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The Killing That Shook a Nation – Extract from James Hunter’s THE APPIN MURDER

  30 Jun '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

On a hillside near Ballachulish in the Scottish Highlands in May 1752 a rider is assassinated by a gunman. The murdered man is Colin Campbell, a government agent travelling to nearby Duror where he’s evicting farm tenants to make way for his relatives. Campbell’s killer evades capture, but Britain’s rulers insist this challenge to their authority must result in a hanging. The sacrificial victim is James Stewart

‘James was as fairly murdered as though the duke had got a fowling-

piece and stalked him’

Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona

In Inveraray, capital of the Highland county of Argyll, at a little after eleven o’clock on the morning of Monday, 25 September 1752, sentence on James Stewart was pronounced by the Scottish High Court’s dempster. Nothing is known of that functionary. But it’s possible, despite this, to guess the way he spoke. From time immemorial in Scotland, the ‘dooms’ or judgements handed down by trial judges had been proclaimed publicly by doomsters or dempsters. Such dempsters must have cultivated forceful voices. It’s likely, therefore, that what the High Court’s dempster had to say in Inveraray was said in tones that carried clearly. His words would definitely have reached all the many folk thronging the church where, due to Inveraray’s lack of a large enough courtroom, the High Court had been sitting since the previous Thursday. Those same words may also have been audible to those who’d gathered outside the church’s door to learn the outcome of one of the longest and most contentious trials Scotland had ever staged.

In one of the ledger-like volumes kept by them for this purpose, the High Court’s clerks were meanwhile penning – with their customary care – the words enunciated by the court’s dempster. More than 250 years after they were inscribed there, those words can still be read in the High Court’s records. The passing of centuries has done little to mitigate their harshness.

James Stewart, the dempster told his listeners, was guilty of having been implicated – though as accessory rather than perpetrator – in the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure. Campbell, when shot four months earlier, had been attending to his business as factor, or manager, on the Ardshiel estate – which the British government, in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745–46, had seized by way of punishing its owner, Charles Stewart, for his leading role in that failed uprising. James Stewart was Charles’s halfbrother. And during the several years since Charles (who’d long since fled abroad) had set foot in Duror (the North Argyll locality which included Ardshiel), James – as he freely conceded – had been doing his best to ensure that his half-brother’s confi scated lands were administered in a manner that kept open the possibility of Charles (or, failing this, Charles’s wife and children) continuing to get some kind of income from the lands in question.

Prior to its judges turning things over to their dempster, the High Court had heard that James Stewart’s interventions in the management of the Ardshiel estate were such as to have brought him into confl ict with Colin Campbell – James opposing, even seeking to sabotage, Colin’s plans. And for all that James had taken no active part, as was universally acknowledged, in Campbell’s assassination, people in Argyll (James included) were not greatly surprised when, shortly after Colin Campbell’s murder on 14 May 1752 in the Wood of Lettermore, not far from James Stewart’s Duror home, James was arrested on suspicion of having colluded in the factor’s killing. Nor was anyone in Argyll (James again included) surprised by the verdict reached in Inveraray on 25 September. The murder of Colin Campbell, after all, was reckoned on all sides to be a deeply subversive act. Both in Edinburgh and in London, politicians were united in their insistence that someone must pay a heavy price for it. And given the failure of theauthorities to apprehend the man alleged by those same authorities to have fired on Campbell in the Wood of Lettermore, James Stewart – jailed in connection with the Lettermore crime and known to have been at loggerheads with the dead factor – was the obvious candidate to pay this price. There was thus a certain inevitability about James Stewart’s fate.

That fate had become all the more inescapable as a result of James’s trial having been presided over by a man with his own axe – indeed a whole set of axes – to grind in the matter of Colin Campbell’s death. Archibald Campbell, Duke of Argyll, was Scotland’s Lord Justice General. As such, he was entitled both to adjudicate on High Court cases and, when so adjudicating, to take precedence over such other judges – Lords Elchies and Kilkerran on this occasion – as might be present. But Duke Archibald’s decision to involve himself more than was usual in the case of James Stewart, or so it was widely suspected at the time, had less to do with his judicial position than with his other roles. The duke was both the British government’s leading representative in Scotland and the chief of Clan Campbell. In each of those capacities, the murdered factor having been an offi cial of the government he served and a member of the clan he headed, Duke Archibald had a personal interest in avenging Colin Campbell’s death. Something of this would be revealed in the aftermath of what the High Court’s dempster had to say. For the moment, however, the Duke of Argyll, like the rest of the dempster’s Inveraray audience, sat silently while James Stewart’s sentence was spelled out.

James, the dempster declared, would be held in Inveraray until Thursday, 5 October when he would be taken north to Fort William, today a substantial urban centre but in 1752 a heavily garrisoned military strongpoint. At Fort William, the dempster went on, James would be kept in army custody until Tuesday, 7 November. Then, under armed guard, he would make one final journey, by way of Onich, to North Ballachulish, where the fiord-like Loch Leven joins the wider waters of Loch Linnhe and where, until it was replaced by a twentieth-century bridge, there was for several hundred years a well-used ferry. James, the dempster continued, would be ‘transported over [this] ferry of Ballachulish’ and ‘delivered . . . to the sheriff -depute of Argyllshire or his substitutes [and] . . . carried to a gibbet to be erected by the said sheriff on a conspicuous eminence upon the south side of, and near to, the said ferry’. This eminence is known as Cnap a’ Chaolais, meaning the hillock by the narrows. It is within a mile of the place where Colin Campbell died. And because of its proximity to the ever-busy Ballachulish Ferry, Cnap a’ Chaolais in 1752 was as public a site as could have been chosen for a gallows.


James Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has written extensively about the north of Scotland and about the region’s worldwide diaspora. In the course of a varied career Hunter has been, among other things, director of the Scottish Crofters Union, chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise and an award-winning journalist. His book Set Adrift upon the World (Birlinn 2016) was Saltire History Book of the Year in 2016.


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