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Issue 96 - The Clan Macpherson

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


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The Clan Macpherson

James Irvine Robertson tells of this most noble clan.

In 1660, James Grant of Auchernich said, ‘the McPhersons are a downright honest people, hate tricks and cheats, [and are] the best and firmest friends can be, but where they have a just prejudice, fierce and implacable enemies.' No clan can have a better reference than this, particularly from a neighbour. John Murray of Broughton added another in 1746, 'This clan is looked upon as one of the most civilised in the Highlands.' Amazingly, the clan's reputation has not slipped since then. Its museum at Newtonmore, in the ancient clan lands of Badenoch, is exceptional; its clan association thrives; and it has been graced by Sir William Macpherson, 26th of Cluny, as its chief since 1969.

The Clan Chattan, of which the Macphersons are part, originated in Lochaber. Their founding ancestor was Gillicattan More Mac Gillespick, a shadowy figure who may have come over to Dalriada from Connaught in Ireland. His descendants founded the dozen tribes that make up the modern Clan Chattan Confederation under the captaincy of the chiefs of Clan Mackintosh. Clan tradition holds that the move from Lochaber to Laggan was instigated by King Robert Bruce, who promised land in exchange for waging war against his inveterate enemies, the Comyns, who had been the prominent clan in Badenoch and the north east.

Muireach, said to be a younger son of Gillicattan More, was the founder of Clan Mhuireach. He was the parson of Kingussie in the days when a Celtic parson could both marry and lead his parishioners in battle. From him derives the name Macpherson - son of the Parson. His son, Ewan Ban, had three sons in his turn and from them came the three branches of the clan and, although all acknowledged Cluny as their chief, these remained distinct until the end of the 18th Century.

The Mackintosh leadership of Clan Chattan was a longtime source of resentment to the Macphersons. The Mackintosh chief married Eva, heiress of the Clan Chattan lands. The Macphersons descended from an earlier chief, but in the male line. The matter was finally resolved in favour of the Mackintosh in 1947, by which time it did not really matter. But it did five and a half centuries earlier at the Battle of Invernahavon.

Ancient Clan Chattan lands in Glenlui and by Loch Arkaig had been taken over by the Camerons. The Mackintoshes demanded rent and, when not paid, they would come and take cattle in lieu. This led to a 350-year feud. In 1386, 400 Camerons entered Badenoch to lift some cattle for themselves.

The Mackintosh chief summoned Clan Chattan and the two armies met a couple of miles southwest of Newtonmore.

The Clan Chattan contingent was made up of the Mackintoshes, the Davidsons and the Macphersons. Mackintosh commanded the centre but a dispute arose between the Davidsons and the Macphersons. The former said they should take the right wing as the battle would take place on their land. The Macphersons said they had mustered the most warriors and they were also the ancient leaders of Clan Chattan and so this privilege should be theirs. Mackintosh ruled in favour of the Davidsons, so the Macphersons took a huff and refused to fight. But they could only sit for so long watching their allies, particularly the Davidsons, being severely mauled by the Camerons. They charged into the battle and almost annihilated the enemy.

Nevertheless, this bad blood within Clan Chattan led to a grotesque aftermath.

In 1396, by the River Tay in Perth, the king, his court and the barons of Scotland filled a grandstand to watch 30 champions on each side - likely the Macphersons and the Davidsons - try to settle their quarrel by hacking each other to death. It is believed that the winners had six survivors, the losers just one. Just a few years later, in 1411, the rift in Clan Chattan was further manifest when the Gaels of the west under the Lord of the Isles swept across the north of Scotland and were checked by the forces of the crown at the bloody battle of Harlaw. The Macphersons were on the side of the Earl of Mar, the Mackintoshes with the invaders.

In later centuries, the Macphersons continued to be steadfastly loyal to the crown - they fought for Queen Mary, with Montrose and Charles I in the 1640s, and with Viscount Dundee during his campaign of 1689. They were in the Rising of 1715, most being captured at Preston after crossing the Forth with the 2,000 men under Brigadier MacIntosh of Borlum.

Euan Macpherson of Cluny raised 600 men to fight in the '45. The clan was one of the most formidable contingents in Prince Charles's army. During the retreat from Derby, they were in the rear guard and charged the pursuing redcoats with drawn swords, sending them into precipitate retreat at the battle of Clifton. The Macphersons fought at Falkirk and were afterwards deployed in Badenoch, guarding the passes through the Highlands and participating in the thrust into Atholl that captured 700 soldiers of the Campbell Militia and besieged Blair Castle. They were ordered north to Culloden but, in spite of a forced march, were too late to join the battle and found themselves covering the retreat that allowed 4,000 clansmen to retire to Ruthven.

In the aftermath of the battle, Cluny and his clan gave rise to one of the great romances of the Rising. Badenoch was occupied by government troops who wasted the country, burnt houses and reduced the people to destitution. Cluny crossed Scotland to bid farewell to the Prince on his departure for France, took charge of the Jacobite war chest and faithfully accounted for every penny. For a decade the chief, with £1,000 on his head, hid in his own country and was protected by his clan. He eventually escaped to France and died in 1764.

His heir, Duncan Macpherson, was born in a corn kiln in 1750 when his father was in hiding. He became Colonel of the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards. The forfeited estates were restored to him in 1784 and the clan lived happily ever after. 


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