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Issue 55 - The Clan Chisholm

Scotland Magazine Issue 55
February 2011


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The Clan Chisholm

James irvine Robertson looks at another of Scotland's great families

Beornician, the ancient language of the Saxon peoples who straddled the Scots/English border some 1500 years ago, translates ‘the waterside meadow good for producing cheese’ into the more snappy Chisholm and this became the surname of the family that held the barony. The boar’s head on their coat of arms show their relationship to other great border families that stem from the Swintons, whose ancestors ruled territory from the river Tyne in Northumberland to the Forth. Alexander of Chisholm was witness to a charter of 1248.

The family arrived in the Highlands in 1359 when Sir Robert Chisholm, the son of a Scots commander at Bannockburn and recently knighted by King David II, succeeded his maternal grandfather as Constable of Castle Urquhart which controlled all movement on Loch Ness and the length of the Great Glen. Within a year or two he was Sheriff of Inverness, Justiciar of the North and had inherited lands from his grandfather in Moray and Nairn. He married his daughter to Hugh Rose of Kilravock in 1364. Along with a dowry of land to go with the bride, ‘Sir Robert shall keep and entertain his said daughter for three years in meat and drink, but the said Hugh shall find and keep her in all the needful garments and ornaments.’ Robert’s eldest son Alexander succeeded him in these great northern holdings and his younger became lord of the family’s border lands. From the latter branch of the family stemmed the Chisholms of Cromlix, near Dunblane. Alexander made a profitable marriage through which he obtained ownership of what would become the clan heartland in Strathglass and Erchless in Invernessshire.

The chiefs were designated ‘of Comar’ after one of their Strathglass estates, although their most impressive stronghold was Erchless Castle.

The usual cattle raids and strife with neighbours punctuated the story of the Chisholms over the next few centuries but perhaps the most striking characteristic of the clan was the bond between the chief and his people. ‘If tradition speaks aright the ties of friendship and mutual confidence never stood on a firmer basis anywhere between landlord and tenant than they generally did in the country of the Chisholms. The alacrity with which, when asked, the tenants furnished their chief with the requisite number of men to procure commissions for such of his sons as made choice of the profession of arms was simply wonderful, and nothing could illustrate the feeling of good-will which existed between them better than their action on such occasions.’ The chief was known as The Chisholm which gave rise to the saying ‘that there were but three persons in the world entitled to be called The – The King, The Pope and The Chisholm.’ The clan were deeply involved in the Jacobite Risings. In the 1689 Rising, Erchless castle was held for King James; General Livingstone attacked, carrying it by storm and left four companies of troops as a garrison. The following summer they were assaulted by 500 Highlanders and Livingstone had to march hurriedly from Inverness to relieve them.

In 1715, the Chisholm, along with Lochiel, Glengarry, Macdonald of Sleat, Keppoch, Cluny Macpherson and the most potent highland chiefs signed a letter of welcome and loyalty on the accession of George I. In a remarkably crass piece of politics, the Earl of Mar was prevented from presenting it to the new king. Mar promptly came north and raised the flag of rebellion against the Hanoverian regime. 200 members of the clan were at the battle of Sheriffmuir. Roderick, the chief, was present but he was a minor and command was given to John Chisholm of Knockfin. Roderick’s estate was confiscated and sold by the Forfeited Estates Commission. But it was bought by his friends and, when he received a pardon in 1727, they promptly handed it back to him.

In the ‘45 rising, in spite of the fact that two of his sons held commissions in Cumberland’s army, Roderick took up arms once more in support of Prince Charles. At Culloden the clan contingent was led by his youngest son Roderick Og. He and about half his men were killed. Afterwards government troops ravaged Strathglass, killing, looting and burning. Three Chisholms who had survived the battle joined with four friends and continued to fight against the redcoats. Known as the seven men of Glenmoriston they spent three weeks acting as bodyguards to the prince when he was being hounded across the hills by his pursuers after Culloden.

The old clan system died after Culloden and most of the chiefs forced their clansmen off the land and replaced them with sheep. Of Alexander the 23rd chief who died in 1793 it was recorded by the historian James Logan that ‘He firmly resisted the importunities of his friends, and, unaffected by the prospect of an increased rental.’ His successor William died in 1817. ‘A granary adjacent to the priory was the scene of the banquet after the interment. The company were so numerous that it was apprehended the floor would have given way. Those of the ‘gentle kindred’ occupied the upper room, whilst the commons caroused in the lower storey. To use a rude but familiar phrase the claret ran like ditch water and the old women of the village brought pails to carry off the superfluous whisky, when those for whom it was intended could drink no more; nay, further, the voice of scandal has hinted that everyone of them kept public houses for six months afterwards, from the relics of the feast. When the fiery beverage had inflamed their blood, the tenants, at being debarred from tasting the claret, made an irruption into the quarters of the more favoured class, but were easily repulsed. Night closed on the revellers; several of whom (if my information be correct) were to wake no more, for a sharp fall of snow overpowered individuals of the senseless and straggling people.’ Without a succession of rich wives, it has been impossible for clan chiefs to retain their estates.

The Chisholm’s were sold as late as 1937. Andrew Francis Hamish Chisholm of Chisholm is the 33 Chief of the clan.

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