Colin Campbell of Glenure was killed, the victim of the Appin Murder, near Ballachulish, on the 14th of May, 1752.
The murder of Colin Campbell, known to this day as the Appin Murder, is an unsolved murder mystery. It occurred on the 14th of May, 1752, near Ballachulish, in the district of Appin, to the north of Oban, in the tumultuous aftermath of the ‘Forty-five’ Rebellion. There have no doubt been several murders in Appin, over the years, yet there is only one Appin Murder, infamous, not so much for the murder itself, but for its sinister aftermath.
The incident has been given greater notoriety by Robert Louis Stevenson having incorporated a fictionalised account in his novel ‘Kidnapped’. The enigmatic figure of Alan Breck Stewart, as portrayed in the novel, is based on a real person who was a prime suspect, but his flight through the heather with David Balfour, is pure invention.
Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure, at the age of forty-four, was an ambitious landowner and Government Factor. Campbell, christened ‘The Red Fox’ by Stevenson, was just going about his usual business of collecting rents, however, it has been claimed, that his mission was also to indulge in a bit of ethnic cleansing i.e., to evict Jacobite sympathisers from amongst the Stewarts on the forfeited Ardsheal estate. That claim doesn’t seem to have been proved, but post-Culloden, anti-Campbell sentiment was rife in the west Highlands. The Campbells were loyal to the Hanoverian monarchy and deeply unpopular.
Notwithstanding the distasteful nature of Campbell’s work, the more fair-minded regarded him as a decent man who made the best of a difficult job. At Ardsheal, the second major personality in this story, ‘James of the Glens’, often helped the Factor collect Stewart rents. The two men habitually worked together and for a time enjoyed friendly relations despite their clan and political differences.
Campbell, his nephew Mungo, servant Ewan Mackenzie, and sheriff’s officer Donald Kennedy, had just crossed the narrows of Loch Leven, from Callart, by the ferry on route to Kentallan. This small party was then passing the road below Lettermore Wood, which clutched the shoreline of Loch Linnhe, when a single shot rang out. As Stevenson put it; ‘There came a shot from a firelock from higher up the hill; and with the very sound of it Glenure fell upon the road. “Oh, I am dead!” he cried, several times over…’.
The one shot had taken Campbell in the back with two bullets no more than two and a half inches apart, both of which exited his abdomen. Two bullets are explained by the practice of loading an extra bullet, half the size of the other, and known as a ‘chaser’. The unknown assassin, who must have been lying quite close, judging by the proximity of the bullets in Campbell’s back, disappeared into the rugged countryside and, unlike in Kidnapped, there were no soldiers to give chase.
There followed a witch hunt throughout the district, during which the Campbells rounded up the usual suspects. One of those was James Stewart's half-brother, Alan Breck Stewart, who was described as a young hothead, who had stirred up anti-Campbell hatred. Alan Breck could not be found, so within a couple of days, they arrested James of the Glens and dragged him off to the Campbell stronghold of Inverarray.
The trial, before the Campbell Duke of Argyll and a 15-man jury, comprising eleven Campbells, was a travesty. Stewart had an alibi, claiming that he had been several miles away at the time. No evidence was presented to show that he had been involved in a conspiracy and Mungo Campbell, could state only that he had seen a man with “a short dark coat” and carrying a gun, some distance away. His first impression, which he later retracted, was that this unidentified figure could not have fired the shot. Despite this, Stewart was convicted as being ‘art and part’ (an accessory) and condemned.
On the 8th of November, 1752, the hapless scapegoat, James Stewart, was hanged, on a small knoll called Cnap a’ Chaolaise on the south end of the Ballachulish Ferry. His body was left on the gibbet, with chains and wires to hold it together, to remind Appin folk of the ‘majesty’ of the Law. Nobody dared remove the corpse, but the story goes that the macabre remains were eventually cut down by the local halfwit, ‘Daft Macphee’.
All told, it was a sinister aftermath to one of the most shameful episodes in Scottish history. The late High Court judge, Lord ‘Jock’ Cameron deemed the trial, “The blackest mark on Scottish legal history”. This sorry affair claimed the lives of two men – one murdered by a sniper’s musket; the other ‘judicially murdered’ after a rigged trial, which paid heed only to the needs of vengeance and political expediency.
It is said that on the day of the hanging, the real murderer had to be held down, at a house in Ballachulish, to prevent him giving himself up. Stewart unquestionably went to the gallows an innocent man. His own clan knew that from the beginning, but refused to turn in the guilty man. Instead, in one of the best kept secrets in history, the identity of the third major personality in this tale seems to have been passed on by word of mouth through the generations, before being ‘revealed’ only recently.
In 2001, nearly 250 years after the incident, and reported by various sources, including the BBC, an eighty-nine-year-old descendant of the Stewarts of Appin, Anda Penman, claimed the murder was planned by four young Stewart lairds, with the gun being fired by the best shot, Donald Stewart of Ballachulish. Penman died soon afterwards and her incredible story has never been substantiated.
The same accusation is indicated in The Dewar Manuscripts, a collection of stories gathered by John Dewar, who was a meticulous, nineteenth century recorder of tales. However, the Reverend Somerled Macmillan, the local Free Church Minister, in the 1940s, stated, as published in the old Weekly Scotsman, in the 1960s, that the killer was Donald’s brother, John. Also interesting is that, after Stewart’s body was cut down, his remains were seemingly gathered and buried – by none other than Donald Stewart.