BADGE: Lus mhic Chuimein (cuminum) Cumin plant
There was no greater name in Scotland towards the end of the thirteenth century than that of Comyn. With their headquarters in Badenoch the chiefs and gentlemen of the clan owned broad lands in nearly every part of Scotland, and the history of the time is full of their deeds and the evidences of their influence.
Writers who seek to derive this clan from a Celtic source cite the existence of two abbots of Iona of the name who held office in the years 597 and 657 respectively. The later of these was known as Comyn the Fair, and from one or other of them the name of Fort Augustus, "Kil Chuimein", was probably derived. Another origin of the family is recounted by Wyntoun in his Cronykil of Scotland. According to this writer there was at the court of Malcolm III a young foreigner. His occupation was that of Door-ward or usher of the royal apartment, but, to begin with, he knew only two words of the Scottish language, "Cum in", and accordingly became known by that name. He married the only daughter of the king's half-brother Donald, and his descendants therefore represented the legitimate line of the old Celtic kings of Scotland, as against the illegitimate line descending from Malcolm III. The Comyns themselves claim descent from Robert de Comyn, Earl of Northumberland, who fell along with Malcolm III at the battle of Alnwick in 1093. That Robert de Comyn, again, claimed descent, through the Norman Counts de Comyn, from no less a personage than Charlemagne. The probability appears to be that a scion of the house of Northumberland came north in the days of Malcolm III, and obtained lands in the county of Roxburgh, where one of the name is found settled in the reign of Malcolm's son, David I.
No record is left of the family's rise to influence and power, but in the course of the next two hundred years the Comyns managed to make themselves by far the most powerful house in Scotland. Richard de Comyn stood high in the service of William the Lion, and his son William, marrying Marjory, Countess of Buchan, became lord of that great northern earldom. In the days of King Alexander II, Comyn, the great lord of Kilbride, and his wife, were the chief builders of Glasgow cathedral. By this fact appears to hang a pretty and pathetic tale. When the great work was half done Comyn died. His wife, however, in loving faithfulness completed the building, which may be taken, almost as it stands to-day, as a monument of her wifely love and faith. It is an interesting fact that there exist in the lower church which they built two fine likenesses of the Comyn Lord of Kilbride and his lady, carved in stone. Along with them is a life-like carved head of Alexander II himself, and the three are believed to be, the earliest existing portraits of historic personages in Scotland. The building of Glasgow cathedral above referred to took place about the year 1258, and some idea of the enduring quality of the work may be gathered from the fact that the oaken timbers of the roof, taken down some few years ago, remained as sound as on the day when the Lord of Kilbride and his lady saw them placed in position on the shrine.
A few years later, in the reign of Alexander III, there were in Scotland, according to the historian Fordun, three powerful earls, Buchan, Menteith, and Atholl, and no fewer than thirty-two knights of the name of Comyn. There was also Comyn, Lord of Strathbogie. As Lords of Badenoch they owned the formidable stronghold of Lochindorb in that district, and a score of castles throughout the country besides. Stories of their deeds and achievements well nigh fill the annals of the north of that time. In the boyhood of Alexander III, when Henry III of England was doing his best by fraud and force to bring Scotland under his power, it was Walter Comyn, Earl of Monteith, who stood out as the most patriotic of all the Scottish nobles to resist the attempts of the English king. When Henry, at the marriage of his daughter to the boy-king of Scots, suggested that the latter should render fealty for the kingdom of Scotland, it was probably Walter Comyn who put the answer into Alexander's mouth "That he had come into England upon a joyful and pacific errand, and would not treat upon so arduous a question without the advice of the Estates of his realm". And when Henry marched towards the Scottish Border at the head of an army, it was Walter Comyn who collected a Scottish host, and made the English king suddenly modify his designs. Alas ! at the very moment when he seemed to have achieved his purpose, when the English faction had been driven out, and Alexander and the Comyns, with the queen-mother, the famous Marie de Couci, had established a powerful government in Scotland, the Earl of Menteith suddenly died. The incident was tragic. In England it was said his death had been caused by a fall from his horse, but the truth appears to be that an English baron named Russell had won the affections of Comyn's wife, and that she poisoned her husband to make way for her paramour. It is agreeable to know that Russell and the faithless countess were shortly afterwards hounded from the kingdom. From that time the Earldom of Menteith appears to have passed into other hands, successively Bullocks, Stewarts, and Grahams.
On the death of the Maid of Norway, the infant queen of Scotland, in the year 1290, John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, known popularly as the Black Comyn, was one of the twelve claimants to the Scottish throne, and the tradition of the marriage of the young Comyn of Malcolm III's time with the daughter of Donald, King Duncan's legitimate son, is proved to be authentic by the fact that the Lord of Badenoch's claim to the throne was based upon that descent. He was among the knights who supported King John Baliol against Edward I's invasion in 1297, but was one of those forced to surrender in the castle of Dunbar after the defeat of the Scots at that place.
On the patriot Wallace giving up the governorship of Scotland after his defeat at the battle of Falkirk, John Comyn, the younger of Badenoch, otherwise the Red Comyn, was chosen as one of the two governors of Scotland, and in 1302, he, along with Sir Simon Fraser, defeated three English armies in one day at the famous battle of Roslin. By way of reprisal Edward, a few months later, marched another army into the north, and took Comyn's great stronghold of Lochindorb. Comyn, nevertheless, afterwards bravely carried on a guerilla warfare against several invasions by the English king. Finally, however, defeated at the passage of the Forth, where Wallace had won his great victory of Stirling Bridge, Comyn was forced to surrender.
In these wars against Edward of England the Red Comyn had a very personal interest. His mother was Marjory, sister of King John Baliol, and accordingly he had an immediate claim to the throne of Scotland should anything happen to King John's sons, the young Edward and Henry Baliol, at that time minors and captives. This claim was superior to that of Robert the Bruce, and inevitably brought these two great families, the Comyns and the Bruces, into bitter conflict. Comyn had further reason to look with hope on his chance of succeeding to the crown. He had married Johanna, daughter of William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, whose mother was Isabella, widow of John, King of England, grand. father of Edward I.
There were also other immediate causes of feud between the Comyns and the Bruces. After the crown had been awarded to Baliol the Bruces kept apart from public affairs, maintained allegiance to Edward I, and, living mostly in England, kept possession of their great estates. Baliol and the Comyns, on the other hand, fighting hard for the independence of Scotland, suffered both in liberty and land. Resenting Bruce's inaction, Baliol confiscated his estate of Annandale, and gave it to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, who forthwith seized and occupied Bruce's great stronghold of Lochmaben. This insult the Bruces never forgave. At the same time it probably rankled in the Red Comyn's mind that, while he himself, who had the better claim to the throne, and had done and suffered so much for Scotland; was regarded with disfavour, the Bruces, who had consulted only their own ease and interest, and had maintained allegiance to the English king, should have been practically promised the reversion of the Scottish crown by Edward I.
Matters were in this state when, according to Wyntoun, the two barons found themselves riding together from Stirling. The question of the claim to the throne was broached, and Bruce, it is said, made the proposal that one of them should give his estates to the other, and be supported by that other in an attempt for the crown. Comyn, Wyntoun says, agreed to give up his claim to the throne and accept Bruce's lands, and, as a result of the compact, became acquainted with the plans and alliances Bruce was forming for his attempt. Then, when Bruce was at the English court, Comyn revealed the matter to Edward I.
This may be merely a popular tale, but nothing else has been brought forward to account for what followed.
Bruce, it is said, questioned at court by Edward I, asked leave to go to his lodging for papers proving his innocence. There he received a warning from his young kinsman, the Earl of Gloucester, who sent him a feather or a pair of spurs, and forthwith he fled to the north. Five days later, as he crossed the Border, he met a messenger of Comyn's on his way to the English court. The man was slain and the letter seized upon him proved the treachery of Comyn. A few days later - it was in the month of February 1305 - the two great barons met at the Justice Ayre in Dumfries. To discuss their difference they retired to the church of the Minorites, which had been built by Comyn's grandmother, the famous Devorgilla, heiress of the ancient Lords of Galloway. There, as all the world knows, question, reproach, and retort ended in Bruce losing his temper, drawing his dagger, and stabbing the Red Comyn in the throat. The deed was completed by Bruce's henchman, Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, with the unforgotten exclamation "I mak siccar", and Sir Robert Comyn, uncle of the slain man, who rushed in to save him, met the same fate.
It was this act which drove Bruce to open war, and brought about the ultimate freedom of Scotland; but during the struggle which ensued the king again and again paid bitterly for the rash deed he had done at the high altar of the Minorites in Dumfries. Alexander of Argyll had married the Red Comyn's daughter, and for that reason his son, John of Lorne, was Bruce's bitterest foe, and more than once put the king to the utmost peril of his life. John of Lorne, of course, was overcome at last, and his descendants survive only as private gentlemen, the MacDougalls of Dunolly. The same fate sooner or later overtook all the other connections of the great house of Comyn. The Comyns themselves, under the leadership of Comyn, Earl of Buchan, were finally defeated by Bruce at the battle of Inverury. For many days, sick to death, the king had been carried about in a litter, and the hearts of his followers had begun to fail, when the Earl of Buchan, and Sir David of Brechin made the attack; whereupon the king, calling for his warhorse, mounted, led his little force to battle, and vanquished his sickness and his enemies the Comyns at the same time. Buchan fled to England, while Bruce burned his earldom from end to end to such effect
That eftir that, weile fifty yheir,
Men menyt "the Heirschip of Bouchane".
The son of the Red Comyn was the last of his line, and about the time of his death the collateral branch which held the earldom of Buchan also became extinct.
In the churchyard of Bourtie is to be seen the effigy of a knight said to have been one of the Comyns slain in the battle of Inverury.
Gradually throughout the country the Comyns were supplanted by other families. An instance of this is the occurrence enshrined in the tradition regarding the transference of Castle Grant on Speyside to the family of its present owners. According to tradition a younger son of Grant of Stratherrick eloped with a daughter of a Macgregor chief. With thirty followers the pair fled to Strathspey, and found a hiding-place in a cavern not far from the castle, then known as Freuchie. The Comyns naturally looked with disfavour upon such an invasion, and tried to dislodge the band, but Grant kept possession of the cave. Then Macgregor descended Strathspey at the head of a party of his clan, and demanded his daughter. His son-in-law was astute. Receiving him with every show of respect, he contrived in the torchlight and among the shadows of the wood to make his men appear a much larger following than his father-in-law had supposed, and a complete reconciliation took place. Grant then pushed his advantage farther. He complained of the attacks of the Comyns, and induced Macgregor to join in an assault on Freuchie. By stratagem and valour they took the stronghold; the chief of the Comyns was slain in the attack, and his skull remains a trophy in possession of the Earl of Seafield to the present day.
The Comyns at Dunphail had a similar fate, which is well told by Mr. George Bain in his book on the Findhorn. When Bruce's nephew, Thomas Randolph, was made Earl of Moray, the Comyns found their old privileges as Rangers of the king's forest of Darnaway restricted. By way of reprisal the Comyns set out, a thousand strong, under the leadership of young Alastair of Dunphail, to burn Randolph's new great hall at Darnaway. The force, however, was ambushed by the Earl at Whitemire, and cut to pieces. Young Alastair Comyn fought his way to the Findhorn. He found the further bank lined by the Earl's men, but, throwing his standard among them with the shout "Let the bravest keep it", he leapt the chasm at the spot wrongly called Randolph's Leap, and with four of his followers made his escape. Moray then besieged Alastair's father in his Castle of Dunphail, and brought the garrison to starvation point. On a dark night, however, the young man managed to heave some bags of meal from a high bank into the stronghold. Next day, by means of a bloodhound, he was tracked to a cave on the Divie. He begged to be allowed out to die by the sword, but was smoked to death by the Earl's men. Then the heads of himself and his companions were thrown into his father's courtyard, with the shout "Here is beef for your bannocks". The old chief took up the head of his son. "It is indeed a bitter morsel", he said, "but I will gnaw the last bone of it before I surrender". In the end the little garrison, driven by hunger, sallied out and were cut to pieces. Early in the nineteenth century the minister of Edinkilly found the skeletons of young Alastair and his companions, seven in number, at a spot still known from the fact as the "grave of the headless Comyns".
The Comyns were still powerful, however, after Bruce's time. Edward III, when he overran Scotland in the interest of Edward Baliol, made David Comyn, Earl of Atholl, governor of the country. It was he whom Bruce's brother-in-law, Sir Andrew Moray, overthrew and slew at the battle of Kilblene, and it was his countess whom Moray a was besieging in the stronghold of Lochindorb when word arrived that the English king and his army were at hand. Moray, it is said, put courage into his little force by waiting to adjust his girths, and even to mend a thong of his armour, before retreating. But he knew the passes of the Findhorn, and led his little company into safety across the river at Randolph's Leap.
At a later day the Comyns had descended to be merely a warring clan among the clans. In their feud with the Mackintoshes it was they who attempted to drown the latter out by raising the waters round the castle in Loch Moy, when the attempt was defeated by a Mackintosh clansmen issuing on a raft at night, breaking the barrier, and letting the flood loose upon the besiegers. On another occasion the Comyns, pretending peace, invited the Mackintoshes to a feast at Rait Castle, where at a secret signal, each Comyn clansman was to stab a Mackintosh to the heart. But Comyn's daughter had revealed the plot to her Mackintosh lover; the Mackintoshes gave the signal first, and the plotters were hoist with their own petard.
Still another incident of the long feud with the Mackintoshes arose out of jealousy regarding a fair dame of the time. Comyn of Badenoch had reason to resent the attentions paid to his wife by his neighbour, Mackintosh of Tyrinie, and the feeling reached its climax when Mackintosh presented the lady with no less a gift than a bull and twelve cows. Comyn, thinking it time to interfere, invited Mackintosh and his followers to a feast, and slew them all. As the Comyns were slowly ousted by their Mackintosh and Macpherson neighbours they were driven to wild and lawless deeds, and on one occasion, in reprisal, Alexander Macpherson, known as the Revengeful, slew nine of their chief men in a cave to which they had resorted for hiding.
The Comyns, however, were not altogether extinguished by the warfare and feuds in which they played so striking and unfortunate a part. In the eighteenth century their chief was a simple gentleman, Cumming of Altyre on the Findhorn. He represented the knight who fell with his chief, the Red Comyn, in the church of the Minorites at Dumfries. That knight was Sir Robert Comyn, fourth son of John, Lord of Badenoch, who died about 1275. Early in the eighteenth century, Robert Cumming of Altyre married Lucy, daughter of Sir Ludovic Gordon, Baronet of Gordonstown, lineally descended from William, Earl of Sutherland and his wife the Princess Margaret, daughter of King Robert the Bruce, and from George, Earl of Huntly, and his wife, the Princess Jean, daughter of King James I. Robert Cumming's great-great-grandson, Alexander Penrose Cumming, through this connection inherited the estate of Gordonstown, near Elgin, assumed the name of Gordon, and was created a baronet in 1804. He was Member of Parliament for the Dumfries burghs. The second baronet was member for the Elgin burghs at the time of the Reform Bill. He married a daughter of Campbell of Islay and granddaughter of John, Duke of Argyll, by his duchess, the famous beauty, Elizabeth Gunning. His second son was Roualeyn George, the famous lion-hunter, while his youngest daughter is the well-known traveller and author, Miss Constance F. Gordon-Cumming, and the present baronet is his grandson.
Sir William Gordon-Cumming, Baronet of Altyre, is the fourth holder of the title. He succeeded his father in 1866, and saw active service as a Captain and Lieut. Colonel of the Scots Fusilier Guards. He holds the medal with clasp for the South African Campaign of 1879, the medal with clasp and the bronze star for the Egyptian Campaign of 1882, and two clasps for the Nile Expedition of 1884. His possessions in the county, some 38,500 acres, are considerable for a private gentleman, but will hardly compare with the vast possessions once owned by his ancestors, the great chiefs of the Comyns of the days of King Alexander III.
It should be added that a considerable body of the Comyns at one time, taking offence at being refused interment in the family burial-place, changed their name to Farquharson, as descendants of Ferquhard, son of Alexander, sixth laird of Altyre, in the middle of the fifteenth century.
SEPTS OF CLAN COMYN