Colonising the West

Isle of Lewis

Towards the end of the 16th century, the Isle of Lewis was a wild, unruly, and apparently rather vicious place. At least, that’s what King James VI thought. Perhaps this was indeed true, but more likely it was royal propaganda, cleverly circulated to morally justify the actions that followed. If the king had really had the best interest of his people in mind, he would have taken other measures, he would have sent teachers or priests or both. Instead, he sent mercenaries and settlers to colonise Lewis, an island within the realm, that had belonged to Scotland since the 12th century.

Lewis was thought to be full of resources, rich in arable land, rich in fish, and easy to develop. The king of (mainland) Scotland sent troops to pacify the island in the northwest corner of his empire with trusted vassals, those he knew and spoke his language. In Lewis, Gaelic was spoken.

time for adventurers

Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife

In monetary rather than missionary zeal, he sent twelve “disciples”, twelve influential nobles from the Borders. The twelve took another 600 mercenaries and more settlers with them. Lewis should be safe so that the new settlers could make use of the land and sea undisturbed by the locals. The invading army was called the Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife, which was not an appropriate term, because the twelve were noble but they were not gentlemen, and it was not an adventure that they embarked on, it was a crime, because they were, according to the royal charter, allowed to use such means as slaughter, mutilation, or fire and sword to subdue the local population. In other words, they could kill and torture anyone who stood in their way and get away with it. Also, they remained untaxed for at least a year upon arrival on Lewis, a freedom many were happy to accept.

The king sought to increase his wealth and subdue the Gaelic culture as well as the MacLeods, who had owned the island for centuries, for they were not as submissive as he wanted them to be. What the king hadn’t anticipated was the islanders’ resistance. The Fife Adventurers were given no chance of settling peacefully in the Stornoway area. The two brothers, Neil and Murdoch Macleod (both the last, albeit illegitimate, sons of the old chief), fought back with passive resistance and guerrilla warfare. However, the brothers were at odds with each other, and Neil, at one point, was about to surrender his brother to the Fife Adventurers, but changed his mind at the last minute and attacked the invaders instead, killing 60 of them.

chaos in the colonies

Local attacks were not the only cause of death. The “colonists” were not used to the harsh conditions and the relentless weather in the Outer Hebrides. On top of that, they did not have enough fresh supplies, as they had arrived in late November. Their accommodation was inadequate, and the camp was not properly established to protect them from the November storms and the climate. Many colonists succumbed to dysentery and other diseases. It didn’t take long, and those who survived returned to Fife.

There is no trace of the unsuccessful settlement by the Fife men on the Isle of Lewis. Further attempts followed, but none were successful. The survivors eventually left the island they wanted to conquer, the adventure was over, and the king’s plan had failed. The island went to the Mackenzie of Kintail, who bought it in 1620. The church in Elie, Fife was built not long after that, in 1639. Some of the surving Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife might have worshipped here.

Liked the read?

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available on Amazon!

Scotland is a country full of history, stories and secrets. Often, the three cannot be separated. That is what makes this country so wonderful and unique. The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for Erkenbach’s blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. 

Her main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel.This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share the author’s passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.

The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.

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