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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.


A vast amount of authoritative analysis remains to be done on the histories of particular kindreds and localities.   There is a tendency to produce surveys of clanship and society which range over the whole Highland area, and cover long time spans, when what is needed is detailed research at the local level. [1]

Popular histories of the Clan Gregor often take the conflict with Clan Campbell culminating in the proscription of 1603 and extrapolate backwards into the Dark Ages, assuming that the conflict had always existed. [2] Martin MacGregor established that prior to 1550 relations with Clan Campbell had been good and that they had expanded in tandem from their origins near Loch Awe after the forfeiture of the MacDougalls of Lorn. [3]

This dissertation begins with the succession of Donnchadh dubh as laird of Glen Orchy in 1583 and terminates with the executions in 1612/13. Was the Clan Gregor truly a kindred tied by blood relationships and how did the different lineages relate to each other? Did the clan control real resources despite possessing almost no documented titles to the lands they occupied? Did the clan deserve its reputation for lawlessness and crime? Why did Clan Gregor, in particular, become so detested by the king? Finally, did the clan fragment in the late 16th century and how did it survive? The answers are largely drawn from an analysis of names and locations in an early 19th century collection of contemporary sources. 

Studies of Highland clanship often concentrate on clans whose fine maintained or increased their control of land during the 16th and 17th centuries. When deprived of the control of land clans usually died out or became totally dependent on the fine of more successful clans. [4] The response of Clan Gregor to Cailean liath and his son, Donnchadh dubh, Campbell lairds of Glen Orchy from 1550 to 1623 showed a determined if ultimately unsuccessful struggle against such reduction. Very little documentary evidence, such as rentals and letters actually created by the Clan Gregor fine, earlier than the 18th century has survived. However, their activities are better reported than most clans in the largely hostile records of their neighbours and the state.

Martin MacGregor suggested a close relationship between Clan Campbell and Clan Gregor up to 1550, during a period of joint expansion into a territory stretching from Rannoch to Strath Gartney spearheaded by Clan Gregor military strength and settlement. [5] After 1550, the lairds of Glen Orchy established dominance in Breadalbane, displacing many kindreds completely and reducing others in status. [6] In a conflict from 1562 to 1571, Clan Gregor proved their formidable military strength which Cailean liath and his allies could not defeat, but also their political weakness. ‘The power to make peace lay with the fine of Clan Campbell and the Crown. The MacGregors’ only real outlet lay in armed resistance and aggression’. [7]    ‘The long-lasting result of this conflict was that Clan Gregor became stereotyped as a touchstone of Highland lawlessness … by the late 16th century, the MacGregors had come to be perceived as probably the most violent and lawless of the Highland Clans’. [8]   Following the Battle of Glen Fruin, in 1603, their very name was proscribed, rewards were given for killing MacGregors and determined efforts were made to exterminate the entire lineage.  Martin MacGregor’s original intention had been ‘to deal with the consequences of the proscription in April 1603, in the belief that, if one could explain how the MacGregors maintained their identity as a clan in the face of determined efforts to destroy that identity, much light could be shed on the nature of clan society in 17th century Scotland’. [9] Sufficient earlier sources enabled him to concentrate on the period before 1571.   

Dodgshon defined the Highland clan in terms of a chief-focused system of exchange based on the control of territory and the resources that the territory could produce. He concentrated on those clan elites that maintained or expanded their territories during the transformation from kin-based hierarchies to landlord-tenant relationships. [10]   Dodgshon suggested that control of territory by the chief was the decisive factor in the definition of a clan. [11] He took the assumption of a name, or alias as establishing membership of another kindred. However, it appears that aliases may have been adopted or changed as the situation demanded and ‘former’ MacGregors knew exactly who they were and readily assumed their old identity or changed their names as the situation demanded. [12] An examination of the names listed in the appendix demonstrated that prior to 1600, patronymics were the rule and few members of the clan were actually called ‘MacGriogair or MhicGriogair’ unless their fathers or grandfathers had been Griogair. Similar patronymics were common amongst other clans.

Macinnes pointed out that clanship was not inherently violent and lawless, [13] however, due to mismatch of duthchas and oighreachd, it often tended to disorder. [14] Surplus manpower might form cateran bands but their persistence was often due to the patronage of noble lords or reset by clan gentry. [15]   The use of the general band from 1587 placed responsibility for good order on landlords, without any attempt to redress the problems of tenants that followed other chiefs. Such state intervention increased the problems of clans such as the MacGregors. [16] Successive Earls of Argyll and their kinsmen, the lairds of Glen Orchy pursued a policy of victimisation. Outlawry and eviction made the Clan Gregor full-time caterans.’ [17]

Brown viewed Highland conflicts, whatever their nature and origin, as incidental to the power-struggles of noble society during the reign of James VI. Some of the ‘roots of violence’ [18] lay in conflicts between kin-based elites. He cited the Justice-General, Earl of Argyll and the MacGregors as an example of criminal networks that, in return for protection, carried out the lord’s dirty work. [19] The problem of feuding may have been a consequence of powerful kin-based lordships, but the growth of state power could result in far greater violence. [20] Brown also highlighted a society in which the importance of honour came above rational behaviour. [21] Perhaps this sense of honour led to the suicidal victory at Glen Fruin in 1603.

Goodare compared the intent of the state after 1587 to remedy the Highland ‘problem’ with its earlier policy of allowing favoured magnates, such as the Earl of Argyll, with interests on both sides of the Highland line, a free hand. [22] Successive legislation, from 1581, had been intended to ‘danton’ or daunt, the Highlanders. [23]    Some clans including the Campbells participated in state institutions and made use of state power, such as lieutenancies, for personal aggrandizement at the expense of their neighbours. State policy in the Highlands had failed if pacification had been the goal, ‘but really the goal was state control’ and the method was to encourage reliable clans to reduce the unreliable. He concluded that James actually created a ‘Highland problem’ between 1581 and 1617 that would continue to trouble both the Highlands and the state for long after. [24] The conclusion may be irrefutable but Goodare implied a logic to James’s Highland policies which may not have existed, whereas such a logic and purpose can be more easily perceived in Campbell policies over the generations.

Michael Lynch focused on the ‘Highland Problem’ [25] in the transformation of the Scottish state. The Highlands were viewed as a problem for the Lowland zone requiring a solution and also, peripheral to the development of the state and therefore defined as remote. [26] During the reign of James VI, political power in the Scottish state became more concentrated at the centre. [27] The increasingly interventionist state was determined to ‘civilise’ its periphery, in which Clans and Gaelic culture were defined as barbarous. [28] Central authority in the 1580s aimed at ‘quieting’ the Highland frontier. By the 1590s it saw the Highland zone as a source of additional revenue, while increasingly determined to assert its authority over the periphery. [29] At the same time conspiracy and conflict involving the Campbells drew more state attention to the Highlands. [30]  

Hopkins pointed out that James V had ordered the extermination of Clan Chattan, but had not persisted in it. James VI planned the extirpation of Clan Leod of Lewis but ultimately handed over responsibility to Lord Kintail, chief of the MacKenzies, ‘a clan that matched the Campbells in ruthless expansion’. [31] The proscription of Clan Gregor was carried out with extreme and widespread brutality. ‘Argyll, their chief persecutor had earlier secretly protected and encouraged them, as his descendants were to do again. James feared Argyll’s power and the bribe (Kintyre and Jura) with which he won him over showed how far his hostility to the MacGregors overwhelmed his political prudence.’ [32]  

There is a convenient printed source which includes most of the primary references. Amelia MacGregor’s The History of Clan Gregor from Public Records and Private Collections is a printed arrangement, with little analysis, of the material in the manuscript ‘Chartulary of Clan Gregor’. [33] The Rev. William MacGregor Stirling and Professor Donald Gregory compiled the ‘Chartulary’ between 1820 and 1833 by at the request of Sir Evan Murray MacGregor. It comprised two large folio volumes of hand-written extracts from state and private papers referring to Clan Gregor. These become particularly detailed from the mid 16th century. The status of the modern chiefs of Clan Gregor derived from elections in 1787 and 1822. Doubts about the seniority of their lineage led to the publication of the History in two volumes by the daughter of Sir Evan in 1898 and 1901. The History needs to be used carefully as her purpose had been to prove the seniority of her family. In this dissertation it has been used solely as a printed source for primary material. Almost every indexed reference to the clan in the published Privy Council Register has been included in the ‘Chartulary’ and the History.  Much of it reflected the impact of Clan Gregor activity on other chiefs, landowners and the state and thus, many of the documents are strongly biased against Clan Gregor. Mention of places and individuals can be used to understand the underlying activities of members of the clan.

Chapter 1 - Kinship and Clanship

[1] M.D.W. MacGregor, ‘A Political History of the MacGregors before 1571’, (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1989), 7

[2] M.D.W. MacGregor, ‘A Political History’, Introduction 1-9

[3] M.D.W. MacGregor, ‘A Political History’, 36-37

[4] R.A. Dodgshon, From Chiefs to Landlords: Social and Economic Change in the Western Highlands and Islands 1493-1820, (Edinburgh, 1998), 8

[5] M.D.W. MacGregor, ‘A Political History’, 406

[6] M.D.W. MacGregor, ‘A Political History’, 407

[7] M.D.W. MacGregor, ‘A Political History’, 398

[8] M.D.W. MacGregor,, ‘A Political History’,  402

[9] M.D.W. MacGregor, ‘A Political History’, 1

[10] R.A. Dodgshon, 15

[11] R.A. Dodgshon, 8

[12] R.A. Dodgshon, 47

[13] A.I. Macinnes, Clanship Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788, (East Linton, 1996), 30

[14] A.I. Macinnes, 38

[15] A.I. Macinnes, 32

[16] A.I. Macinnes, 51

[17] A.I. Macinnes, 61

[18] K.M. Brown, Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573-1625, Violence Justice and Politics in an Early Modern Society, (Edinburgh, 1986), 12-42..

[19] K.M. Brown, 20

[20] K.M. Brown, 33

[21] K.M. Brown, 23

[22] J. Goodare, State and Society in Early Modern Scotland, (Oxford, 1999), 255-6

[23] J. Goodare, 264-285

[24] J. Goodare, 284-285

[25] J. Goodare, & M. Lynch. The Reign of James VI, (East Linton, 1999), 1208-227

[26] J. Goodare, & M. Lynch. 186

[27] J. Goodare, & M. Lynch. 187

[28] J. Goodare, & M. Lynch. 197

[29] J. Goodare, & M. Lynch. 212

[30] J. Goodare, & M. Lynch. 215

[31] P. Hopkins, Glencoe and the End of the Highland War, (Edinburgh, 1986), p19

[32] P. Hopkins, Glencoe, p19

[33] Stirling Archives, PD60, MacGregor of MacGregor papers, bundles 812, 813, 814