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Issue 34 - Cummings and goings

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007

 

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Cummings and goings

This issue, James Irvine Robertson turns the spotlight on the Clan Cummings

In 1268 David de Strathbogie, the 9th Earl of Atholl, went on a crusade – he died in Tunis the following year. His absence gave his northern neighbour, Comyn of Badenoch, a chance to encroach into Atholl and build a stronghold, Cummings Tower, and this still lies at the heart of Blair Castle.

This was not Comyn’s only outrage. He commanded the women on his lands to work naked in the fields when harvesting the crops, a cruel imposition indeed when one considers the midges at that time of year. His end was heralded by his horse, which arrived at the castle of Ruthven bearing only a single leg trapped in a stirrup. The rest of Comyn had been dashed to pieces on the rocks after he slipped from the saddle.

This strange tale was promulgated because the Cumming, Cummings, Cummins or Comyn family – the spelling here will follow that which normally applied to the individual in his time – were history’s losers. Had they been on the winning side, a story like that would have likely cost the teller his head – or at least his tongue.

The first of the Comyn family to settle in Scotland was an Anglo-Norman churchman, a close adviser of David I, who became Chancellor of Scotland.

During the 13th century the Cummings rose to become the most powerful aristocratic family in Scotland; 32 were knights. At the time when an earl was the highest noble in Scotland, most were cousins of the king or the heirs of the local Pictish and Celtic kingdoms. There were 13 earldoms in total, of these, Alexander Comyn was Earl of Buchan, Walter Comyn was Earl of Menteith and John Comyn was Earl of Angus, all achieved through marriage to Celtic heiresses. Between 1270 and 1308 the Comyns were Constables of Scotland, the top military post that included the responsibility of guarding the king.

With the death of the eight-year-old Queen Margaret in Orkney, the Scottish throne had no obvious heir. Thirteen men – the Competitors – put forward their claims. The Black Comyn, John, Lord of Badenoch, was one of them through his descent from Donald III, and his son, John, the Red Comyn, became the most important leader after Sir William Wallace in the struggle for national survival against Edward I of England.

With the abdication of John Balliol in 1296, Comyn probably had the strongest claim to become King of Scots but, for the good of the country, he agreed to support his cousin Robert Bruce and went to meet him for a conference at the church of the Minorite Friars in Dumfries. There his rival stabbed him in front of the altar.

This villainous act cleared Bruce’s path to the throne and, in the bitter civil wars that followed, he ensured the complete destruction of the power and influence of every member of the Comyn family.

Many fled to England.

To history Bruce was a hero; the Comyn ordered women to take off their clothes at harvest.

If, for once, virtue had triumphed and King John Comyn had taken the throne, Scotland’s story would have been interestingly different. A Highland and Gaelic dynasty would have ruled the nation. No Stewarts; no James VI and I, and no Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Only in the far north did a junior branch of the Cumming family manage to survive. Their progenitor was Robert, uncle to the murdered Red Comyn, and he died by his nephew’s side. His descendants were the Cummings of Altyre on the border of Badenoch between the rivers Spey and Findhorn.

By the end of the 14th century they were once again a force to be reckoned with in the north, and during the heydays of the clans, the Cummings made their mark in ferocious feuds, often with their Mackintosh and Shaw neighbours – or the Macphersons, the Brodies, the Grants, or Macgregors. The skull of a Cumming chief became a Grant trophy, was given a hinged top, and contained the Grant Clan Charters.

The historian of the clans, James Logan, wrote that the Cummings ‘seem to have been rather an offensive race.’ This made them a typically successful clan, for any that failed to be offensive would soon loose its land. Their offensiveness, particularly against the Mackintoshes, seems to have centered on Rait Castle in Strathnairn.

Like so many northern castles – Lochindorb etc – Rait was built by the Cummings family in their days of power and then taken over by another clan.

Showing some inventiveness, the Cummings decided to flood out their enemies by blocking the Funtack Burn as it emerged from Loch Moy to inundate the Mackintoshes in their island castle.

Alas, the Cummings camped in a hollow below their dam and failed to keep a reliable watch. A Mackintosh paddled over from the castle, broke the barrier and the besiegers were swept away.

Their revenge did not go too well either. After a decent interval of peace, the Cummings invited the Mackintoshes to a banquet at Rait Castle. On the signal, each Cumming was to plunge his dagger into his Mackintosh neighbour. But one Cumming lass was loath to see her Mackintosh lover filleted and warned him. Alas, once again the treacherous Mackintoshes got their killings in first.

Their neighbours had a saying that translates from the Gaelic as ‘so long as there’s a stick in the wood there will be treachery in a Cumming.’ The Cummings, understandably, considered this a vile calumny. Their version of the proverb runs ‘so long as there’s a stick in the wood there will be no treachery in a Cumming.’ The first version has a pretty rhyme in Gaelic. The second does not, perhaps an indication of which maxim came first.

The heads of the family took the name Gordon Cumming after a marriage to the heiress of Gordonstoun. The Clan Chief is Sir Alistair Gordon Cumming of Lochtervandich and Auchry, Baronet of Altyre and Gordonstoun. He inherited these titles in 2002. His father Sir William was a noted conservationist and involved with the successful return of the osprey to Scotland.