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Clan Donnachaidh Annual
1999 Margaret's Story

‘Barbarously and inhumanely treated’

The Poet Chief and Black Margaret

            Alexander Robertson of Struan ran away from the University of St Andrews to join the Jacobites in 1689, and for his part in that rising his estates were forfeited in the following year. The complicated story of the future of those estates must be told elsewhere and here we are concerned with the fate of his sister Margaret - ‘Black Margaret’ as he called her.

            On behalf of her mother and sister, Margaret petitioned the Scots  privy council in 1691 for an allowance of 2500 merks each due to them from the estate on their parents’ marriage contract. She was granted ‘the sawmill of Struan [at Carie on Loch Rannoch] with as much of the wood growing on the estate as was accustomed to be sawn and wrought there, with the whole profits, casualties and services.’  When Alexander returned from exile in 1703 he took back the sawmill and Margaret, once again having no income, turned to the law to force her brother to pay the money due to her.

            This was a long process and it was not until 1712, following an unsuccessful appeal by Alexander to the House of Lords [one of the earliest following the Act of Union], that Margaret finally got the backing of the courts.  But her brother still would not, or probably could not, pay, and in a petition to Queen Anne Margaret says that she has ‘used all the fair means possible’  to induce her brother to obey the law but that he ‘having terrify’d with threatening speeches’ sent away the messengers at arms sent to serve the writ on him at Mount Alexander.  The Queen asked the Duke of Atholl to see that Margaret had ‘justice done her’ and Letters of Caption [orders to imprison a debtor who refused to pay up] were issued against Alexander.

             This time, in April 1713, more than threatening speeches greeted the messenger  in the shape of three or four score armed men with swords and guns. John McLeish reported that he could not deliver the caption and that he believed ‘500 men  will be too small a number for that purpose.’ In December another attempt was made by Thomas Williamson [apparently without 500 men] who was met by ‘a Rable of persones in womens apparell, about the number of thirty, with trees, staves, shovels and stones’ one of whom ‘did streik and blood me on the face with ane shovell and almost putt out one of my eyes’, so that he withdrew. Even after this the Queen’s advocate somewhat unhelpfully advised the duke that he should again send a party along with the messenger, but that they should ‘take all possible care to prevent the shedding of Blood in case they should meet with any opposition.’

            Finally on 24 July 1714 the duke sent a party of 50 men under Donald Stewart of Tulloch with the messenger Patrick Duncan, telling them to capture Struan ‘and not to suffer the said messenger to be deforced...and if you see it necessary you are to call for a hundred men more.’   Margaret herself went along with the party and the outcome, covering the next 16 months, can be followed in her submission to a court some three years later - a graphic story even when told through the medium of a lawyer and in the third person. The spelling has been modernised and some words and constructions have been altered to assist the reader. The original transcription is available on our website or at the Clan Museum.

            ‘The said pursuer [Margaret] having gone with Patrick Duncan messenger and a party of about fifty men sent by John Duke of Atholl sheriff principal of Perthshire in prosecution of an order of her late Majesty Queen Anne and the privy council of Great Britain, for payment of a debt due to her from Alexander Robertson late of Struan, her brother...The pursuer needed her horse shod and was obliged to stay a little behind the party at a Change-house [inn] in Lochrannoch[1] within a few miles of Struan’s house of Carie (to which the messenger and party aforesaid had gone in quest of him). She was told that Struan and a party of armed men were coming towards the house, so she closed and barricaded the door of the room wherein she was.  But Alexander Robertson discovered she was in that room and finding the door closed and barricaded, did upon the twenty eight day of July 1714 with his own hands and with the assistance of his party, break open the door and, having beat the pursuer on the face, he and his associates did drag her through the corn to a boat, which he had prepared at the end of Lochrannoch, with such violence and fury that he did beat some of his own party for endeavouring to prevent his beating of the pursuer. Having forced her into the boat with himself and his party, he did carry her up Lochrannoch first towards the new saw-mill (where Struan landed himself) and from there she was carried to a little Isle in the Loch, and kept on the Island by armed men for the space of three days, exposed to great rains and bad weather which then happened (there being no house nor shelter in that Island).

              Upon the third day the pursuer was, by Alexander Robertson’s order, brought by Duncan MackIlfolich, his officer, to shore on Struan’s side of the Loch opposite to the Isle, to a house where the guard was tripled, and upon the fourth day she was forced to sign a paper presented to her by John Comrie servant to Struan, to answer to Struan’s courts whenever called. But another paper was demanded to be signed by her by John Comry on Struan’s written instructions importing that she was and had been at liberty and not seized by him. She, refusing to sign, was soon after dragged by the tenant Archibald McDonald vicInish oig in Innerchomrie, tenant to Struan, and a party of Struan’s men and servants (who had been with their master at the first seizing of her) and carried by violence to the loch side and forced again into a boat. There she was told that by Struan’s order they were to carry her prisoner to the Isle of Skye to Alexander MacDonald of Glenmore nephew to Struan.

            Accordingly they carried her by water and land that day to a widow woman's house at Aldochrein on the laird of Weem’s land where she was kept prisoner and under confinement all that night. Next morning being the fifth day, when she made resistance and refused to go further, they dragged her out of the said house with violence and set her on a garron horse they had provided equipped with a highland timber cor-sadle used for creels or baggage (they had robbed and taken away from the pursuer her own side saddle after she was seized and apprehended). The pursuer threw herself off the horse, so they set her on it again and threatened that if she did not stay there they would tie her to the horse with leathers.   There being no relief she was carried that night to Lochtriack[2] where she was kept prisoner all that night and the day following, and the next night under silence of night she was carried to Achnachar. And so from one place to another under the cover of darkness till they arrived at Kenlochnevis[3], where John MackNeil Robertson alias MackEane vicNeil vicInish with his servant came with a new message from Struan. These two relieved and sent home two or three of the former party. And they continued with the said Archibald McDonald and remaining men carrying the pursuer from Lochnevish by water in a boat to Slate to the house of Myles McDonald change keeper at Armadale[4], where she was kept under close guard and confinement for the space of seven or eight days during which time she fell into a fever through the barbarous usage given to her.  

            Alexander McDonald of Glenmore then came with an armed party to receive the pursuer from the men that had carried her there. The two parties drank to excess of aquavite and became intoxicated, so the second day after the cool of her fever when the parties were thus intoxicated, the pursuer did make her escape through a great hole in the house, and went about four miles off under night towards the shore. But not getting passage, she was pursued and retaken and carried back to Armadale, from whence Alexander McDonald of Glenmore with six of his own men carried her the next day in a boat by water to Troternes near Duntuilm and from thence to his house at Cullnachoch[5] in the Isle of Skye, where she was kept under confinement and barbarously and inhumanely treated, getting only half a bannock Gradden bread [made from scorched grain] a day and sometimes green whey or green kail, mugwort or mushroom roots or dulse made in kail, all without any flesh.

             On about the first of November, Alexander McDonald having gone to visit Alexander Robertson of Struan, the pursuer heard that there was to be a sermon the following Sabbath within two miles of her confinement and she did make her escape. But she was pursued by  [blank]  McDonald, natural brother of Alexander McDonald, with a party of twelve men who dragged her out of the house of William McDonald and carried her back to the house of Alexander McDonald. Then her clothes were taken from her to prevent her escapes, and a guard of two men was kept upon her night and day.  On the twenty sixth day of December 1714  Alexander McDonald, having returned home from Struan, threatened (in presence of several country people) to hang the pursuer if she offered again to make her escape which terrified her from making more attempts.

            And thus she was kept and detained under confinement and barbarous usage till about the seventh or eighth day of April 1715.  At which time early in the morning while the she was lying sick in bed she was (after putting on some rags to cover her nakedness) carried by a party of thirty men to the sea side below the house and put into a boat, where  Alexander McDonald of Glenmore was with six or seven servants. They carried the pursuer to the strand in the Harris and from there by night to Pabbay[6], to the house of Alexander MackLeod tacksman of the Island of St Kilda[8], otherwise called Hirt, with intending to have her kept prisoner on the said Island. When Alexander MackLeod refused, Alexander McDonald of Glenmore and his servants dragged her out of the house to the boat again and carried her to the island of Hesgeir[7] (a very rough and inaccessible island by reason of the rocks), where she was left at the house of Alexander McDonald of Hesgeir, and there detained in confinement at the desire of the said Alexander MacDonald of Glenmore with directions to put her in irons and give her but bread and water or green whey.

            There the pursuer was detained for several weeks till the latter end of July or beginning of August 1715. Then Alexander McDonald of Glenmore came with his men and took the pursuer to another Island called Rhonna [Rona 9], belonging to MackLeod of Rarshad [Raasay], and there left her under a guard of his own men. But the proprietor of the said island, dissatisfied with such barbarity, would not allow of the pursuer to be confined and detained in his bounds. Whereupon the pursuer was carried by Glenmore’s men to another Island belonging to Sir Donald McDonald of Slate called Flada[10], where there were no inhabitants nor any house save an old ruinous popish Chapel without any roof, where she was kept for an month exposed to wind, rain and bad weather without any covert or bed nor was she so much as allowed a few rushes to lie upon.  

            Thereafter Alexander McDonald of Glenmore came to the Island and carried the pursuer back again to his own house, where she was kept by a guard of two men by night and one by day in confinement and under very barbarous usage till the  [blank]   day of September thereafter. Then  Alexander McDonald of Glenmore heard that the tutor of Mackleod at the desire of the Duke of Atholl had sent a party in quest of the pursuer towards her relief and liberation. To prevent them finding her, he sent three of his own men to take her from her prison to the firth and from there in an little old sheard of a yeall [small boat] she was carried over to the south side of the firth and cast out upon the the rocky and mountainous country of Gairloch[11] and Tayrartanne[Torridon], where she was left alone in so weak and low a condition that she was not able to travel, and without a farthing of money given her to carry her home though she had several mountains and ferries to pass. 

            Travelling as best she could, she took some days to reach Inverness[13] and thence to Dunkeld[14] on her way home to her mother’s house at Perth[15]. In Dunkeld at the end of September or beginning of October she was again violently seized and taken prisoner by the said Alexander Robertson late of Struan and a great party of men, who carried her first towards Perth and from there by water to the Tolbooth of Dundee[16], where she was kept and detained prisoner till the eleventh day of November when she was liberated by the order of John late Earl of Mar.

            The pursuer, being a stranger in the Isle of Skye and the other Isles to which she was inhumanely carried, treated and confined, had no access to see any save her guards, and thus could not well expect to get approbation [proof] by witnesses of her imprisonment in those Isles, some of which were uninhabited save for persons appointed as guards by the defenders. . . ’

            There were, of course, witnesses of the start and finish of her adventures. Two of Struan’s ‘own Domestic servants’, Donald Bain Cameron in Carie and Neil, son of James Stewart in Culnasauch, saw the abduction  and went with the party all the way to Armadale. Another witness of the start of the episode was the messenger Patrick Duncan who declared that he and his party went first to Mount Alexander and not finding Struan there went on to Carie, ‘and coming there, they found his woodkeeper or officer put in Disguise with Struan’s red cloak and ane hat upon him walking in the green before the house’, while Struan himself was away to deal with Margaret. He adds that as there was no other boat on the loch, they could not follow her. An unexpected witness was John Comrie who had taken the papers from Struan for Margaret to sign. He said that he was sent to Finnart to confront the prisoner with the two items she had described.   He added that ‘in the time of the late rebellion he saw the said Mistress Margaret prisoner in the custody of Strowan with a considerable party of his men in Arms at the house of Invar near Dunkeld and that he heard Strowan in a very harsh manner upbraid her as a plotter against the then government using these and like words that she was going with intelligence from the Duke of Athole to the Duke of Argyle.’  Five witnesses, several of them prisoners of the Jacobites, confirmed seeing her as a prisoner in the tolbooth of Dundee.

            In spite of her fears there were three witnesses to parts of her captivity in the islands. Evan Dow in Carie took a letter from Struan to Glenmore in late April 1715 and saw Margaret at his house with ‘a sentry upon her’. Donald McDonald, apprentice to Colin Mackenzie, goldsmith in Edinburgh, also saw her in April in ‘the Isle of North Uist’; in the ‘mainland of North Uist’ in August, and in September at Glenmore’s house he spoke to her but she dared not reply. Finally there was a more important witness, William Macleod of Hammer, brother in law to Glenmore,  who saw her at Armadale in August 1714 and later heard that she was with Glenmore in Skye, on Pabbay and on Heiskeir, and rumours of her hardships.   He said that he wrote to Glenmore asking him to release her but got no reply, but eventually had a letter from the duke of Atholl written to his father ‘towards their assisting in getting the pursuer's liberation.’

            Macleod’s potential help was acknowledged in a letter, [apparently the only one] written by Margaret from Uist in April 1715 to one of Atholl’s officials. She says that Alexander Mcleod in Pabbay refused to keep her on St Kilda ‘for fear of His Grace the Duke of Atholl’ and adds ‘Both Hammer McLowd and the Tutor of McLowd his son, they being both Baillies to McLowd’s lands, will find me out if His Grace the Duke of Atholl give them orders to rescue me from my wicked and unchristian nephew . . I doubt not but His Grace will compassionate me when this comes to his hands.’  It is not known how long this took to reach the Duke but the threat of his involvement was apparently enough to make Glenmore release her in the end.

            By the time the case came to court the ’15 rising had taken place and Struan was once again in exile and could not be reached by the Scottish courts. His estates were finally awarded to Margaret and her heirs in a royal charter in 1723  ‘out of Royal favour and bounty . . . and on account of her sufferings the time of the late rebellion, for her services done to the government and for subsistence to her and to several poor nephews and nieces.’ It is not known what she did in 1715 after her release, just two days before the battle of Sheriffmuir, or what her services to the government might have been; maybe Struan was right to call her a spy. On the other hand family tradition claims that she was responsible for the escape of her brother in 1716 when she met him with his guards at Amulree and made the guards drunk enough for him to get away  -  so perhaps she was not wholly ‘black’ after all.

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