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The Children of the Mist

“Children of the mist" is a term for the Clan Gregor invented by 19th century romantic author Sir Walter Scott - the founder of the Scottish Tourism industry. In his 1829 novel ‘The Legend of Montrose’, Sir Walter introduced "the Children of the Mist" as the perpetrators of the murder in 1589 of Drummond Ernoch, the King’s Forrester of Glenartney. There is no evidence of the term being used prior to this time.

In the introduction to "A Legend of Montrose" Scott wrote
"The Drummond-ernoch of James the Sixth’s time was a king’s forester in the forest of Glenartney, and chanced to be employed there in search of venison about the year 1588, or early in 1589. This forest was adjacent to the chief haunts of the MacGregors, or a particular race of them, known by the title of MacEagh, or Children of the Mist. They considered the forester’s hunting in their vicinity as an aggression, or perhaps they had him at feud, for the apprehension or slaughter of some of their own name, or for some similar reason. This tribe of MacGregors were outlawed and persecuted, as the reader may see in the Introduction to ROB ROY; and every man’s hand being against them, their hand was of course directed against every man. In short, they surprised and slew Drummond-ernoch, cut off his head, and carried it with them, wrapt in the corner of one of their plaids. The outlaws had carried to the utmost their insults against the regal authority, which indeed, as exercised, they had little reason for respecting. They bore the bloody trophy, into the old church of Balquidder, nearly in the centre of their country, where the Laird of MacGregor and all his clan being convened for the purpose, laid their hands successively on the dead man’s head, and swore, in heathenish and barbarous manner, to defend the author of the deed. "

Note that the Clan Gregor were NOT outlawed at the time of the murder. 104 named MacGregors had been collectively 'horned' in August 1586 for theft but released from the horn in October. The murder of Drummond-ernoch took place in December 1589, and resulted in in an Act of the Privy Council proscribing 141 named MacGregors in February 1590. This Act was repeated in July 1590. Their outlaw status was eventually lifted in the mid 1590s.

We should be very careful about considering Sir Walter Scott's fantasies to be any basis for the true history of Clan Gregor. Nigel Tranter who wrote 5 novels on the theme of Clan Gregor, was no better than Sir Walter as a historian of the Clan. But derring-do with a bit of romance sells novels! Search the internet today for “children of the mist” and you will find accounts of Clan Gregor which owe everything to imagination and almost nothing to real evidence. I suppose the stuff must be profitable even if untrue!

To what extent did the romantic efforts of Sir Walter Scott and others reflect the documented reality of Clan Gregor in the 16th and 17th centuries?

Some believe that the Children of the Mist were the followers of Duncan Ladasach who fought against the expansion of the Campbells of Glen Orchy in the early 16th century. Ladasach and two of his sons were executed by Grey Colin Campbell in 1552.

However, Scott’s novel referred to events of 1589 and after when the first state proscription was enacted and, more generally, to the period after 1603, when King James VI proscribed the entire Clan Gregor and gave license for its leaders to be hunted down. The King went further in forbidding the use of the name Gregor and MacGregor, commanding that all should take another name. There is a popular belief that all MacGregors were condemned to death by the King irrespective of their involvement at the battle of Glen Fruin.

Dr Masson in his analysis of the Register of the Privy Council noted that there were two edicts from the King. The first on 24th February shortly after Glen Fruin stated
“the unhappie and detestable race be extirpat and ruttit out, and nevir sufferit to have rest or remaning within this cuntrey heirefter; …. they salbe prosequte, huntit, followit, and persewit with fyre and sword, ay and quhill they be exterminat and ruttit out”;

However, in a tempering of the earlier edict on 3rd April 1603
“ it was ordanit that the name of McGregoure sulde be altogedder abolisched, and that the haill personnes of thatt Clan suld renunce thair name and tak thame sum uther name, and that they nor nane of thair posteritie suld call thameselffis Gregor or McGregoure thairefter under the payne of deid.”

Thus, the proscription of the MacGregors was not actually a pogrom of every man, woman, or child but, slightly more mercifully, all were compelled to submit, abjure the name of MacGregor - assuming some other name - and follow another lord.

As some MacGregors continued to be perceived as being problematic by courtiers with the ear of the Government [i.e. the Campbells of Glen Orchy], the Council repeated the proscription in 1611 and 1612 and later in 1633 when Charles I visited Edinburgh..

However, it is also clear that other MacGregors did heed the edicts of the Council, to the extent that we find at the skirmish of Tomzarloch in 1612, a number of MacGregors who appear to be Clandoulcheir from Balquhidder were attacked and killed somewhere in Strathearn. Among their attackers were former MacGregors from Glen Lednock and Glen Almond who had given their submission to the Earl of Perth and adopted the name Drummond.

It is necessary to understand the nature of the Scottish state which was highly decentralised in comparison with other European countries in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The King in Edinburgh might fulminate and condemn but he had limited ability to enforce his will in the countryside. For that he needed the power of his magnates.

Only after the conquest of Scotland by Cromwell in 1650-51 were military garrisons installed in strategic locations to enforce the will of the state – and most of these were dismantled after 1660. Indeed, it was not until the punitive legislation of 1746 and 1747 that the legal powers of the magnates on their own estates were abolished.

The Campbells of Glen Orchy, after 1562, the most inveterate of the enemies of Clan Gregor at the time, did not have sufficient military strength of their own to suppress the clan, for that they needed to subcontract the killing – sometimes in return for a farm tenancy. Indeed, in the period of conflict before 1603, the Council in Edinburgh found it necessary to constrain Campbell of Glen Orchy who, it was perceived, endangered good order in the community by his harrying of Clan Gregor and their resetters.

The truth, insofar as we can determine it, is that we can divide Clan Gregor, like Gaul, into three parts -

The first comprising the chiefly lineage of Glen Strae was largely hunted down, captured and killed - almost to extinction. With the exception of the children of Iain dubh, brother of Alastair ruadh who were protected by Sir John Murray of Tullibardine and, took his name. Gregor and Patrick Murray would be the 12th and 13th chiefs under the protection of the Earls of Atholl.

The second group would, by and large, obey the edicts of the Council, follow another lord, take his name and, more or less, act in accordance with the law in future. These people might become Drummonds, Murrays, Livingstones and even Campbells. Or perhaps, Lakies, Stirlings, and Telfords. In not a few cases their descendants have retained these names until the present day.

The third and final group remained in rebellion, either unable or unwilling to find security with another lord. Their deeds occur at various times in sheriff court and state records which give the impression of a wild and recalcitrant people hiding in caves and emerging when hungry to take the livestock and lives of peaceable farmers.

Once again, the nature of 17th century Scotland has to be considered. Campbell expansion had been at the expense of many others of the Highland elite. Menzies, Stewart, Murray and Drummond are all examples of lordly families whose status had been threatened and lands lost to Campbell expansionism. Rather than incur the anger of the King by overt resistance, what better way to resist than to shelter, succour and encourage renegade MacGregors (and not just MacGregors) in order to hurt their rivals. Thus we see many examples of edicts of the Council requested by the Campbells and fulminating against the wicked resetters of Clan Gregor.

We should also remember that MacGregor men did not just marry their own kin. There was a network of marital relations who could be called on in time of need. Not everyone would be at daggers drawn with mother-in-law.

In conclusion, the lack of central authority or a network of effective sheriffdoms until the 18th century left the power to enforce peace and lawful behaviour in the hands of local magnates. These men often succumbed to the temptation to use their legal power for their own benefit. Sir Walter Scott’s “Children of the mist” were not just MacGregors but could be any people who found themselves at the bottom of the social order and who might sheltered, used or discarded in the interests of the elite.