Scotlands History

Isle of Lewis, Fife Adventurers

In 1598 a group of Scots gentry set sail for the Isle of Lewis with about 500 armed mercenaries. They had agreed with King James VI and I that they would ‘plant policy and civilisation in the hitherto most barren Isle of Lewis... to develop the extraordinary rich resources of the same for the public good and the King's profit.’

They were known as ‘the Fife Adventurers’. The group of 12 included James Spense of Wormiston, Captain William Murray, Patrick of Lindores, and James Leirmont of Balcomie. They were led by the Duke of Lennox, a cousin of King James.

King James needed money and, rather than send an army to subdue the Isles, he decided that he should allow Gentlemen to ‘civilise’ the Isle of Lewis in return for rent and taxes.

The Fife Adventurers built a settlement where Stornoway is today. They did not receive a warm welcome from the islanders. The Macleods of Lewis resisted the invaders, fighting a guerrilla war against the Fife Adventurers and their men.

In December 1598 James Leirmont of Balcomie had to sail to the mainland for provisions. His ship was attacked by Murdoch Macleod and his men sailing in birlinns (a small Western Isles boat) and a galley. Balcomie was captured and held for ransom.

That winter Neil Macleod and his men attacked the invaders, burning their houses, stealing cattle, horses and sheep and killing more than 20 of their men. The next year Neil Macleod fought with his brother Murdoch and switched sides, supporting the Adventurers for a time. Murdoch Macleod was captured, taken to Fife, tried in St Andrews and hanged, drawn and quartered.

Neil Macleod switched sides again, attacking the Adventurers, capturing James Spense of Wormiston and burning the settlement at Stornoway. The Fife Adventurers made three failed attempts to take Lewis. Eventually they gave up and sold their rights to Mackenzie of Kintail for 100,000 merks. Neil Macleod was captured, tried and executed.
  • Photo of Coll Sands (Col Uarach), Isle of Lewis, Scotland taken with a Box Brownie camera

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