Warfare & Local Clans

Clan Warfare

The history of a united Scotland as we know it starts at this point, and fortunately for subsequent generations, more writing became available which makes it all the more interesting for those interpreting evolution and social history. To provide an overview it should be clearly stated from the outset that Highland chieftains controlled everything; the land, the people and all the livestock...they were omnipotent within their own areas of jurisdiction! They could call men out to fight for them, they could tax them, and they could even take their womenfolk as well, and hang anyone who opposed their wishes. They had the power of “pit and gallows!” Some were good (I must admit I struggle with this one) whereas most were deadly! These chiefs and their kin became, over time, prominent families who left their mark on the land as well as on the backs of honest folk. There was no redress! Their influence and control was paramount and in some cases continues to this day although they “ain’t” allowed to hang folk anymore! The land may have changed hands, but the rules remain!

In most cases Highland chiefs acquired their rights by rather straightforward means. Their wealth could have been acquired because they had shown great loyalty to the crown; been on the winning side and rewarded with land grants. They could have married into wealth (money or land) – women were regarded as goods with dowries. They could have inherited it - by fair means or foul, or they could have just as easily stolen it, or stolen it because they had a wee piece of paper, or parchment of sheepskin which they had written, or had written for them, saying this property was theirs. They could have acquired it through conquest, or they could have negotiated with other parties who were not as smart, and in some cases could not read at all!

In what is now called England, as the Romans withdrew, pickings were to be had, and various kingships and turf were fought over, and in most cases were heavily contested, for hundreds of years. From roughly 400 A.D. to the Elizabethan era, vying factions slaughtered each other for a wee puckle of land. One need only considered the struggles between local lords and their hordes who contested those picking from the period 400 A.D to roughly 850 A.D. Consider a look at the history in chronological order from the ninth century onwards of the Houses of Mercia, Wessex, Denmark, Normandy, Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor and Stuart to see that killing, thieving, robbing, maiming, land grabbing, torture and the like, was the order of the day. Where on earth did the refined form of execution, hanging, drawing and quartering come from? And, if, when they were not doing it to each other in a serious way, were they were doing it to each other in play at tournaments?

In Scotland, then called variously Caledonia, (later Dalriada and Alba), new peoples invaded the island intent, then as now, of settling and establishing new ways of life. The Scotti from Ireland spread out eastwards from Iona and Dunadd on the West coast, coming in contact with the southwards movement of the Picts (painted ones) who had established their so called capital at Abernethy in the Strathearn valley. Concomitant to this there was an influx of Anglo Saxons moving north and settling mainly on the fringes of the Highland mountain fastness. Violence became not only inevitable, but a way of life. Western or Highland Strathearn was no different from other parts of the island.

From about 500 A.D. incomers created communities and they in turn became tribes or clans. They quickly marked their claims and often disputes occurred. When this happened, the result more often than not was not a diplomatic solution or accommodation, but instead a meeting where they met and killed each other. Sometimes, they even stabbed people in the back, or at feasts and other events, simply assassinated them. This happened in a thousand places throughout the country. In a glance over the Pictish “Kings” of Scotland from this period to the time of Kenneth MacAlpine, there have been identified some 60 Kings, never mind their vassals who took titles such as Earl, Thane or Baron. There was a lot of fighting going on! Again in chronological order we note that the country was governed by the Houses of Alpin, Dunkeld, Bailliol, Bruce and Stuart.

Supporting them was transient, and as it suited Highland chiefs. They in turn controlled their minions through relatives and kissing cousins, thugs and tacksmen; all of whom were well provided with arms. Until the rule of law existed, (and even when it did), it was always prudent to have a club, claymore, dirk, blunderbuss, pistol or musket close to hand...just in case! Sadly, it sometimes appears that those days are returning! In our study we will consider most of the “great” families who settled in our native heath and whilst this book is, in the main about lesser, shinier lights, they cannot be ignored, whether good or evil, as they have a place.

Internecine warfare, referred loosely as clan warfare, became more organized and fashionable after Bannockburn. In Strathearn this developed into a sophisticated art form complete with rules! But the rules were only lightly applied. Drummonds fought with Murrays, MacLarens with MacGregors, Stewarts with raiding MacDonalds, Neishes with McNabs, and everyone fighting against the McGregors who had no land of their own... other than that which they purloined! The Campbells, being smarter than many others, took the sly way, rather than the pugilistic way. They preferred to buy property, or purloin it using other means, such as the law – many became lawyers and ruled large swaths of the country using laws which they themselves had created! They seem still to be well represented in all the courts in Scotland…and even England! They often preferred the role of arbitrator, rather than fighter.

When things were slack it appeared to be fair game to lay hands on anyone else and it was all, one supposes, a part of everyday life! We shall see that this feuding went on through several centuries until very recent days when, I am sure, all readers will be aware, these activities may not necessarily have ceased, but are less dramatic! Throughout time each clan has tried the other on, normally as a part of daily living, for fun and sport, or just to occupy some time. It is a rather rapacious story so those with a weak stomach can skip over this section and those, who like the author have an interest in evolution, and the Darwinian concept, can bring out the whinstone and sharpen their skein dhus, and ladies, their knitting needles!

Some of these affairs were settled in a “civilized” fashion, whereas, most were not. In 1396 on the North Inch in Perth an “organized” way of doing things occurred in an attempt to quell continuing warfare between the Clan Chattan and Clan Kay. Clan Chattan was a mixed clan consisting of names from different septs, or smaller groups, such as MacBean, MacIntosh, MacGillvrays, and MacPhersons and others. They were pitted against adherents to Clan Cameron. Their chieftains did not see “eye to eye” on many points with each other. It was thought that they were feuding against each other about battle position which was a source of great enmity if they did not have the best fighting position or were predominant on the left of the line. This caused fierce debate. Pride and arrogance cost many dearly as can be seen at the Clan Chattan stone at Culloden!

The basic idea, on this day in September, was for each clan to provide thirty men to fight it out to the death. In order to ensure fair play the King of the day, John, Earl of Carrick, and known as King Robert the Third attended with all his court. Who said the Romans had a monopoly in the arena?!

It was a beautiful day by all accounts, fair weather with just a light breeze and the spectators were not disappointed in the performance. It had been noted that Clan Chattan was a man short. So, to ensure fairness, there was a call for a stand-in. Henry Gow, a blacksmith to trade, strode forth. He was described as “small in stature, bandy-legged, but fierce.” He was also known as Hal o’ the Wynd. He may have volunteered for this activity, or he may have been co-opted, or maybe he was just one of those people who liked a good scrap! Anyway as the Clan Chattan was playing with one man short, he had joined their team. With the drop of a hankie from, no doubt, a delicate hand, battle was joined! There was a lot of hacking, and the clamour and clashing of steel, and no doubt the odd groan was heard as someone felt the edge of a blade penetrate their skulls, or other parts of their bodies! It went on for a while with the crowd pleased when the moves were good, and not so as the numbers dwindled. At the day’s end only eleven men of the Clan Chattan were left standing, or probably more accurately, leaning, on their blood-stained weapons! The Cameron competition had only one man still standing. Seeing he had no chance he flung himself into the river Tay and swam to the other side.

This left the victory to Clan Chattan. Henry Gow was one of the survivors and entered the history books due to his prowess with a two-handed sword. He was known thereafter as Gow Chrom, “the crooked smith.”

The North Inch Today

The tales and legends of clans in Highland Strathearn are told in various chapters in our book however, it should be mentioned that the Clan system was extirpated immediately after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. After the battle individuals and clans were hunted down and many were killed. There are no known cases of clans depredating or marauding, other clans after 1750 in defiance of authority. There was no fighting between clans in internecine warfare; inter clan rivalry was finished, and the world moved on.

However, whilst the world turned, there was no joy for thousands upon thousands of Scots. Rather, the Scottish Diaspora initially quietly started with individual clans and disparate people, mainly located in the North and West of the country, being force evicted from their ancestral homes. Their men, women and children were killed or burned out of their ancestral homes under fire and sword policies. Sheep were introduced and proved to be more profitable to the landowner, than their loyal servants (formerly clan’s people), you see! The Highland Clearances had started. The people were forced of the land. As an example most of the families in the lands of the Duke of Sutherland were driven like cattle to the sea where skelp became their stable diet! Their Highland dress was banned, as were the carrying of arms, and the playing of bagpipes. Their old Gaelic tongue was thrown on to the refuse pit, and no more than four of them could assemble in the one place. In time more than half a million were shipped overseas populating large areas in North America, and other lands further afield such as Australia and Africa. Out of sight, out of mind! Strathnaver should be enshrined to their sacrifice.

As a recent note it appears that the current Duke of Sutherland flogged a couple of Titians to the country for hundreds of thousands of pounds. This was so that they could remain in Scotland and would not be purchased by an overseas buyer. No doubt they were purchased by the noble Lord from the revenue produced by his sheep. I am of the opinion that perhaps the Duke of Sutherland should take himself and his possessions overseas. Perhaps the descendents of his clansmen will be able to see these beautiful paintings first hand. As they say in Glasgow ‘Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish!” However, let us to return to our story.

Because their martial skills were admired by the British army, many young men, given no real choice of meaningful employment, joined it. Here they were allowed to wear a Government approved tartan. Around this time the British army needed soldiers in India and Canada in particular to advance the boundaries of empire, and who better to use for this purpose, than these displaced Scots. They could be used then, as now, as cannon fodder and their bodies littered a thousand battlefields. Even better that most only speak Gaelic, and very little English. The English officer class always adopted a policy of “I’m in charge, I’ll lead from behind!"

Highland regiments were formed. The oldest, the Black Watch, had been formed in 1725 to keep internecine clan warfare under control. After Culloden other regiments were formed such as the Fraser Highlanders. They were instrumental under General Wolfe in taking Quebec, thereby seizing control of all of the French possessions in the Americas. This band of soldiers was kept here perpetually as the British government feared that the Bonnie Prince would try his luck again. Fortunately he didn’t. The occupation which lasted well past 1760 resulted in Gaelic speaking Highland Roman Catholic Scottish soldiers marrying French speaking Roman Catholic women. Today in Quebec it is not uncommon to meet some of their descendents. They may have names like Robert MacGregor, or Pierre Carmichael, or Jean MacEwan, and quite a few do not speak a word of English. It is real odd and as I live in Quebec, I am always amazed by it. Recently a piper won an award for piping skills. He was a grand looking fellow, kilt and all, and 100% French Canadian!

Fraser Highlanders

In 1778 the Argyle Highlanders were formed and their first engagements were in Nova Scotia in Canada. Shortly thereafter in 1793 the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders was formed (the Cameronians). Tens of thousands of Scots joined their ranks serving in the Peninsular War in Spain, Quatre Bras and Waterloo in Europe, as well as latterly in the Crimea, India the two Boer Wars as well as the First and Second World Wars, as well as in the modern army.

In 1822, Sir Walter Scott, to make a big splash with George 1V, came out with this wondrous notion that all people with a similar surname should have a piece of similar cloth woven so that they could band together at various events. All Murrays and Drummonds, etc, would wear the same design so as to better represent their familial associations or clan names. The idea was that it then became easier to differentiate between clans particularly at Highland events, and be identified by the colours of the woven fabric in their kilts. He inferred that this was the dress of yesterday and worn by all, as a kilt, philibeg or shawl.

Well now, maybe we should explore that a little more carefully. In the Highland and Islands in the old days women were the providers of clothing. Hand loom weaving of cloth was one of the principal tasks for all women. Sheep were shorn and their wool spun into thread, dyed using vegetable dyes, and then woven in looms in cloth lengths. From that point the cloth was made into kilts, and shawls, and blankets and other goods.

As it was a very time consuming task there was no time for niceties and if you were a Campbell or a Macpherson, whatever cloth was available was used. It was not so much for identification, but much more to do with economy and utilization of the available cloth. Some then fostered the notion that the woven cloth be called tartan, and its composition represented various clans. In this way therefore it was easier to identify a MacLeod from a MacDonald, etc. I suspect that came from having a sufficiency of cloth rather than the lot of them sitting down and designing it. Tartan was virtually unknown south of the highland line where the more appropriate dress for men was hose or knee breeches.

In the old days the average person could hardly afford to wear trousers, never mind a clan tartan kilt, and all the accoutrements! The cost would have been prohibitive! At best they showed up for battle or a meeting and clan warfare perhaps sporting a leaf in their bonnets, or had a badge on their jackets although their chiefs may have worn clothing more akin to a kilt. They gathered around their piper who played to the chief’s bidding. Wallace’s and Bruce’s troops during the Wars of Independence were described as wearing the “hodden grey.” This homespun weave was made by the local women and worn by most. It did not represent one clan or another, but the whole assembled. It clothed the lower part of the body to the knee as a wrap around. It also would have had a loose fitting upper part worn over a shirt, or in some cases substituting for a shirt. The poor never wore stocking, and shoes were rudimentary. Highlanders were used to rough living and when away from their homes would camp besides streams which provided them with water to soften the oats they carried in their sporrans. In the evening they would dip their kilts into the stream and wrap them around their bodies. Natural body heat then took over, and for most, they were as snug as a bug in a rug. I heard that one of them had rolled snow into a ball and used it as a pillow. He was considered soft or effete by his fellow clansmen!

Hodden Grey

However, after the visit to Edinburgh by George 1V in 1822, the tartan industry began and quickly it became “de rigeur” to show up at a Highland Games and other events dressed up to the eyeballs in tartan, and ideally preceded by a pipe band similarly attired. The industry is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars and employs thousands. There are about 2000 tartans which can be selected from, and new tartans are created frequently. We are, however, greatly blessed as Scots by our national costume, our music (country and Highland), dancing (country and Highland), and the stories, histories and legends, which were passed to us as a legacy. EACH IS A RICH SEAM! Perhaps the MacGregor motto could apply to Scots all over the world taking into account our collective history, “We survived, despite them!”

In our historical walk we will come in contact with many of the clans that strode through Highland Strathearn. They include the Drummonds, Murrays, Campbells, Stewarts, Neish, MacLaren, and MacGregor, MacNaughtons, MacDonalds, MacNabs, MacIntyres, Grahams and MacEwans. Mac and Mc are interchangeable.

Other than the Stewart drawing fashioned after Charles Edward Stewart, it is unlikely that these stylized images bear any resemblance to any ancient tartan worn by anyone!

Clan Map of Strathearn

True purists will argue that Mac, meaning “son of”, comes from those descended from Ireland and Western Isles, and Mc with those from the North of Scotland. The settlers from Ireland were Goedelic Celts (Q-Celtic) (pronounced Gaelic), and the language they may have spoken is now called Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) (pronounced Gallic). Some people have referred to it as “Erse” or latterly (Scottis). The other major group were Brythonic Celts and they spoke Brythonic (P-Celtic). Over time in the linguistic clash, the Pictish language disappeared from view. Many centuries later a form of the English language took its place. It is called Lallans or Lowland Scots. Doric was used in the far north east. The eclectic language of today developed and is now known as Scots-English incorporating many words and expressions culled from the ancient languages. By the time of the eighteenth century it displaced Gaelic. There are more Gaelic speakers today in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, than there are in all of Scotland. Today some people are trying to re-introduce Gaelic into Scotland. My view is to go with the majority which speaks and understands Scots English… as she is spoke, well but! Gaelic, like Latin and Ancient Greek, are interesting for study by academics, but not for daily use. The following are the words to the Canadian Boat song in English and in Gaelic. It appropriately addresses the forced evictions which occurred over a 150 year time span from 1750 to 1900…and sadly, whilst not forced today, still goes on!

Canadian Boat Song

Fair these broad meads - these hoary woods are grand

But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

Listen to me, as when ye heard our father

Sing long ago the song of other shores -

Listen to me, and then in chorus gather

All your deep voices, as ye pull your oars.

From the lone shieling of the misty island

Mountains divide us, and waste of seas -

Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,

And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

We ne'er shall tread the fancy-haunted valley,

Where 'tween the dark hills creeps the small clear stream,

In arms around the patriarch banner rally,

Nor see the moon on royal tombstones gleam.

When the bold kindred, in the time long vanis'hd,

Conquer'd the soil and fortified the keep -

No seer foretold the children would be banish'd,

That a degenerate lord might boast his sheep.

Come foreign rage - let Discord burst in slaughter!

O then for clansmen true, and stern claymore

The hearts that would have given their blood like water,

Beat heavily beyond the Atlantic roar.


Eisdibh rim' dha`n-sa mar a dh'e`isd sibh riusan

A sheinn le sunnd dhuibh ann an tir nam beann;

An luinneag thu`rsach togaibh suas gu la`ider,

'S biodh neart nan la`mh a cur a bha`t na deann.


Tha 'n talamh fial 's gur briagh na coilltean aosd;

Ach 's fo`g'raich sinn bhe thi`r 's bha shluagh ar gaoil.


Eadar am fonn so`s botghhain chaoin ar ca`irdean

Tha beanntan a`rda 's fa`sach de thuinn dhoirbh;

Ach tha ar cridheachan 'san tir 'thog suas sinn,

'S gur tric na'r bruadair sinn my cluain tibh gorm;


A chaoidh cha'n fhaic sinnglinn is cnoic na h-a`illeachd,

Le 'n uilltghlan gha`ireach 'ruith a sios gu re`idh;

Cha'n fhaic sinn sluagh le uaill mu'n triath an ordugh,

No leac nan seo`d 'budileas, teo`m, 'san streup;


Nuair bha ar sinnsre iomahh linn roimh 'n la` so,

A' dion le'n claidhmhnean a`ite taimh na saors.

Cha robh ac' smuain gun cuirt' an clann a` 'n d`uthaich,

Gu tuilleach bhr`uidean 'thoirt do dh'uiachd 'rain bhaothi.


Ma chruinnicheas feachd an aghaidh Bhreatuinn mho`rail,

Bidh feum air connspuinn chro`dha, dhian, nachge'iff,

Ach c'a`it am bi aid anns an t`ir r'am faotuinn,

'S na Gaihheil aobhach thar nan cuan gu le'ir?

The Last of the Clan, 1865 - Thomas Faed

Scottish Samurai Tartan