A Review of The Documents & Historical Events That Define It

Category: Clan MacLaren

The Murder of John MacLaren

A lot has been written about Rob Roy McGregor and much of it whitewashes his and his clan’s behaviour.  But Clan Gregor’s ongoing dispute with the MacLarens didn’t end with the 1558 massacre.  Two centuries later the MacGregors were still finding ways to inflict misery on the MacLarens.

As one story goes, Rob had three sons, James, the eldest, Ronald (or Ranald), the middle son and Robert, also called Robin Òg (Young Robin) as his youngest.  It has not been confirmed that the immediate family also included a cousin by the name of Duncan (we’ll meet him a bit later).

Back in the 1730s Ronald had found a willing woman and was preparing to marry and looking for a farm of his own.  In 1734 John MacLaren, holding the title Baron Stoibchon and Chief of Clan MacLaren was leaseholder of some very desirable farmland in Wester Invernenty.  This looked like the perfect place and Rob set about securing the land for his son. Conveniently, that year the lease was due to expire which would mean others could petition to take it over.1MacLaren, Margaret, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, pg. 67 

I say ‘one story’ because there are several conflicting versions of who was actually leasing that land.  For example: in the preface of a book entitled The Trials of James, Duncan, and Robert McGregor, Three Sons of the Celebrated Rob Roy before the High Court of Justiciary, in the Years 1752, 1753 and 1754, the authors provide a different scenario.  They write that “McLaren, a kinsman of the McGregors, though of a different tribe, had given the offense by his proposal to take a lease of some land in the possession the McGregor family”.  2The Trials of James, Duncan, and Robert McGregor, Three Sons of the Celebrated Rob Roy, before the High Court of Justiciary, in the Years 1752,1753 and 1754.  (Edinburgh: 1818), pg. civ 

According to two life of Rob Roy books that I read, the land had been held by Rob’s cousin Malcolm who had died suddenly leaving children too young to inherit the lease and work the farm.  Because of this the land reverted to its owner, the Duke of Atholl.  The Duke in turn chose to sell the land to Lord Appin.  Appin, in turn, granted the land to John MacLaren.  

This sounds good and would certainly explain the animosity between the two clans.  Yet there is a discrepancy here as well as we’ll see later in this article when we examine a letter to Atholl’s estate manager.  In that letter, the writer asked the estate manager to let Atholl know about the situation and to take actions against the MacGregors.  If Appin were, indeed the land owner, it would make no sense to petition Atholl to take action against the MacGregors as the letter requests. That responsibility would have been held by the person overseeing the land.  It would be highly doubtful that Atholl would be overseeing Appin land holdings.

Further, according to the information provided in The Trials book, in the legal indictment for the trial of James and Ronald for the killing, the motive for the murder was to prevent John from “competing with him (Ronald) for the lease”.  The prosecution went on to say that before the murder was committed, John MacLaren was threatened multiple times by the MacGregors stating that Robin would shoot him as soon as he was able to get his father’s gun which was being repaired.  John also received threats of death by dirk, if he tried to get the lease in spite of the death threats. 3The Trials, pg. cv At one point, Robert argued that the land belonged to his mother – more on that later.

After John MacLaren’s killing, the indictment reads that Robert returned to his mother’s house and bragged of his success.  Meanwhile his brother James and a relative called Callum McInlister, who apparently was part and partial to the crime, praised Robert for the crime and expressed their ‘wish’ that Donald MacLaren had met the same fate.

Since they had James and Callum as accessories to murder, the authorities also levied charges of various crimes of theft and fencing stolen goods.  The court referred to them as “notorious thieves and resetters of stolen goods”.  This included cattle rustling.  So these guys weren’t the innocent victims of persecution as some MacGregor chroniclers have painted them.4The Trials, pg. cvii

Further, it doesn’t appear that there was ever any doubt that Robert was the murderer as multiple witnesses attested at the trial of James and Callum.  As one witness, a Robert Murray of Glencarnoch testified when visiting the house of Rob Roy’s widow the same night that MacLaren died: “he saw Rob Oig there with a gun: That he asked him why he had shot McLaren? To which Rob answered, that the deceased had attempted to get his mother’s possession; and that if the McLarens persevered in giving offence, their misfortunes were only beginning.”  

All of this plus the defence’s argument that MacLaren never took possession of the land in question brings the timelines given in MacLaren’s, Murray and Trantor’s books into question because all of them state that MacLaren acquired the lease at some point prior to the killing. 5The Trials, pg cix  Yet here we have Robert claiming that the land belonged to his mother, a letter to the estate steward suggesting the land belonged to the Duke of Atholl, and three books relating that the land was under lease to John MacLaren.  So who did own this land?

Well, it was a leasehold so if Robert’s mother owned it, she would have been the lessor and there is no mention of that anywhere in any document.  From the documents I’ve read, I believe the owner was the Duke of Atholl.  Appin played no part in this event. Still, that doesn’t explain the discrepancies as to when or if John MacLaren ever took possession of the land for which he was allegedly killed.

Going back to the books on Rob Roy’s life and Margaret MacLaren’s book on the MacLaren history, we are told that at some point, having been forewarned that there would be trouble,6The Trials, pg. cxi , MacLaren called for assistance from the Stewarts ‘over the hill’, and Appin responded with 200 men.  The two groups of men met below the Kirkton of Balquhidder.

Rob Roy did not bargain for this, however, and realising that he and his men were terribly outnumbered determined that the cost in blood of battle would not be worth any gain he might achieve if he were successful.  But that didn’t mean he’d given up – far from it. He requested a meeting with Appin wherein they agreed to settle the matter through a duel. Should Appin’s man win, MacGregor pledged that Clan Gregor would relinquish any claim to the Invernenty land.  This might lead us to think all was well.  But remember, we’re dealing with Clan Gregor here and their reputation pretty much guarantees that would not be the case. And sure enough it wasn’t.  

Again, there are a couple of versions of the duel, but both Rob Roy books that I read relate the duel in pretty much the same way. In one book the author tells us that Rob Roy took the role of combatant himself so that “no one might think he had shirked a fight he offered himself for a trial at arms”. 7Murray, W.H., Rob Roy MacGregor, His Life and Times (1982) This, to me, does not sound right based on Rob’s history of avoiding fights/battles and weaselling his way out of trouble. Margaret MacLaren deviates from those renditions writing that Rob Roy was one of the finest swordsmen in the country and bragged that he’d never lost a fight.  He declared that this one would be no different. 8The MacLarens, pg. 68 This seems more reasonable to me and more what I would expect from Rob Roy MacGregor. Further, he risked nothing, as was typical for Rob, as this duel would be a duel of honour which meant it would end at the drawing of first blood not at the death of one of the combatants.

Alasdair of Invernahyle, a brother-in-law to Appin was chosen as the Appin champion.  He was a robust young man reputed to be an excellent swordsman.  The weapons agreed upon were broadswords and shields.  

The two fought in what was probably a fairly brief but well-matched battle until Alasdair inflicted a wound to Rob, thereby drawing first blood and ending the duel.  The MacGregors kept their word, relinquishing any claim to the Invernenty land and John MacLaren was left to farm in peace.  Well, almost.

It’s probably needless to say that after a bitter loss, an injury that eventually killed him and the loss of face, Rob Rob MacGregor was not a happy man and certainly had no love for John MacLaren.  In fact, when John visited him shortly before his death for reasons unknown (most sources agree the reason remains a mystery), the tension was palpable, and the meeting was highly formal.  Rob, with the help of his wife refused to meet his “enemy” looking weak so managed to get up from his bed and dress for the occasion.  It was likely the last time he rose.

Before he died, Rob had one last go at MacLaren whom he saw as the cause of all his miseries.  As I said before, it does make you wonder why Rob held such a strong hatred for MacLaren; John MacLaren did not steal the land from him.  From what I read in MacLaren’s book, John was on the land long before MacGregor decided he wanted it.

At any rate, according to the two Rob Roy biography sources, McGregor was told by a priest that he could receive absolution only if he truly repented; and this included forgiving John MacLaren, something he was loath to do.   Each of the two sources I read offered a different version of Rob’s last moments of life but both mention this absolution requirement.  

One source makes no mention of his son, Robin Òg being present, the other places Robin at the foot of his father’s bed. 9Tranter, Nigel, Rob Roy MacGregor (1995), pg. 185And what this book reports is most interesting and would certainly explain the next part of our story.  Reportedly the priest present forced the issue of John MacLaren, speaking his name specifically as someone Rob needed to forgive.  Grudgingly Rob voiced that forgiveness. But, according to the book Rob ‘raised his eyes to the foot of the bed where his younger son Robin Òg stood watching’. ‘I forgive my enemies, especially John MacLaren’ and after ‘catching Robin’s eye” said ‘But see you to him!”

Whether this is true or not is not documented but one fact does run through the historical documents, the MacGregor boys held John MacLaren responsible for the death of their father and set about to exact revenge upon him.

On March 4th in 1736 Robin Òg, carried through on the threats he’d been making to kill John MacLaren.  Accordingly, along with his two older brothers, Ronald and James, and several other men, accosted John whilst he was plowing.  Seeing the MacGregors approaching, John said to a companion “What does that snake want?”. We’ll never know what discussion, if any, passed between the men but once his back was turned, Robert, using his father’s Spanish long gun, killed John MacLaren, in cold blood, shooting him in the back leaving John for dead.  He did, in fact, die later that night. 

But the MacGregor boys were not done with the MacLarens quite yet.  A few nights later, on the 9th, the brothers MacGregor in the company of several other men (probably the same who had accompanied them to the MacLaren shooting) visited the farm of Donald MacLaren (the same Donald the Drover we met in the last couple of articles) and set about killing and/or maiming 30 head of Donald’s cattle.  As Donald made his living droving, this would have had substantial financial impacts on his livelihood.  And, again, I’ve not found any reason other than hatred for the MacLarens to carry this vengeance down the road to Donald MacLaren who was not, at least in the records or any book I’ve read, noted as a party to the land dispute.  

Margaret MacLaren gives us the following letter written by Alastair Stewart of Invernahyle to Alexander Murray who was Atholl’s estate manager in 1736 wherein he describes the horrific events.  The letter, found in the Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families, ii, 415 is dated 13 March, 1736 and reads:

“Sir, –Upon the 4th Instant their[sic] happened a most barbarouos action in this country in the hands of Rob Roy’s youngest son.  He came with a gunn and pistle to the Town of Drumlich where John MacLaren, Baron Stoibchon and Wester Invernenty liv’d, and the said Baron with two of his neighbours being att the pleugh, this youngest son of Rob Roy’s called Robert, came to the pleugh, and without any provocation, as the Baron was holding the plough, shott him behind his back, of which wound he dyed that night.

Tho’ this wretch was the unhappy executioner, yet it is thought he was sett upon by his Brothers and others of their adherents to commit this tragicall action, as will appear by their conduct, for upon the 9th, they not wearying of their vile practices, they hough’d (hamstrung) and kill’d upwards of 30 stotes (bullocks) belonging to Donald McLaren, Drover, in Innernenty, and threaten frequently to shoot himself and some others of his Clann.

I happening to be in this country att the time, and being desired by Stoibchon’s friends to represent these vile practices that you might fall on proper methods to curb such vilious practices, and acquaint his Grace of all that happen’d in this affair, and in the mean time that you send express orders to your Baillie here to make a closs (strict) search for the malefactor, and impower him to raise the whole country for that effect.

It is the generall opinion that this hellish plot hath been concerted by Rob Roy’s three sons and their adherents, and I humbly think they should all be seas’d if possible and banish’d the country. I doubt not his Grace will endeavour to free his country of such vile wretches.

In the mean time I am hopefull you’ll have Regard to the present dangerous situation of several people in this country that have been threatn’d by these wretches, and cannot safely come out of their houses without arms, and are oblidged to watch their houses and catle least they sufferr the same gate with the stotes, which doubtless will happen if the Superior of the country does not immediately quell this affair. Expecting your answer pr. Bearer, I conclude with my compliments to you, and am, Dr. Sir, r. humble sert.. 
Stewart of Invernahyle. 
John Stewart, brother in law to the defunct.
 Do: McLaren, att Innernentie

At this point young Robert (Robin) left the area so we pause his story there and come back to him later. 

John’s death did not go without notice.  In the 15 March issue of the Caledonian Mercury this following article appears:

That John Maclaren of Beanchon, in Balquhidder, Perthshire vassal to His Grace the Duke of Atholl, was the 4thinstant barbariously murderd by Robert Drummond (alias Macgregor), commonly called Robin Oig, son of the deceased Rob Roy Macgregor, by a shot from a gun  as he was ploughing without the least provocation, whereof he instantly died; thereafter he and others, his accomplices, went to the town of Invernenty, and houghed, mangled and destroyed 26 stots and a cow belonging to Malcolm and Donald Maclaren, drovers. Therefore whoever shall apprehend the said Robert, so as he may be brought to trial, shall have 20 guineas reward from James Muirhead, at his coffee-house.  He is a tall lad, aged about 20, thin, pale-coloured, squint-eyed, brown hair, pock-pitted, ill-legged, in-kneed, and broadfooted.”   A second notice on April 22d noted that Robert Stewart of Appin was prepared to pay £50 sterling for the capture of Robin Oig “of the tribe of Clan-douilcheir”

So here we have an interesting conflict in stories between those written by chroniclers of Rob Roy’s life, court documents from the trial of James and Callum, newspaper articles and documents of the time.  It appears that, according to the Caledonian MacLaren was the vassal of Atholl, meaning the land actually belonged to the Duke of Atholl and that confirms that Appin was not involved in its ownership at all!  This also confirms that he did have rights to farm the land prior to his death.  But it also downgrades the number of cattle affected in the second attack on Donald MacLaren and names another MacLaren, Malcolm, as an additional victim of the cattle raid.  Personally, I would tend to rely upon the witness, John Stewart, the author of the letter to Atholl’s estate manager.

At any rate, Robin/Robert having fled the area was nowhere to be found.  But his brothers remained and Ronald, James plus one of their accomplices, Callum MacInleister, were charged as accessories to the murder. All three were released eventually but the court found Ronald and James to be “bad characters, and beasts not rightly come by, and that might be speered [asked] after”. In other words he wanted them watched. They were ordered to pay £200 and watched for seven years to ensure their good behaviour.  This, to me, sounds like what we would call probation nowadays.

Although that’s the end of our story relating to the MacLarens, following Robert and his brothers’ exploits is interesting in and of itself, and it does bring closure to the death of John MacLaren albeit many years later.

At one point in the mid-1700s Robert MacGregor, alias Campbell, alias Drummond, alias Rob Roy, now going by the name of Robert Campbell, returned to Scotland from France where he had exiled.  Back at home and back to old habits it seemed as on December 8, 1750 the boys, now men of course, kidnapped one Jean Key of Edinbelly.

Jean Key was a young widow, age 19 and an heiress that was left pretty well off by her late husband.  Reports say that Robert, without any means of his own, conspired with his brother James to marry a rich widow.  So they set about accomplishing this when they learned of the passing of Jean’s husband two months prior. This was not something she agreed to – in fact she’d never even seen him.  But she had been warned by her neighbours that they had heard rumours of people in town who had designs on her money.  So when Robert sent a note soon after the death of her husband saying he would like to meet with her regarding a proposal of marriage she, understandably, declined.  According to the records, this infuriated Robert who was reputed to have a horrific tempter.  He once again got together with his brothers Ronald, Duncan and James to plan a kidnapping and forced marriage with the young widow.

Accordingly, on December 8, 1750 they did just that.  Ronald took the lead on this one and Jean was brutally abducted, forced into marriage and then raped by Robert under the guise of being her husband.

The three brothers were eventually caught and brought up on charges of “Hamesucken” (taking someone forcefully from their own home), forcible abduction and carrying away of Jean Key, holding her prisoner against her will and in the case of Robert, ravishing (rape).10The Trials, pg. cxxiii

Robert was already considered a fugitive due to his failure to appear at trial for the murder of John MacLaren.  When he was finally caught he was brought up on charges of murdering John MacLaren as well as the abduction of Jean Key.11The Trials, pg. cxxiii Not surprisingly law enforcement was not at all unhappy to have him finally in custody.  

Although the MacLaren matter was not mentioned as part of the charges read at Robert’s hanging, it’s likely they played a part in his trial and sentencing, and they are mentioned several times in the trial transcript.  

So on February 17, 1754 Robin Òg was hung by the neck until dead in Grassmarket.  The account in the Caledonian Mercury 17, February 1754 is fairly graphic and very descriptive of what I take to be his last words wherein he blamed his sins on his “swerving two or three years ago from that Communion”.  But we know he swerved a lot longer that ‘two or three years ago’ – the death of John MacLaren and destruction of MacLaren livestock was some 20 years before.  Albeit not directly for the death of MacLaren, in the end at least his killer was caught and executed.

As for his brothers, James escaped from prison before sentence could be levied and died not long after in France. Ronald, although mentioned in James’ trial doesn’t appear to have been brought up on charges.  However, their other brother Duncan was charged with the same crimes as James and Robert but found not guilty by the jury.

  • 1
    MacLaren, Margaret, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, pg. 67
  • 2
    The Trials of James, Duncan, and Robert McGregor, Three Sons of the Celebrated Rob Roy, before the High Court of Justiciary, in the Years 1752,1753 and 1754.  (Edinburgh: 1818), pg. civ
  • 3
    The Trials, pg. cv
  • 4
    The Trials, pg. cvii
  • 5
    The Trials, pg cix
  • 6
    The Trials, pg. cxi
  • 7
    Murray, W.H., Rob Roy MacGregor, His Life and Times (1982)
  • 8
    The MacLarens, pg. 68
  • 9
    Tranter, Nigel, Rob Roy MacGregor (1995), pg. 185
  • 10
    The Trials, pg. cxxiii
  • 11
    The Trials, pg. cxxiii

The 1558 Raid

During the course of MacLaren history there were a number of violent incidents perpetrated by the Clan Gregor. 

The MacGregors were not indigenous to Balquhidder. Driven out from their original holdings in the west by the Campbells, the MacGregors first made their appearance in Balquhidder in the 16th century. The Black Book of Taymouth records the massacre of 27 members of “the Clanlaurent” by Duncan Ladosach Macgregor in 1542.

This was followed by the slaughter of 18 MacLaren households by the MacGregors in 1558.  Men, women and children were killed and their homes taken by MacGregors.1MacLaren, Margaret, History of Clan Labhran, McQuiddy:Tennesse, 1960, p. 48 The MacLaurin memorial stone in Balquhidder kirkyard reads, in part, “…the chief of whom, in the decrepitude of old age, together with his aged and infirm adherents, their wives and children, the widows of their departed kindred — all were destroyed in the silent midnight hours by fire and sword,”. 2Keltie, John S., A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland …, Volume 2, p. 280, 1881, A. Fullerton Edinburgh  Clearly most, if not all, of these people were likely asleep at the time of the raid which makes it all the more horrific.

The incident was referred to in a Court record of 1604, which saw the acquittal of Johnne McCoull Cheire (a MacGregor of the Dougal Ciar branch) of having “airt and pairt of the crewall Murthour and Burning of auchtene houfhalderis of the Clanlawren, thair wyves and bairnis; committit fourtie fax yeir fyne or thairby.” [art and part of the cruel murder and burning of Achtene householders of the Clan Lawren, their wives and bairns; committed fourty six year since or thereby]. Considering that the massacre did not come before the courts until some 46 years later, it would not be terribly surprising to see an acquittal.3Keltie, John S., A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland …, Volume 2, p. 280, 1881, A. Fullerton Edinburgh Such a span of time between the crime and the investigation does pose the question as to how many people would still be living who had first-hand knowledge of the event, were witnesses to it or actually committed the killings.

At any rate, in 1604 a number of MacGregors were accused and many found guilty and hanged for multiple killings at Glenfruin (Glenfrune in the court records). In the summer of 1603, the Laird and 400 of his clan “enterit [entered] in the Lennox” where he slaughtered 60 men, women and children, “He fpared nane” [He spared none]. Given the other trial records in that same volume, as well as the MacGregors’ reputation and history of violent behaviour, this type of aggressive action toward the MacLarens was not out of character.4See Pitcairn Criminal Trials, p. 440, vol 2, Scottish parliamentary records RPS, 1617/5/40, http://www.rps.ac.uk/trans/1617/5/40 for the King’s eventual punishment for MacGregor transgressions.

There has been some recent speculation as to the number of MacLarens killed in the 1558 massacre, with the suggestion that an earlier informal estimate of 100 individuals is unrealistic.  The average household in Britain at that time was considered to be 4.75 persons.  Multiplying 4.75 by 18 gives you 85.5 persons killed. Considering that typical highland families would have had more than three children, 100 is not an unreasonable nor unrealistic number. 5Moore, John S. Demographic Dimensions of the Mid-Tudor Crisis.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 41, no. 4 (2010): 1039–63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40997601.

  • 1
    MacLaren, Margaret, History of Clan Labhran, McQuiddy:Tennesse, 1960, p. 48
  • 2
    Keltie, John S., A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland …, Volume 2, p. 280, 1881, A. Fullerton Edinburgh
  • 3
    Keltie, John S., A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland …, Volume 2, p. 280, 1881, A. Fullerton Edinburgh
  • 4
    See Pitcairn Criminal Trials, p. 440, vol 2, Scottish parliamentary records RPS, 1617/5/40, http://www.rps.ac.uk/trans/1617/5/40 for the King’s eventual punishment for MacGregor transgressions.
  • 5
    Moore, John S. Demographic Dimensions of the Mid-Tudor Crisis.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 41, no. 4 (2010): 1039–63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40997601.

A Wee Bit More About Donald the Drover

There’s been a bit of controversy here and there as to whether Donald MacLaren was indeed a captain in the Appin Regiment or whether he belonged to a different regiment.  There is sufficient documentary evidence in my opinion to support the assertion that he was part of the Appin Regiment and not the Atholl Brigade as some have claimed.

First, an article in the Journal of the Society for Army Research – A. McK. Annand, ‘Stewart of Appin’s Regiment in the Army of Prince Charles Edward, 1745-46‘, (Vol. 38(153), 1960. Page 24 and Page 27).

The entry reads: “Whilst all the casualties suffered by the officers were amongst those with the surname of Stewart (with the exception of one MacLaren), of the remainder, 69 killed and 40 wounded bore other names….Of these the greatest number were MacColls with 18 killed and 15 wounded and MacLarens with 13 killed and 4 wounded”. The MacLarens who were killed and wounded, however, may have been residents in Appin so not Balquhidder. I have found no evidence to support their residency.

Listing of MacLaren and Stewart casualties at Culloden

Angus Stewart, in his article entitled ‘The Last Chief: Dougal Stewart of Appin‘, in The Scottish Historical Review, (Vol. 76(202), Edinburgh 1997, Footnote 41 on page 209): “There was a contingent of McLarens from Balquhidder with the Stewarts. This included Donald McLaren of Invernenty, listed as captain in the Order Book of the Appin Regiment and celebrated for an audacious escape from captivity in the aftermath of Culloden. An old blood tie is the usual reason given for the alliance, it may also be significant that Appin gave Invernenty credit and thereby acquired titled in 1748 as a secured creditor in the ranking of his creditors (service of heirs, SRO, C22/95/24)….”

This ties in nicely with a couple of things. First, the blood tie. Margaret MacLaren’s history of our clan and several Stewart family histories detail out the marriage between the daughter of the Chief of MacLarens of Ardveich and John Stewart. A previous liaison between the two had produced a son, Dugald. After John’s first wife died he sent for the MacLaren woman (whose first name I’m still searching to find) and Dugald (18 at the time) with the intent to marry her and declare Dugald his legitimate heir.  He had no male issue from his first marriage.

The powers that be in the Stewart clan weren’t too happy about this as they stood to lose any claim to the throne – so to speak. So they set about to have John killed. The idea being to see him dead before he could wed MacLaren and make his bastard son a legitimate heir.  So they set about hiring an assassin to stab John Stewart. Happily for MacLaren and son, John, in spite of life threatening injuries managed to hang on long enough to say ‘I do’ and declare Dugald his heir; basically dying at the alter. 

Unfortunately, at 18 and without a great deal of support, Dugald was unable to fend off his relatives and he was forced to relinquish his claim and departed for another part of Scotland where he went on to found the Appin Stewarts. 

That blood tie with the MacLarens was held and enforced across the centuries as the two clans went to each other’s aid when required. (See Henry Lee, History of the Stewart Family, New York: 1920, p. 36 onward and Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, p. 31)

This is nicely supported by Donald’s son, James, who sued the Stewart family after Dugald Stewarts’ death in an attempt to gain back the lands his father sold to Dugald after the uprising of ‘45. In his Memorial – which more or less equates to what we would call a deposition today – he says: “…He [Donald MacLaren] owed sundry debts to several persons, particularly to Dugald Stewart of Appin, who was his connection and confidential friend, who was a man of considerable influence in that part of the country, and who had taken the memorialist’s father, as being one of his followers, under his protection and friendship.” Here is a copy of that passage.  

Page from James MacLaren’s Memorial

Further, on page 142, listing number 2234 in the Prisoners of the ’45, Vol. III by Seton and Arnot, we find another reference to Donald MacLaren identifying him as a Captain in the Appin Regiment.

Listing of MacLaren as part of the Appin Stewart’s in the Prisoners of the ’45 book.

Finally, there is a listing in the Atholl Chronicles, Vol. III wherein Donald is listed, again, as a Captain in the Appin Regiment.  As these are taken directly from the original records of the Duke of Atholl it seems pretty unlikely that he would have written that MacLaren was an officer in the Appin Regiment if he was an officer in the Atholl Brigade.

Listing of Donald MacLaren from the Atholl Chronicles

All-in-all it looks to me that the preponderance of evidence strongly supports the argument that Donald was, in fact, an officer in the Appin Regiment during the course of the Jacobite uprising in 1745-46.

The Mermaids and MacLaren Heraldry

I’ve been asked about the presence of Mermaids on the Clan’s Coat of Arms.  Why mermaids?  Are they real representations of the some aspect of the clan or just a decoration that someone along the line thought looked nice.  The answer is: they are real representations of an aspect of the Clan.

First, let’s take a quick look at heraldry.  A Coat of Arms in Scotland only belongs to one individual. 1Alastair Campbell of Airds, West Highland Heraldry and The Lordship of the Isles, The Lordship of the Isles, Richard D. Oram, (ed), Vol. 68, 2014 p. 208.   In the case of the clans – any Scottish clan – the individual to whom the Coat of Arms belongs is the chief.  If the arms belong to a family name (as opposed to a clan name), then they belong to the head of that family. So although the MacLaren Coat of Arms belongs to our Chief Donald alone, it represents the rest of us as members of his clan.  Remember, the word ‘clann’ (with two n’s in the Gaelic language) is the Gaelic word for ‘children’.  Thus members of the clan can be considered to be the extended family of the chief. 

Heraldry can tell you a great deal about the individual, or in our case, Clan.  It can give you heritage information, origin information, virtues and moral values.  It can do this because each of the images that are part of a Coat of Arms are symbols representing something.  Even the way the images are laid out on the shield gives information.  As Alastair Campbell of Airds writes in his article on West Highland Heraldry: “And whatever critics may say, heraldry is intensely symbolic and allows its users to make statements which can be clearly recognisable and which can offer a valuable sidelight on history.” 2http://www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk/westhigh.html

For example, if we look at a couple of the clans from the isles, we see a Galley of the Isles (or Black Galley) and The Galley of Lorne symbols.  These go way back to the Isle of Man during the time of Somerled who is arguably the first of the Lords of the Isles in the 1100s, and who conquered the Isle of Man. 3W.D.H. Sellar, ‘The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45(140), 1966, p. 123  But going back even farther, we find that the galley symbol was also present on banners of Norse nobles.  So in Somerled’s case, this might well represent his connection with the Norse Lords. 4W.D.H. Sellar, ‘The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45(140), 1966, p. 123 and Ellis Caitlin, ‘Impressions of a Twelfth-Century Maritime Rule – Somerled: Viking Warrior, Clan Chieftain or Traitor to the Scottish King’, Northern Studies, Vol. 51 (2020), p. 3.  The MacDonalds, who are direct descendants of Somerled, display that historical relationship by the use of the galley on their Coat of Arms. 5Alastair Campbell of Airds, West Highland Heraldry and The Lordship of the Isles, The Lordship of the Isles, Richard D. Oram, (ed), Vol. 68, 2014 pp. 200-253

The MacLaren Coat of Arms has several symbols, including a galley, and you’ll find a comprehensive explanation of the MacLaren Arms in Chapter 11 The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran. 6Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, p. 130  But the ones we’ll discuss today are the mermaids; a symbol found on the Coats of Arms of other clans and families besides MacLaren, the Murrays for example.  So how did the mermaids come to be a part of our Clan’s heraldry?

The mermaids date back to the time of the Picts who were an independent pre-Roman people in Scotland until they were united with the Scots of Dalriadia by Kenneth McAlpin in around 843 AD. 7https://www.digitscotland.com/who-were-the-picts/.  To the Picts, the mermaid represented the Mother Spirit but they also have a variety of other attributes such as Eloquence and Strength. 8Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, p. I  No one is really sure, beyond the Pictish belief in the Mother Goddess, what any Pict symbol represents. But scholars have suggested that the mermaid, along with the comb and mirror, is representative of a female person as well as a relationship to the sea.

The mermaid symbols on the Clan MacLaren Coat of Arms represent the origins of the clan as it relates to the early people of Scotland.  But how do we more directly equate the early Picts with Clan Labhran? 

Well, it’s a little complicated but Strathearn and therefore Balquhidder was part of Fortrenn/Fortriu, a Pictish kingdom upon which the high-kingship of the Picts was based prior to the merging of the Pictish lands with those of Dalriada in the 9th century. What is now Perthshire was part of Fortriu and so the ancestral lands of the MacLarens were originally Pictish. 9C. Thomas Cairney, Ph.D., Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland – An Ethnography of the Gael a.d. 500-1750, Maryland: Heritage Books, (2006), p. 58 and Woolf, Alex, Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Georgraphy of the Picts, The Socttish Historical Review, Vol. LXXXV, 2 No. 220, (2006) pp 182-201 It could be suggested, then, that location plays a part in the presence of the mermaids.  

But so does hierarchy.  According to Margaret MacLaren when discussing the origins of the Clan and its relation to Pict mermaid symbology, “Even after the coming of Christianity she retained her symbolic importance in the minds of the people and when a Gaelic prince came over from Lorn and married their princess the mermaid survived as the tutelary emblem of the princess’s descendants, the Clan Labhran, whose Chiefs to this day, in token of their origin, bear mermaids as heraldic supporters for their Arms.” 10MacLaren, Margaret,The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, (1960) p. I

For further reading:

  • There’s a website which gives a lot of information on the Picts and seems quite comprehensive. (I can’t say how scholarly this site is.)
  • The Aberdeenshire Council page dedicated to the Pictish Symbol Stones

(For a fascinating video about Pictish symbols, have a look at this YouTube video:

  • 1
    Alastair Campbell of Airds, West Highland Heraldry and The Lordship of the Isles, The Lordship of the Isles, Richard D. Oram, (ed), Vol. 68, 2014 p. 208
  • 2
    http://www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk/westhigh.html
  • 3
    W.D.H. Sellar, ‘The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45(140), 1966, p. 123
  • 4
    W.D.H. Sellar, ‘The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45(140), 1966, p. 123 and Ellis Caitlin, ‘Impressions of a Twelfth-Century Maritime Rule – Somerled: Viking Warrior, Clan Chieftain or Traitor to the Scottish King’, Northern Studies, Vol. 51 (2020), p. 3
  • 5
    Alastair Campbell of Airds, West Highland Heraldry and The Lordship of the Isles, The Lordship of the Isles, Richard D. Oram, (ed), Vol. 68, 2014 pp. 200-253
  • 6
    Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, p. 130
  • 7
    https://www.digitscotland.com/who-were-the-picts/
  • 8
    Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, p. I
  • 9
    C. Thomas Cairney, Ph.D., Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland – An Ethnography of the Gael a.d. 500-1750, Maryland: Heritage Books, (2006), p. 58 and Woolf, Alex, Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Georgraphy of the Picts, The Socttish Historical Review, Vol. LXXXV, 2 No. 220, (2006) pp 182-201
  • 10
    MacLaren, Margaret,The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, (1960) p. I

Donald the Drover

Donald was a Drover (cattleman) and a land owner in Invernenty.  He was also very close and good friends with the Appin Stewarts.  The relationship between the MacLarens and the Appin Stewarts goes back for centuries after a marriage that united the two families.

Many of you may be familiar with the story, Outlander.  If you are, you might see a correlation between Jamie Frazer and our own Donald MacLaren.  Donald, also known as Donald Mòr or Donald the Drover was a staunch supporter of the Jacobite cause and served as a Captain in the Appin Regiment of the Jacobite army in 1745-46.  Like Jamie, and several other men who served at Culloden, MacLaren was injured during the battle, captured, escaped and hid out in the remote hills near his home in Invernenty (Balquhidder) as he waited for a pardon from the King.

We can’t be sure of MacLaren’s reasoning for joining the Jacobite army, there was a wide variety of reasons why men and women supported the return of a Stuart to the throne.  Many were unhappy with economic and social affairs in the country, some were unhappy at the presence of a foreign, non-English speaking king as ruler, others simply believed that Charles Stuart was the rightful king. But it possible that MacLaren, with a group of his tenants, responded to a call to arms by Lord George Murray who wrote to him in the early part of 1746.

But unlike Outlander which portrayed the Jacobite army, at least Jamie’s part of it, as untrained farmers leaving us with the impression that the Jacobite army was a ragtag group of Highlanders charging blindly into battle.  The truth was quite the contrary.  The majority of the army, by the time they reached Culloden were well trained and armed with cannon, cavalry and foot soldiers. What they didn’t have, though, was enough food and clothing.

At Culloden, the Appin Regiment was assigned to the centre front line immediately to the left of Lord George Murray’s Atholl Brigade.  They were not alone in this position but in the company of the Frazers, MacIntoshes and several other clans.  After weathering a substantial cannon barrage, the order to charge was finally given and the MacIntoshes led the way with the Appin Regiment and the others close at their heels.  Donald, then, was very much in the thick of things leading his men into battle.

It’s not known how he left the field at Culloden, although records do show that he suffered an injury during the course of the battle.  So it was likely he would have been helped off the field by his fellow soldiers which probably saved his life.  And it was likely his injury was to a leg or foot as he is reported to have been seen on horseback leading men back toward Balquhidder. This certainly could point to an injury sufficient to prevent him from walking.  Injury notwithstanding, he made it to Balquhidder and disappeared. And it was a good thing that he did!

King George was determined to make examples of anyone found to be involved in any way with the uprising.  After all, the Jacobites had risen some 30 years before and a couple of times before that.  This time, though, they were far more of a serious threat and he decided enough was enough.  

As a result, the commander of his forces, the Duke of Cumberland, was dead set to capture and prosecute anyone even remotely suspected of supporting the Jacobite movement.  His patrols raided homes of suspected Jacobites, confiscating property and belongings, throwing people into the streets.  Anyone who so much as raised a toast to Prince Charles or had said something positive about the uprising was arrested.  Neighbours turned in neighbours or people they didn’t like.  Landlords were required to provide listings of all their tenants and any involvement or possible involvement by those people in the Jacobite movement.  Worse yet, there were priests under the control of Cumberland and his agents who made lists and noted which of their parishioners they believed to be a Jacobite or had political leanings in that direction.  There were spies everywhere!!

Thankfully, Donald managed to avoid all of these pitfalls and, at some point after his wounds had healed sufficiently he made his way some 14 miles or so to an area called Leny.  There he took refuge in a cottage with a few other Jacobite soldiers consisting of a couple of other officers including a Stewart and a few regular soldiers.  It’s something of a mystery as to how or why he wound up there.  Could he have been part of a party planning to regroup and fight again?  It’s possible.  Or perhaps it was simply a good place to hide where the likelihood of discovery was remote.  

In any event, eventually he was found and taken into custody.  There is a very interesting account of his capture and arrest from The History of the Rebellion in 1745 and 1746 from the Scots Magazine ( written in 1755).  Look a little ways down to the sentence that begins “And on the 15th, feven….”.  You will see where I’ve highlighted MacLaren’s name a little farther along.

But here is where things get a little muddy.  Culloden happened on April 16, 1746.  As we see in that short rendition of his capture and the prison records which follow below, Donald was not picked up and arrested until three months later in the middle of July.  How the Perthshire Militia found the men is unknown but certainly, with so many people working behind the scenes, so-to-speak to search out and identify Jacobite participants, it wouldn’t be amiss to assume someone reported them. 

Unfortunately, although recovered from injuries at Culloden he, once again, suffered an injury during the course of the short skirmish with the Militia; this time to his thigh. Because prison records show he was treated twice for his injury, we might speculate at this point that he probably wasn’t in the best of condition when he was incarcerated.  Add to that the travel time from Leny to Stirling, under constant stress of being transported to jail knowing it would likely end in his death, and, well,  it must have been a miserable journey for him.  

But it also raises some questions: When did they leave for Stirling?  The skirmish with the Militia wasn’t long and some records suggest the Militia came upon the cottage in the morning.  So the question becomes did they leave with their prisoners the same day?  If so it meant they would have spent three to four hours on the road covering 16 miles or thereabouts with wounds of varying severity.   But that doesn’t tally with the prison records which show he wasn’t incarcerated until July 20th.

At any rate, the first image below is the head of the page of Stirling prison records giving you the date, the location, the time and the name of the doctor. The date you see in the first image, Feb. 3, 1746 is the date the gaoler started the page and covers several subsequent dates.

You’ll notice that several words in the sentence are capitalised which we wouldn’t see written this way today:  “Different”, “Regiment”, “Rebels” for example.  During the 18th century people often capitalised words within a sentence to emphasise  them. 

The doctor noted, in most cases, the cause of the injury or condition requiring treatment and his charges for that treatment.  In Donald’s case, he simply says it was a wound in the thigh, no cause listed. The ‘Do’ that you see there simply means ‘ditto’.  Notice the date to the left of his name, July 20 – the date of his intake to the prison.  So he was treated twice on the same day he arrived.  

As I mentioned, after his capture by the Perthshire Militia he was taken to Stirling Castle to be held as a prisoner until his disposition could be determined.  As an officer he would most certainly be tried and executed for high treason.  So the future did not look good for him.  In this arrest record written by the gaoler we’re given the names of all the men arrested with him, by whom they were captured, the date they were brought into custody and their condition (all wounded). 

You’ll notice in this record that the gaoler gives the date they were received into custody as July 20th which, as I said, does not tally with the date given in the rendition of his actual capture at Leny on July 15th. In fact, the entry could be interpreted to mean that the prisoners were taken to Stirling the same day they were captured by the Militia! Because of that, I would surmise that the Perthshire Militia either picked him up on the 19th and arrived at the gaol in the morning on July 20th or he was captured and transported the same day (20th) to gaol. Thus the date is mis-stated in the document we saw earlier or there are roughly 5 days unaccounted for in the transport of these prisoners. 

Donald was held at Stirling for several months.  Finally, on September 3rd, after, presumably, he had an opportunity to recover from his wounds, Donald and another man by the name of King were  moved from Stirling Castle to Carlisle as you see in the image below.   

It was during this journey to Carlisle that Donald made his escape and was never recaptured.  There are a couple of versions of this escape which, for the most part, are similar but do vary in how he loosened himself from his guards.  A 1755 issue of Scotts Magazine relates Donald’s escape as:  “when being carried towards Carlisle, strapped to a dragoon, he cut the strap, threw himself over a cliff and escaped.” 

This version suggests that he managed to find a way to free himself which seems a bit unlikely although not impossible.  Logically, if we look at it from the standpoint of the Crown, he was a very valuable prisoner – an officer in the Rebel army and thus his death would have been a wonderful way to provide an example to all who might consider another uprising. So, that, in connection with the information that he was not riding on his own but bound to a dragoon, would suggest they wanted to make sure he got to trial in Carlisle.  And considering how difficult it might have been to lay his hands on a weapon sufficient to cut straps and then do so without the dragoon noticing and stopping the process, well, it just seems pretty unlikely this is what happened.

There is however, another version, which seems far more reasonable to me.  It suggests that he asked to relieve himself, was released from his bonds to do so and escaped. 

By whatever method, he did escape near Moffat about halfway between Stirling and Carlisle.  Wrapping himself in his plaid and tumbling down a ravine called Devil’s Beef Tub, he disappeared into the mist with the dragoons firing somewhat blindly in the hopes of hitting him.  Fortunately, they missed and Donald made good his escape.  

The Order Book of the Appin Regiment from 11th October 1745 to 18th January 1746. 1(C. Stewart Henderson (ed), pg. 168)  This is a book that provides information gleaned from the Appin Regiment Order Book on the movements of the regiment during the stated dates and was written in 1746.  It gives an interesting summary of Donald’s escape:

Donald MacLaren of East Invernentie, Balquhidder. Wounded at Culloden. He was again wounded and taken prisoner in the Braes of Leny on 19th July 1746. He was imprisoned in Stirling and Edinburgh. While being taken under escort to Carlisle he escaped; when passing the Devil’s Beef Tub near Moffat “Strapped to a dragoon, he cut the strap, threw himself over the cliff and escaped.” Under cover of mist he concealed himself with a turf on his head. He is said to have remained there for some days before making his way back to Balquihidder where he lived in hiding and disguised as a woman until the Act of Indemnity.”

But this passage demonstrates how difficult it can be to trace events.  This dates his capture to July 19th which may or may not tally with the prison records as we saw.  Further, I have found no recorded evidence that he was ever held in Edinburgh, assuming this references the gaol in Edinburgh and not some other location, which might validate this contention.

The next part of the story, which I have also been unable to confirm although it’s certainly possible, tells that after tumbling down the ravine, he headed north, spent a night in the Crook Inn  and eventually returned to Balquhidder.  This particular story, if nothing else, is just that, a good story  as the author tells us there was also a ‘party’ of soldiers residing at the inn and that he was able to keep himself unknown to them.  Must have made for a very uncomfortable night for Donald! 

In any event, after returning to Invernenty, he signed over his lands in 1748 to his friend Dugald Stewart and so lost ownership and control over all his property.  There is a bit more to this than simply relinquishing his property in the hopes it would not be confiscated or, as some sources suggest, in payment of debt.  But we’ll look into that in another article when we pick up the story of his son James, something of a prequel to Art Lowe’s excellent article from the last newsletter.

We can’t say with 100% certainty that his pardon was part of the The 1747 Act of Grace as his name wasn’t specifically mentioned as having received a pardon in any of the records. However, that Act was considered to be a general pardon of participants charged with treason. I think we can safely assume, and it is an unsupported assumption, that Donald was one of those receiving a pardon at that time.

I can’t help but admire Donald the Drover. To go through battle after battle, facing a barrage of cannon fire and still charging in leading his men, to be injured and escaped just to be injured again and captured must have taken remarkable bravery.  

  • 1
    (C. Stewart Henderson (ed), pg. 168)