Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Highlanders of Scotland
Part II -
Chapter I

Traditionary Origins of the Highland Clans – History of Highland Tradition – Succession of False Traditions in the Highlands – Traces of the Oldest and True Tradition to be found – Effect to be given to the Old Manuscript Genealogies of the Highland Clans.

In the second part of this Work, it is proposed to examine the history, individually, of the different clans of the Gael of the Highlands of Scotland, to trace the origin of each, their distinctive designations, descent, branches into which they have subsequently spread out, and the affiliation of the different clans with respect to each other, with such particulars of their earlier history as may seem to be supported by good evidence.

      It has been considered unnecessary to load these accounts with the more recent details of family history, as possessing in themselves little variety or interest to the general reader, and in no respect affecting the main object of this Work – namely, that of dispelling the obscurity and inconsistencies in which the early history of the Gael has been involved. When the outline has been distinctly traced, and the subject reduced to what it is to be hoped may appear a well-founded system of history, that outline would admit of being easily filled up, and the notice of each individual family brought down in full to the present time, were such details compatible with the necessary limits of a Work of the present description.

      In order to explain the nature of the arrangement in which the clans have been placed, it will be necessary to recall to the recollection of the reader, that one great feature of the system of history established in this Work is, that previous to the thirteenth century the Highlanders of Scotland were divided into a few great tribes, which exactly corresponded with the ancient earldoms, and that from one or other of these tribes all the Highlanders are descended. Accordingly, the different clans will be found under the name of the ancient earldom, or tribe, of which they originally formed a part, and, throughout, the relation of the different clans to each other will be accurately maintained.

      Before entering, however, upon this Work it has been demonstrated, so far as a fact of that nature is capable of demonstration, that the modern Highlanders are the same people with those who inhabited the Highlands of Scotland in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that these inhabitants were not Scots, as is generally supposed, but were the descendants of the great northern division of the Pictish nation, who were altogether unaffected by the Scottish conquest of the Lowlands in 843, and who in a great measure maintained their independence of the kings of that race. It has also been shewn that these Northern Picts were a part of the Caledonians, the most ancient inhabitants of the country, and that they spoke the same language, and bore the same national appellation, with the present Highlanders. Now to this idea, it may be said, that the traditionary origins at present existing among the clans are radically opposed, and that is difficult to believe that, if such was their real origin, a tradition of an opposite nature could exist among them. At first sight this objection will appear a serious one; but that arises, in a great measure, from not duly investigating the nature and history of the Highland traditions.

In examining the history of the Highland clans, the enquirer will first be struck by the diversity of the traditionary origins assigned to them. He will find them to have been held by some to be originally Irish, by others Scandinavian, Norman, or Saxon, and he will find different origins assigned to many of the clans, all of which are supported by arguments and authorities equally strong. Among so many conflicting traditions and systems, he will probably feel himself in considerable uncertainty, and the presumption which naturally arises in his mind is, that all these systems and traditions are equally false, and that the true origin of the Highlanders has yet to be discovered. This presumption will be strengthened when he remarks, that in none of these traditions is a native origin ever assigned to any of the clans, but that, on the contrary, they are all brought frm some one foreign people or another; a system which reason shows to be as impossible as it is unsupported by history and inconsistent with the internal condition of the country. But a closer inspection will discover to him a still more remarkable circumstance – viz., that there has been in the Highlands, from the earliest period, a succession of traditions regarding the origin of the different clans, which are equally opposed to each other, and which have equally obtained credit in the Highlands, at the time when they severally prevailed. It will be proper, therefore, to notice shortly these successive systems of traditionary origin which have spring up at different times in the Highlands, and the causes which led to their being adopted by the clans.

      The immediate effect of the Scottish conquest, in 843, was the overthrow of the civilization and learning of the country. The Southern Picts, a people comparatively civilized, and who possessed in some degree the monkish learning of the age, were overrun by the still barbarous Scottish hordes, assisted by the equally barbarous Pictish tribes of the mountains. After this event, succeeded a period of confusion and civil war, arising from the struggles between the races of the Scots and of the Northern Picts, for pre-eminence on the one part, and independence on the other; and when order and learning once more lifted up their heads amongst the contending tribes, a race of kings of Scottish lineage were firmly established on the throne, and the name of Scot and Scotland had spread over the whole country. A knowledge of the real origin of the Highland clans was, in some degree, lost in the confusion. The natural result of the pre-eminence of the Scottish name in the country was a gradual belief in the Scottish origin of the Highland clans; and this belief, which must eventually have prevailed even among the clans themselves, was firmly fixed in their minds at an earlier period by a circumstance in the history of Scotland which will be afterwards noticed. The first system, then, which produced a change in the traditional origin of the Highlands may be called the Scottish or Irish system.

      The oldest and purest specimen of this tradition which I have been able to discover, is contained in an ancient parchment MS., containing genealogies of most of the Highland clans, and which, from internal evidence, appears to have been written about A.D. 1450. [This MS., the value and importance of which it is impossible to estimate too highly, was discovered by the Author among the MSS. in the collection of the Faculty of Advocates. After a strict and attentive examination of its contents and appearance, the Author came to the conclusion that it must have been written by a person of the name of M’Lachlan as early as the year 1450; and this conclusion with regard to its antiquity was afterwards confirmed by discovering upon it the date of 1467. As this MS. will be very frequently quoted in the course of this part of the Work, it will be referred to as “the MS. of 1450,” to distinguish it from the other Gaelic MSS. to which allusion will be made. The Author may add, that he has printed the text of the MS. in question, accompanied with a literal English translation, in the first number of the valuable Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis, edited by the Iona Club.] In this MS. the different clans are brought from two sources. First, the Macdonalds and their numerous dependants are brought from Colla Uais, an Irish king of the fourth century; second, the other clans mentioned in the MS. are brought in different lines from Feradach Fin and his son, Dearchar Fada, the latter of whom was a king of Dalriada, of the line of Lorn, and reigned in the early part of the eighth century. I shall state shortly the reasons which induce me to think generally that this could not have been the true origin of these clans, and that it must have been a system introduced by circumstances, and one which gradually obtained belief among the Highlanders. The particular objection to the origin of the different clans mentioned in the MS. will be found under the head of each clan. In the first place, it will be remarked, that although the Dalriads consisted of the three different tribes of Lorn, Cowall, and Kintyre; and although, as we have seen, the tribe of Lorn was almost annihilated, while that of Kintyre attained to so great power as eventually to obtain the supreme authority over all Scotland, yet the clans in this MS. inhabiting the greater part of the Highlands, including the extensive districts of Moray and Ross, are all brought from the small and almost annihilated tribe of Lorn, and not one from any of the other Dalriadic tribes. It is almost inconceivable that the population of such immense districts could have sprung from the small tribe of Lorn alone. In the second place, if we suppose the general system of the descent of the clans from the Dalriadic tribe of Lorn, as contained in the MS., to be correct, then the relative affinities of the clans with each other will be found at utter variance with those which are known and established by authentic documents. The clans brought by this MS. from the line of Lorn may be divided into two classes; first, those brought from sons or brothers of Fearchar Fada; secondly, those brought from a certain Cormac Mac Oirbertaigh, a descent of Fearchar. In the second class, the Rosses are made nearer in connexion to the Macnabs than the Mackinnons, and yet there is no tradition of any connexion having subsisted between the Rosses and the Macnabs, a connexion which distance of abode renders improbable; while, on the other hand, there exists a bond of Manrent between the Macnabs and Mackinnons, founded upon their close connexion and descent from two brothers. The same remark applies to the Macgregors, Mackinnons, and Macquarries, who by the MS. are made no nearer to each other than they are to the Rosses, Mackenzies, & c. If, however, we leave out of view those earlier parts of the different genealogies by which the clans are connected with the kings of the line of Lorn, then we shall find the rest of the MS. to be borne out in a most remarkable manner by every authentic record of the history of the different clans which remains to us. In the third place, those early parts of the different genealogies do not agree among themselves; thus, Cormac Mac Oirbertaigh is upon different occasions made great-great-grandson, great-grandson, grandson, a remote descendant, nephew, and brother of Fearchar Fada.

      It will be shewn in another place, that there is every reason to think that the genealogies contained in the MS. are perfectly authentic for the last fourteen generations, or as far back as the year 1000 A.C., but that previous to that date they are to be regarded as altogether fabulous. [See infra, chap. ii.]

      Upon the whole, the only inferences which can be legitimately drawn from the MS. are, 1st – That there was at that time an universal belief in the Highlands, that the Highland clans formed a distinct people of the same race, and acknowledging a common origin. 2nly – That the clans mentioned in the MS. apparently consist of three great divisions; the clans contained in each division being more closely connected among themselves that with those of the other divisions. The first consists of the Macdonnells and other families descended from them. The second, of those clans which are said by the MS. to be descended from sons or brothers of Fearchar Fada, and who inhabit principally the ancient district of Moray. The third is formed by the principal Ross-shire clans, together with the clan Alpin, who are brought from Cormac Mac Oirbertaigh.

      The next system of traditionary origins which was introduced into the Highlands, and which supplanted the former, may be termed the heroic system, and may be characterized as deducing many of the Highland clans from the great heroes in the fabulous histories of Scotland and Ireland by identifying one of these fabulous heroes with an ancestor of the clan of the same name. This system seems to have sprung up very shortly before the date of the MS. before referred to, and to have very soon obtained credit in the Highlands probably in consequence of the effect of its flattering character upon the national vanity. We can trace the appearance of this system in some of the clans contained in the MS. of 1450. It seems to have been first adopted by the Macdonalds, who identified two of their ancestors, named Colla and Conn, with Colla Uais and Conn of the hundred battles, two celebrated kings of Ireland. In the Macneills we actually see the change taking place, for while they have preserved their descent in the MS. according to the Irish system, they have already identified their ancestor, who gave his name to the clan, with Neill Naoi Giall, a king of Ireland, who reigned many hundred years before they existed. In the Macgregors we can detect the change taking place in the latter part of the 15th century. In a MS. In a MS. genealogy written in the year 1512, [MS. penes Highland Society of Scotland.] I find that the Macgregors are brought in a direct line from Kenneth Macalpin, a hero famed in fabulous history as the exterminator of the whole Pictish nation; whereas, in the MS. of 1450, we have seen that their origin is very different; so that this change must have taken place between these two periods. The publication of the history of Fordun, and the chronicle of Winton, had given a great popular celebrity to the heroes of Scottish history, and some of the Highland Sennachies finding a tribe of the Macgregors termed Macalpins, probably took advantage of that circumstance to claim a descent from the great hero of that name. The same cause apparently induced them afterwards to desert their supposed progenitor Kenneth, and to substitute in his place Gregory the Great, a more mysterious, and therefore, perhaps, in their idea, a greater hero than Kenneth.

      A similar change may be observed in the traditionary origin of the Macintoshes, Mackenzies, Macleans, & c.; the Macintoshes, who, in the MS of 1450, are made a part of the clan Chattan, and descended from Gilledhattan Mor, the great progenitor of that race, appear soon after to have denied this descent, and to have claimed as their ancestor, Macduff, the Thank of Fife, himself a greater and more romantic hero even than Kenneth Macalpin. They were, however, unfortunate in this choice, as in later times the very existence of Macduff has with some reason been doubted, and they were perhaps induced to choose him from the fact that the late earls of Fife possessed extensive property in their neighbourhood, and also that there is some reason for thinking that the earls of Fife were actually a branch of the same race.

      Not to multiply instances of the change of the traditionary origins to this system, I shall only mention at present the Mackenzies and the Macleans, who, probably, from finding the Scotch field occupied, took a wider flight, and claimed descent from a certain Colin Fitzgerald, a scion of the noble family of Kildare, who is said to have greatly contributed to the victory at Largs in 1266. This origin, it has been seen, was altogether unknown in 1450, at which period the Mackenzies were universally believed to have been a branch of the Rosses.

      The last system of Highland origins did not appear till the seventeenth century, and is not the production of the Highland Sennachies. It may be termed the Norwegian or Danish system, and sprung up at the time when the fabulous history of Scotland first began to be doubted; when it was considered to be a principal merit in an antiquary to display his skepticism as to all the old traditions of the country; and when the slender knowledge of the true history, which they did possess, produced in their minds merely a vague idea of the immense extent of the Norwegian conquests and settlements in the north of Scotland. Not only was every thing imputed to the Danes, but every one was supposed to be descended from them. This idea, however, never obtained any great credit in the Highlands. The greatest effort of the favourers of this system was that of making the Macleods the direct descendants of the Norwegian kings of Mann and the Isles, a descent for which there is not a vestige of authority. Besides this, I possess a MS. genealogy of the Macleods, written in the sixteenth century, in which there is no mention whatever of such an origin. [MS. Penes Highland Society of Scotland.] I may also mention the Camerons, who are said to be descended from Cambro, a Dane; the Grants from Acquin de Grandt, a Dane; the Macdonalds from the Norwegians of the Isles; the Campbells from de Campo-Bello, a Norman; and many others, but all of which are equally groundless, as will be shewn in the sequel.

      Such is a short view of the different systems of descent which have sprung up in the Highlands, and of the causes which apparently led to their being adopted; and from these few remarks which have been made upon the origin of the Highland clans, we may draw two conclusions. In the first place, we may conclude that circumstances may cause the traditionary origin of the different Highland clans to change, and a new origin to be introduced, and gradually to obtain general belief; and arguing from analogy, the real origin of the Highlanders may be lost, and a different origin, in itself untrue, may be received in the country as the true one. Farther, in this way there may be a succession of traditions in the Highland families, all of them differing equally from each other and from the truth. In the second place, we may conclude, that although the general system of the origin of the clans contained in a MS. may be false, yet the farther back we go, there appears a stronger and more general belief that the Highland clans formed a peculiar and distinct nation, possessing a community of origin, and also, that throwing aside the general systems, the affinities of the different clans to each other have been through all their changes uniformly preserved.

      Such being the case, it is manifest that we should consider these old MS. genealogies merely as affording proof that the Highland clans were all of the same race, and that in order to ascertain what that race was, we should look to other sources. It has already been shewn, from historic authority, that the Highlanders of the tenth century were the descendants of the Northern Picts of the seventh and eighth. Now, when it appears that the Highlanders at that time were divided into several great tribes inhabiting those northern districts which were afterwards known as earldoms, and that these tribes had hereditary chiefs, who appear in the chronicles in connexion with their respective districts, under the title of Maormors – and when it also appears that in many of the districts these Maormors of the tenth century can be traced down in succession to the reign of David I., at which time, in compliance with the Saxon customs then introduced, they assumed the title of Comes, and became the first earls in Scotland; – and when it can be shewn that in a few generations more, almost all of these great chiefs became extinct in the male line; that Saxon nobles came by marriage into possession of their territories and honours; and that then the different clans appear for the first time in these districts, and in independence; we are irresistibly drawn to the conclusion, that the Highland clans are not of different or of foreign origin, but that they were a part of the original nation, who have inhabited the mountains of Scotland as far back as the memory of man, or the records of history can reach – that they were divided into several great tribes possessing their hereditary chiefs; and that it was only when the line of these chiefs became extinct, and Saxon nobles came in their place, that the Highland clans appeared in the peculiar situation and character in which they were afterwards found.

      This conclusion, to which we have arrived by these general arguments, is strongly corroborated by a very remarkable circumstance: for, notwithstanding that the system of an Irish or Dalriadic origin of the Highland clans had been introduced as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century, we can still trace the existence in the Highlands, even as late as the sixteenth century, of a still older tradition than that contained in the MS. of 1450; a tradition altogether distinct and different from that one, and one which not only agrees in a singular manner with the system developed in this Work, but which also stamps the Dalriadic tradition as the invention of the Scottish monks, and accounts for its introduction.

      The first proof of the existence of this tradition which I shall bring forward, is contained in a letter dated 1542, and addressed to King Henry VIII. of England, by a person designating himself “John Elder, clerk, a Reddschanke.” It will be necessary, however, to premise that the author uses the word “Yrische” in the same sense in which the word Erse was applied to the Highlanders, his word for Irish being differently spelt. In that letter he mentions the “Yrische lords of Scotland, commonly callit REDD SCHANKES, and by historiagraphouris, PICTIS.” He than proceeds to give an account of the origin of the Highlanders; he describes them as inhabiting Scotland “befor the incummynge of Albanactus Brutus second sonne.” and as having been “gyauntes and wylde people without ordour, civilitie, or maners, and spake none other language but Yrische;” that they were civilized by Albanactus from whom they were “callit Albonyghe.” And after this account of their origin, he adds, “which derivacion the papistical curside spiritualitie of Scotland, will not heir in no maner of wyse, nor confesse that ever such a kynge, namede Albanactus reagnedether, the which derivacion all the Yrische men of Scotland, which be the auncient stoke, cannot, nor will not denye.”

      He then proceeds to say, “But our said bussheps drywithe Scotland and theme selfes, from a certain lady namede Scota, which (as they alledge) came out of Egipte, a maraculous hote cuntreth, to recreatt hirself emonges theame in the colde ayre of Scotland, which they can not afferme by no probably auncient author.” From the extracts which have been made from this curious author, it will at once be seen, that there were at that time in Scotland two conflicting traditions regarding the origin of the Reddschankes or Highlanders, the one supported by the Highlanders of the “more auncient stoke,” the other by the “curside spiritualitie of Scotland;” and from the indignation and irritation which he displays against the “bussheps,” it is plain that the latter tradition was fast gaining ground, and must indeed have generally prevailed. The last tradition is easily identified with that contained in the MS. of 1450, and consequently there must have existed among the purer Highlanders a still older tradition by which their origin was derived from the “Pictis.”

      The existence of such a tradition in Scotland at the time is still further proved by Stapleton’s Translation of the Venerable Bede, which was written in 1550. In that translation he renders the following passage of Bede, “Cugus monasterium in cunctis pene septentrionalium Scottorum et omnium Pictorum monasteriis non parvo tempore arcem tenebat,” as follows: – “The house of his religion was no small time the head house of all the monasteries of the northern Scottes, and of the abbyes of all the REDDSCHANKES.” It would be needless to multiply quotations to shew that the Highlanders were at that time universally known by the term Reddschankes.

      The accordance of the oldest tradition which can be traced in the country, with the conclusion to which a strict and critical examination of all the ancient authorities on the subject had previously brought us, forms a body of evidence regarding the true origin of the Highlanders of Scotland to which the history of no other nation can exhibit a parallel. The authority of John Elder, however, not only proves the tradition of the descent of the Highlanders frm the Picts, to have existed in the Highlands before the Irish or Dalriadic system was introduced, but we can even ascertain from him the origin of the later system, and the cause of its obtaining such universal belief.

      It appears from John Elder’s letter, that the clergy of Scotland asserted the descent of the Highlanders from the Scots of Dalriada, and that the older Highland families held a different tradition, which agrees with the system contained in this Work. The object of John Elder’s letter, however, was to assure the King of England of support in the Highlands in his plans of obtaining influence in Scotland, and the Highland chiefs who held this older tradition are just those whom he afterwards names to King Henry as in the English interest. Now it is very remarkable, that the first trace of the Dalriadic system which we can discover, is in the famous letter addressed to the Pope in 1320 by the party who asserted the independence of Scotland. To this party the clergy of Scotland unquestionably belonged, while it is equally clear that the Highland chiefs, with very few exceptions, belonged to the English party; and upon comparing the traditionary history upon which Edward I. founded his claim, and which of course his party in Scotland must have believed, we actually find it to be a part of the same tradition which john Elder asserts to have been held by the older Highland families, and which included a belief of their descent from the Picts. The cause of the prevalence of the Scottish story is now clear; for the question of the independence of Scotland having been most improperly placed by the two parties on the truth of their respective traditions, it is plain that as the one party fell, so would the tradition which they asserted; and that the final supremacy of the independent party in the Highlands, as well as in the rest of Scotland, and the total ruin of their adversaries, must have established the absolute belief in the descent of the Highlanders, as well as the kings and clergy of Scotland, from the Scots of Dalriada.

      We see, however, from John Elder, that, notwithstanding the succession of false traditions which prevailed in the Highlands at different times, traces of the true one were still to be found.

      This remark, however, is true also of the traditionary origins of individual clans, as well as of the Highlanders in general; for although tradition assigns to them an origin which is untrue, still we can invariably trace in some part of that tradition the real story, although it assumes a false aspect and colouring from its being connected with a false tradition.

      The most remarkable instance of this occurs in those clans who assert a Scandinavian or Norman origin; for we invariably find, in such cases, that their tradition asserted a marriage of the foreign founder of their race with the heiress of that family of which they were in reality a branch. Thus, the Macintoshes assert that they are descended from the Earl of Fife, and obtained their present lands by marriage with the heiress of clan Chattan, and yet they can be proved to have been from the beginning a branch of that clan. The Campbells say that they are a Norman family, who married the heiress of Paul O’Duibhne, lord of Lochow, and yet they can be proved to be descended from the O’Duibhnes. The Grants, who are a sept of the clan Alpin, no sooner claimed a foreign descent from the Danish Acquin de Grandt, than they asserted that their ancestor had married the heiress of Macgregor, lord of Freuchie; the Camerons and Mackenzies, when they assumed the Danish Cambro and the Norman Fitzgerald for their founders, asserted a marriage with the heiresses of Macmartin and Matheson, of which families they can be proved to have been severally descended in the male line. The first thing which strikes us as remarkable in this fact is, that the true tradition invariably assumes the same aspect. although that a false one, with regard to all the clans; and there is also another fact with regard to these clans which will probably throw some light upon the cause of the adoption of a false tradition, and the singular and unvarying aspect which the true one assumes – viz., that most of the families who assert a foreign origin, and account for their position at the head of a Highland clan by a marriage with the heiress of its chief, are just those very families, and no other, whom we find using the title of captain; and that the family who oppose their title to the chiefship invariably assert a male descent from the chief whose daughter they are said to have married. The word captain implies a person in actual possession of the leading of the clan who has no right by blood to that station; and it will afterwards be proved that every family who used the title of captain of a particular clan, were the oldest cadets of that clan, who had usurped the leading of it, to the prejudice of the chief by blood. Now, as the identity of the false aspect which the true tradition assumes in all of these cases, implies that the cause was the same in all, we may assume that wherever these two circumstances are to be found combined, of a clan claiming a foreign origin, and asserting a marriage with the heiress of a Highland family, whose estates they possessed and whose followers they led, they must invariably have been the oldest cadet of that family, who by usurpation or otherwise had become de facto chief of the clan, and who covered their defect of right by blood by denying their descent from the clan, and asserting that the founder of their house had married the heiress of its chief.

      The general deduction from the MS. genealogies of the Highland clans is, that the various clans were divided into several great tribes, the clans forming each of these separate tribes being deduced by the genealogies from a common ancestor, while a marked distinction is drawn between the different tribes, and indications can at the same time be traced in each tribe, which identify them with the earldoms or maormorships into which the north of Scotland was anciently divided.

      This will appear from the following table of the distribution of the clans by the old genealogies into different tribes: –

            I. Descendants of Conn of the Hundred Battles.

                  The Lords of the Isles,                                  The Maclauchlans.

                        or Macdonalds.                                      The Macewens.

                  The Macdougalls.                                         The Maclaisrichs.

                  The Macneills.                                             The Maceacherns.


            II. Descendants of Ferchar Fata Mac Feradaig.

                  The Old Maormors of Moray.              The Macphersons.

                  The Macintoshes.                                        The Macnauchtons.


            III. Descendants of Cormac Mac Oirbertaig.

                  The Old Earls of Ross.                                 The Mackinnons.

                  The Mackenzies.                                         The Macquarries.

                  The Mathiesons.                                          The Macnabs.

                  The Macgregors.                                          The Macfuffies.


            IV. Descendants of Fergus Leith Dearg.

                  The Macleods.                                             The Campbells.


            V. Descendants of Krycul.

                  The Macnicols.

      In the following notices of the Highland clans we shall take the various great tribes into which the Highlanders were originally divided and which are identic with the old earldoms, in their order; and after giving a sketch of the history and fall of their ancient chiefs or earls, we shall proceed, under the head of each tribe, to the different clans which formed a part of that tribe, and then for the first time appeared in independence.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus