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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XXIX – Black Mail

In an abridgement of the Acts of the Scottish parliament (1567) the following passage occurs: - "That none sit under the assurance of thieves, or pay them black-mail under the pain of death, and escheat of their moveables." In 1587, the year of the institution of justices of the peace, "It is statute and ordained that the justice-clerk and his deputes, and the kingis commissioners, constitute to further justice, quietness, and gude rule in all schires, sall diligently enquire and take up dittary of the uptakers and payers of black-maill, and to make rentals of the quantities thereof, at justice aires, and particular diettes, and do justice upon them, according to the lawes, and receive soverty, under great pains, that they sall abstaine in time coming."

Few ancient customs are so generally yet so imperfectly known as that of black mail. It was, however, simply a lawful and beneficial service to the public which now falls to the share of the police, or, in other words, money paid voluntarily by contract, for the protection of property against the depradations of migratory freebooters who lurked in the borders of the Highlands. One of the original documents is still in the possession of the descendants of Mr. Dunmore of Ballikinrain, and as it is not only a literary curiosity, but, perhaps, the only contract of the kind now existing, we subjoin a copy of it verbatim: -

Copy of an original Contract for Keeping a Watch on the Borders of the Highlands, anno 1741.

It is contracted, agreed, and finally ended betwixt the parties underwritten, to witt James and John Graham, elder and younger of Glengyle, on the one part, and the gentlemen, heritors, and tenants within the shires of Perth, Stirling, and Dumbarton, who are hereto subscribing, on the other part, in manner following: Whereas, of late years, several persons within the bounds aforesaid have been very great sufferers through stealing of their cattle, horses, and sheep; for preventing whereof the saids James and John Grahams, with and under the conditions, provisions, and for the causes after specified, hereby bind and oblige them, conjunctly and severally, their heirs, executors, and successors, that the said James Graham shall keep the lands subscribed for, and annexed to the respective subscriptions, skaithless of any loss, to be sustained by the heritors, tenants, or inhabitants thereof, through the stealing and away taking of their cattle, horse, or sheep, and that for the space of seven years complete, from and after the term of Whitsunday next to come; and for that effect, either to return the cattle so stolen from time to time, or otherwayes, within 6 months after the theft committed, to make payment to the persons from whom they were stolen, of their true value, to be ascertained by the oaths of the owners, before any judge-ordinary; providing always, that intimation be made to the said James Graham, at his house in Correilet, or where he shall happen to reside for the time, of the number and marks of the cattle, sheep, or horse stolen, and that within 48 hours from the time that the proprietors thereof shall be able to prove by hable witnesses, or their own or their herds oaths, that the cattle amissing were seen upon their usual pasture within the space of 48 hours previous to the intimation, as said is; and declaring, that it shall be sufficient if the heritors or tenants, be-south or be-east the town of Drymen, make intimation in writing at the house of Archibald Strang, merchant in Drymen, of their losses in the before mentioned, to a person to be appointed by the said James Graham of Glenglye to attend theire for that purpose, and in his absence to the said Archibald. And further, it is specially condescended to and agreed upon, that the said James Graham shall not be bound for restitution in cases of small pickereys; declaring that an horse or black cattle stolen within or without doors, or any number of sheep above six, shall be constructed to be theft, and not pickerey. And with regard to horses and cattle stolen within the bounds aforesaid, and carried to the south, the said James Graham obliges him, that he shall be as serviceable to the gentleman subscribers in that case as he possibly can; and if he cannot recover them, he submits himself to the discretion of the heritors on whose ground the theft was committed, whether he shall be liable for their value or not.

And it is hereby expressly provided and declared by both parties, That in case of war within the country, that this present contract shall henceforth cease and become void; for the which causes, and on the other part, the heritors and tenants hereto subscribing, with and under the provisions and declarations above and underwritten, bind and oblige them, their heirs, executors, and successors, to make payment to the said James Graham of Glengyle, or to any persons he shall appoint to receive the same, of the sum of 4 pounds yearly during the space foresaid, for ilk hundred pound of ye valued rent of the lands annexed to their respective subscriptions, and that at two terms of the year, Whitsunday and Martinmas, by equal portions, beginning the first term’s payment thereof at the said term of Whitsunday next, for the half year immediately following, and so further, to continue at the said terms during the continuance of these presents: providing always, like as is hereby specially provided and declared, that it shall be leisome and lawful for both parties to quitt and give up this present contract at the end of every year as they think fitt, intimation being always made on the part of the said James Grahame at the respective kirk-doors, with the bounds aforesaid, on a Sabbath day, immediately after the forenoon’s sermon, a month before expiration of the year; and on the part of the heritors and other subscribers, by a letter to the said James Grahame from them, and another from him, acknowledging the receipt thereof, or the attestation of two witnesses, that the letter was left at his house, or was delyverred to him two moneths before expiring of the year; it being always understood, that any subscriber may quitt and give up the contract for his own part, whether the rest concur or not, at the end of each year, as said is. And both parties bind and oblidge them and their aforesaids to perform the premises hinc inde to others under the penalty of 20 pounds sterling, to be paid by the party failzier to the party observer, or willing to observe their part thereof, attour performance. And moreover for the said James Grahame’s farther encouragement, and for the better restraining the evil practices above-mentioned, the subscribers hereby declare, that it is their intention that all such thieves and pickers shall be apprehended by the said James Grahame of Glengyle, or occasionally by any other person within the bounds aforesaid, against whom there is sufficient proof, shall be prosecute according to the law, and brought to justice. And for greater security, both the saids parties consent to the registration hereof in the books of council and session, or others competent, that letters of horning on six days, and other executorials needful may pass hereon as effeirs. And to that effect they constitute. . . . .their procurators, &c. In witness whereof, both the saids parties have subscribed these presents, consisting of this and the preceding sheet, written on stamped paper by Andrew Dick, chyrurgeon in Drymon, at Balglas, the twentieth day of Aprill IM vige. and fourty-one years, by Robert Bontein of Mildovan, before William MacLea his servant, and Mr. William Johnston, schoolmaster at Balglas, the said Robert Bontein having filled up his first date, and witnesses names and designations. At Ballikinrain the tuintie-first day of foresaid moneth and year, by James Napier of Ballikinrain, before Alexander Yuill his servant, and Gilbert Couan, tenant in Ballikinrain, the said James Napier having filled up his second date, witnesses names and designations. Att Boquham the tuenty-second day of Aprile, moneth foresaid, and year by Hugh Buchanan of Balquhan, before these witnesses, John Paterson and Robert Duncan both tenants yr. Att Glins, the tuenty-seventh day of moneth and year foresaid, before these witnesses, Walter Monteath of Keyp, and John Buchanan younger of Glins. Att Easter Glins, the tuenty-seventh day of moneth and year foresaid, before these witnesses, Walter Monteath of Keyp, and Thomas Wright younger of Easter Glins, subscribed be Alexander Wright of Pensid. Att Arnmere, the first day of Mey seventin hundred and fortie-one years, befor these witness, Arsbelt Leckie of Arnmere, and Walter Menteath younger of Keyp, Walter Monteath, att above place, day, date, year, and witnesses, by James Key portioner of Edinbelly, moneth, date, place, and year aforesaid, before these witnesses, Walter Monteath therein, and Walter Menteath younger of Keyp, and by Robert Galbraith of Fintrie, fourth May, before Robert Farrie of Balgrochan, and James Ure, tenant in Hilltowne of Balgair.

William Johnston,
William M’Lea,
Gilbert Cowan,
Alexander Yuill,
John Paterson,
Robert Dunn,
Walter Monteath,
John Buchanan,
Thomas Wright,
Archibald Leckie,
Walter Monteath,
Alexander Wright,
Archibald Leckie,
Walter Monteith,
Robert Farrie,
James Ure,
John Buchanan,
James MacGrime,

ROBERT BONTEIN of Mildovan, for my lands of Balglas in the paroch of Killern, being three hundred and fifty pound of valuation; and lands of Provanstoun in the paroch of Balfron, ninety-seven pound seven shilling valuation.

JAMES NAPIER of Ballikinrain, for my lands in the paroch of Killern, being two hundred and sixtie pound of valuation. And for my Lord Napier’s lands in said paroch, being three hundred and twentie-eight pound of valuation. And for Culcreuch’s lands in the paroch of Fintrie, being seven hundred and twentie-seven pound of valuation. And for said Culcreuch’s lands in the paroch of Balfrone, being one hundred and ten pound valuation.

HUGH BUCHANAN of Balquhan, for my lands of Boughan and Brunshogle, in the paroch of Killearn, being one hundred and seventy-three pound of valuation.

MOSES BUCHANAN of Glins, two hunder sextie-two pund valuation.

JOHN WRIGHT of Ester Glins, sixtie-six pound valuation.

ALEXANDER WRIGHT of Puside, one hundred and foure pound and six shilling and eightpenny Scot valuation.

WALTER MONTEATH of Kyp, three hundred pounds valuation.

JAMES KEY, portioner of Enblioy, for sextiey-six pond Scots valuation.

ROBERT GALBRAITH, portioner of Edinbelly, for thritie-three pound Scots valuation.

ALEXANDER BUCHANAN of Cremanan, for my land of Cremanan, in the paroch of Balfron, and . . .being two hundred and sixty-eight pound of valuation.

And the saids James and John Grahames have subscribed these presents at Buchanan, the eleventh day of June jaj vij and forty-one years, before David Graeme of Orchill, and John Smith, writer, in Buchanan: Declaring that notwithstanding of the date of the saids James and John Grahame’s subscriptions, yet it shall be understood, that the obligations on both partys by this contract shall and do commence from Whitsunday jaj vij and fourty-one, in regard it was agreed betwixt the partys, that the saids obligations should commence at that term. The date, witnesses names, and designations, with this declaration, being wrote by the said John Smith, and declared to be part of this contract.

Da. Graeme, witness. JA. GRAHAME.
John Smith, witness. JOHN GRAHAM.

It would appear from the following letter, that this contract was not disadvantageous to Mr. Grahame.

"Ballikinrain, May 25, 1743.

Sir, - Notwithstanding of the contract entered into betwixt several gentlemen of the shyres of Stirling and Dumbarton, you and I, anent keeping of a watch, whereby you was to pay yearly four per cent. of valuation; yet I now agree with you for three per cent. for the lands you have contracted for; and that the first term of Whitsunday, and in time coming during the standing of the contract. And I am, sire, your most humble servant.


The following receipt granted by Mr. Grahame of Glenglye, to Mr. Robert Galbraith, for the payment of "watch-money" is, probably, the last of its kind. In the beginning of the following year (1745), the train of the rebellion was laying; in July, Prince Charles had actually embarked for Scotland; and by Martinmas, Glengyle’s hands must have been filled with more important concerns: -

"Hill, 12th Dec., 1744.

Then received by me James Grahame of Glengile from Robert Galbraith, portioner of Enbelly fourtie shillings Scots money in full payt. of all bygone watch money due to me out of his portion of Enbelly preceeding Martinmas last as witness my hand place and date above written.


(There is marked on the back in the same hand,)

"Recit. Glengile to Galbraith."

A contract existed between Rob Roy’s father and the heiress of Kilmaronock, known as Lady Cochrane, and for the protection of her property he was to receive sixteen bolls of meal yearly. Contracts of this kind were generally paid by agricultural produce, that commodity being very scarce north of the Forth. For some time Lady Cochrane paid her annual tribute with considerable regularity, and by the stern watchfulness of Macgregor and his clansmen thieving became less and less frequent on her ladyship’s property. Thinking herself secure, she refused to pay the impost until she had fallen considerably in arrears. By and by Macgregor led her to understand what would be the result, if her obstinacy continued, but to this message something like a threat of defiance was returned. Macgregor now summoned his retainers, and, assisted by his son-in-law, Macdonald of Glencoe, swept the banks of the Leven of all its valuable stock. Sitting down beside Lady Cochrane in her own parlour, he told her that if she did not feu off her lands to enterprising "tacksmen," he would take the estate from her altogether. Hence the number of small proprietors that once existed in the district. At this time the plundering of stock was not regarded as theft, but simply "liftings"; and, unless the loser could stake his lost cattle or sheep in fair fight, there remained no other alternative than to be content with the loss.

A party of the Macraes, seventeen in number, belonging to Ross-shire, stole fifteen head of cattle from a property in Rob Roy’s neighbourhood. He received notice of the lifting two days afterwards. It is said he had some reluctance in pursuing the Macraes, but knowing by his contracts of protection he was bound to restore the lost cattle, if over seven, and also recollecting that it was his first exploit of the kind, that his honour was at stake, and that all his future success as a preserver of the peace depended on the recovery of the cattle, he "selected twelve of his best lads, and they after them." For two days Macgregor and his hardy little band followed on the trail of the lifters. On the second night they reached a deep and dark glen in Badenoch, and here they resolved to rest. There was no sound to break the grim silence, save the gurgling of the mountain streamlet as it pursued its downward course among the rocks, the scream of the eagle as he floated around his mate on her eyrie, the hoarse croak of the raven on the crag, or the mew of the wild cat among the heather. Somewhat wearied, a number of his party fell fast asleep, but to Rob his errand was so exciting that, though

"He seeks his couch, and down he lies,
Sweet sleep has fled the chieftain’s eyes."

Macgregor had not been long lain down when he saw a fire kindling in the distance, and believing this to be the Macraes, he set out to reconnoitre. The kindlers of the fire turned out to be a band of wandering tinkers, who, at once recognising Macgregor, gave him the best of their fare till morning. Here he was informed that the Macraes were at no great distance, and two of the men promised to point out their place of rendezvous. It was not long ere they heard the calls of the northern banditti to their dogs as they gathered the cattle for a further march, and hastening to the brow of the hill, he saw them about to depart. The place was favourable for attack, and Macgregor gave a loud call on them to surrender.

"One blast upon his bugle horn
Was worth a thousand men."

Disregarding this, however, Rob ordered his lads to follow him, and dashing down the hill-side before the robbers could rally, they stretched six of their number dead or dying among the heather. The remaining eleven made a gallant defence, and it was not until other six had been disabled that they gave in. The fierceness of the combat may be judged from the fact that one of Rob’s lads was killed, and he and four others severely injured. All the cattle were brought back in triumph and restored to their owner. Macgregor received the greatest praise for his achievement, accomplished under the greatest disadvantages, both from the superior number of his opponents, and the long distance of pursuit. It at once showed his ability to deal firmly and expeditiously in his protection contracts, and many who had hitherto stood aloof from him were now anxious to conclude agreements with him for his services.

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