On the 3rd of April, 1603, James VI issued an edict banning the name of MacGregor.
MacGregor is the name of a Clan believed to be the principal sept of the Siol Alpín. According to John of Fordun, Giric, fourth King of the Picts after Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth I), who was his grandfather, was known as ‘Gregory the Great’ and the legendary ancestor of the MacGregors, but that’s easily confused with the Pope of the same appellation. Alternatively, Griogair (or Giric), said to have been the third son of Alpín II mac Echdach, the High King of Dál Riata who was also the father of Kenneth I and Donald I, is mentioned as the progenitor of the Clan. Historian William Forbes Skene suggested that Anrias, brother of Guaire (or Godrey) and Fingon, was the ancestor of Clan Gregor. Other sources state that same Guaire (or Guarai) to have been the brother of Doungheal (or Doungallas), the eldest son of Griogair, or if you like, Mac Griogair – the first MacGregor.
It’s not possible that the name originated with Gregor ‘of the Golden Bridles’ as he is recognised as being the Chief of Clan MacGregor in the mid 14th Century, some time after the already established Clan fought at the Battle of Bannockburn. What is difficult to dispute is the Clan’s claim to royal descent. The crest of the MacGregors bears the proud motto: ’S Rioghal Mo Dhream (My Race is Royal) and whether or not you give much credence to Skene, there is now ample DNA evidence to back up the slogan. Skene’s source was a Medieaval Gaelic manuscript that traced the male line of MacGregor chiefs back to the 7th Century and Ferchar II Fota (the Tall), an earlier King of Dál Riata. Thus, the MacGregors are descended from the Cenél Loairn rather than the Cenél nGabraín, the Alpín line, but as both families are male line branches of the same Dalriadic royal house, the royal claim is valid in either case. Available DNA evidence can’t as yet distinguish between the lines, but most certainly supports the link to the royal house of Dál Riata. Interestingly, the DNA evidence also refutes Fordun’s claim on behalf of the later Pictish King Giric.
According to Buchanan of Auchmar, the MacGregors were located in Glenorchy as early as the reign of Malcolm Canmore. However, it seems Glenorchy was forfeited by the Campbells and bestowed on the MacGregors for services rendered to Alexander II, when he overthrew MacDonald of the Isles and conquered Argyll. A MacGregor Chief, Malcolm, led the Clan for Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn and later invaded Ireland with the Bruce’s brother, Edward. Malcolm was wounded at Dundalk and is remembered as am Mor’ ear bacach (The Lame Lord). It looks like the Clan’s involvement with William Wallace in the film, ‘Braveheart’, wasn’t too far off the mark.
For a long time the MacGregors maintained possession of their lands by right of the sword (coin a glaive) eschewing the Norman rules of feudalism, introduced by Malcolm Canmore and the Margaretsons. As a result, they found themselves constantly engaged in brawls over the possession of territory for which they could show no title-deeds. Their endeavours to hold their own were looked upon as mere lawless disturbances of the peace, and again and again their more powerful neighbours found it profitable, first to stir them up to some warlike deed, then to procure a royal warrant for their extermination, and the appropriation of their territory. The Campbells were the principle oppressors and the focus of the MacGregors’ natural retaliations as they had no other means of subsistence than the plunder of their neighbours’ property. The enmity of the Campbells led to them being represented in Edinburgh as having an untameable ferocity, which nothing could remedy “save the cutting off the tribe of MacGregor, root and branch.”
Nevertheless, they were not subdued and remained numerous over a wide area, and their fighting spirit and pride of race sustained them. Taking refuge in their mountain fastness, the ‘Children of the Mist’ set at defiance all the efforts made by their enemies for their extermination and inflicted upon some of them a terrible vengeance. Ultimately, a sequence of events beginning in the late 16th Century led to yet more persecution of the Clan and the proscription of the name. The terrible ceremony in the little Kirk of Balquhidder, remembered as ‘Clan Alpine’s Vow’, and the conflict at Glenfruin, were the catalysts. In 1589, MacGregors killed the King’s Forester, Drummond of Drummondernoch, after he had hung some of them for poaching. Then, on the following Sunday, the clansmen gathered in the Kirk and, one after another, approached the altar to lay a hand on Drummond’s severed head and swear himself a partner in the dark deed that had placed it there. And, early in 1603, Alastair MacGregor of Glenstrae won the Battle of Glen Fruin, against the Colquhouns of Luss. The losing side, egged on by the Earl of Argyll, secured the indignation and sympathy of James VI by parading the widows carrying their husbands’ bloody shirts, flapping stiffly upon poles.
As a result of these events, James VI and the Privy Council issued an edict on the 3rd of April, 1603, banning the use of the name MacGregor, under pain of death. Argyll was commissioned by the Privy Council to hunt the “viperous” MacGregors with ‘fire and sword’ till they be “estirpat and rutit out and expellit the hail boundis of our dominionis.” One consequence was the shameful entrapment and execution of Alastair MacGregor. A record of his hanging, which took place on the 20th of January, 1604, reads; “He was hangit at the croce, with eleven of his freindis of the name, upone ane gallows: Himselff, being chieff, he was hangit his awin hicht above the rest of his friendis.”
The Proscription of 1603 and its additions, remained in effect for approximately 170 years and stated, amongst other things that: babies not yet born shall not take the name; the MacGregor name shall not be used, under penalty of death; no more than four Clansmen shall meet at a time, under penalty of death; they shall bear no weapon, save an unpointed knife to cut their victuals; and, to kill a MacGregor is not a crime, but something to be encouraged. MacGregors were compelled to adopt other surnames, such as Drummond, Murray, Graham, Grier, Stewart, Grant, and even Campbell. Their surname was not fully restored until the oppressive acts were rescinded by the British Parliament, in 1774, granting MacGregors all the rights and privileges of British citizens. Funnily enough, despite its persecution and proscription, MacGregor is a name found frequently in Scotland. It was the 82nd most frequent surname at the General Register Office, in 1995.
The spirit this famous clan is perhaps summed up by the words of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy; "Don’t mister me nor Campbell me! My foot is on my native heath, and my name is MacGregor!" Or, again in the words of Scott:
“While there’s leaves in the forest
And foam on the river,
MacGregor, despite them,
Shall flourish forever!”