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General History of the Highlands
Clan Gunn & Macdonalds and Macleans


In the year 1585 a quarrel took place between Nell Houcheonson, and Donald Neilson, the Laird of Assynt, who had married Houcheon Mackay’s sister. The cause of Donald Neilson was espoused by Houcheon Mackay, and the clan Gun, who came with an army out of Caithness and Strathnaver, to besiege Neil Houcheonson in the isle of Assynt. Neil, who was commander of Assynt, and a follower of the Earl of Sutherland, sent immediate notice to the earl of Mackay’s movements, on receiving which the earl, assembling a body of men, despatched them to Assynt to raise the siege; but Mackay did not wait for their coming, and retreated into Stratbnaver. As the Earl of Caithness had sent some of his people to assist Mackay, who was the Earl of Sutherland’s vassal, the latter resolved to punish both, and accordingly made preparations for entering Strathnaver and Caithness with an army. But some mutual friends of the parties interfered to prevent the effusion of blood, by prevailing on the two earls to meet at Elgin, in the presence of the Earl of Huntly and other friends, and get their differences adjusted. A meeting was accordingly held, at which the earls were reconciled. The whole blame of the troubles and commotions which had recently disturbed the peace of Sutherland and Caithness, was thrown upon the clan Gun, who were alleged to have been the chief instigators, and as their restless disposition might give rise to new disorders, it was agreed, at said meeting, to cut them off, and particularly that part of the tribe which dwelt in Caithness, which was chiefly dreaded, for which purpose the Earl of Caithness bound himself to deliver up to the Earl of Sutherland, certain individuals of the clan living in Caithness.

To enable him to implement his engagement a resolution was entered into to send two companies of men against those of the clan Gun who dwelt in Caithness and Strathnaver, and to surround them in such a way as to prevent escape. The Earl of Caithness, notwithstanding, sent private notice to the clan of the preparations making against them by Angus Sutherland of Mellary, in Berriedale; but the clan were distrustful of the earl, as they had already received secret intelligence that he had assembled his people together for the purpose of attacking them.

As soon as the Earl of Sutherland could get his men collected he proceeded to march to the territories of the clan Gun; but meeting by chance, on his way, with a party of Strathnaver men, under the command of William Mackay, brother of Houcheon Mackay, carrying off the cattle of James Mac-Rory, a vassal of his own, from Coireceaun Loch in the DinMeanigh, he rescued and brought back his vassal’s cattle. After this the earl’s party pursued Wi]liam Mackay and the Strathnaver men during the whole day, and killed one of the principal men of the clan Gun in Strathnaver, called Angus-Roy, with several others of Mackay’s company. This affair was called Latha-Tom-Fraoich, that is, the day of the heather bush. At the end of the pursuit, and towards evening, the pursued party found themselves on the borders of Caithness, where they found the clan Gun assembled in consequence of the rising of the Caithness people who had taken away their cattle.

This accidental meeting of the Strathnaver men and the clan Gun was the means, probably, of saving both from destruction. They immediately entered into an alliance to stand by one another, and to live or die together. Next morning they found themselves placed between two powerful bodies of their enemies. On the one side was the Earl of Sutherland’s party at no great distance, reposing themselves from the fatigues of the preceding day, and on the other were seen advancing the Caithness men, conducted by Henry Sinclair, brother to the laird of Dun, and cousin to the Earl of Caithness. A council of war was immediately held to consult how to act in this emergency, when it was resolved to attack the Caithness men first, as they were far inferior in numbers, which was done by the clan Gun and their allies, who had the advantage of the hill, with great resolution. The former foolishly expended their arrows while at a distance from their opponents; but the clan Gun having husbanded their shot till they came in close contact with the enemy, did great execution. The Caithness men were completely overthrown, after leaving 140 of their party, with their captain, Henry Sinclair, dead on the field of battle. Had not the darkness of the night favoured their flight, they would have all been destroyed. Henry Sinclair was Mackay’s uncle, and not being aware that he had been in the engagement till he recognised his body among the slain, Mackay felt extremely grieved at the unexpected death of his relative. This skirmish took place at Aldgown, in the year 1586. The Sutherland men having lost sight of Mackay and his party among the hills, immediately before the conflict, returned into their own country with the booty they had recovered, and were not aware of the defeat of the Caithness men till some time after that event.

The Earl of Caithness afterwards confessed that he had no intention of attacking the clan Gun at the time in question; but that his policy was to have allowed them to be closely pressed and pursued by the Sutherland men, and then to have relieved them from the imminent danger they would thereby be placed in, so that they might consider that it was to him they owed their safety, and thus lay them under fresh obligations to him. But the deceitful part lie acted proved very disastrous to his people, and the result so exasperated him against the clan Gun, that he hanged John Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, chieftain of the clan Gun, in Caithness, whom he had kept captive for some time.

The result of all these proceedings was another meeting between the Earls of Sutherland and Caithness at the hill of Bingrime in Sutherland, which was brought about by the mediation of Sir Patrick Gordon of .Auchindun, who was sent into the north by his nephew, the Earl of Huntly, for that purpose. Here again a new confederacy was formed against the clan Gun in Caithness, who were now maintained and harboured by Mackay. The Earl of Sutherland, on account of the recent defeat of the Caithness men, undertook to attack the clan first. He accordingly directed two bodies to march with all haste against the clan, one of which was commanded by James Mac-Rory and Neil Mac-lain-Mac-William, chief of the Sliochd-Iain-Abaraich, who were now under the protection of the Earl of Sutherland; and the other by William Sutherland Johnson, George Gordon in Marie, and William Murray in Kinnald, brother of Hugh Murray of Aberscors. Houcheon Mackay, seeing no hopes of maintaining the clan Gun any longer without danger to himself, discharged them from his country, whereupon they made preparations for seeking an asylum in the western isles. But, on their journey thither, they were met near Loch Broom, at a place called Leckmelme, by James Mac-Rory and Nell Mac-lain-Mac-William, where, after a sharp skirmish, they were overthrown, and the greater part of them killed. Their commander, George Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, brother of John Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, who was hanged by the Earl of Caithness, was severely wounded, and was taken prisoner after an unsuccessful attempt to escape by swimming across a loch close by. After being carried to Dunrobin castle, and presented to the Earl of Sutherland, George Gun was sent by him to the Earl of Caithness, who, though extremely grieved at the misfortune which had happened to the clan Gun, dissembled his vexation, and received the prisoner as if he approved of the Earl of Sutherland’s proceedings against him and his unfortunate people. After a short confinement, George Gun was released from his captivity by the Earl of Caithness, at the entreaty of the Earl of Sutherland, not from any favour to the prisoner himself, or to the earl, whom the Earl of Caithness hated mortally, but with the design of making Gun an instrument of annoyance to some of the Earl of Sutherland’s neighbours. But the Earl of Caithness was disappointed in his object, for George Gun, after his enlargement from prison, always remained faithful to the Earl of Sutherland.

About this time a violent feud arose in the western isles between Angus Macdonald of Kintyre, and Sir Lauchlan Maclean of Duart, in Mull, whose sister Angus had married, which ended in the almost total destruction of the clan Donald and clan Lean. The circumstances which led to this unfortunate dissension were these:-

Donald Gorm Macdonald of Slate, when going on a visit from Slate to his cousin, Angus Macdonald of Kintyre, was forced by contrary winds to land with his party in the island off Jura, which belonged partly to Sir Lauchlan Maclean, and partly to Angus Macdonald. The part of the island where Macdonald of Slate landed belonged to Sir Lauchlan Maclean. No sooner had Macdonald and his company landed, than, by an unlucky coincidence, Macdonald Tearreagh and Houcheon Macgillespie, two of the clan Donald who had lately quarrelled with Donald Gorm, arrived at the same time with a party of men; and, understanding that Donald Gorm was in the island, they secretly took away, by night, a number of cattle belonging to the clan Lean, and immediately put to sea. Their object in doing so was to make the clan Lean believe that Donald Gorm and his party had carried off the cattle, in the hope that the Macleans would attack Donald Gorm, and they were not disappointed. As soon as the lifting of the cattle had been discovered, Sir Lauchlan Maclean assembled his whole forces, and, under the impression that Donald Gorm and his party had committed the spoliation, he attacked them suddenly and unawares, during the night, at a place in the island called Inverchuockwrick, and slew about sixty of the clan Donald. Donald Gorm, having previously gone on board his vessel to pass the night, fortunately escaped.

When Angus Macdonald heard of this "Untoward event," he visited Donald Germ in Skye for the purpose of consulting with him on the means of obtaining reparation for the loss of his men. On his return homeward to Kintyre, he landed in the Isle of Mull, and, contrary to the advice of Coil Mac-James and Reginald Mac-James, his two brothers, and of Reginald Mac-Coil, his cousin, who wished him to send a messenger to announce the result of his meeting with Donald Germ, went to the castle of Duart, the principal residence of Sir Lauchlan Maclean in Mull. His two brothers refused to accompany him, and they acted rightly; for, the day after Angus arrived at Duart, he and all his party were perfidiously arrested by Sir Lauchlan Maclean. Reginald Mac-Coll, the cousin of Angus, alone escaped. The Rhinns of Islay at this time belonged to the clan Donald, but they had given the possession of them to the clan Lean for personal services. Sir Lauchlan, thinking the present a favourable opportunity for acquiring an absolute right to this property, offered to release Angus Macdonald, provided he would renounce his right and title to the Rhinns; and, in case of refusal, he threatened to make him end his days in captivity. Angus, being thus in some degree compelled, agreed to the proposed terms; but before obtaining his liberty, he was forced to give James Macdonald, his eldest son, and Reginald Mac-James, his brother, as hostages, until the deed of conveyance should be delivered to Sir Lauchlan.

It was not, however, the intention of Angus Macdonald to implement this engagement, if he could accomplish the liberation of his son and brother. His cousin had suffered a grievous injury at the hands of Sir Lanchlan MacLean without any just cause of offence, and he himself had, when on a friendly mission, been detained most unjustly as a prisoner, and cornpelled to promise to surrender into Sir Lauchlan’s hands, by a regular deed, a part of his property. Under these circumstances, his resolution to break the unfair engagement he had come under is not to be wondered at. To accomplish his object he had recourse to a stratagem in which he succeeded, as will be shown in the sequel.

After Maclean had obtained delivery of the two hostages, he made a voyage to Islay to get the engagement completed. He left behind, in the castle of Duart, Reginald Mac-James, one of the hostages, whom he put in fetters, and took the other to accompany him on his voyage. Having arrived in the isle of Islay, he encamped at Eilean-Gorm, a ruinous castle upon the Rhinns of Islay, which castle had lately in the possession of the clan Lean. Angus Macdonald was residing at the time at the house of Mulindry or Mullindhrea, a comfortable and well-furnished residence belonging to him on the island, and to which he invited Sir Eauchlan, under the pretence of affording him better accommodation, and providing him with better provisions than he could obtain in his camp; but Sir Lauclilan, having his suspicions, declined to accept the invitation. "There was," says Sir Robert Gordon, "so little trust on either syd, that they did not now merit in friendship or amitie, hot vpon ther owne guard, or rather by messingers, one from another. And true it is (sayeth John Colwin, in his manuscript) that the islanders are, of nature, verie suspicious; full of invention against ther nighbonrs, by whatsoever way they may get them destroyed. IBesyds this, they are bent and eager in taking revenge, that neither have they regaird to persone, tyme, aige, nor cause; and ar genera]lie so addicted that way (as lykwise are the most pairt of all Highlanders), that therein they surpasse all other people whatsoever."

Sir Lauchlan, however, was thrown off his guard by fair promises, and agreed to pay Macdonald a visit, and accordingly proceeded to Mulindry, accompanied by James Macdonald, his own nephew, and the son of Angus, and 86 of his kinsmen and servants. Maclean and his party, on their arrival, were received by Macdonald with much apparent kindness, and were sumptuously entertained during the whole day. In the meantime, Macdonald sent notice to all his friends and well-wishers in the island, to come to his house at nine o’clock at night, his design being to seize Maclean and his party. At the usual hour for going to repose, Maclean and his people were lodged in a long-house, which stood by itself, at some distance from the other houses. During the whole day Maclean had always kept James Macdonald, the hostage, within his reach, as a sort of protection to him in case of an attack, and at going to bed he took him along with him. About an hour after Maclean and his people had retired, Angus assembled his men to the number of 300 or 400, and made them surround the house in which Maclean and his company lay. Then, going himself to the door, he called upon Maclean, and told him that he had come to give him his reposing drink, which he had forgotten to offer him before going to bed. Maclean answered that he did not wish to drink at that time; but Macdonald insisted that he should rise and receive the drink, it being, he said, his will that he should do so. The peremptory tone of Macdonald made Maclean at once apprehensive of the danger of his situation, and immediately getting up and placing the boy between his shoulders, prepared to preserve his life as long as he could with the boy, or to sell it as dearly as possible. As soon as the door was forced open, James Macdonald, seeing his father with a naked sword in his hand and a number of his men armed in the same manner, cried aloud for mercy to Maclean, his uncle, which being granted, Sir Lauchlan was immediately removed to a secret chamber, where I remained till next morning. After Maclean had surrendered, Angus Macdonald announced to those within the house, that if they would come without their lives would be spared but he excepted Macdonald Terreagh and another individual whom he named. The whole, with the exception of these two, having complied, the house was immediately set on fire, and consumed along with Macdonal Terreagh and his companion. The former was one of the clan Donald of the Western Island, and not only had assisted the clan Lean against his own tribe, but was also the originator, as we have seen, of all these disturbances and the latter was a near kinsman to Maclean one of the oldest of the clan, and celebrated for his wisdom and prowess. This affair took place in the month of July, 1586.

When the intelligence of the seizure of Si Lauchlan Maclean reached the Isle of Mull Allan Maclean, who was the nearest kinsman to Maclean, whose children were then very young, bethought himself of an expedient to obtain the possessions of Sir Lauchlan. ln conjunction with his friends, Allan caused a false report to be spread in the island of Islay, that the friends of Maclean had killed Reginald Mac-James, the remaining hostage at Duart in Mull, by means of which he hoped that Angus Macdonald would be moved to kill Sir Lauchlan, and thereby enable him (Allan) to supply his place. But although this device did not succeed, it proved very disastrous to Sir Lauchlan’s friends and followers, who were beheaded in pairs by Coil Mac-James, the brother of Angus Macdonald.

The friends of Sir Lauchlan seeing no hopes of his release, applied to the Earl of Argyle to assist them in a contemplated attempt to rescue him out of the hands of Angus Macdonald; but the earl, perceiving the utter hopelessness of’ such an attempt with such forces as he and they could command, advised them to complain to King James VI. against Angus Macdonald, for the seizure and detention of their chief. The king immediately directed that Macdonald should be summoned by a herald-at-arms to deliver up Sir Lauchlan into the hands of the Earl of Argyle; but the herald was interrupted in the performance of his duty, not being able to procure shipping for Islay, and was obliged to return home. The Earl of Argyle had then recourse to negotiation with Macdonald, and, after considerable trouble, he prevailed on him to release Sir Lauchlan on certain strict conditions, but not until Reginald Mac-James, the brother of Angus, had been delivered up, and the earl, for performance of the conditions agreed upon, had given his own son, and the son of Macleod of Harris, as hostages. But Maclean, quite regardless of the safety of the hostages, and in open violation of the engagements he had come under, on hearing that Angus Macdonald had gone on a visit to the clan Donald of the glens in Ireland, invaded Isla, which he laid waste, and pursued those who had assisted in his capture.

On his return from Ireland, Angus Macdonald made great preparations for inflicting a just chastisement upon Maclean. Collecting a large body of men, and much shipping, he invaded Mull and Time, carrying havoc and destruction along with him, and destroying every human being and every domestic animal, of whatever kind. While Macdonald was committing these ravages in Mull and Tiree, Maclean, instead of opposing him, invaded Kintyre, where he took ample retaliation by wasting and burning a great part of that country. In this manner did, these hostile clans continue, for a considerable period, mutually to vex and destroy one another, till they were almost exterminated, root and branch.

In order to strengthen his own power and to weaken that of his antagonist, Sir Lauchlan Maclean attempted to detach John Mac-lain, of Ardnamurchan, from Angus Macdonald and his party. Mac-lain had formerly been an unsuccessful suitor for the hand of Maclean’s mother, and Sir Lauchlan now gave him an invitation to visit him in Mull, promising, at the same time, to give him his mother in marriage. Mac-lain accepted the invitation, and on his arrival in Mull, Maclean prevailed on his mother to marry Mac-lain, and the nuptials were accordingly celebrated at Torloisk in Mull. No persuasion, however, could induce Mac-Iain to join against his own tribe, towards which, notwithstanding his matrimonial alliance, he entertained the strongest affection. Chagrined at the unexpected refusal of Mac-lain, Sir Lauchlan resolved to punish his refractory guest by one of those gross infringements of the laws of hospitality which so often marked the hostility of rival clans. During the dead hour of the night he caused the door of Mac-lain’s bedchamber to be forced open, dragged him from his bed, and from the arms of his wife, and put him in close confinement, after killing eighteen of his followers. After suffering a year’s captivity, he was released and exchanged for Maclean’s son, and the other hostages in Macdonald’s possession.

The dissensions between these two tribes having attracted the attention of government, the rival chiefs were induced, partly by command of the king, and partly by persuasions and fair promises, to come to Edinburgh in the year 1592, for the purpose of having their differences reconciled. On their arrival they were committed prisoners to the castle of Edinburgh, but were soon released and allowed to return home on payment of a small pecuniary fine, "and a shamfull remission," says Sir Robert Gordon, "granted to either of them."


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