Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Clan Mackay

The Scottish Highlands was at one stage a patchwork of clan territories and I’m drawn to the idea of illuminating this heritage by re-establishing clan lands ‘on the ground’. Roadside signs announcing which bailiwick lies ahead would add character to our countryside and would also be great for tourism: members of the Diaspora would enjoy a surge of excitement, certain that they had arrived ‘home’.

Of course an agreed date would be needed because clan lands grew and contracted over the ages. And even then it wouldn’t be straightforward: the process of fixing the exact location of signs evokes a nice image of red-faced, kilted clan chiefs, tussling with cromachs to establish where boundaries belong.

Fanciful? Not entirely. With, so far as I know, no falling out with their neighbours, Clan Mackay staked out their territory back in 2004 with six "Mackay Country" signs. The lands are in the far North West and so signs were placed at KyleskuAchfary, Forsinard, Dalvina and on the A836 road at the Caithness/Sutherland border.



In Gaelic the name is rendered as Macaoidh, son of Hugh. They claim descent from both Somerled and the Celtic royal house, from both of whom they inherited a robust warrior spirit, much needed in early times as the Earls of Sutherland endeavoured to encroach on “Mackay Country”.

However by the 17th century their neighbours – Sinclairs, Sutherlands, MacLeods and Gunns - were presumably content and gave them relatively little trouble. The Mackays therefore had to go abroad for a fight: in 1626 Sir Donald Mackay took 3000 Mackays to fight for the King of Denmark in the Thirty Years' War. And in 1631 Lord Reay, the clan chief, raised another force for service with Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden; the earliest depiction of the kilt is assumed to be Mackays in the service of Gustavus Adolphus.


General Hugh Mackay of Scourie was a professional soldier. He fought the Turks on behalf of the Republic of Venice (1669), the French on behalf of the Dutch (1674) and commanded the army that faced the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689), dying in the field at the Battle of Steinkirk (1692), in a doomed attack against the French, ordered by William of Orange (King William III)

During the Jacobite risings. Mackays were unwaveringly Hanoverian and produced two independent highland companies to oppose ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was principally Mackays who won the skirmish at Littleferry near Golspie on 15 April 1746 and captured the Jacobite George Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Cromartie at Dunrobin Castle.

The Clan Mackay Society is an active organisation, currently encouraging members to celebrate the tercentenary of the Battle of Gleshiel on the 9th of June – another occasion where idealistic Jacobites (this time including Rob Roy MacGregor) were defeated by hard-headed Hanoverians including the MacKays. 

If you venture up to Mackay Country don’t drive past the excellent Strathnaver Museum and find time if you can to walk up to Caisteal Bharraich.

Caisteal Bharraich



Monday, March 25, 2019

The Baronets of Nova Scotia and Bannockburn House


The above plaque, on the wall just by the entrance to Edinburgh Castle, is ignored by just about everyone. However this spot is, in some sense, a part of Nova Scotia, Canada and as a result, Baronetcies of Nova Scotia can be created here  - and were created here from 1624 to 1707.

It was all the idea of Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, courtier, poet and adventurer who took Nova Scotia, other parts of Maritime Canada, (and the present state of Maine) for his king, James VI of Scotland, 1st of England. In return he was given Long Island, New York which he sold! 

However most of the 329 Baronets of Nova Scotia lived happily in Scotland without so much as a look at the Atlantic, let alone crossing it. This was an early example of 'Cash for Honours'.

It is nicely summed up by Electric Scotland. He writes that Sir William suggested to his Majesty that "it might encourage development of a New Scotland if His Majesty were to offer a new order of baronets. The King liked the idea. After all, his creation of the Baronets of England in 1611 and the Baronets of Ireland in 1619 had raised £225,000 for the Crown. King James signed a grant in favour of Sir William Alexander covering all of the lands ‘ between our Colonies of New England and Newfoundland, to be known as New Scotland ’ (Nova Scotia in Latin), an area larger than Great Britain and France combined." 

About 100 of these baronetcies are still in existence. A display of the shields of the Arms of the Baronets of Nova Scotia is on display at Menstrie Castle.

Menstrie Castle
Most of these upwardly mobile lairds and their houses are forgotten by history, but the fine 17th century house of one has just had new life breathed into it. Sir Hugh Paterson of Bannockburn came from a family of staunch Lowland Jacobites and was convicted of treason after joining the 1715 Rising. He returned to Bannockburn and politics after the amnesty of 1717.

In 1746 during the siege of Stirling, Sir Hugh provided lodging for Bonnie Prince Charlie who fell ill of a fever and was nursed by Sir Hugh's niece, Clementina Walkinshaw, later the mother of his only child Charlotte.

Bannockburn House, just by the big Stirling interchange on the M9, was in private hands until bought recently by the community, www.bannockburnhouse.scot .

Bannockburn House




Sunday, March 10, 2019

Camelot by Kelso

Not many people go to Roxburgh Castle nowadays. It's a nice walk along the Borders Abbeys Way where Teviot joins Tweed, but nothing much to see...


In most history books it is only referred to as the place where King James II of Scotland was killed in 1460 by his own cannon exploding beside him (his nine year old son was then crowned James III in Kelso Abbey).

But before it was destroyed, Roxburgh Castle and its associated town to the east on what is now Friars Haugh, were a significant centre of power. In the time of King David I it was for a time the de facto capital of Scotland.

In the Middle Ages the town had as much importance as Edinburgh, Stirling or Perth; indeed it was the first recorded Scottish burgh. Situated on the Tweed, upstream from the major port of Berwick, and close by Dere Street, it was a substantial market town, exporting large quantities of raw wool and hides to Bruges, Ghent and beyond.

At that time the castle may have looked like this (with thanks to Andrew Spratt).


Roxburgh has also been closely associated with King Arthur, inspiring leader of a well disciplined mounted force that won a reported 13 battles, mostly in the lands north of Hadrian's Wall.

Writing about Roxburgh in his 'History of the Borders', historian Alistair Moffat writes, "Cavalry forts have special requirements and the castlemount and the wide haughland between the Tweed and the Teviot provide all of them...The ancient Celtic name of Roxburgh Castle was preserved and before the Angles came to change it, it was called Marchidun: in Old Welsh, the Horse Fort. Medieval and modern Arthurians would have preferred to call it Camelot."

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The four hundred year rebellion


This month I attended the 327th anniversary of the massacre of Glencoe in my role as Finlaggan Pursuivant – herald to the Macdonald clan chiefs.

On February 13th 1692 Thirty or more Macdonalds of Glencoe were killed by government troops (mainly Campbells – the Argyll clan’s military effort was by this stage largely formalised along regimental lines within the army).

Laying a wreath at gloomy Glencoe, 327 later

The massacre is as famous as it is controversial. Historians still argue about the exact sequence of events, who ordered what, who was to blame, and what the historical significance of it all was.
What’s for sure is that it was not a stand alone incident. Glencoe came at the mid point of an extraordinary hundred year period in which the Highland clans payed a central role in the civil wars that defined modern Britain.

In 1645 Montrose was appointed ‘Captain General’ by Charles II and deployed a largely Highland and Highland/Irish army in support of the royalist side in the Civil War. The Stuarts called on the same support on numerous occasions until the final Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746.

So one way of looking at this is that it is the same long conflict flaring up over the century. It is striking that a similar group of clans joined each flare-up every time. They came for the most part from the central mainland west coast – the Macdonalds of Clanranald, Keppoch, Glengarry and Glencoe, with Camerons, Stewarts of Appin and others were a common denominator.

What motivated them?

The usual answer is loyalty to the Stuart cause. But, while clan leaders did use the rightness of the Stuart claim as justification, this is far from the whole story.

After all, the same group of clans had spent the previous three hundred years fighting the Stuarts. As recently as the 1620’s the Captain of Clanranald was writing to the Pope offering to lead a Catholic crusade against the Stuart government in Scotland. Indeed, the Clanranald Macdonalds lead a series of conflcicts against the Stuart monarchy throughout the 1500’s, and before that were a leading component of the Lordship of the Isles which struggled against Stuart mastery of Scotland for much of the middle ages. In practice, these Macdonalds were in more or less permanent ‘rebellion’ for four hundred years.

Clanranald and the others seem on the face of it to have pursued an obtuse strategy of persistent folly: Oppose the Stuarts when they are winning and then, as soon as the tide turns, join them to stay on the losing side (the Campbells, of course, did the opposite).

The answer to this paradox is perhaps that it was nothing to do with the Stuarts. It was nothing much to do with religion or culture either (although Clanranald was – and still is – Catholic, most allied clans were not).

Instead, the common thread that runs through all these conflicts, from the Lords of the Isles to Bonnie Prince Charlie – is hostility to whoever was running Scotland. These clans saw themselves as separate and somehow distinct politically from the Scottish (or British) state. It is hard to define this attitude exactly in the modern era of the nation state. The western clans did not necessarily claim a separate nationhood or statehood for themselves in the modern sense. But they reserved to right to pursue their own interests by force if necessary.

Tom Miers
For a memorable holiday exploring Scotland's heritage and culture, check out the Clans and Castles website


The Glencoe parade starts to assemble


Thursday, February 07, 2019

Let's Build a Broch!

Our guests on Clans and Castles 'Outlander Tours' know more or less what to expect: much-loved film locations, great countryside and a 'feel' for Scotland in the 18th century. But a visit that always surprises (and delights) them is the Glenelg brochs.

Brochs are double skinned, dry stone towers, originally 30 - 40 foot high. They are unique to Scotland and were built over a 300 year period around the time of Christ. The forerunner of the broch is the Atlantic round house, but those are much lower, less ambitious structures. Brochs emerged more or less from nowhere and then were, for some reason, no longer built.

Dun Telve, Glenelg
There were  about 500 brochs in Scotland, most of them on coasts where stone is readily available. Sadly, many have since been used as convenient quarries. Dun Telve (above) was depleted to build the nearby barracks at Bernera. The only broch still at its original height is Mousa, on a small island in Shetland.

Mousa Broch, Shetland
All brochs are round and very slightly concave, like a cooling tower. Apparently, if they were not double-skinned, they would collapse (I wonder how long it took to learn this!). Remember, they are built without mortar.

There's still a lot we don't know about brochs (not least why they were built). To improve our knowledge, the Caithness Broch Project aims to build a broch which will act as a visitor centre. It's an ambitious undertaking. Ian Armit, in his book 'Towers in the North', quotes an architect's estimate that building a broch would take 400 man days of specialist labour and 5,600 man days of unskilled assistance, assuming that the stone has first been gathered. I salute them!

PS. It is generally accepted that the brochs had a timber and thatch roof. Personally I cannot see how this could have been the case. Could iron age man have constructed a timber roof with a diameter of 18.3 metres (Dun Telve) ten metres above the ground? Would he go to all this trouble to live in darkness, the only light coming from a fire and a low door (which was presumably closed for much of the time)?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The enduring riddle of the Pictish symbol stones


They are the hieroglyphs of Scotland. But we have not yet found a Caledonian Rosetta Stone to interpret them.

There are thought to be about three dozen different ‘Pictish symbols’ carved in different combinations on a few hundred extant stones around Scotland – usually found in the traditional Pictish heartland of central and north-eastern Scotland. Some are combined with Christian symbology on magnificent stone crosses (or slabs with crosses engraved on them).

For a while after their conversion, the Picts used Christian images together with the old symbols. Sometimes it seems as if the crosses were engraved on older pagan stones. Many of them also include hunting scenes or other depictions of dark age aristocratic and military activity.

What they mean nobody knows for sure, even though numerous clans such as the MacGregors and MacNaghtens claim Pictish ancestry.

This magnificent specimen, which I visited last week, stands at Wester Fowlis in Strathearn, not far from the pretty spa town of Crieff. On one side is an extraordinary engraved cross, notable for its protruding arms. On the other, a series of hunting scenes with the tell-tale Pictish symbols of a ‘mirror’ and a ‘double disc’.


The one in the photo is actually a replica, with the real thing kept sheltered in the nearby church. It’s open and you can in and see it – a great example of the many historical sites and works of art that can be experiences for free in Scotland.

What do the symbols signify?

Some have speculated that, in different combinations, they depict various clans, territories, individual nobles or noblewoman. Although they are not usually located on burial sites, they may have religious connotations.

I feel sure that one day someone will either crack it logically or discover something that unlocks the code.

Maybe language has something to do with it. When I was a boy, it was thought that Pictish was a language largely separate from the two Celtic languages of northern Britain – Gaelic and Brittonic (early Welsh). Most scholars now think that it was similar to Brittonic.

Either way it was apparently replaced by Gaelic in the period after the union of the Picts and Scots in the early middle ages. As with the symbols, there is little hard evidence as to its nature.

But the idea that Pictish was eradicated by Gaelic has always seemed a little odd to me. The supposition is that the ruling elite became Gaelic speaking and, quite rapidly, imposed its language on everyone else. This didn’t really happen in other similar situations in the British Isles or elsewhere in Europe unless there was an accompanying movement of peoples.

Perhaps Pictish was really much more like Gaelic in the first place, and the clue to its symbology will come from that source.

At any rate, I have no real idea, except that it is a fascinating riddle!

Tom Miers
For a memorable holiday exploring Scotland's heritage and culture, check out the Clans and Castles website

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Mary Queen of Scots. Did you know?


The film will be with us soon and we'll see the dramatic (but fictional) meeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. But here are a few facts about our tragic royal heroine.

1. Mary is one of the best known Scottish monarchs and yet she spent 18 years 8 months in England, 13 years in France. Only 12 years 5 months in Scotland (1542 - 48 and 1561- 68).

2. Mary was married three times. The marriage to Francis II of France lasted 26 months (Francis died). The second to Henry Lord Darnley lasted 18 months (Darnley was murdered), the last to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell technically lasted some years but after 30 days Mary was imprisoned and Bothwell fled.

3. When at Jedburgh, Mary nearly died of what was probably a gastric ulcer. Her French physician 'cured' her with tight bandaging of the arms and legs, and by inducing vomiting with an enema and large quantities of wine.

4 Mary went to France aged six as Marie Stewart but her French governess explained that 'ew' is pronounced 'ev' (it is in French!) and if you want 'Stooart' it must be spelled 'Stuart'. So she returned as Marie Stuart.

5. The day after Darnley's murder Mary attended the wedding of her bedchamber woman, Margaret Carwood. She is said to have played golf 'a few days' after the murder. She certainly married the man widely thought to have been the murderer (Bothwell) just three months and six days after the murder.

6. She was held in seven different castles in England. Nothing remains of the grand royal residence of Fotheringhay where she was executed on 8 February 1587.

7. Her descendants have been on the thrones of England and Scotland ever since.

Follow the Mary Queen of Scots trail  with Clans and Castles.