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


BADGE: Craobh Aiteann (Juniperis communis) juniper

PIBROCH: Spaidseareachd Iarla Ros, composed in 1427

There seems to be little doubt that the Chiefs of Clan Ross took their name from the character of the district in which they held their possessions. Ross is the descriptive name for a certain type of promontory, and the district of Ross in the north of Scotland is par excellence the great promontory of the country. It is in somewhat similar fashion that the Ord of Caithness and the Mull of Kintyre have come to be known above all others as "the Ord" and "the Mull" respectively.

There seems to be no record of the time or circumstances in which the chiefs of the clan now bearing that name originally settled in the district. They may, therefor, have been originally of Celtic blood, or they may, like so many others of the Highland chiefs, have been settlers introduced from the south in the time of Malcolm Canmore and his son. In this latter case they would originally be known under the appellation of De Ros, from the name of their territory, and the appellation would, in the course of time, as in other cases, come to be their family name. The race was also known in the Highlands as the Clan Gille Andras, or Tribe of the Follower of St.Andrew, the tradition being that one of the early chiefs had been devoted to the service of the Patron Saint of Scotland.

The chief of the clan does not appear in history till the reign of Malcolm IV, but when he does so, he is termed by Wyntoun the chronicler, one of the seven "Mayster men" or magnates of Scotland, and so must already have occupied a position of high power and consequence. According to the Register of Dunfermline, a certain Malcolm was at that time Earl of Ross, and he was probably the same individual with the Gille Anrias Ergemauche whom Wyntoun describes as chief spokesman, along with Ferquhard, Earl of Strathearn, among the seven magnates who conspired to overthrow the King, and place his brother William on the throne. The cause of the conspiracy was the fact that King Malcolm, as holder of an English fief, the Earldom of Huntingdon, had followed Henry II of England in his expedition against Toulouse. Malcolm was holding his court at Perth in 1160, soon after his return from France, when the conspirators suddenly surrounded the city. The young King, however, proved more vigorous than they expected. Instead of waiting to be attacked, he took the offensive, drove them from the field, and pursued them into Galloway. There, at the third attempt, he overthrew his enemies. Fergus, lord of Galloway, became a monk at Holyrood and the Earl of Ross appears to have been forfeited. Two years later, at any rate, according to Documents, etc., illustrating the History of Scotland, IV. 5, page 20, the earldom of Ross was granted as part of the dowry of the Princess Ada on her marriage with Florence, Count of Holland.

It would appear, however, as if the earldom of Gilleanrias had before long been regranted to the son of that personage, for, shortly after the accession of Alexander II in 1214, Ferquhard Mac-in-Sagart (son of the priest), Earl of Ross, appears performing a brilliant part in the history of the north. Donald Bane, representative of the legitimate line of "the gracious Duncan", appeared in that region to assert for the last time the claim of his house to the Scottish throne. He was promptly met there by the Earl of Ross, who defeated the rebels, slew the leaders, and, on presenting their heads to the king, received the honour of knighthood from the royal hand. The story is told in the Chronicle of Melrose.

From that time the Earls of Ross appear as strong supporters of the Scottish King, and, holding Skye and the Nordreys, or northern islands, in opposition to a Norwegian nominee, seem to have done their best to complete the overthrow of the Norse power in the Isles. The "race of the priest", otherwise Gilleanrias, appear indeed to have been among the great leaders of that time who, under Alexander II and Alexander III, finally defeated and overthrew the Norse dominion which had been closing its hold upon the north and west of Scotland for 500 years.

Twenty years after the attempt of Donald Bane, the Earl of Ross did the King most substantial service in another province of his realm. On the death of Alan Fitz Roland, Lord of Galloway, that province seemed upon the point of being divided between his three daughters, Helen, wife of Roger de Quinci, Earl of Winchester, Christina, wife of William de Fortibus and Devorgilla, wife of John Baliol, Resisting this partition, the people of the Province invited Thomas, a natural son of their late lord, to assert his claim, and proceeded to attack the neighbouring country with fire and sword. King Alexander advanced into Galloway with an army and while his forces were entangled in marshy ground' ill suited to the movements of mounted men-at-arms the insurgents rushed down from a hill, and would have overwhelmed him, had it not been that the Earl of Ross at the head of his own light-armed mountaineers, came up in time, attacked the Galloway men in the rear, and scattered them in disorder. Alexander, it will be seen, had good reason for his policy of confirming and supporting the Earl of Ross in his great possessions in the north, as a buttress against the power of the enemies of the throne.

The fortunes of the family of Ross thus rose upon the decay of the ancient Norwegian earldoms of Orkney and Caithness. By the middle of the century Alastair, Earl of Ross, had attained the high position of Justiciar of the Kingdom, and from that time, for two centuries and a half, the Earls of Ross remained the most powerful nobles in the north.

In the boyhood of Alexander III, when his father-in-law, Henry III of England, was scheming to secure a suzerainty over Scotland, and actually effected a coup de etat at Roxburgh, the heads of the Scottish Government, whom he succeeded in displacing, were the great Walter Comyn, Earl of Monteith, John Baliol, father of the future king, and Robert de Ross, these personages being too patriotic for the purposes of the English monarch. The Robert de Ross who thus appears in a heroic light on the historic page may have been a brother or a son of the great northern Earl.

In the campaigns of Robert the Bruce and his brother Edward, Sir Walter, the Earl of Ross of that time, appears as the bosom friend of the latter, and he and Sir William Vipont are recorded as the only persons of note who were slain on the side of the Scots at the battle of Bannockburn. At the battle of Halidon Hill, again, after the death of Bruce, one of the four divisions of the Scottish army was led by Hugh, Earl of Ross. When the day was going badly against the Scots, who, as they struggled through the marshy ground, were falling thick as leaves in Vallombrosa under the arrows of the English bowmen the Earl proceeded to lead his division against the wing where Edward Baliol commanded, but was driven back and slain.

Thirteen years later still, when David II was gathering a great Scottish army in preparation for the ill-fated campaign which was to end in defeat at the battle of Durham, the Earl of Ross took part in a transaction which withdrew a large part of the Scottish forces from the royal army. The muster took place at Perth, and was the, greatest known for a considerable period. Unfortunately, however, it afforded an opportunity for ancient feuds to break out between the Highland chiefs. Among these the bitterest occurred between the Earl of Ross and Ranald of the Isles. This came to a head in the monastery of Elcho, where the Earl assassinated his enemy. Forthwith, dreading the royal vengeance, the Earl withdrew his men, and retreated rapidly into the north. At the same time the Islesmen, having lost their leader, dispersed); in confusion. Not only did the king find his forces considerably reduced in consequence, but the event made a serious impression upon the spirits of the army, by whom it was looked upon as an omen of disaster.

This Earl, William, left no male issue. His daughter, Euphemia, married Sir Walter Leslie of Leslie, Aberdeenshire, and he, in her right, assumed the title of Earl of Ross. Their son, again, was known as Alexander Leslie, Earl of Ross. Alexander married a daughter of the Regent Duke of Albany and upon his death, about the year 1405, his only child, a daughter, having become a nun, was induced by the all-powerful Duke of Albany to assign the lands and earldom to her mother's brother, the Earl of Buchan. Alexander Leslie's sister, Margaret, however, had married Donald, Lord of the Isles, and he, in her right, now claimed the earldom of Ross. Raising an army of 10,000 men, he took possession of the Earldom, and, marching southwards, reached Inverurie on the Don, less than twenty miles from Aberdeen. There he was met by the Regent's forces under the Earl of Mar, and on St.John's Eve, 24th July, fought the bloody battle of Harlaw. Ultimately, by a treaty with Albany at Lochgilp on the Firth of Clyde, Donald was forced to relinquish the earldom; but, after the return of James I and the overthrow of the house of Albany, Donald's son, Alexander, who was the King's cousin once removed, was recognised as Earl of Ross.

In this way the earldom of Ross became separated from the chiefship of the clan, and it ultimately, after the forfeiture of John, Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross, at the end of the fifteenth century, was conferred upon the second son of James III and a succession of other holders. Meanwhile, however, the chiefship had really passed to a brother of the last Earl William, father of the Countess Euphemia. This brother, Hugh Ross of Rarichies, in 1374 received a charter of the lands of Balnagown. The influence of the Leslies, who as feudal superiors in right of the Countess Euphemia, claimed the services of the Ross-shire tenants as their vassals, prevented Balnagown om openly exercising the powers of the chiefship, and a near relative, Paul MacTyre, a man celebrated for his ardour, took command of the clan, much in the same way at a later day the famous Rob Roy took command of the MacGregors. When at last the Balnagown family was able to resume its proper authority, the power of the land had considerably declined, and in the feuds which followed it suffered still further loss. The chief of these feuds was with the Mackays of Strathnaver. Again and again the Rosses had suffered molestation from these enemies, and when at last, driven to desperation and thoroughly infuriated, they gathered their forces and marched against the Mackay Chief, they were in the mood to teach a severe lesson. The Mackays, with Angus of Strathnaver at their head, finding themselves fiercely attacked, sought shelter in the church of Tarbat. There several were slain, and, the church being set on fire, Angus Mackay and many of his clansmen were burnt to ashes. To avenge this "cruel slaughter", Ian Riach MacKay gathered his men, and, helped by a force of the Sutherlands, his neighbours on the south, invaded the territory of the Rosses and proceeded to lay it waste with the utmost fury. In defence of his people, Alastair Ross, the Laird of Balnagown, gathered all his forces, and, meeting the invaders, engaged in the long and desperate battle of Blair alt na charish. In the end the battle went against the Rosses, Alastair himself being slain, with seventeen gentlemen of his clan and a great number of others. The defeat proved a real disaster, from which the clan never really recovered. In 1427 the Earl of Ross could bring into the field 2 000 men; in 1715 the strength of the clan was reckoned at no more than 360, and by 1745 it had only increased to 500.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the line, of Balnagown came to an end. David Ross, the Chief, finding himself the last of his line, sold the estate to General Charles Ross, brother of Lord Ross of Hawkhead near Glasgow, in whose family it has since descended.

The Hawkhead family, however, were in no way related to the Rosses of the North, their ancestor having come from Yorkshire in the twelfth century, and settled in the county of Renfrew. As a matter of fact the Rosses of Balnagown of the present day are descended from the Rosses of Hawkhead only in the female line, the estate having been inherited by Sir James Lockhart, Baronet of Carstairs, on the death of his cousin, William, fourteenth and last Lord Ross, and the name Ross having been assumed by the Lockharts in consequence.

Thus, though of an ancient race, the present house of Balnagown can make no claim to the chiefship of the clan. On the death of David Ross of Balnagown in the eighteenth century, the chiefship passed to Ross of Pitcalnie, who thus became representative of the ancient and powerful race of northern Earls.


Anderson Andrew Dingwall Gillanders MacAndrew MacCulloch MacLulich
MacTaggart MacTear MacTier MacTire Taggart Vass Wass

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