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Kinship, Landholding & Crime - Clan Gregor 1583 - 1611
By Peter Lawrie, ©2002

Note - individuals have been given reference numbers in this study. Consult me for more information and genealogies.


Kinship and Clanship - what was a Highland Clan. This chapter describes an origin and genealogy for Clan Gregor to 1603.

Possession of Land by Clan Gregor. Up Until 1603, Clan Gregor had grown into a powerful landholding kindred in Perthshire. This chapter describes the extent of their holdings.

The Crimes of Clan Gregor. The growth of the power of the Scottish State under James VI and the expansion of the Campbells of GlenOrchy and Argyll, created an intolerable situation for Clan Gregor. Their violent reaction led to many mentions of the Clan in the records of the State and their neighbours.

Conclusion. What can we learn of Highland Clanship and its collision with the increasing power of the Scottish State in the late 16th century from this account of Clan Gregor.



This paper is based on a dissertation submitted for the degree of MPhil from the University of Dundee in 2002. In view of the length, it has been divided into four chapters. Please click on the link at the end of each section to continue. Footnotes are given for each section but the Bibliography is only supplied at the end of the final section.


Nominal analysis and genealogy have been used in this dissertation as tools to understand the Clan Gregor during a critical period. It is quite credible that all MacGregors descend from a 14th century common ancestor, but recent DNA tests suggest that some modern MacGregors are descendants of ‘part-takers’. Numbers appear to have increased dramatically from the 80 with Griogair ruadh in 1564 to almost 200 listed in 1602, with a probably exaggerated, ‘sixteen-score of new arising’ in 1612, but including at least four-score orphans. These numbers may have included some ‘broken-men’. Reduction in the generation gap from the 1580s and new, dispersed locations in 1602 suggest severe pressure on the kindred. A total of 87 deaths and executions were recorded in 1603/4 and 1611/12. Thirteen of these may not be MacGregors and seventeen MacGregors could not be identified. Among those identified, 29 belonged to just three lineages – the chief’s own, Clandoulcheire and Brackley – accounting for half their manpower. Members of other lineages, particularly those of Glenlednock, Ardeonaig, Fortingal and Strathyre, had become associated with other lords and suffered less as a result. However, the extent of the persecution, illustrated by the king’s command to annul bonds with MacGregors may have created a false unity in a fragmenting clan. [230]

The Clan Gregor and Clan Campbell had expanded together until the accession of Cailean liath in 1550. After 1571, conflict may have reduced until the succession of Donnchadh dubh in 1583. This was followed by outlawry of the entire clan in 1586 and 1590. The operation of the general band bore heavily on Clan Gregor with its chief being held responsible for the actions of distant clansmen that he could not control, as well as members of his own immediate family that appeared equally out of control. Various landlords repeatedly raised legal actions to remove MacGregors from their lands. It is possible that, in some cases, the processes were intended to avoid lordly responsibility, rather than actual removal.  These processes served to show that MacGregor lineages occupied large areas of farmland in the late 16th century. Their geographical dispersion across Highland Perthshire and parts of Argyll and Stirlingshire and their lack of legal title made the responsibilities of the chief, under the general band almost impossible.  Other clans as widespread as Clan Gregor, such as Clan Donald, Clan Campbell and Clan Kenneth, for example, possessed titles and influence that Clan Gregor lacked.   

Several criminal trials of MacGregors were recorded in 1603/4 and 1611/12. At the same time various members of the clan were forgiven, as a result of taking service with lords and adopting new names. It is impossible to determine whether those indicted represented all the ‘criminal’ activity or whether they were simply those unfortunate enough to be caught. It is also impossible to determine how many of the clan died while outlawed. Of those tried, during a period of thirty years, 25 individuals were cited for theft and 22 for killing, some of them for both. Many of their ‘crimes’ took place while outlawed and may have been in revenge for crimes against the clan. Only a few of them also appear in the removal processes, suggesting that they were drawn from among younger sons and the dispossessed. The record almost certainly understated the true level of theft and killing but has to be viewed in the context of a violent, feuding and armed society.

Lacking powerful friends, Clan Gregor became a focus for royal exasperation with Highland feuding.  The greatest and most unforgiving enemy of the Clan Gregor appears to have been the king. The Campbells of Glen Orchy and Argyll may have carefully cultured the royal attitude. The 1590 murder of Drummondernoch and its consequences were discussed at great length in the 19th century. [231] It is possible that the reported events, along with the 1586 horning of the entire clan for unspecified crimes, [232] had been manipulated by Donnchadh dubh in order to demonstrate to the young king what a ‘wicked tribe of limmers’ the Clan Gregor continued to be. It would be easy to blame them for the turmoil and unrest that his acquisitions were bound to cause.  Similarly, Argyll manipulated the king in order to obtain lieutenandry over the clan in order to use them as a ‘hit squad’, that would do his bidding but his responsibility could be denied to the king. Alasdair ruadh claimed that he had raided the Colquhoun lands at the command of the Justice General. [233] The raiders were subsequently reset by and the booty distributed among, at the very least, the nine Campbell lairds cited in June 1603. [234] The overwhelming defeat of the Colquhouns at Glenfruin inflamed the king to such an extent that Argyll stepped out of his role as secret instigator to become the chief persecutor. It seems unlikely that James VI was unaware of Argyll’s agenda, but his antipathy to the Clan Gregor was greater. By 1610, uncertain circumstances, perhaps initiated once again by Donnchadh dubh, led to further rebellion, which was put down with great violence and determined attempts were made to deprive members of the clan of their remaining possessions. However, it does not appear that extermination had been the intention of the local lords. 

History has attributed, indiscriminately, the crimes of individuals, the violence of the proscribed clan in defending itself from persecution and violence in the service of other lordly employers equally to the discredit of the clan. The greatest failure of the clan leadership may have been its inability to establish secure title to landed resources, independent of the growing Campbell hegemony in Argyll and Perthshire. Their resistance to reduction by local lords and the crown would create an unenviable reputation for violence. Clan Gregor’s misfortune sprang from the ambition and cunning of Campbells such as Cailean liath, Donnchadh dubh and Gillespic gruamach of Argyll, as well as the antipathy of the king.  The clan’s only response lay in armed resistance and aggression which, unlike the conflict of 1562-1570, led to near annihilation. However, the fines listed in the Privy Council records for reset of the clan demonstrated a large degree of support in the community. The severity of proscription may have been, paradoxically, responsible for the survival of a Clan Gregor, whose reputation labelled its members, despite their many aliases and set them apart. Less severe treatment may have led to the same oblivion that befell the MacCairbres. 

After the death of James VI, remnants of Clan Gregor, centred in Rannoch, coalesced under the leadership of the descendants of Eoin dubh nan lurag (21111122) and Eoghan (2111113). [235] Others dispersed widely, especially in upland Moray and Deeside. Confined to marginal lands, the reputation of some elements for criminality persisted with characters such as Gilderoy and ‘John dugar’. [236] There is nothing new in finding that when deprived of legitimate means of living, men may resort to the illegitimate.  The reputation of Clan Gregor may also be an illustration of the truisms that victors write history and judge the war crimes of the losers.

[230] A.G.M. MacGregor, History of Clan Gregor, vol i,153

[231] A.G.M. MacGregor, History of Clan Gregor, vol i, 204-218.

[232] A.G.M. MacGregor, History of Clan Gregor, vol i, 177-180, Register of hornings, Perth.

[233] A.G.M. MacGregor, History of Clan Gregor, vol i,322, The Laird of McGregours declaratioun

[234] A.G.M. MacGregor, History of Clan Gregor, vol i, 303, Letters to compeir before Council.

[235] A.G.M. MacGregor, History of Clan Gregor, vol ii, 7-20

[236] A.G.M. MacGregor, History of Clan Gregor, vol ii, 45-86