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Issue 18 - The great survivors (MacGregors)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 18
January 2005


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The great survivors (MacGregors)

No clan has suffered more than the MacGregors. But as James Irvine Robertson reports, it has survived and is flourishing

That the clan survives is astonishing, that it flourishes even more so, for its history and the record of oppression against it is unique in the Highlands, and dreadful.

For two and a half centuries they were persecuted. At times the name was banned; anyone who killed a MacGregor was entitled to his property; the women were branded on the cheek; and hounds were used by the authorities to track members of the clan and kill them.

It was even said that these beasts were suckled on the breasts of women of the clan so that they should be able to scent MacGregors and follow their trail. And it all stemmed from a single, terrible misjudgment.

The origin of Clan Gregor is similar to many others. Its alternative name is Clan Alpin since it claims descent from a brother of King Kenneth MacAlpin who united Pict and Scot in the ninth century.

More likely is that the clan had existed since time immemorial, its members being the first to ‘make smoke’ in the lands of Glen Orchy, Glen Lochy and Glen Dochart in the southern Highlands.

They emerge from obscurity in the reign of Malcolm Canmore (1057-1093) and by the time of Alexander II, (1214-1249) were vassals of the Earl of Ross. The clan fought at Bannockburn and the chief, Malcolm, was wounded in the service of King Robert Bruce’s brother Edward in Ireland.

Clan Gregor held its territory by the sword. The Campbells began their expansion from the west in the reign of David II (1329-1371). They obtained a charter from the king over Glen Dochart. The MacGregors failed to understand its implications and were content with their possession in the old way.

This they maintained for another two centuries but in the long run they faced disaster. Sir Colin Campbell became the titular laird of Glenorchy in 1550 and he initiated the task of ousting Clan Gregor with whom he had already clashed.

A member of the clan, Alasdair Odhar, with land on Loch Tay, agreed to follow Sir Colin. The rest of the clan saw this as a betrayal and Duncan Ladasach, whose record of violence and lawlessness spanned 40 years, killed Alasdair on behalf of his ward, the young chief.

Sir Colin made peace with Duncan in May 1552 but barely a month later in circumstances that can only be guessed at Duncan McGregor and his two sons were slaughtered at Sir Colin’s castle of Finlarig on Loch Tay.

The young chief, Gregor of Glenstrae, came of age in 1560 and applied to Sir Colin for his ancestral lands. The request was refused point blank and this insult caused the whole clan to rebel and ravage Sir Colin’s estates.

He applied to the Privy Council for protection and a commission of Highland nobleman was appointed to ‘slay the MacGregors and burn them out of their homes’. The followers of the rightful chief were known as the Children of the Mist and their only means of survival was by banditry.

Although every official hand was now against them, other local clans sheltered them where they could against Sir Colin’s hired assassins and the hounds trained to track down the persecuted. Mary Queen of Scots was aware of the injustice but Edinburgh was too remote to exercise control and the Queen was preoccupied by her own survival.

Gregor was caught and executed in 1570. His son Alasdair came of age in 1588 and applied to Sir Colin’s successor, the even more terrible Black Duncan of the Cowl, for his lands. His claim, too, was rejected and the oppression continued.

Under such circumstances it was unsurprising that the MacGregors responded to brutality with brutality. Disastrously the whole clan supported the murderers of the King’s Forester in Glenartney, which gave Black Duncan the chance to rack up the pressure.

Any man who killed a MacGregor was entitled to his property. Any man who came to Edinburgh with a MacGregor’s head in his saddlebag received a bounty.

King James VI declared an amnesty in 1596 but it was only a temporary respite. In the illconceived battle of Glen Fruin in February 1603, bad blood led to the slaughter of 120 Colquhouns (pronounced Ca-hoon) by a MacGregor army. And Colquhoun held a commission from the King.

On 3rd April 1603 the Privy Council enacted that ‘the name MacGregoure suld be altogidder abolisched.’ Death was the penalty for its use by any clansman or his descendants.

In Burke’s Peerage it lists four of the chief’s immediate family as being beheaded, three murdered, five killed in battle, 22 hanged, and one who sought safety in America was scalped by redskins. MacGregors became Drummonds, Murrays, Andersons, and Campbells, creating confusion for the modern genealogist.

In spite of terrible hardship, the clan could still muster to fight with the legendary Marquis of Montrose. It was out in both the 1715 and the 1745 Jacobite Risings. It could produce a character such as Rob Roy, a ‘Campbell’ for official purposes, who must have generated nearly as many film scripts and novels as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Although the proscriptive laws against the clan had long lapsed and the chief’s family was firmly part of the British establishment, it was not until 1774 that they were repealed.

Sir John Murray, who had increased an already substantial family fortune during service in India,was acclaimed chief by 876 clansmen and put MacGregor back on his name.

His son, also a general, was one of the glittering figures of the tartan revival in the 19th century. His marriage was noted by a clansman in a letter of 1808.

“The marriage of Sir John MacGregor Murray’s son and the Duke of Athole’s daughter must be highly gratifying to both parties. On the one side.

The Clan Gregor Society was formed in 1822, one of the earliest of the clan societies, and members are spread across the world.

Like other progressive clans there is a popular DNA programme which allows people to trace their genetic origin back to the family bloodlines. In the case of Clan Gregor whose very name was once illegal this resource is invaluable.

Rob Roy MacGregor used the alias Campbell for his mother was sister of the Campbell of Glenlyon who commanded the government troops at the Massacre of Glencoe. He acted as Tutor, the guardian and representative of a young chief, and so commanded the clan during the 1715 Rising. He entered into a partnership with the Duke of Montrose in droving cattle into England immediately after the Union. The market was saturated, the cattle were sold at a loss, and the partners fell out.

Rob said that the duke would rue the day they quarrelled and thence made his living by stealing the duke’s cattle and rents.

He was once described by Sir Walter Scott as being “one of the best swordsmen in the country, partly because his arms were so long that according to tradition he could tie his garters without stooping.”

In the words of David Stewart of Garth: “He had not an enemy in the country beyond the sphere of [Montrose’s] influence. He never hurt or meddled with the property of a poor man.”

Robin Hood is legend. Rob Roy was real.

Chief: Major Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor, 24th Chief of Clan Gregor.

Clan crest: Alion's head erased proper crowned with a five-pointed antique crown.

Motto: 'S Rioghal Mo Dhream (Royal is My Race) War cry: Ard Choille! (The woody height!) Plant badge: Scots Pine