Children of the Mist: Clan MacGregor

“DON’T mister me nor Campbell me! My foot is on my native heath, and my name is MacGregor!”

Sir Walter Scott put these words into the mouth of the world’s most famous MacGregor, Rob Roy. Let’s cast a quick look back at the history of this clan.

rob roy 1820s engraving
An 1820 engraving of Rob Roy, made famous worldwide through the novel of Walter Scottl.

On the third day of April, 1603, his majesty James VI publicly banned the name of MacGregor, that it

 ”…should be altogether abolished, and that (all) persons of that Clan should renounce their name and take some some other name, and that they nor none of their posterity should call themselves Gregor or McGregor thereafter under the pain of death.”

I find it ironic that the MacGregors, loyal Jacobites, lost their name by an act of the very king whom they laid down their lives for. History has a way of mocking us mere mortals. More on that later in this article.

This name-banning  was to last over 170 years and in a way shaped the history of an entire family. The sons of Gregor lost so much that oral tradition has dubbed them  “Children of the Mist.”

To be stripped of their proud name…This seems a harsh sentence for a clan that claims descent from Alpin, the first King of Scotland. 

king alpin

 

tartan and motto.png
The clan motto, ’S Rioghal Mo Dhream, means”Royal is my race.”

But the abolishment of a family name of was just the tip of the sword.

The clan was to lose more than its name. They, along with most major clans, would eventually lose their distinctive dress, their weapons, their income, their lands, and many thousands of lives.

The history of Clan MacGregor is in many ways the history of Scotland’s famous Highland clansmen. It’s a story of extreme loyalty, of feverish warriorhood, and battles to the death. It’s a dense tale of money, politics, favoritism, religious fanaticism, and merciless retribution of one enemy over another. The warp and weft of the MacGregor tartan is a texture of crime, punishment, and retribution.

highlander group

Here’s a brief overview…

Through the years between roughly 1500 and 1750, Clan Gregor was known and feared as a fierce family that slowly lost its prestige and its power when it made the wrong enemies. 

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Scotland’s Grampian and Cairngorm mountains, the mainstay of life was the droving and selling of cattle.

cowsrocks j

It’s strange to think that these clansmen were much like our American cowboys…including the outlaws and rustlers whose names, like Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid, have been writ large in our own history.

colorriot j
Artist’s vision of a Gaelic “cowboy,” a cattle drover.
billy the kid
The best-known image of Billy the Kid.

 

The branch of the MacGregor family that would ultimately cause its downfall owned extensive lands in the modern area of Perth and Kinross. But it seems that they also coveted the land and property of their neighbors. They went about seizing cattle and sheep, extorting “rents” for protection, and trying to assimilate the tribal land of the clans around them.

It so happened that the Campbell clans were not just rich and powerful and in the path of the MacGregor expansion—they were also more politically astute. They managed successfully to defend their land from the Gregor boys, but also to align themselves with the correct political allies. 

Their whispers, their whining and cajoling, and even their outright lies, fell into the right ears. The very name “Gregor” became a byword for savage, renegade, and murderer in courtly circles and in the halls of power.

James II and VI
The king who gave his name to Jacobitism…James II and VI

To be fair, none of the Highland warriors were choir boys. Playing dominance games had for centuries been a way of life. What finally sank many of them—MaGregor and Campbell alike— was their siding with the “pretender” to the crown of England, James VI of England/ James II of Scotland. His followers, called “Jacobites” after the Latin word for James, were to lose everything in their zeal to have a Catholic instead of a Protestant on the throne of England.

The next article on this blog, “Unkilted,” will be a brief telling of how the Highland clans lost their very manhood, in the guise of their distinctive philabegs, bonnets, and weapons…even their eating knives. They lost much more, because the fateful Jaobite battle at Culloden spelled the end of clan power for once and for all time.

The next blog, along with this one, will serve as a kind of introduction to my novel in progress, Unkilted. Slàn until next time!

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