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Issue 61 - The Clan MacFie

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012

 

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The Clan MacFie

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of Scotland's great families

These days people want their names spelled correctly. You are a Stuart, not a Stewart; a Macdonald, not McDonald - let alone Macdonnell. But a century and a half ago in the Highlands, nobody really cared what variation was used. And this is glaring evident when it comes to Clan Macfie – and the modern clan society has officially registered this as the correct rendition of the name. One researcher found four brothers who were respectively MacFee, McFie, Mcafee and McAfee. The oldest rendition is probably Dubhsithe. Duffy, a rough English rendition of the Gaelic pronunciation, was and is popular, with or without a Mac at the beginning. You could have Coffee, McGuffie or Mahaffy or any other of some 50 variations. These are not septs in the modern understanding of the word, but full members of the main stem of the clan who just happen to spell their names in their own particular way.

The surname is considered by the authorities to be amongst the oldest of Gaelic personal names.

Dubh means dark; it could mean peace, although it is also the soubriquet given to the rather sinister race of Scots fairies. It could indicate that the clan descends from a priest, a man of peace who wore a black robe, and it has been postulated that this priest was a son of Cormac, Bishop of Dunkeld, who was consecrated in 1114. An alternative is that they are Sìol Ailpein, of the seed of Alpin, father of Kenneth MacAlpin, the first king of the united Picts and Scots.

Yet the most pleasing explanation of origin of the clan states that their matriarch was a seal. This is not quite as perverse as it sounds since the Atlantic seal population contains a proportion of silkies.

These come ashore at night and shed their skins to reveal the form of a lissome damsel. Make off with their fur coats and they must ever remain in human form. The MacFie progenitor carried off one such and they lived happily and productively ever after.

Circumstantial evidence supporting this theory comes from the ancient home of the clan being the beautiful and fertile Hebridean island of Colonsay where evidence for human occupation goes back 11,000 years and round whose coastline seals abound. There the clan lived since ‘time immemorial’. They never held a charter to the island and its smaller neighbour, across a narrow tidal causeway, Oronsay. There lie the wellpreserved ruins of a 14th century Augustinian priory where the MacFie chiefs were buried.

Colonsay was within the Kingdom of the Isles, founded by Somerled. His grandson Donald was nominally a vassal of Norway and he appointed the MacFie as his consol, reporting directly to King Inge I. In 1463 the chief appears as a member of the Council of the Isles. He was Hereditary Keeper of the written records of the Parliament of the Isles in Finlaggan in Islay.

He may have badly advised John II when he signed a treaty with Edward IV of England and the Earl of Douglas to conquer Scotland. It was never activated but its discovery in 1493 brought about the downfall of the lordship when James IV forfeited it to the Crown.

In the chaos that followed the collapse of the lordship and a feud between the MacLeans and Clan Donald, the king tried to impose his authority on the Isles. The MacFies on their little island could never stand alone and they adhered themselves to Clan Ian Mor or Clan Donald South based on Islay, some of whose followers came to live on Colonsay.

On Islay itself Clan Donald fragmented into civil war on the death of Angus, the chief. His eldest son, Sir James, was imprisoned in Edinburgh. The crown granted Kintyre and then overlordship of Islay and Colonsay to the Campbells. Theirs was the only force with the power to suppress disorder.

Sir James escaped in 1615 and raised his followers in rebellion against Campbell control. The MacFies joined him. The most effective rebel leader was Coll MacGillespie Macdonald, nicknamed ‘Colkitto’ who had already earned a reputation as a ruthless pirate.

Colkitto used the absence of the chief to try to establish himself on Colonsay but the MacFies resisted. In 1618 Malcolm was released and returned to his island and continued to fight off Colkitto. In February 1623, the Prior of Oronsay, Donald Macfie, was dying. Along with four companions, his kinsman Malcolm came to see him. Colkitto heard about the intended visit and secretly landed with some 20 followers and laid an ambush. Cut off from his boat and with his companions dead, Malcolm had to flee to the foreshore where he hid overnight amongst the seaweed. He was discovered in the morning and, twice wounded by musket fire, was eventually cornered and stabbed to death. His killers dug the lead balls from his body for re-use.

Colkitto was charged with murder and ordered to Edinburgh for trial but he never turned up. He was outlawed but on Colonsay, surrounded with his henchmen, the authorities could not touch him.

The MacFies had lost their island home. They were a broken clan.

Some moved to Lochaber where they were given land and became faithful followers of the Camerons, fighting gallantly in their ranks at Culloden; others went to Ireland or the Lowlands; still others became travellers, earning their living as tinsmiths.

In 1977 a memorial was dedicated on Colonsay to the last chief and in 1981 the clan was officially recognised by Lord Lyon. Today it flourishes under the leadership of the Clan Commander Iain Morris McFie who was elected in a derbhfine – a meeting of clan members – in 2008.