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ANGUS DU

1403 - 33

Huistean Du, who became tutor to his youthful nephew, Angus Du, on his father's death, offended the widowed mother whether justly or unjustly we cannot say. The relations between the two became so strained that her brother, Malcolm, son of Torquil Macleod of the Lews and Assynt, invaded Strathnaver with a body of men laying waste part of that country as well as Brae-Chat. Macleod was overtaken by the Mackays at a place now called Tuiteam Tarvach, in Strathoikel, making his way back to Assynt encumbered with spoil, and there was defeated and slain about 1406. The battle is known as La Tuiteam Tarvach, the Day of Great Slaughter, of which Sir Robert Gordon records that only one Macleod survived to carry the tale of disaster to the Lews. This need not be strictly accurate, as the same story is told of other Highland battles. Sir Robert also says that the Earl of Sutherland sent his friend, Alexander Moray of Cubin, with a body of Sutherland men to assist the Mackays. This latter statement is not at all likely to be true. The murder of the Mackays, father and son, at Dingwall in 1370, could not yet be forgotten, neither can we reconcile this statement with the bloody feud which we know existed between the Mackays and Cubin a few years later. Sir Robert has a knack, as we shall see afterwards, of generally claiming the credit of what he considers a valorous deed for Sutherland. It is so we believe in this case.

On the death of Alexander, Earl of Ross, about 1410, his only child, the deformed Euphemia, by his wife a daughter of Robert, Earl of Fife and Duke of Albany, took the veil and resigned the earldom to her uncle, the Earl of Buchan, a son of Albany. Donald, Lord of the Isles, however, claimed the earldom through his wife a sister of the late Alexander, Earl of Ross. Donald's claim seems a just one, as Euphemia by taking the veil became legally dead; but the prize was too good for the Stewarts to drop without a struggle. The unscrupulous Regent Albany naturally supported the cause of his son of Buchan, and the Earl of Mar, a son of the "Wolf", also joined Buchan. Angus Du of Strathnaver was likewise induced to join the confederacy, partly by reason of his relation to the Earl of Mar, whose cousin we believe him to be, and partly in consequence of his landed interests in Ross. When Donald of the Isles marched on Dingwall, in the spring of 1411, Angus Du at the head of 4000 men endeavoured to bar the way, but was overpowered and captured while his brother Rorie Gald was slain. Angus Du was sent prisoner to a castle on the west coast, and Donald of the Isles advanced towards Aberdeen to be checked at Harlaw by the Earl of Mar.

After Donald's return from bloody Harlaw he made some alliance with Angus Du, and to this end bestowed upon him the hand of his sister, Elizabeth, in marriage. Shortly thereafter the friendship was still further strengthened by a charter Appendix No 5 of the lands of Strathhalladale, Creich, etc., dated 8th Oct 1415, by Donald of the Isles to Angus Du and his son, Neil, by the said Elizabeth. As the sequel will show, these lands were given sometime thereafter by Angus Du to his cousin Thomas Neilson of Creich, probably to cement the families more firmly together.

Hector Boece informs us that Angus Du "tuk an gret prey of gudis out of Moray and Caithness", but Sir Robert Gordon objects to the former raid though he acknowledges the latter. Sir Robert's objection to the former rests upon the slender ground, that Moray lies at such a distance from Caithness and Strathnaver that a raid across Sutherland and Ross is improbable if not impossible. We hold a different opinion. Nicolas Sutherland, who murdered the Mackay chieftains at Dingwall in 1370, obtained lands in Moray and the half of Caithness by his marriage with a daughter of Reginald Chein.

[Footnote: Reginald Chein was the third and last of that name in succession. As he left no male issue his landed estates passed to his two daughters, Mary and Margery. The former, Mary, married first John of Douglas, and secondly John Keith of Inverugy. It was by this marriage that the Keiths obtained a footing in Caithness. Margery Chein, who married Nicolas Sutherland, had before 1370 a charter from King David II "of the lands of Strabrok and the half of Catness" [Robertson's Index, No. 17]. These lands of course passed to her children by Nicolas. Various traditions are afloat in the north regarding Reginald Chein, who is supposed to have been a great Nimrod. One is that he built a house on the bank of the Thurso river at its exit from Lochmor, so connected with salmon-cruives on the stream, that a bell rang in the house whenever a fish became entangled in the cruives. Exactly the same story is current in Strathnaver with regard to a similar structure by him on the river Naver, somewhere near Achness (of old called Kerrow na Shein). ]

The King of Scots was a prisoner in England, the country was distracted north and south, the strong hand had the guiding o't, and Angus Du was strong with free access to Ross, as we saw in 1411. What more natural than that he should make a raid upon Moray, now in the possession of the heirs of Nicolas Sutherland ? The murder of the chieftains at Dingwall was not avenged yet, for their fall weakened the Mackays at the time, and Angus VI did not live long enough to discharge this once sacred duty. Sir Robert would have us believe that the Mackays had already forgiven and forgotten the blood so treacherously shed by Nicolas little more than fifty years before. We do not believe a word of it. The Christian grace of forgiveness was not so developed in the Mackays of that period as to make them deaf to the cries of the murdered slain; and holding that opinion we do believe, upon the authority of Boece, that Angus Du spoilt Moray to his heart's content.

Angus in an impartial spirit next turned his attention to Caithness, where Nicolas had large possessions also. Sir Robert records that in 1426 he invaded "Caithness with all hostility and spoilt the same", fighting a pitched battle with the men of Caithness on Harpsdale Hill, about two miles south of Halkirk village. Some modern writers, notably the author of The Gunns, have supposed that Harpsdale Hill was fought between the Mackays and the Gunns. For this view there is no confirmation, that we are aware of. We do not know of any cause of dispute between these two clans at that period; but between the Mackays and the descendants of Nicolas, who held lands in Moray and Caithness, there was a bitter feud. But if Angus Du had his revenge, he was soon made to suffer for his summary execution of what he thought to be justice.

King James I, who at the age of fourteen was captured by the English in 1405 on his voyage to France, remained a prisoner in England until 1424. On his return to Scotland he found the country in a very distracted state, and inoculated with English feudal ways, he resolved to apply drastic, if foolish remedies. In 1427 he came north in person and held a Parliament at Inverness, to which he summoned the Highland chieftains as members. These chieftains, unsuspicious of any treachery, trooped to meet their king, but no sooner did they appear than forty of them were clapped in irons, to the great gratulation of the monarch. Among these were Alexander, Lord of the Isles; Angus Du of Strathnaver, "a leader of 4000 men" [Fordun A Hearne]; Kenneth Mor and his son in law; Angus Moray and MacMathan, each leaders of 2000 men. Angus Du was soon released, but his eldest son Neil was retained as a hostage and sent for a time to the Bass Rock. The fierce independent chieftains of Scotland resented these autocratic measures, and ten years thereafter King James was murdered at Perth.

Not long after the Inverness Parliament, Thomas Neilson Mackay of Creich, first cousin of Angus Du, fell upon Mowat of Freswick somewhere in the neighbourhood of Tain, and pursuing him into the chapel of St. Duthus fired it, killing Mowat [Earldom of Sutherland]. As William Mowat of Loscragy gave the Caithness lands of Freswick and Auchingill in wadset to his son John, in 1410, it is evident that the Mowats had at this period lands in Moray and Caithness [Robertson's Index]. They were thus neighbours of the Duffus family in both countries, and likely helped them against the Mackays in the prosecution of the feud. We believe this explains the Tain episode. The sacrilege gave great offence. To kill Mowat was one thing, to burn a consecrated chapel was quite another matter. The former might be ignored, but the latter could not. Such were the religious conceptions of the time ! Anyway, Thomas was outlawed, and his lands promised to such as should apprehend him. But we fancy it was not an easy matter to lay Thomas by the heels without some stratagem.

As fate would have it, Angus Moray of Cubin, [Cubin lies within the old province of Moray, close by the month of the Findhorn. Moray of Cubin had lands aiso in Sutherland], a retainer of the house of Sutherland, had two daughters, one married to Neil and the other to Morgan, both brothers of Thomas Neilson Mackay. Instigated by Angus Moray, says Sir Robert Gordon, they basely betrayed their brother, who was captured and beheaded at Inverness. The lands of Thomas were divided among the three by charters from the king dated 20th Mar 1430 [Reg.Mag.Sig.]. Angus Moray got Spinnydale, Invercarron, and Polrossie in the south, and Bighouse, the two Tranties, and the two Forsies in Strathalladale. Neil Neilson got Creich, Garloch, Daane, Moyzelblary, Conzcorth, Tuttin-Tarwach, Langort, and Amayde. Morgan Neilson got Golval and Balnaheglish in Strathalladale, Achanies, Altasmore, Leynfatmore, and Inveran. These lands scattered throughout Strathnaver, Sutherland, and Ross, indicate the vast power and possessions of Thomas Neilson Mackay. Part of these lands, if not all, were held by Angus Du and his heirs on the charter of 1415 from Donald, Lord of the Isles, so that Thomas must have held them of Angus. The king, however, appears to have ignored that charter; he may not have been aware of its existence at the time. When in 1506, at the instigation of Iye Roy Mackay of Strathnaver, the charter of 1415 was recorded in the books of the Lords of Council, note was taken of the fact that enemies tried to destroy the charter in these words, "notwithstanding the cancellatione and rivin of the samyne, reklesly and in the bak, be evil disposit persons". We have no doubt who those enemies were. They were representatives of those who tried to get behind this same charter in 1430. We shall afterwards see that Strathalladale proved something of a white elephant to the Morays owing to the hostility of the Mackays, and that they were glad to alienate their claim to it for the paltry sum of 1000 merks. The Mackays sold it in 1830 for £58,000 sterling.

The fall of Thomas Neilson of Creich must have been a severe blow to the power of Angus Du. It encouraged Angus Moray and his sons-in-law to project an invasion of Strathnaver, in the hope of overthrowing Angus Du himself and possessing his lands. In these projected measures they had the "attollerance" of the Earl of Sutherland, as Sir Robert Gordon says; and whatever he would have us understand by the word he makes it clear that in this case it meant his active support. With the men of Caithness thirsting for the revenge of Harpsdale Hill on his left flank, the situation was very critical for Angus Du. Not only did he lack the powerful support of his dead cousin of Creich, but his eldest son, Neil, was still from home a hostage, and he was himself quite unable to lead his men owing to some infirmity. The duty of warding off the attack in this hour of deadly peril devolved upon Ian Aberach, not yet out of his teens, and right nobly did he respond.

[Footnote: Ian Aberach was the eldest son of Angus Du by his second wife, a daughter of Alexander Carrach Macdonald of Keppoch, as shall be afterwards shown; and was fostered by maternal relatives in Lochaber, hence his name Ian Aberach, John the Lochaber man. We shall here relate a tradition regarding the meeting of father and son on the eventful eve of the battle of Drum nan Coup. When Ian arrived at Tongue from Lochaber, his father determined to test his spirit in a quaint fashion. He ordered food to be spread for his son in a room where a large boar-hound was placed. The tierce brute, looking upon the food as under its charge, prepared to show fight as soon as the Aberach entered; but Ian nothing daunted drew his dirk, closed with the hound, and soon dispatched it. The father delighted with his son's intrepidity exclaimed, "Dhearbh thu fuil do chridhe", you have proved the blood of your heart. It may well be imagined his clansmen caused these words to ring throughout Strathnaver after the further proof they had of his valour on the field of Drum nan Coup. Be that as it may, this incident is traditionally reported to have occasioned the slogan " Dearbh do chridhe", prove thy heart, with which the Aberach Mackays were afterwards wont to rush into battle. That of the other branches of the clan is "Bi treun", be valiant. The latter slogan, in the Latin form "Manu forti", is now the motto of Mackay.]

In 1433, according to the Blk. MS., Angus Moray of Cubin with all the forces he could muster in Sutherland, to the number of 1500, advanced towards Tongue by way of Lairg, Shiness, and Crask-Rorie accompanied by his sons-in-law, Morgan and Neil Neilson. The strategy of Mackay was to lure them on as far as possible before giving battle. They were met at Drum nan Coup, at the head of a pass to the north of Ben Loyal within two miles of Castle Varrich by about an equal number of men under Ian Aberach, who was accompanied to the field by his helpless father borne in a litter. When the men of Sutherland understood that the opposing leader was but a lad, they tauntingly shouted "Cuiridh sinne buarach air an laogh ud", we will put a cow shackle on yonder calf. The Mackays, securely posted with their backs to the brae, hurled defiance at their foes and gave them a long-range discharge of arrows. The Sutherland men came on with great impetuosity and confidence, but the Mackays, who had the advantage of position and were fresh while the former were fatigued with their long march, received the shock firmly, and after some fierce fighting eventually drove them back down the pass in confusion, killing Angus Moray and his confederate sons-in-law. As the weary fugitives swarmed up the slopes of Ben Loyal they were killed mercilessly and in great numbers. The chase was continued to Ath Charrie, a ford on the stream running into Loch Loyal, where a stone marks the graves of the last party killed in the flight. This splendid victory was the Bannockburn of the Mackays - it saved their country from greedy and unnatural usurpers - but it was saddened by the fall of Angus Du, slain by the arrow of a Sutherland man lurking in a bush, as he was being carried in his litter over the field after the flight of the enemy.

[Footnote: Castle Varrich stands on a rock above the river Verry, which flows into the Kyle of Tongue. Some little distance up the stream lies Inchverry. Evidently Varrich is a slightly corrupt form of Verry, hurling. It is a mistake to connect Varrich with St. Barr, and to make this ancient stronghold of Mackay a bishop's tower. Besides there is no proof that a Barr was ever Bishop of Caithness.]

In Bower's Continuation of Fordun, in Leslie's Historia Scotorum, in Balfour's Annals, and in Gordon's Earldom of Sutherland reference is made to this battle. Bower, who misdates it and from whom Gordon seems to quote, would have us believe that the combatants practically exterminated one another at Drum nan Coup. This is not in agreement with the traditions of the country, and ill accords with what took place soon thereafter at Tom an Dris and at Sandside. The fall of Angus Du himself may have given rise the rumour of the battle which went south, that the Mackays suffered as severely as the Morays.

"Donald of the Isles," writes Sir Robert Gordon, "having detyned Angus Dow a while in captivitie, released him, and gave him his daughter in marriage, whom Angus Dow careid home with him into Strathnaver, and had a son by her called Neill Wasse, so named because he was imprisoned in the Basse."

Sir Robert is mistaken in saying that the first wife of Angus Du was a daughter of Donald, Lord of the Isles. She was not his daughter, but his sister, Elizabeth, as is clearly stated in the charter of 1415. As this marriage did not take place till after the battle at Dingwall in 1411, and as John, Lord of the Isles (father of Elizabeth by his wife a daughter of King Robert II), died in 1380, according to the Book of Clanranald, the lady must have been somewhat advanced in years at the time of her marriage and incapable of bearing many children. It is more than probable that Neil Vass was the only child of the marriage, and that Lady Elizabeth died soon after the charter of 1415 was granted.

Angus Du married, secondly, a daughter of Alexander Carrach MacDonald of Keppoch, son of John, Lord of the Isles, by his wife Margaret, daughter of King Robert II [Col. de rebus Alb.]. In the Knock MS. history of MacDonald we read as follows: - "Hugh Mackay of Strathnaver was taken, who married thereafter a daughter of Alexander MacDonald of Keppoch, of whom descended the race of Mackays called Slioc Ean Abrich". The historian here also has committed a mistake in naming Mackay of Strathnaver Hugh instead of Angus; but he makes clear that such a marriage took place, and that one of the sons of this marriage was Ian Aberach, from whom descended the Aberach Mackays. We are thus particular because Sir Robert Gordon, who never misses an opportunity of besmirching the family of Mackay, dubs Ian Aberach "bastard", and this statement of his has been slavishly copied by other writers since. It ill becomes Sir Robert to sneer at bastards, for he narrowly escaped being one himself. When his father, the Earl of Sutherland, married his mother, the divorced wife of Bothwell, a dispensation from the Pope had to be obtained to make the marriage legitimate. By the canon law of Rome, which had force in Scotland until after the Reformation, marriage with a deceased wife's niece, or even with a cousin thrice removed, was within the forbidden degree of consanguinity; and as the second wife of Angus Du was a niece of the first, the marriage came under the ban of the Romish Church. That is all. The only difference between Sir Robert Gordon and Ian Aberach is this: the former was made legitimate by a Papal dispensation, as documents extant amply prove, the latter may have been made legitimate in a similar way, but we cannot meantime lay our hands upon the documents.

[Footnote: Alex, Earl of Sutherland, discarded his first wife, Lady Barbara Sinclair, daughter of the Earl of Caithness, and married Lady Jane Gordon, the divorced wife of Bothwell. Sir Robert Gordon was a son of this second marriage, and would have been a bastard were it not for the gold which his father paid to the Pope for a dispensation.]

The known issue of Angus Du was five sons: -

  1. Neil Vass Mackay, by the first wife, and of whom an account follows
  2. Ian Aberach, by the second wife. He became progenitor of the Aberachs. a branch of which we give a genealogical account later on
  3. Roderick, whose son, Donald, is mentioned in a decreet of the Lords of Council against the Mackays of Strathnaver in 1501
  4. William, who is designated Angus Duff's son, and whose son, John, is included in the above decreet
  5. Angus, who had a son John, whose son, Angus, is designated of Spenziedale, Creich. This latter Angus granted sasine to his son-in-law, Roderick Murray, on the lands of Spanziedale and Bighouse, as is made clear in the title-deeds of the estate of Bighouse, of which a copy is preserved in the Blk. MS. It is more than likely that Murray contracted this marriage in order to fortify his family in the possession of Bighouse, which Angus Du obtained by charter in 1415, but which the king gave to the Murrays in 1430. We shall afterwards show that there was a flaw in the king's gift of 1430, or rather that it was unjust.

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