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Issue 45 - Clan Macfarlane

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009


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Clan Macfarlane

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of another of Scotland's great families.

The Macfarlanes, with their territory at the top of lochs Long and Lomond, are Gaels descending from the Scotti, who came over to Scotland from Ireland more than 15 centuries ago. Unlike many clans who claim similar ancestry, this descent is fact, proven by land charters, rather than myth.

Their name-father was Parlan whose greatgrandfather was Gilchrist of Arrocher, a younger son of Alwyn who was Earl of Lennox from about 1180 to 1225. His ancestors were members of the ancient Royal House of Munster.

The old line of the Lennox earls came to an abrupt end in 1425. The Earl’s daughter Isabella married Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany and Regent of Scotland in the absence of the young James I. However, when James was released from English captivity in that year and returned to Scotland, he arrested 26 leaders of the old regime, accusing them of treason. Among those who lost their heads were Albany, two of his sons and their grandfather, Lennox.

As a result, the earldom reverted to the Crown and King James appointed his kinsman John Stewart of Darnley with a feudal right from his having been descended from the old Earl’s youngest daughter. The Macfarlanes strongly objected, their Chief reckoning that it was his by right of being the male heir of the ancient Celtic earldom. He and his family subsequently died in defence of their claim. Their followers were scattered and for a while it looked as though the Clan might well be destroyed.

Fortunately, one Andrew Macfarlane married the new Earl’s daughter Barbara and through this link and his close adherence to the Lennox family, he saved the Clan from destruction and regained their ancient estates.

Since he was not the direct heir to the Chief’s line, he was designated Captain rather than Chief of the Clan. His successor, Sir John, was knighted by James IV, and commanded the Clan at Flodden in 1513.

The 4th Earl of Lennox supported Henry VIII of England during the period known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ when the English King tried to force a marriage between his son Prince Edward and the future Mary, Queen of Scots. The Earl brought the Macfarlanes into the fray and 300 of the Clan followed him at the Battle of Glasgow Muir in 1544.

The Clan was amongst the first to adopt the Protestant form of worship and consequently fought fiercely against the Roman Catholic faction. A description by the English Chronicler Holinshed in the mid-16th century recorded that following the 4th Earl of Lennox was ‘Walter Macfarlane, of Tarbet, and seven score of men of the head of Lennox, that spake the Irishe and the English Scottish tongues, light footmen, well armed in shirtes of mayle, with bows and two-handed swords; and being joined with English archers and shotte, did much avaylable service in the streyghts, mareshes, and mountayne countrys.’ Lennox’s son Lord Darnley married Queen Mary and, after his assassination, the Macfarlanes supported the Regent Moray and fought against Mary and her allies at the Battle of Langside in 1568. Here again, the valour of the Macfarlanes was recorded: ‘In this battle the valliancie of ane Highland gentleman named Macfarlane stood the Regent’s part in great stead, for in the hottest brunte of the fight he came in with 300 of his friends and countrymen, and so manfully gave in upon the flank of the queen’s people, that he was a great cause of disordering of them.’ The Clan captured three of the enemy’s standards. For his part, the Chief, Andrew Macfarlane, was granted a crest ‘consisting of a demisavage proper, holding in one hand a sheaf of arrows, and pointing with the other to a crown, with the motto, ‘This I’ll defend.’ This is shown on the Clan badge.

The 4th Earl died in 1571, breaking his family’s link with the Macfarlanes; the earldom reverted to the Crown and the Macfarlanes soon earned a typical Highland reputation for lawlessness and feuding with their neighbours. Among the clans in the 1587 Act of Parliament which tried to make chiefs responsible for the actions of their clansmen was the ‘Laird of McFarlane of the Arrocher.’ In a famous quarrel the Chief of a neighbouring clan, Sir Humphrey Colquhoun of Luss, was said to have been caught having an affair with the wife of the 15th Chief of the Macfarlanes. The insult could not go unavenged. Sir Humphrey was pursued to the castle of Bannachra where he was killed and his castle destroyed. An ‘unspeakable portion’ of the late seducer was served to the lady for supper.

The Macfarlanes continued on their lawless path for the next half century. Their pibroch translates as ‘To lift the cows we shall go,’ and the full moon was known as Macfarlane’s lantern as it lit their path when they went out-and-about cattle-lifting. The authorities lost patience in 1642 and passed the Act of Estates and the Clan Macfarlane, like the Macgregors, lost much of their lands and the use of the Macfarlane name was forbidden. Nonetheless, clan members fought alongside the Marquis of Montrose at the Battle of Inverlochy in 1645 and supported the first Jacobite Rising of 1688.

The last recognised head of the Clan was Walter of Arrochar. He was Chief for more than 60 years. Adistinguished historian and antiquary, he was also well aware of his dignity. On his death in 1767, the last of the Clan’s estates were sold to settle debts.

The direct male line of the Macfarlane family of Arrochar died out in 1886 and today the Clan has no Chief , but a thriving Clan Society in the USA, determined to raise the Clan’s profile in Scotland.