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Chapter VIII. – A.D. 1588-1601, pp.102-113.

[History of the Scottish Highlands Contents]

King of Scotland:- King of Great Britain:- 
James VI., 1567-1603. James I., 1603-1625. 

Feud between the Colquhouns and Macgregors – Macgregors outlawed – Execution of their Chief – Quarrel between the clan Kenzie and Glengarry – Alister Mac-Uilleam-Mhoir beheaded – Lawless proceedings in Sutherland – Deadly quarrel in Dornoch – Meeting between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland – Feud between the Murrays and some of the Siol-Thomais – Dissension in Moray among the Dunbars – Quarrel between the Earl of Caithness and the chief of the Mackays – Commotions in Lewis among the Macleods – Invasion of Lewis by Fife adventurers – Compelled to abandon it – Lord Kintail obtains possession of Lewis – Expulsion of Neill Macleod – Quarrel between the Laird of Rasay and Mackenzie of Gairloch – Disturbances in Caithness – Tumults in Caithness on the apprehension of Arthur Smith, a false coiner – Earl of Caithness prosecutes Donald Mackay and others – Dissensions among the clan Cameron. 

   THE truce between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland having now expired, the latter, accompanied by Mackay, Macintosh, the Laird of Foulis, the Laird of Assynt, and Gille-Calum, Laird of Rasay, entered Caithness with all his forces in the beginning of 1588. In taking this step he was warranted by a commission which he had obtained at court, through the influence of Chancellor Maitland, against the Earl of Caithness for killing George Gordon. The people of Caithness, alarmed at the great force of the earl, fled in all directions on his approach, and he never halted till he reached the strong fort of Girnigo, where he pitched his camp for twelve days. He then penetrated as far as Duncansby, killing several of the country people on his route, and collecting an immense quantity of cattle and goods, so large, indeed, as to exceed all that had been seen together in that country for many years. This invasion had such an effect upon the people of Caithness, that every race, clan, tribe, and family there, vied with one another in offering pledges to the Earl of Sutherland to keep the peace in all time coming. The town of Wick was also pillaged and burnt, but the church was preserved. In the church was found the heart of the Earl of Caithness’s father in a case of lead, which was opened by John Mac-Gille-Calum of Rasay, and the ashes of the heart were thrown by him to the winds. 

   During the time when these depredations were being committed, the Earl of Caithness shut himself up in the castle of Girnigo; but on learning the disasters which had befallen his country, he desired a cessation of hostilities and a conference with the Earl of Sutherland. As the castle of Girnigo was strongly fortified, and as the Earl of Caithness had made preparations for enduring a long siege, the Earl of Sutherland complied with his request. Both earls ultimately agreed to refer all their differences and disputes to the arbitration of friends, and the Earl of Huntly was chosen by mutual consent to act as umpire or oversman, in the event of a difference of opinion. A second truce was in this way entered into until the decision of the arbiters, when all differences were to cease.1 

   Notwithstanding this engagement, however, the Earl of Caithness soon gave fresh provocation, for before the truce had expired he sent a party of his men to Diri-Chatt in Sutherland, under the command of Kenneth Buy, and his brother Farquhar Buy, chieftains of the Siol-Mhic-Imheair in Caithness, and chief advisers of the Earl of Caithness in his bad actions, and his instruments in oppressing the poor people of Caithness. The Earl of Sutherland lost no time in revenging himself for the depredations committed. At Whitsunday, in the year 1589, he sent 300 men into Caithness, with Alexander Gordon of Kilcalmekill at their head. They penetrated as far as Girnigo, laying the country waste everywhere around them, and striking terror into the hearts of the inhabitants, many of whom, including some of the Siol-Mhic-Imheair, they killed. After spending their fury the party returned to Sutherland with a large booty, and without the loss of a single man. 

   To retaliate upon the Earl of Sutherland for this inroad, James Sinclair of Markle, brother of the Earl of Caithness, collected an army of 3,000 men, with which he marched into Strathully, in the month of June, 1589. As the Earl of Sutherland had been apprehensive of an attack, he had placed a range of sentinels along the borders of Sutherland, to give notice of the approach of the enemy. Of these, four were stationed in the village of Liribell, which the Caithness men entered in the middle of the day unknown to the sentinels, who, instead of keeping an outlook, were at the time carelessly enjoying themselves within the watch-house. On perceiving the Caithness men about entering the house, they shut themselves up within it; but the house being set on fire, three of them perished, and the fourth, rushing through the flames, escaped with great difficulty, and announced to his countrymen the arrival of the enemy. From Strathully, Sinclair passed forward with his army to a place called Crissalligh, on the height of Strathbroray, and began to drive away some cattle towards Caithness. As the Earl of Sutherland had not yet had sufficient time to collect a sufficient force to oppose Sinclair, he sent in the meantime Houcheon Mackay, who happened to be at Dunrobin with 500 or 600 men, to keep Sinclair in check until a greater force should be assembled. With this body, which was hastily drawn together on the spur of the occasion, Mackay advanced with amazing celerity, and such was the rapidity of his movements, that he most unexpectedly came up with Sinclair not far from Crissalligh, when his army was ranging about without order or military discipline. On coming up, Mackay found John Gordon of Kilcalmekill at the head of a small party skirmishing with the Caithness men, a circumstance which made him instantly resolve, though so far inferior in numbers, to attack Sinclair. Crossing therefore the water, which was between him and the enemy, Mackay and his men rushed upon the army of Sinclair, which they defeated after a long and warm contest. The Caithness men retreated with the loss of their booty and part of their baggage, and were closely pursued by a body of men commanded by John Murray, nicknamed the merchant, to a distance of 16 miles.2 

   This defeat, however, did not satisfy the Earl of Sutherland, who, having now assembled an army, entered Caithness with the intention of laying it waste. The earl advanced as far as Corrichoigh, and the Earl of Caithness convened his forces at Spittle, where he lay waiting the arrival of his enemy. The Earl of Huntly, having been made acquainted with the warlike preparations of the two hostile earls, sent, without delay, his uncle, Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun, to mediate between them, and he luckily arrived at the Earl of Sutherland’s head-quarters, at the very instant his army was on its march to meet the Earl of Caithness. By the friendly interference of Sir Patrick, the parties were prevailed upon to desist from their hostile intentions, and to agree to hold an amicable meeting at Elgin, in presence of the Earl of Huntly, to whom they also agreed to refer all their differences. A meeting accordingly took place in the month of November, 1589, at which all disputes were settled, and in order that the reconciliation might be lasting, and that no recourse might again be had to arms, the two earls subscribed a deed, by which they appointed Huntly and his successors hereditary judges, and arbitrators of all disputes or differences, that might thenceforth arise between these two houses. 

   This reconciliation, however, as it did not obliterate the rancour which existed between the people of these different districts, was but of short duration. The frequent depredations committed by the vassals and retainers of the earls upon the property of one another, led to an exchange of letters and messages between them about the means to be used for repressing these disorders. During this correspondence the Earl of Sutherland became unwell, and, being confined to his bed, the Earl of Caithness, in October, 1590, wrote him a kind letter, which he had scarcely despatched when he most unaccountably entered Sutherland with a hostile force; but he only remained one night in that country, in consequence of receiving intelligence of a meditated attack upon his camp by John Gordon of Kilcalmekill, and Neill Mac-lain-Mac-William. A considerable number of the Sutherland men having collected together, they resolved to pursue the Caithness men, who had carried off a large quantity of cattle; but, on coming nearly up with them, an unfortunate difference arose between the Murrays and the Gordons, each contending for the command of the vanguard. The Murrays rested their claim upon their former good services to the house of Sutherland; but the Gordons refusing to admit it, all the Murrays, with the exception of William Murray, brother of the Laird of Palrossie, and John Murray, the merchant, withdrew, and took a station on a hill hard by to witness the combat. This unexpected event seemed to paralyze the Gordons at first; but seeing the Caithness men driving the cattle away before them, and thinking that if they did not attack them they would be accused of cowardice, Patrick Gordon of Gartay, John Gordon of Embo, and John Gordon of Kilcalmekill, after some consultation, resolved to attack the retiring foe without loss of time, and without waiting for the coming up of the Strathnaver men, who were hourly expected. This was a bold and desperate attempt, as the Gordons were only as one to twelve in point of numbers, but they could not brook the idea of being branded as cowards. With such numerical inferiority, and with the sun and wind in their faces to boot, the Sutherland men advanced upon and resolutely attacked the Caithness men near Clyne. In the van of the Caithness army were placed about 1,500 archers, a considerable number of whom were from the Western Isles, under the command of Donald Balloch Mackay of Scourie, who poured a thick shower of arrows upon the men of Sutherland as they advanced, the latter, in return, giving their opponents a similar reception. The combat raged with great fury for a considerable time between these two parties: thrice were the Caithness archers driven back upon their rear, which was in consequence thrown into great disorder, and thrice did they return to the conflict, cheered on and encouraged by their leader; but, though superior in numbers, they could not withstand the firmness and intrepidity of the Sutherland men, who forced them to retire from the field of battle on the approach of night, and to abandon the cattle which had been carried off. The loss in killed and wounded was about equal on both sides; but, with the exception of Nicolas Sutherland, brother of the Laird of Forse, and Angus Mac-Angus-Termat, both belonging to the Caithness party, and John Murray, the merchant, on the Sutherland side, there were no principal persons killed. 

   Vain as the efforts of the common friends of the rival earls had hitherto been to reconcile them effectually, the Earl of Huntly and others once more attempted an arrangement, and having prevailed upon the parties to meet at Strathbogie, a final agreement was entered into in the month of March, 1591, by which they agreed to bury all bygone differences in oblivion, and to live on terms of amity in all time thereafter. 

   This fresh reconciliation of the two earls was the means of restoring quiet in their districts for a considerable time, which was partially interrupted in the year 1594, by a quarrel between the clan Gun and some of the other petty tribes. Donald Mac-William-Mac-Henric, Alister Mac-lain-Mac-Rorie, and others of the clan Gun entered Caithness and attacked Farquhar Buy, one of the captains of the tribe of Siol-Mhic-Imheair, and William Sutherland, alias William Abaraich, the chief favourite of the Earl of Caithness, and the principal plotter against the life of George Gordon, whose death has been already noticed. After a warm skirmish, Farquhar Buy, and William Abaraich, and some of their followers, were slain. To revenge this outrage, the Earl of Caithness sent the same year his brother, James Sinclair of Murkle, with a party of men, against the clan Gun in Strathie, in Strathnaver, who killed seven of that tribe. George Mac-lain-Mac-Rob, the chief, and Donald Mac-William-Mac-Henric narrowly escaped with their lives. 

   For the sake of continuity, we have deferred noticing those transactions in the north in which George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, was more immediately concerned, and which led to several bloody conflicts. 

   The earl who was a favourite at court, and personally liked by James VI., finding himself in danger from the prevailing faction, retired to his possessions in the north, for the purpose of improving his estates and enjoying domestic quiet. One of his first measures was to erect a castle at Ruthven, in Badenoch, in the neighbourhood of his hunting forests. This gave great offence to Macintosh, the chief of the clan Chattan, and his people, as they considered that the object of its erection was to overawe the clan. Being the earl’s vassals and tenants, they were bound to certain services, among which the furnishing of materials for the building formed a chief part; but, instead of assisting the earl’s people, they at first indirectly and in an underhand manner endeavoured to prevent the workmen from going on with their operations, and afterwards positively refused to furnish the necessaries required for the building. This act of disobedience was the cause of much trouble, which was increased by a quarrel in the year 1590, between the Gordons and the Grants, the occasion of which was as follows. John Grant, the tutor of Ballendalloch, having withheld the rents due to the widow, and endeavoured otherwise to injure her, James Gordon, her nephew, eldest son of Alexander Gordon of Lismore, along with some of his friends, went to Ballendalloch to obtain justice for her. On their arrival, differences were accommodated so far that the tutor paid up all arrears due to the lady, except a trifle, which he insisted, on some ground or other, on retaining. This led to some altercation, in which the servants of both parties took a share, and latterly came to blows; but they were separated, and James Gordon returned home. Judging from what had taken place, that his aunt’s interests would in future be better attended to if under the protection of a husband, he persuaded the brother of Sir Thomas Gordon of Cluny to marry her, which he did. This act so incensed the tutor of Ballendalloch, that he at once showed his displeasure by killing, at the instigation of the laird of Grant, one of John Gordon’s servants. For this the tutor, and such of the Grants as should harbour or assist him, were declared outlaws and rebels, and a commission was granted to the Earl of Huntly to apprehend and bring them to justice, in virtue of which, he besieged the house of Ballendalloch, and took it by force, on the 2d November, 1590; but the tutor effected his escape. Sir John Campbell of Cadell, a despicable tool of the Chancellor Maitland, who had plotted the destruction of the earl and the laird of Grant, now joined in the conspiracy against him, and stirred up the clan Chattan, and Macintosh their chief, to aid the Grants. They also persuaded the Earls of Athol and Murray to assist them against the Earl of Huntly. 

   As soon as Huntly ascertained that the Grants and clan Chattan, who were his own vassals, had put themselves under the command of these earls, he assembled his followers, and, entering Badenoch, summoned his vassals to appear before him, and deliver up the tutor and his abettors, but none of them came. He then proclaimed and denounced them rebels, and obtained a royal commission to invade and apprehend them. To consult on the best means of defending themselves, the Earls of Murray and Athole, the Dunbars, the clan Chattan, the Grants, and the laird of Cadell, and others of their party met at Forres. In the midst of their deliberations Huntly, who had received early intelligence of the meeting, and had, in consequence, assembled his forces, unexpectedly made his appearance in the neighbourhood of Forres. This sudden advance of Huntly struck terror into the minds of the persons assembled, and the meeting instantly broke up in great confusion. The whole party, with the exception of the Earl of Murray, left the town in great haste, and fled to Tarnoway; the Earl of Huntly, not aware that Murray had remained behind, marching directly to Tarnoway in pursuit of the fugitives. On arriving within sight of the castle into which the flying party had thrown themselves, the earl sent John Gordon, brother of Sir Thomas Gordon of Cluny, with a small body of men to reconnoitre; but approaching too near without due caution, he was shot by one of the Earl of Murray’s servants. As Huntly found the castle well fortified, and as the rebels evacuated it and fled to the mountains, leaving a sufficient force to protect it, he disbanded his men on November 24, 1590, and returned home, whence he proceeded to Edinburgh. 

   Shortly after his arrival the Earl of Bothwell, who had a design upon the life of Chancellor Maitland, made an attack upon the palace of Holyroodhouse under cloud of night, with the view of seizing Maitland; but, having failed in his object, he was forced to flee to the north to avoid the vengeance of the king. The Earl of Huntly, who had been lately reconciled to Maitland, and the Duke of Lennox, were sent in pursuit of Bothwell, but he escaped. Understanding afterwards that he was harboured by the Earl of Murray at Donnibristle, the chancellor, having procured a commission against him from the king in favour of Huntly, again sent him, accompanied by forty gentlemen, to attack the Earl of Murray. When the party had arrived near Donnibristle, the Earl of Huntly sent Captain John Gordon, of Buckie, brother of Gordon of Gight, with a summons to the Earl of Murray, requiring him to surrender himself prisoner; but instead of complying, one of the earl’s servants levelled a piece at the bearer of the despatch, and wounded him mortally. Huntly, therefore, after giving orders to take the Earl of Murray alive if possible, forcibly entered the house; but Sir Thomas Gordon, recollecting the fate of his brother at Tarnoway, and Gordon of Gight, who saw his brother lying mortally wounded before his eyes, entirely disregarded the injunction; and following the earl, who had fled among the rocks on the adjoining sea-shore, slew him. It was this Earl of Murray who was known as the “bonny” earl, and, according to some historians, had impressed the heart of Anne of Denmark, and excited the jealousy of her royal spouse. This at least was the popular notion of his time:- 

“He was a braw gallant, 

And he played at the gluve; 

And the bonny Earl of Murray, 

Oh! he was the queen’s love.” 

According to one account the house was set on fire, and Murray was discovered, when endeavouring to escape, by a spark which fell on his helmet, and slain by Gordon of Buckie, saying to the latter, who had wounded him in the face, “You have spilt a better face than your awin.” 

   The Earl of Huntly immediately despatched John Gordon of Buckie to Edinburgh, to lay a statement of the affair before the king and the chancellor. The death of the Earl of Murray would have passed quietly over, as an event of ordinary occurrence in those troublesome times; but, as he was one of the heads of the Protestant party, the Presbyterian ministers gave the matter a religious turn by denouncing the Catholic Earl of Huntly as a murderer, who wished to advance the interests of his church by imbruing his hands in the blood of his Protestant countrymen. The effect of the ministers’ denunciations was a tumult among the people in Edinburgh and other parts of the kingdom, which obliged the king to cancel the commission he had granted to the Earl of Huntly. The spirit of discontent became so violent that Captain John Gordon, who had been left at Inverkeithing for the recovery of his wounds, but who had been afterwards taken prisoner by the Earl of Murray’s friends and carried to Edinburgh, was tried before a jury, and, contrary to law and justice, condemned and executed for having assisted the Earl of Huntly acting under a royal commission. The recklessness and severity of this act were still more atrocious, as Captain Gordon’s wounds were incurable, and he was fast hastening to his grave. John Gordon of Buckie, who was master of the king’s household, was obliged to flee from Edinburgh, and made a narrow escape with his life. 

   As for the Earl of Huntly, he was summoned, at the instance of the Lord of St. Colme, brother of the deceased Earl of Murray, to stand trial. He accordingly appeared at Edinburgh, and offered to abide the result of a trial by his peers, and in the meantime was committed a prisoner to the castle of Blackness on the 12th of March, 1591, till the peers should assemble to try him. On giving sufficient surety, however, that he would appear and stand trial on receiving six days’ notice to that effect, he was released by the king on the 20th day of the same month. 

   The clan Chattan, who had never submitted without reluctance to the Earl of Huntly, considered the present aspect of affairs as peculiarly favourable to the design they entertained of shaking off the yoke altogether, and being countenanced and assisted by the Grants, and other friends of the Earl of Murray, made no secret of their intentions. At first the earl sent Allan Macdonald-Dubh, the chief of the clan Cameron, with his tribe, to attack the clan Chattan in Badenoch, and to keep them in due order and subjection. The Camerons, though warmly opposed, succeeded in defeating the clan Chattan, who lost 50 of their men after a sharp skirmish. The earl next despatched Macronald, with some of the Lochaber men, against the Grants in Strathspey, whom he attacked, killed 18 of them, and laid waste the lands of Ballendalloch. After the clan Chattan had recovered from their defeat, they invaded Strathdee and Glenmuck in November 1592. To punish this aggression, the Earl of Huntly collected his forces and entered Pettie, then in possession of the clan Chattan as a fief from the Earls of Murray, and laid waste all the lands of the clan Chattan there, killed many of them, and carried off a large quantity of cattle, which he divided among his army. But in returning from Pettie after disbanding his army, he received the unwelcome intelligence that William Macintosh, son of Lauchlan Macintosh, the chief, with 800 of the clan Chattan, had invaded the lands of Auchindun and Cabberogh. The earl, after desiring the small party which remained with him to follow him as speedily as possible, immediately set off at full speed, accompanied by Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun and 36 horsemen, in quest of Macintosh and his party. Overtaking them before they had left the bounds of Cabberogh, upon the top of a hill called Stapliegate, he attacked them with his small party, and, after a warm skirmish, defeated them, killing about 60 of their men, and wounding William Macintosh and others. 

   The Earl of Huntly, after thus subduing his enemies in the north, now found himself placed under ban by the government on account of an alleged conspiracy between him and the Earls of Angus and Errol and the crown of Spain, to overturn the State and the Church. The king and his councillors seemed to be satisfied of the innocence of the earls; but the ministers, who considered the reformed religion in Scotland in danger while these Catholic peers were protected and favoured, importuned his majesty to punish them. The king, yielding to necessity and to the intrigues of Queen Elizabeth, forfeited their titles, intending to restore them when a proper opportunity occurred; and, to silence the clamours of the ministers, convoked a parliament, which was held in the end of May, 1594. As few of the peers attended, the ministers, having the commissioners of the burghs on their side, carried everything their own way, and the consequence was, that the three earls were attainted without trial, and their arms were torn in presence of the parliament, according to the custom in such cases. 

   Having so far succeeded, the ministers, instigated by the Queen of England, now entreated the king to send the Earl of Argyle, a youth of nineteen years of age, in the pay of Queen Elizabeth, with an army against the Catholic earls. The king, still yielding to necessity, complied, and Argyle, having collected a force of about 12,000 men, entered Badenoch and laid siege to the castle of Ruthven, on the 27th of September, 1594. He was accompanied in this expedition by the Earl of Athole, Sir Lauchlan Maclean with some of his islanders, the chief of the Macintoshes, the Laird of Grant, the clan Gregor, Macneil of Barra, with all their friends and dependents, together with the whole of the Campbells, and a variety of others animated by a thirst for plunder or malice towards the Gordons. The castle of Ruthven was so well defended by the clan Pherson, who were the Earl of Huntly’s vassals, that Argyle was obliged to give up the siege. He then marched through Strathspey, and encamped at Drummin, upon the river Avon, on the 2d of October, whence he issued orders to Lord Forbes, the Frasers, the Dunbars, the clan Kenzie, the Irvings, the Ogilvies, the Leslies, and other tribes and clans in the north, to join his standard with all convenient speed. 

   The earls, against whom this expedition was directed, were by no means dismayed. They knew that although the king was constrained by popular clamour to levy war upon them, he was in secret friendly to them; and they were, moreover, aware that the army of Argyle, who was a youth of no military experience, was a raw and undisciplined militia, and composed, in a great measure, of Catholics, who could not be expected to feel very warmly for the Protestant interest, to support which the expedition was professedly undertaken. The seeds of disaffection, besides, had been already sown in Argyle’s camp by the corruption of the Grants and Campbell of Lochnell. 

   On hearing of Argyle’s approach, the Earl of Errol immediately collected a select body of about 100 horsemen, being gentlemen, on whose courage and fidelity he could rely, and with these he joined the Earl of Huntly at Strathbogie. The forces of Huntly, after this junction, amounted, it is said, to nearly 1,500 men, almost altogether horsemen, and with this body he advanced to Carnborrow, where the two earls and their chief followers made a solemn vow to conquer or die. Marching from thence, Huntly’s army arrived at Auchindun on the same day that Argyle’s army reached Drummin. At Auchindun, Huntly received intelligence that Argyle was on the eve of descending from the mountains to the lowlands, which induced him, on the following day, to send Captain Thomas Carr and a party of horsemen to reconnoitre the enemy, while he himself advanced with his main army. The reconnoitring party soon fell in, accidentally, with Argyle’s scouts, whom they chased, and some of whom they killed. This occurrence, which was looked upon as a prognostic of victory, so encouraged Huntly and his men, that he resolved to attack the army of Argyle before he should be joined by Lord Forbes, and the forces which were waiting for his appearance in the lowlands. Argyle had now passed Glenlivet, and had reached the banks of a small brook named Altchonlachan. 

On the other hand, the Earl of Argyle had no idea that the Earls of Huntly and Errol would attack him with such an inferior force; and he was, therefore, astonished at seeing them approach so near him as they did. Apprehensive that his numerical superiority in foot would be counterbalanced by Huntly’s cavalry, he held a council of war, which advised Argyle to wait till the king, who had promised to appear with a force, should arrive, or, at all events, till he should be joined by the Frasers and Mackenzies from the north, and the Irvings, Forbeses, and Leslies from the lowlands with their horse. This opinion, which was considered judicious by the most experienced of Argyle’s army, was however disregarded by him, and he determined to wait the attack of the enemy; and to encourage his men he pointed out to them the small number of those they had to combat with, and the spoils they might expect after victory. He disposed his army on the declivity of a hill, betwixt Glenlivet and Glenrinnes, in two parallel divisions. The right wing, consisting of the Macleans and Macintoshes, was commanded by Sir Lauchlan Maclean and Macintosh – the left, composed of the Grants, Macneills, and Macgregors, by Grant of Gartinbeg; and the centre, consisting of the Campbells, &c., was commanded by Campbell of Auchinbreck. This vanguard consisted of 4,000 men, one-half of whom carried muskets. The rear of the army, consisting of about 6,000 men, was commanded by Argyle himself. The Earl of Huntly’s vanguard was composed of 300 gentlemen, led by the Earl of Errol, Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun, the laird of Gight, the laird of Bonnitoun, and Captain, afterwards Sir Thomas Carr. The earl himself followed with the remainder of his forces, having the laird of Cluny upon his right hand and the laird of Abergeldy upon his left. Three pieces of field ordnance under the direction of Captain Andrew Gray, afterwards colonel of the English and Scots who served in Bohemia, were placed in front of the vanguard. Before advancing, the Earl of Huntly harangued his little army to encourage them to fight manfully; he told them that they had no alternative before them but victory or death – that they were now to combat, not for their own lives only, but also for the very existence of their families, which would be utterly extinguished if they fell a prey to their enemies. 

The position which Argyle occupied on the declivity of the hill gave him a decided advantage over his assailants, who, from the nature of their force, were greatly hampered by the mossy nature of the ground at the foot of the hill, interspersed by pits from which turf had been dug. But, notwithstanding these obstacles, Huntly advanced up the hill with a slow and steady pace. It had been arranged between him and Campbell of Lochnell, who had promised to go over to Huntly as soon as the battle had commenced, that, before charging Argyle with his cavalry, Huntly should fire his artillery at the yellow standard. Campbell bore a mortal enmity at Argyle, and as he was Argyle’s nearest heir, he probably had directed the firing at the yellow standard in the hope of cutting off the earl. Unfortunately for himself, however, Campbell was shot dead at the first fire of the cannon, and upon his fall all his men fled from the field. Macneill of Barra was also slain at the same time. 

The Highlanders, who had never before seen field pieces, were thrown into disorder by the cannonade, which being perceived by Huntly, he charged the enemy, and rushing in among them with his horsemen, increased the confusion. The Earl of Errol was directed to attack the right wing of Argyle’s army, commanded by Maclean, but as it occupied a very steep part of the hill, and as Errol was greatly annoyed by thick volleys of shot from above, he was compelled to make a detour, leaving the enemy on his left. But Gordon of Auchindun, disdaining such a prudent course, galloped up the hill with a party of his own followers, and charged Maclean with great impetuosity; but Auchindun’s rashness cost him his life. The fall of Auchindun so exasperated his followers that they set no bounds to their fury; but Maclean received their repeated assaults with firmness, and manœuvred his troops so well as to succeed in cutting off the Earl of Errol, and placing him between his own body and that of Argyle, by whose joint forces he was completely surrounded. At this important crisis, when no hopes of retreat remained, and when Errol and his men were in danger of being cut to pieces, the Earl of Huntly, very fortunately, came up to his assistance and relieved him from his embarrassment. The battle was now renewed and continued for two hours, during which both parties fought with great bravery, “the one,” says Sir Robert Gordon, “for glorie, the other for necessitie.” In the heat of the action the Earl of Huntly had a horse shot under him, and was in imminent danger of his life; but another horse was immediately procured for him. After a hard contest the main body of Argyle’s army began to give way, and retreated towards the rivulet of Altchonlachan; but Maclean still kept the field, and continued to support the falling fortune of the day. At length, finding the contest hopeless, and after losing many of his men, he retired in good order with the small company that still remained about him. Huntly pursued the retiring foe beyond the water of Altchonlachan, when he was prevented from following them farther by the steepness of the hills, so unfavourable to the operations of cavalry. The success of Huntly was mainly owing to the treachery of Lochnell, and of John Grant of Gartinbeg, one of Huntly’s vassals, who, in terms of a concerted plan, retreated with his men as soon as the action began, by which act the centre and the left wing of Argyle’s army were completely broken. On the side of Argyle 500 men were killed besides Macneill of Barra, and Lochnell and Auchinbreck, the two cousins of Argyle. The Earl of Huntly’s loss was comparatively trifling. About 14 gentlemen were slain, including Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindun, and the Laird of Gight; and the Earl of Errol and a considerable number of persons were wounded. At the conclusion of the battle the conquerors returned thanks to God on the field for the victory they had achieved. This battle is called by some writers the battle of Glenlivet, and by others the battle of Altchonlachan. Among the trophies found on the field was the ensign belonging to the Earl of Argyle, which was carried with other spoils to Strathbogie, and placed upon the top of the great tower. So certain had Argyle been of success in his enterprise, that he had made out a paper apportioning the lands of the Gordons, the Hays, and all who were suspected to favour them, among the chief officers of his army. This document was found among the baggage which he left behind him on the field of battle.3 

Although Argyle certainly calculated upon being joined by the king, it seems doubtful if James ever entertained such an intention, for he stopped at Dundee, from which he did not stir till he heard of the result of the battle of Glenlivet. Instigated by the ministers and other enemies of the Earl of Huntly, who became now more exasperated than ever at the unexpected failure of Argyle’s expedition, the king proceeded north to Strathbogie, and in his route he permitted, most unwillingly, the house of Craig in Angus, belonging to Sir John Ogilvie, son of Lord Ogilvie, that of Bagaes in Angus, the property of Sir Walter Lindsay, the house of Culsalmond in Garioch, appertaining to the Laird of Newton-Gordon, the house of Slaines in Buchan, belonging to the Earl of Errol, and the castle of Strathbogie, to be razed to the ground, under the pretext that priests and Jesuits had been harboured in them. In the meantime the Earl of Huntly and his friends retired into Sutherland, where they remained six weeks with Earl Alexander; and on the king’s departure to Strathbogie, Huntly returned, leaving his eldest son George, Lord Gordon, in Sutherland with his aunt, till the return of more peaceable times. 

The king left the Duke of Lennox to act as his lieutenant in the north, with whom the two earls held a meeting at Aberdeen, and as their temporary absence from the kingdom might allay the spirit of violence and discontent, which was particularly annoying to his majesty, they agreed to leave the kingdom during the king’s pleasure. After spending sixteen months in travelling through Germany and Flanders, Huntly was recalled, and on his return he, as well as the Earls of Angus and Errol, were restored to their former honours and estates by the parliament, held at Edinburgh in November 1597, and in testimony of his regard for Huntly, the king, two years thereafter, created him a marquis. This signal mark of the royal favour had such an influence upon the clan Chattan, the clan Kenzie, the Grants, Forbeses, Leslies, and other hostile clans and tribes, that they at once submitted to the marquis. 

The warlike operations in the north seem, for a time, to have drawn off the attention of the clans from their own feuds; but in the year 1597 a tumult occurred at Loggiewreid in Ross, which had almost put that province and the adjoining country into a flame. The quarrel began between John Mac-Gille-Calum, brother of Gille-Calum, Laird of Rasay, and Alexander Bane, brother of Duncan Bane of Tulloch, in Ross. The Monroes took the side of the Banes, and the Mackenzies aided John Mac-Gille-Calum. In this tumult John Mac-Gille-Calum and John Mac-Murthow-Mac-William, a gentleman of the clan Kenzie, and three persons of that surname, were killed on the one side, and on the other were slain John Monroe of Culcraigie, his brother Houcheon Monroe, and John Monroe Robertson. This occurrence renewed the ancient animosity between the clan Kenzie and the Monroes, and both parties began to assemble their friends for the purpose of attacking one another; but their differences were in some measure happily reconciled by the mediation of common friends. 

In the following year the ambition and avarice of Sir Lauchlan Maclean, of whom notice has been already taken, brought him to an untimely end, having been slain in Islay by Sir James Macdonald, his nephew, eldest son of Angus Macdonald of Kintyre. Sir Lauchlan had long had an eye upon the possessions of the clan Ronald in Islay; but having failed in extorting a conveyance thereof from Angus Macdonald in the way before alluded to, he endeavoured, by his credit at court and by bribery or other means, to obtain a grant of these lands from the crown in 1595. At this period Angus Macdonald had become infirm from age, and his son, Sir James Macdonald, was too young to make any effectual resistance to the newly acquired claims of his covetous uncle. After obtaining the gift, Sir Lauchlan his people and friends, and invaded Islay, for the purpose of taking possession of the lands which belonged to the clan Donald. Sir James Macdonald, on hearing of his uncle’s landing, collected his friends, and landed in Islay to dispossess Sir Lauchlan of the property. To prevent the effusion of blood, some common friends of the parties interposed, and endeavoured to bring about an adjustment of their differences. They prevailed upon Sir James to agree to resign the half of the island to his uncle during the life of the latter, provided he would acknowledge that he held the same for personal service to the clan Donald in the same manner as Maclean’s progenitors had always held the Rhinns of Islay; and he moreover offered to submit the question to any impartial friends Maclean might choose, under this reasonable condition, that in case they should not agree, his Majesty should decide. But Maclean, contrary to the advice of his best friends, would listen to no proposals short of an absolute surrender of the whole of the island. Sir James therefore resolved to vindicate his right by an appeal to arms, though his force was far inferior to that of Sir Lauchlan. A desperate struggle took place, in which great valour was displayed on both sides. Sir Lauchlan was killed fighting at the head of his men, who were at length compelled to retreat to their boats and vessels. Besides their chief, the Macleans left 80 of their principal men and 200 common soldiers dead on the field of battle. Lauchlan Barroch-Maclean, son of Sir Lauchlan, was dangerously wounded, but escaped. Sir James Macdonald was also so severely wounded that he never fully recovered from his wounds. About 30 of the clan Donald were killed and about 60 wounded. Sir Lauchlan, according to Sir Robert Gordon, had consulted a witch before he undertook this journey into Islay, who advised him, in the first place, not to land upon the island on a Thursday; secondly, that he should not drink of the water of a well near Groynard; and lastly, she told him that one Maclean should be slain at Groynard. “The first he transgressed unwillingly,” says Sir Robert, “being driven into the island of Ila by a tempest upon a Thursday; the second he transgressed negligentlie, haveing drank of that water befor he wes awair; and so he wes killed ther at Groinard, as wes foretold him, bot doubtfullie. Thus endeth all these that doe trust in such kynd of responces, or doe hunt after them!”4 

On hearing of Maclean’s death and the defeat of his men, the king became so highly incensed against the clan Donald that, finding he had a right to dispose of their possessions both in Kintyre and Islay, he made a grant of them to the Earl of Argyle and the Campbells. This gave rise to a number of bloody conflicts between the Campbells and the clan Donald in the years 1614, -15, and -16, which ended in the ruin of the latter. 

The rival houses of Sutherland and Caithness had now lived on friendly terms for some years. After spending about eighteen months at court, and attending a convention of the estates at Edinburgh in July, 1598, John, sixth Earl of Sutherland, went to the Continent, where he remained till the month of September, 1600. The Earl of Caithness, deeming the absence of the Earl of Sutherland a fit opportunity for carrying into effect some designs against him, caused William Mackay to obtain leave from his brother Houcheon Mackay to hunt in the policy of Durines belonging to the Earl of Sutherland. The Earl of Caithness thereupon assembled all his vassals and dependents, and, under the pretence of hunting, made demonstrations for entering Sutherland or Strathnaver. As soon as Mackay was informed of his intentions, he sent a message to the Earl of Caithness, intimating to him that he would not permit him to enter either of these countries, or to cross the marches. The Earl of Caithness returned a haughty answer; but he did not carry his threat of invasion into execution on account of the arrival of the Earl of Sutherland from the Continent. As the Earl of Caithness still continued to threaten an invasion, the Earl of Sutherland collected his forces, in the month of July 1601, to oppose him. Mackay, with his countrymen, soon joined the Earl of Sutherland at Lagan-Gaincamhd in Dirichat, where he was soon also joined by the Monroes under Robert Monroe of Contaligh, and the laird of Assynt with his countrymen. 

While the Earl of Sutherland’s force was thus assembling, the Earl of Caithness advanced towards Sutherland with his army. The two armies encamped at the distance of about three miles asunder, near the hill of Bengrime. In expectation of a battle on the morning after their encampment, the Sutherland men took up a position in a plain which lay between the two armies, called Leathad Reidh, than which a more convenient station could not have been selected. But the commodiousness of the plain was not the only reason for making the selection. There had been long a prophetic tradition in these countries that a battle was to be fought on this ground between the inhabitants of Sutherland, assisted by the Strathnaver men, and the men of Caithness; that although the Sutherland men were to be victorious their loss would be great, and that the loss of the Strathnaver men should even be greater, but that the Caithness men should be so completely overthrown that they should not be able, for a considerable length of time, to recover the blow which they were to receive. This superstitious idea made such an impression upon the minds of the men of Sutherland that it was with great difficulty they could be restrained from immediately attacking their enemies. 

The Earl of Caithness, daunted by this circumstance, and being diffident of the fidelity of some of his people, whom he had used with great cruelty, sent messengers to the Earl of Sutherland expressing his regret at what had happened, stating that he was provoked to his present measures by the insolence of Mackay, had repeatedly dared him to the attack, and that, if the Earl of Sutherland would pass over the affair, he would permit him and his army to advance twice as far into Caithness as he had marched into Sutherland. The Earl of Sutherland, on receipt of this offer, called a council of his friends to deliberate upon it. Mackay and some others advised the earl to decline the proposal, and attack the Earl of Caithness; while others of the earl’s advisers thought it neither fit nor reasonable to risk so many lives when such ample satisfaction was offered. A sort of middle course was, therefore, adopted by giving the Earl of Caithness an opportunity to escape if he inclined. The messengers were accordingly sent back with this answer, that if the Earl of Caithness and his army would remain where they lay till sunrise next morning they might be assured of an attack. 

When this answer was delivered in the Earl Caithness’ camp, his men got so alarmed that the earl, with great difficulty, prevented them from running away immediately. He remained on the field all night watching them in person, encouraging them to remain, and making great promises to them if they stood firm. But his entreaties were quite unavailing, for as soon as the morning dawned, on perceiving the approach of the Earl of Sutherland’s army, they fled from the field in the utmost confusion, jostling and overthrowing one another in their flight, and leaving their whole baggage behind them. The Earl of Sutherland resolved to pursue the flying enemy; but, before proceeding on the pursuit, his army collected a quantity of stones which they accumulated into a heap to commemorate the flight of the Caithness men, which heap was called Carn-Teiche, that is, the Flight Cairn. 

Not wishing to encounter the Earl of Sutherland under the adverse circumstances which had occurred, the Earl of Caithness, after entering his own territories, sent a message to his pursuer to the effect that having complied with his request in withdrawing his army, he hoped hostile proceedings would cease, and that if the Earl of Sutherland should advance with his army into Caithness, Earl George would not hinder him; but he suggested to him the propriety of appointing some gentlemen on both sides to see the respective armies dissolved. The Earl of Sutherland acceded to this proposal, and sent George Gray of Cuttle, eldest son of Gilbert Gray of Sordell, with a company of resolute men into Caithness to see the army of the Earl of Caithness broken up. The Earl of Caithness, in his turn, despatched Alexander Bane, chief of the Caithness Banes, who witnessed the dismissal of the Earl of Sutherland’s army.5 

About the period in question, great commotions took place in the north-west isles, in consequence of a quarrel between Donald Gorm Macdonald of Slate, and Sir Roderick Macleod of Harris, arising out of the following circumstances. Donald Gorm Macdonald, who had married the sister of Sir Roderick, instigated by jealousy, had conceived displeasure at her and put her away. Having complained to her brother of the treatment thus received, Sir Roderick sent a message to Macdonald requiring him to take back his wife. Instead of complying with this request, Macdonald brought an action of divorce against her, and having obtained decree therein, married the sister of Kenneth Mackenzie, lord of Kintail. Sir Roderick, who considered himself disgraced and his family dishonoured by such proceedings, assembled all his countrymen and his tribe, the Siol-Thormaid, without delay, and invaded with fire and sword the lands of Macdonald in the isle of Skye, to which he laid claim as his own. Macdonald retaliated by landing in Harris with his forces, which he laid waste, and after killing some of the inhabitants retired with a large booty in cattle. To make amends for this loss, Sir Roderick invaded Uist, which belonged to Macdonald, and despatched his cousin; Donald Glas Macleod, with 40 men, into the interior, to lay the island waste, and to carry off a quantity of goods and cattle, which the inhabitants had placed within the precincts of the church of Killtrynard as a sanctuary. This exploit turned out to be very serious, as Donald Macleod and his party were most unexpectedly attacked in the act of carrying off their prey, by John Mac-lain-Mhic-Sheumais, a kinsman of Macdonald, at the head of a body of 12 men who had remained in the island, by whom Donald Macleod and the greater part of his men were cut to pieces, and the booty rescued. Sir Roderick, thinking that the force which had attacked his cousin was much greater than it was, retired from the island, intending to return on a future day with a greater force to revenge his loss. 

This odious system of warfare continued till the hostile parties had almost exterminated one another; and to such extremities were they reduced by the ruin and desolation which followed, that they were compelled to eat horses, dogs, cats, and other animals, to preserve a miserable existence. To put an end, if possible, at once to this destructive contest, Macdonald collected all his remaining forces, with the determination of striking a decisive blow at his opponent; and accordingly, in the year 1601, he entered Sir Roderick’s territories with the design of bringing him to battle. Sir Roderick was then in Argyle, soliciting aid and advice from the Earl of Argyle against the clan Donald; but on hearing of the approach of Macdonald, Alexander Macleod, brother of Sir Roderick, resolved to try the result of a battle. Assembling, therefore, all the inhabitants of his brother’s lands, together with the whole tribe of the Siol-Thormaid, and some of Siol-Thorquill, he encamped close by the hill of Benquhillin, in Skye, resolved to give battle to the clan Donald next morning. Accordingly, on the arrival of morning, an obstinate and deadly fight took place, which lasted the whole day, each side contending with the utmost valour for victory; but at length the clan Donald overthrew their opponents. Alexander Macleod was wounded and taken prisoner, along with Neill-Mac-Alastair-Ruaidh, and 30 others of the choicest men of the Siol-Thormaid. Iain-Mac-Thormaid and Thormaid-Mac-Thormaid, two near kinsmen of Sir Roderick, and several others, were slain. 

After this affair, a reconciliation took place between Macdonald and Sir Roderick, at the solicitation of old Angus Macdonald of Kintyre, the laird of Coll, and other friends, when Macdonald delivered up to Sir Roderick the prisoners he had taken at Benquhillin; but although these parties never again showed any open hostility, they brought several actions at law against each other, the one claiming from the other certain parts of his possessions. 

1  Sir R. Gordon, p. 157. 

2  Sir R. Gordon, p. 199. 

3 Sir R. Gordon, pp. 226, 227, 228, 229. – Shaw’s Moray, pp. 266, 267, 268. 

4 History, p. 238. 

5 Sir Robert Gordon, p. 243. 

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