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JOHN

1517 - 29

We have now come to a point where it is absolutely necessary to take a general survey of the situation in Sutherland, owing to the advent of the Gordons and its far reaching effects. John, Earl of Sutherland, who died in 1508, was for some years before his death demented and his affairs in the hands of guardians. By his first wife, Fingole of the Isles, whom he divorced, he had a son John, who succeeded, and a daughter Elizabeth, who married Adam Gordon of Aboyne, brother of Alexander, 3rd Earl of Huntly. By his second wife, Catherine, who survived him and drew widow's terce as late as 1512, he had a son Alexander Sutherland - "a bastard", according to Sir Robert Gordon. John the elder son of Earl John was served heir to his father on the 24th Jul 1509, but soon experienced the power of the Gordons. As sheriff of the north, Huntly had under his jurisdiction Caithness, Strathnaver, Sutherland, Ross, Inverness, Moray, etc., and may be said to have had law and justice, such as it was, in his almost absolute hands. Huntly by legal manipulation got John, Earl of Sutherland, who succeeded in 1509, declared idiot and placed under the conjoint guardianship of Elizabeth, his sister, and her husband, Adam Gordon.

On the death of James IV at Flodden in 1513, Scotland was left under the nominal government of an infant, James V, but one year old, and had to experience the miserable misrule which generally attended royal minorities in the northern kingdom. Huntly, who was practically lieutenant as well as sheriff of the north, had now the ball at his foot and did not fail to play his best. Elizabeth Sutherland, spouse of Adam Gordon, Huntly's brother, was served heir to her brother, John "the idiot", at Inverness, the 3rd Oct 1514; and Alexander Sutherland, her half-brother and rightful heir, complained through his procurator that he could not personally appear at the court to oppose her and make good his own claim, owing to the conduct of Huntly "the sheriff". But his protest was of no avail; Elizabeth obtained the earldom, and her husband Adam Gordon was soon thereafter created Earl of Sutherland. The disinherited Alexander Sutherland, however, possessed himself of Dunrobin Castle and cast about for assistance to maintain his doomed cause. Earl Adam, as he was now called, also fished for much-needed assistance to counteract the claimant. In 1516 by a grant of the lands of Strathulie he secured a bond of friendship with the Earl of Caithness, who for these lands engaged to recover Dunrobin Castle for Adam. In 1518, Huntly the sheriff had the Earl of Caithness outlawed for not fulfilling his promise to recover Dunrobin. Such was the administration of constitutional law in those days ! To make a long story short, the unfortunate Alexander Sutherland was assassinated near Brora in 1519 by Gordon emissaries, when his head was fixed upon the chimney-tops of Dunrobin; and Adam Gordon his brother-in-law, now Earl of Sutherland, soon thereafter resigned the lands of the earldom into the hands of the infant king, represented no doubt in the person of Huntly, who duly conveyed them by royal charter to Adam's eldest son - a slim but common practice in those days. [The facts given above are substantiated by Sir William Fraser: - Sutherland Book: Vol. I] This was how the title and lands of the Earldom of Sutherland passed from the line of Sutherland to that of Gordon.

It was in these circumstances that Iye Roy Mackay contracted the bond of friendship with Earl Adam, dated 31st Jul 1517, which Earl Adam's great-grandson, Sir Robert, represents as a covenant of vassalage. Fortunately the document is still preserved among the Reay Papers, and we are able to print it in our Appendix No 10; but unfortunately many another misrepresentation of his, equally gross with reference to the Mackays, we cannot so satisfactorily demolish for lack of the necessary evidence. At the advent of the Gordons into Sutherland, notwithstanding the discreditable circumstances above described, Sir Robert Gordon plays "cock of the north" with a strut that is often annoying though sometimes ludicrous. He dubs John Mackay of Strathnaver "bastard" - he does the same to Alexander Sutherland - and proceeds to describe a prolonged intestine war in Strathnaver between John and his uncle Neil Naverach, on the question of the chieftainship, which is neither borne out by facts within our knowledge nor agrees with his own tale.

John Mackay, on the 16th Aug 1518, or shortly after his father's death, practically renewed his father's bond of friendship with Earl Adam, and for promising assistance was given seven davachs of land in Strathflete. In this bond [Appendix No 11] he took upon him the responsibilities of chieftain, and is designed "of Strathnaver", a title which was never applied at that period save to the rightful head of the clan Mackay. Nay more, on Sir Robert's own showing, John Mackay sent or led no less than six warlike expeditions of his clansmen into Sutherland between the years 1517-22, in every one of which he was badly defeated, of course ! If John was so busy at home putting down insurrection we cannot understand how he could be at the same time so active abroad, especially seeing that he lost at every stroke ! If John did all this he must have been one of the finest fighting bull-dogs his clan ever produced, and ought to have received better treatment at the hands of a gallant knight like Sir Robert. There is, however, nothing to show that John's succession was disputed, and Sir Robert evidently manufactured this story to justify the conduct of the Earls of Huntly and Sutherland, when, during the minority of Mary Queen of Scots, they attempted to disinherit Iye Du Mackay, nephew of the said John. The Gordons, who managed to disinherit and decapitate the unfortunate Alexander Sutherland on the plea of bastardy, tried a similar plan on Iye Du Mackay, but with only partial success. To expose the misrepresentations of Sir Robert is a tedious and unpleasant task, which often compels us most unwillingly to rake up incidents discreditable to the house of Sutherland; but as Sir Robert, who is so unjust to the Mackays, is practically the only authority on our northern history at this period, we cannot avoid the task and be loyal to our own clan as well as to truth.

We shall now consider those six wonderful incursions which John Mackay is said to have made between the years 1517 and 1522. Mackay with his clansmen, accompanied by some Assynt Macleods, marched into Sutherland in 1517, where he was joined by the Polson and Tomson Mackays. Alexander Sutherland, "the bastard", at the instigation of his sister (now Countess of Sutherland, to his undoing) raised the men of the earldom, and being joined by the Murrays and Gunns gave battle to Mackay at Torran Du in Rogart, where the latter suffered a mighty overthrow. This is history as told by Sir Robert Gordon, but it is not truth. Sir William Fraser shows us that from Mar 1517, to Feb 1518, the disinherited Alexander Sutherland, instead of leading men to battle, was confined a prisoner in Edinburgh through the influence of Huntly [Sutherland Book I, 19]; and he proceeds, "in other respects also Sir Robert's narrative of the various encounters with the Mackays at this time must be received with caution". We should think so indeed. The fact is there was no fighting at all in Earl Adam's policy, because of his uncertain and precarious hold of the earldom. Instead of fighting he wisely tried to bind to his interest, with bonds of friendship and gifts of land, all the influential leaders of the northland, such as Caithness, Mackay, Murray, etc.

Mackay, however, did fight at Torran Du, as tradition and song sufficiently testify; but his opponents were the Murrays, the Rosses of Balnagown, and the Gunns, while with him were the Mathiesons and the Polsons. Among the papers of the Revd. Mr Sage of Kildonan was a MS. Account of the Gunns, which came into the possession of the Revd. Mr Gunn of Watten about 1804, and which now lies before us. In this MS. there is one verse of an old Gaelic song commemorating the part which the Gunns took in the fight at Torran Du, which we give and translate as follows: -

Thainig na Guinich 's gu'n tainig iad,
'S ann an deagh am a thainig iad.
Thair iad as Macaoidh's sial Mhothan,
Mharbhadh leo siol Phail gun acain.

The Gunns came and came they did,
T'was in an hour of need they came.
The Mackays and the Mathiesons fled,
But the Polsons were mercilessly slain.

According to this MS. account, the day was going with Mackay when suddenly and unexpectedly the Gunns appeared coming over the brow of the hill towards the battle field, and changed the face of affairs. The Mathiesons and Mackays like prudent men retired to fight another day, but the Polsons were caught in a trap and suffered much loss. A few months after this "great defeat", the Mackays put in an appearance at Loch Salchie, above Strathoikel and near the borders of Ross, when William Mackay, chieftain of the Aberachs, and his brother Donald fell on the one side, and John Murray of Aberscross fell on the other. Once more, and only a few months later, the Mackays turn up in the heart of Rogart burning the town of Pitfure in Strathflete. Then almost immediately follows the bond of friendship, 16th Aug 1518, between Mackay and Earl Adam, in which the former secures from the earl seven davachs of land in Strathflete. To put it briefly, the Mackays who were twice defeated in Rogart within the space of 12 months, according to Sir Robert, are shown by the Reay Papers to have rounded up the year by securing a title to lands in the said parish. Of course, Sir Robert takes good care not to say anything about the latter fact - it would spoil his story.

Shortly after all these disastrous "defeats", and before the ink was hardened on the bond of friendship, Mackay turns up in Creich and again suffers a great beating at the hands of Alexander Gordon, Master of Sutherland. And yet again, within a year, the ubiquitous Mackay invades Braechat to be defeated by the Master once more. To punish Mackay for his thick-headedness in not understanding that he was defeated so often, Sir Robert now makes the Master invade Strathnaver passing from end to end and taking great spoil. We should think Mackay had enough punishment by this time to satisfy even Sir Robert, but such was not the case - the Master had to administer another thrashing at Lairg and drive Mackay into the loch there. At last Mackay's spirit is broken - perhaps the swim in Loch Shin had something to do with it - any how, he signs "a bond of service" to the Master in 1522. This is Sir Robert's story briefly stated.

Now what are the facts as far as we know them from documentary evidence ? The bond which John Mackay signed, on the 6th Jul 1522, is indorsed on the document Appendix No 12 lying in Dunrobin, "Ane act where McKy gaif his aith to Alexander erle of Sutherland, to do all things that he was oblist till do to Adam, erle of Sutherland". Quite so. Earl Adam with whom John Mackay had contracted a bond of friendship in 1518, resigned the earldom into his son's hands, and now the son renews the said covenant with Mackay. There is not a syllable in the document to indicate any fighting between the two. It is very evident that the Master of Sutherland owes those brilliant victories over Mackay to the vigour of Sir Robert's glowing imagination. Such is history as it was written by Sir Robert ! That there was a considerable amount of fighting in Sutherland during these years we believe, but it was not between the Gordons and the Mackays. The Gordon policy, inspired by the astute Huntly, sheriff of the north, was to set by the ears the Mackays, Murrays, Gunns, Mathiesons, Rosses; and in this the Gordons were only too successful. While the other clans kept hammering one another, the Gordons wisely kept fortifying their own position in Sutherland.

In 1529 Andrew Stuart, Bishop of Caithness, instigated one of his servants to murder Sutherland of Duffus while on a visit to Inverness. This naturally caused an uproar throughout the diocese, some supporting the bishop and others the Duffus party. Sir Robert tells us that Huntly and Sutherland took the bishop's part, and practically saved from the gallows the reverend prelate's neck, because he happened to be a scion of the house of Atholl, with which they were in league. Mackay espoused the other side, and marched with a body of men towards the bishop's castle of Skibo; but he sickened during the expedition, and was carried home to die almost immediately.

John Mackay married Margaret, daughter of Thomas, Lord Lovat, who succeeded to the chieftainship of Fraser in 1501. In the Wardlaw MS., Vol. 34 of the Scottish History Society Publications, she is designed "Margaret Lady McKay", and must have been the wife of John, from the period at which her father flourished. By her he had two daughters, but no male issue: -

  1. A daughter, who married Hugh Murray of Aberscross and to whom she bore Hugh, "son and heir of Hugh Moray of Aberscross and grandson, and one of the heirs, of John MacKay of Strathnaver", as is recorded in a charter by William Sutherland of Duffus to the said Hugh Moray, dated 21st Feb 1581. See Inventory of Dunrobin Papers in the Blk. MS.
  2. A daughter, who married the laird of Polrossie
He had also an illegitimate son, John Mor, of whom we shall hear more afterwards.
The said John Mor had known issue five sons, viz., Reay Papers
  1. Neil
  2. Rory, constable of Borve Castle in Farr during its siege in 1554;
  3. Murdo, whose son Donald macMurdo macEan Mor lies buried within the old church of Durness;
  4. John
  5. Tormat
These five brothers are also mentioned in Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, Vol. I. p. 352.

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