The Appin Murder of 1752 - was the wrong man executed?
Professor Allan I Macinnes presents a summary of his new research into a 18th-century murder, for which he believes the wrong man was executed.
Brought up in Ballachulish in the West Highlands during the 1950s, I soon became familiar with the stories and legends surrounding the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure in the woods of Lettermore on 14 May 1752. Like most locals in the parish of Lismore and Appin, I was convinced that the wrong man, James Stewart of Glenduror alias Seumas a’Ghlinne was tried, convicted and executed for being accessory to the murder presumed in law to have been committed by his kinsman Allan Breac Stewart.
Both had fought against the British government in the last Jacobite rising of 1745-46. In the nineteenth century, the events surrounding the murder and the trial were immortalised by Robert Louis Stevenson in his historical novels, Kidnapped and Catriona. Walt Disney even had his film version of Kidnapped, which starred Peter Finch and James MacArthur, partly shot in Ballachulish and Glencoe in 1959.
In the course of lecturing on this topic over many years, I had endorsed the view that the murder was part of a Jacobite conspiracy, involving the Camerons of Lochiel and Callart, and the MacDonalds of Glencoe as well as the Stewarts of Appin. I was also caught up in many discussions whether clans associated with the Stewarts, such as the MacColls and the MacInneses, were the actual assassins.
I was obliged to alter my opinion after a series of conversations with the Rev Adrian Fallows, now retired as the Episcopalian priest in Ballachulish and Glencoe. As a former gamekeeper he raised significant doubts about the ballistic evidence; doubts which continued despite the Royal Society of Edinburgh running an authoritative forensic re-examination of the trial in 2013.
In the following year, I was actually commissioned by Alex Salmond, the former first minister of Scotland, to make a report on the Appin Murder with a view to securing a judicial pardon for Seumas a’Ghlinne. My investigations into the historical records led me to two related conclusions.
Firstly, the irregular case against Seumas a’Ghlinne was judicially flawed and that his conviction as an accessory does not stand up. Secondly, the murderer was not a Jacobite conspirator known to him, but a close relative of Campbell of Glenure who had ridden with him into the woods of Lettermore and opportunistically shot him for personal gain and advancement.
The man who can now be identified as the likely murderer went on to have a remunerative career as a government agent in Lochaber then as a British army officer sent to quell the American Revolution. He actually fell at the siege of Fort Montgomery on the Hudson River in upper state New York.
A monument was actually erected to him by British Loyalists in the grounds of Westpoint, the premier military academy in the USA. A monument (pictured above) has been erected to Seumas a’Ghlinne on the spot where he was executed overlooking Ballachulish Ferry. But no pardon has yet been conceded by a Scottish government reluctant to challenge its rather conservative legal advisers.
Allan I. Macinnes, Emeritus Professor of History, University of Strathclyde.
Seumas a’Ghlinne monument copyright Chris Downer; Appin Murder cairn copyright Euan Nelson