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The Fife Adventurers

THE Lews had become so disorganized in the time of Ruari Macleod, that on his death some of the Fife barons and gentlemen resolved to secure it for colonisation, on account of its reputed fertility and valuable fisheries.

Accordingly, in 1599, they obtained the country in gift from the king, who had chosen to consider it forfeited to the Crown. The principal adventurers were the Duke of Lennox; Patrick, Commendator of Lindores; William, Commendator of Pittenweem; Sir James Anstruther, younger, of that ilk; Sir James Sandilands, of Slamanno; James Leirmonth, of Balcolmy; James Spens, of Wormestoun; John Forret, of Fingask; David Home, younger, of Wedderburne; and Captain William Murray.

These gentlemen collected a body of five to six hundred hired soldiers, besides gentlemen volunteers and artificers, with all necessaries, and sent them to the Lews, where they soon erected a small but pretty town. They were freed from any liability to rent for seven years, afterwards to be subject to a grain-rent of 140 chalders of bear (barley) for Lewis, Rona, and the Shiant Isles.

But Neil and Murdo, two of the natural sons of Old Ruari, although opposed on the question of Connanach’s succession, were at one in hostility to the Fife colonists. Murdo, receiving information from Kintail, was enabled to seize the ship of the Laird of Balcolmy near the Orkneys, killing all his men, and only releasing the laird on promise of ransom, after a six months’ captivity. His death on the way to Fife in 1600 prevented the fulfilment of the agreement.

Neil next attacked his brother Murdo for harbouring the Morrisons of Ness, and sue-ceeded in capturing him, along with a number of that tribe. The Breve’s relatives he killed, handing his brother Murdo over to the Fife men in exchange for a share of the island. Murdo was taken by them to St. Andrew’s, and there executed, previously revealing the designs of Kintail, who had secretly employed him alike against the Fife colonists and the opponents of Connanach.

In return for his services to the colonists on this occasion, Neil received pardon at Edinburgh for his past misdeeds, and returned to the Lews with the adventurers. The prospects of the colonists now seemed so favourable, that they agreed to pay rental two years, in place of seven, after starting ; but, shortly after their return, Neil received some slight from Spens of Wormestoun, and upon the latter attempting to seize Macleod by stratagem, he was defeated with a loss of sixty men.

This seeming a propitious moment for the furtherance of his projects, Kintail introduced another element of discord by setting free Tor-mad, brother of Torquil Dhu, and son of old Ruari by Maclean of Dowart’s daughter. Tormad was thus the only living acknowledged legitimate son of old Ruari; and his appearance in the Lews, as anticipated by Kintail, was immediately followed by his acknowledgment as chief by his natural brother Neil and the natives.

The now-united Lewismen at once proceeded to drive out the colonists. They attacked and burnt the fort, killed most of the men, and secured the commanders. These were only liberated on condition that the king should grant the Macleods a remission for past offences, and that the title to the island be delivered to Tormad Macleod. But no sooner were the hostages at liberty, than the adventurers a third time essayed to invade the island under the king's commission. This was delayed until the king was secured on the throne of England, so that it was not till the summer of 1605 that the Fife men once more endeavoured to secure the inhospitable island, over which Tormad Mac Ruari had been chief since their departure in 1601.

This expedition was so formidable, assisted as it was by the king’s ships and several Highland gentlemen, that, against the advice of the resolute Neil, Tormad agreed to their terms and surrendered. Proceeding to London, he placed his legal claims before the king; but although James received him favourably, the influence of the adventurers was sufficient to keep him a prisoner in Edinburgh from 1605 until 1615, when he passed into Holland, and died in the service of Maurice, Prince of Orange.

Neil Mac Ruari, now the only son of old Ruari, alone remained implacable; and his continual antagonism, together with the unfortunate results of the speculation commercially, obliged the adventurers at length to abandon it and return to Fife, most of them utterly ruined thereby.

In 1608 the king again granted the island to Lord Balmerino, Sir George Hay, and Sir James Spens, who undertook to colonise it. In 1609 Lord Balmerino was convicted of high treason; but Hay and Spens, after great preparations and assistance from the neighbouring chiefs, re-invaded the Lews in order to plant a colony and secure the capture of the arch-rebel Neil.

Lord Kintail, on this occasion as formerly, openly assisted and countenanced the Fifemen, while he secretly thwarted the enterprise. He sent them a vessel from Ross with a supply of provisions, on which they were depending, at the same time advising Neil of its departure and destination. The latter was not slow in seizing the vessel, and the colonists, being without provisions, were forced to abandon the island, leaving a garrison only in the fort of Stornoway. The ever-active Neil again attacked and burnt the fort in 1610, sending the garrison home to Fife, from whence no colonists ever returned to endeavour to wrest the sea-encircled peat from its restless and savage occupants.

Such is the history of the well-intentioned effort to civilise the Western Isles, by planting a peaceable colony of fishermen on their then murder-haunted shores. The adventurers sank large sums of money in the enterprise, in the belief that it wuold prove to them an El Dorado, both from the believed fertility of the soil, and more especially from its wealth of fisheries. It failed, not so much from the direct hostility of the natives, headed by the brave freebooter Neil, as from the multiplicity of interests that were involved. Not only did the Mackenzies of Kintail look upon the colonists as poaching in their preserves, but the neighbouring chiefs, whose lands were alike threatened with colonisation, looked upon the cause of the Lewsmen as their own.

Thus a party of private gentlemen had to bear the brunt of the open, and still more dangerous concealed, hostility of the ruthless chiefs of the North West, all at one only in hatred of the invaders.

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