The MacGregors

THE MACGREGORS

Motto: ‘S rioghal mo dhream - Royal is my Race.

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MacGregor

Upper Strathearn is situated at the crossroads between the Highlands and the Lowlands. Here half a dozen clans took up their abode, however, due to its geographical position it was frequently visited by Scottish clans of one sort or another. In the main the two principal marauding clans in our area were the MacGregors of Balquhidder, and the McDonalds of Glencoe.

Both acted in a similar fashion to a modern day vacuum cleaner! They stole (lifted) things and generally terrorised the neighbourhood - a collection of people who considered that possession was nine-tenths of the law during times when the law only existed in the mind of a Highland chief. He could, at will, hang anyone for any real or fancied slight. The courts in Edinburgh were over the hills and far, far away. As it would require several volumes to recount their history I will include only a synopsis of their better known activities in and around our village and let others, equally well known to local folk, moulder!

The MacGregors, who eventually came to stay in the Lochearnhead, Balquhidder, Strathyre area, claimed descendancy from Kenneth MacAlpin, first King of Scotland. At one point in their history they controlled more land than any other clan. However, control is one matter and legal possession another, and herein lay the crux of the matter that bedevilled the Clan for hundreds of years. Their “ownership” of the land, although defended by the sword, as often as not, was not supported by parchment or sheepskin! They were, in fact, tenants of the land which may, and normally did, belong to someone else. This realisation caused a lot of grief to themselves and a lot greater grief to their neighbours. Their territories, to a large degree were confined to the occupancy and management of Glenorchy, Glenstrae, Glen Lyon and Glenlochy, of which Glenorchy offered the most opportunity for cultivation. However, this land mass could not support their numbers and many moved to Glen Dochart, Strathyre, and further to the Braes of Balquhidder, and other pockets in the Trossachs.

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It is these latter areas which concern us in our story. It describes some of their incursions in Strathearn where they came in contact with the “legal (?)” land owners who had been there for eons. They too were there with hereditary squatter’s rights status, sheepskin or parchment which stated that they owned the land or had tenant rights on it! They also defended their “wee puckle o’ land with steel and flintlock against all comers! These included Stewarts from Ardvorlich, MacLarens from Strathyre and the Braes of Balquhidder, Drummonds from Muthill, Murrays from Ochteryre, Campbells from Breadalbane. Edinample, Aberuchill and Lawers, Oliphants from Gask, and other allied clans such as the Colquhouns of Luss, and Buchanans of Leny, and others.

In 1589 mayhem on a bigger scale occurred. John Drummond (Drummondearnoch) was the Steward of Strathearn and Chief Forester of the Royal Forest in Glenartney – a royal appointment. One day he was out attending to his duties when he came across a party of MacGregors who were in the glen to steal cattle or sheep and to poach the King’s deer. As this would not do he decided to be lenient. Rather than hanging them, which he was entitled to do, he only cut off only their ears, and then sent them packing. Naturally they were an unhappy lot after this was done and the whole incident generated a lot of conversation on their return to Balquhidder. They decided to seek revenge in the shortest possible time.

An opportunity occurred in Glenartney when Drummondearnoch must have left himself open and he was captured by this band of cut-throats (they all appear to have been cut-throats!) Without much ado they killed him and cut off his head which they put in a sack with the intention of bringing it home to Balquhidder. They decided that they would go over Ben Vorlich and down by Ardvorlich House, and thence west along Loch Earn towards Balquhidder. As dusk came on they thought it a good idea to spend the night at Ardvorlich knowing that Drummondearnoch’s sister, Margaret Drummond, who was married to Alexander Stewart, the Laird of Ardvorlich, was there alone that evening.

The laws of highland hospitality appear strange by today’s standards but essentially anyone could show up at one’s home and be granted food and shelter for the night. That included enemies! It was also a given that you could not kill an enemy under one’s roof, but could do so in the morning when he was at least a mile away from the house. (The Campbells of Argyll eliminated this rule at Glencoe on February 13th, 1692, when they massacred 38 or so MacDonalds who had offered them hospitality – slaughter under trust!).

Anyway when the MacGregors showed up, Margaret, who was heavily pregnant at the time, sat them down at the kitchen table and brought out milk, bread and cheese. When they ran out of milk she went into a pantry and upon her return found the head of her brother, Drummondearnoch, sitting on the kitchen table with a piece of cheese crammed in his mouth.

Naturally she was a bit upset at this, and ran out of the house screaming and ran straight up the hillside of Ben Vorlich to a small lochan which today, is still called the Lady’s lochan (Lochan na Mna). There she gave birth to James Stewart who in time became known as the “Mad Major!” He dirked his closest friend, Lord Kilpont, to death after the Battle of Tippermuir. A partial list of the reasons for this murder is provided in the chapter on the Stewarts.

The MacGregors returned to Balquhidder no doubt feeling vindicated. They brought it to Balquhidder Church and all swore a blood oath that they would never betray the perpetrators of the act, and protect the murderers. An extract from Sir Alexander Boswell’s poem “Clan Alpin’s Vow” written in 1811 describes the scene:

“And pausing, on the banner gazed:

Then cried in scorn, his finger raised,

This was the boon of Scotland’s king;

And, with a quick and angry fling,

Tossing the pageant screen away,

The dead man’s head before him lay.

Unmoved he scanned the visage o’er,

The clotted locks were dark with gore,

The features with convulsion grim,

The eyes contorted, sunk and dim,

But unappal’d, in angry mood

With lower brow, unmoved he stood,

Upon the head his bared right hand

He laid; the other grasp’d his brand

Then kneeling, cried “To heaven I swear

This deed of death I own and share.

As truly, fully mine, as though

This my right hand had dealt the blow;

Come then, our foemen. One, come all;

If to revenge this caitiff’s fall

One blade is bared, one bow is drawn,

Mine everlasting peace I pawn,

To claim for them, or claim for him,

In retribution, limb for limb.

In sudden fray, or open strife,

This steel shall render life for life.

He ceased, and at his beckoning nod,

The clansmen to the alter trod;

And not a whisper breathed around,

And nought was heard of mortal sound,

Save for the clanking arms they bore,

That rattled on the marble floor;

And each, as he approached in haste,

Upon the scalp his right hand placed;

With livid lip, and gathered brow,

Each utter’d in his turn the vow.

Fierce Malcolm watch’d the passing scene

And searched them through with glances keen;

Then dash’d a tear-drop from his eye

Unbid it came, he knew not why

Exulting high, he towering stood;

“Kinsmen,” he creid” “of Alpin’s blood,

And worthy of Clan Alpin’s name,

Unstained by cowardice and shame,

E’en do, spare nocht, in time of ill

Shall be Clan Alpin’s legend still!”

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The future for the MacGregors for the next hundred years or so was not a happy one. On the 4th February an edict was issued by James VI under the direction of his council after the murder of Drummond-Ernoch. The Drummond-Ernoch edict stated “Ye cruel and mischievous proceedings of ye wicked Clangrigor, so long continueing in blood, slaughters, herships, manifests reifts, and stouths committed upon his Hieness’ peaceable and good subjects; inhabiting ye countries ewest ye brays of ye Highlands, thir mony years bygone, but specially heir after ye cruel murder of umquhll Jo. Drummond of Drummoneyryuch, his Majesties proper tennant and ane of his foresters of Glenartney committed upon ye day of last bypast, be certain of ye said clan, be ye council and determination of ye haill, avow and to revenge of ye authors yrof goever wald persew for revenge of ye same , qll ye said Jo.was occupied in seeking of venison to his Hieness, at command of Pet. Lord Drummond, stewart of Stratharne, and principal forrester of Glenartney; the Queen, his Majesties dearest spouse, being yn shortlie looked for to arrive in this realm. Likeas, after ye murther committed, ye authors yrof cutted off ye said umquhil Jo. Drummond’s head, and carried the same to the laird of M’Grigor, who, and his haill surname of M’Grigors, purposely conveined upon ye next Sunday yrafter, at the kirk of Buchquhidder; qr they caused ye said umquhll John’s head to be pnted to yr avowing ye sd murder to have been committed by yr communion, council, and determination, laid yr hands upon the pow, and in heathenie and barbarous manner, swear to defend ye authors of ye sd murder, in maist proud contempt of our sovr Lord and his authoritie, and in evil example to others wicked limmaris to do ye like, give ys sall be suffered to remain unpunished.” Included in the edict was the following, “A commission, to endure for the space of three years, was granted to the earls of Huntly, Argyle, Atholl, Montrose, Lord Drummond, the Commendator of Inchaffray, Campbell of Lochinel, Campbell of Glenurach, Campbell of Cadel, Campbell of Ardkinglas, M’Intosh of Dumashtone, Sir John Murray of Tulliebardine, Buchanan of that ilk, and M’Farlane of Ariquocher, to search for and apprehend Alister M’Grigor of Glenstrae, and all others of the Clangrigor, or ye assistors, culpable of the said odious murther, quere they may be apprehended. And if they refus to be taken, or flees to strengths or houses, to pursue and assege them with fire and sword; and this commission to endure for the space of three years.” A tough edict by any standard, but nectar to the ears of those who had suffered at their hands!

It was put into effect immediately and a joint raid undertaken by Lord Drummond and Stewart of Ardvorlich took place in Balquhidder. It was a bloody affair and the MacGregors were taken by surprise and on one farm alone thirty seven were butchered. Hunting for MacGregors became the order of the day and no-one who killed a MacGregor was punished. Rather they were rewarded for attempting to extirpate them, and this they did at the drop of a hat! Many shortly thereafter changed their names to Comrie, Drummond and Murray.

The summers and winters of 1601 and 1602 had been extremely severe. Lean times had hit the Highlands and Upper Strathearn and Strathyre were no exception. The harvests had been poor and too many mouths to feed and the winters were bitterly cold. To avoid starvation and to survive the MacGregors had made an agreement with the Campbell Duke of Argyle, and when one makes a bargain with the Devil there are always strings attached. Argyle insisted that the MacGregors were to do his bidding at his pleasure. He did not like, nor got on with, the Colquhouns of Luss who by all accounts seemed to be reasonably prosperous. They had incurred the King’s favour.

As dusk approached two rather “thick” MacGregors approached a Colquhoun house and asked for shelter. This was refused because of the known arrangement between the MacGregors and the Campbell, Duke of Argyle. They decided to sleep in a nearby shed and, as they were hungry, killed one of the Colquhoun sheep and had a rare feast. If the sheep had been a normal one it is probable that little would have happened. However the sheep they selected was the only one of a flock of several hundred which had a black fleece and a white tail. Discovering the loss the following day the Colquhouns decided, after chasing the MacGregors and finding them with the fleece, to hang them on the spot, which they did.

This gave the MacGregors the opportunity to send parties into the Colquhoun lands and create havoc. On the 4th June, 1602, they stole over a hundred head of fine Colquhoun cattle in Glenmulchen. Later in the year on another raid in Glen Finglas they “rustled” over three hundred head of cattle, four hundred sheep and over one hundred horses. This really was too much and the Colquhouns petitioned King James V1 who was staying in Stirling.

For better effect and knowing that the King could not stand the sight of blood they gathered together a party of women giving them instructions to carry blood-stained clothing and claim to be mothers and widows of dead Colquhoun men. No doubt they dipped the clothes in the blood of a butchered sheep for effect! This produced the desired result and a further “Fire and Sword” edict against the MacGregors was issued. On the way home the women had a real good time in several taverns.

Their Chief quickly seized the initiative and gathered a host of fighting force of three hundred horse and five hundred on foot. They were mainly recruited from nearby Dumbarton. The MacGregors in the mean time had not been idle. Under the command of Ian Dubh another party had been gathered which included some of Argyle’s Campbells, some Camerons and MacDonalds from Glencoe... a strange mixture in light of subsequent events!

The two parties collided in Glen Fruin which is, in places, very boggy. As a result Colquhoun’s cavalry could not be used. His Lowland force was broken by the Highland charge, panic set in and they scattered. Prisoners were taken and put into the care of Alan Oig MacIntach, a MacDonald of Glencoe who realised that his side had won the day so he quietly killed many of them. Well, after all, in those vicious days, prisoners were a nuisance and being low born craiters they had no commercial value!

Ian Dubh was killed that day by an arrow and was buried there under a large stone. The combined MacGregor/Campbell party returned to Balquhidder driving before them hundreds of cattle, sheep and horses...and for good measure, burnt and destroyed every house and haystack!

The authorities were not happy “muffins” especially when they heard about the butchery of the prisoners. They decided that the only way to deal with this incalcitrant lot, and use their own power, was to produce an even tougher edict but this time make sure it was put into effect. The MacGregors were about to become an endangered species! The edict was issued from Edinburgh and would have the virtual effect of exterminating the Clan. It stated that the very name MacGregor was proscribed and that anyone bearing the name could be put to death, without hesitation, and no exception was made for age or sex. Bounties and rewards were offered to any who killed a MacGregor. Their women were to be branded and transported. They were in effect to be extirpated.

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Commemorative Stone at Glen Fruin

As Ian Dubh had been killed in the Battle of Glen Fruin his brother, Alasdair, was made Chief and his tenure was brief. In October of 1603 he was invited by Campbell of Ardkinlas to visit him in Loch Fyne. No doubt he had been given assurances of safe passage but when he got there he was taken into custody. The Campbells decided to take him to Inverary appropriately named the “hanging town.” On the way there he managed to escape when being rowed across Loch Fyne...no mean feat!

Later his “protector”, Argyle, who had been instrumental in organising the Glen Fruin battle and the MacGregor incursions into Colquhoun country, told him that he would get a pardon from the King if he would surrender himself. He even gave his assurance by letter stating that he would send him to England. Feeling confident that this would happen, Alasdair set out with a party of MacGregors for Edinburgh. From there he was escorted to Berwick which was as far as he got. In Berwick he was taken into custody and returned to Edinburgh. The day following his arrival and after spending the night in the Tollbooth where various lawyers and “freens” persuaded him to make a “confession” he was brought into open court along with four compatriots. There facing him was the Chief Justice himself, Argyle, surrounded by his cronies. He was quickly found guilty and condemned to death.

At the Mercat Cross he and his four companions were hanged along with a party of other MacGregors who had never been tried. Alasdair, because of his rank, was allowed to be hanged above his fellow kith and kin. One might say “the high and the mighty!” His body was dismembered and his head taken to Dumbarton for display. No doubt the local folk there viewed it with a certain amount of satisfaction!

In 1682 commissions were granted to various gentlemen and chiefs to keep order within their own districts. These gentlemen in turn appointed officers to act for them in every Highland parish. At certain times meetings were held in different places such as Killin, Balquhidder and Crieff. At one such meeting in Crieff held on 15th July, 1684 the following was recorded: - “Dureing the tyem the Court sett at Crieff an accident fell out which is thus. Ane notorious hectoring thieff hounder out and resaiter of theft, named Alexander Roy McGreigor of Ballnacoull having been lawfully summoned to compeir befoir the Lords Commissioners to ansuer at the insistence of severall of His Majestie’s leidges and the procurator fiscall of the said court for severall crymes to be layd to his charge, he disdaining the authoritie of the court, and refusing to come in upon protectioun, after the court rose upon Thursday the seventein instant and adjourned till the morrow at eight oclock, the said Alexander and some others of his associates came secretlie to the town of Crieff betwixt 9 and 10 oclock at night, which being discovered to some of the Commissioners that wer in the toune, ordor was immediatelie given to ane sergeant with a small partie of His Majestie’s forces that were attending the court, to endeavour to apprehend him, which they assaying to doe, the said Alexander being with a number of his clann and other is about him standing in the fields, discovering ther approach to the pairt wher he was standing made him to flie, and within a littell did betake himself to his heeles, which the pertie seeing hotly persewed, against whom he turned and fyred his gun and afterwards run and charged again which he likewayes discharged together with his pistol in the perties front, but still winning ground upon him approached soe near that they desyred him to be taken and take quarters which he refused, wherupon ane of the pertie with his balgoneit in the muzel killed him dead, to the great satisfactione of all honest people in thes countries that such a great hector and notorious thieff was cutt off, and terrour of all malefactors wanting such a great chiftane as he was.” And so perished McGreigour - the “Bad Yin”

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Tigh Na Sithe, near Balnacoull, Glen Lednock.

Throughout the seventeenth century the full wrath of the Government was unleashed, and MacGregors were stalked relentlessly. Women were branded and along with their families sent to the Lowlands, and to other places. They could avoid this fate if they betrayed their husbands, however such was the mood of the country that they could still be shipped hundreds of miles away from the Perthshire they called home! No more than four of them could meet in the one place at the one time, and if anyone helped them their property would be confiscated. As it was “open season” several lesser lights were more than willing to cash into this potential bonanza. Who said vigilantes were new!? As a result of their proscription many MacGregors took other names such as Comrie, Drummond, Black, and even Campbell. It became a broken clan like the Neishes, MacPhies, MacLarens, and others. A hundred of years or so later when it was safe to again call yourself a MacGregor, it was found that many had flourished in the professions, especially in law! Rob Roy MacGregor Campbell has a chapter all to himself. Edvard Greig, the Norwegian composer, was a MacGregor!

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Edvard Greig

Note: Photographs via Wikipedia


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