Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page


BADGE: Bealaidh (Sarothamnus scorparlus) broom

SLOGAN: Dail acha 'n da thear nai

Care is taken by the historians of this clan to draw a distinction between its patronymic and that of the Lowland families whose original name was "Mathew's son". The Highland name, they point out, is Mac Mhathain, "the son of heroes", and the chiefs of the clan claimed to have been settled on the shores of Lochalsh in the west of Ross-shire as long ago as the time of Kenneth MacAlpin in the middle of the ninth century. According to tradition they were among the followers of that king in his wars with the Picts, whom he finally overthrew at the great battle of Cambuskenneth near Stirling in 838. They claimed to be of the same blood as the MacKenzies, whom they aver to have been the junior line. A certain Coinneach, or Kenneth, who was chief in the twelfth century, they say left two sons. From the elder of these Cailean or Colin, the Mathesons were descended, and from the younger, Coinneach or Kenneth, the MacKenzies took their origin. In the beginning of the fifteenth century the Matheson chief was strong enough to defy the Earl of Sutherland, and upon the latter descending upon Lochalsh, intent upon punishing so presumptuous a person, he was actually defeated and slain by the Mathesons. The scene of the encounter is still pointed out at a spot known from the event as Cnoc an Cattich.

Alastair MacRuari, who achieved this feat of arms, was among the turbulent chiefs of clans who supported the Lord of the Isles in his claim to the earldom of Ross and his struggle against the power of the Scottish kings. In the struggles of those times he is said to have been able to bring as many as 2,000 men into the field. Every student of Scottish history knows how those troublers of the peace were dealt with by James I upon his return from his long captivity in England. Summoning them to a "Parliament" at Inverness, he promptly arrested the most dangerous of them, executed some on the spot, and carried others to Edinburgh, where a number more were tried and condemned to the same fate. Alastair MacRuari was among the latter, and was executed in 1427.

Alastair left a widow with two sons, and his widow presently married again, her second husband being a son of Macleod of the Lews. This individual took advantage of the youth of his stepsons to endeavour to establish himself in possession of their property, and at last, finding themselves probably in actual danger, the lads fled from Lochalsh. While the younger went to Caithness, John, the elder of the two, betook himself to his mother's father, the chief of the Mackintoshes. He did not, however, give up the hope of recovering his patrimony, and by and by, having arrived at years of manhood, he obtained from his grandfather a force of men for his purpose, and set out to surprise the usurper. It was night when the party arrived at Lochalsh, and having observed the utmost precautions of secrecy, young Matheson succeeded in his purpose. Making a sudden assault, he set the castle on fire, and as the garrison was forced to come out they were slain or captured by the Mackintoshes. Anxious to save his mother's life, Matheson took up a position at the gate, and when she appeared, she was, by his orders, safely passed through the lines of the Mackintoshes. In the midst of the tumult, however, and flashings of the torches, it was not perceived that she was walking in an unusual way. She was wearing an arisaid, or wide plaited garment with heavy folds doubled around the hips. Under this she had managed to conceal her husband, and in a few moments the latter was beyond the light of the torches and able to escape in the darkness.

The Matheson chief then took possession of his patrimony, but he was not allowed to enjoy it long in peace. MacLeod, hastening to the Lews, raised a considerable force, with which he returned and deliberately invaded the Matheson country. In the encounter which took place he was finally forced to retreat, and as he fell back upon his birlinns or galleys, his force suffered severely from the flights of arrows poured into it by a company of Matheson bowmen under a certain Ian Ciar MacMurghai MhicThomais. From this incident the battle is remembered as Blar-na-saigheadear. But MacLeod was not yet completely discouraged. Once more he gathered his men on the Lews, and once more came back. But in this second attempt he was defeated and slain, and the MacLeods troubled the Mathesons no more.

Meanwhile the MacKenzies had gradually risen to be a clan of great power in the region, and in their island fastness of Eilandonan, at the mouth of Loch Duich, they were able to resist the attacks of all their enemies. The Macraes and the Mathesons in turn deemed it an honour to be appointed constable of Eilandonan, and a later Matheson chief, John, greatly distinguished himself in discharge of this duty. It was at the time of the great feud between the Macdonalds and the MacKenzies. Again and again the savage Donald Gorm of Sleat, on the coast of Skye, opposite, raided the MacKenzie country, but in these attacks Eilandonan was successfully defended by the Matheson chief. At last, however, as he stood by a window watching the progress of the defence, Matheson was struck down and slain by a Macdonald arrow. This was in 1537.

By that time the Mathesons had greatly diminished in influence, and John Matheson's son Dougal possessed no more than a third of the ancient Matheson property on Lochalsh. Even that property he was in danger of losing by engaging in a dangerous feud on his own account with Macdonald of Glengarry. This powerful chief had established himself on the shores of Loch Carron at hand, and he presently seized Matheson and threw him into prison, where he died.

This incident brought about the final ruin of the Mathesons. With a view to avenge his father's death, and recover his lost territory, Dougal's son, Murdoch Buidhe, relinquished all his remaining property, excepting the farms of Balmacara and Fernaig, to MacKenzie of Kintail, in return for the services of an armed force with which to attack Glengarry. The lands thus handed over were never recovered, and neither Matheson's generalship nor the force lent him by MacKenzie seems to have been equal to the task of forcing terms upon Glengarry. Murdoch's son, Ruari, the next Matheson chief, had more satisfaction, when, as part of the following of Seaforth, the MacKenzie chief, he set out to punish Glengarry. On this occasion Glengarry's stronghold of Sron, or Strome, on Loch Carron, was stormed and destroyed. By this time the Mathesons appear to have been merely the "kindly tenants" of Seaforth; in course of time that kindly tenancy, or occupation on condition of rendering certain services, was changed into a regular rent payment, and Balmacara and the other Matheson properties passed from the hands-of the chiefs of that name for ever. The family was afterwards represented by the Mathesons of Bennetsfield, and in 1822, it appears, from a Manuscript history of the clan quoted by James Logan, author of the letterpress of McIan's "Clans of the Scottish Highlands", the lineal representative of the ancient heads of the clan was a certain Alexander Matheson who lived in Sallachie, The Chiefship is now believed to be held by Hayling Matheson, who is resident in England.

In the middle of last century, however, two members of the clan succeeded in restoring the name to even more than the distinction it had enjoyed in the Highlands during the patriarchal and feudal centuries. Sir James Matheson, Baronet, a cadet of tacksman stock, who had acquired vast wealth, and attained the distinction of a baronetcy by commercial enterprise in the East, became the owner, first of the great Highland estate of Achany, in the old clan neighbourhood, and afterwards purchased the great island of Lewis in the outer Hebrides. For the latter he paid no less a sum than £190,000 and he afterwards spent some £340,000 in improving his purchase. Among other great works he built the existing castle of Stornoway, on the site of old Seaforth Lodge, formerly the residence of the Earls of Seaforth who previously owned the estate. Half a century ago it was truly said, "No instance of improvement in recent times within the United Kingdom has been more striking to the eye of an observer, more compensating to the proprietor, or more beneficial to the population. Its details have comprised draining, planting, roadmaking, the reforming of husbandry, the improvement of live stock, the introduction of manufactures, and the encouraging of fisheries, all on a great scale, and with good results". In the policies of Stornoway Castle alone the work carried out included ten miles of carriage drives and five miles of footpaths. Previously little more of the land of the island than a narrow belt along the shore had been in cultivation, the rest being a dismal expanse of bog and moor. The improvements carried out by Sir James Matheson, however, may be said to have literally made the desert blossom like the rose. Alas for the patriotic and altruistic efforts of Sir James, the island a generation ago became the special field of the efforts of land agitators, who introduced discontent and trouble. Crofter's commissions and land courts have also played their part in interference, with the result that in the spring of 1918 Sir James's heir, Colonel Duncan Matheson, found it desirable to dispose of the island to Lord Leverhulme, head of the great firm of Lever Brothers, soap-makers on the Mersey. Happily Colonel Matheson still retains Achany, and so the house of the clansman who did so much for the welfare of the Highlands is still represented in the old clan country.

Another notable figure is that of Sir Alexander Matheson of Ardross, who promoted the Highland Railway, and through the influence of the Sutherland family brought about the extension of the line to the far north, an enterprise that brought new prosperity to the northern Highlands. It is interesting also to note that the management of the Highland Railway today, as part of the London, Midland, and Scottish group, is in the hands of a clansman, Mr. Donald A. Matheson.

Another branch of the ancient family of Matheson of Lochalsh is represented in the district by Sir Kenneth James Matheson, Baronet of Lochalsh, whose seats are at Gledfield House, Ardgay, and Duncraig Castle, Plockton, at the mouth of Loch Carron. Sir Kenneth is descended from Farquhar Matheson, tacksman of Fernaig in Lochalsh in the latter half of the seventeenth century, Farquhar Matheson's mother having been a daughter of Alexander MacRae of Inverinate. Farquhar Matheson's eldest son, John, acquired Attadale in 1730. John's grand-nephew, another John Matheson, gave up Fernaig in 1810, having married in 1804 a sister of Sir James Matheson, Baronet and his eldest son, Alexander, who was Member of Parliament for the Inverness burghs and Ross-shire from 1847 to 1884, acquired the lands of Ardentoul and Inverinate, and in 1851 crowned his purchase by securing the barony of Lochalsh, the ancient patrimony of the chiefs of his clan. The present baronet, Sir Kenneth James Matheson of Lochalsh, is his eldest son.

Thus it will be seen that the fortunes of the Matheson clan have been happily restored in that clan's ancient country, though the lands may no longer be held by the direct lineal representatives of the ancient chiefs.


MacMath MacPhun Mathie

Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page