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by Hal MacGregor

By The Right of the Sword

In the early days of Scottish clan society, there was no national standing army.  When the need came for collective use of force, clan chiefs were urged to participate in the king's current cause by sending over their private clan armies for a term of temporary duty.  Of course, at the conclusion of such an adventure, a clan would naturally expect rewards for its contributions.

Clans existed as extended militarised families to offer security to members from encroachment by their neighbours.  To be recognized as a clan, 250 horsemen had to be mounted and ready to fight within half an hour.     When squabbles broke out betweenclans, and they were continuously doing so,  the king would usually turn a blind eye and wait to see who the victor was.  In that way, all the clans remained strong - and they could then support the king when required.

A piece of paper from Edinburgh meant little to clan chiefs, as the king of the day always left it to the designated beneficiary to enforce his rights with his own resources.  To do otherwise, would endanger the entire country - by supplanting effective clans with weaker ones that would ultimately depend on others to maintain control of their properties.  In brief, the king depended on strong clans to support his own enterprises.  In return,  he let them to work out their own internecine problems.

More often than not, a King would exercise a short term in power before he fell to an adversary's hand.  Then, with the advent of a new monarch, old powerful friends might find themselves on the outside looking in.  Clans who before the change in power may have been on the outs with the reigning King might suddenly be found in favour.  To put it bluntly, Kings came and went, but the land went on forever.  Those with enough clout to keep it felt that their sword arm would be the final arbiter.

Small clans threatened  by larger neighbours,or by those with more political clout, might easily find the charters oflands they thought were theirs by ancient decrees, or tenure, or felt ought to be, were suddenly in the hands of more politically astute enemies.  This meant to survive they needed skill in diplomacy as well as in war, and absolute unity within the clan, to make bargaining effective.  Often alliances were necessary to counterbalance a more powerful antagonist.

Some Highland clans fared better under severe conditions than others. For instance, the MacDonalds,who were a very large clan, found themselves being encroached upon by the Campbells.  In spite of their tremendous size and vast holdings, the MacDonalds failed in diplomacy, and therefore declined.  On the other hand, the Camerons, also a bloodthirsty lot, but farther away geographically from the centres of power, survived by acknowledging the superiority of Campbell, and Huntly, and then leased some lands to the MacIntoshes.  The vital element in their survival was the maintenance of a united leadership,in spite of attempts by their enemies to undermine its authority.

The Highland people were once the majority of Scotland's population, a military society that had largely helped to establish and maintain her monarchy.  This society, both tribal and feudal, could not change itself to meet a changing world, nor did it wish to.  Its decline became more rapid in the second half of the seventeenth century, and within a hundred and fifty years its people had been driven from their mountains.

By 1690, the Highlanderswere already regarded by many Lowlanders as foreign, backward, ignorant,and an obstacle to the complete union  of England and Scotland.  Their obstinate independence of spirit - expressed in their customs, their clothes, and in their language had to be broken and humbled.

Strategic Location  of  MacGregor Clan Territory

If one places a thumb over the very centre of Scotland, it would encompass ancient MacGregor territory.  Ben (Mount) Nevis, a MacGregor mountain, is commonly referred nowadays "The Roof of Britain."  Those who controlled MacGregor lands, controlled the western passes and access from Glasgow and Edinburgh to the western coast and Isles.

In the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, Glasgow was at most about 7,000 souls.  It was a common bed time prayer to pray for deliverance from the 'MacGregors.'   Perhaps they were unfairly blamed for every Highland crime, but it was an accepted slur in a Lowland court to brand an accused man as a 'murdering MacGregor.'

When Campbell Lairds began building their 'Western Empire" to become the dominant family in Scotland, MacGregor territory was essential to their success.  It was only through acquiring MacGregor territory could they begin to dismantle the huge MacDonald Empire.  Through treachery  and guile, they were successful in their quest.

    Campbell Treachery versus MacGregor Ferocity

The Campbells were careful to nurture their association with the Stuarts when it was to their advantage,  Then, with the demise of the Stuarts,and when a dying Queen Anne and the English power brokers turned their backs on the Royal House of Scotland, and invited the Hanoverians to the throne, the Campbells were only too willing to back the more powerful regime.  By manipulation and sycophancy, they became the most powerful family in Scotland, needless to say at the expense of scores of other clans and thousands of resisting Highlanders

When Campbell and his two 'cohorts' visited MacGregor - and Campbell suggested they allow their horses to forage in MacGregor's uncut corn field, the outcome was entirely predictable.  Campbell knew full well that MacGregor would charge out in a rage and do something foolish.  As it was, MacGregor immediately blasted one of the interlopers out of his saddle.   Then, Campbell, always the manipulator, suggested to MacGregor that in his new predicament, hand over the deed to his property to the Campbell for safekeeping until the heat was off.   What else are friends for?

In similar ways, the MacGregors were stripped of their inheritances, if not by the Campbells, then by Stewarts or other notables with political clout.   On the other hand, it was against the very nature of Highlanders to turn their backs on kin and friends even if it was to their political advantage.  They often fought for lost causes probably knowing full well that it was such, but they were obviously willing to die for their blood (relatives)and their traditional allies, even when they were the distinct underdogs.  I.e. when Alasdair MacGregor of Glenstrae supported the band of outlaws who murdered the forester Drummond in 1589, he  knew full well he was in effect taking on the 'establishment,' and there would be dire consequences.

If he had taken the outlaws to the authorities, he would have lifted the responsibility of that deed from the whole MacGregor clan.  But that was not the MacGregor way.  The MacGregor way was to protect the underdog against a brutal and unfair authority, no matter what the consequences. 

Alasdair MacGregor was an honest man, he decided to accept the entire responsibility for the ensuing Glen Fruin battle (sic. massacre of the Lowland Colquhouns, Buchanans, and others who were coming to kill them), and he paid the price with his life.  Even though it was widely known that it was a MacIntosh rogue, (a sept of the MacDonalds), who murdered the prisoners, without his knowledge, Alasdair accepted full responsibility. The MacGregor clan paid even more dearly with generations of innocent men, women, and children being treated worse than rabid animals.

It was a Campbell who set the MacGregors on to the Colquhouns, the same Campbell who snared Alasdair into a trap, the same Campbell who guaranteed him his life if he surrendered, and the same Campbell who subsequently betrayed him and turned him over to the authorities to hang.   If that is not treachery, what is?

Proscription, the Final Solution

The English  term 'proscription' is derived from the French 'proscrire'
meaning g "to put outside the law".   Its Russian equivalent is 'pogrom', its Gaelic meaning is ' Diteadh gu bas.'  It is the most severe in an authority's list of punishments to impose upon an identifiable group.  Its aim is their total annihilation.  The Romans used it to eradicate particularly obstinate foes.  To work at all, the subjects (sic victims) had to be identifiable, surrounded by neighbours that could be relied on to be agents in their annihilation, and not too large a body as to be not susceptible to be militarily  defeated.

Properly utilized, proscription renders a group into the realm of being declared 'non-human'.  A price is put on their heads, (men women, and children). Their entire property is declared free for any taker (outside of the subject group.)  Proscription is far more severe than 'ethnic cleansing', which usually equates to merely forcing an ethnic group out of a certain area.

This ultimate tool in terror, was used by Scottish kings to impose their punishment on Highland clans that displeased them.  It was used repeatedly on the Clan Gregor .

    Lowlanders versus Highlanders

The Lowlanders' great hatred and fear of anything associated with Highlanders was called 'Mi-run mor nan Gal' in Gaelic.  Lowland leaders naturally despised anything they wished to destroy, and therefore that destruction seemed to be a virtuous necessity.  No Scot or Englishman would contemplate the destruction of an English or Lowland community, but a  Highland hamlet; that was a different matter..  As political power shifted towards the Lowlanders, it became merely a matter of time before the Highlanders would become victims.

Atrocity followed atrocity; there was supposedly one law for all in Scotland but it was applied differently, depending on who was the detractor.  Culprits from Highland clans such as the MacGregors (and the MacDonalds) were dealt with most severely by lowland juries.  Accused were hanged as a matter of course when a Lowlander would get off with the same offence. This inequality fuelled the contempt of Highlanders for the jurisprudence of the central government, and forced them into a 'them against us' or 'outlaw' mentality..

That same contempt for Highlanders was responsible for the brutalities that followed Culloden in 1746, and the same indifference to a way of life was shown when the Clearances began fifty years later.  In the end Mi-run mor nan Gal  was triumphant.

Military conquests begat Jealousy and Fear

The MacGregors were especially fierce soldiers and with their successes, became an arrogant clan, embittering their neighbours and creating grudges that time would not heal.  Also, as fate would have it, Gregor clan lands were bordering fertile lowland properties, that were at once, attractive to the MacGregors for raiding and expansion. Internecine feuding between Highland tribes was acceptable jostling for positions, but raiding and killing Lowlanders was not acceptable.  As Lowland power became paramount, the Highlanders (especially the nearby MacGregors) became dispensable.


Clan Gregor leadership was not united, due partly to the old Gaelic emphasis on individual freedom, partly because the MacGregor clan was, in fact, several sub clans with their various Homelands being separated by mountains and Lochs. Unlike some clans, the MacGregors were a heterogeneous society, meaning that all the inhabitants of their clan lands were considered MacGregors, despite their lineage.

In a countryside, where everyone is a MacGregor, to differentiate between people; physical traits, trades, even variations in spelling would be used to identify individuals.  Hence, 'Malloch' would be someone with a big head.  Fletcher, Bower, & Skinner would denote arrow makers, bow makers, & furriers.  In times of proscription, many used variations of MacGregor, such as Greer, Grerson, MacGruder, MacGrowther, etc. No other clan had so many surnames.  They were by and large 'names of convenience' to be used in lieu of 'MacGregor' out of necessity, but underneath everyone knew each other for what they were..

In the case of the Campbells, their regiments such as the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders,  barely numbered any Campbells.  In the roll call after Glencoe,  no Campbell was among the enlisted men's surnames.  Many men were forced by circumstance to enlist in Highland Regiments to escape the law.  That practise is still utilized today in Canada, the US, Britain, France, Russia and many other societies.  In Rudyard Kipling's 'The siege of Lucknow'  he wrote:

"The Campbells are coming, the MacGregors are here"

Ninety-nine percent of the people reading that passage pass right through it and do not pretend to understand the great writer's mindset.

What he was imparting was:
The Campbell Regiment is coming, (but when it arrives), he sees that it is made up of MacGregors - and led by a MacGregor.

The MacGregors failed to temper their ferocity with diplomacy, and under pressure from their neighbours, especially the Campbell Lairds of Glenorchy,  broke into violence that could not be tolerated.  This led to the successful manoeuvres by treacherous Campbell and Stuart Lairds, thereby weakening MacGregor bargaining positions and resulting in more encroachments.   The Campbells must have been laughing in their beer after 'hoodwinking' us time after time, for as they well knew,

Discretion is not a MacGregor virtue!

During the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715, led by the 'old Pretender" James VIII, (James III of England) only the MacGregors of  'Ciar Mohr ' answered his call.  Many 'Gregarach' still remembered the thrashing and persecution imposed on the clan by his Royal forebears.   Under pressure, Rob Roy took over Chieftanship of this branch and led the MacGregor contingent into battle half-heartedly, as his laird and protector, the Duke of Argyle, led the opposing Government forces. 

Once up against the law, a clan would have to go from outrage to outrage, or cease to exist as a unit.  From the MacGregor viewpoint, they had always seized and held their substantial properties by the sword, and, in their own judgement, were quite capable of doing just that..Their fierceness in defending their homelands was renowned and had been proved time and time again, i.e. at the battle of Glen Fruin, only one MacGregor was killed compared to 170 Colquhouns.  They had cultivated an aura of invincibility that was about to be crushed.

  What they could not see   - was that James VI, would not tolerate an uncontrollable Highland clan in his own backyard, especially as he was about to be proclaimed King of a united England and Scotland way down south in sunny, warm London.  James VI was a psychotic monster, who murdered his own people for selfish gain.  He sent an assassin to Poland to liquidate a journalist there who had criticized 'cold, draughty' Edinburgh, and he arranged for Englishmen who criticized Scottish institutions, to be tried in Edinburgh where they were duly hanged.   He soon proved that he was quite capable of murdering thousands of innocent men, women, and children merely because they carried the name 'MacGregor.'

Do Genes Have Memories?

What MacGregors could not do, was exercise diplomatic skills to counteract the manoeuvres of their adversaries.  Someone once said "An honest person makes a lousy politician."  The record shows that MacGregors are not politicians.  There have been many famous MacGregors, but they have always become renowned due to their courage or knowledge, not because of their  manipulative skills.

The greatest Admiral in the history of Russian sea power was undoubtedly Grand Admiral Sir Samuel Greig (on loan from the British Royal Navy), the greatest General under Bolivar was undoubtedly General Gregor MacGregor, the most ferocious officer in the history of the British Army was undoubtedly Sir Colin (MacGregor) Campbell, James MacGrigor was undoubtedly the 'father' of the British Army Medical Corps, and James Gregory was undoubtedly the inventor of the reflecting telescope, yet we have not produced one Prime Minister or President, or even a significant lawyer that I know about..

In my own case:
I have often wondered where I get my stubbornness from:
i.e. As a 16 year old in the Militia, I went to Aldershot, N.S. for junior NCO training.  During the first few days, they gave us lots of tests.  About twenty of us failed and were rounded up in a room to await processing by the army.  All twenty of us swore an oath that no one would succumb to their tactics and agree to be reverted to the basic-training course that was being held.  We were each led, one at a time,  before, first a Corporal, then a Sergeant, then a Captain.  They spoke in persuasive language to convince us to revert back to our 'proper level' of training.  I was the only one of the entire crowd that resisted the military forces of persuasion and I went on to qualify as a Junior NCO in the Militia.

Again: Later in life, I was once 'admonished' (to put it politely) by a senior Manager in the Public Service of Canada (who was an ex-Lieut.-Commander in the Navy), who shouted at me "In war time, people like you are indispensable, but in peace time, we have no use for you."

My son Bill:
As a young recruit in the PPCLI in Wainwright, Alberta, he went through some very tough infantry training,  torture training being a significant part.  He became known as the toughest nut to crack during violent interrogations.
Once he was left lying in the ditch by five fellow soldiers who had just beat up on him.  When he regained consciousness, he went to their barracks, grabbed a baseball bat and beat the crap out of all five of them.
Once, during desert training in Texas, he was ordered to sneak up on an American soldier manning a motion detector at the far end of a range.  It took Bill over two hours to very slowly crawl on his belly an inch at a time and finally sprang up at the American's feet  and shout "You're dead !"

I have come to the conclusion that - yes, genes do have memories.  To illustrate that point; recently, scientists in England extracted eggs from a domestic rabbit and replaced them with eggs from a wild European rabbit.  Same species, but 2,000 years of domestication separated them.  When the baby rabbits arrived, they let it be known they were wild.  They were uncontrollable.  So the lesson here is - animals are born with genes that have memories in spite of our birth mothers or living conditions.

I was once on a Federal Government language course with two first nations Iroquois Mohawk women.  We began talking family because both their surnames were 'MacGregor."  I asked them what the men in the tribe with the name "MacGregor" were like.  They both responded, "They are the worst." (Meaning the worst agitators for native rights).  I was not really surprised.

My daughter Kalin:
For some reason, she changed her name to Kalin, and when she had her first born, she named her "Katrina."  I am sure Kalin had no knowledge whatsoever passed on by anybody of the importance of Loch Katrine to the MacGregor Clan.  I honestly feel that a voice within her brought out that name, and one shudders to think of the significance of that inclination.

Hal MacGregor

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