For almost sixty years, the Scottish clan surnames Macgregor or Mcgregor or Gregor were illegal in the United Kingdom, on pain of death. It was a bizarre law for bizarre times in the law.
The famous chronicle of English legal history, the Newgate Calendars, wrote of the peculiarity of this outright ban of a surname by statute. The title of the Calendars is taken from the infamous Newgate Prison (see Newgate Prison: A History of Infamy), are a phenomenal read as they document some of the more famous "trials" of English legal history. One particular chapter is entitled "Alister Macgregor", and purports to describe Mr. Macgregor's jury trial in 1604.
The Calendars, of course, is a British publication and does little to hide a bias, describing the Scottish as "barbarous" and "lawless" and the "despicable imbecility of the (Scottish) executive arm (of government)".1
In contrast, the English were the self-described purveyors of humane and fair justice but that should be judged against the ultimate fate of the leader of the dastardly clan Macgregor, Alister Macgregor (also "Allastar"). When he was caught by English justice, he was not just hung but also subjected to a form of pre-death torture under the guise of capital punishment and far from humane, being drawn and quartered.
The So-Called Facts
By the early 1600s, the slow but noticeable infiltration of English authority in Scotland was cause for much disagreement amongst the Scots. This, even though by that era, the Scottish monarchy had agreed to sisterhood and had even merged the monarchies. In 1603, when Elizabeth I of England died, it was James VI of Scotland who became King James I of England on March 24, 1603. But such was the intrigue of the day that this was notwithstanding that his own mother, Mary, Queen of Scots had been beheaded by the English in 1587.
King James had been king of Scotland since 1567 as James VI and was not your standard king. One of his many eccentricities was witchcraft, and he even passed a Witchcraft Act and to then hunt up and burn Scottish witches alive. Another James I law required clan leaders to send their sons to England to be "properly educated".
And so it was that in Scotland in the 1600s, there was overwhelming political dissent among the clans over whether to invest or resist the political marriage with the English, as it was being proposed at the highest levels. The alternative was to continue what the Scots had always done, draw the line where Hadrian had put it and refuse and resist integration.
The Scots were organized into clans that ruled over discrete territories but which sometimes warred between themselves. There was a reason the then-commander, and later Roman emperor Hadrian had a retaining wall constructed in 122 A.D. to fence off Scotland. Even Roman troops could not overwhelm the fighting spirit of the Scottish.
William Wallace, in 1305, had started well (winning a battle in 1297) but ultimately failed in his open rebellion against the English but even by 1603, there was still a lot of internal squabbling amongst the Scots.
To instill some order in this anarchy is a reason often given by English legal historians to justify the subtle takeover of Scotland.
One of the more feisty clans was the Gregor Clan, the Macgregors. Certainly, Alister Macgregor, the chief of the "wicked and unhappie race of Clangregor" was no saint.
On the Febraury 24, 1603, at Halyruidhouse, a royal warrant signed by James VI accused him of attacking the following Scottish clans earlier that month "without pitie or compassion, they have murderist and slain seven score of persons, without respect to young or auld":
- Colquhoun (pronounced "ca-hoon"); the barony of Colquhoun in Dumbartonshire, on the shores of Loch Lomond. The clan, at least in October 2013, had an active website at http://www.clancolquhoun.com/; and
- Luss, also on the shores of Loch Lamond, Scotland. It included Camstradden Castle and was then, and still is apparently, practically merged or closely associated with the Clan Colqhoun. They share a chief.2
When James VI gave the Calqhouns this authority to bear arms and hunt down the Macgregors, the stage was set for a show-down. The circumstances of the famous battle on February 7, 1603, between the McGregor's and the Coluhouns is described by the Clan Colquhoun International Society in these words:
"The rich fertile Colquhoun lands were too much of a temptation for the MacGregors whose inhospitable mountainous lands to the north and east had led them into a lifestyle, which involved raiding of their neighbours, stealing their livestock and burning and looting homes.
"Because of these repeated raids of the MacGregors and their allies (especially the MacFarlanes) the King had given the Colquhoun clan chief authority to arm his clan in self-defence. There are many conflicting accounts about the immediate cause of the battle. What we do know is that about 400 MacGregors and their supporters set off towards Colquhoun territory. There was no road then so they went westwards, possibly through the gap in the hills at Tarbet, and made their way south along the shores of Loch Long. They approached Glen Fruin along the valley of the Fruin Water. The Colquhouns, forewarned, marched up Glen Luss and then turned south down the valley of the Auchengaich burn. When they entered Glen Fruin, they found that the MacGregors had got there before them. They had divided their forces into two and were able to trap the Colquhouns between them.
"With their Clan chief, Alistair MacGregor, attacking from the front and his brother John (who was killed in the battle) from the rear, there was no escape. The Colquhouns were driven from the field, back to Rossdhu. Many Colquhoun followers were captured and slaughtered. For months afterwards, possessions plundered from the Glen were being sold to neighbours. At the head of Glen Fruin, a stone commemorates those Colquhouns who died, perhaps as many as 140. It was said that only two MacGregors were killed, but this is almost certainly too low a figure."3
The charge later made against the McGregors was clanocide (here we invent the term and make the association with the word genocide because the intent of what Macgregor is alleged to have done, was to annihilate other clans).
In the result, King James reiterated his order of February 24, 1603, and now as king of Scotland (as James VI) and England (as James VI), ordered, on or about April 3, 1603, that (with some adjustments to contemporize language):
''... the name of McGregor should be altogether abolished, and that (all) persons of that Clan should renounce their name and take same some other name, and that they nor none of their posterity should call themselves Gregor or McGregor thereafter under the pain of death."
The abolition of the Macgregor name was probably better than the alternative available to King James of England and one which he was not squeamish of taking even against his own citizens: the actual killing of the entire Macgregor clan, women and children included although, in the result, it was no picnic to be a Macgregor in Scotland or England circa 1604 to 1660. According to the Greatest Scottish Clans website (http://www.greatscottishclans.com/clans/macgregor.php, online and reviewed in 2013):
" Under the Proscriptive Acts of Clan Gregor, which came into force on the 3rd of April 1603 the name MacGregor (was) "altogidder abolished" and bearing the MacGregor name was punishable by death.
"MacGregor women were branded and their children were given to other families. MacGregors couldn't travel in groups of more than two and couldn't cut meat with a blade. The men were executed, the women were stripped bare, branded, and whipped through the streets, and women and children were sold into slavery for Britain's new colonies in North America. MacGregors were denied food, water and shelter. They were denied the Sacraments of Baptism, Holy Communion, marriage, and last rites. They were hunted with dogs like vermin. And MacGregor heads could be sold to the government to attain pardon for thievery and murder. It was a licence to kill...."
The End Game
Alister Macgregor was caught and brought to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. According to the Newgate Calendar, he was unanimously convicted by an jury of many crimes including the presentation of an illegal surname, that of Macgregor. But the worse charge was the allegation that he and his clan members had "killed about 140 men, mostly in cold blood, after they had been made prisoners". Apparently, even according to Macgregor historians, Alister and his Clan warriors had completely lost control of themselves, even killed a party of schoolboys who had simply stopped to watch the battle.
In February of 1604, Alister Macgregor and 17 of his followers were drawn and quartered at Edinburgh. His limbs were cut off and exhibited in larger cities in Scotland as, one can only supose, some kind of macabre warning.
James I lived until 1625 and died of complications associated with alcoholism.
According to the Newgate Calendars, the abolition of the surname Macgregor lasted "until the Restoration" (about 1660), some 57 years later.
The Macgregor clan now flourishes in Scotland, proud of a unique Tartan, with an active clan leader and a website, and with descendants in every part of the world and under a variety of variations from the original Galeic "MacGhriogair", such as Gregor, McGregor or MacGregor.
From personal experience only, there does seem to be some feistynous in those with the Macgregor DNA. Many are decorated war heroes. One descendant of the Clan Gregor of Scotland, now living in Victoria, Canada (image above), practises as a general chartered accountant by day, but plays ice hockey at night with an uncommon (but welcome to his goaltender), sense of territory.
- Clan Gregor Society, The Original Edict for the Extermination of the Clan Gregor, retrieved from the Internet on 1 NOV 2013 at http://www.clangregor.com/about-us/history/the-original-edict-for-the-extermination-of-the-clan-gregor/.
- NOTE 1: Incidentally, the English monarch still rules over Scotland but there is a referendum on independence of Scotland in September 2014.
- NOTE 2: According to the Clan Colquhoun International Society: "The village of Luss is at the heart of the Colquhoun clan lands and has been for over 600 years."
- NOTE 3: Apparently, in the 1790s, the then chief's of the clans MacGregor and Colquhoun met at the site of the battle and by shaking hands, reconciled the two clans. There is still a running record of the Colquhoun clan, including an active chief who in 2013 is Malcolm Colquhoun.
- The entire Newgate Calendar article on Allister Macgregor is available here as Newgate-Calendar-Alister-McGregor.pdf.
Editor's Note: image of Mr. Thomas A. Macgregor, C.G.A. of Victoria, British Columbia, playing ice hockey (defenceman), is used with his permission but the caption thereon is that of the author.