Alastair Ruadh MacDonnell

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Alastair Ruadh MacDonnell (Scottish Gaelic: Alasdair Ruadh Mac Dhomhnuil, i.e. "Red Alexander"; c. 1725 – 23 December 1761) was a Scottish Jacobite who was identified by Andrew Lang as the secret agent "Pickle," who acted as a spy on Prince Charles Edward after 1750. He was a chief of Clan MacDonell of Glengarry,


He was born about 1725, was eldest son of John, twelfth chief, by the only daughter of Colin Mackenzie of Hilton. While yet a mere youth he was sent in 1738 to France, where in 1743 he joined Lord John Drummond, 4th Duke of Perth's (Duke after 1746) Régiment Royal-Écossais, in which he was given the command of a company. In March 1744, he was with the George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, and intended starting with the futile expedition of that year. Having in the following year been sent to Scotland to give information in connection with certain Jacobite disputes, he was in May despatched by the highland chiefs to France to testify to Charles their allegiance to his cause, but at the same time to warn him against an attempt to land in Scotland unless strongly backed by foreign assistance. His mission, however, was of no avail; for Charles, before Macdonell's arrival in France, had already set sail on his rash adventure. Macdonell resolved to take part in it, but while returning to Scotland with a detachment of Drummond's French regiment "Royal Écossois" he was captured on 25 November 1745 by H.M.S. Sheerness, and sent to the Tower of London, where he was detained until July 1747. In December 1749, he helped himself to the Jacobite treasure concealed at Loch Arkaig. Already or shortly afterwards he had further resolved on the betrayal of the Jacobite cause, and having introduced himself to Henry Pelham, he, as Mr. Lang has demonstrated, became a hired spy on Prince Charles and the Jacobites, corresponding with the government under the pseudonym of Pickle.[1]

Perhaps it has been insufficiently borne in mind that Macdonell may have all along cherished resentment against the prince on account of the clan's removal to the left wing at Culloden, where it practically deserted the prince's cause by refusing to strike a blow on his behalf. True the clan gave the prince shelter during his wanderings, but Macdonell himself may on account of the treatment of the clan, or for some other reason, have cherished a personal grudge against the prince. In any case he was probably clever enough to recognise that the prince himself had become impossible; and his interest corresponding with his convictions, he may have persuaded himself that he was really saving his clan and the highlands generally from much needless suffering by frustrating the prince's madcap schemes. If, however, as is likely, his purpose was mainly selfish, it was unsuccessful, for the death of Pelham in 1754 blighted his main hopes of reward. On the death of his father in September 1754, he became chief of the clan and succeeded to his father's impoverished fortunes. He died in 1761 in a hut adjoining his ruined castle, and having no issue was succeeded in the chieftaincy by his nephew Duncan, son of his brother Æneas, who was slain at Falkirk.[1]

During the Jacobite rising of 1745 the command of the Glengarry clan was, on account of the imprisonment of the chief, and of Alastair the chiefs eldest son, entrusted to the second son, Æneas; but in the absence of Æneas in the highlands to procure reinforcements, the clan was, while on the march southwards to Derby, under the charge of Colonel Donald Macdonald of Lochgarry; and after the death of Æneas at Falkirk, Lochgarry accompanied the prince in his later wanderings and escaped with him to France, whence he wrote to his chief a 'memorial' detailing the clan's achievements during the rebellion and its loyal conduct to the prince while a fugitive in its fastnesses.[1]

In Fiction

In D. K. Broster's Jacobite Trilogy, the historical role played by Alastair Ruadh MacDonnell is assigned to a fictional character, Finlay MacPhair of Glenshian. The fictional character's main biographical details are virtually identical with those of the actual MacDonnell. The character is the villain of the trilogy's third part, "The Dark Mile".

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