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Issue 44 - The Clan Matheson

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009


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The Clan Matheson

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

In its full Gaelic form, the name Matheson is Mac Mhathghamhuin, meaning “Son of the Bear.” Tradition gives the clan an Irish origin and says King Kenneth MacAlpine first granted it the lands of Lochalsh, the beautiful peninsula that noses out from the mainland towards Skye.

The earliest record of the name comes in 1264 when Kermac Mcmaghan received 20 cows for services rendered to the Crown levied from the Earl of Ross.

Alastair MacRuari ‘Mak Maken’, the leader of a thousand men, was one of those summoned by James IV to the Parliament in Inverness in 1427 when the King was trying to suppress disorder in the Highlands and Western Isles. Alastair was seized and taken to Edinburgh where, along with other chiefs, he was beheaded on Castle Hill.

Alastair left two sons; their mother remarried Angus MacLeod of Assynt who appropriated the clan lands, forcing the young men to flee. The younger, Donald Ban, escaped to Caithness where, as well as impregnating the daughter of the Earl of Caithness, he founded the northern branch of Clan Matheson which settled and proliferated on the northern banks of Loch Shin. In the meantime, the young chief, John, went to his grandfather, the Mackintosh, and solicited his aid to regain his patrimony.

Knowing he faced considerable hostility from the people on his new lands, MacLeod of Assynt recruited spies and sent them out in the guise of beggars to uncover any threat to his rule but, when John invaded his own country with a band of Mackintosh volunteers, the spies were all dispatched before they were able to give MacLeod a warning. Then young Matheson surrounded the mansion house and set it on fire.

His mother was given safe conduct from the house and managed to conceal her husband beneath her voluminous skirts.

Thus Macleod made his escape, subsequently hanging the Lochalsh boatman whom he had persuaded to carry him to Lewis with the promise of free land.

MacLeod did not give up. He returned with his followers and was driven off. He tried once again and this time was killed.

John married the widow of Sir Dugald Mackenzie and succeeded him as Constable of Eilean Donan Castle. He was killed by an arrow during a successful defence of the castle against the Macdonalds in 1539.

Iain Mor Matheson was the first to display the Clan’s remarkable talent for making money. He was Chief in the latter part of the 17th century and pioneered large-scale cattle droving north of the Grampian Mountains.

Cattle had been the wealth of the Highlands for centuries, but the trick was to get them to the markets in the south without having them stolen on the way.

Iain Mor had to navigate his cattle through the territories of the Gordons and the Mackintoshes. To achieve this, he sent information to each chief to the effect that the other was about to launch a raid on his rival’s beasts in Lochaber. Both the Gordon and Mackintosh chiefs gathered their forces there to repel the mythical raid, and this allowed Iain Mor to drive his great herd south through Badenoch without interference.

Although he continued to style himself as Matheson of Fernaig after his little estate in clan country, Iain Mor bought Bennetsfield on the Moray Firth as well as Applecross, Easter Suddy, and Invermaine. By the time of his grandson John’s inheritance, the Matheson Chiefs were styled ‘of Bennetsfield.’ John was present at the Battle of Culloden.

He enjoyed yachting in the Moray Firth and sailed himself across to Nairnshire to join Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s army.

Afterwards he hid in a pigsty to escape the rampaging English dragoons. When they had passed, he made his way back to his boat, waited until nightfall and set sail for home.

Unfortunately, he encountered a man o’war of the Royal Navy en route, so he attacked it and the bemused sailors took him prisoner.

However, instead of ending up on a prison hulk on the River Thames in London like others of the clan, he was recognised by an old friend on board who attested to his loyalty and explained away his firing at the warship as an overexcited feu de joie at the rebels’ defeat. So John joined in the celebrations. Also on the ship was Lieutenant-General William Skinner, the man who was to design and build the massive Fort George when the hostilities ended. John convinced him to use stone from Bennetsfield, just across the Moray Firth from the site, and made another fortune.

James Matheson, the second son of Captain Donald Matheson of Shinness, travelled to India in 1815 while still in his teens. In 1828, he went into partnership in Hong Kong with Dr William Jardine to sell opium to the Chinese. Today, the multinational trading corporation Jardine Matheson employs nearly 250,000 people.

James brought his nephew Alexander into the business, and each of them made massive fortunes, investing much of them in the Highlands of Scotland. In 1844, James purchased the Isle of Lewis from the Seaforth Mackenzies. At Stornoway, he built Lews Castle and developed elaborate gardens.

Alexander Matheson’s purchases of Scottish estates had begun with the acquisition of 6000 acres south of Lochalsh during his brief return home in 1840-41. His family’s ancestral lands of Lochalsh, Rossshire, were added in 1851.

When the Bennetsfield line ended in 1975, Sir Alexander’s descendants took on the chiefship. Sir Fergus John Matheson of Matheson is the 27th Chief of the clan.