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General History of the Highlands
Continued strife 1601 through to 1608


IN the early part of the year 1602 the west of Scotland was thrown into a state of great disorder, in consequence of the renewal of some old quarrels between Colquhoun of Luss, the chief of that surname, and Alexander Macgregor, chief of the clan Gregor. To put an end to these dissensions, Alexander Macgregor left Rannoch, accompanied by about 200 of his kinsmen and friends, entered Lennox, and took up his quarters on the confines of Luss’s territory, where he expected, by the mediation of his friends, to bring matters to an amicable adjustment. As the laird of Luss was suspicious of Macgregor’s real intentions, he assembled all his vassals, with the Buchanans and others, to the number of 300 horse and 500 foot, designing, if the result of the meeting should not turn out according to his expectations and wishes, to cut off Macgregor and his party. But Macgregor, anticipating Colquhon’s intention, was upon his guard, and, by his precautions, defeated the design upon him. A conference was held for the purpose of terminating all differences, but the meeting broke up without any adjustment: Macgregor then proceeded homewards. The laird of Luss, in pursuance of his plan, immediately followed Macgregor with great haste through Glenfruin, in the expectation of coming upon him unawares, and defeating him; but Macgregor, who was on the alert, observed, in due time, the approach of his pursuers, and made his preparations accordingly. He divided his company into two parts, the largest of which he kept under his own command, and placed the other part under the command of John Macgregor, his brother, whom he despatched by a circuitous route, for the purpose of attacking Luss’s party in the rear, when they should least expect to be assailed. This stratagem succeeded, and the result was, that after a keen contest, Luss’s party was completely overthrown, with the loss of 200 men, besides several gentlemen and burgesses of the town of Dumbarton. It is remarkable that of the Macgregors, John, the brother of Alexander, and another person, were the only killed, though some of the party were wounded.

The laird of Luss and his friends sent early notice of their disaster to the king, and by misrepresenting the whole affair to him, and exhibiting to his majesty eleven score bloody shirts, belonging to those of their party who wore slain, the king grew exceedingly incensed at the clan Gregor, who had no person about the king to plead their cause, proclaimed them rebels, and interdicted all the lieges from harbouring or having any communication with them. The Earl of Argyle, with the Campbells, was afterwards sent against the proscribed clan, and hunted them through the country. About 60 of the clan made a brave stand at Bentoik against a party of 200 chosen men belonging to the clan Cameron, clan Nab, and clan Ronald, under the command of Robert Campbell, son of the laird of Glenorchy, when Duncan Aberigh, one of the chieftains of the clan Gregor, and his son Duncan, and seven gentlemen of Campbell’s party were killed. But although they made a brave resistance, and killed many of their pursuers, the Macgregors, after many skirmishes and great losses, were at last overcame. Commissions were thereafter sent through the kingdom, for fining those who had harboured any of the clan, and for punishing all persons who had kept up any communication with them, and the fines so levied were given by the king to the Earl of Argyle, as a recompense for his services against the unfortunate Macgregors.

Alexander Macgregor, the chief, after suffering many vicissitudes of fortune, at last surrendered himself to the Earl of Argyle, on condition that he should grant him a safe conduct into England to King James, that he might lay before his majesty a true state of the whole affair from the commencement, and crave the royal mercy; and as a security for his return to Scotland, he delivered up to Argyle thirty of his choicest men as hostages. But no sooner had Macgregor arrived at Berwick on his way to London, than he was basely arrested, brought back by the earl to Edinburgh, and, by his influence, executed along with the thirty hostages. Argyle hoped, by these means, ultimately to annihilate the whole clan; but in this cruel design he was quite disappointed, for the clan speedily increased, and became almost as powerful as before.

While the Highland borders were thus disturbed by the warfare between the Macgregors and the Colquhouns, a commotion happened in the interior of the Highlands, in consequence of a quarrel between the clan Kenzie and the laird of Glengarry, who, according to Sir Robert Gordon, was "unexpert and unskilfull in the lawes of the realme." From his want of knowledge of the law, the clan Kenzie are said by the same writer to have "easalie intrapped him within the compas thereof," certainly by no means a difficult matter in those lawless times; they then procured a warrant for citing him to appear before the justiciary court at Edinburgh, which they took good care should not be served upon him personally. Either not knowing of these legal proceedings, or neglecting the summons, Glengarry did not appear at Edinburgh on the day appointed, but went about revenging the slaughter of two of his kinsmen, whom the clan Kenzie had killed after the summons for Glengarry’s appearance had been issued. The consequence was that Glengarry and some of his followers were outlawed. Through the interest of the Earl of Dunfermline, lord chancellor of Scotland, Kenneth Mackenzie, afterwards created Lord Kintail, obtained a commission against Glengarry and his people, which occasioned great trouble and much slaughter. Being assisted by many followers from the neighbouring country, Mackenzie, by virtue of his commission, invaded Glengarry’s territories, which he mercilessly wasted and destroyed with fire and sword. On his return, Mackenzie besieged the castle of Strome, which ultimately surrendered to him. To assist Mackenzie in this expedition, the Earl of Sutherland, in token of the ancient friendship which had subsisted between his family and the Mackenzies, sent 240 well equipped and able men, under the command of John Gordon of Embo. Mackenzie again returned into Glengarry, where he had a skirmish with a party commanded by Glengarry’s eldest son, in which the latter and 60 of his followers were slain. The Mackenzies also suffered some loss on this occasion. At last, after much trouble and bloodshed on both sides, an agreement was entered into, by which Glengarry renounced in favour of Kenneth Mackenzie, the castle of Strome and the adjacent lands.

In the year 1605, the peace of the northern Highlands was somewhat disturbed by one of those atrocious occurrences so common at that time. The chief of the Mackays had a servant named Alister-Mac-Uilleam-Mhoir. This man having some business to transact in Caithness, went there without the least apprehension of danger, as the Earls of Sutherland and Caithness had settled all their differences. No sooner, however, did the latter hear of Mao-Uilleam-Mhoir’s arrival in Caithness, than he sent Henry Sinclair, his bastard brother, with a party of men to kill him. Mac-Uileam. Mhofr, being a bold and resolute man, was not openly attacked by Sinclair; but on entering the house where the former had taken up his residence; Sinclair and his party pretended that they had come on a friendly visit to him to enjoy themselves in his company. Not suspecting their hostile intentions, Alister invited them to sit down and drink with him; but scarcely had they taken their seats when they seized Mac-Uilleam-Mhoir, and carried him off prisoner to the Earl of Caithness, who caused him to be beheaded in his own presence, the following day. The fidelity of this unfortunate man to Mackay, his master, during the disputes between the Earls of Sutherland and Caithness, was the cause for which he suffered. Mackay, resolved upon getting the earl punished, entered a legal prosecution against him at Edinburgh, but by the mediation of the Marquis of Huntly the suit was quashed.

In July, 1605, a murder was committed in Strathnaver, by Robert Gray of Hopsdale or Ospisdell, the victim being Angus Mac-Kenneth-Mac-Alister, one of the Siol-Mhurchaidh-Rhiabhaich. The circumstances leading to this will illustrate the utterly lawless and insecure state of the Highlands at this time. John Gray of Skibo held the lands of Ardiush under John, the fifth of that name, Earl of Sutherland, as superior, which lands the grand father of Angus Mac-Kenneth had in possession from John Mackay, son of Y-Roy-Mackay, who, before the time of this Earl John, possessed some lands in Breachat. When John Gray obtained the grant of Ardinsh from John the fifth, he allowed Kenneth Mac-Alister, the father of Angus Mac-Kenneth, to retain possession thereof, which he continued to do till about the year 1573. About this period a variance arose between John Gray and Hugh Murray of Aberscors, in consequence of some law-suits which they carried on against one another; but they were reconciled by Alexander, Earl of Sutherland, who became bound to pay a sum of money to John Gray, for Hugh Murray, who was in the meantime to get. possession of the lands of Ardinsh in security. As John Gray still retained the property and kept Kenneth Mac-Alister in the possession thereof at the old rent, the Murrays took umbrage at him, and prevailed upon the Earl of Sutherland to grant a conveyance of the wadset or mortgage over Ardinsh in favour of Angus Murray, formerly bailie of Dornoch. In the meantime, Kenneth Mac-Mister died, leaving his son, Angus Mac-Kenneth, in possession. Angus Murray having acquired the mortgage, now endeavoured to raise the rent of Archinsh, but Angus Mac-Kenneth refusing to pay more than his father had paid, was dispossessed, and the lands were let to William Mac-lain-MacKenneth, cousin of Angus Mac-Kenneth. This proceeding so exasperated Angus that he murdered his cousin William Mac-Kenneth, his wife, and two sons, under cloud of night, and so determined was he that no other person should possess the lands but himself, that he killed no less than nine other persons, who had successively endeavoured to occupy them. No others being disposed to occupy Ardinsh at the risk of their lives, and Angus Murray getting weaned of his possession, resigned his right to Gilbert Gray of Skibo, on the death of John Gray, his father. Gilbert thereafter conveyed the property to Robert Gray of Ospisdell, his second son; but Robert, being disinclined to allow Angus Mac-Kenneth, who had again obtained possession, to continue tenant, he dispossessed him, and let the land to one Finlay Logan, but this new tenant was murdered by Mac-Kenneth in the year 1604. Mac-Kenneth then fled into Strathnaver with a party composed of persons of desperate and reckless passions like himself, with the intention of annoying Robert Gray by their incursions. Gray having ascertained that they were in the parish of Creigh, he immediately attacked them and killed Murdo Mac-Kenneth, the brother of Angus, who made a narrow escape, and again retired into Strathnaver. Angus again returned into Sutherland in May 1605, and, in the absence of Robert Gray, burnt his stable, with some of his cattle, at Ospisdell. Gray then obtained a warrant against Mac-Kenneth, and having procured the assistance of a body of men from John Earl of Sutherland, entered Strathnaver and attacked Mac-Kenneth at the Cruffs of Hoip, and slew him.

The Earl of Caithncss, disliking the unquiet state in which he had for some time been forced to remain, made another attempt, in the month of July, 1607, to hunt in Bengrime, without asking permission from the Earl of Sutherland; but he was prevented from accomplishing his purpose by the sudden appearance in Strathully of the latter, attended by his friend Mackay, and a, considerable body of their countrymen. Almost the whole of the inhabitants of Dornoch turned out on this occasion, and went to Strathully. During their absence a quarrel ensued in the town between one John Macphaill and three brothers of the name of Pope, in which one of the latter was killed; the circumstances leading to and attending which quarrel were these:— In the year 1585, William Pope, a native of Ross, settled in Sutherland, and being a man of good education, was appointed schoolmaster in Dornoch, and afterwards became its resident minister. He also received another clerical appointment in Caithness, by means of which, and of his other living, he became, in course of time, wealthy. This good success induced two younger brothers, Charles and Thomas, to leave their native country and settle in Sutherland. Thomas was soon made chancellor of Caithness and minister of Rogart. Charles became a notary public and a messenger-at-arms; and having, by his good conduct and agreeable conversation, ingratiated himself with the Earl of Sutherland, was appointed to the office of sheriff-clerk of Sutherland. The brothers soon acquired considerable wealth, which they laid out in the purchase of houses in the town of Dornoch, where they chiefly resided. Many of the inhabitants of the town envied their acquisitions, and took every occasion to insult them as intruders, who had a design, as they supposed, to drive the ancient inhabitants of the place from their possessions. On the occasion in question William and Thomas Pope, along with other ministers, had held a meeting at Dornoch on church affairs, on dissolving which they went to breakfast at an inn. While at breakfast, John Macphaill entered the house, and demanded some liquor from the mistress of the inn, but she refused to give him any, as she knew him to be a troublesome and quarrelsome person. Macphaill, irritated at the refusal, spoke harshly to the woman, and the ministers having made some excuse for her, Macphaill vented his abuse upon them. Being threatened by Thomas Pope, for his insolence, he pushed an arrow with a barbed head, which he held in his hand, into one of Pope’s arms. The parties then separated, but the two Popes being observed walking in the churchyard in the evening, with their swords girt about them, by Macphaill, who looked upon their so arming themselves as a threat, he immediately made the circumstance known to Houcheon Macphaill, his nephew, and one William Murray, all of whom entered the churchyard and assailed the two brothers with the most vituperative abuse. Charles Pope, learning the danger his brothers were in, immediately hastened to the spot, where he found the two parties engaged. Charles attacked Murray, whom he wounded in the face, whereupon Murray instantly killed him. William and Thomas were grievously wounded by Macphalli and his nephew, and left for dead, but they ultimately recovered. Macphaill and his nephew fled to Holland, where they ended their days. After this occurrence, the surviving brothers left Sutherland and went back into their own country. It is only by recording such comparatively unimportant incidents as this, apparently somewhat beneath the dignity of history, that a knowledge of the real state of the Highlands at this time can be conveyed.

By the mediation of the Marquis of Huntly, the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland again met at Elgin with their mutual friends, and once more adjusted their differences. On this occasion the Earl of Sutherland was accompanied by large parties of the Gordons, the Frasers, the Dunbars, the clan Kenzie, the Monroes, the clan Chattan, and other friends, which so displeased the Earl of Caithness, who was grieved to see his rival so honourably attended, that he could never afterwards be induced to meet again with the Earl of Sutherland or any of his family.

During the year 1608 a quarrel occurred in Sutherland between Iver Mac-Donald-MacAlister, one of the Siol-Thomais, and Alexander Murray in Auchindough. Iver and his eldest son, John, meeting one day with Alexander Murray and his son, Thomas, an altercation took place on some questions in dispute. From words they proceeded to blows, and the result was that John, the son of Iver, and Alexander Murray were killed. Iver then fled into Strathnaver, whither he was followed by Thomas Murray, accompanied by a party of 24 men, to revenge the death of his father. Iver, however, avoided them, and having assembled some friends, he attacked Murray unawares, at the hill of Binchlibrig, and compelled him to flee, after taking five of his men prisoners, whom he released after a captivity of five days. As the chief of the Mackays protected Iver, George Murray of Pulrossie took up the quarrel, and annoyed Iver and his party; but the matter was compromised by Mackay, who paid a sum of money to Pulrossie and Thomas Murray, as a reparation for divers losses they had sustained at Iver’s hands during his outlawry. This compromise was the more readily entered into by Pulrossie, as the Earl of Sutherland was rather favourable to Iver, and was by no means displeased at him for the injuries he did to Pulrossie, who had no acted dutifully towards him. Besides having lost his own son in this quarrel, who was killed by Thomas Murray, Iver was unjustly dealt with in being made the sole object of persecution.


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