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Issue 36 - Clan Colquhoun

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


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Clan Colquhoun

James Irvine Robertson turns his attention to another of Scotland's families.

Sitting west of Loch Lomond, Scotland’s largest, and many say most beautiful loch, is an interesting egg-shaped piece of land bounded on the west by Gairloch and Loch Long.

Most of this land belongs to the Luss Estate which has been owned by the Colquhouns since 1368, when the heiress to Luss fell for Sir Robert, 5th of the line which, more than a century earlier, had obtained the lands of Colquhoun, a few miles to the south.

Many of the Highland clans had their origin in the Norman and Saxon adventurers who came north under the patronage of David I and obtained great estates, but the Colquhouns – pronounced ‘Ca-hoon’ – actually descend from the ancient rulers of Lennox. They were the hereditary guardians of the Crozier of St Kessog, and may well have descended from the saint himself. Saint Kessog, who came to Scotland from Ireland in the seventh century, had an establishment on Monks Island in Loch Lomond, and was martyred in 560.

The Colquhoun Clan has been blessed with a long line of canny chiefs which, with certain remarkably florid exceptions, has enabled them to keep out of much of the bloody chaos that makes up so large a proportion of Scottish history. The greatest, perhaps, was Sir John Colquhoun, 11th of Luss. He had his lands erected into a free barony by James II in 1457. The Great Chamberlain of Scotland and joint Ambassador to England, he built the castle of Rossdhu, the haunting ruins of which still stand on a headland jutting into Loch Lomond.

But, in 1592, Sir Humphrey, 16th of Luss, had a spot of trouble with the neighbouring MacFarlanes.

The explanation for this rather depends upon which side has been doing the historical ‘spinning.’ The MacFarlane camp says that the conflict resulted from an adulterous dalliance by Sir Humphrey with the wife of their chief.

The Colquhoun account, however, begins with a foray by the MacGregors. The MacGregors were impossible neighbours who, after loosing their lands to the Campbells of Breadalbane, turned to brigandage during the later 16th and early 17th centuries. Allying themselves with the MacFarlanes, they took part in a massive raid on their southern neighbours, particularly on the lands of Luss. Sir Humphrey Colquhoun promptly raised his clan to defend their land and, after a bloody conflict, was forced to retreat to Bannochra Castle, which he had built at the south west end of Loch Lomond.

The MacFarlanes laid siege. A treacherous servant who was in the process of escorting Sir Humphrey up the spiral stairs to bed, turned the flaming torch to illuminate his master as they passed an arrow slit. Sir Humphrey’s younger brother, Iain, who wanted the estate for himself, had gone over to the enemy and twanged an arrow through the window into his brother’s heart. The garrison surrendered and the castle was thereafter abandoned to become the ruin it is today. Iain was later captured, taken to Edinburgh and executed for the crime.

In the other version of this story, the relevant portions of the adulterous Sir Humphrey were harvested from his corpse and served to Lady MacFarlane as a savoury starter at dinner.

In 1603, came the Battle of Glen Fruin. Again, clan spin makes it almost impossible to sort out the rights and wrongs of what took place, but the result was a disaster for all concerned. For decades, Clan Gregor had been raiding Luss lands. In so doing, they were encouraged by the Campbells, always interested in expansion and delighted to have the MacGregors to do their dirty work for them. In retaliation for the hanging of two of their clansmen for stealing a sheep, the MacGregors therefore raided Glen Finlas, killed several Colquhoun clansmen and carried off the livestock.

Sir Alexander Colquhoun, 17th of Luss, promptly took the widows of those killed to Stirling to lobby King James VI, carrying the gory shirts of their late husbands, although therewere suspicions that the garments had been enriched with sheeps’ blood. The King was determined to stop such clan feuding and was notoriously queasy of the sight of blood. He gave Sir Alexander a commission to catch the perpetrators and suppress such crimes.

The Colquhouns gathered their forces – up to 800 men including some 300 cavalry – and moved against the MacGregors. They were ambushed in the midst of boggy ground and routed by an army of some 400 men. In the ruthless pursuit that followed, some 140 Colquhouns were killed. They were the short-term losers, but a month later Clan Gregor was proscribed, the entire clan made outlaws and its members hunted down and killed like deer, particularly by the Earls of Atholl and Breadalbane.

Thirty were executed in Edinburgh, including their Chief and General, Alasdair of Glenstrae. It was to be 150 years before the use of the name MacGregor was once again permitted to be used. In 1820, Sir John Murray MacGregor made a ceremonial visit to the battlefield of Glenfruin with Sir James Colquhoun, shook hands and declared peace between their clans.

The 19th Laird of Luss, Sir John Colquhoun, was made a baronet by King James in 1625. He supported King Charles I and his great general, the Marquis of Montrose, in 1645. Perhaps he was under some family pressure to do so. He married one sister of the Marquis, then ran off with another. He was believed to have used witchcraft in his seduction for which he was ‘fugitated and excommunicated.’ In 1739, the 25th Laird, Sir James, was one of the founding officers of the Black Watch and in 1743 fought under the command of George II at the Battle of Dettingen. Sir James established the town of Helensburgh which he named after his wife, daughter of the Earl of Sutherland.

The 29th Laird of Luss drowned in 1873 on Loch Lomond – ‘everybody thought the cries were joyous boating cheers.’ The 30th Laird, Sir Iain, as well as being laden with honours such as becoming High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and Grand Master Mason of Scotland, fought in the First World War. He was ‘light-weight boxing champion of the British Army, killed a Prussian officer with his revolver, five Bavarians with an improvised club, kept a fairly tame lion in the trenches and was wounded when a bullet struck his sword when he was leading a charge.’ He was also tried and condemned to death for his part in the Christmas truce of 1914, but was reprieved by King George.

Sir Ivor Colquhoun, 31st Laird of Luss, is in now in his 90s. He has nominated his son, Malcolm, as Chief. Malcolm is also the patron of the Colquhoun Clan Society and presides at the Luss Highland Games in July. This traditionally coincides with the Clan Gathering.