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Ballachulish and the Appin Murder

Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 1st February 2015, last updated: 4th March 2019



Near to Highland Titles Nature Reserve is the little village of Ballachulish perched on the edge of Loch Leven. It was here in 1752 that a local man was hanged for a murder he didn’t commit and left to swing for a grisly eighteen months before the authorities allowed his family to bury him. The man’s name was James Stewart of the Glen.


Appin Memorial, at execution site.

Near Ballachulish Bridge you can find a memorial erected at his execution site, and further into the woods to the south west of Ballachulish is the house where he was born. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Kidnapped fictionalises the Appin Murder with a cast of real historical characters, which has kept the memory of the event in popular consciousness for the past two hundred and fifty years. Here is the true story as far we know from historical records:


Birth place of James Stewart

The date is 14th May 1752. The place, Lettermore wood on the south shore of Loch Linnhe, near Ballachulish. Colin Ray Campbell of Glenure rides through the wood with three companions when a pistol is fired from a nearby hillside. The marksman is accurate. Campbell falls from his horse. He’s been shot in the back. His companions run to assist him as he lay dying. They see a man in a brownish-grey coat fleeing over the hill, but can’t make out his features. The murder is political. The Government is nervous. Retribution for the crime must be swift.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, George II was anxious to squash any further rebellion in Scotland. Culloden had been a devastating defeat for the Jacobites – those who wanted to restore the Catholic House of Stuart to the throne of Britain – but tensions were still very high. The British Government imposed strict sanctions on all Jacobite sympathisers, one of which was to forbid the wearing of any tartan throughout Scotland. Other, more barbaric sanctions took place.

Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II, (who became known as “Butcher Cumberland”) was the leading General of his day, and he commanded the British army in the suppression, or as he called it, ‘pacification’ of the Jacobites. Thousands were rounded up after Culloden, killed, tortured, deported to the colonies, or simply ‘disappeared’. Livestock was confiscated and even wives were imprisoned along with their husbands. Many were sent to London to be tried. In those days journeys by ship took several months and people often died on the way. The nickname ‘butcher’ was adopted by the Tories for political leverage.


Lettermore Wood

Colin Ray Campbell of Glenure had been appointed by the British government as a factor, managing some of the estates confiscated from Jacobite clans. Among the most obvious supporters of the House of Stuart were members of their clan, the Stewarts of Appin. The Stewart clan had their estates forfeited, and Colin Ray Campbell was appointed to oversee the changeover. He had the irksome task of evicting his neighbours from their ancestral homes.

The Jacobites hated anyone who represented the British government, including those employed as agents.  Defeated and then victimised, Jacobite supporters were malevolent and the situation was a tinderbox. Some historians think Colin Ray Campbell might have had divided loyalties. His mother was from a branch of Campbells who were strong Jacobite supporters, but Colin Ray had served in the army during the rebellion on the protestant side for King George II. He was above all a local boy and growing up would have had friends and associates among the Stewarts of Appin.

James Stewart of the Glen, was enraged to find that members of his family were being targeted for what must be in his mind an illegal eviction. He tried through the courts to prevent this from happening but with no success. This fact would be much used at his trial.

At this time James Stewart’s foster-son, Alan Breck Stewart, came back from France, where he was serving with the French regiment. He had been in the British army, but switched sides before the battle of Culloden to fight for the Stuarts.  After their defeat he had fled to France, but now, six years later, was back in town, socialising, drinking and making loud threats about what he would do to the Red Fox, as Colin Ray was known.


Loch Linnhe

After Colin Ray was shot suspicion fell on Alan Breck, especially as he fled town soon after and was never caught. Allegedly he escaped back to France. In the novel Robert Louis Stevenson has Alan Breck meet up with his main character, David Balfour, to whom he denies all responsibility for the murder. They go on the run together into the highlands.

With Alan Breck Stewart gone, the pressure was on to find someone to hang for the murder. The threat of renewed violence was always a danger to the terrified German king, George II. He was an unpopular monarch, preferring Germany to England. He was only on the British throne because he was the nearest related protestant in the royal line. It was a tenuous link compared to the Stuarts, who were direct descendants of James I. Many of the Tories in parliament had links to the exiled Stuart princes. Politically George was surrounded by enemies.


Illustration by W R S Stott, from ‘Kidnapped’ by R L Stevenson

So, in what many people saw as a travesty of justice Alan’s foster-father, James Stewart was tried for the murder and found guilty of conspiring to kill Colin Ray Campbell.  The jury who tried him were a panel of mostly Campbell clansmen, presided over by a Campbell judge. Under such weighted circumstances the verdict was a forgone conclusion. The evidence was scanty at best. He was hung for the murder, and left there for all to see and the crows to peck at, as a warning to the highlanders. As tendons and sinews rotted the authorities tied his skeletal remains together with wire so the body wouldn’t fall. In the end a local ‘halfwit’ could stand the sight no longer. He pulled down the gallows with the skeletal remains still attached, and threw it into the Loch. It floated down stream, where the bones were rescued and buried by a family member, a young man named Donald Stewart of Ballachulish.


Cairn in Lettermore Wood, site of shooting

Legend says that the Stewart clan knew very well who the real murderer was and that this secret has been passed down through the generations. In 2001 Anda Penman, an 89-year old descendant of the Stewart clan decided it was time to break the silence. She claimed that four young highlanders had planned the murder. They held a shooting contest, and the best marksmen among them then delivered the fatal shot. That marksman was none other than the one who buried the body, Donald Stewart of Ballachulish.

The old lady died soon after, and her claim was not confirmed by any other member of the Stewart clan. About the same time, Lee Holcombe, an American professor of history, had just spent twenty years investigating all the evidence in this famous unsolved murder case. She concluded that it was indeed Donald Stewart of Ballachulish who delivered the shot. She wrote a book about her findings: Ancient Animosity, but died in 2002 before it reached a publisher. Her son took over the work of editing and her book was eventually published in 2004. Anda Penman, it seems, was telling the truth.


Lee Holcombe’s book

We can only imagine the thoughts and misgivings of Donald Stewart as he lay the body of his kinsman in the ground, the man who had paid the ultimate price instead of him.

The story doesn’t quite end there. In 2008 an undisclosed member of the Campbell family hired a lawyer to forward a submission to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission which requested to have James Stewart’s guilty verdict overturned. On that occasion the request was declined.

If you visit the area it is well worth taking a look at the memorial at Ballachulish, and the house where James Stewart was born. All within easy reach of our nature reserve. Both sites now form part of The Stevenson Way, a wilderness trail across the heart of Scotland, from Mull to Edinburgh. It follows the route the outlaws took in Kidnapped, and is a great way to see Scotland and understand its history.

Interesting fact: In September 1752, a few months after the murder, the United Kingdom of Scotland and England adopted the Gregorian calendar and skipped 11 days in September to catch up with Europe. In May 1752 they were still using the Julian calendar, so on 14th May in Scotland, it was 25th May in France!


About the author

Written by: Stewart Borland

Comments on this post

  • Sarah Cairns
    04/02/15 - 13:58


  • Ian C Walker
    04/02/15 - 22:09

    R L S was a brilliant story teller. “Kidnapped” was only one of his thrilling novels.

  • Byron Nicodemus
    05/02/15 - 17:25

    A very interesting story about Scottish history!

  • leonora flynn
    06/02/15 - 05:08

    I just love reading these stories and facts .They make me wish I had paid better attention in school during my history classes .

  • Thursa Wilde
    06/02/15 - 14:32

    Thanks for your comments. RLS is a wonderful storyteller, agreed! He lived in the South Pacific later in life, and wrote travelogues and stories based on his experiences there. He eventually died in Samoa. A fascinating fellow.

  • Richard Szathmary
    06/02/15 - 19:19

    I doubt very, very much that the Duke of Cumberland was ever the Crown’s “leading general” as the story above claims. General Webb and Lord Jeffrey Amherst, to name just two, would have a much better claim to that title within a few years.

  • Jim J
    06/02/15 - 23:43

    Interesting fact: although Scotland adopted 1st Jan as the start of the New Year in 1600, it was still 25th March in England up until 1752 AFAIK.
    E.g. Charles I’s execution was on 30th Jan 1648 in England but the date in Scotland at the time was 30th Jan 1649.

  • Tanya Braun
    07/02/15 - 20:58

    It warms my heart to know I AM SCOTTISH, no matter what anyone does to me in life, my heart will forever belong to Bonnie Scotland. Sláinte xxx

  • James MacVicar
    09/02/15 - 13:10

    I have visited the memorial and I was told that in the place where he is buried no grass will grow on his grave.

    09/02/15 - 18:18

    This made great reading and very interesting about Scottish history that I never knew.

  • Peter Armstrong
    10/02/15 - 03:10

    While I applaud Thursa Wilde for republishing this story, I have, unhappily, to point out several errors and omissions of detail:
    the victim of the Appin murder was Colin Roy (“red Colin”) Campbell of Glenure, not Colin Ray;
    the victim of the judicial murder was James of the Glens (Gaelic “Seumas a’ Ghleann”), not “of the Glen”, who was the half-brother of Stewart of Ardshiel, captain of the Clan Stewart of Appin, and his tacksman and factor;
    Alan Breck was James’s half or foster-brother, not son;
    and the presiding judge was MacCailean Mor himself, Archibald, 3rd Duke of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell, and Lord Justice-General (i.e. the most senior judge) of Scotland, who arguably should not have sat in the case at all since it involved the murder of one of his clansmen by, allegedly, one of his clan’s blood enemies, the Stewarts of Appin.

  • Dudley-Brian Smith
    10/02/15 - 16:51

    Enjoyable read and well put. However, all research I have says the name is Colin “ROY” Campbell – owing to his reddish hair and ruddy countenance. But, I could be wrong. Also – just a note, it was RL Stevenson who used the term James of the “Glenns” – but it should rightfully be “James of the Glen”. It was also Stevenson that came up with the Red Fox nickname for Campbell. But, I could be wrong…though I have walked Appin from Ballachulish to Loch Crerran…

  • Andrew Warrender
    10/02/15 - 19:11

    Loved reading Kidnapped 7 also the film. Thought it was fictional until I read this. Thank you.

  • Glenn Stephan Stewart
    11/02/15 - 07:15

    Aye, and it is still the Campbells that hold sway in the British Court!

  • Billy Hampson
    11/02/15 - 21:29

    Another example of the many injustices visited upon Scotland and the Scots at the time of the assertion of the rights of men and women after the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland, and , how the Government of the day perceived us.

  • joequinlan
    12/02/15 - 05:26

    very interesting story

  • Kenny duncan
    12/02/15 - 10:32

    great(and sad) story!

  • donald anderson
    12/02/15 - 11:59

    The Campbells indeed had many with Jacobite symapthies and the Earl of Argyle had to act to prevent civil war in the clan. The Breadalbane and Cawder Campbells were Jacobites. Campbell of Glenlyon was married to a MacGregor and was Rob Roy’s uncle. He was chosen for the Glencoe massacre, 1692, because he was an alcoholic and indebeted gambler. The MacIan stole his coos on the way back from defeating the Williamites at Killikrankie. 1888. He recognised his copper kettles and pans on the Macian Chief’s hearth. There were only 8 Campbells in the regiment, who warned their hosts to get off.

    The Munros were worse, though many fought on the Jacobite side and the Campbell Red Fox prevented the Munro colonel from his excesses in Appin.

    All the clans, Jacobite or Hanoverian, sufferd the same retribution after Culloden, including the Munros, who were also cleared out and suffered the Proscriptions Act too.

  • Thursa Wilde
    12/02/15 - 16:19

    Sorry about the misprint, it is indeed Colin ROY Campbell, not Ray.

  • Denise
    13/02/15 - 12:13

    i visited Scotland a few years ago and loved it,such a sad history but beautiful beyond words, so beautiful it made my heart hurt!

  • Dugie Cameron
    14/02/15 - 19:39

    You haven’t got a photo of the pace he was buried at Kiel Churchyard in Duror or the place that he farmed when he was arrested for the crime Acharn farm Duror, if you require any more knowledge on this please e-mail me

  • Drummond formally of Perth
    17/02/15 - 11:47

    In recent years – in the 70’s while on holiday I was confronted by a clansman (I won’t say which) who berated my ancestors for having an (one) officer in the ranks of the crown at Culloden – the fact that the those Drummonds who chose to answer the firey cross did so for the Jacobites cause seemed to allude him. My explanation also seemed unsatisfactory. He was lucky as I had left my dueling pistols and swords at home! Grá, Dílseacht, Cairdeas

    • Thursa Wilde
      17/02/15 - 18:59

      Oh dear, some people just can’t seem to move on! It was rather a long time ago. I hope he didn’t spoil your holiday Mr Drummond formally of Perth 🙂

  • Thursa Wilde
    17/02/15 - 17:06

    Hi Dugie – by all means forward any photos you have and I’ll post them here. I don’t have access to your email address, but you can contact me at [email protected]

  • Bill
    19/02/15 - 16:53

    Donald Stewart deserves a medal.

  • Norah blumenschein (nee Tosh)
    28/02/15 - 23:53

    Although born in Aberdeen I had not heard the story of Colin Roy. Very interesting.

  • Thursa Wilde
    19/03/15 - 19:23

    Thanks Dudley, nice to know they’re singing songs about Appin!

  • billy kuy
    13/06/15 - 16:43

    Around 1961 I was a musician with a band called The Outlaws. We were on a tour of Scotland and on our way to,I believe, Oban having to use the Ballachulish Ferry. We had to wait for around a half hour to get on the Ferry so I had a wander around the grassy knoll to the side of the Hotel.The grass was a foot or so high and I suddenly tripped on something.On examination I found a small stone Memorial mentioning someone hanged on this spot for murder. What became of it? Was this the original memorial to the Appin Murder?

    • Thursa Wilde
      17/06/15 - 15:54

      Hi Billy – I am not sure. Perhaps someone else in the community might know more about this? I always thought the memorial was the one at the Ballachulish Bridge. It may well be the same place as the Bridge wasn’t built until the 70s.

    • Peter
      17/06/15 - 16:12

      Hi Billy, If you were heading down to Oban from the north you would have had to use the ferry at Ballachulish to cross the narrows, which is now crossed by the Ballachulish bridge. The hotel you mention would be the Ballachulish Hotel and the site of the execution was between the hotel and the present site of the bridge. There is a stone memorial there today (, but it does not sound quite as you describe the one you stumbled upon.

  • marsaili
    31/01/20 - 16:21

    There is another theory about the murder of Campbell of Glenure which points the finger at Glenure’s nephew Mungo Campbell. I’m not sure about the Anda Penman story at all, Donald Stewart was too easy a target. The name Stewart is Stiubhart in Gaelic and this is the spelling that should be used. There is no ‘W’ in the Gaelic language.

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