The 1752 shooting of Colin Roy Campbell, aka The Red Fox, and the fate of a prime suspect, would become a gruesome footnote to one of the bloodiest periods of Scottish history.
Campbell was riding in Lettermore Wood, near Loch Linnhe just south west of Forth William with three other men when two gunshots pierced the calm forest air. Campbell fell from his horse as a figure in grey was seen escaping from the scene. There was a rush to catch the shooter, and suspicions quickly fell on a nearby Clan, the Stewarts of Appin – Jacobite supporters who had been victims of the recent Highland Clearances.
Given this, it’s maybe understandable why Campbell would have been a target of their ire, as he had been appointed as Factor to manage the Clan estates confiscated in the aftermath of the failed Jacobite uprisings of the 1740s, and was seen by many as public face of the actions of the government which bordered on ethnic cleansing of large parts of the Highlands, as well as being openly and proudly loyal to the Hanoverian monarchy and against Bonnie Prince Charlie. Soldiers from the Appin area had fought in both the failed Jacobite Risings of 1745 and 46, and lost nearly 100 men at the Battle of Culloden. It was also claimed that on the day of his murder Campbell was planning to clear more of the Stewarts’ estates and replace them with members of his own clan.
The first chief suspect was Allan Stewart, a prominent member of the local Clan who was a soldier, and had made threats towards Campbell previously. He fled, apparently to France, before the authorities caught up with him, but they did manage to arrest James Stewart, the half brother of the then-exiled chief of the Appin Stewart clan, and charge him with conspiracy to murder.
He was then put on trial 5 months later, facing a jury comprising of 11 (out of 15 total jurors) members of the Campbell family, many of whom were recommended by the Duke of Argyll, the brother of the Red Fox. Stewart was also not allowed to mount a defense, and despite a lack of evidence – and even including reports that he was, given the circumstances, affable to Campbell and acted as a go-between when Campbell was collecting rents from clan territories. On top of this his legal representative, Alexander Stewart of Edinglassie, was denied access to James, and was frequently given incorrect or out-of-date times and locations when the trial would be taking place.
The trial was more for show as the Campbells hunted for a scapegoat, and unsurprisingly James was found guilty and executed by hanging. Afterwards his body was left for 4 years on the scaffolding on Ballachulish Bridge. When the skin and muscle deteriorated too much to hold his skeleton together the bones were wrapped with wire to keep them in order, and to remain as a warning to any other rebellious clan members. His trial, and subsequent death and humiliation, are considered to be amongst the greatest miscarriages of justice in Scottish history, and the real perpetrator has never been caught.
So who took the shot that reverberated across Appin?
Ian Nimmo, who wrote “Walking With Murder” about the case and its inspiration on Robert Louis Stevenson (who based part of Kidnapped on the story), claimed that the true identity of the shooter was passed with in the Stewart family for generations, but that it wasn’t his place to reveal the information (so he didn’t know who it was). It is said that the real murderer wanted to turn himself in on the day of James’ execution, but was physically restrained to stop him from doing so – if this is true, it means that Allan Stewart, who by now would have been making the most of the Auld Alliance on the continent, couldn’t have done it.
Anda Penman, a descendant of the Stewart clan, had revealed in 2001 that the person who pulled the trigger on Campbell was a young Stewart clan laird, Donald Stewart of Ballachulish, who had conspired the assassination with three other lairds, and won the shooting contest they had held to determine who would take the rifle on the day. Penman died shortly afterwards with no collaboration on her story from any other family members.
But it’s not just the Stewarts who have come under suspicion – a more recent study by Prof Allan MacInnes from Strathclyde University claims that Campbell’s own nephew Mungo, an ruthlessly ambitious man, (and in MacInnes’s opinion “a nutter”) shot him to inherit the lucrative Factor post. MacInnes claimed that Mungo used the Jacobite-Hanoverian tensions at the time to his advantage, taking a calculated guess at where the blame falls. Mungo himself was also part of the group of Campbells that took on the investigation into the case.
The murder continues to fascinate to this day, no doubt because of the place it holds as part of the horrendous treatment of Highland clans at the time. Forensic scientists have even applied modern techniques to the assassination, but some members believe Campbell was perhaps a Scottish JFK, requiring two assassins – he was, after all, hit by two pellets.