Scottish Clan Feuds: MacGregors and Campbells

The trouble seems to have started when Robert the Bruce gave the Barony of Loch Awe (in MacGregor territory) to his loyal supporter, Neil Campbell. Despite clan territorial considerations, the king’s feudal power allowed him to take back lands and give them to whom he pleased.

The Campbells moved in and harassed the MacGregors in their neighborhood, and forced them out of the lands around Loch Awe, back into their remaining territory. Clan MacGregor had previously controlled the areas of Glenorchy, Glenlochy and Glenstrae in Argyll and Perthshire; now they only had Glenstrae. Meanwhile, the Campbells established themselves at Loch Awe from 1308 and rose to become powerful landowners, opportunistically buying up land, and many of the poorer MacGregors became their tenants.

Kilchurn Castle – photo taken by ACGS member Rick Walker

In the 16th Century, a feud between a MacGregor and a Campbell erupted into a fierce war, when Grey Colin Campbell murdered the brother of Gregor Roy. The MacGregors declared war on the Campbells visiting upon the Central Highlands eight years of attacks, recriminations and blood feuds. Things had got severely out of hand.

As the Campbells were favorites of the king, the MacGregors often found themselves on the losing end of any disputes. With loss of fortunes, they had to resort to cattle rustling, which was not an uncommon practice. The king’s forester, John Drummond had caught some MacGregors poaching on the king’s land, and had them all hanged. Drummond was murdered in 1590 by way of retaliation. This was brought to the attention of King James I (VI of Scotland), but though the Macgregor chief was held responsible, the king pardoned him.


The Banning of the MacGregor Name

Finlarig Castle, a Campbell stronghold in old MacGregor lands. With the stone lined beheading pit in the foreground. Photo by Rick Walker

If only the MacGregors had been so lenient in the affair that happened next. Back in 1592, a MacGregor arrow had accidentally killed a member of Clan Colquhoun (pronounced ‘ca-hoon’) during a cattle raid. The lands of Clan Colquhoun were particularly vulnerable to MacGregor raids. This incident had not been forgotten and in 1602, when two traveling MacGregors sought the famous Highland Hospitality from Clan Colquhoun they were refused. The two men took shelter in a remote barn and slaughtered a sheep to eat. They were found, by the Colquhouns, and executed.

Alisdair MacGregor, then clan chief, was urged by the Campbell Earl of Argyll to seek revenge. So with their allies from Clan MacFarlane, the MacGregors marched out to face Clan Colquhoun in the infamous Battle of Glen Fruin. But the wily Earl had his own agenda, because he knew that Clan Colquhoun had received a royal commission to subdue the MacGregors. Despite Clan Colquhoun having twice the number of armed men, the MacGregors’ superior military tactics won the day. The battle turned into a bloodbath which brought shame to the MacGregors.

When King  heard of their actions he proscribed, or banned, the MacGregor name. The Laird of MacGregor was executed along with many of his followers, and the MacGregor name was forbidden in law. This was the final victory for the Campbells and there followed years of hideous torture. To be a MacGregor now became a death sentence.

The stories say the Campbells bred fierce bloodhounds to hunt MacGregors down, which were suckled on the milk of MacGregor women to better sniff out their prey. And at the Campbell stronghold of Finlarig Castle on the banks of Loch Tay, ‘Black’ Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy had a pit, where MacGregors were beheaded for the entertainment of dinner guests. There is indeed a stone-lined pit near the north wall of the now ruined castle.