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MacGregor Clan Proscription

An excerpt from W. Croft Dickinson's 
"Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603"
(1977, Clarendon Press)

Chapter-heading - The Rule of James VI and the Accession to the English Throne

... cases where he thought such action desirable.  And, when certain of the MacLeods failed to produce their titles, the Isles of Lewis and Harris and the lands of Dunvegan and Glenelg were declared to be forfeit and at the king's disposal.  These lands were now granted by James to an association of Lowland lairds which, since its members came mainly from Fife, became known as “The Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife’.  The 'Adventurers' were to hold the lands free of crown rents for a period of seven years, so that they might develop and improve them; but thereafter they were to pay rental in money and victuals to the crown. 

There is evidence that James had exaggerated ideas of the ‘incredible fertility' of these outlying parts of the realm, and that, through the 'Adventurers', he hoped to secure not only law and order but also a considerable increase in crown revenue.  The 'Adventurers' (accompanied by artificers and labourers) first endeavoured to 'colonize' Lewis (October 1599); but disease, insufficient supplies, and the natural hostility of the Lewismen forced them, after three attempts, to abandon the project,(10) and the 'Adventurers' were gradually absorbed into Gaelic society, or returned to the Lowlands.
(10) - "In 1607 they finally sold their 'rights' to Mackenzie of Kintail."


In the case of the MacGregors who, largely through the high-handed actions of Campbell of Glenorchy, had become a 'landless clan’ and ‘broken men', James did not shrink from a policy of attempted extirpation.  In 1590, certain of 'the wicked clan Gregor', continuing in 'blood, slaughters, herschips (hardships?), reifs and stouths', ("stouth" is "theft"; "stouthreif" is "theft accompanied with violence; robbery"; "stouthrie" is "theft, provision, furniture") had murdered the king's forester in Glenartney, and then, according to the accepted account, had cut off the dead man's head and had carried it to their young chief in Balquhidder.  There, the whole clan being assembled, each man had laid his hands upon the bloody head, had avowed his approval of the deed, and had sworn to defend those who had done it.  The privy council granted ‘letters of fire and sword' to the Earl of Huntly to be used against the MacGregors, but, through the influence of Campbell of Cawdor, the chief and his clan escaped destruction.  Early in 1603, however, and again through Campbell cunning, the MacGregors took part in a raid upon the Lennox when the Colquhouns of Luss were defeated with great slaughter at Glenfruin and much spoil was carried away.  This time there was to be no escape: the MacGregors were to be extirpated; and the task was entrusted to (the Duke of) Argyll who had persuaded them to attack the Colquhouns.  All who had fought at Glenfruin were outlawed; the name of MacGregor was proscribed; their child Alasdair was hanged; and Argyll, for his services in hunting down the clan, was rewarded with a grant of Kintyre.  Later, the privy council decreed that no former member of the clan might carry any weapon save only a pointless knife for his meat, and that no more than four than of them might meet together at any time for any purpose.(10 - see above)

In his attitude to political problems James VI could be ruthless with those of whom he had no understanding.  Misguided and wretched as his solution of Highland disorders seems now, it certainly commended itself to most of his subjects, Lowlanders, and it reflects the social attitudes not merely of the king but of the nobility, showing, as does so much else of James’s reign, that the monarchy was but the most prominent thread woven into the fabric of aristocratic society.


This integration is illustrated in a different way by the strange episode known as the 'Gowrie Conspiracy'.  In August 1600, when James was hunting near Falkland, he was persuaded by Alexander, master of Ruthven, and brother of the Earl of Gowrie, to ride to Gowrie House in Perth to interview a man who, according to Ruthven, had been seized with a pot full of coined gold.  At Gowrie House the king was led through various chambers, each carefully locked behind him, until he was brought to a small turret room where he found himself confronted by an armed man.  In a struggle that then ensued, James managed to reach the window and to give the cry of “Treason”.  Those who had ridden with him to Gowrie House rushed to his rescue and both the Earl of Gowrie and his brother were slain.  The story of the armed man in the turret room, and what happened there, rested solely upon James's own account which was improved in order to anticipate criticism from the pulpit by the ultra-Protestant clergy with whom the Ruthvens were associated.  It is difficult to believe that James endangered his own life in a plot against Gowrie, and more natural to accept that Gowrie tried to constrain the king – perhaps only to secure payment of the large sum owed to him.  James walked into a trap because he did not fear his nobility; yet he clearly felt that having procured the death of an earl he must ‘explain’ events fully in order to reassure others.  

Like his ancestors James employed a few magnates in important offices of state and like his ancestors he found them none too efficient.  Bureaucrats drawn from the of lairds and burgesses ...

Bellow, a cutting from The Dundee Courier of 12th June 2007, with acknowledgements


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This page was updated - 09 December, 2014