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Issue 46 - Clan Ross

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009


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Clan Ross

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

The Clan Ross has its origins in Applecross, on the mainland opposite Skye. The clan’s first chief Ferchar, a descendant of Cairbre, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, King of Ireland.

In 1215, he crushed a rebellion in the north against Alexander II led by Malcolm, the Gaelic mormaer or earl of Ross, a rival to the throne. The Chronicle of Melrose states that Ferchar ‘attacked them, and mightily overthrew the king’s enemies and he cut off their heads, and presented them as new gifts to the new king.’ This earned Ferchar a knighthood and, a decade later, the earldom of Ross.

The name Ross comes from the Ancient British ros, a moor, or possibly from the Gaelic ros, a headland, referring to the great promontory formed by Easter Ross. The clan heartland lies here between the Moray and Dornoch firths. Those who followed the new earl became his clan and took on the territorial designation. Ferchar and the four chiefs that succeeded him were earls of Ross and potent magnates of the nation. Ferchar’s grandson William supported Robert the Bruce in his struggle for the Scottish throne and were among his followers at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Most Scots nobles vacillated between supporting Edward I and the various claimants to the Scots throne. Earl William was no exception. To begin with he supported the English following seven years imprisonment in the Tower of London. In St Duthus Church in Tain was kept the sacred shirt of St Duthus which was worn by the earls of Ross in battle. It was also a sanctuary which William violated in 1306 when he dragged out Robert Bruce’s queen and her daughter and handed them over to Edward who put them in cages.

Surprisingly, Bruce and Earl William were reconciled the following year. Bruce even gave his sister Maud in marriage to William’s son Hugh. William was one of the signatories of that ringing endorsement of Scots independence, the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Wearing St Duthus’s shirt, he Hugh died at the Battle of Halidonhill in 1333. The English recovered the sacred garment and returned it to Tain. Hugh’s heir was his daughter Euphemia. One of her daughters married Donald, Lord of the Isles, and he claimed the Ross earldom. His conflict with the Regent Albany led to the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, and Donald withdrew to his island dominions. The earldom of Ross reverted to the Stewarts and the Crown.

But the chiefship of Clan Ross had devolved on William’s younger half brother Hugh Ross who received a charter for the lands of Balnagowan. These were held by the family for nearly 350 years. The clans of the north spent much of these years fighting with each other. The Mackenzies were based to the south of Ross country, and the Sutherlands to the north, but the Clan’s main adversaries were the Mackays.

An account of the most brutal encounter was published in 1764: ‘The year of God 1487, this conflict was fought; upon this occasion Angus Mackay being slain at Tarbat by the surname of Ross, as I have shown already, John Riabhach Mackay (the son of this Angus), came to the Earl of Sutherland, upon whom he then depended, and desired his aid to revenge his father’s death, whereupon the Earl of Sutherland yields, and sent his uncle, Robert Sutherland, with a company of men, to assist him.

‘Thereupon Robert Sutherland and John Riabhach Mackay did invade Strathoyckel and Strathcarron with fire and sword; burnt, spoiled, and laid waste divers lands appertaining to the Rosses. The Laird of Balnagowan learning of his invasion, gathered all the forces of Ross and met Robert Sutherland and John Riabhach at a place called Aldicharrish. There ensued a cruel and furious conflict combat, which continued a long time, with incredible obstinacy; much blood was shed on either side.

‘In the end, the inhabitants of Ross being unable to endure or resist the enemies’forces were utterly disbanded and put to flight. Alexander Ross, Laird of Balnagowan, was slain with seventeen other landed gentlemen of the province of Ross, besides a great number of common soldiers.’ The Rosses were staunch Protestants and supported the Scottish Government throughout the wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. And this resulted in the death of the Chief in the Tower of London after his capture at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, when Scotland supported Charles II in his conflict with Oliver Cromwell’s regime.

David, 13th of Balnagowan, and the last of his line, sold his heavily indebted estate in 1711, and the chiefship passed to the Rosses of Pitcalnie. Like many of their neighbours and kinsmen, the Clan supported the Government during the Jacobite Risings. But Malcolm, the heir to the Pitcalnie line, was disinherited for his support for Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

After the Battle of Culloden, he was sheltered by his tenants while the countryside was scoured by the redcoats.

Fifteen year-old William Ross was caught by the searchers after spiriting his Chief from under their noses. They threatened to hang or shoot him if he failed to reveal the hiding place, but he still refused to co-operate with them. They tied him to a tree, lined up a firing squad, blindfolded him and gave him one last chance to talk to prevent his execution.

He still held his tongue , and was released.

The 27th Chief of Clan Ross is David Ross of Ross and Balnagowan who lives in Perthshire. Balnagowan Castle and estate now thrives under the ownership of Mohammed Al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods department store in London.


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