The Cateran Alistair Scholar

icon Back to all articles

A story of the notorious cattle thief Alistair Scholar and his capture at Tain.

In the past cattle was the most important commodity in the Highlands and so they were always liable to be stolen and there is a long history of cattle raiding going back many centuries. But did you know a notorious 18th-century Cateran or cattle thief was captured and executed near the popular forest walk at Aldie Burn near Tain? Alistair ‘Scholar’, so-called because he was unable to read or write and was said to have been once seen in church trying to read a bible upsides down, stole cattle from all over the Highlands. Although not much is known of him now, this letter from Lord Lovat Simon Fraser to the Earl of Cromarty at Milton, written in 1739, sheds some light on this 'Scholar';

“I am heartily sorry that your lordships tenants are so much hurt and harassed by those cursed thieves and villains that live or are harboured in Glenmoriston, Glengarry and other thievish county’s. I know that rogue, Alistair Scholar, to be one of the greatest thieves in the Highlands. He has taken four or five parcels of cattle out of my own country within this year and a half, and I have used all my endeavours to seize them; but when I sent parties after him, he always made his escape to Torridon in Kinlochewe, for he was born and bred in that country, and it would be a very easy matter for Coul and Torridon, who are your lordship's relations as well as mine, to seize the villain and to send him to you. 

However, I do sincerely promise to your lordship that if that rogue is harboured either in Glenmoriston, Glengarry, Locharkaig, Lochaber, or Brae Lochaber, I shall have him by the neck and send him to your lordship; for I am fully resolved to spend more than the value of the cows or get redress to your lordship. I'll not only employ the Sergeants and men of my company that are known in those counties to go in search of him without loss of time, but I will likewise make use of all the interest I have with Glengarry, Lochiel, Barrisdale, and Scothouse, who are the principal gentlemen in those counties, to cause seize that villain. I will leave no stone unturned to get your lordship full satisfaction of this last insult. But I again presume to beg of your lordship to engage our friends Coul and Torridon to cause seize the villain when he comes to their lands, for you may depend upon it that I’ll catch him if he is in Glenmoriston or the West Highlands, or chase him to the haunts that he used to have about Torridon, Keulochow, and Lochbroom and Coigach, where I have had a party for several weeks after him.”

'Scholar' was once asked what action in his life he most regretted and he told that he was stealing cattle in the Kincardine area which was herded by a girl. He tied her by the hair to the bough of a tree, thinking that someone would look for her and free her, but was horrified on passing the same spot a year later to come across her skeleton. 'Scholar' was eventually captured at Culpleasant near Tain, where he had been hiding out, after becoming Ill with the measles. The following year he was hung to death at Cnoc na Caens now known as Rosehill close to the popular walk at Aldie burn.