ONE of my correspondents has come up with an idea which I hope you will agree is well worth my attention over the next few weeks. She had been researching her family tree and found to her surprise that one of her forebears was a MacGregor. “Could Hamish enlighten me further about the clan,” she asked, “as there’s surely a lot more to the MacGregors than Rob Roy?”

That assertion is correct and got me to thinking that perhaps it is time to examine the phenomenon of clanship and what it meant for Scotland and especially the Highlands for centuries. The best way to do that is to tell the story of individual clans and of course I shall start with Clan Gregor or MacGregor.

I have written extensively about Rob Roy MacGregor before – search online for the article in 2016 – and I want to concentrate on the many other fascinating aspects of this great and proud clan.

Clan Gregor has always claimed to be part of Siol Alpin – from the Gaelic Siol Ailpein, meaning Seed of Alpin – which was a family of seven clans descended from Alpin, father of Kenneth MacAlpin, the first king of the united Picts and Scots. The other six clans of Siol Alpin are Grant, MacAulay, Macfie, Mackinnon, Macnab and MacQuarrie.

Although there is little evidence for this claim, traditionally the clan asserts its descent from Griogar, third son of Alpin and thus brother to King Kenneth. Indeed, the main clan motto continues to be royal is my race – in Gaelic, ‘s rioghal mo dhream – which shows how they thought of their clan down the ages.

They still harbour a guid conceit of themselves. The official Clan Gregor website says: “Failte! Welcome to The Clan Gregor Society; proud heritor of the most famous clan in Scottish history.”

The Stewarts, Campbells and MacDonalds, to name but three, might well disagree, but there’s no doubt that for reasons good and bad, Clan Gregor is undoubtedly renowned. There is also no doubt about Clan Gregor being of ancient lineage. It was acknowledged as far back as the 12th century that the MacGregors inhabited three glens in Argyll – Strae, Orchy and Lochy. They were sub-chiefs of all the land between Loch Lomond and Loch Tay, but further west in Argyll another more dominant clan was rising to prominence, and the relationship between the Campbells and the MacGregors was to become highly problematic, despite much intermarriage between the two down the centuries.

We owe a great deal of our knowledge of the early Clan Gregor to two important books in Scottish history – the Book of the Dean of Lismore and the Chronicle of Fortingall, the manuscript of which I was glad to see last week has been purchased for the nation by the National Library of Scotland.

The National Library stated: “Scribes compiled the manuscript between 1554 and 1579 at Fortingall ... the scribes belonged to the MacGregor family who also compiled the slightly earlier Book of the Dean of Lismore, the earliest surviving collection of Gaelic poetry compiled in Scotland. Scholarly research and evidence show the two manuscripts were almost certainly compiled by members of the same family.”

Fortingall contains a section recording the deaths of prominent men and women within the Highlands from 1390 to 1579, written in Latin and Scots.

It’s always better to write your own family history and while most Clan Gregor historians can go no further back than 1390 with any certainty, there are traditions for which there is some evidence. In the late 12th century, for instance, a certain Sir John MacGregor was described as “Lord of Glenorchy”. He is said to have married a beautiful Englishwoman and their son Malcolm was the MacGregor who is reported to have saved the life of the then King of Scots.

IT’S a cracking tale – Sir Malcolm was in the king’s hunting party when the king was attacked by a wild boar. Sir Malcolm recognised the danger and asked if he could help. The king replied, “E’en do bait spair nocht” which translates as “In what you do, spare nothing”.

Sir Malcolm promptly ripped out a sapling of oak which he used to defend the king from the wild animal. A grateful king supposedly gave Sir Malcolm permission to use the oak tree in his crest and the king’s words were adopted as a clan motto, usually rendered as “Ein doe and spair nocht”.

Again, this is all legend, with Sir Malcolm also credited with building many small castles on MacGregor land. After him came clan chiefs about whom we know only their names due to the genealogy in the Book of the Dean of Lismore. We can be certain that clan chief John MacGregor of Glenorchy existed, however, for in 1292 King John Balliol made Argyll into a sheriffdom and included the lands of John of Glenorchy in it.

John MacGregor of Glenorchy fought for Scotland at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296 and was captured by the English. King Edward Longshanks spared the MacGregor chief and promised to restore his lands if he would join his forces fighting in France, and he reportedly died there.

John of Glenorchy’s daughter inherited his lands and she married John Campbell, son of Sir Neil Campbell of Lochawe. Meanwhile Malcolm MacGregor, brother of John, joined the Bruce faction and fought for King Robert. In 1315, Robert the Bruce gave Loch Awe and its lands to the Campbells, and there began a long dispute as to whether that land included Glenorchy. Most clan historians accept that the first certain chief of the clan and from whom it took its name was the 14th-century figure Gregor of the Golden Bridles, who died in 1390.

His son John Dhu, or John the Black, died in 1415 but his sons founded the MacGregor lines of Roro and Glengyle in Perthshire and Brackley in Argyll. It was during the 14th to 16th centuries that the MacGregor lands began to be acquired through various means by Clan Campbell.

Colin Campbell, founder of the House of Breadalbane, was a key figure at that time as he took over control of Glenorchy. Clan Gregor was soon mostly confined to Glenstrae, and they retaliated by raiding the lands of the Campbells and other clans, earning a reputation for lawlessness and the nickname “children of the mist”.

Clan chief Gregor MacGregor was raised as a ward of Duncan Campbell of Glenlyon and married his daughter Marion, but when he asked for his lands back, the Campbells refused and so for the next 10 years Gregor waged what was nothing less than a guerrilla war. In retaliation, on June 11, 1565, the Campbells’ hired killer James McGestalcar murdered Robert and Gregor MacGregor, sons of the Dean of Lismore.

Clan chief Gregor struck back with a vengeance. As the Chronicle of Fortingall describes it: “James McGestalcar was killed with his accomplices by Gregor MacGregor of Stronmelcan.”

The chronicle adds: “McGestalcar was a most wicked man and an oppressor of the poor.”

GREGOR was still very much in love with his Campbell wife, and on a secret tryst his presence was betrayed to the Campbells of Glenorchy. They pursued him with bloodhounds through the many miles of Glenlyon, the longest glen in Scotland, until he was forced to jump across the River Lyon at a place still known as MacGregor’s Leap.

It was to no avail, as he was captured and imprisoned before being executed in front of his wife. The event was immortalised in a famous Gaelic lament, Beloved Gregor, for which I have given a translation for the BBC provided by Dr Martin MacGregor of the Glasgow University Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies.

Moch madainn air latha Lunasd’

Bha mi sugradh mar ri m’ ghradh,

Ach mun tainig meadhon latha

Bha mo chridhe air a chradh.

Ochain, ochain, ochain uiridh

Is goirt mo chridhe, a laoigh,

Ochain, ochain, ochain uiridh

Cha chluinn t’ athair ar caoidh

Early on Lammas morning

I was daffing with my love:

Before midday came

My heart was broken.

Ochain, ochain, ochain uiridh

Sore is my heart, my dear.

Ochain, ochain, ochain uiridh

Your father hears not our cry.

After an incident in which the King’s John Drummond was killed by the MacGregors, they were already in the bad books when in 1603, Gregor’s son Alistair or Allaster led the MacGregors, by then confined to their lands on the north and east of Loch Lomond, on a raid into the lands of their neighbours Clan Colquhoun.

I have written about the Battle of Glen Fruin before, and I have not changed my mind – it was more a massacre than a battle.

King James VI was so appalled by the slaughter that in his very last act before leaving Edinburgh to take up his new role as King James I of England, he ordered what in effect was the genocide of the MacGregors.

Here’s a modern version of the decree, later confirmed by the Scottish Parliament: “It was ordained that the name of MacGregor should be abolished and that the whole persons of that name should renounce their name and take some other name, and that they nor none of their name and that they nor none of their posterity should call themselves Gregor or MacGregor under pain of death ... that any person or persons of the said clan who has already renounced their names or hereafter shall renounce their names or if any of their children or posterity shall at any time hereafter assume or take to themselves the name of Gregor or MacGregor ... that every such person or persons assuming or taking to themselves the said name ... shall incur the pain of death which pain shall be executed upon them without favour.”

The king then ordered the execution of Alistair and many of his clansmen.

The MacGregors did not fade away, and in 1633 it was made legal to hunt them down with hounds and kill them without trial. It was only when they fought for the royalist side in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms that Clan Gregor’s persecution was halted, only to be reinstated when William and Mary usurped the throne in 1689. The MacGregors duly joined the Jacobites, and a regiment fought at Prestonpans in 1745.

The laws against Clan Gregor were only repealed in 1774. Though many MacGregor men were executed and their wives and children sold into slavery for refusing to change their names, many more did take false names to survive, Rob Roy MacGregor taking the name Campbell from his mother.

He is undoubtedly the most famous outlaw in Scottish history, made so by Sir Walter Scott, who also championed the clan’s restoration – the clan chief proposed the toast to King George IV on his visit to Scotland.

The current chief, the 24th, is Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor, a former army officer and prominent landscape photographer who is married to the broadcaster Fiona Armstrong.

You can find out more about the MacGregors at

Next week I will be tackling the history of the mighty Clan Campbell, lords of Argyll and elsewhere.