In my last blog I covered the early days of the clan, and the reasons why they became legally landless, in that they had no lands granted to them by the Crown. This meant that the lands they lived on did not belong to them, but either to other clans or the monarch. If the landowner decided to evict the MacGregors living on it, he could do so. Needless to say, this caused the MacGregors to become renowned as lawless and ferocious fighters, as, having no other option, they fought tooth and nail to keep their homes. Having no legal right, they had to resort to the sword to maintain themselves and their families, and consequently became very proficient at doing so.
Various skirmishes followed, including a good number with Clan Campbell, who were hated by many clans in the Western Highlands as they sought to expand their territory by forcibly stealing land from other clans.
In 1589 Clan Gregor was involved in the murder of John Drummond, the King’s Forester, who had hung some of the clan for poaching. There are various accounts of this murder, some of them ascribing it to MacDonalds of Glencoe, who had been caught poaching and had their ears slit by Drummond, stating that the MacGregors were only involved in that they sheltered the MacDonalds after the murder.
However, it’s generally accepted that it was Clan Gregor that killed Drummond as the chief at that time, Alasdair MacGregor accepted responsibility for the killing. Whether he did this in the hope that he rather than the whole clan would take the full consequences of the king’s wrath isn’t known, but if so it was a futile gesture. In 1590 a proclamation was issued giving Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy permission to persecute and root out the MacGregors with the king’s blessing. What happened immediately after that is uncertain, but by mid-1591 the area appears to have been relatively peaceful once more, and there were still MacGregors living on the lands around Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine.
In The Highlander’s Tale: Alex, Alex’s father relates the story of the event that caused the whole of the MacGregor clan to be proscribed, so I won’t go into it in depth here. Suffice to say that the MacGregors and the Colquhouns were already at loggerheads when the chief of the Colquhouns hung two MacGregors for stealing one of his sheep, and this led to the conflict of Glenfruin, a battle between the two clans which the MacGregors won. As the Colquhoun chief had the king’s permission to bear arms against Clan Gregor, once the king heard the chief’s likely biased account of the conflict, he decided he’d had enough, and outlawed the whole of Clan Gregor.
The king issued a number of proclamations against the clan, singling them out as being the most unlawful, barbaric, disobedient clan in the land, which was somewhat unfair. The Highland clans in general paid little heed to the law or the king unless it suited them to do so, and the main difference between the MacGregors and other clans was not in their behaviour, but in the fact that 1) they owned no lands of their own, and 2) they’d made some bad enemies who were influential with the king.
At any rate, it was now declared illegal to use the name MacGregor, to shelter any MacGregors, or to carry them across lochs in order to help them escape those trying to kill them. It was also permitted to kill any MacGregor without being arrested. In fact if you killed a MacGregor clansman you would receive a reward of at least 100 merks, and if you managed to kill one of the chieftains you would receive £1000, an enormous sum of money. In order to prove you’d done so, you would cut off the head and take it with you to claim the reward. I have no idea how it was possible to determine that the severed head you were presenting was that of a MacGregor, though!
Needless to say, in the next years there are recorded a great number of brutal fights between Clan Gregor and various other clans, as the MacGregors grew ever more desperate and ruthless, as people do who have no recourse to law or justice. In spite of this, a number of Highlanders, whether through pity or a sense of injustice, did help and shelter MacGregors, or at the least turned a blind eye to any who were sheltering on their lands.
As these punitive measures did not have the effect the king desired, which was to either get rid of the clan entirely or reduce them to abject obedience, in 1611 a number of further proclamations were made.
These included rounding up the wives and children and moving them to another place, branding MacGregor wives on the face with a key so they could be easily identified, and punishing them if they attempted to return home. Any MacGregor children over the age of seven were to be transported to Ireland. No one was allowed to have any dealing whatsoever with a member of the clan, or to help them in any way. Over the next fifty years, more proclamations were made in further attempts to subdue the still unruly clan. No more than four clansmen were allowed to meet at a time; they could carry no weapons, except a knife to cut food which must not be pointed, and it became a capital offence to use the name MacGregor.
If any of these measures seem familiar, it’s probably because variations have been used over the centuries to either wipe out or remove inconvenient groups of people. As with others, these measures caused great suffering to the clan, but did not succeed in annihilating or subduing them. Instead it made the MacGregors even more unruly and more ready to participate in any rising that might lead to the proscription on their clan being lifted.