Chapter X., pp.199-212.

[History of the Highlands Contents]

THE Murrays and the other friends of the Sutherland family, no longer able to protect themselves from the vengeance of the earl of Caithness, dispersed themselves into different countries, there to wait for more favourable times when they might return to their native soil without danger. The Murrays went to Strathbogie, where Earl Alexander then resided. Hugh Gordon of Drummoy retired to Orkney, where he married a lady named Ursla Tulloch; but he frequently visited his friends in Sutherland, in spite of many snares laid for him by the earl of Caithness, while secretly going and returning through Caithness. Hugh Gordon’s brothers took refuge with the Murrays at Strathbogie. John Gray of Skibo, and his son Gilbert, retired to St Andrew’s, where their friend Robert, bishop of Caithness, then resided, and Mac-Mhic-Sheumais of Strathully went to Glengarry. 

As the alliance of such a powerful and warlike chief as Mackay, would have been of great importance to the Sutherland interest, an attempt was made to detach him from the earl of Caithness. The plan appears to have originated with Hugh Murray of Aberscors, who made repeated visits to Strathbogie, to consult with the earl of Sutherland and his friends on this subject, and afterwards went into Strathnaver, and held a conference with Mackay, whom he prevailed upon to accompany him to Strathbogie. Mackay then entered into an engagement with the earl of Huntly and the earl of Sutherland, to assist the latter against the earl of Caithness, in consideration of which, and on payment of £300 Scots, he obtained from the earl of Huntly the heritable right and title of the lands of Strathnaver; but Mackay, influenced by Barbara Sinclair, the wife of the earl of Sutherland, with whom he now publicly cohabited, broke his engagement, and continued to oppress the earl’s followers and dependants. 

About this time the tribe called the Siol-Phaill, made an incursion into Strathfleet, and attacked Hugh Murray of Aberscors. In a skirmish which took place, the Siol-Phaill took three of the Murray prisoners, whom they afterwards delivered up to the earl of Caithness, who put them to death. In revenge for this cruel act, Hugh Murray afterwards killed two of the principal men of the tribe.1 

From some circumstances which have not transpired, the earl of Caithness became suspicious of his son John, the Master of Caithness, as having, in connexion with Mackay, a design upon his life. To put an end to the earl’s suspicion, Mackay advised John to go to Girnigo, (castle Sinclair,) and to submit himself to his father’s pleasure, a request with which the Master complied; but, after arriving at Girnigo, he was, while conversing with his father, arrested by a party of armed men, who, upon a secret signal being given by the earl, had rushed in at the chamber door. He was instantly fettered and thrust into prison within the castle, where, after a miserable captivity of seven years, he died, a prey to famine and vermin. 

Mackay, who had accompanied the Master to Girnigo, and who in all probability would have shared the same fate, escaped and returned home to Strathnaver, where he died, within four months thereafter, of grief and remorse for the many bad actions of his life. During the minority of his son Houcheon, John Mor Mackay, the cousin, and John Beg Mackay, the bastard son of Y-Mackay, took charge of the estate; but John Mor-Mackay was speedily removed from his charge by the earl of Caithness, who, considering him as a favourer of the earl of Sutherland, caused him to be apprehended and carried into Caithness, where he was detained in prison till his death. During this time, John Robson, the chief of the Clan Gun, in Caithness and Strathnaver, became a dependant on the earl of Sutherland, and acted as his factor in collecting the rents and duties of the bishop’s lands within Caithness which belonged to the earl. This connexion was exceedingly disagreeable to the earl of Caithness, who in consequence took a grudge at John Robson, and to gratify his spleen, he instigated Houcheon Mackay to lay waste the lands of the Clan Gun, in the Brea-Moir, in Caithness, without the knowledge of John Beg-Mackay, his brother. As the Clan Gun had always been friendly to the family of Mackay, John Beg-Mackay was greatly exasperated at the conduct of the earl, in enticing the young chief to commit such an outrage; but he had it not in his power to make any reparation to the injured clan. John Robson the chief, however, assisted by Alexander, earl of Sutherland, invaded Strathnaver and made ample retaliation. Meeting the Strathnaver men at a place called Creach-Drumi-Doun, he attacked and defeated them, killing several of them, and chiefly those who had accompanied Houcheon Mackay in his expedition to the Brea-Moir. He then carried off a large quantity of booty, which he divided among the Clan Gun of Strathully, who had suffered by Houcheon Mackay’s invasion.2 

The earl of Caithness having resolved to avenge himself on John Beg-Mackay, for the displeasure shown by him at the conduct of Houcheon Mackay, and also on the Clan Gun, prevailed upon Neill Mac-Iain-Mac-William, chief of the Sliochd-Iain-Abaraich, and James Mac-Rory, chief of the Sliochd-Iain-Mhoir, to attack them. Accordingly, in the month of September, fifteen hundred and seventy-nine, these two chiefs, with their followers, entered Balnekill in Durines, during the night-time, and slew John Beg-Mackay, and William Mac-Iain-Mac-Rob, the brother of John Robson, and some of their people. The friends of the deceased were not in a condition to retaliate, but they kept up the spirit of revenge so customary in those times, and only waited a favourable opportunity to gratify it. This did not occur till several years thereafter. In the year fifteen hundred and eighty-seven, James Mac-Rory, “a fyne gentleman and a good commander,” according to Sir Robert Gordon, was assassinated by Donald Balloch-Mackay, the brother of John Beg-Mackay; and two years thereafter John Mackay, the son of John Beg, attacked Neill-Mac-Iain-Mac-William, whom he wounded severely, and cut off some of his followers. “This Neill (says Sir R. Gordon) heir mentioned, wes a good captain, bold, craftie, of a verie good witt, and quick resolution.” Shortly after these events the Sliochd-Iain-Abaraich were attacked in Seyzer in Strathnaver by William Mackay, brother of John Beg, and the Sliochd-Iain-Roy, and many of them killed. 

After the death of John Beg-Mackay, and William Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, a most deadly and inveterate feud followed, between the Clan Gun and the Sliochd-Iain-Abaraich, but no recital of the details has been handed down to us. “The long, the many, the horrible encounters (observes Sir R. Gordon) which happened between these two trybes, with the bloodshed, and infinit spoills committed in every pairt of the diocy of Catteynes by them and their associats, are of so disordered and troublesome memorie, that, what with their asperous names, together with the confusion of place, tymes, and persons, would yet be no doubt) a warr to the reader to overlook them; and therefor, to favor myne oune paines, and his who should get little profite or delight thereby, I doe pass them over.”3 

In the year fifteen hundred and eighty-five, a quarrel took place between Neill Houcheonson, and Donald Neilson, the Laird of Assint, who had married Houcheon Mackay’s sister. The cause of Donald Neilson was espoused by Houcheon Mackay, and the Clan Gun, who came with an army out of Caithness and Strathnaver, to besiege Neill Houcheon son in the isle of Assint. Neill, who was commander of Assint, and a follower of the earl of Sutherland, sent immediate notice, to the earl, of Mackay’s movements, on receiving which, the earl, assembling a body of men, despatched them to Assint to raise the siege; but Mackay did not wait for their coming and retreated into Strathnaver. As the earl of Caithness had sent some of his people to assist Mackay, who was the earl of Sutherland’s vassal, the latter resolved to punish both, and accordingly made preparations for entering Strathnaver and Caithness, with an army. But some mutual friends of the parties interfered to prevent the effusion of blood, by prevailing on the two earls to [meet] at Elgin, in the presence of the earl of Huntly and other friends, and get their differences adjusted. A meeting was accordingly held, at which the earls were reconciled. The whole blame of the troubles and commotions which had recently disturbed the peace of Sutherland and Caithness, was thrown upon the Clan Gun, who were alleged to have been the chief instigators, and as their restless disposition might give rise to new disorders, it was agreed, at said meeting, to cut them off, and particularly that part of the tribe which dwelt in Caithness, which was chiefly dreaded, for which purpose the earl of Caithness bound himself to deliver up, to the earl of Sutherland, certain individuals of the clan living in Caithness. This condition was humiliating to the earl of Caithness, who, along with Mackay, had taken the Clan Gun under his protection, and on his return he refused to implement it. On hearing of his refusal the earl of Huntly took a journey into Sutherland, and sent messages to the earl of Caithness and Mackay to meet him at Dunrobin castle. The earl complied; but Mackay declined, and was, therefore, denounced rebel for his disobedience. The earl of Caithness being then called upon to fulfil his promise to deliver up some of the Clan Gun, gave his assurance to that effect, and to enable him to implement his engagement a resolution was entered into to send two companies of men against those of the Clan Gun who dwelt in Caithness and Strathnaver, and to surround them in such a way as to prevent escape. The earl of Caithness, notwithstanding, sent private notice to the clan of the preparations making against them by Angus Sutherland of Mellary, in Berridale; but the clan were distrustful of the earl, as they had already received secret intelligence that he had assembled his people together for the purpose of attacking them. 

As soon as the earl of Sutherland could get his men collected he proceeded to march to the territories of the Clan Gun; but meeting by chance, on his way, with a party of Strathnaver men, under the command of William Mackay, brother of Houcheon Mackay, carrying off the cattle of James Mac-Rory, a vassal of his own, from Coireceann Loch in the Diri-Meanigh, he rescued and brought back his vassal’s cattle. After this the earl’s party pursued William Mackay and the Strathnaver men during the whole day, and killed one of the principal men of the Clan Gun in Strathnaver, called Angus-Roy, with several others of Mackay’s company. This affair was called Latha-Tom-Fraoich, that is, the day of the heather bush. At the end of the pursuit, and towards evening, the pursued party found themselves on the borders of Caithness, where they found the Clan Gun assembled in consequence of the rising of the Caithness people who had taken away their cattle. 

This accidental meeting of the Strathnaver men and the Clan Gun was the means, probably, of saving both from destruction. They immediately entered into an alliance to stand by one another, and to live or die together. Next morning they found themselves placed between two powerful bodies of their enemies. On the one side was the earl of Sutherland’s party at no great distance, reposing themselves from the fatigues of the preceding day, and on the other were seen advancing the Caithness men, conducted by Henry Sinclair, brother to the laird of Dun, and cousin to the earl of Caithness. A council of war was immediately held to consult how to act in this emergency. William Mackay gave it as his opinion, that they should immediately attack the Sutherland men, who were wearied with the labour of the preceding day, before the Caithness men should arrive, and who might be thus easily defeated. But the Clan Gun objected to Mackay’s plan, and proposed to attack the Caithness men first, as they were far inferior in numbers. This proposal having been acceded to, the Clan Gun and their allies, who had the advantage of the hill, attacked the Caithness men with great resolution. The latter foolishly expended their arrows while at a distance from their opponents; but the Clan Gun having husbanded their shot till they came in close contact with the enemy did great execution. The Caithness men were completely overthrown, after leaving one hundred and forty of their party, with their captain, Henry Sinclair, dead on the field of battle. Had not the darkness of the night favoured their flight, they would have all been destroyed. Henry Sinclair was Mackay’s uncle, and not being aware that he had been in the engagement till he recognised his body among the slain, Mackay felt extremely grieved at the unexpected death of his relative. This skirmish took place at Aldgown, in the year fifteen hundred and eighty-six. The Sutherland men having lost sight of Mackay and his party among the hills, immediately before the conflict, returned into their own country with the booty they had recovered, and were not aware of the defeat of the Caithness men till some time after that event. 

The earl of Caithness afterwards confessed that he had no intention of attacking the Clan Gun at the time in question; but that his policy was to have allowed them to be closely pressed and pursued by the Sutherland men, and then to have relieved them from the imminent danger they would thereby be placed in, so that they might consider that it was to him they owed their safety, and thus lay them under fresh obligations to him. But the deceitful part he acted proved very disastrous to his people, and the result so exasperated him against the Clan Gun, that he hanged John-Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, chieftain of the Clan Gun, in Caithness, whom he had kept captive for some time. 

At the time the affair of Aldgown took place, Houcheon Mackay was on a visit to the earl of Caithness, whose paternal aunt he had married. But when the inhabitants of Caithness understood that William Mackay, his brother, had been with the Clan Gun at Aldgown, they attempted to murder Houcheon, who was, in consequence of this attempt upon his life, obliged to flee privately into Strathnaver.4 

The result of all these proceedings was another meeting between the earls of Sutherland and Caithness at the bill of Bingrime in Sutherland, which was brought about by the mediation of Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindoun, who was sent into the north by his nephew, the earl of Huntly, for that purpose. Here again a new confederacy was formed against the Clan Gun in Caithness, who were now maintained and harboured by Mackay. The earl of Sutherland, on account of the recent defeat of the Caithness men, undertook to attack the clan first. He accordingly directed two bodies to march with all haste against the clan, one of which was commanded by James Mack-Rory and Neill Mac-lain-Mac-William, chief of the Sliochd-Iain-Abaraich, who were now under the protection of the earl of Sutherland; and the other by William Sutherland Johnson, George Gordon in Marle, and William Murray in Kinnald, brother of Hugh Murray of Aberscors. Houcheon Mackay seeing no hopes of maintaining the Clan Gun any longer without danger to himself, discharged them from his country, whereupon they made preparations for seeking an asylum in the western isles. But, on their journey thither, they were met near Loch Broom, at a place called Leckmelme, by James Mac-Rory and Neill Mac-Iain-Mac-William, where, after a sharp skirmish, they were overthrown, and the greater part of them killed. Their commander, George Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, brother of John Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, who was hanged by the earl of Caithness, was severely wounded, and was taken prisoner after an unsuccessful attempt to escape by swimming across a loch close by. After being carried to Dunrobin castle, and presented to the earl of Sutherland, George Gun was sent by him to the earl of Caithness, who, though extremely grieved at the misfortune which had happened to the Clan Gun, dissembled his vexation, and received the prisoner as if he approved of the earl of Sutherland’s proceedings against him and his unfortunate people. After a short confinement, George Gun was released from his captivity by the earl of Caithness, at the entreaty of the earl of Sutherland, not from any favour to the prisoner himself, or to the earl, whom the earl of Caithness hated mortally, but with the design of making Gun an instrument of annoyance to some of the earl of Caithness’ neighbours. But the earl of Caithness was disappointed in his object, for George Gun, after his enlargement from prison, always remained faithful to the earl of Sutherland.5 

About this time a violent feud arose in the western isles between Angus Macdonald of Kintyre, and Sir Lauchlan Maclean of Duart, in Mull, whose sister Angus had married, which ended almost in the total destruction of the Clandonald and Clanlean. The circumstances which led to this unfortunate dissension were these:- 

Donald Gorm Macdonald of Slate, when going on a visit from Slate to his cousin, Angus Macdonald of Kintyre, was forced by contrary winds to land with his party in the island of Jura, which belonged, partly to Sir Lauchlan Maclean, and partly to Angus Macdonald. The part of the island where Macdonald of Slate landed belonged to Sir Lauchlan Maclean. No sooner had Macdonald and his company landed, than by an unlucky coincidence, Macdonald Tearreagh and Houcheon Macgillespoc, two of the Clandonald, who had lately quarrelled with Donald Gorm, arrived at the same time with a party of men; and, understanding that Donald Gorm was in the island, they secretly took away, by night, a number of cattle belonging to the Clanlean, and immediately put to sea. Their object in doing so was to make the Clanlean believe that Donald Gorm and his party had carried off the cattle in the hope that the Macleans would attack Donald Gorm, and they were not disappointed. As soon as the lifting of the cattle had been discovered, Sir Lauchlan Maclean assembled his whole forces, and, under the impression that Donald Gorm and his party had committed the spoliation, he attacked them suddenly and unawares, during the night, at a place in the island called Inverchuockwrick, and slew about sixty of the Clandonald. Donald Gorm, having previously gone on board his vessel to pass the night, fortunately escaped. 

When Angus Macdonald heard of this “untoward event,” he visited Donald Gorm in Skye for the purpose of consulting with him on the means of obtaining reparation for the loss of his men. On his return homeward to Kintyre, he landed in the isle of Mull, and, contrary to the advice of Coll Mac-James and Reginald Mac-James, his two brothers, and of Reginald Mac-Coll, his cousin, who wished him to send a messenger to announce the result of his meeting with Donald Gorm, went to the castle of Duart, the principal residence of Sir Lauchlan Maclean in Mull. His two brothers refused to accompany him, and they acted rightly; for, the day after Angus arrived at Duart, he and all his party were perfidiously arrested by Sir Lauchlan Maclean. Reginald Mac-Coll, the cousin of Angus, alone escaped. The Rhinns of Islay at this time belonged to the Clandonald, but they had given the possession of them to the Clanlean for personal services. Sir Lauchlan, thinking the present a favourable opportunity for acquiring an absolute right to this property, offered to release Angus Macdonald, provided he would renounce his right and title to the Rhinns; and, in case of refusal, he threatened to make him end his days in captivity, Angus, being thus in some degree compelled, agreed to the proposed terms; but before obtaining his liberty, he was forced to give James Macdonald, his eldest son, and Reginald Mac-James, his brother, as hostages, until the deed of conveyance should be delivered to Sir Lauchlan. 

It was not, however, the intention of Angus Macdonald to implement this engagement, if he could accomplish the liberation of his son and brother. His cousin had suffered a grievous injury at the hands of Sir Lauchlan Maclean without any just cause of offence, and he himself had, when on a friendly mission, been detained most unjustly as a prisoner, and compelled to promise to surrender into Sir Lauchlan’s hands, by a regular deed, a part of his property. Under these circumstances, his resolution to break the unfair engagement he had come under is not to be wondered at. To accomplish his object he had recourse to a stratagem in which he succeeded, as will be shown in the sequel. 

After Maclean had obtained delivery of the two hostages, he made a voyage to Islay to get the engagement completed. He left behind, in the castle of Duart, Reginald Mac-James, one of the hostages, whom he put in fetters, and took the other to accompany him on his voyage. Having arrived in the isle of Islay, he encamped at Eilean Gorm, a ruinous castle upon the Rhinns of Islay, which castle had been lately in the possession of the Clanlean. Angus Macdonald was residing at the time at the house of Mulindry or Mullindhrea, a comfortable and well-furnished residence belonging to him on the island, and to which he invited Sir Lauchlan, under the pretence of affording him better accommodation, and providing him with better provisions than he could obtain in his camp; but Sir Lauchlan having his suspicions, declined to accept the invitation. “There wes (says Sir Robert Gordon) so little trust on either syd, that they did not now meit in friendship or amitie, bot vpon ther owne guard, or rather by messingers, one from another. And true it is (sayeth John Colwin, in his manuscript) that the islanders are, of nature, verie suspicious; full of invention against ther nighbours, by whatsoever way they may get them destroyed. Besyds this, they are bent and eager in taking revenge, that neither have they regaird to persone, tyme, aige, nor cause; and ar generallie so addicted that way, (as lykwise are the most pairt of all Highlanders) that therein they surpasse all other people whatsoever.” 

The refusal of Sir Lauchlan, to take up his residence at Mulindry, did not prevent Macdonald from renewing his offer, which he pressed very warmly, saying, that he would make him as welcome as far as he was able, that they should make merry together as long as the provisions at Mulindry lasted, and that when these were exhausted, he would go to Sir Lauchlan’s camp and enjoy such fare as he could afford. But Maclean told the bearer of the message frankly, that he was distrustful of Macdonald’s intentions, and would not, therefore, come. Angus replied, by means of his messenger, that Maclean’s suspicions were unfounded; that he meant to show him nothing but brotherly love and affection; and that as he held his son and brother as pledges, he could run no risk whatever in taking up his residence at Mulindry Sir Lauchlan was now thrown off his guard by these fair promises, and agreed to pay Macdonald a visit, and accordingly proceeded to Mulindry, accompanied by James Macdonald, his own nephew, and the son of Angus, and eighty-six of his kinsmen and servants. Maclean and his party, on their arrival, were received by Macdonald with much apparent kindness, and were sumptuously entertained during the whole day. In the meantime, Macdonald sent notice to all his friends and well-wishers in the island to come to his house at nine o’clock at night, his design being to seize Maclean and his party. At the usual hour for going to repose, Maclean and his people were lodged in a long-house, which stood by itself, at some distance from the other houses. During the whole day, Maclean had always kept James Macdonald, the hostage, within his reach as a sort of protection to him in case of an attack, and at going to bed he took him along with him. About an hour after Maclean and his people had retired, Angus assembled his men to the number of three or four hundred, and made them surround the house in which Maclean and his company lay. Then going himself to the door, he called upon Maclean, and told him that he had come to give him his reposing drink, which he had forgotten to offer him before going to bed. Maclean answered that he did not wish to drink at that time; but Macdonald insisted that he should rise and receive the drink, it being, he said, his will that he should do so. The peremptory tone of Macdonald made Maclan at once apprehensive of the danger of his situation, and immediately getting up and placing the boy between his shoulders, prepared to preserve his life as long as he could with the boy, or to sell it as dearly as possible. As soon as the door was forced open, James Macdonald, seeing his father with a naked sword in his hand, and a number of his men armed in the same manner, cried aloud for mercy to Maclean, his uncle, which being granted, Sir Lauchlan was immediately removed to a secret chamber, where he remained till next morning. After Maclean had surrendered, Angus Macdonald announced to those within the house, that if they would come without, their lives would be spared; but he excepted Macdonald Terreagh and another individual whom he named. The whole, with the exception of these two, having complied, the house was immediately set on fire, and consumed along with Macdonald Terreagh and his companion. The former was one of the Clan Donald of the western islands, and not only had assisted the Clan Lean against his own tribe, but was also the originator, as we have seen, of all these disturbances; and the latter was a near kinsman to Maclean, one of the oldest of the clan, and celebrated both for his wisdom and prowess. This affair took place in the month of July, fifteen hundred and eighty-six. 

When the intelligence of the seizure of Sir Lauchlan Maclean reached the Isle of Mull, Allan Maclean, who was the nearest kinsman to Maclean, whose children were then very young, bethought himself of an expedient to obtain the possessions of Sir Lauchlan. In conjunction with his friends, Allan caused a false report to be spread in the island of Islay, that the friends of Maclean had killed Reginald Mac-James, the remaining hostage at Duart in Mull, by means of which he hoped that Angus Macdonald would be moved to kill Sir Lauchlan, and thereby enable him, (Allan,) to supply his place. But although this device did not succeed, it proved very disastrous to Sir Lauchlan’s friends and followers, who were beheaded in pairs by Coll Mac-James, the brother of Angus Macdonald. 

The friends of Sir Lauchlan seeing no hopes of his release, applied to the earl of Argyle to assist them in a contemplated attempt to rescue him out of the hands of Angus Macdonald; but the earl perceiving the utter hopelessness of such an attempt with such forces as he and they could command, advised them to complain to King James VI. against Angus Macdonald, for the seizure and detention of their chief. The king immediately directed that Macdonald should be summoned by a herald-at-arms to deliver up Sir Lauchlan into the hands of the earl of Argyle; but the herald was interrupted in the performance of his duty, not being able to procure shipping for Islay, and was obliged to return home. The earl of Argyle had then recourse to negotiation with Macdonald, and after considerable trouble he prevailed on him to release Sir Lauchlan on certain strict conditions, but not until Reginald Mac-James, the brother of Angus, had been delivered up, and the earl, for performance of the conditions agreed upon, had given his own son, and the son of Macleod of Harris, as hostages. But Maclean, quite regardless of the safety of the hostages, and in open violation of the engagements he had come under, on hearing that Angus Macdonald had gone to Ireland on a visit to the Clandonald of the glens in Ireland, invaded Ila, which he laid waste, and pursued those who had assisted in his capture. 

On his return from Ireland, Angus Macdonald made great preparations for inflicting a just chastisement upon Maclean. Collecting a large body of men, and much shipping, he invaded Mull and Tiree, carrying havock and destruction along with him, and destroying every human being and every domestic animal of whatever kind. While Macdonald was committing these ravages in Mull and Tiree, Maclean, instead of opposing him, invaded Kintyre, where he took ample retaliation by wasting and burning a great part of that country. In this manner did these hostile clans continue, for a considerable period, mutually to vex and destroy one another till they were almost exterminated root and branch. 

In order to strengthen his own power and to weaken that of his antagonist, Sir Lauchlan Maclean attempted to detach John Mac-lain, of Ardnamurchan, from Angus Macdonald and his party. Mac-lain had formerly been an unsuccessful suitor for the hand of Maclean’s mother, and Sir Hector now gave him an invitation to visit him in Mull, promising, at the same time, to give him his mother in marriage. Mac-Iain accepted the invitation, and on his arrival in Mull, Maclean prevailed on his mother to marry Mac-lain, and the nuptials were accordingly celebrated at Torloisk in Mull. Maclean thought, that by gratifying Mac-lain in his long-wished-for object, he would easily succeed in obtaining his assistance against Macdonald; but he was disappointed in his expectations, for no persuasion could induce Mac-lain to join against his own tribe, towards which, notwithstanding his matrimonial alliance, he entertained the strongest affection. Chagrined at the unexpected refusal of Mac-lain, Sir Lauchlan resolved to punish his refractory guest by one of those gross infringements of the laws of hospitality which so often marked the hostility of rival clans. During the dead hour of the night he caused the door of Mac-Iain’s bed-chamber to be forced open, dragged him from his bed, and from the arms of his wife, and put him in close confinement, after killing eighteen of his followers. After suffering a year’s captivity, he was released and exchanged for Maclean’s son, and the other hostages in Macdonald’s possession. 

The dissensions between these two tribes having attracted the attention of government, the rival chiefs were induced, partly by command of the king, and partly by persuasions and fair promises, to come to Edinburgh in the year fifteen hundred and ninety-one, for the purpose of having their differences reconciled. On their arrival they were committed prisoners within the castle of Edinburgh, but were soon released and allowed to return home on payment of a small pecuniary fine, “and a shamfull remission (says Sir Robert Gordon) granted to either of them.”6 

In the year fifteen hundred and eighty-seven, the flames of civil discord, which had lain dormant for a short time, burst forth between the rival houses of Sutherland and Caithness, the immediate cause of which was this: In the year fifteen hundred and eighty-three, Alexander, Earl of Sutherland, obtained from the earl of Huntly a grant of the superiority of Strathnaver, and of the heritable sheriffship of Sutherland and Strathnaver, which last was granted in lieu of the lordship of Aboyne. This grant was confirmed by his Majesty in a charter under the great seal, by which Sutherland and Strathnaver were disjoined and dismembered from the sheriffdom of Inverness. The success which had attended the arms of the earl of Sutherland against the Clan Gun, and the kinsmen and dependants of the earl of Caithness, excited the envy and indignation of the latter, who became more desirous than ever to cripple the power of the earl of Sutherland. And as the strength and influence of the earl of Sutherland were greatly increased by the power and authority with which the superiority of Strathnaver invested him, the earl of Caithness used the most urgent entreaties with the earl of Huntly, who was his brother-in-law, to recal the gift of the superiority which he had granted to the earl of Sutherland, and confer the same on him. The earl of Huntly gave no decided answer to this application, although he seemed rather to listen with a favourable ear to his brother-in-law’s request. The earl of Sutherland having been made aware of his rival’s pretensions, and of the reception which he had met with from the earl of Huntly, immediately notified to Huntly that he would never restore the superiority either to him or to the earl of Caithness, as the bargain he had made with him had been long finally concluded. The earl of Huntly was much offended at this notice, but he and the earl of Sutherland were soon reconciled through the mediation of Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun. 

Disappointed in his views of obtaining the superiority in question, the earl of Caithness seized the first opportunity, which presented itself, of quarrelling with the earl of Sutherland, and he now thought that a suitable occasion had occurred. George Gordon, a bastard son of Gilbert Gordon of Gartay, having offered many indignities to the earl of Caithness, the earl, instead of complaining to the earl of Sutherland, in whose service this George Gordon was, craved satisfaction and redress from the earl of Huntly. Huntly very properly desired the earl of Caithness to lay his complaint before the earl of Sutherland; but this he declined to do, disdaining to seek redress from Earl Alexander. Encouraged, probably, by the refusal of the earl of Huntly to interfere, and the stubbornness of the earl of Caithness to ask redress from his master, George Gordon, who resided in the town of Marle in Strathully, on the borders of Caithness, not satisfied with the indignities which he had formerly shown to the earl of Caithness, cut off the tails of the earl’s horses as they were passing the river of Helmsdale under the care of his servants, on their journey from Caithness to Edinburgh, and in derision desired the earl’s servants to show him what he had done. 

This George Gordon, it would appear, led a very irregular and wicked course of life, and shortly after the occurrence we have just related, a circumstance happened which induced the earl of Caithness to take redress at his own hands. George Gordon had incurred the displeasure of the earl of Sutherland by an incestuous connexion with his wife’s sister, and as he had no hopes of regaining the earl’s favour but by renouncing this impure intercourse, he sent Patrick Gordon, his brother, to the earl of Caithness to endeavour to effect a reconciliation with him, as he could no longer rely upon the protection of his master, the earl of Sutherland. The earl of Caithness, who felt an inward satisfaction at hearing of the displeasure of the earl of Sutherland at George Gordon, dissembled his feelings, and pretended to listen with great favour to the request of Patrick Gordon, in order to throw George Gordon off his guard, while he was in reality meditating his destruction. The ruse succeeded so effectually, that although Gordon received timeous notice, from some friends, of the intentions of the earl to attack him, he reposed in false security upon the promises held out to him, and made no provision for his personal safety. But he was soon undeceived by the appearance of the earl and a body of men, who, entering Marle under the silence of the night, surrounded his house and required him to surrender. He, however, refused to comply, and when attacked defended the house with great bravery, and killed a gentleman of the name of Sutherland, one of the principal officers of the earl; but being sorely pressed, he made a desperate effort to escape by cutting his way through his enemies and throwing himself into the river of Helmsdale, which he attempted to swim across, but, in his endeavours to reach the opposite bank, was slain by a shower of arrows. This occurrence took place in the month of February fifteen hundred and eighty-seven. The earl detained Patrick Gordon, the brother of George, prisoner, but he soon escaped and returned into Sutherland. 

The earl of Sutherland, though he disliked the conduct of George Gordon, was highly incensed at his death, and made great preparations to punish the earl of Caithness for his attack upon Gordon. The earl of Caithness in his turn assembled his whole forces, and being joined by Mackay and the Strathnaver men, together with John, the master of Orkney, and the earl of Carrick, brother of Patrick, earl of Orkney, and some of his countrymen, marched to Helmsdale to meet the earl of Sutherland. As soon as the latter heard of the advance of the earl of Caithness, he also proceeded towards Helmsdale, accompanied by Mackintosh, Roderick Mackenzie of Redcastle, Hector Monroe of Contaligh, and Neill Houcheonson, with the men of Assint. On his arrival at the river of Helmsdale, the earl of Sutherland found the enemy encamped on the opposite side. Neither party seemed inclined to come to a general engagement, but contented themselves with daily skirmishes by annoying each other with guns and arrows from the opposite banks of the river, which, in some instances, proved fatal. The Sutherland men, who were very expert archers, annoyed the Caithness men so much, as to force them to break up their camp on the river side and to remove among the rocks above the village of Easter Helmsdale. Mackay and his countrymen were encamped on the river of Marle, and in order to detach him from the earl of Caithness, Mackintosh crossed that river and had a private conference with him. After reminding him of the friendship which had so long subsisted between his ancestors and the Sutherland family, Mackintosh endeavoured to impress upon his mind the danger he incurred by taking up arms against his own superior the earl of Sutherland, and entreated him, for his own sake, to join the earl; but Mackay remained inflexible. 

By the mediation of mutual friends, the two earls agreed to a temporary truce on the ninth of March fifteen hundred and eighty-seven, and thus the effusion of human blood was stopped for a short time. As Mackay was the vassal of the earl of Sutherland, the latter refused to comprehend him in the truce, and insisted upon an unconditional submission, but Mackay obstinately refused to do so, and returned home to his own country, highly chagrined that the earl of Caithness, for whom he had put his life and estate in jeopardy, should have acceded to the earl of Sutherland’s request, to exclude him from the benefit of the truce. Before the two earls separated, they came to a mutual understanding to reduce Mackay to obedience; and that he might not suspect their design, they agreed to meet at Edinburgh for the purpose of concerting the necessary measures together. Accordingly, they held a meeting at the appointed place in the year fifteen hundred and eighty-eight, and came to the resolution to attack Mackay; and to prevent Mackay from receiving any intelligence of their design, both parties swore to keep the same secret; but the earl of Caithness, regardless of his oath, immediately sent notice to Mackay of the intended attack, for the purpose of enabling him to meet it. Instead, however, of following the earl of Caithness’ advice, Mackay, justly dreading his hollow friendship, made haste, by the advice of Mackintosh and the Laird of Foulis, to reconcile himself to the earl of Sutherland, his superior, by an immediate submission. For this purpose, he and the earl first met at Inverness, and after conferring together they made another appointment to meet at Elgin, where a perfect and final reconciliation took place in the month of November, fifteen hundred and eighty-eight. 

1  Sir R. Gordon, p. 163. 

2  Sir R. Gordon, p. 173. 

3  Hist. p. 174. 

4  Sir R. Gordon, pp. 181-184. 

5  Sir R. Gordon, p. 185. 

6  Hist. p. 192.

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