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The Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter VI. - Scottish Kings and Island Chiefs


The Scottish Kings had grave and difficult problems to solve in the West Highlands during the fifteenth century. At that time the Island Lords were dreaming of making themselves quite independent, and hoped, as Macaulay says, "to change their caps of maintenance for Royal Crowns." To gain this end they and the Chiefs who followed them were at intervals rising in rebellion against the King, entering into conspiracies with discontented nobles in the South, and, what was a greater source of danger than all, intriguing with Scotland's arch enemies, the Sovereigns of England.

It is not necessary to describe all the rebellions which took place, but it may bring the magnitude of the danger home to the reader's mind if I relate the story of one intrigue with England.

In October 1461, John, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, by the advice of his council sitting at Ardtornish Castle, issued a commission to certain plenipotentiaries to confer with the deputies of the English King. These ambassadors went to London, and concluded a treaty which, though it was signed at Westminster on February 13th, 1462, is known as the "Treaty of Ardtornish." Under this treaty Scotland was to be conquered by the Earls of Ross and Douglas with the assistance of English troops, it was to be divided between them, and each of them was to become the sworn vassal of the English King. The events which followed, and the final forfeiture of the Island Lordship in 1493, have been related in Chapter V.

After the forfeiture had taken place the dangers which menaced the safety of the realm were no less acute. The Western Chiefs were longing to see the ancient Lordship of the Isles restored. Though they were engaged in desperate feuds amongst themselves, whenever they saw a favourable opportunity of attaining their great object, they forgot their quarrels, and uniting their forces, rose in rebellion against the King. In 1501, in 1514, and in 1528 such risings took place. These were suppressed with greater or less difficulty. In 1545, Donald Dubh, the heir of the Isles, who, after spending 40 years in captivity, had been set at liberty by the Earl of Arran, headed a yet more serious rebellion, and again entered into negotiations with the King of England.

On June 28, 1545, acting with the advice of the seventeen Chiefs who formed his council, he appointed plenipotentiaries to treat with Lennox, the representative of Henry VIII., and finally, a treaty having been made, he and all his vassals solemnly on August 5 took the oath of allegiance to the English Monarch.

The dangers with which the Scottish Sovereigns were face to face being so great, they not unnaturally thought that it was better to see the clans divided and fighting with each other than to see them united, and threatening the rest of the kingdom, and some of the measures which they adopted indicate that their real object was, not to allay strife, but to foment it.

They granted the same lands and offices to different Chiefs. In 1498, in charters granted by James IV. to the MacLeods of Dunvegan and to the MacLeods of Lewis, the same office, the Bailiary of Trotternish, was granted to both Chiefs. In a charter dated November 30th, 1542, James V. granted Sleat, Trotternish, and North Uist, which were in the possession of the MacDonalds, to Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan. There are probably many other instances of the same thing being done in the histories of other clans. They also issued letters of fire and sword, in which they positively ordered one Chief to attack another. A specimen of one of these letters will be found a little further on.

It is difficult to find any other motive for such measures as these than a desire to set the Western Chiefs quarrelling amongst themselves.

Both Kings paid several visits to the Western Isles at the head of forces strong enough to enforce obedience for a time, and both of them were personally popular among the Chiefs, but so long as an heir in the direct line of the ancient house of the Isles remained in existence, nothing could undermine their devotion to him, and these monarchs did not succeed in arousing in the Chiefs any feeling of loyalty to themselves.

During the Regency which followed on the death of James V., during the troubled reign of Mary, and during the Regency which followed her dethronement, the Government in Scotland could spare but little attention for so remote a corner of the kingdom, and things were allowed to take their course in the Isles of the West.

When, in 1583, James VI. took the reins of government into his own hands, some material changes had taken place in the situation. The West Highlands were still in a state of frightful anarchy, but the point of view from which the Government regarded this was altered.

Fifty years earlier that anarchy had been considered to be the least of two evils. Now, the greater of these two had disappeared. There was no longer any reason to fear that the once powerful Lordship of the Isles could be restored under one head, and again become a menace to the safety of the realm. Donald Gorm of Sleat claimed descent from the ancient Lords, but in the direct line the house of the Isles was extinct, and in any case, now that the clans had been at war with each other for more than a century, such bitter feelings had been engendered among them, that it would have been impossible to unite them in any common enterprise. The greater evil having passed away, men began to realise how terrible the lesser one had now become. They saw that it was causing great material loss to the nation, that little or no revenue was being derived from the Islands, and that in case of war it was not likely that the Royal army would be strengthened by any contingents from the Western Isles.

But this was not all. The state of affairs in that part of the country was a source of disgrace and shame to its ruler. The business of a Government is to govern, and, if it cannot do so, it does not justify its existence. James certainly could not govern the Western clans; they were making war on each other without let or hindrance from him, they were committing atrocities which shocked all who heard of them, his writ did not run in the islands, and his authority was daily being set at nought and defied.

There is no reason to doubt that James was extremely anxious to pacify the Islands, but his main reason for wishing to do so was that he hoped in this way to replenish his depleted treasury by obtaining large contributions to the revenue from his West Highland vassals.

But how could he accomplish his end? He had neither the money, the military force, nor the strength of character, which would have enabled him to conquer the country. It cannot be said of him that he allowed matters to drift, and he was obliged to use less drastic means, but during the next thirty years he was constantly doing something to attain his object.

In 1585 he put in operation a plan which his grandfather had occasionally pursued and found useful. He insisted that each Chief should send some of his nearest kinsmen to live in the South, as hostages for the peaceable behaviour of his clan. The presence of these hostages was not only a guarantee for the good conduct of their Chief, but it was also a means of civilising and educating the hostages themselves. Judged by our standards, the Scottish Capital was itself in a turbulent and disorderly condition, but its civilisation was far more advanced than that of the Western Highlands. A sojourn in Edinburgh must have had a great effect in opening the minds of those who were forced to live there, and it undoubtedly gave them a knowledge of the Southern tongue.

In 1587 was passed an Act, known as the "General Band." Under this every Chief was made responsible for injuries done by his dependants. In the Muniment Room at Dunvegan is an interesting paper, which illustrates the effect of this provision. In a year, which is not named, a number of men from Glenelg "did wrang, in their wrangous, violent, and masterful spoliation and away taking fra the complenar, furth of his merchant buith in Inverness, of the particular quantities of guids, geir, and merchandise, particularlie under wrethin, of the guids under-specefiit." Then follows a list of the goods stolen, with prices attached, too long to quote, and for the large sums involved the Chief was held to be liable.

In 1588 James found himself in a serious difficulty. The war about the Rinns of Islay between the MacDonalds and the MacLeans, which had been going on for so long, broke out again. MacLean was in favour with the King, and the latter wanted to help him, but he had no forces at his disposal, and he took an absolutely fatal step, which, had he reflected for a single moment, he must have seen would indefinitely delay the attainment of his main object, the pacification of the Islands. He issued a letter of fire and sword to MacLeod of Dunvegan, ordering him to support MacLean. His motive was probably not the one which had actuated his predecessors when they did the same thing, but the results of his action were no less disastrous. James may have issued several such letters. The one to MacLeod is in the Muniment Room at Dunvegan, and I give a copy of it:—

"Traist friend we greit you weill. Understanding that some invasion and violent persute has laitlie been usit be the Clan Donald upoun our weill belovit Lauchlane McClayne of Dowart, his freindis and servandis, and yat they intend to attempt furder injure agains him, and, so far as in thame yis, to wrak him, his haill friendis and servandis, landis and possessionis, he being or trew faithful and obedient subject, readie, at all occasionis, to hazard his lyfe, landis and heritage in the maintenance and furth setting of our authoritie and service, we are movit thair fore maist affec-tunslie to requeist and desire you that ye concur, and give your assistance to the said Lauchlane in resisting of the violence and persute of the said Clan Donald, and supplie him with you haill freindis and forse agains quhatsumevir uther personis, his enemies and unfreindis, sall meine indirectly to cause him trouble, or to invaid him by way of deid. As ye will do us maist acceptable plesour and service and report our special thankis, and we commit you to God from Striuiling Castle the xxix. day of September 1588.

"James R."

In the following year James was guilty of a most disgraceful breach of good faith, which made it impossible for anyone henceforth to trust him. He induced the Chiefs of Dowart, Dunyveg, and Sleat to come to Edinburgh under a safe conduct, that he might discuss with them the terms on which this war might be brought to an end. The moment they were in his power, he seized their persons, and kept them prisoners in Edinburgh Castle until they had each of them paid heavy fines. During the next nine years one or two ill-planned and futile expeditions were sent to the Islands, but these accomplished nothing.

In 1597 the Chiefs were ordered to produce the title-deeds of their estates before May 1598 on pain of forfeiture. This was a singularly ill-advised measure. Many of the title-deeds had been lost during the long period of internal trouble through which the Highlands had passed, and some loyal and well-disposed Chiefs were goaded into rebellion by the order to produce documents which could not be found. Among the estates forfeited under the Act of 1597 were those belonging to the MacLeods of Lewis. James seized the opportunity to try his favourite plan for the pacification of the Island. He granted Lewis to some Lowland gentlemen, who were known as the Fife Adventurers, and when they failed, to another group of Lowlanders. The coming of these gentlemen to Lewis only made the confusion there worse confounded, and after ten years of strenuous effort the last of them gave up the enterprise as hopeless.

In 1608 James sent an expedition under Lord Ochiltree to the Highlands, and, unlike his previous efforts, this did have some effect. The Castles of Dunyveg and Dowart were taken. The following Western Chiefs came to meet Lord Ochiltree at Aros:—MacDonald of Dunyveg, MacLean of Dowart, his brother Lauchlane, Donald Gorm of Sleat, Clan Ranald, Rory MacLeod of Dunvegan, and some other gentlemen. All these, Lord Ochiltree reported, placed themselves at his disposal unconditionally. It appears, however, from a contemporary author, that they were not so complaisant as Lord Ochiltree tried to make out.

Finding fair words of no avail, Ochiltree asked the Chiefs to come on board his ship, the Moon, to hear a sermon from the Bishop of the Isles, and to dine afterwards. All accepted the invitation except Rory MacLeod, who suspected some sinister design. The result showed his wisdom. Ochiltree, when dinner was done, announced to his guests that they were his prisoners, and sailed with them to Ayr, whence he took them to Edinburgh, and presented them to the Council. This was another shameful breach of good faith.

The fact that so many of the Chiefs were in the King's hands greatly facilitated the execution of a new plan which was formed in 1609. The Bishop of the Isles was sent as Commissioner to the Highlands. The imprisoned Chiefs were liberated on finding security that they would concur with the bishop in his proposed plans, and the latter was empowered to grant the Chiefs still at liberty a safe conduct if they met him at Iona.

About the end of July 1609, twelve of the most powerful Chiefs met the bishop at Iona in solemn conclave, and, with the consent of the assembled Chiefs, the nine Statutes of Iona were drawn up, which provided for the future government of the Highlands.

Omitting less important details, the following provisions were made in these famous statutes:—

Clan wars were to cease, and all future disputes were to be settled by the laws of the realm.

Churches were to be built, the number of the clergy increased, due respect shewn to them, and their stipends regularly paid.

The Chiefs, and all their tenants, who owned more than sixty cows, were to send their children to be educated in the South.

Handfasting was declared to be illegal. (See Chapter V.).

Sorning was to be put down, and criminals among the sorners were to be tried and punished. (See Chapter III.).

The sale of wine and brandy was made illegal.

It was made a crime to carry fire-arms.

What seems a hard statute was directed against the bards. I suppose that it was thought that they incited the clans to war.

The Chiefs, as before, were to send hostages for their good conduct South, and to appear before the Council themselves on July 16 in each year. Disobedience would be followed by forfeiture.

For the observance of the Statutes, the Bishop took a strict bond from all the Chiefs present, and some of them entered into bonds of friendship with each other. One of these, between Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat and Rory MacLeod of Dunvegan, is preserved in the Dunvegan charter chest. It is dated at Icolmekill in August 1609. I give some extracts.—

"Forsameikle as the foresaidis personis, being certanelie persuadit of their dreid Soverane His Majestie's clemencie and mersye towardis thame, and willing of thair reform-atioun and thair leiving hereafter in peace, as his Hienes quyet, modest, and pecable subjectis. And the saidis parties, considering the godles and unhappie turnis done by ayer of yame, yair freindis, servandis, tenants, dependaris and partakeris to utheris, quhilkis from yair hairtis yai and ilk ane of yame now repentis. Thairfoir the saidis parteis fra yair heairts ffreilie remittis dischargis, and forgivis, ilk ane of yame, utheris, and thair foresaidis, for all and quhat-sumevir slauchteris murthoris, heirshippis, spuilseis of guidis, and raising of fyre, committit be ayer of thame agains utheris, yair freyndis, tenantis, and dependaris, at onie time preceiding the dait heirof. And furder the saidis pairteis faythfullie promittis bindis and obleiss thame to leif heir-efter (be the grace of God) in Christiane societie and peace, and ilk ane to assist and maintain utheris in yair honest and leesum effairies and busynes."

It could not be expected that a single stroke of the pen could at once change customs which had been practised for centuries, and there were some troubles in the Highlands during the next few years. A dispute as to the succession to the Chiefship of the MacNeils disturbed Barra. A claim by Argyle to the superiority of Lochiel's Lochaber estate disturbed that district. In 1614 the MacDonalds of Islay rose in rebellion, in 1625 there was serious trouble with the MacIans of Ardnamurchan; but this was the last case of internal warfare in the Western Isles. Most of the Chiefs who had agreed to the Statutes of Iona remained true to their engagements, and duly presented themselves before the Council each year.

In 1616 they entered into a fresh agreement. In this the Statutes of Iona were renewed, and some fresh ones added. These last may be summarised as follows:—The number of gentlemen each Chief might henceforth maintain in his household was limited, in MacLean's case to eight, in Clan Ranald's and MacLeod's to six, in others to three. Their dwelling-places were fixed, and they were to make "policie and planting" about their houses. They were to let their lands at fixed rents, instead of the exactions which had before been demanded. (See Chapter III.).

With the signing of the Statutes of Iona a new era of peace and obedience to law opened in the Highlands. Henceforth the disputes of the Chiefs were settled, not by the sword, but by the laws of the realm. I give three instances of this.

For at least two hundred years, a dispute between the MacDonalds and MacLeods as to the ownership of North Uist, Sleat, and Trotternish, had been raging, and oceans of blood had been shed in ever recurring attempts to settle it by force of arms. In 1617 this dispute was submitted to the courts of law, and their decision was loyally accepted by both Chiefs.

In 1622 the MacDonalds of Clan Ranald, instigated by the wife of Donald Gorm, attacked St Kilda, seized and carried away all the cattle and other property of the Islanders, burnt their houses, and spared only their lives.

One can imagine what would have happened a few years earlier. The fiery cross would have been sent round, the clan collected, the galleys manned, the enemy's country invaded, and a devastating war commenced which might have lasted for years, and cost hundreds of lives.

Now, as appears in a letter from Sir Rory MacLeod to Lord Binning, which is among the public records, the Chief appealed to the Government for redress, and not one drop of blood was shed.

In 1630 a "cryminal information" was laid before the Justice, at the instance of John MacLeod of Dunvegan, the object of which was to secure the punishment of some criminals by process of law.

A number of men, whose names are given, came in the month of May from Lord Lovat's estate in Glenelg to Arnistel "and yr killit thrie ky wyth calfys, belonging to Jon McConal, windit (wounded), and struck dyvers uther goods to the death. Secondlie the foirnamit personis cam in the moneth of June to the foirsaid toun, and maliciously brack ye said Jon McConal his house yr, and thifteously tuik away wyth thame threttie stanes butter and cheis, wyth the coltir, and uther his plenth and graith (furniture) with dyvers plenishing. Thirdlye they maliciously brack Christine Nene Finlay hir house and barn, and tuik away threttie or fourtie stanes butter and cheis, wyth sum wedders, 20 merks in money, ane boll meall, ane kist, and twa great criels yat keepit the meat, with a twa arit (oared) boat. Fourthlie they tuik and apprehendit Christine Neyn and Jon Vic Kenneth in Glenelg, uponn the kingis his way, yea in the mean tyme going to thir leisum (lawful) effairis, and yr put violent handis on the said Christine, cruellis tirrit (stripped) hir mother nakeit, wyth hir children, and tuik away with thame all yair closis, wyth ane kaittill, and twelff elnes lining, thereafter doing and brusseing her to the perrell of her lyfe. Through committing of whilk crimes, the haill landis ar laid waist, and the country disturbit, so that no man cannot saiflie pas to do his leisom effairis."

These instances of appeals being made to the law all occur in the history of one clan. I do not doubt that similar cases occur in the records of other clans, and that the acceptance by the chiefs of the Statutes of Iona brought about equally beneficial results throughout the whole of the West Highlands.

The reign of law had begun, and in a marvellously short space of time, the most remarkable results were seen.

As the herds of cattle increased, a prosperous trade sprang up, and great droves of cattle went South every year for sale in the Southern markets. The first man to take a drove to Falkirk was one of the most redoubtable warriors of the Clan Donald, Donald MacIan Mhic Shamuis, who had greatly distinguished himself in war early in the century, and now showed himself to be no less vigorous in his new avocation.
During the next few years the value of the land in the West Highlands was multiplied by more than forty times, and the West Highlands enjoyed a prosperity and well-being to which they had been strangers for centuries.

Gradually the Highlanders, who had been on the verge of absolute paganism in the 16th century, became, possibly, the most religious and God-fearing people in the world.

In the 18th century the ignorant Islesmen, who could not previously have read their "neck verse" to save their lives, possessed a system of education which put to shame that which was found in highly civilised England.

As time went on, the clansmen, whose valour had been wasted in hundreds of ferocious clan battles, became the mainstay of their King and country, and the Highland regiments won never-dying glory on innumerable stricken fields of battle.

Since the Mother country began to send her children to people her daughter lands, no emigrants have done more to create and maintain a great and loyal colonial Empire than the Highlanders, and all over the world they have won the respect and admiration of their neighbours. I firmly believe that we owe these great blessings to the work which was done when the Statutes of Iona were signed in 1609.

We may well ask ourselves why this effort to pacify the Highlands succeeded when all previous ones had failed? I believe that the main credit is due to Bishop Knox of the Isles. He was a man of rare tact and judgment, and he was gifted with very remarkable powers of persuasion. He reasoned with the chiefs, he pointed out to them the appalling condition of distress and misery to which the incessant wars of the last hundred years had reduced their country, and he found that they were not inaccessible to reason.

It must be remembered that they were not the totally uneducated men their fathers had been. Their signatures attached to the bonds of friendship show that they could write. They were not incapable of understanding the force of the arguments which were put before them, and, though they probably surrendered with reluctance their independence, and their right to make peace and war, they did surrender them, and the Statutes of Iona, the Magna Charta of the Highlands, were agreed to.

The names of the men who accomplished this work should live in our grateful recollection, specially the name of Andrew Knox, Bishop of the Isles. It is probable that he conferred greater and more lasting benefits on the West Highlanders than any other man who has ever been concerned in the management of their affairs.

The statutes of Iona: text and context
By MacGregor (2006) (pdf)

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