Ewan (or Ewen) MacPhee lived from around 1785 to 1850. Born and brought up in Lochaber, he is remembered as Scotland’s last great outlaw, a man who lived beyond the reach of the authorities in Scotland for 40 years before finally being brought to justice.
MacPhee was born and brought up in the Glengarry area of Lochaber. Some time around 1807 he was conscripted into the British Army at the behest of the local laird, and against MacPhee’s own will. Initial training took place at Stirling Castle. During his stay there, riots broke out in the local coalfields and the army was called upon to help suppress them. MacPhee was amongst those stationed in Stirling who threatened to mutiny if ordered to use force against fellow Scots, and in the end troops stationed in Edinburgh were used instead.
MacPhee found himself in Spain during the Peninsula War against Napoleon’s French troops. He proved himself a highly effective soldier and had a particular role in liaising with Spanish guerillas. He rose to the rank of Sergeant, but being unable to read or write was unlikely ever to rise any further, despite suggestions he was told he would get a commission. After MacPhee was disciplined over money that went missing en route to fund guerilla activities (which he said he had hidden to avoid a French search), he killed his commanding officer and deserted his regiment: both crimes that would have seen him hung.
Fast forward a little, and MacPhee was able to make his way back to Scotland, still evading the authorities’ efforts to capture him. Soon after his return to Glengarry, MacPhee was arrested at his sister’s house by soldiers sent from Fort William for the purpose. He escaped from them as they were boarding a ship at Corpach and spent the following two years in the area around Loch Arkaig.
He then took possession of an island in Loch Quoich, which was later named after him (the island disappeared when the level of Loch Quoich was raised as a result of a hydro scheme in the 1900s). Finding island life a little quiet, he constructed a house and abducted a 14 year old girl to become his wife. They subsequently raised a family and lived as many other crofters across Scotland at the time.
MacPhee was a physically imposing man and never left his island unarmed: he also let it be known that he would never be taken alive by the authorities. The general response was to turn a blind eye and leave him be, still more so after the Inverness Chronicle ran a number of sympathetic stories abut him in the 1820s. By this time he was held in great respect and awe by many living in the area, and was regarded as something of a local seer, able to cast spells and cure sick animals.
In 1830 the Loch Quoich estate was sold to the English millionaire Edward Ellice. He took a close and positive interest in his estates and made the acquaintance of Ewan MacPhee when the latter marched into Glenquoich Lodge offering payment of ewe’s milk in lieu of rent and threatening to defend the island if this was not acceptable to Ellice. In the event Ellice and MacPhee coexisted harmoniously for some years.
In the latter part of the 1840s, however, MacPhee increasingly took to stealing sheep from neighbours, on one occasion leaving his tracks in the snow as clear evidence. Two sheriff’s officers who tried to row across to MacPhee’s island to investigate were shot at by his wife (MacPhee was away at the time). A week later the authorities returned in greater strength and arrested MacPhee after tallow and skins were discovered hidden on his island. MacPhee was imprisoned to await trial in Fort William where, shortly afterwards, he died.
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