Clan Stewart has its roots in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. Originally coming from France, the family acquired lands in England and eventually in East Lothian and Renfrewshire where King David I of Scotland made them stewards – it is from this title that the family gets its name.
The House of Stewart (Stuart)
Clan Stewart formed the royal family of Scotland and later Britain for the best part of 400 years, starting with Robert II of Scotland and ending with Queen Anne although the reigning queen of England. Elizabeth II, however, has Stewart blood in her veins and as such uses Stewart Royal as her personal tartan, meaning that anyone considered to be a subject of Elizabeth II can wear Stewart Royal if they choose.
As interesting as it is to bang on about kings and queens and all that, and undoubtedly it is, I’m more interested in talking about the Appin Stewarts. This branch of the clan was at the centre of a mystery that has intrigued historians and novelists for centuries.
The Appin Murder
In the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, the British government was terrified of further disturbances in the north of Scotland. To prevent further unrest, the government instituted a series of policies intended to break up the clan system and destroy Highland identity ( The Act of Proscription). It was thought that weakening the clans would make the populace easier to control. Government policies in this area included outlawing Highland dress and banning the carrying of weapons as well as strict taxation on those formally under the protection of the Clans. The most famous collector of these taxes was Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure a.k.a. The Red Fox.
A Shot Rings Out
In 1752, The Red Fox was going about his business of evicting clansmen and collecting taxes when, on the banks of Loch Leven he was shot in the back and killed. The killer was never apprehended. As Campbell worked for the government it was seen as imperative that the culprit be caught and brought to justice so as to send a message to any would-be rebels. The chief suspect was a man named Alan Breck Stewart as he had publicly fallen out with Campbell and had also been heard to inquire about his plans for the day of his murder (Breck, by the way, means spotted in Gaelic – Alan apparently had extensive scarring from smallpox).
Unfortunately for the government, Breck made good his escape meaning he had to be tried in absentia which he was, found guilty and sentenced to death. However, the government still did not have a body to show for the crime and so started proceedings against James of the Glen – Alan Breck’s foster father.
Campbell’s Kangaroo Court
The trial of James of the Glen was a joke, although no shred of evidence linked James with the crime, he was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder. Clearly unconcerned with giving James a fair trial, the jury was drawn from the area in which the crime had been committed and was composed mainly of members of Clan Campbell – the Clan to which the victim belonged. If that wasn’t bad enough, the judge in the case was the chief of clan Campbell himself. Unsurprisingly, James was found guilty and hanged shortly thereafter. Following Breck’s flight and James’ death it was concluded that neither party could have been the killer, leaving us not only with a severe miscarriage of justice, but a mystery as to who the shooter was.
The Appin Murder case, has been explored in literature on a number of occasions – most famously Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel Kidnapped where Breck is a main character and the murder is a key plot point. However, it is through the work of historians that some light has been shed on the case. In 2001, an 89 year-old descendant of the clan, Anda Penman, announced that she knew the identity of the true shooter. Apparently the secret that had been passed down from clan chief to clan chief over the years before being confided to Penman.
Penman claimed that four young men had planned the murder and held a shooting competition to determine who would take the role of assassin. Of the four men, Donald Stewart of Ballachulish was the best shot and as such, given the grave task of pulling the trigger. Penman’s story, though not substantiated by any member of Clan Stewart of Appin, has been supported by American Historian Dr. Lee Holcombe. Dr. Holcombe, after twenty years of research prompted by her love of Stevenson’s novel, came to the conclusion that it was Donald Stewart of Ballachulish who pulled the trigger. Indeed, Holcombe claims that her research uncovered the fact that Donald had to be physically restrained on the day of the hanging to prevent him from going to confess.
Once again, looking into the history of one of Scotland’s clans has given us a fascinating story, one – in this case – that has intrigued writers and academics for centuries. It just goes to show that you don’t know what you’ll find when you dig about in the past, if you decide to do some digging of your own, let me know what you find.