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Book of Scottish Story
Macdonald, the Cattle-Riever

ARCHIBALD MACDONALD was perhaps the most perfect master of his hazardous profession of any who ever practised it. Archibald was by birth a gentleman, and proprietor of a small estate in Argyllshire, which he however lost early in life. He soon distinguished himself as a cattle-lifter on an extensive scale; and weak as the arm of the law might then have been, he found it advisable to remove further from its influence, and he shifted his residence from his native district of Appin to the remote peninsula of Ardnamurchan, which was admirably adapted to his purpose, from its geographical position. He obtained a lease of an extensive farm, and he fitted up a large cowhouse, though his whole visible live-stock consisted of one filly. His neighbours could not help making remarks on this subject, but he begged of them to have no anxiety on that head, assuring them that his byre would be full ere Christmas; and he was as good as his word. He had trained the filly to suit his purpose, and it was a practice of his to tie other horses to her tail; she then directed her course homeward by unfrequented routes, and always found her way in safety.

His expeditions were generally carried on by sea, and he annoyed the most distant of the Hebrides, both to the south and north. He often changed the colour of his boats and sails, and adopted whatever appeared best suited to his immediate purpose. In consequence of this artifice, his depredations were frequently ascribed to others, and sometimes to men of the first distinction in that country, so dexterously did he imitate their birlings and their insignia. He held his land from Campbell of Lochnell, into whose favour he had insinuated himself by his knowledge and address.

When Lochnell resided at the castle of Mingary, Archibald was often ordered to lie on a mattress in his bed-room, to entertain him at night with the recitation of the poems of Ossian, and with tales. Archibald contrived means to convert this circumstance to his advantage. He ordered his men to he in readiness, and that night he selected one of his longest poems. As he calculated, Locbnell fell asleep before he had finished the recital; the robber slunk out and soon joined his associates. He steered for the island of Mull, where some of his men had been previously sent to execute his orders ; he carried off a whole fold of cattle, which he landed safely, and returned to his mattress before Lochnell awoke. When he lay down he purposely snored so loudly that the sleeping chief was disturbed, and complained of the tremendous noise the fellow made, observing that, fond as he was of poetry, he must deprive himself of it in future on such conditions. To this Archibald had no objections; his principal object was then accomplished, and taking up the tale where he had stopped when his patron fell asleep, he finished it, and slept soundly to an advanced hour.

The cattle were immediately missed, and suspicion fell on Archibald ; but he triumphantly referred to Lochnell for a proof of his innocence, and this he obtained. That gentleman solemnly declared that the robber had never been out of his room during that night, and the charge was of course dropped.

A wealthy man who resided in the neighbourhood was noted for his penurious habits, and he had incurred particular odium by refusing a supply of meal to a poor widow in distress. This man had sent a considerable quantity of grain to the mill, which, as usual, he attended himself and was conveying the meal home at night on horseback. The horses were tied in a string, the halter of one fixed to the tail of another; and the owner led the foremost by a long tether. His road lay through a wood, and Archibald there watched his approach. The night was dark, and the man walked slowly, humming a song; the ground was soft, and the horses having no shoes (as is still usual in that country), their tread made no noise. Archibald ordered one of his men to loosen the tether from the head of the front horse, and to hold it, himself occupying the place of the horse, and walking on at the same pace. He thus got possession of the whole. The miser soon arrived at his own door, and called for assistance to deposit his winter store in safety, but, to his astonishment, found he had but the halter!

Availing himself of the credulity of his countrymen, he pretended to hold frequent intercourse with a spirit or p genii, still much distinguished in the West Highlands under the appellation of Glastig. This he turned to excellent account, as die stories which his partisans fabricated of the command he had over the Glastig, and the connexion between them, terrified the people so much, that few could be prevailed upon to watch their cattle at night, and they thus fell au easy prey to this artful rogue.

Archibald’s father having died early, his mother afterwards married a second husband, who resided in a neighbouring island. When she died, her son was out of favour with his stepfather, and he was refused the privilege of having the disposal of his mother’s remains, nor did he think it prudent to appear openly at her funeral. He however obtained accurate information of the place where the corpse was lying. One dark night, he made an opening in the thatched roof of the earthen hut, and the wakers being occupied in the feats of athletic exercise usually practised on these occasions, the body being excluded from their sight by a screen which hung across the house, Archibald carried it off to his boat like another Aeneas. He also got possession of the stock of whisky intended for the occasion, as it lay in the same place—thus discharging the last duties of a pious son with little expense to himself.

A fatal event at length occurred, which rendered it necessary for the man to retire from trade. He made a descent on one of the small islands on that coast, and had collected the cattle, when the proprietor (who had information of the circumstance), made his appearance to rescue them. Archibald was compelled to yield up his prey, but one of the villains who accompanied him levelled his musket at the gentleman, and shot him dead from the boat.

The robber was fully aware of his danger, and, with the assistance of a fair wind, he shaped his course for the mainland. He pushed on with all possible speed, and arrived at Inveraray before sunrise the following morning. Having information that Stewart of Appin was then in town, he watched his motions, and at an early hour saw him on the street in conversation with the sheriff of the county. Archibald, who was an old acquaintance, saluted him, and his salute was returned. When Appin parted with the sheriff, Archibald complained that he had taken no notice of him the preceding day, when he accosted him in the same place. Appin said he was conscious of having seen him, but that he was much hurried at the time, and hoped he would excuse him. The robber’s object was accomplished. Appin had no doubt of the truth of what he said ; and on his trial for the murder, an alibi was established in his favour, from this very extraordinary piece of address. Some of his crew were afterwards taken in Ross-shire, and executed there by order of the Earl of Seaforth, though the actual murderer escaped punishment. Archibald, however, never again plundered on a large scale. He died about the middle of the 17th century, and his name still stands unrivalled for cunning and address in his calling. — [“Traditions of the Western Highlands” in the London Literary Gazette]

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