Taken from
Issue Number 8 Autumn 1980
coverissue8 (224K)


William Ralston of that Ilk
Gavin J. Ralston

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The Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Kintyre in the County of Argyll, published in 1971, by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, under the section of Post-Reformation Funerary Monuments in the churchyard of Kilcolmkill, later known as St. Columba's Church of Southend, describes the monument marking the burial place of William Ralston of that Ilk. It stands against the N. Wall of the burial enclosure towards the W. end of the cemetery and is now very much weathered, the principal surviving feature being a panel carved in high relief with the full heraldic achievement of the Ralston Family.

RalstonIlk (27K)
William Ralston of that Ilk
The shield is charged: on a bend three acorns in seed. There is falcon for crest and the dexter supporter is a man in armour and the sinister a horse rampant. An upper label bears the family motto FIDE ET MARTE while a lower one carries an illegible inscription. Beneath the panel there is another illegible inscription recorded by Dobie as "The Ralston Arms." At the head of the stone below the coat of arms there is an inscription, now nearly indecipherable, which records that the memorial was re-hewed or re-erected in 1799 by Gavin Ralston. (Grave Memorial Stone.) This Gavin Ralston was the great-great-grandson of William. According to the records of the Court of the Lord Lyon these Arms were recorded at some time between 1672 and 1687 although there is also a record of the Arms in the early 17th century entitled "Gentlemen "s Arms." (The Arms are illustrated on the front cover of the Magazine.)

The monument marks the last resting place of that William Ralston of that Ilk who was born in 1610. He was a man who, during his long and active life, not only upheld the traditions of the family as an enlightened landowner and a paternalistic Lowland Laird but also became involved in the political and religious controversies of his time. He commanded troops in battle, he spent some time in prison and on several occasions narrowly escaped death. He was the first of the Ralstons of that Ilk to move to Kintyre from the traditional lands in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire which the family had occupied since the 12th century.

William, although only a boy when he entered his inheritance on the death of his father in 1623, had ambitions to extend the Ralston estates and this he did in April 1643 when, in a deed signed on the 24th he took over from James, Earl of Abercorn, the lands and barony of Auchingoun which had formerly belonged to the Abbey of Paisley. These lands lay in the Parish of Lochwinnoch and now came to be called Auchingoun-Ralston. On the 17th of November that same year he took over the neighbouring lands of Roughbank and Crummock in the parish of Beith, near the family home of Woodside.

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William married Ursula Mure, daughter of William Mure of neighbouring Glanderstone, the man who had been acting as tutor or guardian to William and his sisters since the death of both their parents in 1623. This marriage brought William into contact with academic circles and it may well have been these contacts which stimulated his interest in religious and political affairs. Two of Ursula's sisters had married scholarly and successful men. The husband of Margaret, the eldest, was principal and Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow University until his death in 1654. Janet's husband became Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University, while Elizabeth, who married a Minister, had a son who eventually became Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow University and Historiographer for Scotland.

William made several improvements to tne house of WoodsydeRalston and a carved stone still exists above the door bearing the initials W.R. and U.M. William and Ursula had one son, Gavin.

In 1650 William made a decision which resulted in a further extension of the Ralston estates, this time to the peninsula of Kintyre in the County of Argyll. The history of the events leading up to William's decision is briefly as follows:
During most of his reign, both before and after succeeding to the throne of England, James VI & I had constant trouble from the clan chiefs in the Western Isles, in Kintyre and in Northern Ireland. The MacDonalds of the Isles and their kinsmen, the Macdonnells of Antrim, hy their intricate family alliances and feuds had made this part of the realm virtually ungovernable. In order to drive a wedge between these two family groups King James decided on a policy of colonisation or transplantation. He confiscated land in Ulster from the native aristocracy who owned large tracts of land and systematically planted Lowland Scots and English upon it. In this he was successful but his efforts to carry out the same policy in Kintyre failed. The native inhabitants, either because of loyalcy to, or fear of the MacDonalds made life so difficult for the Lowland Scots that many returned horne and many moved across to Antrim. James then delegated the task of colonisation of Kintyre to Archibald Campbell, Eighth Earl and First Marquis of Argyle, who, in the eyes of the King, combined the desirable qualities of loyalty to James and antipathy to the MacDonalds. Argyle, himself half Lowland in outlook, was given every encouragement by the King, not only to destroy the power of the turbulent MacDonalds in a private war but also to foster the policy of colonisation. From Argyle's point of view this was an excellent opportunity, firstly to destroy his rivals and secondly, to improve the productivity of the agricultural lands of Kintyre, which had been poorly managed by the Highlanders. The problem of unsatisfactory tenants appears to have been a matter of concern to Argyle's father, the 7th Earl for we find that on 27th July 1609 he applied for and was granted a Decreet of Removal against a large number of his Kintyre tenants. This would seem to have been nothing more than a warning for subsequent rentals showed that most of those were on the list were still on their rented farms; the purpose of the Decreet was simply to give the Earl the necessary legal authority to deal with any difficult tenants and to enable him to collect his rents.

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Another factor which influenced Argyle was that during the years 1644 to 1648 Scotland had experienced a widespread epidemic of Bubonic Plague associated with a very high mortality. In 1647 Kintyre was badly affected by the disease and as a resul t. many of the farms were left unoccupied by the death of the tenants. It was for these reasons that the re-population of Kintyre seemed to Argyle to be not only desirable, but necessay.

Looking, as he was, for tenants who were skilled in agriculture and who were accustomed to a stable way of life Argyle, as leader of the Covenanters, knew that he could turn for help to those lowland Covenanter Scots whom he had known well. The man chosen to pioneer the transplantation of Lowland families was William Ralston of that Ilk, Argyle's friend and confident. In this choice both men were fortunate; the Marquis received complete loyalty and Ralston was given powerful support


In the year 1650 Argyle settled William at Saddell, a small, picturesque sandy bay ten miles north of the fishing village of Lochhead - later to become the Royal Burgh of Campbeltown. He was granted a "tack" i.e. a lease of 23½ merklands of the old lands of Saddell Abbey with Saddell Castle as a residence. The Castle had been built by the Bishop of Argyle in 1508 but had been burned by the Earl of Sussex during his raid on Kintyre in 1558 and when William arrived it was in a state of disrepair. The following agreement was reached regarding repairs:

30 April 1650
Agreement between Archibald Marquis of Argyll on the one part and William Ralstone of that lIke on the other, viz. that the said W.R. shall repair all the breaches of the stone-work of the house of Saddell in Kintyre alsweill in hewen worke bartizane and other wayes, as it was first contryved and shall putt on ane sufficient Rooff of Firr and Sklait on the said house, and lay all the loftis there of with sufficient firr restis and daillis and putt up all the partitione walls thereof of firr and mak all the windowes and doires and zait (gate) of the said house & givinees all material lis to the work, and pay all the workmen, and also to caus glas all the windowes and put irone stancheonis in all the windowes of the secondie storie of the said house and to have the said house sufficientlie and completlie outraid and perflyted at the sight of craftsmen of skill before the 1st Wov.1652. For which the Marquis shall pay to W.R. 5000 merkes Scots as follows, viz.1/3 at his entry to the work, 1/3 when half work is completed and the last 1/3 at the perfecting of said work.

(signed) Argyll.
W. Ralstone of that ilke.
J. Broune witness.
Geo. Campbell witness."

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The responsibility for the cultivation of these lands of Saddell William gave to some of his relatives and tenants from Ayrshire while he himself continued to live at Woodside. As a fervent Covenanter belonging to the rather fanatic sect known as the Remonstrants he was, from that base, politically very active. With a zeal for religious and civil liberty he had joined that party which was opposed to the encroachment of the Royal power which had begun with the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603. He and his kinsmen took exception to the power of Charles I, although William's objection was on religious rather than on political grounds. Since 1640 Charles had systematically annoyed the upper classes in Scotland and filled them with suspicion. What finally turned them against the King was his failure to acknowledge and recognise the form of government of the Church of Scotland which had been devised by those who, like Ralston, had turned their backs completely on Rome. Despite his antipathy to the King's policy William, like so many other Scots, still remained a staunch Royalist and, when Charles was beheaded in 1649, he refused to have anything to do with the Republic and proceeded to take up arms against Oliver Cromwell. We find his name on the Committee of War for the Counties of Ayr and Renfrew for the purpose of raising forces and supplies to oppose Cromwell.

Despite the defeat of the Scots army at the Battle of Dunbar on 3rd September 1650 William did not relent in his opposition to Cromwell's rule and on the 23rd of December in that year he was personally involved in an action against Cromwell's troops. A contemporary writer describes the incident.

It was late in the afternoon of Saturday the 22nd when the Scottish troops arrived on the outskirts of Hamilton where 2,660 of Cromwell's army under General Lambert were stationed. By the time food and fodder, had been secured from the surrounding district it was 10 o'clock in the evening before the Scots had formed up and were ready to advance on the town. It had been hoped that the heavy rain that had persisted for more than a week would continue and so provide some element of surprise. Unfortunately, as they were preparing to attack the clouds cleared and a full moon lit up the scene and by midnight a hard frost had set in so that the English could both hear and see the preparations.

It is not known whether Lambert had arranged an ambush in the town but at 2 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Ralston with a detachment of 140 men was detailed to lead the attack. Ralston, "a maist determined and gallant man" led his men into the town and drove the enemy before him. With fierce hand to hand fighting Lambert's troops were driven out of the the town. Many, including General Lambert himself, hid in the houses. Lambert escaped out of the back entry of Sarah Jeans Close, then one of the best known inns in Hamilton, and, having got out of the town, rallied his men and called up his reserves. When Ralston was joined by his commanding officer, Colonel Ker, who had started his attack at 6 a.m. they found Lambert's troops drawn up near the Cadzow Burn and ready for battle. They counter-attacked and Ker and Ralston were forced to withdraw to their original positions. During the engagement Raiston lost 60 of his 140 men. Later Colonel Ker was criticised for not giving Ralston any dragoons at the commencement of the attack dragoons being mounted infantry trained to fight on foot.

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Meanwhile, William Ralston's friend the Marquis of Argyle was persuaded to withdraw his support from the Monarchists and join with many other powerful leaders in Scotland in giving support to Cromwell. His son, on the other hand, continued to support the Royalist cause. William Ralston's loyalty to the Marquis was sorely tried but probably because he owed his Kintyre lands to him and was his friend he decided to support him and threw in his influence on the side of Cromwell.

Having taken this decision, William showed his determination to carry out his obligations. At the beginning of 1653 the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Scotland wrote to Cromwell informing him that William Ralston proposed to raise in Kintyre a force of 220 horsemen to fight on his side. It was not long before Ralston and his men were in action.

During the summer of 1653 a party of Royalists led by Lord Lome, Lord Kenmore and Laird Macnachtan of Dunderave invaded Kintyre. Meanwhile, William had withdrawn, with a garrison, into the Castle of Lochhead (i.e. Campbeltown). A sharp engagement took place when Ralston's men sallied from the castle killing several of the Royalists and taking Macnaughton prisoner. William had expected reinforcements but none appeared and after further sporadic fighting he had to surrender and give up the Castle. In a letter dated 1st November 1653 an officer described the incident to Cromwell: "The Kenmore fell upon a good honest party of Lowlanders in Cantire that opposed him and hath one, Laird Ralston, prisoner that was the chief of them and a very godly man whom he keeps in irons, yet he and the rest choose rather (I think) to suffer what has befallen them than to be beholding to us for assistance or to give us timely intelligence." Baillie, a contemporary historian gives a similar account: "Ralston and the Remonstrant gentlemen of Kintyre seemed readie to arm for the English against the King's partie. Lome and Kenmuir, with the men they had raised went to Kintyre to suppress the them. They, on the hope of the English assistance, fortified the Castle of Lochhead; but neither Argyle nor the English appear in their defence they rander the house to Lome's discretion. Kenmuir, thinking the besieged better used by Lome than they deserved, fell into a miscontent and went from Lome to Glencaim with many complaints." Had not Lome interceded with Kenmuir on William's behalf it is likely that Ralston and his followers would have been hanged from the walls of Lochhead Castle. Lome was probably influenced by the realisation of the fact that the Ralstons and the other Lowland families were an important factor in determining the future prosperity of the lands in Kintyre which he knew he would inherit on the death of his father, the Marquis.

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The years following 1660 were troubled times for William Ralston. Not only did he lose a good friend when the Marquis of Argyle was executed in 1661 but the Restoration of Charles II proved a serious setback to the hopes of the Covenanters. Despite their initial satisfaction at the return of the Monarchy it soon became clear to them that their hoped for democratic form of church government, for which they had fought, was not going to be attained when Charles showed that he intended giving the Bishops even more power than they had had previously. Ralston and his fellow Covenanters in Kintyre resisted fiercely and were described in 1665 by the Earl of Rothes as "a nest of knaves." On October l2 1665 William and two others were arrested and imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle without charge or trial.

Towards the end of 1667 the prisoners in Dumbarton Castle were set free. William had petitioned the Privy Council to the effect that he had now been a prisoner for two years or more, "and as in the knowledge of his innocency he is confident he failed nothing, so he is most desirous to remove all suspicion of his carriage for the future..." Accordinp;ly, the Lords of the Council "with His Majesty's pleasure signified to them thereanent" ordered his release, he to go at once to Edinburgh and subscribe the necessary bonds to keep the peace under penalty of 10,000 merks. He also agreed that his tenants and servants, present and future, should sign a similar bond to keep the peace, under penalty of paying the full value of a year's rent or a year's fee respectively.

By now William was 57 years of age and he decided to retire to his Kintyre estates but his "tack" of Saddell granted for nineteen years from 1650 was due to expire and the Earl of Argyle, his former enemy and son of his former friend, did not renew the lease, preferring to give the estate to a Campbell relative. He did, however, grant to William a new tack of land nearly twice the extent of the Saddell estate. This holding comprised all the best lands in the parishes of Southend and Campbeltown. There, in the comparative isolation of the district near the Mull of Kintyre, he appears to have settled down to enjoy the peace and freedom which had eluded him for so long. He suffered two blows in his home life; first when his son, Gavin, died in 1672 and two years later when Ursula, his wife, died. In 1675, however, he re-married. His second wife was Jean Dunlop, daughter of James Dunlop of that Ilk, another of the Lowland Lairds who had settled in Kintyre.

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Since his release from Dumbarton Castle, William had, as he had promised, taken no part in political activities but he still remained a staunch Presbyterian and as an Elder of the Kirk took an active part in local church affairs. In 1672, in order to raise"the stipend of the two Lochhead ministers an attempt was made to add part of the parish of Kilkenzie to the parish of Campbeltown and William and a fellow elder wrote the following letter to the Earl of Argyle:

26th November 1672
Right Honourable,

I perceive the natives here doth not incline to enter into a joint submission with us who are Lowlanders. The bearer being in haste we could not get your tacksmen's hands to a formal submission to be sent at time, but we do assure your Lordship you may dispose of us, as if you had an ample submission under our hands, for I know none of our Lowlanders will have any scruple except James Muir (of Knockstaplebeg), but I know if your Lordship declare your pleasure he dare not refuse. We do likewise perceive that the natives is much reluctant to have any pairt of Kilhanzie jointed to the four parishes, fearing the seat may be there for their preaching afterwards. My Lord, if a considerable pairt of Kilhenzie be not cast in to the other four, it will either occasion a very mean stipend to both ministers or else a very great burden on the contributors. My Lord, as for coveting the old church of Campbeltown, we that are Lowlanders do not covet it. Your Lordship knows from the beginning we were ever cheerful to have contributed to our ability for Mr. Edward (Keith) and purposes to continue so, or in case of his removing by death or otherways, My Lord, our contributing will be only to these of a Presbyterian judgement, in whom we may have satisfaction. No further, but we are
My Lord,
Your Lordship's humble Servants,
W. Ralstoun.
Jo. Conynghame."

This appears to be the only surviving letter written by William, and from its contents it will be seen that there was considerable antipathy between the Lowlanders and the "natives." As late as the beginning of the 19th century the parish minister of the time, writing of the Lowlanders said "They are a sober, hard-working, industrious class of people who have rarely amalgamated themselves by marriages with the Highlanders. So far, indeed, do they carry this unsocial feeling that they have a place of sepulture for themselves detached from that of their Highland brethern." It would appear that it was William, himself, who was responsible for setting up this separate "place of sepulture." An article in the "Argyllshire Herald" of 14th March 1874 quotes a statement made in December 1838 by Donald Shaw, late tenant of Keil: "The burial ground at Keil was occupied by the lowlanders of the parish of Kilmaurs in Ayrshire. A Mr. Ralston purchased from the Laird, Mr. O'May of Keil the burying ground for the sum of 60 merks. The ground was then the kail garden attached to the houses that were situated close to the old road running past the church of Keil, but which were demolished immediately after the plague, the inhabitants who died in it having been buried under their ruins."

William Ralston of that Ilk died in 1691, aged 81. He was buried at Keil, and unlike others buried there, William lies facing North. Some say that it was his wish that he should lie facing his farm of Keil; others that he wished to ensure that his back was towards Rome.

Copyright belongs to the authors unless otherwise stated.

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