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Issue 75 - The Clan Morrison

Scotland Magazine Issue 75
June 2014


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The Clan Morrison

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

Lewis is the most northern and the largest island of the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides. At its top is the district of Ness where the Atlantic breakers crash against 100-foot cliffs.

It is a flat, bleak landscape covered in peat bogs and swept by wind and rain. Mankind has been living there for 8,000 years but life can never have been easy. This is the native country of the Clan Morrison. The name means son of Maurice, the anglicised form of Mac Ghille Mhuire, the Son of the Devotee of St Mary.

The traditional genealogy says that the chiefs traced their lineage to the MacIains of Ardnamurchan, a cadet of Clan Donald and a descendant of Somerled, King of the Isles. He is said to have married the Morrison heiress in 1346 and she persuaded him to change his name. Her ancestor and the original forefather of the clan was Gilliemoire and his origins are inextricably enmeshed in myth.

One account says that he was a son of Olaf the Black, who would become King of the Isle of Mann and the Isles some fifteen years after Gilliemoire's birth. Olaf married a Kintyre noblewoman, Lauon, but the Bishop of the Isles later annulled this marriage on the grounds that Olaf had had a relationship with Lauon's cousin.

Olaf's ship foundered off Lewis and he, Lauon, and their baby son, were the only survivors and settled on the island long enough for Gilliemoire to grow up, marry a local girl and sire the Morrisons of both Lewis and Pabbay, a now uninhabited island about 60 miles south of Ness. However the Morrisons of Pabbay are more likely to have been a family of bards named O'Muircheasains from Ireland that arrived in the 16th century to serve the chiefs of Clan Macleod of Harris who had a power base there.

The chief of the Lewis Morrisons held the hereditary post of brieve. But the post did not bring immunity to the bitter feuds, particularly with the Macaulays who lived at Uig on the west coast of Lewis that so often characterised relationships between clans. One great battle was at Barvas where the Morrisons won. Their final conflict was in 1654. The Macaulays raided Ness, lifting cattle. The avenging Morrisons soon caught up, retook their cattle and buried the raiders on the spot.

The stronghold of the Morrisons was Dun Eistean, a sea-stack separated from the mainland by a deep ravine a couple of miles from the northernmost tip of Lewis. Within the last few years the Clan Morrison Society has built a footbridge across to Dun Eistean and helped fund an archeological study of the one and a half acre site. At the highest point was a tower that kept watch over the stormy waters of the Minch and gave notice of any vessel that might herald danger, or have cargo worth stealing. Fortifications protected the single precipitous path that gave access up the side of the stack at low tide. A platform allowed a galley to be hauled to shelter on the seaward side. The summit had a water supply and dwellings that revealed evidence of every day life as well as pistol shot and musket balls.Catastrophically, on his deathbed in 1566 the brieve Hugh Morrison announced that he had cuckolded Ruari, 'an unprincipled villain' and chief of the Macleods of Lewis, with his first wife and that he was the real father of his heir, Torquil. Torquil, to whom this was news, was immediately disinherited by his father who wanted to leave his estates to the eldest son of his second wife. Along with 60 of his men, the legitimate heir was soon after drowned crossing the Minch. So Ruari married again and sired another son.

Morrison was not an uncommon name on the Scottish mainland, and it is thought that few of these families are related to the island clans. The oldest of them descend from a Norman named Maurice.

The 13th Baron of Bognie represents the senior line whose ancestor built the now-ruined castle of Bognie near Huntley in Aberdeenshire. However, in 1965 the Lord Lyon King of Arms recognised Morrison of Ruchdi, descended from the Pabbay Morrisons, as 'principal chief of the whole name and clan of Morrison'.