Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 72 - The clan Macleay or Livingstone

Scotland Magazine Issue 72
December 2013


This article is 4 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

The clan Macleay or Livingstone

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

In the 1640s, the ruler of the Isle of Lismore was James Livingston of Skirling, Keeper of the Privy Purse to King Charles I and member of the powerful lowland family that became the Earls of Newburgh. The king had granted him the lands and income of the bishoprics of Argyll and the Isles and he lived on the island, the seat of the bishopric, in the castle of Achanduin. Lismore is a low lying, fertile island about 10 miles long and 1.5 broad. It lies in Loch Linnhe in the Lorn district of Argyllshire in the midst of the territories of the Campbells, the Stewarts and MacDougalls. The clan that had lived on the island for many centuries were the Macleays. There were not very many of them; they were peaceful and surrounded by ambitious, land hungry families. This was the period when nomenclature was in transition from the old Gaelic system of identifying people through their lineage to fixed surnames. The Macleays diplomatically chose Livingstone, identifying themselves with a potent lowland house rather than one of their neighbours. Hence the mildly incongruous situation in which the Livingstones, based in West Lothian and players on the national political scene for centuries, acknowledge the head of the tiny Clan Macleay of Lismore as their chief.

Lismore is a sacred island and the Macleays considered a sacred clan. Its holiness comes from St Moluag, an aristocrat educated in Ireland who came as a missionary to Scotland at much the same time as St Columba. The latter performed most of his mission in the south and west amongst the Scotti. Moluag's work was immensely influential in evangelising the Picts of the north. He is said to have more than 3,000 monks under his charge and his centre of activity was the rich and powerful abbey on Lismore where his body was buried. The meaning of the word Appin, the 100 square-mile adjacent district in Argyll, is abbey lands. By the time of James Livingston the abbey had become the Cathedral of the Isles and traces of the ancient building can still be seen incorporated in the parish church on the island.

The Macleays are thought to descend from the marriage between a Scots princess and Anrthan, son of Aodh O'Neill, King of Northern Ireland (1030-33). Their original lands were in Cowal before they spread north to Appin and south to Kintyre where they were granted lands for service to King Robert Bruce. The Macleays of Achnacree on the mainland opposite Lismore were almost annihilated in a clan battle in the sixteenth century when they supported the Macdougalls of Lorn against the expanding Campbells, but on the island the clan had already found itself a special niche.

A document of 1544 confirms the Macleays of Lismore in their lands. Signed by the great rivals, the Campbells and the Macdougalls, it indicates that the clan had been on the island for many generations previously and had no obligation to pay rent or any other feudal dues. Their only requirement was to pray for the souls of the granters of their charter. For these Macleays were keepers of the Bachuil Mor or pastoral staff of St Moluag. The Picts had matrelineal succession, so it is likely that they descended from the kindred of the saint himself and had inherited the custody of the Bachuil after the death of its original owner in 592. The Coarb, or successor, of the saint was the hereditary keeper of his crozier. The chiefs were almoners of the cathedral, dispensing the bounty of the bishop to the poor of the parish as well as being its chancellors. They visited the landowners throughout the diocese to receive the tithes and all other dues accruing to the church. On these occasions the Baron carried the crozier of the bishop, at sight of which all men were bound to pay him homage.

Although the Livingstone/Macleays of Lismore largely managed to avoid violence, others of the clan were not so lucky. The Battle of Bealach na Broige was fought between various north-western highland clans rebelling against the rule of the Earl of Ross. Though the date of the battle is obscure, the Macleays of Strathconan were involved. The earl's followers pursued and overtook the clan army at Bealach na Broige, where a bitter battle ensued, fed by old feuds and animosities. In the end, the rebels - MacIvers, MacAulays and Macleays - were almost utterly extinguished but the victors won a hollow victory, having lost many men including their chiefs. In 1557 the Mcleays of Achnacree were almost wiped out, losing 80 men supporting the Macdougalls of Lorn against the Campbells in a clan battle. Macleays joined the royalist army of Montrose in 1645. After the dazzling run of victories, the government army won the decisive battle of Philiphaugh and slaughtered most of those that surrendered. In 1647, about 300 Highlanders, including women and children, took refuge in Dunaverty Castle on Kintyre. The Covenanters under the Marquess of Argyll cut off the castle's water supply and the garrison agree to surrender on honourable terms. When they emerged, all were were massacred. In 1745 the Livingstones joined with the Stewarts of Appin and fought at the battle of Culloden. Nine men carrying the regiment's standard were killed. 18 year-old Donald Livingstone took it up, wrapped it round his body and was able to carry it off the field although he had nine bullet wounds on his body. He managed to carry it back to Appin where it was hidden by the Stewarts of Ballachulish. It was the only Jacobite banner that escaped being burnt in Edinburgh by the public hangman after the battle. Much faded, it now is lodged in Edinburgh castle.