Archive for November, 2019

Rob Roy, the Children of the Mist and the Outlaw in Me: Were the McEwens of Little Dunkeld and Kinclaven really MacGregors?

November 27th, 2019

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

My paternal grandmother, though born and brought up in Hong Kong, was a Highland Scot, a McEwen from East Perthshire. We wear McEwen regalia on the rare occasions that demand it, such as my brother’s appearance as a pageboy at our aunt’s wedding, when he was bedecked in natty trews in the Hunting McEwen tartan. A few family traditions were preserved, such as patronage of McEwen’s of Perth, a very old-fashioned department store in John Street (now sadly defunct), and an unhistorical obsession with orthography (never McEwan with an ‘a’). From ‘Grandpa McEwen’ we seem also to have inherited great height. My father stood at 6’4, my son at 6’3, myself at 6’2.

I also vividly remember from childhood my great-aunt Anne’s account of a meeting with her maiden aunt in Scotland. It must have taken place in 1939. On hearing that Anne was engaged to a ‘Sassenach’, Aunt Kate stiffened. ‘Then you’re nae niece of mine.’ Anne persisted, politely enquiring what their ancestors had been. Kate’s reply was equally forthright. ‘Why, sheep stealers of course!’ She must have had a soft heart, as she was later to leave some fine linen to my grandmother and instructed that a ‘kilt pin’ should be provided for her half-English daughter (my aunt still has it: a silver thistle with an amethyst flower).

Richard Todd as Rob Roy. Somehow I acquired this handsomely-bound, already vintage book as a child, presumably after seeing the film. My father later met the dashing Todd and described him as 'knee-high to a grasshopper'.

I lapped up Aunt Anne’s story, as I was already developing a passion for Scottish clan history. Aged no more than six, I had been taken to the cinema to see the 1953 Disney film, Rob Roy (hardly the ‘latest release’, but nobody minded in those days). There is a thrilling scene in which Rob Roy, played by Richard Todd, evades English troops by leaping across a waterfall. That scene in particular, along with the outlandish outfits and the claymores, had sparked in me a romantic fascination. It was to be fuelled in the ensuing years by D.K. Broster’s Flight of the Heron, John Prebble’s Culloden and the writings of Iain Moncreiffe.

Aunt Kate’s memory of family brigandage, activity that must have been relatively recent (three generations is the usual reckoning), had also left me enchanted and intrigued. What is the truth of it? I now know that Kate’s father, my great-great-grandfather John McEwen (1842 – 1910), farmed at Muirhead in Kinclaven, where he was the tenant of Major-General Richardson Robertson of Tullybelton and Ballathie. The family were keen churchgoers and appeared to be perfectly respectable.

Muirhead is marked on old maps but has since been demolished. It was said to have consisted of ‘four farm steadings with a few acres of land attached to each’. Apart from the grand Ballathie House, the parish of Kinclaven was made up of a church and manse and a scattering of similar homesteads. It occupied an isolated loop in the River Tay (there was no bridge in those days), but fortunate guests at Ballathie were treated to the finest autumn salmon fishing in Scotland.

John, who settled at Muirhead on his marriage to Ann Duncan Gardiner, the daughter of the house, had been born further up the Tay at a place called Balinish, the steading in the parish of Little Dunkeld that had been farmed by his father Alexander, as it had also been by his maternal grandfather, John Fisher.

Born in 1810 or 11, Alexander was probably the son of another Alexander McEwen who was baptised at Little Dunkeld in 1780. This Alexander was the son of Robert McEwen, who may have been born in the immediate aftermath of the 1745 rebellion. With Robert, disappointingly, the line fizzles out.

On this truncated family tree, a name stands out, that of MacGregor, that does indeed launch us into an authentic world of brigandage. Robert McEwen’s wife was Margaret MacGregor, while John Fisher’s wife, Catherine Campbell of Fortingall, was the daughter of Elizabeth MacGregor. These two women of the same generation  could even have been sisters. The implication, which I would never have guessed, is that the real Rob Roy, my boyhood hero, most celebrated of all the MacGregors, was a putative kinsman!

Scottish clans are dynastic, extended families in the most literal sense (with a few strays adopted here and there). Clan Gregor was one of the proudest. Their Gaelic motto, S’rioghal mo dhream, means ‘royal is my blood’. They are believed to descend from the hereditary Abbots of Glendochart, who were always men of Celtic royal race. MacGregors maintain that they were of the line of Alpin, King of Argyll, who died in 841. In honour of him, the chief is known as An t’Ailpeanach.

The name-father of the clan was, however, a fourteenth-century Gregor ‘of the Golden Bridles’. Generations of his line held their beleaguered lands in Glenstrae by the sword, an inconvenience to the neighbouring Clan Campbell. In 1519, the powerful, canny Campbells contrived to establish their own nominee, a cadet who was ‘not righteous heir’, as Chief. The head of the dispossessed line, Duncan MacGregor of Ardchoille, was forced to lead his loyal clansmen into the hills, where he became an outlaw. The years of freebooting, raids and murderous mayhem began, many of the family being hanged or meeting other violent ends. Holed up in their fastnesses, braving the snows and ravening wolves, they were like the fictional Doones on Exmoor.

A document of c.1587 refers to them as ‘the House and Gang of Gregor MacIain’, but the landless Gregarach had acquired a far more romantic name. They were called ‘the Children of the Mist’, although the Gaelic might equally translate as ‘the Fog Folk’ or, some say, ‘Sons of the Wolf’. Soon, even the usurping chiefs were implicated in the brigandage, to the extent that in 1603, after a murderous attack on the Colquhouns, ‘the whole Clan Gregor were outlawed and the Name of MacGregor proscribed on pain of death’. The edict of James VI, declaring the name to be ‘altogidder abolisheed’, was confirmed by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1617.

In the early days of their outlawry the Gregarach were regularly pursued by blood-hounds, the fearful conn dubh, until the last of these was shot by their chieftain in 1624. The place (near Lochearnhead) is still called Meall a Mhadaidh, the Hill of the Wild Dog, and the long-barrelled ‘Fuzee’ or gun that he used has been passed down to the present chief. Recalcitrant MacGregors, if caught, could expect immediate execution. Their wives would be stripped bare, branded and whipped through the streets, then packed off to the American colonies as indentured slaves, along with their children.

There was a brief reprieve between 1661 and 1693, when the persecution resumed. Absurdly loyal to the wrong-but-romantic House of Stuart, they fought for James II at Killiecrankie, turning out again for the ‘Old Pretender’ in 1715 and for the ‘Young Pretender’ in 1745. Indeed it was Major Evan MacGregor, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s aide-de-camp, who fired the first shot at Prestonpans. Twenty-two MacGregors were wounded that day and one killed, for which Prince Charlie regaled the whole clan to dinner that evening, the officers sitting with him at a table set ‘upon the middle of the field’. In 1746, the Gregarach were fighting in Sutherland and missed the slaughter at Culloden, marching home past Finlairg Castle with colours flying and heads held high. It was reported with great satisfaction that the garrison, a regiment of militia recruited from the bullying Clan Campbell, ‘durst not move more than pussies’.

The outlawed Gregarach had been obliged to conceal their identity behind assumed or imposed names, including such oddities as ‘Beachly,’ ‘Landless’, ‘Telford’ and ‘Skinner’. Their chieftains called themselves Murray. Some branches were to keep these adopted names permanently, like the one calling itself Stewart, from which the Marquesses of Londonderry (including the Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh) are thought to descend. Others fled abroad. The then chieftain’s brother, James, emigrated to America, only to be scalped by angry Indians. There was even a line of martial ‘Greigs’ who became ennobled in Russia.

‘Rob Roy’ MacGregor, born at Glengyle in 1671, used the alias of Campbell, his mother’s name. Heavily romanticised by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Rob Roy (though he makes only fleeting appearances), not to mention Disney, he was, in reality, a fearsome and rather enthusiastic brigand (and a fine swordsman with abnormally long arms), who once led a terrifying raid on Dumbarton, though he was pardoned in time for a peaceful death at Balquhidder in 1734. ‘Don’t Mister me nor Campbell me!’ Scott has him say. ‘My foot is on my native heath, and my name is MacGregor!’

The persecution of the MacGregors came to an end in 1774, their legal status restored. General Sir John Murray was at last recognised as the ‘righteous chief’, MacGregor of MacGregor. Though they had been reduced for long years to the status of cattle thieves, the pride of the clan was undiminished. The chief petitioner had been a certain Captain Gregor Drummond, nicknamed Boidheach, ‘the beautiful’, a MacGregor of the chiefly line who, like all his family, had been obliged to live under a pseudonym. In 1743, King George II had commanded that three soldiers of the Black Watch be sent to St James’s for review. The then Private Drummond had been one of the men selected. The story is told that the soldiers gave perfect satisfaction to His Majesty, who handed them each a guinea. These ‘they gave to the porter at the palace gate as they passed out,’ thinking that the King ‘had mistaken their character and condition in their own country.’ S’rioghal mo dhream!

The two MacGregor women from whom I descend were born, and possibly even married, in the period of persecution. It has been said of the MacGregors that ‘they are perhaps the only clan who can be reasonably certain that all who bear the surname are genuine scions of the ancient chiefly blood, although some branches have never yet resumed it.’ The Clan Gregor Society publishes a list of the known aliases which, remarkably, includes ‘Campbell’, ‘Fisher’ and ‘MacEwin’, three of the names that figure on my ‘tree’. Who more likely to marry an outlaw than a fellow outlaw? Might Alexander McEwen and his neighbour John Fisher at Little Dunkeld, and indeed John’s father-in-law Archibald Campbell at Fortingall, have themselves been MacGregors who had, for the sake of convenience, retained their aliases, yet proudly passed on the cattle-raiding memory to their children and grandchildren?

The McEwen tartan that we wear is a variant of the Campbell one. The MacEwens of Otter, on Loch Fyne, had themselves been dispossessed by the Campbell chief in the fifteenth century. The chiefly line long ago disappeared without trace. The clan badge is that of the McEwens of Bardrochat in distant Ayrshire, who, as Moncreiffe concedes, ‘may have taken their name from a completely different Ewen’. An end to such nonsense! The wearing of tartan and Highland dress was banned for civilians in Scotland after the ’45. After the lifting of that prohibition in 1782, they were somewhat artificially revived. The tartans and Highland dress of today are mostly nineteenth-century inventions. Yet the red-and-black check design known as ‘Rob Roy’s Tartan’ – the lumberjack tartan – is one of the oldest and most appealing. Henceforth I shall proudly bear the tartan and badge of MacGregor – trusting that Aunt Kate would not disapprove.

[Iain Moncreiffe and David Hicks, The Highland Clans (London, 1967), especially pp.19, 30, 99-100, 209-11; James D. Scarlett, The Tartans of the Scottish Clans (Glasgow and London, 1975); Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage, II (London, 2003), article ‘MacGregor of MacGregor’; http://www.clangregor.com/membership/sept-family-names/. Information on the McEwens of Muirhead from scotlandsplaces.gov.uk includes The Perthshire Ordnance Survey Name Books, 1859-62, Perthshire Vol.40, Communion Roll for Kinclaven, 1880-2 and Kinclaven Kirk o’ the Muir Parish Records. The relevant Census Returns and records of baptism and marriage are available on scotlandspeople.gov.uk.]

Detail from John Frederick’s Lewis’s A Frank Encampment, one of my favourite pictures. It depicts the then Lord Castlereagh on his Oriental tour of 1842. He is the image of the unruffled English gentleman, able to retain his composure and comforts in the most unpromising conditions. In fact his ancestry was mainly Irish and Scottish. The family’s prospects had improved considerably when they adopted the name ‘Stewart’ in place of ‘MacGregor’.

Au hasard, Balthazar! The Château des Baux de Provence and its Lords – Ancestors of Elizabeth Wydvill

November 7th, 2019

The proud and fractious lords of Les Baux were named for the eagle’s nest, the great yellow castle on a precipice – or ‘balc’ in the local speech – from which they reigned.

The donjon

Before the end of the twelfth century, an alternative story was proposed, thought up by some ingenious clerk or minstrel: that ‘Baux’ derived from Balthazar (Bautezar in Provençal), one of the three magi or wise men, whose son, they said, had come out of Ethiopia to settle in those parts and was the founder of their line. The arms of the family are thus gules, a comet with sixteen rays argent, representing the very star that had guided the magi on their journey ‘from the east’. In their war-cry, ‘à l’asard Bautezar’ (to chance, Balthazar), they succinctly proclaimed their sanctified ancestry along with the recklessness of their ambition.

The castrum Balcius is first cited in a charter of 981, when the head of the family, Pons, held the office of ‘vicomes’; whilst their line can be traced back to a Germanic-sounding Count Liebulfe – no Ethiopian he! – who was born in the late 700s. Sovereign lords for a spell, minting their own coins, the Les Baux came to rule over 79 dependencies, ranging from Vaccarès in the Camargue to the principality of Orange. Yet that was not enough. They must also contest the countship of Provence, to which, admittedly, they had a sound claim; but years of bitter conflict with the rival House of Toulouse ended with their utter defeat in 1162, the ravaging of their lands and the razing of their Château des Baux. Au hasard, Balthazar! Everything chanced on the roll of the dice.

A spectral ruin, like an abandoned city of troglodytes

The castle rose again, and was occupied by the family till 1426. In 1632, on the orders of the king, it was comprehensively slighted by the application of gunpowder. The remaining habitable parts were destroyed in 1793, the hateful charters burnt. Hewn out of the very rock, Les Baux is now a spectral ruin, like an abandoned city of troglodytes. The dressed stone that fronted each range of buildings has been removed, exposing their cave-like interiors. There is barely a single room with its four walls intact.

Military headquarters and court, this was once a throbbing community, with its capacious stables, stores and refectories (‘tinels’), and subsidiary residences for important vassals. Searching for any recognisable feature, one notices stonework up above resembling a giant honeycomb: a pigeonnier of course, for all these people must be fed. There were fishponds, too, and a windmill, and the castle supported a large hunting establishment. The plains below were not the neat vineyards of today but were forested for deer, a vast sporting ground.

The walkways on the ramparts are picturesquely worn and weathered. The narrow, slippery staircase that leads to La Tour Sarrasine is dissected by a deep gutter, an attempt to channel the torrents of rainwater. Best preserved are the service rooms cut deep into the rock below the donjon. The blackened fireplace in the kitchen and the empty bread ovens are powerfully evocative of the former life here.

The ruins of Les Baux are difficult to read but one can make most sense of the donjon, which is relatively well preserved. This thirteenth-century reconstruction of its damaged predecessor is a simple, but very grand and rather elegant two-storied structure. It has only a few small windows and was poorly insulated. The huge fireplaces of which we see traces would have been very necessary to raise the temperature and control the humidity in winter. Beam holes mark the position of the floors. There were reception rooms at ground level, and fifteen chambers above, with names like the chambre de la Tour (that of the Lady Alix des Baux in 1426), the chambre de la Rose and the chambre du Pape (after Pope Clement VII, who used to visit from Avignon).

A reconstruction of the castle in the twelfth century

Despite the sumptuous tapestries on every wall (mentioned in an inventory for Lady Alix), these rooms were sparsely furnished (the odd coffer and trestle table) and rather forbidding. They would, however, have been crowded with people and there was always the softening presence of troubadours – Raimbaut d’Orange in the twelfth century, Paulet de Marseille in the thirteenth. Think of the stamping of feet to their estampidas or dancing songs, the endless gallantries, the rapt attention to their tales of unhappy love in the uvularising Provençal.

Perched vertiginously on its rock – one shudders to think of prisoners being thrown to their deaths in 1394 – Les Baux is beautiful but unnerving, an expression of brutal feudalism. Its prideful lords were driven by their greed and ambition, launching pointless wars that destroyed countless innocent lives. Like most of their kind, they were lovers of strife, and of the spectacle of strife.

The arms of Les Baux - the Star of Bethlehem

Marguerite des Baux, Grandmother of Elizabeth Wydvill

Their ambitions thwarted in Provence, the Les Baux sought a new destiny in Italy. Barral des Baux (patron of the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange) took the cross and enlisted with Charles of Anjou in 1252. His younger son Raimond led the cavalry charge at Benevento in 1266, the battle that won the kingdom of Sicily for Charles. Barral was appointed Grand Justiciar; his elder son, Bertrand, Count of Avellino. Bertrand’s descendant Alix was the last of the line to reside at Les Baux, where she died in 1426, in the chambre de la Tour.

Their cousin, another Bertrand, also shared in the spoils, becoming duke of Andria, a fair city on the coast of Apulia. Bertrand’s son François, Duke of Andria, married Sueva, daughter of Niccolo Orsini, Count of Nola, in 1381. The Orsini were a Roman senatorial family whose line can be traced back to the tenth century; as Scott Fitzgerald described them (Tender is the Night, Book II, Chap.XXII), ‘they’re the ones who got possession of the temples and palaces after Rome went to pieces and preyed on the people’. They picked up some interesting connections along the way. Sueva Orsini’s mother, Jeanne de Sabran, was the great-grand-niece of St Thomas Aquinas; her grandmother, Anastasia, the daughter of Simon de Montfort’s exiled son Guy.

François des Baux (who died in 1422, aged over ninety) had a son by Sueva, Guillaume, who succeeded as Duke of Andria and was also the designated heir to his cousin Alix des Baux, last of the senior line. Louis III of Anjou, Count of Provence, refused, however, to honour the terms of her will, seizing the territory for himself and finally severing the troublesome House of Les Baux from their ancestral home.

The dragon-eyed Elizabeth Wydvill, queen of Edward IV

The couple also had a daughter, Marguerite, who married Pierre de Luxembourg, Count of St Pol. Marguerite’s daughter, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, contracted an illustrious first marriage with John of England, Duke of Bedford, which was childless. Her second marriage was to someone far beneath her, an aberrant love-match with one of the old duke’s retainers. Sir Richard Wydvill was an obscure Northamptonshire knight, though he was later created Earl Rivers and appointed a Garter knight. Those honours would not have come his way but for the even-more-scandalous marriage, in secret, of the beautiful, dragon-eyed Elizabeth Wydvill, Sir Richard’s daughter by Jacquetta, with King Edward IV of England. From Elizabeth, her brother and her sisters (who all quartered the arms of Les Baux) there are numerous lines of descent to the modern day.

The noblest families of southern Italy and Sicily invariably descend from the companions of Charles of Anjou, like those of Corbera and Falconeri in Lampedusa’s Leopard. The ‘del Balzo’ line subsists in several branches in Italy to this day, still holding ducal rank, but far removed from the precipice in Provence for which they are named.

[Paul Pontus, Les Baux (Paris, 1971); Famille des Baux at http://jean.gallian.free.fr/comm2/fam_fich/b/baux.htm; Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers (Cambridge, 1982), pp.73-6, 84); Lt.Col. W.H. Turton, The Plantagenet Ancestry, pp.228-9.]