Statutes of Icolmkill / Iona

“The Government had several modes of dealing with the feuds and unruly habits of the Highlanders,.. Sometimes, as in the Lowlands, authority was given by the Government to one party to make private was on another..; in other instances, the Crown entered into an arrangement with Argyle in the south-west, and with Huntly in the north, to restrain and punish, and even “to extirpate the barbarous people.” Lastly there was the extreme expedient of granting “letters of fire and sword.” These were licences from the government for the most severe and cruel kind of civil war, with the aid and encouragement of the executive to one side in the strife. These letters authorised the favoured individual or clan to burn, to waste, and to slay, all within the territory of their enemies, or the district specified in the licence; and the licenced parties were freed from any legal annoyance as the result of the conflict. Such letters or commissions usually read thus:-


   ‘Whatever slaughter, mutilation, bloodshed, fire-raising or violence, may be committed, shall be regarded as laudable, good, and warrantable service to his Majesty and to his Government.’


The frequent granting of letters of fire and sword is a lamentable proof of the weakness of the government, of the law, and of the lack of police organisation.

After the accession of the King [James VI.] to the throne of England, various attempts were made to reduce the people of the Highlands and the Western Isles to the authority of the Crown. The efforts of the Government for a time promised considerable success; a number of Highland and Island chiefs were captured and imprisoned, and others placed under caution for their good behaviour. The King commissioned Bishop [Andrew] Knox with power to make arrangements for promoting the peace and obedience of the Isles; and, at his instance, nine chiefs agreed to a bond of obedience to the authority of the King at Icolmkill on the 24th of August 1609. The names of these chiefs were Angus Macdonald of Dunivaig in Islay; Hector Maclean of Duart in Mull; Donald Gorm Macdonald of Sleat in Skye; Rory Macleod of Harris; Rory Mackinnon of Starthordaill in Skye; Lauchlan Maclean of Coll; Donald Macdonald of Ylanterim in Moydart, Captain of Clanranald; Lauchlan Maclean of Lochbuy in Mull; and Gillespie Macquharrie of Ulva: these bound themselves by solemn oaths to future obedience to the King and the laws of Scotland. This bond is known under the title of ‘the Statutes of Icolmkill.” The statutes were nine in number and dealt with the following subjects:-


  1. The ruinous churches to be repaired, and a regular parochial ministry to be established and maintained, with the same discipline as in other parts of the kingdom, the same observance of Sunday and other moral rules, and the suppression in particular of irregular marriages.

  1. Inns to be erected in convenient places in all the Islands for the accommodation of travellers, so as to extinguish mere idle wandering, and the burden on the resources of poor tenants and crofters by the habit of indiscriminate quartering.

  1. That all idle vagabonds without visible and honest means of living should be cleared out of the Isles; and that the chiefs should cease from capricious exactions upon their clans, and be content with a household retinue of as many gentlemen and servants as his means will support, – that is, Maclean of Duart with eight gentlemen, Angus Macdonald, Donald Macdonald, Rory Macleod, and the Captain of Clanranald, with six gentlemen each, and so on with the rest.

  1. All sorning and begging, and the custom of conzie, to be put down.

  1. A main cause of the poverty and disorder of the Islanders being their excessive drinking of strong wines and aqua vitae, brought in amongst them partly by merchants of the mainland and partly by some traffickers dwelling amongst themselves, all general importation or sale of wine or aqua vitae to be stopped under penalties, reserving liberty, however, to all persons in the Islands to brew aqua vitae and other drink to serve their own houses, and to the chiefs and other gentlemen to send to the Lowlands for the purchase of as much wine and whisky as they may require for their households.

  1. Every man in the Islands possessing sixty cows, and having children, should send at least his eldest son, or failing sons, his eldest daughter, to some school in the Lowlands, and there to be taught until they be able to speak, read, and write English.

  1. An Act of Parliament prohibiting all persons from carrying firearms out of their own houses, or shooting with such at deer, hares, or fowls, to be strictly enforced within the Islands.

  1. The chiefs should not entertain wandering bards or other vagabonds of that sort; and all such persons should be apprehended, put in the stocks, and expelled from the Islands.

  1. For the better keeping of these statutes, and in accordance with the rule that the principal man of every clan is answerable for all his kinsmen and dependents, this present agreement to be a sufficient warrant to all chiefs and sub-chiefs to apprehend and try malefactors within their bounds, seize their goods for the King’s use, and deliver over their persons to the competent judge to be further dealt with; the chiefs becoming bound not to reset or maintain within their bounds any malefactor that may be fugitive from the bounds of his own natural superior.”


Negotiated by Bishop Andrew Knox at Iona in August, 1609. In July, 1610, the statutes were officially registered, with authorisation from James VI. & I.


John Mackintosh, LL.D. (1895), History of Civilisation in Scotland, vol. 3, Paisley: Alexander Gardner, pp.241-243.