Battle of Glen Fruin 1603 (by Brian Osborne)

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glen_fruin_monumentON February 7 1603 a force of some four hundred men of Clan Gregor, Clan Cameron and other “brokin Hieland men” came down to Glen Fruin to raid and to pillage.

Glen Fruin lay in the lands of Colquhoun of Luss, and there was a long history of enmity between the MacGregors and the Colquhouns, as indeed there was between many residents on the borders of the Highlands and the notoriously lawless Clan Gregor.

Alexander Colquhoun of Luss, being made aware of the invasion of his lands by the MacGregors, under Alastair MacGregor of Glenstrae, and being armed with a commission from the King to act against the MacGregors gathered together a strong force from his lands and the nearby burgh of Dumbarton and confronted the raiders at the north end of Glen Fruin.

The battle was swift and bloody and resulted in the rout of the Colquhouns. Clan battles were, sadly, not unknown in Scotland, even in the seventeenth century.

Although the Battle of Glen Fruin was perhaps bloodier than many, its consequences for the victors were to be more profound than MacGregor of Glenstrae could have imagined when he brought his raiders into the quiet farmlands of the Lennox.

Glen Fruin

The MacGregors, a clan once possessed of extensive lands, had by the end of the sixteenth century become a by-word for lawlessness and violence.

In 1593 commissions of justiciary were granted to Archibald Campbell, 7th Earl of Argyll and Robert Galbraith of Culcreuch to pursue Clan Gregor and its adherents with fire and sword and on 17th July 1596 Alastair MacGregor of Glenstrae appeared “in maist humble manner” before King James VI and his Privy Council and acknowledged his offences and disobedience in the past and bound himself as chief of the clan to keep good rule in the country and to be answerable to the King and to justice.

To ensure MacGregor kept his word the King gave the Earl of Argyll a commission of lieutenancy over Clan Gregor. In effect this meant that the MacGregors would be answerable to Argyll, the greatest and most powerful landowner in the Southern Highlands, for their behaviour and Argyll would be answerable to the King for their conduct.

However there seems to have been little improvement in matters for in January 1600 the Privy Council passed a measure prohibiting trade with the MacGregors and noted that “the wicked and unhappie race of the clan Gregour continewing sa tang in blude, thift, reif, sorning and oppressioun” had committed these crimes on the peaceful subjects of the King to their “wrack, miserie and undoing.”

Blood and theft are clear enough, reif was stealing and sorning was the peculiarly Scottish offence of obtaining board and lodging by threat of violence.

In March 1601 the King and his Privy Council reflected that they had taken great pains over past years to try to tame Clan Gregor. Alastair MacGregor had agreed to guarantees for the clan’s good behaviour but had failed to keep his bargain and was declared an outlaw.

glen_fruinThe Earl of Argyll had his commission against Clan Gregor renewed and was authorised to pursue recalcitrant members of the clan with fire and sword, to burn their houses and to pursue them wherever they might take flight.

At the same time the Privy Council noted the MacGregors’ habit of depositing their stolen goods for safekeeping among relatives and friends in the lowlands.

It was accordingly ordained that anyone resetting (or trading in) these stolen goods should be considered as guilty as the MacGregors — “as art and part with them in their thievish and wicked deeds.”

Although the MacGregors were a concern to the King and Government, the Colquhouns were not entirely blameless and law-abiding citizens.

In September 1602 Alexander Colquhoun of Luss was denounced as a rebel for not surrendering his man John Buchanan to justice and there had earlier been long-running feuds between the Colquhouns and neighbours such as the MacFarlanes and Buchanans.

However the criminality of Clan Gregor was on a larger scale and there were many causes of strife between the two clans.

One traditional explanation for the Glen Fruin raid was in the execution by Colquhoun of Luss of two hungry MacGregors who stole and ate a black wedder (a castrated male sheep) with a white tail. However as the Laird of Luss blamed for this was Sir Humphrey, who was killed by a force of MacFarlanes and MacGregors in 1592, this tradition is clearly not the whole story but merely part of a longer history of inter-clan rivalry and tension.

In 1602 Colquhoun lodged a complaint to the Privy Council against the Earl of Argyll over a MacGregor raid in June which had seen over a hundred cattle stolen from Glenmolochan, in the hills behind Luss.

The complaint was against Argyll who, as the King’s lieutenant over Clan Gregor, was supposed to have them under “his obedience and commandiement” but clearly did not! The Earl and his guarantors were fined 20,000 merks -or about £1000 sterling.

The Colquhoun lands were not the only target for MacGregor depredations — in August 1602 MacGregors and their allies raided Glen Isla in Angus driving off 2700 cattle and killing 15 or 16 “speciall gentilmen of the countrey.”

The MacGregor threat level in the Lennox is indicated by the fact that Colquhoun and his men had special permission to bear firearms anywhere north of the River Leven and at his property in Dunglass and at Milton of Colquhoun on the Clyde near Dumbarton “for watching and keeping of their awne gudes” — this despite generally strict laws against carrying firearms.

The ineffectiveness of Argyll’s control over the MacGregors was vividly demonstrated on 7th December 1602 when Duncan MacGregor led 80 followers on a raid into Glen Finlas, in the heart of the Luss lands. Forty-five houses were plundered, 1200 cattle, horses, sheep and goats were said to have been stolen and two Colquhouns killed and several wounded.

In a dramatic gesture Alexander Colquhoun appeared a fortnight later before King James at Stirling Castle, accompanied by women of his clan bearing the bloody shirts of the clansmen who had been killed or wounded in the raid on Glen Finlas.

This psychologically shrewd move, prompted by the King’s known distaste for the sight of blood, was suggested to Colquhoun by Provost John Sempill of Dumbarton and William Stewart, the Captain of Dumbarton Castle, in a letter written by one of Colquhoun’s advisors, Thomas Fallisdaill, a burgess of Dumbarton.

The public relations trick of the “bluidie sarks” worked well — the King granted Colquhoun a commission to take armed action against the MacGregors.

The Colquhouns presumably made preparations and in Dumbarton the Town Council, in order to resist MacGregor attacks, ordered that all burgesses should be supplied with arms and that certain selected citizens should be furnished with hackbuts, an early form of musket-like firearm, and the rest with a padded jacket, a spear and a steel bonnet.

Despite these preparations the citizens of Dumbarton would hardly be a very formidable army, nor were the farmers, cottars and estate workers on the Colquhoun lands hardened fighting men. Clan Gregor and the “brokin men” who followed it and who lived largely by raiding and fighting were likely to be a much more serious force.

The news of Colquhoun’s commission against Clan Gregor doubtless soon reached Alastair MacGregor and in early February he decided on a full-scale invasion of the Colquhoun lands. The raid in December had involved only 80 men, this time something like 400 men were gathered — far more than were needed simply to drive off cattle and burn a few houses.

Alastair MacGregor must have been determined to break the power of the Colquhouns and demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Royal power and the King’s commission.

The MacGregor force was formidably equipped with hackbuts, pistols, coats of mail, poll-axes, two-handed swords, bows and quivers of arrows — or at least the charges against the ringleaders itemise these weapons.

The Colquhoun force, probably larger, and including horsemen as well as infantry, found itself caught on the lands of Strone at the head of Glen Fruin between two groups of MacGregors, one led by Alastair, and the other by his brother John Dhu MacGregor.

The one-sided nature of the battle is suggested by the casualty list — 140 deaths were alleged in the indictment against Alastair MacGregor — while traditional accounts suggest that only two died on the MacGregor side.

Rossdhu Castle

rossdhu-castle1This figure is doubtless too low, but even so there was clearly a complete rout of the Colquhoun forces and old accounts speak of the Laird of Luss being pursued even to the door of his castle of Rossdhu on Loch Lomondside.

There is a traditional story that 40 schoolboys from Dumbarton, who had come to see the fight, were confined in a barn for their safety, and at the conclusion of the battle were murdered in cold blood by a MacGregor follower.

It is surprising that such a shocking event, if it happened, was not specifically referred to in the indictments for the trials of the MacGregors, although the documents for Alastair MacGregor’s trial in referring to 140 victims notes that: “the maist pairt of thame being tane captives be the said McGregouris befoir thai pat violent handis in thame, and crewallie slew thame.”

Six years later a follower of the MacGregors, Allan Oig McIntuach, was captured and charged with the murder of 40 people at the Battle of Glen Fruin. The Colquhouns and their allies being routed, the MacGregors drove off 600 cattle, 800 sheep and goats and 280 horses and all the goods and gear of the area.

The figures cited for the MacGregor’s depredations often seem conveniently round and suspiciously high — perhaps the claims were exaggerated for effect, but nevertheless a major loss in lives and livestock had been sustained.

The charges against the MacGregors made specific reference to 11 named individuals killed on the Colquhoun side.

Five of these were minor Colquhoun lairds or their sons; two, John Buchanan and Peter Napier, were local landowners, and four were burgesses of Dumbarton including David Fallisdaill and his two sons, presumably close relatives of the Thomas Fallisdaill who wrote to Colquhoun suggesting the “bluidie sarks” demonstration.

The remainder of the dead, being of lower social rank, were not specified in the charges. Clan Gregor may have won the battle, humiliated the Colquhouns, terrorised the Lennox and driven off much valuable livestock, but such an assault could not be tolerated.

On 24th February 1603 the King and Privy Council resolved that the MacGregors: “that unhappie and detestable race be extirpat and ruttit out, and never suffered to have rest or remaining within this countrey heirafter.”

A price of £1000 was placed on MacGregor of Glenstrae’s head and he was accused not only of being the leader of the raid but that he had himself: “committit the maist horrible and barbarous crueltie that fell out that day.”

As news came to Edinburgh of the Battle of Glen Fruin the King was waiting for word from England of the death of Queen Elizabeth and the invitation to succeed her on the English throne. On 26th March the courier arrived from London with the long-awaited news and King James prepared to go south to become King of England.

Something so backward and uncivilised as a clan battle and the endemic anarchy on the borders of the Highlands must have struck the King as a strange and unwelcome contrast with the more orderly situation he hoped to inherit in England.

On Sunday 3rd April 1603 the King went to church at St Giles to take leave of his Scottish subjects. However official business was also dealt with that day and by Royal edict one group of King James’s subjects would be written out of the record.

The King, responding to the “barbarous murtheris and insolences committed be the Clangregoure upon his Majestyes peciable and good subjectis of the Lennox at Glenfrone in the month of Februare … ”decreed that the name of MacGregor should be abolished and all persons of the clan should take another name on pain of death.”

By July a group of MacGregors in Perth had advised the Privy Council that they had renounced their former “unhappie name” and would adopt the surname Johnnstoune.

Over the next 30 years a series of Acts of Parliament were passed in order to ensure that Clan Gregor was crushed and the very name, seen as a potent threat, should vanish.

In 1613 the clansmen who had fought at Glen Fruin were forbidden to carry any weapon except a pointless knife to cut their meat and members of the former clan were forbidden to gather in groups of more than four.

In 1633 ministers were forbidden to baptise a child named MacGregor and lawyers were forbidden to notarise bonds or securities in the banned name. Charles II repealed the proscription in 1661 on his restoration, in gratitude for MacGregor support for the Crown during the civil wars, however in 1693 under William and Mary the proscription was renewed and not finally abolished until 1775.

However in addition to these measures against the clan in general Alastair MacGregor, the captain of the clan and a list of those seen as the chief men of the clan and ringleaders in the Glen Fruin raid were to be pursued by the law. Alastair remained at liberty for almost a year — he was captured by Campbell of Ardkinglas, the Sheriff of Argyll, in October 1603 but escaped.

In January 1604 he surrendered to the Earl of Argyll on the promise of being allowed to go to England — presumably in the hope of appealing to King James.

However the cunning Campbell Earl, keeping to the strict letter of this agreement, had MacGregor escorted across the Border to Berwick-on-Tweed and then immediately taken back to Edinburgh where he stood trial, on 20th January, with four of his followers for murder, theft, kidnap, and treason.

Amongst the 15 jurymen in the High Court of Justiciary was Thomas Fallisdaill, who as we have seen was both an adviser to Colquhoun and the relative of three of the dead named on the indictment. Another juror was William Stewart, the Captain of Dumbarton Castle, who had been one of the brains behind the “bluidie sarks” scheme; neither could really be seen as an unbiased juror.

Unsurprisingly the five MacGregors were found guilty and sentenced to be hung that day at the Mercat Cross of Edinburgh, and thereafter their bodies to be quartered and put on public display, and their lands and property to be forfeit. Dumbarton was allocated the heads of Alastair MacGregor and Patrick Aldoch MacGregor for display on the town’s Tolbooth.

MacGregor wrote a confession, the night before his trial, blaming the Earl of Argyll for everything. Argyll, he said, had first of all caused an attack to be made on MacGregor’s lands in Rannoch, impoverishing the lands and forcing the clan into crime. Argyll then urged MacGregor to attack MacAulay of Ardencaple and Colquhoun of Luss.

The confession ends with an appeal for a sentence of banishment, rather than death, for himself and those of the clan implicated in Glen Fruin.

Quite how much, if any, truth there is in this document is debatable. Certainly Argyll was anxious to expand his domination into the Lennox and the MacAulays and Colquhouns were clients of the Duke of Lennox, Argyll’s rival. However there seems to be rather too much evidence of MacGregor lawlessness over many years to be entirely explained by threats and promises from Argyll.

On 17th February a batch of eleven MacGregors and their associates faced trial at the High Court in Edinburgh, again kinsmen of the victims of Glen Fruin were prominent in the juror list — a Thomas Fallisdaill, this time described as “of Ardoch” a property near Dumbarton, but quite possibly the same man as the Thomas Fallisdaill, Burgess of Dumbarton, who served on the first jury — and John Napier of Kilmahew, obviously a close relative of the Peter Napier of Kilmahew killed at Glen Fruin.

The entire jury was predominantly drawn from the counties of Dumbarton, Stirling and Perth, all areas which had suffered from MacGregor raids. Again all eleven were found guilty and sentenced to be hung at the Mercat Cross.

On March 1st five more MacGregors and followers were tried before a jury which again included Thomas Fallisdaill, burgess of Dumbarton, John Napier of Kilmahew, and now also included Provost John Sempill of Dumbarton, the other brain behind the “bluidie sarks.” The five were duly found guilty and, perhaps because the Mercat Cross gibbet was getting full, were sentenced to be hung at the Burghmuir.

The next day the same jury tried another batch of four and managed to acquit one of them, the rest being hung at the Mercat Cross.

The repercussions of Glen Fruin continued for many years — in 1622 two brothers, John Moir Cameron and Duncan Cameron were tried and sentenced to death for having taken part in the battle and legislation continued to be enacted to erase the MacGregors from Scottish society.

Despite these stringent measures against them, Clan Gregor, “the children of the mist”, survived. Sir Walter Scott, writing about the Glen Fruin battle and its aftermath in the introduction to Rob Roy, his novel about that famous 18th century MacGregor, observed that the MacGregors may have taken other names: “but to all intents and purposes of combination and mutual attachment, they remained the clan Gregor, united together for right or wrong, and menacing with the general vengeance of their race, whomsoever committed aggressions against any individual of their number”.

  • This article by the late Brian D.Osborne is reprinted on this website by kind permission of the author’s father, Malcolm Osborne.