaren; John MacLaren did not steal the land from him.  From what I read in MacLaren’s book, John was on the land long before MacGregor decided he wanted it.

At any rate, according to the two Rob Roy biography sources, McGregor was told by a priest that he could receive absolution only if he truly repented; and this included forgiving John MacLaren, something he was loath to do.   Each of the two sources I read offered a different version of Rob’s last moments of life but both mention this absolution requirement.  

One source makes no mention of his son, Robin Òg being present, the other places Robin at the foot of his father’s bed. 9Tranter, Nigel, Rob Roy MacGregor (1995), pg. 185And what this book reports is most interesting and would certainly explain the next part of our story.  Reportedly the priest present forced the issue of John MacLaren, speaking his name specifically as someone Rob needed to forgive.  Grudgingly Rob voiced that forgiveness. But, according to the book Rob ‘raised his eyes to the foot of the bed where his younger son Robin Òg stood watching’. ‘I forgive my enemies, especially John MacLaren’ and after ‘catching Robin’s eye” said ‘But see you to him!”

Whether this is true or not is not documented but one fact does run through the historical documents, the MacGregor boys held John MacLaren responsible for the death of their father and set about to exact revenge upon him.

On March 4th in 1736 Robin Òg, carried through on the threats he’d been making to kill John MacLaren.  Accordingly, along with his two older brothers, Ronald and James, and several other men, accosted John whilst he was plowing.  Seeing the MacGregors approaching, John said to a companion “What does that snake want?”. We’ll never know what discussion, if any, passed between the men but once his back was turned, Robert, using his father’s Spanish long gun, killed John MacLaren, in cold blood, shooting him in the back leaving John for dead.  He did, in fact, die later that night. 

But the MacGregor boys were not done with the MacLarens quite yet.  A few nights later, on the 9th, the brothers MacGregor in the company of several other men (probably the same who had accompanied them to the MacLaren shooting) visited the farm of Donald MacLaren (the same Donald the Drover we met in the last couple of articles) and set about killing and/or maiming 30 head of Donald’s cattle.  As Donald made his living droving, this would have had substantial financial impacts on his livelihood.  And, again, I’ve not found any reason other than hatred for the MacLarens to carry this vengeance down the road to Donald MacLaren who was not, at least in the records or any book I’ve read, noted as a party to the land dispute.  

Margaret MacLaren gives us the following letter written by Alastair Stewart of Invernahyle to Alexander Murray who was Atholl’s estate manager in 1736 wherein he describes the horrific events.  The letter, found in the Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families, ii, 415 is dated 13 March, 1736 and reads:

“Sir, –Upon the 4th Instant their[sic] happened a most barbarouos action in this country in the hands of Rob Roy’s youngest son.  He came with a gunn and pistle to the Town of Drumlich where John MacLaren, Baron Stoibchon and Wester Invernenty liv’d, and the said Baron with two of his neighbours being att the pleugh, this youngest son of Rob Roy’s called Robert, came to the pleugh, and without any provocation, as the Baron was holding the plough, shott him behind his back, of which wound he dyed that night.

Tho’ this wretch was the unhappy executioner, yet it is thought he was sett upon by his Brothers and others of their adherents to commit this tragicall action, as will appear by their conduct, for upon the 9th, they not wearying of their vile practices, they hough’d (hamstrung) and kill’d upwards of 30 stotes (bullocks) belonging to Donald McLaren, Drover, in Innernenty, and threaten frequently to shoot himself and some others of his Clann.

I happening to be in this country att the time, and being desired by Stoibchon’s friends to represent these vile practices that you might fall on proper methods to curb such vilious practices, and acquaint his Grace of all that happen’d in this affair, and in the mean time that you send express orders to your Baillie here to make a closs (strict) search for the malefactor, and impower him to raise the whole country for that effect.

It is the generall opinion that this hellish plot hath been concerted by Rob Roy’s three sons and their adherents, and I humbly think they should all be seas’d if possible and banish’d the country. I doubt not his Grace will endeavour to free his country of such vile wretches.

In the mean time I am hopefull you’ll have Regard to the present dangerous situation of several people in this country that have been threatn’d by these wretches, and cannot safely come out of their houses without arms, and are oblidged to watch their houses and catle least they sufferr the same gate with the stotes, which doubtless will happen if the Superior of the country does not immediately quell this affair. Expecting your answer pr. Bearer, I conclude with my compliments to you, and am, Dr. Sir, r. humble sert.. 
Stewart of Invernahyle. 
John Stewart, brother in law to the defunct.
 Do: McLaren, att Innernentie

At this point young Robert (Robin) left the area so we pause his story there and come back to him later. 

John’s death did not go without notice.  In the 15 March issue of the Caledonian Mercury this following article appears:

That John Maclaren of Beanchon, in Balquhidder, Perthshire vassal to His Grace the Duke of Atholl, was the 4thinstant barbariously murderd by Robert Drummond (alias Macgregor), commonly called Robin Oig, son of the deceased Rob Roy Macgregor, by a shot from a gun  as he was ploughing without the least provocation, whereof he instantly died; thereafter he and others, his accomplices, went to the town of Invernenty, and houghed, mangled and destroyed 26 stots and a cow belonging to Malcolm and Donald Maclaren, drovers. Therefore whoever shall apprehend the said Robert, so as he may be brought to trial, shall have 20 guineas reward from James Muirhead, at his coffee-house.  He is a tall lad, aged about 20, thin, pale-coloured, squint-eyed, brown hair, pock-pitted, ill-legged, in-kneed, and broadfooted.”   A second notice on April 22d noted that Robert Stewart of Appin was prepared to pay £50 sterling for the capture of Robin Oig “of the tribe of Clan-douilcheir”

So here we have an interesting conflict in stories between those written by chroniclers of Rob Roy’s life, court documents from the trial of James and Callum, newspaper articles and documents of the time.  It appears that, according to the Caledonian MacLaren was the vassal of Atholl, meaning the land actually belonged to the Duke of Atholl and that confirms that Appin was not involved in its ownership at all!  This also confirms that he did have rights to farm the land prior to his death.  But it also downgrades the number of cattle affected in the second attack on Donald MacLaren and names another MacLaren, Malcolm, as an additional victim of the cattle raid.  Personally, I would tend to rely upon the witness, John Stewart, the author of the letter to Atholl’s estate manager.

At any rate, Robin/Robert having fled the area was nowhere to be found.  But his brothers remained and Ronald, James plus one of their accomplices, Callum MacInleister, were charged as accessories to the murder. All three were released eventually but the court found Ronald and James to be “bad characters, and beasts not rightly come by, and that might be speered [asked] after”. In other words he wanted them watched. They were ordered to pay £200 and watched for seven years to ensure their good behaviour.  This, to me, sounds like what we would call probation nowadays.

Although that’s the end of our story relating to the MacLarens, following Robert and his brothers’ exploits is interesting in and of itself, and it does bring closure to the death of John MacLaren albeit many years later.

At one point in the mid-1700s Robert MacGregor, alias Campbell, alias Drummond, alias Rob Roy, now going by the name of Robert Campbell, returned to Scotland from France where he had exiled.  Back at home and back to old habits it seemed as on December 8, 1750 the boys, now men of course, kidnapped one Jean Key of Edinbelly.

Jean Key was a young widow, age 19 and an heiress that was left pretty well off by her late husband.  Reports say that Robert, without any means of his own, conspired with his brother James to marry a rich widow.  So they set about accomplishing this when they learned of the passing of Jean’s husband two months prior. This was not something she agreed to – in fact she’d never even seen him.  But she had been warned by her neighbours that they had heard rumours of people in town who had designs on her money.  So when Robert sent a note soon after the death of her husband saying he would like to meet with her regarding a proposal of marriage she, understandably, declined.  According to the records, this infuriated Robert who was reputed to have a horrific tempter.  He once again got together with his brothers Ronald, Duncan and James to plan a kidnapping and forced marriage with the young widow.

Accordingly, on December 8, 1750 they did just that.  Ronald took the lead on this one and Jean was brutally abducted, forced into marriage and then raped by Robert under the guise of being her husband.

The three brothers were eventually caught and brought up on charges of “Hamesucken” (taking someone forcefully from their own home), forcible abduction and carrying away of Jean Key, holding her prisoner against her will and in the case of Robert, ravishing (rape).10The Trials, pg. cxxiii

Robert was already considered a fugitive due to his failure to appear at trial for the murder of John MacLaren.  When he was finally caught he was brought up on charges of murdering John MacLaren as well as the abduction of Jean Key.11The Trials, pg. cxxiii Not surprisingly law enforcement was not at all unhappy to have him finally in custody.  

Although the MacLaren matter was not mentioned as part of the charges read at Robert’s hanging, it’s likely they played a part in his trial and sentencing, and they are mentioned several times in the trial transcript.  

So on February 17, 1754 Robin Òg was hung by the neck until dead in Grassmarket.  The account in the Caledonian Mercury 17, February 1754 is fairly graphic and very descriptive of what I take to be his last words wherein he blamed his sins on his “swerving two or three years ago from that Communion”.  But we know he swerved a lot longer that ‘two or three years ago’ – the death of John MacLaren and destruction of MacLaren livestock was some 20 years before.  Albeit not directly for the death of MacLaren, in the end at least his killer was caught and executed.

As for his brothers, James escaped from prison before sentence could be levied and died not long after in France. Ronald, although mentioned in James’ trial doesn’t appear to have been brought up on charges.  However, their other brother Duncan was charged with the same crimes as James and Robert but found not guilty by the jury.

  • 1
    MacLaren, Margaret, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, pg. 67
  • 2
    The Trials of James, Duncan, and Robert McGregor, Three Sons of the Celebrated Rob Roy, before the High Court of Justiciary, in the Years 1752,1753 and 1754.  (Edinburgh: 1818), pg. civ
  • 3
    The Trials, pg. cv
  • 4
    The Trials, pg. cvii
  • 5
    The Trials, pg cix
  • 6
    The Trials, pg. cxi
  • 7
    Murray, W.H., Rob Roy MacGregor, His Life and Times (1982)
  • 8
    The MacLarens, pg. 68
  • 9
    Tranter, Nigel, Rob Roy MacGregor (1995), pg. 185
  • 10
    The Trials, pg. cxxiii
  • 11
    The Trials, pg. cxxiii

A Wee Bit More About Donald the Drover

There’s been a bit of controversy here and there as to whether Donald MacLaren was indeed a captain in the Appin Regiment or whether he belonged to a different regiment.  There is sufficient documentary evidence in my opinion to support the assertion that he was part of the Appin Regiment and not the Atholl Brigade as some have claimed.

First, an article in the Journal of the Society for Army Research – A. McK. Annand, ‘Stewart of Appin’s Regiment in the Army of Prince Charles Edward, 1745-46‘, (Vol. 38(153), 1960. Page 24 and Page 27).

The entry reads: “Whilst all the casualties suffered by the officers were amongst those with the surname of Stewart (with the exception of one MacLaren), of the remainder, 69 killed and 40 wounded bore other names….Of these the greatest number were MacColls with 18 killed and 15 wounded and MacLarens with 13 killed and 4 wounded”. The MacLarens who were killed and wounded, however, may have been residents in Appin so not Balquhidder. I have found no evidence to support their residency.

Listing of MacLaren and Stewart casualties at Culloden

Angus Stewart, in his article entitled ‘The Last Chief: Dougal Stewart of Appin‘, in The Scottish Historical Review, (Vol. 76(202), Edinburgh 1997, Footnote 41 on page 209): “There was a contingent of McLarens from Balquhidder with the Stewarts. This included Donald McLaren of Invernenty, listed as captain in the Order Book of the Appin Regiment and celebrated for an audacious escape from captivity in the aftermath of Culloden. An old blood tie is the usual reason given for the alliance, it may also be significant that Appin gave Invernenty credit and thereby acquired titled in 1748 as a secured creditor in the ranking of his creditors (service of heirs, SRO, C22/95/24)….”

This ties in nicely with a couple of things. First, the blood tie. Margaret MacLaren’s history of our clan and several Stewart family histories detail out the marriage between the daughter of the Chief of MacLarens of Ardveich and John Stewart. A previous liaison between the two had produced a son, Dugald. After John’s first wife died he sent for the MacLaren woman (whose first name I’m still searching to find) and Dugald (18 at the time) with the intent to marry her and declare Dugald his legitimate heir.  He had no male issue from his first marriage.

The powers that be in the Stewart clan weren’t too happy about this as they stood to lose any claim to the throne – so to speak. So they set about to have John killed. The idea being to see him dead before he could wed MacLaren and make his bastard son a legitimate heir.  So they set about hiring an assassin to stab John Stewart. Happily for MacLaren and son, John, in spite of life threatening injuries managed to hang on long enough to say ‘I do’ and declare Dugald his heir; basically dying at the alter. 

Unfortunately, at 18 and without a great deal of support, Dugald was unable to fend off his relatives and he was forced to relinquish his claim and departed for another part of Scotland where he went on to found the Appin Stewarts. 

That blood tie with the MacLarens was held and enforced across the centuries as the two clans went to each other’s aid when required. (See Henry Lee, History of the Stewart Family, New York: 1920, p. 36 onward and Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, p. 31)

This is nicely supported by Donald’s son, James, who sued the Stewart family after Dugald Stewarts’ death in an attempt to gain back the lands his father sold to Dugald after the uprising of ‘45. In his Memorial – which more or less equates to what we would call a deposition today – he says: “…He [Donald MacLaren] owed sundry debts to several persons, particularly to Dugald Stewart of Appin, who was his connection and confidential friend, who was a man of considerable influence in that part of the country, and who had taken the memorialist’s father, as being one of his followers, under his protection and friendship.” Here is a copy of that passage.  

Page from James MacLaren’s Memorial

Further, on page 142, listing number 2234 in the Prisoners of the ’45, Vol. III by Seton and Arnot, we find another reference to Donald MacLaren identifying him as a Captain in the Appin Regiment.

Listing of MacLaren as part of the Appin Stewart’s in the Prisoners of the ’45 book.

Finally, there is a listing in the Atholl Chronicles, Vol. III wherein Donald is listed, again, as a Captain in the Appin Regiment.  As these are taken directly from the original records of the Duke of Atholl it seems pretty unlikely that he would have written that MacLaren was an officer in the Appin Regiment if he was an officer in the Atholl Brigade.

Listing of Donald MacLaren from the Atholl Chronicles

All-in-all it looks to me that the preponderance of evidence strongly supports the argument that Donald was, in fact, an officer in the Appin Regiment during the course of the Jacobite uprising in 1745-46.