The Appin murder: who killed Red Fox?

FOR 18 months the body of James Stewart - James of the Glen - was left to hang on the gibbet at an elevated and highly visible spot on the south end of the Ballachulish Ferry.

It was a sinister aftermath to one of the most shameful episodes in Scottish history - the Appin Murder. It claimed the lives of two men - one killed by sniper fire, the second "judicially" murdered after a rigged trial which paid no heed to justice, only the needs of vengeance and political expediency. The gruesome public display of the hanged man's remains was one of the final flourishes of the bloody maelstrom that was clan warfare in Scotland.

Stewart unquestionably went to the gallows an innocent man. His own clan family 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 killer was passed down to selected Stewarts through generations before being revealed - apparently - only four years ago.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Appin Murder happened in May 1752, six years after the Battle of Culloden. The dead man was Colin Campbell of Glenure, Argyllshire. Known as "The Red Fox", he was the factor of several estates which had been forfeited from pro-Jacobite clans and his challenging task was to collect taxes from clan leaders.It has been claimed that on the day he was shot Campbell was about to indulge in a spot of "ethnic cleansing" by evicting Stewart families from their houses on the Ardsheal estate and replacing them with Campbells. That claim has never been proved but post-Culloden, anti-Campbell sentiment was rife in the west Highlands. The Campbells, living in the heart of clan country, were however loyal to the Hanoverian monarchy and deeply unpopular among those who had fought with Charles Edward Stewart, the Bonnie Prince himself. They had also been seen to "do the bidding of their English masters" at the Massacre of Glencoe 60 years earlier.

Colin Roy Campbell was 44 and ambitious. His work was distasteful but the more fair-minded regarded him as a decent man who made the best of a difficult job. At Ardsheal, James of the Glen helped him collect Stewart rents and the two men often consulted.

On 14 May, Campbell and four others had just crossed Loch Leven on the ferry and were passing the road at Lettermore Wood when a musket shot rang out. Campbell lay dead and the killer disappeared into the rugged countryside. Within two days James of the Glen had been arrested and taken for trial to the Campbell stronghold of Inveraray Castle. The trial was a travesty. Eleven of the 15 jurors were Campbells and the presiding judge was the Duke of Argyll, the clan chief. Not surprisingly Stewart was sentenced to die.It is said that on the day of the hanging, the real man who fired the shot had to be held down at a house in Ballachulish to prevent him giving himself up. One of those who fell under suspicion was Stewart's half-brother, Alan Breck Stewart, described as a vengeful young hothead who had stirred up anti-Campbell hatred among his clansmen. Robert Louis Stevenson became so fascinated with the story that he based the novels Kidnapped and Catriona on the episode - with Alan Breck as one of the leading characters.

In 2001, nearly 250 years after the incident, an 89-year-old descendant of the Stewarts of Appin, Anda Penman, claimed it was time to break the family silence. She said the murder was planned by four young Stewart lairds and that the gun was fired by the best shot among the four, Donald Stewart of Ballachulish, who had been elected assassin. Penman died soon afterwards and no member of the Stewart family has substantiated her incredible story.

Back in 1754 the sight of the remains of James Stewart was too much for a local half-wit known as "Daft Macphee". It is said he uprooted the gallows and threw it into Loch Linnhe and that it then floated into Loch Etive before coming to rest further south near Bonawe. The wooden gibbet was used as a bridge across stream and the bones of James of the Glen were carefully gathered and buried - by none other than young Donald Stewart of Ballachulish.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:

Madeleine Smith and her poisonous tale