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Issue 23 - Holding sway around the Tay (Menzies)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


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Holding sway around the Tay (Menzies)

In the latest in our series on clans, James I Robertson looks at the Menzies

Land was at the foundation of the wealth and power of the clans of Scotland. But Highland land today and for many years past has yielded precious little.

If a clan today has a chief still living in his castle with smiling estates around it, then his forebears must have married money or one of them in all probability traded in opium in the east or in sugar and slaves in the west – possibly both. The chiefs of Clan Menzies had one such stroke of luck in the late 18th century but it was not enough.

The Menzies clan is believed to descend from the Norman family of de Mesnieres, who arrived in England with William the Conqueror. When they came north to Scotland they were granted the lands of Durisdeer in Nithsdale. Robert Menzies served for four years as Lord High Chamberlain of Scotland, commencing on the accession of Alexander III in 1249.

His son, Sir Alexander, was jailed by Edward I in 1296 during the Wars of Independence. He carried on the battle alongside heroes such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and, in 1301, received the charter of the lands of Weem in Highland Perthshire which were held by the clan for the next five centuries.

Soon after they obtained most of Rannoch, but these were bad lands infested with bogs, brigands and broken men, a place where the writ of the chief or anyone else held little sway. Rannoch brought Clan Menzies little but trouble.

In some counties, a clan name was never completely dominant, but Menzies proliferated along the beautiful strath of the Tay.

David Stewart of Garth wrote in 1822: “On a part of the Estate of Menzies, running four miles along one side of the valley, on the banks of the Tay, there are 502 of the Chief’s name, descendants of the family.” Many are still there today.

Skilful diplomacy, carefully calculated political marriages, and an adherence to the reformed faith were hallmarks of the chief and the clan – most of the time.

Their rich lands grew fat cattle whose fame spread across the Highlands. But they were beset by powerful neighbours, to the west the Campbells of Breadalbane and to the east the earls and Dukes of Atholl.

In 1502 Niel Stewart, a man in the same mould as his forebear the Wolf of Badenoch, disputed the Rannoch holdings of the clan and torched Castle Menzies, imprisoning the chief in nearby Garth Castle and forcing him to sign away the land. In response, King James IV is said to have personally brought Stewart to heel and confined him in his own dungeon.

The present Castle Menzies or The Place of Weem which bears a date stone of 1571 is a fine example of a Z-plan castle and commands the strath and crossing of the River Tay where, in 1730, General Wade built the first bridge across what is the longest river in Scotland.

The clan was normally skilful at avoiding trouble but Sir Alexander Menzies, at the age of 80, took upon himself to sally forth from his castle with 30 men to harass the tail of the ferocious army, newly-raised by the Marquis of Montrose on the Braes of Atholl, on its way to deliver the first of many drubbings to the government, this one at Tippermuir in 1644.

They were all captured and the old chief died of his wounds. A Menzies regiment fought with General Mackay at Killiecrankie in 1688 and his beaten army retreated across the hill to the Castle for refuge.

In the Rising of 1715, some Jacobite neighbours managed to capture Castle Menzies when the garrison was drinking in the inn at Weem. Come the ‘45 Rising and the bookish Sir Robert Menzies supported the government.

But his wife was a Stuart, and bedazzled by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Under Sir Robert’s factor, Archibald Menzies of Shian, much of the clan rose and fought for the rebels.

Poor Sir Robert even had to entertain the prince for two days during his retreat to Culloden where, as part of the Atholl Brigade, his clan suffered heavy casualties.

In the aftermath, Sir Robert was ousted from his castle by a garrison of 200 Redcoats who trashed the building and died in droves of fever but, bar Shian’s estate which was quietly appropriated by the Campbell Earl of Breadalbane, the clan held on to their lands and Sir Robert was compensated for the damage to his house and for the loss of his heritable jurisdictions – the legal power of the chief over his territory – a legal right abolished by the government in 1747.

The clan flourished in the early 19th century, adding to their lands and parading in full Highland finery whenever Queen Victoria was in the neighbourhood, then debts and the decline in agriculture took their toll.

The last resident chief, Sir Neil Menzies, died in 1910, but his lugubrious image still stares down from the walls of many local houses. He supplied a foot-square engraving of himself to each of his tenants and, on rent day, they found they had been billed them it.

The Menzies estates were broken up after Sir Neil’s death and not until 1957 did the Lord Lyon King of Arms recognise a new chief. In the same year, the ruinous Menzies Castle was bought by the re-formed Clan Society for £500. Now sensitively restored, it is well worth visiting.

The chief today, David S Menzies of Menzies, is descended from a collateral branch founded by one of the most formidable soldiers of his time, Colonel James Menzies of Culdares.

Colonel James was an orphan, reared at the Weem Inn which so often features in clan history.

He was a Covenantor who fought in the bitter 30 years war in Europe in the 17th century before returning home. He bought Meggernie Castle in Glen Lyon, which had been lost by Robert Campbell who commanded the redcoat contingent which perpetrated the Massacre of Glencoe.

It was a violent age, and Colonel James set about slaughtering local bandits and Macgregors. When 400 cattle thieves from Lochaber interrupted his wedding breakfast, he decapitated their leader and returned home with nine arrows embedded in the surcoat of his armour.

His descendant another James, introduced the larch into Scotland from Austria in 1734, thus founding Scotland’s timber industry. This James was also a Jacobite, sentenced to death for his part in the 1715 Rising but reprieved due to his youth.

In 1745 he sent a ghillie with ‘handsome charger’ as a present to Prince Charles Edward Stuart. The ghillie and horse were captured. The servant was tried at Carlisle and promised his freedom if he would disclose who had sent him. He kept silent and was executed.

There was an old Scots consonant called a yogh.

Few typesetters had it in their fonts and so they used the most similar letter to hand which was a z.

Thus Menzies was born.

Mackenzie suffered the same fate.

Mackenzie has long been pronounced as written but Menzies, in Scotland at least, firmly maintains its original sound with a verbal yogh in place of the z. Thus the name is pronounced Ming-iss, as an old limerick demonstrates: There was a young lady named Menzies Who asked her aunt what this thing is?

Said her aunt with a gasp My dear it’s a wasp And you’re holding the end where the sting is! – the offical clan site – An excellent history of the Clan by Murray
Menzies can be downloaded from here. Click on Clan Menzies Book