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Amelia Volume 1 Chapter 1

Early Origin

[page 5} THE renowned ancestor to whom we look as the Founder of our Race was King Gregory, who reigned from 878 to 890. No documentary evidence can be adduced to prove descent from a source so remote; and allusion to it is not made here as to an established fact, but because the tradition has been constantly handed down that Gregory, of the race of Scotland’s early Kings, was the ancestor of the clan which bears his name. [1]  

Modern authorities on early Scottish History state that Ciricius, or Girig, or Grig, afterwards known as Gregory, whatever may have been his connection with Alpin’s Royal line, was not King Alpin’s son. According to the most trustworthy chronicles, his father was Dungaile or Dungallus, grandfather of Run, King of the Britons of Strathclyde, who married the daughter of Kenneth McAlpin. After the death of Aedh, or Heth, the last of Kenneth’s sons, Eocha, son of Run, was placed on the throne of the Picts, and another King, Girig, was associated with him as his Governor. It is recorded that he liberated the Scottish Church from various secular exactions, in gratitude for which good offices the later chronicles, connected with the Religious Houses, afterwards revered him as Gregory the Great, a Ruler of remarkable wisdom, as well as a successful commander. [2]  

[page 6} It may be frankly confessed that, where even the most prominent historical characters are involved in considerable uncertainty, it must be impossible to trace the lineage of the Clan through the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries with any certainty. Such an attempt was indeed made in a “Latin History of the Alpinian Family, formerly in the Scots College at Paris, and recovered from it by David Mallet” the poet, who died in 1765. It is exceedingly unlikely that the date of this history, now undiscoverable, can have been earlier than the seventeenth century, before which time, the History by Hector Boece (1570) had given rise to much spurious tradition; but it is probable that there may have been threads of truth woven into the more elaborate narrative. It may be interesting to give a list of the generations, as enumerated in the article on MacGregor, in Sir Robert Douglas’s “Baronage,” based, in the early part, on this Latin document, of which Sir John MacGregor Murray possessed an authentic copy, although no trace of either the original or copy can now be found. [3]  

Two very old MacGregor pedigrees have been brought to light since Douglas’s “Baronage” was written; one occurs in an ancient Gaelic parchment MS., dated 1467, [4]   which contains genealogies of most of the Highland Clans. In this document, the ClanGregor is deduced from Fearchar Fada, King of Dalriada, of the Lorne line, who reigned in the early part of the eighth century, through a certain Anrias connected with the Earldom of Ross. This pedigree has been printed in full in the “Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis,” and again in “Celtic Scotland,” vol. iii. From these works it is here transcribed in Gaelic and English.

“Genelach Clann Grigair. Maelcolaim ic Padruic McEoin ic Grigair ic Donch McMalcolaim ic Gillacrist McFearchar ic Muiredaig ic Ainreas McCormac ic Oirbertaig ic Fearchair McFearchair fada ic Fearadaig fin :-

[page 7}
Malcolm, son of
Patrick, son of
John, son of
Gregor, son of,
Duncan, son of
Malcolm, son of
Gillchrist, son of
Ferchard, son of
Murdoch, son of
Annreas, son of
Cormac, son of
Airbertach, son of
Ferchar og, son of
Ferchar fada, son of [King of Dalriada of the line of Lorn. early part of the eighth century.]
Feradach finn.”

Dr. Skene holds that, previous to the eleventh century, this document is of no authority. His own theory was that, “previous to the thirteenth century, the Highlanders of Scotland were divided into a few great tribes, which exactly corresponded with the ancient earldoms, and that, from one or other of these tribes, all the Highlanders are descended” (“Highlanders of Scotland,” vol. ii.).

The other ancient pedigree is to be found in a MS. Latin Chronicle, chiefly an obituary, [5]   composed by Sir James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore, [6]   in the sixteenth century, and containing a genealogy of John MacGregor of Glenstray, dated 1512. With regard to this list of ancestors (to be given later in detail), Dr. Skene remarks :-

“Besides the genealogy of this Clan contained in the Irish MS., Dean MacGregor furnishes us with one which may probably be viewed as the native tradition. In it Gregor, the eponymus of the Clan, has a different ancestry, and his pedigree is taken up to a certain Aoidh Urchaidh, or Hugh of Glenurchay, which, as Glenurchay was an old possession of the MacGregors, may be viewed as the native tradition and more probable descent. The usual calculation would place him in the end of the twelfth century, but the Dean connects him at once with Kenneth McAlpin in the ninth [7]   [page 8} century and thus the supposed royal descent of the MacGregors must be relegated to the same category with the descent of the other Clans from the King of Dalriada.” [8]  

“To the great tribe of the Moravians, or ‘Men of Moray,’ belong, in the main, the clans brought in the old Irish genealogies from the Kings of Dalriada of the tribe of Lorn, among whom the old Mormaers of Moray appear . . . . The group containing the McNabs, ClanGregor, and McKinnons, appear to have emerged from Glendochart, at least to be connected with the old Columban monasteries. The Clans, properly so called, were thus of native origin; the surnames partly of native and partly of foreign descent.” [9]  

It would seem unavailing to discuss at further length the question of the origin of the clan, always reckoned in the past as the “Siol Alpin” - the old motto, “ ‘S RIOGHAIL MO DHREAM,” “My tribe is royal,” will suffice as a memorial of our traditions. We may now pass on to a period when the family history begins to be more distinct. [10]   At the outset it may be desirable to recall circumstances which, although well known, require to be borne in mind, rightly to comprehend the subsequent position of the ClanGregor, their difficulties and struggles.

Amongst the continental nations there arose, in the early Christian centuries, the institution of feudalism. To protect themselves against hostile armies of foreigners, or against assaults by enemies of their own nation, the principal men turned their houses into fortified castles, and agreed with the peasants to protect them and their families on condition of their surrendering themselves entirely to their liege lord or suzerain. The sovereign gave land to his nobles on condition of military service to himself, with a certain number of their men; the nobles adopted some of their less powerful neighbours, and gave off portions of land to them on similar conditions, thus establishing a system of mutual advantage [page 9} between the lord who granted protection, the vassals who gave their military service in return, and lastly the peasants who received protection and entirely gave up their freedom to obtain it.

Amidst the pressing necessities of the age which gave rise to it, the institution had its value, till the nations outgrew it. The feudal laws were brought to England by the Saxons about A.D. 600, and were made more stringent under the Norman William the Conqueror, in 1068. The system was introduced into Scotland by Malcolm II. in 1008, but it took a long time before it could absorb the tribal organisation then prevalent. Certain burdens on land proper to the old Celtic tenures gradually became assimilated to feudal forms in the eastern districts, whilst in the northern and western the great tribes broke up into clans about the thirteenth century. [11]  

The Clan, a Gaelic word meaning children, consisted originally of the children of a common ancestor, bound together by the ties of blood, loyal to the Chief of their race, and sharing his good or bad fortune. Personal attachment united each to the other in this family system, which in different degrees has subsisted in the most primitive nations, such as the Israelites, and even in the present day amongst the Arabs. In the Highlands the chiefship was generally hereditary and belonged to the representative of the main stem, but to this there were frequent exceptions. The next cadet often became the captain, and transmitted that honour to his descendants. Occasionally in cases where the actual chief was prevented from taking an active part in warfare, the clan chose a leader of elective principles. The chieftains or heads of the different houses which had branched off from the main stem were also powerful, and exerted great influence over the chiefs; moreover, every clansman had his birthright of kindred blood, which gave him dignity and enthusiasm, so that it is incorrect in any way to liken members of a clan to the serfs of the feudal system. Doubtless there must have been cases of abuse and hardship, and the two systems running parallel, where they did not clash, sometimes overlapped. The feudal superiors, in some circumstances, [page 10} won the affections of the occupants of their lands, and were accepted in the same position as chiefs of race; but this was the exception.

The struggle between the Gaelic population of the Highlands clinging to the old clan system on the one side, and the feudal overlords, who, having obtained crown charters of the lands, occupied by the native races, sought to dispossess them, was a long source of trouble and dispeace, and the MacGregors, especially, were for centuries irreconcilable to the change.

It may be observed that neither at the period under present considerations, nor for some time later, does the name of MacGregor, so passionately loved and so powerful a talisman in the future, appear to have existed as a surname, although individuals [12]   of the race can be traced. There must early have been numerous descendants of the same ancestor, allied in blood and interests, for by the fifteenth century they had become a very large clan. The custom of distinguishing different families of the same clan by their patronymics - i.e. as the son of so-and-so - also of giving a “byname,” or “to-name,” to individuals, prevailed amongst Highlanders in very early days, and continued long after surnames became general in other places.

The following is taken from a sympathetic article on the ClanGregor, published by Joseph Anderson in 1890 [13]   :-

“There are some minor episodes in Scottish history that illustrate with singular force the native intensity of character and fervour of attachment to traditional systems, which so often made the nation’s progress towards the universal reign of law a bloodstained path. The case of the ClanGregor is perhaps the most typical of these episodes, which marked the transition from the old Celtic system of the military organisation of the clans under the chiefs of their name to the territorial system, by which the men of the tribes became men of their feudal landlords. But though its tragic and romantic elements have often been dealt with, the true story of the doings and sufferings of the devoted clan has yet to be dug from the dry-as-dust sources of historic narrative in contemporary records, and the purpose of this paper is merely to show that the records contain material for such a narrative.

“There is no indication of the reason why the numbers of the clan when they first [page 11} appear in record are found scattered over such a wide area of the Perthshire and Argyleshire Highlands, unless it be simply that they had spread over the adjacent lands and baronies as best they could, in consequence of their chiefs holding no land of the crown. We find them located in Glenurchy and Glenlochy, Strathfillan and Glendochart, Breadalbane and Balquhidder, Glenlyon and Rannoch. Although by the immemorial custom of the Highlands, to which they most tenaciously clung, they owed military service to the chief of their own name only, he was not at any time within the ken record in a position either to provide them with homesteads or protect them in their possessions. While the lands of which they had settled remained in the Crown they might be safe from eviction, but when the lands came to be granted out to local barons, the grantees naturally desired to settle their new estates with their own men, on whom they could depend for thankful service and punctual payment of rents. The MacGregors, on the other hand, in all such cases immediately found themselves in the position of occupants of the lands of owners to whom they were unacceptable as tenants, and who desired nothing better than to be rid of them at any price. The inevitable consequences followed - eviction, resistance, and retaliation. The evicted tenants sought shelter among their kinsmen who still possessed lands, as sub-tenants or squatters; or they became “broken men,” and betook themselves to the hills to live on the plunder of the lands from which they had been ejected.”

Referring to the Act passed in 1488 -

“For the stanching of theft and other enormities in the Highlands,” Dr. Anderson adds, “this was the first of a long series of similar enactments by which the MacGregors were placed entirely at the mercy of their natural enemies.”

[1] Our Scottish Historiographer, the late Dr. Skene, to whose valuable works frequent reference must at the outset be made, while deducing the race from another source, to be hereafter quoted, remarks that the ClanGregor, having recognised Gregory “as their eponymous ancestor, their descent from him is now implicitly believed by all the MacGregors” (“Celtic Scotland,” Vol. iii. p. 364). After this record we may surely preserve our belief, which is thus itself established as a matter of history .

[2] Taken from “Celtic Scotland,” first edition, Vol. I. p. 329, 330. Mention is there made of a “Church in the Mearns” with the name of “Eglisgirg ,” which still preserves a memorial of Girig.

[3] Mr. Donald Gregory in 1825 states that the copy was unfortunately missing. (Chartulary.) One reason for here reproducing the greater part of the article in Douglas’s “Baronage” is, that as it has served as a basis for small sketches of Clan history, readers may have an opportunity of comparing it with other studies on the subject, and observe how far it its views have now been modified.

[4] Discovered by Dr. Skene among the MSS. in the Collection of the Faculty of Advocates, and considered to have been written by a MacLachlan, 1450. ( See Skene’s “Highlanders,” Vol. ii. p. 8.) Reference is made to the MS. having been printed in the “Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis,” edited by the Iona Club, first number. The genealogies from this MSS. are also to be found in “Celtic Scotland,” vol. iii., Appendix, p. 487.

[5] Sir John MacGregor Murray was acquainted with this obituary. - Ed.

[6] Communicated to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland by Donald Gregory, Honorary Secretary of the Society, January 1831, and printed in vol iii of the “Archaeologica Scotica.”

[7] “It is obvious that a number of generations are omitted, not even excepting the ancestor who gave his name to the Clan.” - Note to the Dean of Lismore’s MS., by Mr. Gregory.

[8] Celtic Scotland, first edition, vol. iii. p. 362, 363.

[9] Ibid., p. 365. In the “Highlanders of Scotland,” vol. ii. pp. 4, 5, Dr. Skene seeks to demonstrate that the modern highlanders are the same people with those who inhabited the Highlands of Scotland in the ninth or tenth centuries, the descendants of the great northern division of the Pictish nation, unaffected by the Scottish conquest of the Lowlands in 843.

[10] The hereditary belief in royal ancestry, and in an inheritance of the highest courage and truth, is shown in the poems from the Dean of Lismore’s book, quoted chapter vii.

[11] For details as to the breaking up of the old earldoms and tribes, see “Celtic Scotland,” vol. iii. p. 287.

[12] In 1260 Gilcolm Makgrigir, probably a churchman, is mentioned in the proceedings of a court held by the Prior of St Andrews at Dull in Atholl. Quoted from “Transcript of Chartulary of St Andrews,” Advocate’s Library, by Mr. MacGregor Stirling.

[13] Published in the Scottish Review, October 1890.