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General History of the Highlands
The reign of James I


James I in 1424, Scoto-Norman barons, Donald Balloch’s insurrection, Neill Mackay, Keiths, and a general account of various battles and life style in this reign.

On the return of James I, in 1424, from his captivity in England, he found Scotland, and particularly the Highlands, in a state of the most fearful insubordination. Rapine, robbery, and an utter contempt of the laws prevailed to an alarming extent, which require all the energy of a wise and prudent prince like James, to repress. When these excesses were first reported to James, by one of his nobles, on entering the kingdom, he thus expressed himself :—" Let God but grant me life and there shall not be a spot in my dominions where the key shall not keep the castle, an the furze-bush the cow, though I myself should lead the life of a dog to accomplish it." "A this period, the condition of the Highlands, so far as is discoverable from the few authentic documents which have reached our times, appears to have been in the highest degree rude and uncivilized. There existed a singular combination of Celtic and of feudal manners. Powerful chiefs, of Norman name and Norman blood, had penetrated into the remotest districts, and ruled over multitudes of vassals and serfs, whose strange and uncouth appellatives proclaim their difference of race in the most convincing manner. The tenure of lands by charter and seisin, the feudal services due by the vassal to his lord, the bands of friendship or of manrent which indissolubly united certain chiefs and nobles to each other, the baronial courts, and the complicated official pomp of feudal life, were all to be found in full strength and operation in the northern counties; but the dependence of the barons, who had taken up their residence in these wild districts, upon the king, and their allegiance and subordination to the laws, were less intimate and influential than in the Lowland divisions of the country; and as they experienced less protection, we have already seen, that in great public emergencies, when the captivity of the sovereign, or the payment of his ransom, called for the imposition of a tax upon property throughout the kingdom, these great northern chiefs thought themselves at liberty to resist the collection within their mountainous principalities.

Besides such Scoto-Norman barons, however, there were to be found in the Highlands and Isles, those fierce aboriginal chiefs, who hated the Saxon and the Norman race, and offered a mortal opposition to the settlement of all intruders within a country which they considered their own. They exercised the same authority over the various clans or septs of as which they were the chosen heads or leaders, is which the baron possessed over his vassals and military followers; and the dreadful disputes and collisions which perpetually occurred is between these distinct ranks of potentates, and were accompanied by spoilations, ravages, imprisonments, and murders, which had at last become so frequent and so far extended, that the whole country beyond the Grampian range was likely to be cut off, by these abuses, from all regular communication with the more pacific parts of the kingdom."

Having, by a firm and salutary, but perhaps severe, course of policy, restored the empire of the laws in the Lowlands, and obtained the enactment of new statutes for the future welfare and prosperity of the kingdom, James next turned his attention to his Highland dominions, which, as we have seen, were in a deplorable state of insubordination, that made both property and life insecure. The king determined to visit in person the disturbed districts, and by punishing the refractory chiefs, put an end to those tumults and enormities which had, during his minority, triumphed over the laws. James, in the year 1427, arrived at Inverness, attended by his parliament, and immediately summoned the principal chiefs there to appear before him. From whatever motives—whether from hopes of effecting a reconciliation by a ready compliance with the mandate of the king, or from a dread, in case of refusal, of the fate of the powerful barons of the south who had fallen victims to James’s severity - the order of the king was obeyed, and the chiefs repaired to Inverness. No sooner, however, had they entered the hall where the parliament was sitting, than they were by order of the king arrested, ironed, and imprisoned in different apartments, and debarred all communication with each other, or with their followers. It has been supposed that these chiefs may have been entrapped by some fair promises on the part of James, and the joy which, according to Fordun, he manifested at seeing these turbulent and haughty spirits caught in the toils which he had prepared for them, favours this conjecture. The number of chiefs seized on this occasion is stated to have amounted to about forty; but the names of the principal ones only have been preserved. These were Master or Alexander Macdonald, Lord of the Isles; Angus Dubh Mackay, with his four sons, who could bring into the field 4,000 fighting men; Kenneth More and his son-in-law, Angus of Moray, and Macmathan, who could muster 2,000 men; Alexander Macreiny (Macreary?) of Garmoran and John Macarthur, each of whom could bring into the field 1,000 followers. Besides these were John Ross, James Campbell, and William Lesley. The Countess of Ross, the mother of Alexander, the Lord of the Isles, and heiress of Sir Walter Lesley, was also apprehended and imprisoned at the same time.

The king now determined to inflict summary vengeance upon his captives. Those who were most conspicuous for their crimes were immediately executed; among whom were James Campbell, who was tried, convicted, and hanged for the murder of John of the Isles and Alexander Macreiny and John Macarthur, who were beheaded. Alexander of the Isles and Angus Dubh, after a short confinement, were both pardoned; but the latter was obliged to deliver up, as a hostage for his good behaviour, his son Neill, who was confined on the Bass rock, and, from that circumstance, was afterwards named Neill-Wasse-Mackay. Besides these, many others who were kept in prison in different parts of the kingdom, were afterwards condemned and executed.

The royal clemency, which had been extended so graciously to the Lord of the Isles, met with an ungrateful return; for shortly after the king had returned to his lowland dominions, Alexander collected a force of ten thousand men in Ross and the Isles, and with this formidable body laid waste the country; plundered and devastated the crown lands, against which his vengeance was chiefly directed, and razed the royal burgh of Inverness to the ground. On hearing of these distressing events, James, with a rapidity rarely equalled, collected a force, the extent of which has not been ascertained, and marched with great speed into Lochaber, where he found the enemy, who, from the celerity of his movements, was taken almost by surprise. Alexander prepared for battle; but, before its commencement, he had the misfortune to witness the desertion of the clan Chattan, and the clan Cameron, who, to a man, went over to the royal standard. The king, thereupon, attacked Alexander’s army, which he completely routed, and the latter sought safety in flight.

Reduced to the utmost distress, and seeing the impossibility of evading the active vigilance of his pursuers, who hunted him from place to place, this haughty lord, who considered himself on a par with kings, resolved to throw himself entirely on the mercy of the king, by an act of the most abject submission. Having arrived in Edinburgh, to which he had travelled in the most private manner, the humbled chief suddenly presented himself before the king, on Easter-Sunday, in the church of Holyrood, when he and his queen, surrounded by the nobles of the court, were employed in their devotions before the high altar. The extraordinary appearance of the fallen prince denoted the inward workings of his troubled mind. Without bonnet, arms, or ornament of any kind, his legs and arms quite bare, his body covered with only a plaid, and holding a naked sword in his hand by the point, he fell down on his knees before the king, imploring mercy and forgiveness, and, in token of his unreserved submission, offered the hilt of his sword to his majesty. At the solicitation of the queen and nobles, James spared his life, but committed him immediately to Tantallan castle, under the charge of William Earl of Angus, his nephew. This took place in the year 1429. The Countess of Ross was kept in close confinement in the ancient monastery of Inchcolm, on the small island of that name, in the Frith of Forth. The king, however, relented, and released the Lord of the Isles and his mother, after about a year’s imprisonment.

About this period happened another of those bloody frays, which destroyed the internal peace of the Highlands, and brought ruin and desolation upon many families. Thomas Macneill, son of Neil Mackay, who was engaged in the battle of Tuttum-Turwigh, possessed the lands of Creigh, Spaniziedaill, and Palrossie, in a Sutherland. Having conceived some displeasure at Mowat, the laird of Freshwick, the, the latter, with his party, in order to avoid his vengeance, took refuge in the chapel of St. Duffus, near the town of Tain, as a sanctuary. Thither they were followed by Thomas, who not only slew Mowat and his people, but also burnt the chapel to the ground. This outrage upon religion and humanity exasperated the king, who immediately ordered a proclamation to be issued, denouncing Thomas Macneil as a rebel, and promising his lands and possessions as a reward to any one that would kill or apprehend him. Angus Murray, son of Alexander Murray of Cubin, immediately set about the apprehension of Thomas Macneil]. To accomplish his purpose, he held a secret conference with Morgan and Neil Macneil, the brothers of Thomas, at which he offered, provided they would assist him in apprehending their brother, his two daughters in marriage, and promised to aid them in getting peaceable possession of such lands in Strathnaver as they claimed. This, he showed them, might be easily accomplished, with little or no resistance, as Neil Mackay, son of Angus Dubh, from whom the chief opposition might have been expected, was then a prisoner in the Bass, and Angus Dubh, the father, was unable, from age and infirmity, to defend his pretensions. Angus Murray also promised to request the assistance of the Earl of Sutherland. As these two brothers pretended a right to the possessions of Angus Dubh in Strathnaver, they were easily allured by these promises; they immedIiately apprehended their brother Thomas at Spaniziedaill in Sutherland, and delivered him to Murray, by whom he was presented to the king. Macneil was immediately executed at Inverness, and Angus Murray obtained, in terms of the royal proclamation, a grant of the lands of Palrossie and Spaniziedaill from the king. The lands of Creigh fell into the hands of the Lord of the Isles, as superior, by the death and felony of Macneil.

In pursuance of his promise, Murray gave his daughters in marriage respectively to Neil and Morgan Macneil, and with the consent and probation of Robert Earl of Sutherland, he invaded Strathnaver with a party of Sutherland men, to take possession of the lands of Angus Dubh Mackay. Angus immediately collected his men, and gave the command of them to John Aberigh, his natural son, as he as unable to lead them in person. Both parties met about two miles from Toung, at a place called Drum-ne-Coub; but, before they came blows, Angus Dubh Mackay sent a message to Neil and Morgan, his cousins-german, offering to surrender them all his lands and possessions in Strathnaver, if they would allow him retain Keantayle. This fair offer was, however, rejected, and an appeal was therefore imediately made to arms. A desperate conflict then took place, in which many were killed on both sides; among whom were Angus Murray and his two sons-in-law, Neil and Morgan Macneil. John Aberigh, though gained the victory, was severely wounded, and lost one of his arms. After the battle Angus Dubh Mackay was carried, at his own request, to the field, to search for the bodies of his slain cousins, but he was killed by an arrow from a Sutherland man who lay concealed in a bush near by.

James I. made many salutary regulations for putting an end to the disorders consequent upon the lawless state of the Highlands, and the oppressed looked up to him for protection. The following remarkable case will give some idea of the extraordinary barbarity in which the spoliators indulged: A notorious thief, named Donald Ross, who had made himself rich with plunder, carried off two cows from a poor woman. This woman having expressed a fresh determination not to wear shoes again till she had made a complaint to the king in person, the robber exclaimed, "It is false: I’ll have met you shod before you reach the court;" and who thereupon, with a brutality scarcely paralleled, and the cruel monster took two horse shoes, and fixed them on her feet with nails driven into the flesh. The victim of this savage act, as soon as she was able to travel, went to the king and related to him the whole circumstances of her case, which so exasperated him, that he immediately sent a warrant to the sheriff of the county, where Ross resided, for his immediate apprehension; which being effected, he and a number of his associates were sent under an escort to Perth, where the court was then held. Ross was tried and condemned, he and his friends being treated in the same manner as he had treated the poor woman; and before his execution a linen shirt, on which was painted a representation of his crime, was thrown over him, in which dress he was paraded through the streets of the town, afterwards dragged at a horse’s tail, and hanged on a gallows.

The commotions in Strathnaver, and other parts of the Highlands, induced the king to make another expedition into that part of his dominions; previous to which he summoned a Parliament at Perth, which was held on the 15th of October, 1431, in which a land-tax, or "zelde," was laid upon the whole lands of the kingdom, to defray the expenses of the undertaking. No contemporary record of this expedition exists; but it is said that the king proceeded to Dunstaffnage castle, to punish those who had joined in Donald Balloch’s insurrection; that, on his arrival there, numbers came to him and made their submission, throwing the whole odium of the rebellion upon the leader, whose authority, they alleged, they were afraid to resist; and that, by their means, three hundred thieves were aprehended and put to death.

For several years after this expedition the Highlands appear to have been tranquil; but, the liberation of Neill Mackay from his confinement on the Bass, in the year 1437, fresh disturbances began. This restless chief had scarcely been released, when he entered Caithness, and spoiled the country. He was at a place called Sandsett; but the people came to oppose his progress were defeated, many of them were slain. This conflict was called Ruaig Hanset; that is, the flight, or chase at Sandsett.

About the same time a quarrel took place between the Keiths and some others of the inhabitants of Caithness. As the Keiths could not depend upon their own forces, they sought the aid of Angus Mackay, son of Neill last mentioned, who had recently died. Angus agreed to join the Keiths; and accordingly, accompanied by his brother, John Roy, and a chieftain named Iain-Mor-Mac-Iain-Riabhaich, with a company of men, he went into Caithness, joining the Keiths, invaded that part of Caithness hostile to the Keiths. The people of Caithness lost not a moment in assembling together, and met the Strathnaver men and the Keiths at a place called Blare-Tannie. Here a sanguinary contest took place; but victory declared for the Keiths, whose success, it is said, chiefly owing to the prowess of Iain-Mor-Iain-Riabhaich, whose name was, in concequence, long famous in that and the adjoining country

After the defeat of James, Earl of Douglas, who had renounced his allegiance to James II., At Arkinholme, in 1454, he retired into Argylshire, where he was received by the Earl of Ross, with whom, and the Lord of the Isles, he entered into an alliance.


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