Chapter VI. – A.D 1424-1512, pp.71-80.

[History of the Scottish Highlands Contents]

Kings of Scotland:- 

James I., 1406-1436. James III., 1460-1488. 
James II., 1436-1460. James IV., 1488-1513. 

James I. – State of Country – Policy of the King to the Highland Chiefs – Lord of the Isles – Disturbances in Sutherland – Barbarity of a Robber – James’s Highland Expedition – Disturbances in Caithness – Insurrection in the West under Donald Balloch – Lord of the Isles invades Sutherland – Allan of Lorn – Machinations of Edward IV. with Island Chiefs – Rebellion of Earl of Ross – Lord of the Isles submits – Disturbances in Ross and Sutherland – Wise Policy of James IV. – Visits Highlands – Feuds in Sutherland – Highlanders at Flodden.

   ON the return of James I., in 1424, from his captivity in England, he found Scotland, and particularly the Highlands, in a state of the most fearful insubordination. Rapine, robbery, and an utter contempt of the laws prevailed to an alarming extent, which required all the energy of a wise and prudent prince, like James, to repress. When these excesses were first reported to James, by one of his nobles, on entering the kingdom, he thus expressed himself:- “Let God but grant me life, and there shall not be a spot in my dominions where the key shall not keep the castle, and furze-bush the cow, though I myself should lead the life of a dog to accomplish it.”1 At this period, the condition of the Highlands, so far as is discoverable from the few authentic documents which have reached our times, appears to have been in the highest degree rude and uncivilized. There existed a singular combination of Celtic and of feudal manners. Powerful chiefs, of Norman name and Norman blood, had penetrated into the remotest districts, and ruled over multitudes of vassals and serfs, whose strange and uncouth appellatives proclaim their difference of race in the most convincing manner.2 The tenure of lands by charter and seisin, the feudal services due by the vassal to his lord, the bands of friendship or of manrent which indissolubly united certain chiefs and nobles to each other, the baronial courts, and the complicated official pomp of feudal life, were all to be found in full strength and operation in the northern counties; but the dependence of the barons, who had taken up their residence in these wild districts, upon the king, and their allegiance and subordination to the laws, were less intimate and influential than in the Lowland divisions of the country; and as they experienced less protection, we have already seen, that in great public emergencies, when the captivity of the sovereign, or the payment of his ransom, called for the imposition of a tax upon property throughout the kingdom, these great northern chiefs thought themselves at liberty to resist the collection within their mountainous principalities. 

   “Besides such Scoto-Norman barons, however, there were to be found in the Highlands and Isles, those fierce aboriginal chiefs, who hated the Saxon and the Norman race, and offered a mortal opposition to the settlement of all intruders within a country which they considered their own. They exercised the same authority over the various clans or septs of which they were the chosen heads or leaders, which the baron possessed over his vassals and military followers; and the dreadful disputes and collisions which perpetually occurred between these distinct ranks of potentates, were accompanied by spoliations, ravages, imprisonments, and murders, which had at last become so frequent and so far extended, that the whole country beyond the Grampian range was likely to be cut off, by these abuses, from all regular communication with the more pacific parts of the kingdom.”3 

   Having, by a firm and salutary, but perhaps severe, course of policy, restored the empire of the laws in the Lowlands, and obtained the enactment of new statutes for the future welfare and prosperity of the kingdom, James next turned his attention to his Highland dominions, which, as we have seen, were in a deplorable state of insubordination, that made both property and life insecure. The king determined to visit in person the disturbed districts, and by punishing the refractory chiefs, put an end to those tumults and enormities which had, during his minority, triumphed over the laws. James, in the year 1427, arrived at Inverness, attended by his parliament, and immediately summoned the principal chiefs there to appear before him. From whatever motives – whether from hopes of effecting a reconciliation by a ready compliance with the mandate of the king, or from a dread, in case of refusal, of the fate of the powerful barons of the south who had fallen victims to James’s severity – the order of the king was obeyed, and the chiefs repaired to Inverness. No sooner, however, had they entered the hall where the parliament was sitting, than they were by order of the king arrested, ironed, and imprisoned in different apartments, and debarred all communication with each other, or with their followers. It has been supposed that these chiefs may have been entrapped by some fair promises on the part of James, and the joy which, according to Fordun, he manifested at seeing these turbulent and haughty spirits caught in the toils which he had prepared for them, favours this conjecture. The number of chiefs seized on this occasion is stated to have amounted to about forty; but the names of the principal ones only have been preserved. These were Alaster or Alexander Macdonald, Lord of the Isles; Angus Dubh Mackay, with his four sons, who could bring into the field 4,000 fighting men; Kenneth More and his son-in-law, Angus of Moray, and Macmathan, who could muster 2,000 men; Alexander Macreiny of Garmoran and John Macarthur, each of whom could bring into the field 1,000 followers. Besides these were John Ross, James Campbell, and William Lesley. The Countess of Ross, the mother of Alexander, the Lord of the Isles, and heiress of Sir Walter Lesley, was also apprehended and imprisoned at the same time.4 

   The king now determined to inflict summary vengeance upon his captives. Those who were most conspicuous for their crimes were immediately executed; among whom were James Campbell, who was tried, convicted, and hanged for the murder of John of the Isles; and Alexander Macreiny and John Macarthur, who were beheaded. Alexander of the Isles and Angus Dubh, after a short confinement, were both pardoned; but the latter was obliged to deliver up, as a hostage for his good behaviour, his son Neill, who was confined on the Bass rock, and, from that circumstance, was afterwards named Neill-Wasse-Mackay.5 Besides these, many others who were kept in prison in different parts of the kingdom, were afterwards condemned and executed. 

   The royal clemency, which had been extended so graciously to the Lord of the Isles, met with an ungrateful return; for shortly after the king had returned to his lowland dominions, Alexander collected a force of ten thousand men in Ross and the Isles, and with this formidable body laid waste the country; plundered and devastated the crown lands, against which his vengeance was chiefly directed, and razed the royal burgh of Inverness to the ground. On hearing of these distressing events, James, with a rapidity rarely equalled, collected a force, the extent of which has not been ascertained, and marched with great speed into Lochaber, where he found the enemy, who, from the celerity of his movements, was taken almost by surprise. Alexander prepared for battle; but, before its commencement, he had the misfortune to witness the desertion of the clan Chattan, and the clan Cameron, who, to a man, went over to the royal standard. The king, thereupon, attacked Alexander’s army, which he completely routed, and the latter sought safety in flight. 

   Reduced to the utmost distress, and seeing the impossibility of evading the active vigilance of his pursuers, who hunted him from place to place, this haughty lord, who considered himself on a par with kings, resolved to throw himself entirely on the mercy of the king, by an act of the most abject submission. Having arrived in Edinburgh, to which he had travelled in the most private manner, the humbled chief suddenly presented himself before the king, on Easter-Sunday, in the church of Holyrood, when he and his queen, surrounded by the nobles of the court, were employed in their devotions before the high altar. The extraordinary appearance of the fallen prince denoted the inward workings of his troubled mind. Without bonnet, arms, or ornament of any kind, his legs and arms quite bare, his body covered with only a plaid, and holding a naked sword in his hand by the point, he fell down on his knees before the king, imploring mercy and forgiveness, and, in token of his unreserved submission, offered the hilt of his sword to his majesty. At the solicitation of the queen and nobles, James spared his life, committed him immediately to Tantallan castle, under the charge of William Earl of Angus, his nephew. This took place in the year 1429. The Countess of Ross was kept in close confinement in the ancient monastery of Inchcolm, on the small island of that name, in the Frith of Forth.6 The king, however, relented, and released the Lord of the Isles and his mother, after about a year’s imprisonment. 

   About this period happened another of those bloody frays, which destroyed the internal peace of the Highlands, and brought ruin and desolation upon many families. Thomas Macneill, son of Neill Mackay, who was engaged in the battle of Tuttum-Turwigh, possessed the lands of Creigh, Spaniziedaill, and Palrossie, in Sutherland. Having conceived some displeasure at Mowat, the laird of Freshwick, the latter, with his party, in order to avoid his vengeance, took refuge in the chapel of St. Duffus, near the town of Tain, as a sanctuary. Thither they were followed by Thomas, who not only slew Mowat and his people, but also burnt the chapel to the ground. This outrage upon religion and humanity exasperated the king, who immediately ordered a proclamation to be issued, denouncing Thomas Macneill as a rebel, and promising his lands and possessions as a reward to any one that would kill or apprehend him. Angus Murray, son of Alexander Murray of Cubin, immediately set about the apprehension of Thomas Macneill. To accomplish his purpose, he held a secret conference with Morgan and Neill Macneill, the brothers of Thomas, at which he offered, provided they would assist him in apprehending their brother, his two daughters in marriage, and promised to aid them in getting peaceable possession of such lands in Strathnaver as they claimed. This, he showed them, might be easily accomplished, with little or no resistance, as Neill Mackay, son of Angus Dubh, from whom the chief opposition might have been expected, was then a prisoner in the Bass, and Angus Dubh, the father, was unable, from age and infirmity, to defend his pretensions. Angus Murray also promised to request the assistance of the Earl of Sutherland. As these two brothers pretended a right to the possessions of Angus Dubh in Strathnaver, they were easily allured by these promises; they immediately apprehended their brother Thomas at Spaniziedaill in Sutherland, and delivered him up to Murray, by whom he was presented to the king. Macneill was immediately executed at Inverness, and Angus Murray obtained, in terms of the royal proclamation, a grant of the lands of Palrossie and Spaniziedaill from the king. The lands of Creigh fell into the hands of the Lord of the Isles, as superior, by the death and felony of Macneill.7 

   In pursuance of his promise, Murray gave his daughters in marriage respectively to Neill and Morgan Macneill, and with the consent and approbation of Robert Earl of Sutherland, he invaded Strathnaver with a party of Sutherland men, to take possession of the lands of Angus Dubh Mackay. Angus immediately collected his men, and gave the command of them to John Aberigh, his natural son, as he was unable to lead them in person. Both parties met about two miles from Toung, at a place called Drum-ne-Coub; but, before they came to blows, Angus Dubh Mackay sent a message to Neill and Morgan, his cousins-german, offering to surrender them all his lands and possessions in Strathnaver, if they would allow him to retain Keantayle. This fair offer was, however, rejected, and an appeal was therefore immediately made to arms. A desperate conflict then took place, in which many were killed on both sides; among whom were Angus Murray, and his two sons-in-law, Neill and Morgan Macneill. John Aberigh, though he gained the victory, was severely wounded, and lost one of his arms. After the battle Angus Dubh Mackay was carried, at his own request, to the field, to search for the bodies of his slain cousins, but he was killed by an arrow from a Sutherland man who lay concealed in a bush hard by. 

   James I. made many salutary regulations for putting an end to the disorders consequent upon the lawless state of the Highlands, and the oppressed looked up to him for protection. The following remarkable case will give some idea of the extraordinary barbarity in which the spoliators indulged:- A notorious thief, named Donald Ross, who had made himself rich with plunder, carried off two cows from a poor woman. This woman having expressed a determination not to wear shoes again till she had made a complaint to the king in person, the robber exclaimed, “It is false: I’ll have you shod before you reach the court;” and thereupon, with a brutality scarcely paralleled, the cruel monster took two horse shoes, and fixed them on her feet with nails, driven into the flesh. The victim of this savage act, as soon as she was able to travel, went to the king and related to him the whole circumstances of her case, which so exasperated him, that he immediately sent a warrant to the sheriff of the county, where Ross resided, for his immediate apprehension; which being effected, he and a number of his associates were sent under an escort to Perth, where the court was then held. Ross was tried and condemned, he and his friends being treated in the same manner as he had treated the poor woman; and before his execution a linen shirt, on which was painted a representation of his crime, was thrown over him, in which dress he was paraded through the streets of the town, afterwards at a horse’s tail, and hanged on a gallows.8 

   The commotions in Strathnaver, and other parts of the Highlands, induced the king to make another expedition into that part of his dominions; previous to which he summoned a Parliament at Perth, which was held on the 15th of October, 1431, in which a land-tax, or “zelde,” was laid upon the whole lands of the kingdom, to defray the expenses of the undertaking. No contemporary record of this expedition exists; but it is said that the king proceeded to Dunstaffnage castle, to punish those chiefs who had joined in Donald Balloch’s insurrection; that, on his arrival there, numbers of these came to him and made their submission, throwing the whole odium of the rebellion upon the leader, whose authority, they alleged, they were afraid to resist; and that, by their means, three hundred thieves were apprehended and put to death. 

   For several years after this expedition the Highlands appear to have been tranquil; but, on the liberation of Neill Mackay from his confinement on the Bass, in the year 1437, fresh disturbances began. This restless chief had scarcely been released, when he entered Caithness, and spoiled the country. He was met at a place called Sandsett; but the people who came to oppose his progress were defeated, and many of them were slain. This conflict was called Ruaig Hanset; that is, the flight, or chase at Sandsett. 

   About the same time a quarrel took place between the Keiths and some others of the inhabitants of Caithness. As the Keiths could not depend upon their own forces, they sought the aid of Angus Mackay, son of Neill last mentioned, who had recently died. Angus agreed to join the Keiths; and accordingly, accompanied by his brother, John Roy, and a chieftain named Iain-Mor-Mac-Iain-Riabhaich, with a company of men, he went into Caithness, and, joining the Keiths, invaded that part of Caithness hostile to the Keiths. The people of Caithness lost not a moment in assembling together, and met the Strathnaver men and the Keiths at a place called Blare-Tannie. Here a sanguinary contest took place; but victory declared for the Keiths, whose success, it is said, was chiefly owing to the prowess of Iain-Mor-Mac-Iain-Riabhaich, whose name was, in consequence, long famous in that and the adjoining country.9 

   After the defeat of James, Earl of Douglas, who had renounced his allegiance to James II., at Arkinholme, in 1454, he retired into Argyleshire, where he was received by the Earl of Ross, with whom, and the Lord of the Isles, he entered into an alliance. The ocean prince, having a powerful fleet of 500 galleys at his command, immediately assembled his vassals, to the amount of 5,000 fighting men, and, having embarked them in his navy, gave the command of the whole to Donald Balloch, Lord of Isla, his near kinsman, a chief who, besides his possessions in Scotland, had great power in the north of Ireland. This potent chief, whose hereditary antipathy to Scottish throne was as keen as that of his relation, entered cheerfully into the views of Douglas. With the force under his command he desolated the western coast of Scotland from Innerkip to Bute, the Cumbraes and the Island of Arran; yet formidable as he was both in men and ships, the loss was not so considerable as might have been expected, from the prudent precautions taken by the king to repel the invaders. The summary of the damage sustained is thus related in a contemporary chronicle:- “There was slain of good men fifteen; of women, two or three; of children, three or four. The plunder included five or six hundred horse, ten thousand oxen and kine, and more than a thousand sheep and goats. At the same time, they burnt down several mansions in Innerkip around the church; harried all Arran; stormed and levelled with the ground the castle of Brodick; and wasted, with fire and sword, the islands of the Cumbraes. They also levied tribute upon Bute; carrying away a hundred bolls of malt, a hundred marts, and a hundred marks of silver.”10 

   Donald Balloch was engaged in this expedition, the Lord of the Isles, with his kinsmen and followers to the number of five or six hundred, made an incursion into Sutherland, and encamped before the castle of Skibo. What his object was has not been ascertained; but, as a measure of precaution, the Earl of Sutherland sent Neill Murray, son of Angus Murray, who was slain at Drum-na-Coub, to watch his motions. The Lord of the Isles immediately began to commit depredations, whereupon he was attacked by Murray, and compelled to retreat into Ross with the loss of one of his captains, named Donald Dubh-na-Soirn, and fifty of his men. Exasperated at this defeat, Macdonald sent another party of his islanders, along with a company of men from Ross, to Strathfleet in Sutherland to lay waste the country, and thus wipe off the disgrace of his late defeat. On hearing of this fresh invasion, the Earl of Sutherland despatched his brother Robert with a sufficient force to attack the Clandonald. They met on the sands of Strathfleet, and, after a fierce and bloody struggle, the islanders and their allies were overthrown with great slaughter. Many perished in the course of their flight. This was the last hostile irruption of the Clandonald into Sutherland, as all the disputes between the Lord of the Isles and the Sutherland family were afterwards accommodated by a matrimonial alliance. 

   The vigorous administration of James II., which checked and controlled the haughty and turbulent spirit of his nobles, was also felt in the Highlands, where his power, if not always acknowledged, was nevertheless dreaded; but upon the death of that wise prince in 1460, and the accession of his infant son to the crown, the princes of the north again abandoned themselves to their lawless courses. The first who showed the example was Allan of Lorn of the Wood, as he was called, a nephew of Donald Balloch by his sister. Coveting the estate of his elder brother, Ker of Lorn, Allan imprisoned him in a dungeon in the island of Kerrera, with the view of starving him to death that he might the more easily acquire the unjust possession he desired; but Ker was liberated, and his property restored to him by the Earl of Argyle, to whom he was nearly related, and who suddenly attacked Allan with a fleet of galleys, defeated him, burnt his fleet, and slew the greater part of his men. This act, so justifiable in itself, roused the revengeful passions of the island chiefs, who issued from their ocean retreats and committed the most dreadful excesses.11 

   After the decisive battle of Touton, Henry VI. and his Queen retired to Scotland to watch the first favourable opportunity of seizing the sceptre from the house of York. Edward IV., anticipating the danger that might arise to his crown by an alliance between his rival, the exiled monarch, and the king of Scotland, determined to counteract the effects of such a connection by a stroke of policy. Aware of the disaffected disposition of some of the Scottish nobles, and northern and island chiefs, he immediately entered into a negotiation with John, Earl of Ross, and Donald Balloch, to detach them from their allegiance. On the 19th of October, 1461, the Earl of Ross, Donald Balloch, and his son John de Isle, held a council of their vassals and dependants at Astornish, at which it was agreed to send ambassadors to England to treat with Edward. On the arrival of these ambassadors a negotiation was entered into between them and the Earl of Douglas, and John Douglas of Balveny, his brother, both whom had been obliged to leave Scotland for their treasons in the previous reign. These two brothers, who were animated by a spirit of hatred and revenge against the family of their late sovereign James II., warmly entered into views of Edward, whose subjects they had become; and they concluded a treaty with the northern ambassadors which assumed as its basis nothing less than the entire conquest of Scotland. Among other conditions, it was stipulated that, upon payment of a specified sum of money to himself, his son, and ally, the Lord of the Isles should become for ever the vassal of England, and should assist Edward and his successors in the wars in Ireland and elsewhere. And, in the event of the entire subjugation of Scotland by the Earls of Ross and Douglas, the whole of the kingdom on the north of the Frith of Forth was to be divided equally between these Earls and Donald Balloch, and the estates which formerly belonged to Douglas between the Frith of Forth and the borders were to be restored to him. This singular treaty is dated London, 18th February, 1462.12 

   Pending this negotiation, the Earl of Angus, at that time one of the most powerful of the Scottish nobles, having, by the promise of an English dukedom from the exiled Henry, engaged to assist in restoring him to his crown and dominions, the Earl of Ross, before the plan had been organized, in order to counteract the attempt, broke out into open rebellion, which was characterized by all those circumstances of barbarous cruelty which distinguished the inroads of the princes of the islands. He first seized the castle of Inverness at the head of a small party, being admitted unawares by the governor, who did not suspect his hostile intentions. He then collected a considerable army, and proclaimed himself king of the Hebrides. With his army he entered the country of Athole, denounced the authority of the king, and commanded all taxes to be paid to him; and, after committing the most dreadful excesses, he stormed the castle of Blair, dragged the Earl and Countess of Athole from the chapel of St. Bridget, and carried them off to Isla as prisoners. It is related that the Earl of Ross thrice attempted to set fire to the holy pile, but in vain. He lost many of his war-galleys, in a storm of thunder and lightning, in which the rich booty he had taken was consigned to the deep. Preparations were immediately made by the regents of the kingdom for punishing this rebellious chief; but these became unnecessary, for, touched with remorse, he collected the remains of his plunder, and stripped to his shirt and drawers, and barefooted, he, along with his principal followers, in the same forlorn and dejected condition, went to the chapel of St. Bridget which they had lately desecrated, and there performed a penance before the altar. The Earl and Countess of Athole were thereupon voluntarily released from confinement, and the Earl of Ross was afterwards assassinated in the castle of Inverness, by an Irish harper who bore him a grudge.13 

   Although at this period an account of Orkney and Shetland does not properly belong to a history of the Highlands, as these islands had long been the property of the king of Norway, and had a population almost purely Teutonic, with a language, manners, and customs widely differing from those of the Highlanders proper; still it will not be out of place to mention here, that these islands were finally made over to Scotland in 1469, as security for the dowry of Margaret of Norway, the wife of James III. 

   The successor of the Lord of the Isles – who was generally more like an independent sovereign than a subject of the Scottish king – not being disposed to tender the allegiance which his father had violated, the king, in the month May, 1476, assembled a large army on the north of the Forth, and a fleet on the west coast, for the purpose of making a simultaneous attack upon him by sea and land. Seeing no hopes of making effectual resistance against such a powerful force as that sent against him, he tendered his submission to the king on certain conditions, and resigned the earldom of Ross, and the lands of Kintyre and Knapdale, into his majesty’s hands. By this act he was restored to the king’s favour, who forgave him his offences, and “infeft him of new” in the lordship of the Isles and the other lands which he did not renounce. The Earl of Athole, who commanded the royal army, was rewarded for this service by a grant of the lands and forest of Cluny.14 

   After the Lord of the Isles had thus resigned the earldom of Ross into the king’s hands, that province was perpetually molested by incursions from the islanders, who now considered it a fit theatre for the exercise of their predatory exploits. Gillespic, cousin of the Lord of the Isles, at the head of a large body of the islanders, invaded the higher part of Ross and committed great devastation. The inhabitants, or as many as the shortness of the time would permit, amongst whom the Clankenzie were chiefly distinguished, speedily assembled, and met the islanders on the banks of the Connan, where a sharp conflict took place. The Clankenzie fought with great valour, and pressed the enemy so hard that Gillespic Macdonald was overthrown, and the greater part of his men were slain or drowned in the river, about two miles from Braile, thence called Blar-na-Pairc. The predecessor of the Laird of Brodie, who happened to be with the chief of the Mackenzies at the time, fought with great courage. 

   For a considerable time the district of Sutherland had remained tranquil, but on the 11th of July, 1487, it again became the scene of a bloody encounter between the Mackays and the Rosses. To revenge the death of a relation, or to wipe away the stigma of a defeat, were considered sacred and paramount duties by the Highlanders; and if, from the weakness of the clan, the minority of the chief, or any other cause, the day of deadly reckoning was delayed, the feeling which prompted revenge was never dormant, and the earliest opportunity was embraced of vindicating the honour of the clan. Angus Mackay, son of the famous Neill of the Bass, having been killed at Tarbert by a Ross, his son, John Riabhaich Mackay, applied to John Earl of Sutherland, on whom he depended, to assist him in revenging his father’s death. The Earl promised his aid, and accordingly sent his uncle, Robert Sutherland, with a company of chosen men, to assist John Mackay. With this force, and such men as John Mackay and his relation Uilleam-Dubh-Mac-lain-Abaraich, son of John Aberigh who fought at Drum-na-Coub, could collect, they invaded Strath-oy-kell, carrying fire and sword in their course, and laying waste many lands belonging to the Rosses. As soon as the Laird of Balnagown, the chief of the Rosses, heard of this attack, he collected all his forces, and attacked Robert Sutherland and John Riabhaich Mackay, at a place called Aldy-charrish. A long and obstinate battle took place; but the death of Balnagown and seventeen of the principal landed gentlemen of Ross decided the combat, for the people of Ross, being deprived of their leader, were thrown into confusion, and utterly put to flight, with great slaughter. 

   The fruit of this victory was a large quantity of booty, which the victors divided the same day; but the avarice of the men of Assynt, induced them to instigate John Mackay to resolve to commit one of the most perfidious and diabolical acts ever perpetrated by men who had fought on the same side. The design of the Assynt men was, to cut off Robert Sutherland and his whole party, and possess themselves of their share of the spoil, before the Earl of Sutherland could learn the result of the battle, that he might be led to suppose that his uncle and his men had all fallen in the action with the Rosses. When this plan was divulged to Uilleam-Dubh-Mac-lain-Abaraich, he was horrified at it, and immediately sent notice to Robert Sutherland of it, that he might be upon his guard. Robert assembled his men upon receipt of this extraordinary intelligence, told them of the base intentions of John Mackay, and put them in order, to be prepared for the threatened attack; but on John Riabhaich Mackay perceiving that Robert and his party were prepared to meet him, he slunk off, and went home to Strathnaver.15 

   The lawless state of society in the Highlands, which followed as a consequence from the removal of the seat of government to the Lowlands, though it often engaged the attention of the Scottish sovereigns, never had proper remedies applied to mend it. At one time the aid of force was called in, and when that was ineffectual, the vicious principle of dividing the chiefs, that they might the more effectually weaken and destroy one another, was adopted. Both plans, as might be supposed, proved abortive. If the government had, by conciliatory measures, and by a profusion of favours, suitable to the spirit of the times, secured the attachment of the heads of the clans, the supremacy of the laws might have been vindicated, and the sovereign might have calculated upon the support of powerful and trustworthy auxiliaries in his domestic struggles against the encroachments of the nobles. Such ideas appear never to have once entered the minds of the kings, but it was reserved for James IV., who succeeded to the throne in 1488, to make the experiment. “To attach to his interest the principal chiefs of these provinces, to overawe and subdue the petty princes who affected independence, to carry into their territories, hitherto too exclusively governed by their own capricious or tyrannical institutions, the same system of a severe, but regular and rapid, administration of civil and criminal justice, which had been established in his Lowland dominions, was the laudable object of the king; and for this purpose he succeeded, with that energy and activity which remarkably distinguished him, in opening up an intercourse with many of the leading men in the northern counties. With the captain of the Clanchattan, Duncan Mackintosh; with Ewan, the son of Alan, captain of the Clancameron; with Campbell of Glenurqhay; the Macgilleouns of Duart and Lochbuy; Mackane of Ardnamurchan; the lairds of Mackenzie and Grant; and the Earl of Huntley, a baron of the most extensive power in those northern districts – he appears to have been in habits of constant and regular communication – rewarding them by presents, in the shape either of money or of grants of land, and securing their services in reducing to obedience such of their fellow chieftains as proved contumacious, or actually rose in rebellion.”16 

   But James carried his views further. Rightly judging how much the personal presence of the sovereign would be valued by his distant subjects, and the good effects which would result therefrom, he resolved to visit different parts of his northern dominions. Accordingly, in the year 1490, accompanied by his court, he rode twice from Perth across the chain of mountains which extends across the country from the border of the Mearns to the head of Loch Rannoch, which chain is known by the name of the “Mount.” Again, in 1493, he twice visited the Highlands, and went as far as Dunstaffnage and Mengarry, in Ardnamurchan. In the following year he visited the isles no less than three times. His first voyage to the islands, which took place in April and May, was conducted with great state. He was attended by a vast suite, many of whom fitted out vessels at their own expense. The grandeur which surrounded the king impressed the islanders with a high idea of his wealth and power; and his condescension and familiarity with all classes of his subjects, acquired for him a popularity which added strength to his throne. During these marine excursions the youthful monarch indulged his passion for sailing and hunting, and thereby relieved the tediousness of business by the recreation of agreeable and innocent pleasures. 

   The only opposition which James met with during these excursions was from the restless Lord of the Isles, who had the temerity to put the king at defiance, notwithstanding the repeated and signal marks of the royal favour he had experienced. But James was not to be trifled with, for he summoned the island prince to stand his trial for “treason in Kintyre;” and in a parliament held in Edinburgh shortly after the king’s return from the north, “Sir John of the Isles,” as he is named in the treasurer’s accounts, was stripped of his power, and his possessions were forfeited to the crown. 

   One of those personal petty feuds which were so prevalent in the Highlands, occurred about this time. Alexander Sutherland of Dilred, being unable or unwilling to repay a sum of he had borrowed from Sir James Dunbar of Cumnock, the latter took legal measures to secure his debt by appraising part of Dilred’s lands. This proceeding vexed the laird of Dilred exceedingly, and he took an umbrage at the Dunbars, who had recently settled in Sutherland, “grudgeing, as it were,” says Sir R. Gordon, “that a stranger should brawe (brave) him at his owne doors.” Happening to meet Alexander Dunbar, brother of Sir James, who had lately married Lady Margaret Baillie, Countess Dowager of Sutherland, high words passed between them, a combat ensued, and, after a long contest, Alexander Dunbar was killed. Sir James Dunbar thereupon went to Edinburgh, and laid the matter before King James IV., who was so exasperated at the conduct of Alexander Sutherland, that he immediately proclaimed him a rebel, sent messengers everywhere in search of him, and promised his lands to any person that would apprehend him. After some search he was apprehended with ten of his followers by his uncle, Y-Roy-Mackay, brother of John Reawigh Mackay already mentioned, who sent him to the king. Dilred was tried, condemned, and executed, and his lands declared forfeited. For this service, Y-Roy-Mackay obtained from the king a grant of the lands of Armdall, Far, Golspietour, Kinnald, Kilcolmkill, and Dilred, which formerly belonged to Alexander Sutherland, as was noted in Mackay’s infeftment, dated in 1449.17 “Avarice,” says Sir R. Gordon, “is a strange vyce, which respects neither blood nor freindship. This is the first infeftment that any of the familie of Macky had from the king, so far as I can perceave by the records of this kingdom; and they wer untill this tyme possessors onlie of ther lands in Strathnaver, not careing much for any charters infeftments, as most pairts of the Highlanders have alwise done.” 

   The grant of the king as to the lands over which Sir James Dunbar’s security extended, was called in question by Sir James, who obtained a decree before the lords of council and session, in February, 1512, setting aside the right of Y-Roy-Mackay, and ordaining the Earl of Sutherland, as superior of the lands, to receive Sir James Dunbar as his vassal. 

   A lamentable instance of the ferocity of these times is afforded in the case of one of the Earls of Sutherland, who upon some provocation slew two of his nephews. This earl, who was named John, had a natural brother, Thomas Moir, who had two sons, Robert Sutherland and the Keith, so called on account of his being brought up by a person of that name. The young men had often annoyed the Earl, and on one occasion they entered his castle of Dunrobin to brave him to his face, an act which so provoked the Earl, that he instantly killed Robert in the house. The Keith, after receiving several wounds, made his escape, but he was overtaken and slain at the Clayside, near Dunrobin, which from that circumstance was afterwards called Ailein-Cheith, or the bush of the Keith. 

   In 1513 a troop of Highlanders helped to swell the Scotch army on the ever-memorable and disastrous field of Flodden, but from their peculiar mode of fighting, so different from that of the Lowlanders, appear to have been more a hindrance than a help. 

1  Fordun a Goodal, vol. ii. p. 511. 

2  MS. Adv. Lib. Coll. Diplom. a Macfarlane, vol. i. p. 245. – MS. Cart. Moray, 263. 

3  Tytler, vol. iii. pp. 250, 251. 

4  Fordun a Hearne, vol. iv. pp. 1283-4. 

5  Sir R. Gordon, p. 64. 

6  Fordun, vol. iv. p. 1286. 

7  Sir Robert Gordon, pp. 64, 65. 

8  Fordun a Goodal, vol.  ii. p. 510. 

9  Sir R. Gordon, p. 69. 

10  Auchinleck Chronicle, p. 55. 

11  Auchinleck Chronicle, pp. 58, 59. 

12  Rotuli Scotiæ, vol. ii. p. 407. 

13  Ferrerius, p. 383. – Lesley de Rebus Gestis Scotorum, p. 300. 

14  Lesley’s Hist., p. 41. – Sir R. Gordon, p. 77. 

15  Sir R. Gordon, pp. 78, 79. 

16  Tytler, vol. iv. pp. 367, 368. 

17  Sir R. Gordon, p. 80. 

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