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The early History of Clan Gregor

By Peter Lawrie, ©1996

Clan Gregor has many aliases. The reason for this is rooted in the turbulent history of Highland Scotland.  In this paper I shall attempt to explain Highland clanship and the history of Clan Gregor from its beginning to the early seventeenth century. Part of this presentation has been drawn from the unpublished 1989 PhD thesis of Dr Martin MacGregor, entitled  ‘A Political History of Clan Gregor before 1571’.  Dr MacGregor presents some ideas about our early relationship with the Campbells that are not to be found in any published sources. Ramsay’s ‘The Arrow of Glen Lyon’ has been used as the source for the period between 1571 and 1603.

Clan or Clann is the Gaelic word for family or, to be more exact, kindred sharing a common descent. Clan names may be frozen patronymics: Mac Griogair means son of Gregor. Others derive from descriptive features of the name father, such as Campbell – cam beul meaning squint or wry mouth. The Campbells belong to the Mac Cailein Mor branch of the kindred of Diarmaid o Duibhne. Others are derived from occupations, such as Macintyre, Mac an t-saoir, son of the wright. Kin-based clans developed as a means of controlling land and allocating resources. Their growth and eventual decline were related to the weakness of government. Formation and dissolution was a dynamic process. Highland Clanship came out of a fusion between Celtic tribalism and Norman feudalism during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Dr MacGregor suggests that the personal name Gregor may come from one of several Pope Gregories. There was an 11th century Irish cult of Gilla-Griguir or devotee of Gregory. 12th and 13th century bishops of Moray, Dunkeld, Ross and Brechin all bore the name and it was common among Norman families in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Clan Gregor has a tradition, embodied in our slogan – ‘S Rioghal mo dhream – ‘Royal is my race’. Clan Gregor is the principal kindred of Clan Alpin, which has been traditionally derived from the ninth century King Kenneth MacAlpin. Kenneth united the Picts and the Scots into one nation known as Alba, (pronounced A-la-pa).  It has been claimed that the Clan Gregor derived from Giric, a nephew of Kenneth, who ruled 878 to 889. It is probable that this connection was made merely because the name sounded like Griogair. Dr MacGregor stated that this myth was first documented in the late 15th century.

A brief note of explanation: Scottish landed gentry are normally designated as name of place-name. Thus: MacGregor of Glen Strae. It is correct to refer to the person by the name of his estate, thus: Glenstrae. In this paper the place-names are given as Glen Strae. When the full designation is given it is MacGregor of Glen Strae.
However, when the abbreviated form is used it will always be the single word Glenstrae or Glenorchy.

Dr MacGregor suggests that Clan Gregor probably derive from a 13th century kindred called Clann Ailpein, who may have been a client kindred of the ruling MacDougall kindred of Lorn. As part of the Comyn faction the MacDougalls were opposed to Robert the Bruce. King Robert suffered a serious defeat by John of Lorn at Dalrigh, near Tyndrum in 1306. In 1308 the King defeated the MacDougalls at the Pass of Brander. The rise of the Campbells dates from the generosity of King Robert to Niall Campbell of Lochawe at the expense of the MacDougalls. Eoin of Glen Orchy, as part of the Lorn kindred, was allied with Wallace and captured in battle against the English in 1296.  His daughter Mariota married the Campbell laird of Innis Chonnail. This marriage was the basis of the charter to Glen Orchy given to the Campbells by David II in 1358. His brother Donnchadh Beag, father of Griogair was the effective starting point of the lineage in Glen Orchy around 1300. Gillies in his book ‘In famed Breadalbane’ discusses 17th century bonds of friendship between the then chiefs of MacNab and MacGregor. These refer to their common descent from two brothers. The MacNabs were the Clann an Aba or family of the Abbot of Glen Dochart. The relationship must be from Clann Ailpein. Dr MacGregor is quite correctly cautious with the surviving genealogies, showing contradictions and fabrications in various Highland genealogies. It has been speculated by others that the Dubhghall in the genealogy in the book of the Dean of Lismore was in fact the eldest son of Somerled and the ancestor of the MacDougalls of Lorn. To demonstrate this possibility,I have aligned the known dates of the MacDougall lineage and the names in the Dean’s genealogy. The estimated dates (~) are my own.

The alternative is to take at face value the genealogical descent of the Clan Gregor as given in the book of the Dean of Lismore. At page 137 of the MacLauchlan edition of 1862 is the poem by Duncan MacDougall Maoil - Some historians have taken this as descent from the 9th century King Alpin, father of Kenneth MacAlpin who united the Picts and the Scots in 843. Unless a number of generations have been omitted this seems barely credible and has been discounted by modern scholars - but this may be changing. Below, on the right I have given an extract of the poem and the patrilinear descent suggested by it.

The Dean's 16th century genealogy

Alpin (Ailpin)

Kennan (Connan)

Hugh of Glen Orchy (Aodha Urchadhaigh)

Gillelan (Giolla Fhaolain)

Duncan (Donnchadh)

Duncan the small (Donnchadh beag)


John the lucky or learned


John (Eoin cam)

Black John (Eoin dubh)



Here is the full modern English text from the Book of the Dean of Lismore, of “The history of the secret origin of John MacPatrick” by Sir Duncan MacDougal Maoil MacGregor father of the Dean of Lismore

What belongs to his race is not feeble,
The bearing of that race we love,
Seldom of a feeble race it is,
Among the Gael of purest fame,
That inquiry of their origin is made,
By the men who read in books
Firm the belief to them and me,
During the evening time so dark
That in the blood of noble kings
Were the rights of true ClanGregor
Now that I'm by thy green dwelling,
Listen John to thy family story.

A root of the very root are we
Of famous kings of noble story.
Know that Patrick was thy Father,
Malcolm father was to Patrick.
Son of Black John, not black his breast,
Him who feasts and chariots owned.
Another John was Black John's father,
Son of Gregor, son of John the lucky.
Three they were of liberal heart,
Three beneficent to the Church.
The father to that learned John,
Was Malcom who his wealth ne'er hid,
Son of Duncan surly and small,
Whose standard never took reproach.
His father was another Duncan,
Son of Gillelan of the ambush,
Noble he was, giving to friends,
Son of the famous Hugh from Urquhay.
Kennan of the pointed spear,
Of Hugh from Urquhay was the father.
From Alpin of stately mien and fierce,
Mighty king of weighty blows.

This is the fourth account that's given
Of thee who art the heir of Patrick.
Remember well thy backbone line,
Down from Alpin, heir of Dougal
Twenty and one besides thyself,

John the black not black in heart.
Thy genealogy leads us truly
To the prosperous Fergus McErc.
Of thy race which wastes not like froth,
Six generations wore the crown.
Forty Kings there were and three,
Their blood and origin are known.
Three there were north and three to the south,
After the time of Malcom Kenmore.
Ten of the race did wear the crown,
From the time of Malcom up to Alpin.
From Alpin upwards we do find
Fourteen kings till we reach Fergus.

Such is thy genealogy
To Fergus, son of Ere the prosperous.
How many are there of thy race
Must there have been from thee to Fergus.
Noble the races mix with thy blood,
Such as we now we cannot number.
The Schools would weary with our tale
Numbering the kings from whom thou 'rt sprung.
The blood of Arthur is in thy bosom
Precious is that which fills thy veins ;
The blood of Cuan, the blood of Conn,
Two wise men, glory of the race.
The blood of Grant in thy apple-red cheek,
The blood of Neil the fierce and mighty.
Fierce and gentle, at all times,
Is the story of the royal race.

Part was through the poem (highlighted) is the following: Down from Alpin, heir of Dougal, Twenty and one besides thyself.

On page 127 of the Dean of Lismores Book (McLauchlan and Skene) we see the following:
Eoin Mac Phadruig,
mhic Mhaoilcholuim,
mhic Eoin duibh,
mhic Eoin,
mhic Grigoir,
mhic Eoin,
mhic Mhaolcholuim,
mhic Dhonchaidh bhig,
mhic Dhonchaidh a Sraileadh,
mhic Ghillfhaolain,
mhic Aoidh Urchaidh,
mhic Coinnich,
mhic Alpain ;
agus an Coinneach sin b'e ardrigh Albain gu deimhin 's an uair sin ;
agus an t-Eoin so an t-aon duine deug o'n Choinneach so a dubhairt mi.
Agus Donnchadh daoroglach Mac Dhughaill,
mhic Eoin Riabhaich, do sgriobh so leabhraibh seanachaidh nan righ ;
agus ro dheanadh Anno Domini Millesimo Quingentesimo duodecimo.

An entry dated 1512.

The English translation of his name being:
John son of Patrick,
son of Malcolm,
son of Black John,
son of John,
son of Gregor,
son of John,
son of Malcolm,
son of Duncan,
son of Duncan,
son of Gillelan,
son of Hugh,
son of Kennan.
Down from Alpin, heir of Dougal there are twenty and one besides thyself.

Neil and Matt MacGregor have been investigating the origins of Clan Gregor using an ever-increasing body of DNA evidence. They now feel that there is enough evidence to ask, "How potentially accurate is the claim within the poem that 21 generations were known to have occurred between John McPatrick and Kenneth McAlpine? Are the numbers a good or consistent claim or are they purely hypothetical with little evidence to support the claim?"

Assuming John McPatrick was born in 1440 and Kenneth Alpin, the first king of unified Scotland, was born ~810, we have a time period of 630 years. Time to common ancestor calculations use the generation period of 30 years as the mean generation gap. (Calculation: 630÷21= 30). Therefore, the time frame using the currently accepted generation time appears to be quite an accurate representaion of the number of people in the tree and adds significant weight to the claims within the poem. This also adds weight to the data within the Deans MS and seems to support the suggestion that the Dean had access to records which allowed him the develop the pedigree. Neil & Matt have been comparing DNA samples from other clans deriving from Argyll who also claim a Dalriadic descent such as the MacKinnons and MacNabs, Science may be supporting the traditional tales.

It has been claimed that the kindred who became Clan Gregor were some sort of Royal guard or keepers of the strategic passes. The Greek noun Gregorios means ‘Watchman’. ‘Gregor’ could even be a word-play on the role of the kindred. This may seem idle but a glance at a topological map of the western Highlands shows just how important the MacGregor glens were. Dalmally is near the eastern end of the Pass of Brander controlling access to Lorn. From the south come roads from Kintyre along the east of Loch Awe and from Loch Fyne through Glen Aray. Glens Lochy, Orchy and Strae are all eastward routes into the Central Highlands. Watchmen in Glen Strae can also guard potential routes into Glen Etive. Based on map evidence alone it is likely that the Dalriadic kingdom and later the Lordship of Lorn would place border guards in these glens. The MacDougall kindred descend from the eldest son of Somhairle or Somerled who created the Lordship of the Isles. Somerled was in turn descended from the Kings of Dalriada, Erin and Denmark. Hence ‘our race is royal’. The map of Innse Gall in the 13th century shows the eastern boundary of the lordship of Lorn was Loch Awe and Glen Strae. I must stress that this is conjecture on my part. I am not aware of documentary evidence of the exact relationship of Clann Ailpein to the Lords of Lorn, nor I have I seen any historical record of the ‘Watchmen of Lorn’.

Innse Gall in the thirteenth century

So why did clans develop in Scotland and persist in the Highlands long after kin-based tribes disappeared in most of the rest of Europe? Please forgive a digression into the early history of Scotland before I return to Clan Gregor.

Succession of the early kings in Alba and Pictland might not necessarily be from father to son, but to the most suitable (or ruthless) eligible male within the ruling kinship group known in Gaelic as the derbhfine. Descent through the female line was possible, thus, the King’s sister’s son could be just as eligible as the King’s son. While succession might be peaceful, as often as not, it could be bloody. When the Scots King Kenneth MacAlpin, became king of the united Picts and Scots, it was because he had kinship with the Pictish ruling kindred. It appears likely that he killed most of his rivals to the throne.

Looking at a genealogical tree of the Scottish Kings from Alpin to Robert I, it is very apparent that the succession never follows from father to son until William the Lion (1165-1214).  During the lifetime of a ruler it was, on occasion, the practice appoint a successor known as the tanist. The practise of tanistry can be shown to have continued among some Highland clans up to the 18th century.

genealogical tree of the Scottish monarchy Malcolm Canmore’s second wife was the Saxon princess Margaret. She was to be canonised by the Roman church for the destruction of the Celtic Church in Scotland. The long process of anglicisation began in her time. There were repeated attempts on the throne by Gaelic members of the ruling kindred, asserting the old tradition, until 1215. However, Malcolm and Margaret were succeeded by three of their six sons in succession during the 12th century culminating with the youngest, David, Earl of Huntingdon, who ruled from 1124 to 1153. All subsequent rulers of Scotland come from David by patrilinear descent.

The Margaret-sons also brought Norman knights and their feudal system. Scotland was the last country in Europe to adopt feudalism and the last to retain feudal tenure as the basis of its law. It was only finally abolished by the Scottish Parliament in the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act of 2000.

Feudalism is important to the study of the Clanship because it is fundamentally opposite to the Celtic kin-based system of Land Holding. Feudalism is based on land whereas kindreds are about people. Elizabeth Windsor is the Queen of England but Queen of Scots. Celtic kingship came from the regional tribes headed by sub-Kings or Mormaers at the head of their own kindreds, which in turn helped to select the Ard Righ or High King from the ruling kindred. Alexander II & III were particularly important in fusing kin-based and feudal authority, so that in the 13th century when most heads of kindred were also feudal lords, there was a stable and decentralised structure, with relatively weak kings. The later Stewart kings attempted to change this relationship, but their actions created instability and conflict.

In the Celtic system land was the duthchas or birthright of the kindred and could not be personal property, in the sense that buildings, clothes or weapons were. Kinsmen were supported as befitted their station from the lands of the kindred and in turn were expected to work and defend the duthchas. This was an aristocratic system, not democratic, nor was it a welfare state! Leadership of a kin-based society was hereditary though not necessarily patrilinear. As well as true kinsmen in the kindred there would also be unrelated servants. In a non-cash economy the Chiefs consumed their surplus income by feasting and gifts. Feasting meant inviting the principal members of the kindred and in particular the fighting men, to consume the rental. Gifts were also important in binding chief and kinsmen. In return the chief expected military support and labour.

The feudal system has a totally different underlying philosophy. All lands were the property of the King who granted them by charter to his tenants-in-chief, personally, in return for their fealty and service. They could sub-infeudate parts of their holdings to their vassals who could do the same in turn. Thus, apart from the king every-one in a feudal society had a superior on whom they depended and may have had vassals depending on them. Feudal tenure involved service by the vassal to the superior, which could take the form of military service, labour or specified rental. The tenure could be for a fixed term, the life of the grantee, or in perpetuity to the vassal and his heirs. Any superior, subject to his obligation to his own superior could dispose of his possessions at any time.  A superior could re-grant a feudal fief to anyone he chose, irrespective of kinship. The vassals often had little say in this.  Feudalism in France and England developed into a form with strong central authority by the fourteenth century. In Germany, central authority was so weak that the Empire dissolved into separate principalities. The Scottish situation was in between. Scotland remained united and absorbed the Viking lands but with weak central authority.

In 1066 William the Bastard, (he was illegitimate and he was called this in his own time - but only behind his back), Duke of Normandy and 'Conqueror' of the England dispossessed all the Saxon lords of England and granted out the entire realm to his own supporters. In Scotland, feudal tenure was only introduced gradually by the Margaret-sons. Norman knights did not acquire their lands by expropriation but by marriage to suitable Celtic heiresses. They did manage to create quite a few of these and many modern ‘Scots’ names, such as Menzies, Gordon and Bruce are Norman in origin.  Military service and heritable feudal jurisdiction were finally abolished after 1746.  Rentals in kind and labour service had been almost entirely transmuted into cash by 1800. However, the legal language of land tenure in Scotland remained a matter of superiors and vassals until AD 2000.

From the 13th century the legal basis of the ownership of land in the whole of Scotland was completely feudal. However old tenurial practices and beliefs survived. North of the Highland line from Stonehaven to Dumbarton, where the Gaelic language remained dominant, the older idea of kin-based land holding persisted into the 18th century. The expression ‘kindly rooms’ does not mean tenure out of the goodness of heart of the landlord, but the right of members of the kindred to land sufficient to support them and their dependants. It is important to note that Gaels often continued to support the chiefs of their kindred even when they lived on the charter lands of other lords. One obvious way of showing the difference between the Scottish and English systems is to look at the surnames of the modern population. The majority of the names of people with Scottish descent are personal, such as MacGregor, Davidson and Fraser. In England the majority are territorial, that is they have the name of the village or estate where their ancestor lived such as Honeycombe or Wilton. In England and France society was stratified between an exclusive feudal elite which married within itself and the lower orders. In Scotland although the social structure was just as aristocratic, lowland names and highland clans were inclusive rather than exclusive. Younger sons of the elite tended to marry into the name rather than among their peers. Nor should we ignore the illegitimate offspring that were usually acknowledged and provided for within the kindred. The Glen Orchy Campbells produced lots of bastards in the 16th century!

Clan formation begins with the ‘name-father’ who has control of resources - (ie land). He allocates parts of it to his sons, usually in a way that does not alienate their lands from the total. Brothers, cousins and other members of the name-father’s lineage as well as non-related dependants may be involved in maintaining the growing kindred. Successful kindreds extend their holdings through the generations creating further opportunities for cadet branches to form. As the supply of land was fixed the process proceeded in successful clans at the expense of less successful lineages. As in the game of ‘snakes and ladders’ losing the favour of the monarch or a defeat by another kindred could reverse the growth or even end the existence of a lineage. The only difference between clanship in the Highlands and similar land-holding elsewhere was the survival in it of some of the old Celtic ideas.

lordship territories of the west highlands about 1400

The map shows the lordships of the central Highlands as they were about 1400. Note in particular the Earldoms of Atholl, Strathearn, Menteith and Lennox. To the west is the Lordship of the Isles. Lorn was the truncated remains of the MacDougall lands. The white area was largely crown lands, church property and smaller territories, including at this time those held by the Campbells.

Kin-based land-holding was once common throughout Scotland. The pursuit of power by the great lowland kindreds such as Douglas or Hamilton led to the blood-feuds of the late 16th century. In the 17th century the lowland kindreds changed into land-owning aristocratic families on the English pattern. Perhaps due to language division some Highland Clans retained their archaic forms into the 18th century. Highland clans were by no means uniform in structure.

Despite the certainty of the clan maps in tartan shops, territories were dynamic over time. It is difficult to classify them. At one end of the continuum were the great feudal territorial magnates holding most of their lands directly from the Crown. These included Earldoms such as: Campbells of Argyll, Murrays of Atholl and Gordons of Huntly. At times the government granted powers of regality to these lords, handing over total control of all the land and people within their jurisdiction. These magnates were part of the machinery of power in Scotland, sharing the great offices of State between them. Their territories had grown well beyond their original boundaries and included numerous subordinate groups. Such vassal clans or septs could be the followers of distant cousins of the Chief or of formerly independent kindreds that had become wholly dependent upon him.

Then we have the aggregate clans. The Cumming chiefs are known to have renamed their servants by ‘baptising’ them as ‘Cummings of the hen-stone’. The Camerons, although themselves vassals of the Gordons often gave leases only to tenants who adopted their name. 16th century Frasers of Lovat are recorded as giving a boll of meal to men taking their name. Cumming and Fraser are Norman names.

Next to these were the lesser feudal barons and lairds who still possessed their own charter lands usually as tenants-in-chief of the crown. Their followers were more feudal vassals than clansmen although they may also have been kin. These were more prevalent on lands around the periphery of the Highlands and often Norman in origin. The Brodies and Roses in the North East may be given as examples.

Very similar to these are Celtic kindreds, whose chief possessed lands by heritable charter and whose followers lived entirely on his lands. These are probably the closest to the romantic idea of clanship. Their septs and cadet branches were formed by descent from scions of the family and the clansmen believed they had (and often did have) kinship with the chief whose name they shared.

More common was the situation of Clans, such as Clan Gregor, whose chief had a charter or lease to some but not all of the lands on which his followers lived, as a vassal of a greater Lord. Some of the clansmen who gave their calp to the chief lived on the lands of other lords to whom they gave only limited or no allegiance.

Finally came the large group sometimes known as ‘broken clans’. These had lost or never possessed legal title to the lands they occupied. If asked by what right they held their lands, the reply would be: ‘by the sword’. Their chiefs retained followers who gave him their calp, but they had no feudal rights. As almost all of the Highlands was the feudal possession of some Lord or other the existence of broken men could be a source of great trouble. Such kindreds were on the point of disappearance with their members drifting into the allegiance of more powerful chiefs. Otherwise, without land, they had little choice but to resort to theft and raids on their neighbours to survive. Indeed, territorial magnates habitually made use of such people in order to create trouble for their enemies.

In Lairds of Glen Lyon, Duncan Campbell states that Clan Gregor were the remnants of a large kindred that had been defeated and dispossessed during the wars of Independence and had been scattered across Perth-shire. There is no documentary evidence for this. The alternative put forward by Dr MacGregor is that they descend solely from an offshoot of the MacDougall kindred in Glen Orchy. Is it possible that all MacGregors are descended from a single individual in the 14th century? Society was overwhelmingly rural with relatively static technology and agriculture. The survival of kindreds depended on the produce of the land that they could hold and use. Less fortunate people may have been attracted by relative security and put to work as servants. Those without resources were less able to pass on their genes. Recent work on DNA has demonstrated that a substantial number of MacGregors do relate to the chief, others may descend from ancestors who were members of our precursor kindred before 1300. There are also a significant number (but much less than in clans such as the Campbells) who clearly descend from 'part-takers' and have only far distant kin relationship with the rest of the clan.

As Malthus put it, population increases geometrically while resources can only increase arithmetically.  If we assume early marriage, an average generation of 25 years and an family size of 6, allowing for daughters and child-hood mortality leaving 2 sons surviving to marry and procreate. Starting in 1325, by 1550 there could be 512 adult male descendants and, if unchecked, a million by 1825! The possibility of such growth depended on the ability to colonise and hold new lands which is exactly what seems to have occurred at least until 1550, so it may be reasonable to estimate that the MacGregor chief could have called out 200 fighting men in 1550. Including their families, the kindred would have numbered more than a thousand. To put this in context the total population of Scotland in 1550 has been estimated at three-quarters of a million, evenly split between north and south, with less than 10% in urban settlements. The area from Rannoch to Aberfoyle and from Dalmally to Comrie is 3600 sq. km, or 4.7% of Scotland. Crudely, this is two thirds of the pre-1975 county of Perth, omitting Atholl and the area around Perth itself. The population is unlikely to have exceeded twenty five thousand. The military strength of Clan Gregor would therefore be very significant in this area.  Of course, the equipage and maintenance of fighting men was a significant cost. Not only were weapons and equipment expensive the men had to be available whenever required. This meant that the task of providing food and accommodation fell on others. The statutes of Iona in 1609 were largely aimed at reducing the ability of Clan chiefs to maintain fighting men in this way.

The raw materials of the historian are written records, perhaps enriched by other verifiable sources. The historian is very suspicious of legend and tradition, but the Celtic peoples placed great store on the oral tradition, with songs and stories, genealogies and legends being recited around the fire. Sadly the social changes of the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in most of this corpus being lost forever. Our own James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore, who lived at Fortingall in the 16th century, recorded some of these stories and legends and his manuscript contains some of the oldest surviving Gaelic poetry. 

Much Highland history is gleaned from the contents of the charter chest. The successful Highland chief carefully guarded his bonds and charters. There was no Scottish Record Office to keep a copy. The Campbell chiefs knew the value of their sheepskins. When they captured their neighbour’s castle the contents of the charter chest was the first objective.  Only the winner in this struggle wrote the history. When James V made his visitations around the Highlands, he demanded that the chiefs showed their charters. Without them the lands could be granted to another.
In a true feudal system a vassal gave his service in exchange for access to land and the protection of the lord. In 1547 the Scottish parliament introduce feu-ferme whereby the service element could be eliminated. A heritable tenure of land could be established in exchange for a grassum or entry payment and annual feu-duty. Two features of clanship are fundamental to understanding the story of Clan Gregor.  Bonds of Manrent were personal service agreements between a lord and his vassal, which were not necessarily based on land. In exchange for the protection of the lord, the vassal obliged himself to provide specified military or other service to the lord. Manrent often vested ultimate control of the vassal’s possessions in the lord. Vassals often gave their manrent to the lord on whose lands they lived. Therefore, where the right of the superior to those lands was dubious, the existence of bonds of manrent could be claimed as proof of those rights.  Manrent could be transferred, as in 1550 the Earl of Argyll transferred Glenstrae’s service from Cawdor to Glenorchy.

The other feature of clanship was the calp that was not necessarily given to the Superior on whose land the vassal lived. This relationship was more personal than manrent. Strictly speaking calp was the right of the chief, on your death to have your best cow. A chief who had accepted the calp of his kinsman or duin’uasal was obliged to support him, right or wrong. Just as the duin’uasal had to fight the chief’s battles whether right or wrong. The important difference about calp was that it was the vassal’s to give rather than the superior’s to grant. The vassal had a choice. In the recent debate about Scotland’s constitutional position in the United Kingdom, the principle was argued that sovereignty in Scotland comes up from the people. In England, sovereignty comes down from the Crown, since 1688, expressed as the Crown in Parliament. The distinction between legally recognised feudal obligations and the duty of supporting kin was fundamental to understanding the problems faced by Clan Gregor in the 16th century. Grey Colin’s bonds of manrent to MacGregors in the 1550s often stipulated that they renounce their calp to Glenstrae.

Between 1328 and 1603, the central government of Scotland was often weak. It would have been better for Scotland if the old Pictish method of succession had been in use. Instead, we had weak kings in Robert II and III and a minority before the reign of almost every one of the James’s and Mary. During these times lords tried to increase their power at the expense of the Crown and their rival. A strong right hand was necessary to hold what one had and weakness was ruthlessly exploited. Of necessity the government delegated legal authority to the great magnates and as far as Clan Gregor was concerned that usually meant Campbell regality. Indeed from 1528 the Earl of Argyll was hereditary Lord Justice General. “Hame’s hamely, quo the de’il when he found himself in the Court of Session.” However, Dr MacGregor’s thesis, drawn from the records of the Argyll and Breadalbane estates and state papers, shows a complex situation at odds with the accepted idea of permanent conflict between MacGregor and Campbell.

Local legal authority was vested in heritable feudal baronies. (The holder of a feudal barony was quite distinct from the rank of Baron in the Peerage, although he might also have been a Peerage Baron or Earl). Such jurisdiction gave the right of pit and gallows. His expenses could be recouped (and more) by fines. When the lands of a laird coincided with his baronial jurisdiction then the system was as good as could be devised, subject to his abilities. However, when his jurisdiction included the lands of other lairds, with whom he may have been at feud, then the temptation to abuse the rights of office must have been great. Crown lands usually had their jurisdiction vested in a hereditary baillie. The lairds of Glen Orchy were granted the Crown Bailliary of much of the central zone lands. They used this jurisdiction to help their friends, damage their enemies and above all, extend their possessions.

At the start of the 14th century, the chief of the kindred that was to become Clan Gregor held the lordship of Glen Orchy. A 1358 charter showed that the superiority of Glen Orchy had passed into the hands of a Campbell heir. The lands of Glen Orchy, Glen Lochy and Glen Strae were the principal places occupied by the clan before 1437 with little documentary evidence of settlement elsewhere. The key centres of the kindred were Diseart Chonain or Dalmally, Stronmilchan and Achallader.

Scotland had been devastated by a generation of war between 1296 and 1328. In particular the MacDougalls and their allies in and around Lorn must have lost heavily in their defeat at Brander in 1308. Then in 1350, came the bubonic plague called the Black Death. More than a third of the population may have died. Càrn nam Marbh or cairn of the dead at Fortingall is still to be seen. It appears that the Glen Lyon people were badly hit by plague. On the evidence of their growth in numbers, the Glen Orchy kindred may have escaped lightly. Thus an opportunity may have been created for early expansion through Auch Glen into Glen Lyon. In Duncan Campbell’s Lairds of Glen Lyon, we find an account of a legendary plague that destroyed almost the entire population. He placed this plague in the time of the Columban Saint Eonan and stated that MacDougalls from Lorn later repopulated the glen. However, as the MacDougall kindred did not exist until the 13th century, it seems a safe assumption that the legend refers to the plague of 1350. In 1372 David II granted Glen Lyon to John MacDougall of Lorn. His daughter and heiress married John Stewart who may have been the laird of Glen Lyon called Iain Dubh nan lann or Black John of the spears. A daughter of the last Stewart lord of Lorn married a Campbell from whom came the Campbell lairds in the early 16th century. It is possible that the grant of 1372 followed actual settlement of MacDougall kindred after 1350. A MacGregor lineage had acquired the Deanery of Lismore at Fortingall by 1406 and the first documentary evidence of MacGregor settlement in Glen Lyon is later than that. Lacking evidence of earlier settlement this is merely speculation. However from the 1437 Glen Lyon was the main expansion route eastwards for Clan Gregor.

Until the late 14th century, feudal lordship often coincided with powerful Celtic heads of kindred. The lands between Atholl in the East and Lorn in the West were crown estates. Their rentals were intended to pay the expenses of the monarchy. However, during the reigns of Robert II and III, their sons seized much of the central Highlands. These included the Earldoms of Lennox, Menteith and Strathearn and Atholl as well as these Royal lands. Within these territories lay the areas which Dr MacGregor terms the central zone: The Appin of Dull, including Rannoch and Glen Lyon; the lands around Loch Tay; and Glen Dochart, Strath Fillan and Glen Falloch, stretching from Finlarig to the north end of Loch Lomond. Most of these lands fell into the hands of Robert and his son Murdoch, Dukes of Albany during their regency. In 1425, on his return from English captivity, James I attempted to centralise authority on the English pattern by weakening the great lords. Murdoch was executed.  Some of his lands were retained as crown estate but, following the assassination of James in 1437, they were to become a power vacuum ripe for colonisation. The lack of a single powerful lord or kindred in this area created an opportunity for Campbell expansion. Colin, first Campbell laird of Glen Orchy was involved in the capture of the regicides for which he was later knighted and granted the lands of Lawers on Loch Tay.

The 15th century saw an uninterrupted waxing of Campbell power at local and national levels. In 1457, their chief was created Earl of Argyll. Kilchurn Castle, only two miles from the MacGregor residence at Stronmilchan was built as the principal residence of the Glen Orchy Campbells in the 1440s. It may seem surprising, but for much of the 16th century the MacGregors of Brackley were the hereditary keepers of Kilchurn. The relationship between Campbell and MacGregor appears to have been one of co-operation. Clan Gregor had become a client or subordinate kindred of the Campbells. Between 1437 and 1550 MacGregor expansion eastwards through a zone extending from Rannoch south to the Lennox was instrumental in enabling the Campbell chiefs to bring these territories into their sphere of influence. The pre-eminence that the Campbells of Glen Orchy achieved in Breadalbane owed much to their close relationship with the MacGregors and to their extensive settlement in the area. Clan Gregor must have been better armed and led over a long period than any other kindred in the zone. In recognition of the reality of Campbell power, successive earls of Argyll between 1475 and 1549 were made lieutenant and justiciar of much of the central zone lands. Only the earldom of Atholl was to be a barrier to Campbell expansion and for much of the 16th century there was tension between them with Menzies of Weem caught in the middle. Argyll’s expansion into the Lennox saw MacGregors also established at Ardinconnel and Laggarie on the Gareloch.

As a result of the rapid eastward expansion of the MacGregor kindred it subdivided into distinct septs. The Glen Lyon kindred itself subdivided into the lineages of Roro, Fearnan, Ardeonaig and Rannoch. The kindred of Duncan Ladasach were in Glen Lochay and Glen Dochart. The kindred of Padraig Choaldich were found in Glen Lednock. Clann Dùghaill Chèire was in Balquhidder and Glengyle. The MacRaibert lineage was found in Strathyre and the MacEoins or Johnsons were in Perth. In the period 1437-1550, only the Glen Lednock lineage acquired a heritable legal title.

Argyll and Perthshire showing earldoms and most important glens Clan Gregor were pastoralists. They lived on the produce of Cattle and other livestock. They reared them, traded them and moved them around the country in droves. The less charitable may observe that sometimes they stole them too! Haldane in his Drove roads of Scotland identified the routes taken by the drovers in the 18th century on their way to the Crieff and Falkirk trysts. In earlier centuries there may have been more east-west traffic along Loch Rannoch and Loch Tay as well. Hides shipped from the east-coast ports were one of Scotland’s principal exports. In almost every settlement mentioned Clan Gregor lineages sat on the drove routes from the West and North. Not only would they participate in the trade directly they could also profit from tolls for passage and overnight pasturage.

Well-defined routes, suitable for cattle and packhorses led from the original Clan Gregor glens to the areas of new settlements. From the bealach at the head of Glen Strae it is an easy walk to Achallader and Rannoch. From either Glen Orchy or Glen Lochy, Auch Glen provides a route to the head of Glen Lyon. From Glen Lochy, via Strath Fillan they could reach Glen Dochart. Glen Lochay and Glen Lednock are on the drove route from Glen Lyon. Balquhidder and Glen Gyle are reached through Strath Fillan and Glen Falloch or directly from Dalmally via Gleann nan Caorann.
In the period 1513 to 1550, the Glen Orchy Campbell lineage declined in influence, relative to the Campbells of Lawers, Cawdor and Glen Lyon. At the same time a resurgent Earl of Atholl obtained lands in Glen Lochay. MacGregor military power in this period seems to have been in the service of Cawdor, brother of the third Earl of Argyll. Following the acquisition of the thanage of Cawdor in 1512, evidence of MacGregor settlement can be found in the Elgin and Forres area. During this period Clan Gregor are reported in Government records for violent actions at the behest of the Campbells, but Argyll’s position in Government ensured that little came of these.

James IV followed a policy of weakening the authority of clan chiefs, by cancelling charters and fomenting conflict.  In 1490, he forfeited the Lordship of the Isles, and began a century of feuding over its remains. In 1502, he elevated Menzies of Weem to control of Appin of Dull and Rannoch, thus creating a bitter feud with the Stewarts of Fortingall which weakened both and permitted MacGregor expansion into Rannoch, by coir a’ chlaidheimh, or sword-right. Once settled in Rannoch, Menzies found it impossible to remove them and following mediation by Campbell of Lawers in 1543, Menzies granted MacGregor of Glen Strae a formal tack of Rannoch.


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MacGregor despite them
The following bond is attached as an example of the measures used by the Campbells in their pursuit of the Clan Gregor. The rent for land held from Duncan Campbell of Glen Orchy is paid in MacGregor Blood.

Donald and Dougall McTarlich’s Bond.

Be it known to all men by these patent letters, we, Donald Mac Tarlich, and Dougal Mac Tarlich, brother, are bound and obliged, and, by the meaning of this bond, do bind and oblige ourselves faithfully and truly, either of us, during our lifetime and in the life-time of a male heir lawfully to be begotten of either of our bodies, to the right honourable Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy and his heirs that, inasmuch as the afore-said Duncan is obliged to make, give and deliver to me, the aforesaid Donald, a letter of land-lease during my lifetime and after my decease to a male heir lawfully to be begotten of my body during his lifetime, the entire two-mark land of Glen Eurin and the one-mark land of Elir, with all that belongs thereto, in the lordship of Lorne within the Shire of Argyle, and to me and the said Dougal during my lifetime and after my decease to an heir male lawfully to be begotten of my own body during his lifetime the entire half-mark land of Glen Katillie with all that belongs thereto in the lordship and shire aforesaid our entrance to the respective lands aforesaid, to be consequent on our performance and accomplishment of the following conditions and not otherwise.

Therefore we, being of a mind to do this before ever we shall crave possession of the aforesaid lands by virtue of the condition and promise aforesaid made by the aforesaid Duncan, and understanding Clan Gregor to be manifest malefactors and his Majesty’s declared rebels for sundry slaughters, evil deeds and oppressions done by them to divers persons his Highness’ leiges, we bind and oblige us, and either of us, that with the whole company and forces we may or can make, we shall, immediately following this date, enter into deadly feud with the Clan Gregor, and shall endure and continue therein and in making of slaughter upon them and their adherents both secretly and openly and shall in no manner of way or persuasion leave the same or desist and cease therefrom until the time that the aforesaid Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy finds himself by our travails and diligence satisfied and content with the slaughter we shall do and commit upon them, and especially abstract and withdraw us therefrom by himself as also will he find the way to make and agreement and pacification between us and the Clan Gregor for the slaughter we shall commit upon them, so that thereafter we may possess and enjoy the benefits of the aforesaid manner according to the tenour of the aforesaid assignment, and to this end we bind and oblige us and our aforesaid (heirs) faithfully and without fraud or guile. Subscribed with our hands as follows at Balloch (Kenmore) the 18th day of May, the year of grace, 1588, before these witnesses, Colin Campbell, son to Campbell of Lawers, Gavin Hamilton, Donald MacAngus and Marcus MacNaughton.