Towards the end of the 16th century, the Isle of Lewis was a wild, unruly, unhealthy and recalcitrant place. At least according to its King, James VI. It might have been quite a few of these things but educating his people was not what was really on the King’s mind when he took measures to change it. He could have sent teachers or men of the church to remedy what was at odds but instead he sent mercenaries and settlers because his intention was another: greed.
Lewis was thought to be full of resources, rich in arable land and easy to “conquer” and that is exactly what the King of Scotland chose to do – he sent troops to conquer the island within his own realm.
He sent out 12 disciples – 12 influential Scottish Nobles from the Borders, to pacify Lewis. These 12 took along another 600 mercenaries and more settlers. This invading army was called the Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife, not a very appropriate term considering they were allowed by royal charter to use “slauchter, mutilation, fyre-raising, or utheris inconvenieties”. (Mackenzie) In other word they could kill whoever got in their way and walk away scott-free. And they were tax-free as well for at least a year after their arrival on Lewis. They also were allowed by the Privy Council to deport and exterminate whoever they wanted.
The King wanted to increase his wealth and subdue the Gaelic culture as well as the Macleods who had held the island for centuries.
Little did he expect so much opposition? The Fife Adventurers were left no chance to settle peacefully in the Stornoway area. The two brothers Neil and Murdoch Macleod (both the last but illegitimate sons of the old chief) fought back by resistance and guerilla warfare. But these two brothers were not a united front against a common enemy, they were quarreling, and Neil took his brother prisoner to hand him over to the Fife Adventurers for a pardon but changed his mind soon and attacked the gentlemen invaders instead, killing 60. The Lewismen, honed by ongoing feuds over the centuries were used to battle and aggression.
The “colonists” were not used to the conditions and the Hebridean weather and they had (arriving in winter) not enough fresh supplies.
“Their shelter was inadequate, the encampment they had formed being insufficient to protect them against the November gales and the dampness of the climate. Exposure brought on an epidemic of flux or dysentery, to which many of the colonists succumbed.” (Mackenzie)
There are no records where the Fife Adventurers were buried but it is likely somewhere in or around Stornoway. Maybe even somewhere near Aignish cemetery on the Eye peninsula.
None of their graves has survived. Nor has any trace of the attempted but failed settlement by Men from Fife in the Isle of Lewis. More expeditions followed, none was successful. Those who survived finally abandoned the island they had wanted to conquer. Their adventure was over. The King’s plan had failed.
The Island went to the Mackenzie of Kintail, who bought it for 10.000 merks in 1620.
sources and further reading:
W.C. Mackenzie: History of the Outer Hebrides. Gardner, Paisley, 1903