Pistols on the Links

A quarrel between two young men over a pretty girl at a dance, angry words, blows, a fight, the death of one and the trial for murder of the other – a commonplace story which could easily enough be found in today’s newspaper or yesterday’s. 

However the trial of Colonel Alasdair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry, in August 1798 made for more than the usual sensation.  It was not, after all, every day that a great landowner and clan chief, a Colonel and a Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Inverness-shire was on trial for his life, facing a charge of murder, in Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary.  The victim, Norman MacLeod, was also hardly the average victim of violence.  MacLeod, a grandson of Flora MacDonald, the Jacobite heroine and saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, was a Lieutenant in the Black Watch, the 42nd Regiment of Foot.

With personalities like these involved it is hardly surprising that Macdonell’s trial created a sensation, attracted huge crowds and was extensively reported in the daily press and at length in The Scots Magazine.

Alasdair Ranaldson Macdonell – or Glengarry as he was most frequently known – became clan chief and inherited his large estates in Inverness-shire as a youth of 14 when his father, Duncan, died.  Contemporary observers felt that Alasdair had been badly brought up by his mother, Marjory Grant, and had grown into a headstrong, hot-tempered and wilful character. As a teenager he had been given a Captain’s commission to raise a company of soldiers for the Grant Fencibles and before his 21st birthday he had been authorised to raise his own regiment, the Glengarry Fencibles, and commissioned as a full Colonel. 

Loch Oich - in the Glengarry Clanlands

Loch Oich in the Glengarry clanlands

When he was serving with the Grant Fencibles, the Commander in Chief in Scotland described him as a “young chieftain composed of vanity and folly” and his later conduct bears out this judgment.

By 1796 Glengarry had grown tired of soldiering with his regiment on garrison duty in Guernsey, and his ambition to transfer to the regular army (the Glengarry Fencibles being a “hostilities only” unit) having been frustrated, he resigned command and returned to his estates.

On 1st May 1798 he attended a meeting of the Lieutenancy of the County of Inverness and in the evening went to a ball being given by the officers of Fort George, a few miles outside Inverness. In the course of the evening the twenty-four year old Glengarry approached the beautiful Sarah Forbes of Culloden and reminded her that she had promised him the last dance.  Miss Forbes said that she had no knowledge of such an arrangement and had promised that dance to Ranald MacDonald, a young advocate. 

Glengarry went off, apparently persuaded MacDonald to give up the last dance with Miss Forbes to him; returned and confronted Sarah Forbes with this decision.  Not unnaturally Sarah said that in the circumstances she would dance with neither Glengarry nor MacDonald. Ranald MacDonald’s conduct in breaking his agreement with Sarah Forbes was so foreign to polite eighteenth century society’s standards of behaviour that one can only surmise that he acted in this way, as the lesser of two evils, to avoid a public quarrel with Glengarry.

Lieutenant MacLeod, who was watching these events, remarked to Glengarry “Why do you tease the lady. Can’t you allow her to choose for herself?”  Sarah Forbes then danced a reel with MacLeod, which doubtless further angered the hot-tempered Glengarry who clearly resented MacLeod’s interference.

Any hopes that matters would pass off quietly were, however, dashed.  MacLeod and Glengarry quarrelled and took their quarrel from the dance floor into the officer’s mess of the 79th Foot – the Cameron Highlanders.  Here Glengarry struck MacLeod on the head with his stick and the two men continued down opposite sides of the long mess table, abusing each other until at the end, Glengarry struck MacLeod on the face and kicked him on the backside.  MacLeod drew his dirk, bystanders moved to intervene and a report was made to a senior officer.

MacLeod issued a challenge to Glengarry and a duel was arranged for the next day, Wednesday 2nd May.  The arrangements for this duel fell through and the civil authorities from Inverness got word of the event.  However arrangements were made for a meeting on Thursday 3rd May at on the links between Ardersier and Fort George.

MacLeod and Glengarry and their seconds turned up and an attempt was made to find a peaceful settlement. It was proposed by MacLeod’s side that Glengarry should sign a written apology, the terms to be approved by officers of the Cameron Highlanders, and that Glengarry should surrender the cane with which he had struck MacLeod, to be used as MacLeod thought proper.  Glengarry agreed to the first demand but refused to give up his cane – he clearly thought that MacLeod proposed to thrash him with the cane.  MacLeod stubbornly insisted on his terms, Glengarry doggedly refused and MacLeod’s fate was sealed.

The two officers, armed with pistols, lined up eleven paces apart and fired.  MacLeod’s bullet missed but Glengarry’s struck MacLeod under the right armpit and travelled across his body to the left shoulder blade.  Honour having been satisfied the two men expressed regret for their conduct and shook hands.  MacLeod was taken back to Fort George where a surgeon from the Cameron Highlanders removed the bullet and dressed the wound.  Glengarry went home to Invergarry and MacLeod continued to receive medical attention.

In a period when the concept of medical hygiene was not yet established a penetrating wound carried with it a very high risk of septic infection and after doing well for a fortnight MacLeod sickened and died a month after the duel. 

Inverness was then one of the nine towns or cities in Scotland where serious criminal cases were dealt with by High Court judges going out on circuit twice a year.  There was a sitting of the court scheduled for September but it would probably have been impossible to find an impartial jury in the Highlands, indeed  due to the limited jury rolls of the period, to find jurors who were not related to or closely involved with either Glengarry or MacLeod. The authorities therefore decided to have the case sent for trial at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh.

The case would normally have been tried before the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Braxfield, and a bench of as many of the five other Justiciary Court judges as were available.  However Braxfield was fatally ill and so Glengarry’s trial was conducted by Lord Eskgrove sitting with Lords Swinton and Dunsinnan and a jury of fifteen landowners and professional men from Edinburgh and the Lothians. 


Lord Eskgrove, by John Kay 1799

The prosecution was led by the Lord Advocate, Robert Dundas of Arniston, with the assistance of the Solicitor General, Robert Blair.  Glengarry was defended by perhaps the finest advocate at the Scottish Bar, Henry Erskine, assisted by James Montgomery and William Rae.

Rae argued that Glengarry’s conduct after the quarrel and before the exchange of shots had created extenuating circumstances – that he had tried to settle matters without fighting and that it was only MacLeod’s stubborn insistence on his terms, including the surrender of Glengarry’s cane, that had resulted in the shots being fired.  However the judges, to quote the Scots Magazine report, held that:

… by the law of Scotland, killing in a duel was murder, and that it could not be brought under the crime of culpable homicide. That a person tried for killing in a duel must be either found guilty of murder or acquitted.

The trial, which took place before a crowded court with a great many “ladies, and persons of rank and fashion” present, continued with the evidence of the star witness – Miss Forbes, who had in the meantime married and was now Mrs Duff.  She entered Court veiled, a manner of dress which greatly irritated Lord Eskgrove, who admonished her:

Young woman! you will now consider yourself as in the presence of Almighty God and this High Court. Lift up your veil, throw off all modesty, and look me in the face.

The officers who had seen the quarrel or been involved with the duel gave evidence, but there was no real question about the facts of the case: MacLeod was dead and Glengarry had shot him.

Scottish criminal trials at this time did not recognise “office hours” – the trial started and went on until it ended.  A long day of legal arguments and evidence moved on to Henry Erskine summing up for the defence for three hours – a process which he started at midnight.  After this the notoriously long-winded Eskgrove charged the jury in what the doubtless exhausted reporter for the Scots Magazine called “a pretty long speech”.

The long-suffering jury were sent out for food and rest and told to return with a verdict at noon the next day.  Glengarry was returned to custody in the Canongate Tolbooth.

At noon on Tuesday 7th August the jury returned their verdict – not guilty.  As this verdict flew in the face of the evidence they also submitted a statement in explanation of their verdict. They argued that in no way could killing a man in a duel be considered as anything but murder, but as Glengarry had tried to reconcile matters with MacLeod they had found him not guilty.  If the duel had taken place on the original date, before he had attempted to make apologies to MacLeod, they indicated that they might well have come to a very different verdict.

Lord Eskgrove commended this remarkably muddled statement but warned Glengarry and all others to avoid the illegal and dangerous practice of duelling and said that judges and juries should repress duelling by convicting the survivor of murder “in all cases where the circumstances did justify so doing.”  This might be seen as his Lordship having his cake and eating it.

Lord Swinton observed that as the jury had acquitted there was nothing to do but to discharge the prisoner, however as the jury had made a statement he also felt entitled to make one.  Swinton’s view, which seems better founded that either Eskgrove’s or the jury’s, was that the facts had been proved, that a guilty verdict should have been returned and if there were indeed extenuating circumstances then Glengarry should have had recourse to the royal prerogative of mercy.

There was very general surprise at the verdict; Glengarry’s solicitor reported that none of his friends had anticipated his unanimous acquittal.  One Highland lawyer wrote that he hoped Glengarry would “make a good use of his hairsbreadth escape.”

Sadly this was not to be the case.  He came very close to fighting another duel in 1808, and over the years his violent nature resulted in his facing other charges of assault, one of which resulted in him paying the then very substantial sum of £2000 damages.  Not for nothing was his Gaelic nickname Alasdair Fiadhaich – wild or fierce Alasdair.

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Perhaps the most telling comment on Glengarry’s conduct and character came from his advocate Henry Erskine.  Some of Glengarry’s friends had arranged a post-acquittal celebration dinner in an Edinburgh hotel and invited the great advocate to attend. Erskine declined, as his biographer expressed it:

… on the grounds that his admiration of the part played by his client in the late tragedy was not sufficiently strong to admit of his being present.

Not everyone accepted the verdict.  Years later Glengarry was in Skye and an angry crowd, anxious to avenge young MacLeod, a member of the chiefly house of MacLeod of MacLeod, gathered outside the Portree inn where Glengarry was dining and demanded him dead or alive.  Matters got so serious that Glengarry had to be smuggled out the inn and off the island, leaving his gillies and stag-hounds behind.  The frustrated crowd warned the gillies to tell their master never to return to Skye and cropped the ears and tails of the hounds!

Brian D Osborne

This article first appeared in The Scots Magazine in November 2001



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