The Clan Wars


   Part of the feudal character, unfortunately, was the desire for feudal supremacy, and this period was one of warfare between clans. Disputes between clans were sometimes handled in deadly encounters, and therefore has engendered the name of ‘clan wars’.

   The so-called Clan Battle of the North Inch took place on the Monday preceeding the Feast of St. Michael (i.e. 28th) of September, 1396 at the North Inch of Perth. Scholars disagree on which clans were the combatants of this ‘battle’. Andrew Wyntoun, a contemporary who chronicled the event, stated that the two clans were Clahynnhe Qwhewyl (pronounced: Clan Wheel) and Clachinny Ha (pronounced: Clan Hay or Kay). Clan Qwhewyl was the ancient name for the Clan Chattan, which was moreso a confederation of semi-independent clans allied to the leading clan of Mackintosh. Clan Ha (or Kay) is often associated with Clan Cameron, an avowed enemy of Clan Chattan.

   As noted above, the identity of the actual combatants has long been contested. Although it is now generally agreed that it was the Davidsons and MacPhersons, within Clan Chattan, who were the actors in this incident, it is believed that the Camerons precipitated the quarrel. Some scholars associate Clan Kay with Clan Davidson, variously known as Clan Dhai, because of its descent from David Dubh of Invernahaven. Circa 1350, Donald Dubh of Invernahaven, chief of Clan Davidson, married the daughter of Angus, 6th Chief of Mackintosh. Clan Davidson had previously been allied to the Comyns (i.e. of Clan Cumming). The Comyns’ power was waning by the mid-Fourteenth Century, and Donald Dubh sought the protection of Clan Chattan through his marriage to the chief’s daughter. Despite being accepted into Clan Chattan by its chief, the Davidsons questioned the supremacy of Clans Mackintosh and Macpherson over them. In addition, Clan MacPherson felt that it, rather than Clan Mackintosh, was the rightful preeminent clan in the Clan Chattan confederation. So the situation that existed within Clan Chattan in the late-1300s was that the Mackintosh, whose very name Mac-An-Toisich meant “son of the chief”, held the reigns of power within Clan Chattan while the Davidsons and MacPhersons vied for that power.

   The Camerons had quarreled for many years with various branches of Clan Chattan, namely the Mackintosh and MacPhersons. Some of their feuding came about as a result of the resfusal of the Camerons to pay rent to the Mackintosh for a tract of land they leased in Lochaber. Rather than pay the rent they owed, the Camerons chose to attack the Mackintosh clan in an attempt to wrest the property rights from them. This they did in the year 1370 in what became known as the Battle of Invernahaven. With the Mackintosh in the center leading the Clan Chattan forces, the Davidsons and the MacPhersons were positioned on the right wing, and various other Clan Chattan branches on the left. As the battle progressed, the MacPhersons withdrew, leaving the Davidsons to take the brunt of the Cameron advance upon the right wing. They claimed that they withdrew because they had been slighted by not being given the preeminent position on the right wing. The result was that the Camerons nearly defeated the Clan Chattan on the field of battle. As dusk fell, the two armies withdrew to their camps to rest until the next day’s resumption of the battle. The chief of the Mackintosh sent his bard to the camp of the MacPhersons to taunt them and accuse them of cowardice. The ploy worked, enraging the clansmen. The MacPhersons attacked the Camerons during the night, soundly defeating them.

   Despite the victory for the Clan Chattan, the feud between the Davidsons and MacPhersons was to continue for many years. Finally, in 1396, King Robert III of Scotland decided to settle the squabbling of the clans once and for all, by staging a duel to the death between the two clans (or at least between a small number of their best clansmen).

   The audience for the ‘battle’ included not only the King, but also his wife, his brother Robert, Duke of Albany, and some visitors from France. Other guests included nobles, knights and clergymen.

   According to an entry titled: “Quedam Memorabilia” in the Chartulary of Moray:

“Memorandum that in the year of the Lord 1396, on the 28th day of the month of September, at Perth, before Lord Robert King of Scotland and the nobles of the kingdom, there assembled for the purpose, since a firm peace could not be made ‘twixt the two clans, to wit of Clanhay and Clanqwhwle, but slaughters and plunders were being committed daily on both sides, thirty of each side without armour of iron (mail) with axes, swords, and small knives (dirks), however, met by agreement, that one party might sweep away and destroy the other, and they engaged in conflict. The whole party of Clanhay, except one, succumbed and died on the field, and of the other party ten were left standing.”

   Scholars have tried to enhance the details of the incident, oftentimes to their own benefit. The author of the Clan Cameron website, for example in an attempt to retrieve a bit of honor for his clan, states that: “Four of the Mackintoshes survived the battle but they were all mortally wounded. Only one Cameron survived, saving himself by swimming the river Tay - the miserable victors were in no condition to prevent him.”

   On a deeper scale was the feud between the Campbells and the MacDonalds.

   The MacDonalds (descended from Somerled, son of Gillebride), maintained the Western Isles, and the Earldom of Ross as pretty much an autonomous state in itself, rivaling the government of the Scottish sovereign. The Lordship of the Isles commenced in 1346, when John, Chief of Clan Donald, who had previously married Amy, the sister of Ranald, Chief of Clan Ruari, succeeded in his wife’s right to the possessions and titles of Ranald upon his death at Perth that year. Uniting the two clans, John declared himself Lord of the Isles and proceeded to subdue, and subjugate various of the neighboring clans. Vassals of the Lordship of the Isles would eventually come to include the clans: Cameron, Chattan, MacEachern of Killellan, Macfie, Mackay, Mackinnon, Maclean, MacLeod, MacNeil, Macquarrie, Rose of Kilravock, Ross, and Urquhart. Two of the neighboring clans, who balked at being subdued were the Campbells and the MacKenzies. The Clan Campbell had, for much of the Fifteenth Century, supported the reigning Scottish Stewart kings. The Stewart monarchs rewarded the Campbell’s loyalty by granting royal commissions to overcome inter-clan disputes, and then by granting large tracts of land ~ usually lands that were the basis of the disputes. The Campbells had no intention of changing their allegiance, because the MacDonalds had nothing to offer them. An unsteady peace existed between the Campbells and the Lordship of the Isles.

   The might of the Lordship of the Isles was illustrated in the year 1411 at the Battle of Red Harlaw, northwest of Aberdeen. The Duke of Albany (then Regent of the kingdom of Scotland) had usurped the Earldom of Ross and bestowed it as a gift upon his son, John Stewart, Earl of Buchan. Donald, Lord of the Isles was able to gather together nearly ten thousand highlanders to make an attempt to force the Stewarts out of Ross. The Lord of the Isle’s army was primarily composed of the Camerons under their chief Donald Dubh; the Mackintoshes under their chief, Calum Beg; the Macleans under their chief, Red Hector of the Battles; and the Macleods under Fierce Ian of Dunvegan. On 24 July, 1411 the Lord of the Isles’ army of highlanders met, on the battlefield of Harlaw, the Regent’s army under the command of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar. The result was a bloody, but indecisive battle. In 1424, upon his release from captivity in England, King James I restored the Earldom of Ross to the MacDonalds.

   During the closing years of the 1400s, the Lord of the Isles began parlaying with the English for support against the rest of Scotland. John, Earl of Ross (along with the Earl of Douglas) entered into the Treaty of Westminster~Ardtornish with Henry VII of England in 1462, agreeing to accept the English monarch as the Isles’ overlord if he supplied support to overthrow the Stewart monarchy of Scotland. James III learned of the treaty, and so in 1476, he took steps to deprive the Lordship of the Isles of his power and authority. John MacDonald, the fourth Lord of the Isles, was made to surrender his Earldom of Ross to the Crown, and the Campbells became the primary instrument of the Stewart authority in the region. This did not sit well with Clan MacDonald, and of course the rivalry between the two clans progressed. As Charles MacKinnon noted in his book, The Scottish Highlanders, “The MacDonalds and Campbells were both very much of their time, and the principal difference between them was the Campbell use of royal authority and the MacDonald contempt for it.”

   The MacDonald / Campbell feud’s most notorious incident (although it does not fall under the category of ‘clan wars’ but rather in the category of clan/government conflict) was the Glencoe Massacre of 1692.

   Mary, the eldest daughter of King James VII (and II of England), and heir to the thone of England and Scotland when her father abdicated the throne in 1689, married the Dutch monarch, William of Orange. They ruled Britain jointly until Mary’s death in 1694; William ruled alone as King William III until his own death in 1702. During the reign of William and Mary, the Scottish faction known as the Jacobites came into being. They were primarily Highland clansmen who still supported James and desired to have him reinstalled on the throne. The name comes from the Latin variation of James: Jacobus.

   In order to settle the rising Jacobite unrest, King William III sent out a proclamation stating that all clan chiefs were to take an oath of allegiance to him prior to the 1st of January of 1692. It was a means to determine which of the clans would or would not submit to his authority. Any chief who did not take the oath would bring the wrath of William’s troops on his clan.

   The chiefs of various of the clans, fearing government reprisal, but at the same time wanting to maintain their faithfulness to their exiled King James VII (James II of England), wrote to James asking him for permission to take the oath. James gave his approval, and the chiefs duly took the oath. The last to learn that he had been granted the permission was Alexander MacIan MacDonald of Glencoe. But as soon as he did receive word from James, MacDonald set out for the nearest government outpost, Fort William. It was 29 December, 1691 when he started out, and it was severe winter weather that he had to travel through. In an case, he arrived at Fort William two days later, on 31 December. He reported at once to the fort’s commander, Colonel Hill. Hill would not administer the oath, claiming that as a military governor he could not administer a civil oath. But Hill gave MacDonald a letter stating that the chief had arrived on time and in good faith to take the oath; and that he should be permitted to take the oath from Sir Colin Campbell of Ardkinglass, albeit a couple days late. MacDonald set out once more into the wintry weather, to travel to Inverary. It took MacDonald, despite his advanced age, only six days to reach Inerary, some eighty miles distant. Sir Colon Campbell read Hill’s letter, and immediately administered the oath to MacDonald of Glencoe.

   The certificate was filled out and signed by Campbell, and it and Hill’s letter were sent off to Edinburgh along with his own letter of explanation. And MacDonald of Glencoe was told to go home, that everything was okay.

   When the paperwork reached Edinburgh, a group of the Privy Councillors, led by Sir John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair and Secretary of State for Scotland, decided that a royal warrant would be needed to make MacDonald of Glencoe’s certificate fully legal. Stair went to talk to King William and, for whatever reason, decided to misrepresent the matter to the king. He even failed to show the king the certificate that Sir Colin Campbell had filled out. According to Stair, MacDonald of Glencoe had defied the king’s order. As a result, wanting to make an example of the MacDonalds, King William gave Stair a royal warrant calling for the complete annihilation of the MacDonald of Glencoe clan.

   Letters from Stair reveal that he had a personal vendetta against the MacDonalds of Glencoe. Before the proclamation had been issued by King William in 1691, Stair had written to Sir Thomas Livingstone, the commander of the government troops, stating: “Your troops will destroy entirely the country of Lochaber, Lochiel’s lands, Keppoch’s Glengarry’s, and Glencoe’s. Your power shall be large enough. I hope the soldiers will not trouble the Government with prisoners!” After getting the royal warrant from the king, Stair again wrote to Livingstone. He lied about knowing that MacDonald of Glencoe had, in good faith, arrived to take the oath at Fort William. In the letter he stated: “Argyll tells me that Glencoe hath not taken the oath, at which I rejoice. It is a great work of charity to be exact in rooting out that damnable set.”

   Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon was sent, with a company of Scottish military, to Glencoe under the pretence of finding quarters for his men because Fort William was overcrowded. The MacDonalds welcomed the Scottish soldiers into their homes and fed them at their tables. This went on for several days, until Campbell received orders from Stair to begin the massacre.

   On the 13th of February, 1692, at 5 a.m., Campbell murdered his host, Alexander MacIan MacDonald of Glencoe. He had MacDonald’s wife stripped naked, yanked the rings from her fingers (one source claims a soldier gnawed them off with his teeth), and then turned her out into the blizzard’s deathly cold. She died the following day from the exposure. A child of six years of age grabbed hold of Captain Campbell’s leg and begged for mercy; it was promptly shot dead. As the sound of the fracas was heard in the village, some of the MacDonald clan were able to escape into the blizzard with their families. About thirty-eight others were not able to make their escape. The murdered clansmen included two women and two children.

   The whole incident was all the more incredible when one considers the fact that Macdonell of Glengarry openly defied King William by announcing that he would not take the oath ~ and William did nothing at all about it.

   An outcry for justice went up from the Highlanders, and it spread to the Lowlanders and even to the English. But King William basically ignored the fuss. It was three years before an inquiry was held regarding the incident. And the outcome was that Stair was rewarded with an earldom and Robert Campbell of Glenlyon was promoted to the rank of colonel.

   One of the last incidents in the so-called clan wars was played out in the year 1688. MacDonell of Keppoch was disturbed by the fact that Mackintosh of that Ilk had obtained a Crown charter for the lands of Glenroy. At Mulroy, in Lochaber, MacDonell’s army met and engaged that of Mackintosh, led by their chief. The battle resulted in the Mackintoshes being completely defeated, and their chief taken as prisoner. MacDonell forced Mackintosh to renounce any claim to the disputed territory. It should be noted that at that point, the king responded to Keppoch’s audacity, and sent the government troops to lay waste to the MacDonell lands.