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Issue 25 - Warriors loyal and true (Munro)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


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Warriors loyal and true (Munro)

The history of the Munro clan includes tales of witchcraft and strange rental payments. James Irvine Robertson reports

One of the surprising aspects of Highland clans is their variability.

Some clans descended from Picts; others from French mercenaries.

Some clan leaders were national figures who guided the destiny of the Nation. Other chiefs led little more than robber gangs who preyed upon the cattle of their neighbours. Others lived more or less peacefully in their own country.

The Munros were amongst the latter. Their country is Ferindonald in the north of Scotland between Ben Wyvis and the fertile lands of the Cromarty Firth opposite the Black Isle, part of the great medieval earldom of Ross.

The first noted Munro chief is believed to have been granted the charter for these lands as a reward for fighting the Vikings. The clan is one of those said to have fought during the Scottish Wars of Independence, both at Bannockburn and Halidon Hill.

The forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles included the earldom of Ross which meant that the Munros thenceforth held their lands by charter from the Crown. The tenure was a snowball which, should the King so demand, was to be collected on midsummer day from Ben Wyvis.

Today’s Chief, to ensure he is not caught short should his Royal superior come visiting, collected a goodly handful on the necessary day a few years ago and keeps it handy in his deep freeze.

In the early days, the clan fought the McIntoshes and the Mackenzies and its chiefs were loyal supporters of Mary Queen of Scots and James VI.

Many clans were slow to support the Reformation, but Robert Mor Munro, the 15th chief, attended the Reformation Parliament of 1560, and Hector, his son, was Dean of Ross in the reformed church before succeeding as Chief in 1588.

A strange tale survives about him. In 1589, he fell sick and he summoned local warlocks and witches to save his life by casting his approaching death on to his younger half-brother, George Munro of Obsdale, instead of himself.

The principal witch, Marian McIngarrath, dug a grave in which the Munro Chief lay down at midnight. He was wrapped in blankets, and covered over lightly with green turf fastened down with sticks, probably cut from a Rowan tree, to guard the spot from evil spirits.

His foster-mother Christian Neil then ran the length of nine riggs (more than a mile) to consult with the local devil, and then returned.

The witch Marian asked her if she had made her choice, and the Chief’s foster-mother said that ‘Mr Hector was her choice to live and his brother George to die.’

The Chief then literally returned from the grave to Foulis Castle, his ancestral home, and his brother George duly died the following year, and he himself recovered from his long illness in time to stand trial for murder and witchcraft.

He was acquitted, but Marian McIngarrath was strangled and burnt at the stake, with the rest of her coven, after duly confessing her sins under torture. The last Highland witch to be burnt at the stake was similarly executed in 1722, at Dornoch in Sutherland.

In the 17th century, the Munros unsheathed their swords to fight for their creed on the Continent. The Thirty Years War of the 17th century was amongst the most devastating conflicts that ever engulfed Europe.

Highlanders already had a formidable reputation as warriors and many crossed the North Sea to hire out their swords. The 18th chief is said to have raised 700 men to join the army of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden and the Protestant champion.

He had “three generals, eight colonels, five lieutenant-colonels, 11 majors, and above 30 captains, all of the name of Munro, besides a great number of subalterns.”

Such staunch Protestants supported the British Government in the Stuart Risings of 1715 and 1745. George Munro of Culcairn was commander of an independent company formed to police the north of Scotland. These companies were precursors of the Black Watch, the first Highland Regiment of the British Army, and its first commanding officer was the Munro clan Chief, Sir Robert Munro of Foulis, sixth baronet. He was highly popular, greatly respected and very fat.

This regiment covered itself in glory at its first battle – Fontenoy in the Austrian Netherlands in May 1745. The Dutch, with whom Britain was at war, failed to capture the village.

The Black Watch charged and took it. Propelled by five of his men, Sir Robert erupted from the trench like gigantic jack-in-a-box and lumbered, an unstoppable behemoth, at the French.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Rising followed later that year, and the Black Watch was recalled from the Continent to oppose it.

To the regret of both friend and enemy, Sir Robert was killed at the battle of Falkirk in February 1746 aged 62.

He was cut off and surrounded by six Camerons. He killed two and broke the broadsword of a third before he was shot.

His brother Dr Duncan Munro refused to leave his side and died with him. The Jacobites gave him a military funeral, burying him with full honours in Falkirk church yard.

The ancient castle of Foulis, pronounced ‘Fowls’, seat of the Munro Chief, was badly damaged during the Rising of 1745. Sir Harry Munro, 27th Chief, began the rebuilding shortly afterwards, but it took another 200 years before it was completed by the 33rd Laird, Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis.

His son Hector is the Chief today.

Centred on the Storehouse of Foulis, on the Foulis estate, the Clan Munro Museum is on the coast of the Cromarty Firth some 20 miles north of Inverness. Here the Clan Society flourishes with regular gatherings which attract clansfolk from across the world.