Scotland’s last outlaw died in prison, of cholera, before the law could exact its own penalty. Armed and given to sporting full Highland dress, Ewan MacPhee was revered and feared by locals and despised by the authorities. Yet this striking, intimidating figure was not some Jacobite bandit, living in an unruly society; he died in 1850, in an age of trains and steamships, a time when the Highlands were succumbing to creeping Victorianisation.
A century and a half on, even in his old Lochaber stamping ground of Loch Quoich, few have heard of this extraordinary character, but this should change with the publication of Mountain Outlaw by Ian R Mitchell. Intermingling what little documented accounts of MacPhee he could find with the folklore that surrounds him, his intriguing little book takes the form of fictionalised accounts by various people, from landlords and officers - even that arch-romanticiser, Sir Walter Scott - to the outlaw himself.
Mitchell, a Glasgow-based climber and author whose previous books include Mountain Days and Bothy Nights - now regarded as a classic of climbing literature - first encountered this shadowy figure while researching his last book, Scotland’s Mountain’s Before the Mountaineers. "Initially I was just interested in whether he’d climbed any Munros, that sort of thing, but I began to realise that there was a lot more to him. Also, I kept thinking this must be somebody who lived in the 1750s, but, no, he died in 1850.
The problem was, there were plenty of tales about MacPhee, but relatively little hard, documentary evidence. He was born, possibly at Corrie Bhuie in Glen Quoich, Lochaber, around 1784 and died in prison in Fort William - although one reference claimed Fort Augustus. Pressed into service in the Napoleonic wars by his landlord, at that time MacDonnel of Glengarry, he deserted, supposedly after striking and killing an officer. H e returned to his home ground, was arrested, but escaped, seemingly from an early steamship, and retreated into the wilds of Glen Quoich, living - and defending himself against those sent to apprehend him - on an island on Loch Quoich which became known as Eilean MhicPhee. He is reputed to have abducted his far younger wife, though she stayed by him. He is credited with murder, poaching, illicit distilling - and Robin Hood-style championing of the dispossessed. He is also said to have accidentally killed his illegitimate son.
Mitchell, formerly a history teacher, decided that the only way to come to grips with all of this was in fictional, or "factional" terms, even going so far as inventing an editor for the book. "Paradoxically, although he lived 100 years before MacPhee, there’s a lot more information about Rob Roy," he says. "People like the Campbells were writing letters to him. In his day, Rob Roy was just a pawn for various clan chiefs, but MacPhee lived in a period when the clan chiefs had lost their power, so he was a more independent character. MacPhee was his own man: he went into an uninhabited area, fortified his wee island and defended himself."
Latterly, MacPhee was allowed to live on the island by a more liberal landlord, Edward Ellice MP, who bought the estate from the bankrupt Glengarry. Even Ellice, however, was unable to protect MacPhee from the ill will of John "Corriechoille" Cameron, an ambitious sheep grazier who was responsible for the outlaw’s final arrest and removal to prison. He would almost certainly have been hanged, but cholera claimed him first. And the lack of a trial means a frustrating absence of court records for future would-be biographers.
"In the 18th century, the story would have been dramatic enough," agrees Mitchell. "In the 19th it’s astonishing."
Surely the man who was invariably described, from contemporary newspaper reports to portrait captions, as "MacPhee the Outlaw", would make a worthy subject for a Sam Peckinpah movie, a wild man with his own code, gone to ground while Highland society changed dramatically around him. Will Mitchell be peddling the film rights? "If anyone would take them. I’m an Aberdonian, so I have a pessimistic cast of mind about that, but I do think it would make a fantastic film. It’s got all the ingredients - sex, violence, historical interest, location."
So was MacPhee a victim or just a bad lot? "I think he was a victim in some ways. When MacPhee had to defend himself he did, but I don’t think he had a reputation for preying on his neighbours like [Rob Roy’s sons] did. I don’t think he was a saintly robber or a Robin Hood, but he was a victim of that whole period of Highland society and one of the very few who did try and resist the changes."
Before his final arrest, MacPhee had become something of a celebrity, sitting for visiting artists on Ellice’s estate, donning the extravagant tartanry which was very much a product of the Victorians’ romanticisation of the Highlands. "I feel quite sorry for him, latterly; an old man letting Victorian ladies do sketches of him. It’s almost getting to the circus stage, like Wild Bill Hickock or Buffalo Bill."
MacPhee’s story illustrates the changes and tensions affecting Highland society at the time, from the steady encroachment of sheep to the decline of the old clan chiefs such as Glengarry, sinking with the weight of their extravagance. Ironically, while MacPhee once escaped from a steamship, his old antagonist, Glengarry, was killed by a boiler explosion on an early steamship in the Caledonian canal.
Look at an Ordnance Survey map today and you won’t see an Eilean MhicPhee on Loch Quoich, although you will find it on older maps. The loch was deepened by flooding for a hydro-electric scheme in the 1950s, which drowned both Ellice’s hunting lodge and MacPhee’s island. When the water level is low, says Mitchell, "you can still see the rooftops of the lodge". And somewhere in the silt below lie the daub and wattle remnants of the island refuge of Scotland’s last outlaw.
• Mountain Outlaw, Luath Press, 6.50.