BADGE: Fraoch gonn (erica vulgaris) common heath
While several of the Highland clans, like the MacGregors and MacQuaries, could, by reason of their descent from the Scots king Alpin, support their dignity with the proud boast, "Royal is my race", there were others to whom it was open to make an almost equal claim by reason of their descent from the ancient princes and lords of the Isles. Among those who could in this way claim to be of the blood of the mighty Somerled were, first of all, the MacDonalds and MacDougalls, and deriving from them were lesser clans, like the MacIans of Glencoe and the MacAlastairs of southern Argyllshire,
The MacAlastairs trace their descent in the famous Manuscript of 1450, from the great-grandson of Somerled, Angus Mor MacDonald, Lord of the Isles in the latter part of the thirteenth century. Angus Mar had two sons. Alexander, or Alastair, and Angus Og, and it is from the former of these that the MacAlastairs take their patronymic. Alexander of the Isles added considerably to his power and territories by marriage with one of the daughters of Ewen de Ergadia, otherwise John of Argyll. This connection, however, brought him into serious trouble, for his relation by marriage, Alexander of Argyll, married the third daughter of John, the Red Comyn, slain by Bruce in the church of the Minorites at Dumfries. In consequence of that event Alexander of Argyll and his son John of Lorn became Bruce's most bitter enemies. They were naturally supported by Alexander or Alastair of the Isles. Accordingly, after Bruce had finally defeated John of Lorn at the Bridge of Awe, and captured Alexander of Argyll in the stronghold of Dunstaffnage, he turned his attention to crushing Alexander of the Isles. For this purpose he had his galley drawn, like that of Magnus Barefoot before him, across the isthmus at Tarbert, and besieged the Island Lord in Castle Sweyn, his usual residence. Alexander was forced to surrender, and was forthwith imprisoned in Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire, where he died. At the same time his possessions and lordship of the Isles were forfeited and given to his younger brother Angus Og, whose support had been of so much value to the warrior king, and who figures as the hero of Sir Walter Scott's famous poem.
From their descent as legitimate heirs male of the forfeited Alexander of the Isles, the MacAlastairs may claim to be the actual representatives of the mighty Somerled.
The principal seat of the MacAlastair chiefs in early times was at Ard Phadruic on the south side of Loch Tarbert. The nearest cadet of the house, MacAlastair of Tarbert, was Constable of Tarbert Castle, the stronghold built by Robert the Bruce himself after subduing Alexander of the Isles, and, among other positions of honour and power, the Stewardship of Kintyre was held by Charles MacAlastair in the year 1481.
After the forfeiture, in the latter part of the fifteenth century, of the later line of Lords of the Isles, which inherited the turbulent blood of King Robert II from a daughter of that king, the MacAlastairs attached themselves for a time to the powerful tribe of the MacDonalds known as Mac Ian Mhor, whose founder John the Great had flourished in the year 1400. They soon, however, attained the dignity of an independent clan. By this time the seat of the chiefs was at Loup in the Cowal district of Loch Fyne, and in 1587, when King James VI passed the Act known as the "General Band", or bond, making the Highland chiefs responsible to the Crown for the good behaviour of their clansmen and the people on their lands, "the Laird of Loup" appears in the list as one of those made accountable. This laird, Alastair MacAlastair, died while his son Godfrey, or Gorrie MacAlastair, was still a minor.
The great house of Argyll was then rising to the height of its power, and doing its best by every sort of means to increase its territories and the number of its vassals. It was probably as a result of one of its schemes that in 1605, all the chiefs of the Isles and West Highlands were ordered to appear at Kilkerran, now known as Campbeltown, in Kintyre, exhibit the titles to their lands, renew allegiance to the Crown, and give securities for their loyal behaviour. Lord Scone, Comptroller of Scotland, was appointed Commissioner on the occasion. To enforce compliance all the fencible men of the western counties and burghs were ordered to assemble in arms at the appointed place, and all boats were to be put in possession of Lord Scone. In case of non-attendance, the Highland chiefs were to be treated as rebels, and subjected to forfeiture and military execution.
It can easily be seen how an order of this kind could be turned to account by the House of Campbell. There are traditions still extant in Campbeltown of a similar requisition being made at a later day by the mother or wife of one of the Dukes of Argyll, who professed to be of an antiquarian taste which she wished to satisfy by a perusal of the titles of the Kintyre lairds. Unwilling to disoblige so great a dame, the lairds brought her their family papers. In due course, by an "accident", these papers were lost or destroyed, and as a result, the lairds had to get new titles from the Duke, in which he duly appeared as granter and feudal superior, while they, of course, appeared as holding their lands of him as his vassals. Only one family, it is said, escaped this misfortune. It owed its escape to the shrewdness of a servant. This man, doubting the good faith of the Duchess, disappeared with his master's title deeds and other papers, and took care not to return till all danger was past.
By one or other of these enterprises of the House of Argyll the MacAlastair chiefs appear to have lost their patrimony in Knapdale, and to have had their possessions in Argyllshire confined to the lairdship of Loup.
In 1618 the Laird of Loup was one of twenty barons and gentlemen of the shire who were made responsible for the maintenance of order in the earldom during the absence of Argyll. He was now the earl's vassal, and accordingly when the Civil War broke out and the Marquess of Montrose took arms for Charles I in Scotland, MacAlastair himself remained at home, though many of his clansmen joined the Royalist forces.
The chief of that time married Margaret, daughter of Campbell of Kilberry. A century and a half later, in 1792, Charles MacAlastair of Loup married Janet Somerville, heiress of Kennox in Ayrshire, and, in right of his wife, in 1805 added the name and arms of Somerville to his own. From that time the family was known as Somerville MacAlastair of Loup and Kennox.
SEPT OF CLAN MACALASTAIR