October 8th 1719
Highland banditsIn the Highlands there is no doubt that the enforcement of law and order depended more upon the effectiveness of the lairds and local courts than upon any central authority. Even when the thieves were caught, all too often they could get away with their crimes.
James Stewart of Ardvorlich writing to Lord Murray of Atholl. “I never remember in a peacible tyme to see such complaints of stealing of horses and uther beasts as ther has bein this tyme bygone and such swarms of idle rogues……although the theif be takine in the fang (with the stolen goods) the poor man is forced to let him pass for want of justice…… poor people has not whereupon to follow such persutes before the Justices at Edinburgh. The rogue thus let pas, possibly before he sleep, will not miss to steal as much from the next neighbour, as are nimblie practized of late. This keeps the countrye in a continual trouble, which is become a perfect nurserie of thieves, for they are now sure that all their hazard is restitutione, altho the matter be clearly proven against them in ane action of spulzie (the taking away of the moveable goods of another without consent)”
Even in the later part of the 18th century there were still complaints that crimes escaped punishment due to the unwillingness of private sufferers to incur the trouble and expense of prosecuting, “and such impunity is often a temptation to idle disposed persons to proceed to greater and more audacious crimes.”
Until 1747 when heritable jurisdiction was abolished, the Duke of Atholl or his nominee regularly presided over his main court at Logierait. Many of the cases concerned domestic matters but there were more serious cases particularly when gangs of ‘louse’ or broken men (outlaws) terrorised the countryside.
One such case involving four men was tried at Logierait on October 8th 1719. They were accused that “shaking off all fear of God they did theftuously steall and take away from James Stewart ane black mare and from Alexander McKendrick ane other black mare and ane horse black colloured with a white bald in his face. And from Patrick Hutcheon 2 black cows and one black calf and from Katheren Taylor ane breaked humble cow and from Donald McLaren one black cow, four brown cows and one black calf. All which bestiall belonging to the persons above named were theftuously seized, stolen and taken away……until you were overtaken and apprehended as you were driving the same to your own country in the most masterful and violent way with guns, swords, pistolls and other weapons in your hands which you bore and used contrary to the late Act of Parliament.”
They were further charged that “you did threaten to kill or doe mischief to any who came near you and did actually fire your guns at some of the country people who were in quest of their bestiall.” It was also mentioned that all the owners “of the said bestiall are but poor indigent people, particularly Katheren Taylor as being a poor widow having five young orphans whereof one blind, and no other bestiall but the said one cow stolen by you the want whereof must render her and her children in a very miserable condition.”
These were obviously no petty thieves but professional, callous bandits who plundered the poor rather than the rich because they were the easier to rob. The formation of the ‘independent companies’, and later the Black Watch after the 1715 rebellion, helped to curtail their activities but it was only when a full network of roads was constructed throughout the Highlands that such gangs were eventually rooted out. The Rannoch area, as being particularly isolated, harboured many such broken men.