Between the rulers of Moray and the kings of Scotland there was a long and bitter conflict, which arose apparently out of a claim by the former to the Crown. On the death of Malcolm II about 1034, the descendants of Kenneth Mac Alpin, the founder of the Scottish dynasty, became extinct in the male line. The next king was Duncan, son of Crinan, Abbot of Dunkeld, by his wife a daughter of Malcolm II. To secure Duncan's succession, Malcolm before his death passed a special ordinance making heirs in the female line eligible, and at the same time took the precaution of slaying the rightful male heir, a son of his brother Boete. Gruoch, however, a daughter of Boete was married to Macbeth, the powerful mormaer of Moray; and King Duncan, Malcolm's grandson, found it necessary or wise to endow Macbeth with a considerable amount of power. When the arms of Duncan suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Thorfin the Norseman, Macbeth not only deserted his cause, but turned upon him and slew him. The children of King Duncan fled into England, and Macbeth became king of Scots, a position which he occupied for no less than seventeen years. That he reigned so long implies that his right to the throne, through his wife Gruoch, was acknowledged by a considerable body of the people. It is now universally acknowledged by modern historians that Shakespeare, the dramatist, did not do justice to Macbeth and his lady. They were not the cruel, ambitious couple he represents them; and if they slew King Duncan, the grandson of Malcolm II, they were avenging Malcolm's cold-blooded murder of Lady Macbeth's brother, the rightful heir.
[Footnote: Lulach was the son of Gillicomgan, the son of Maelbridge, the son of Ruadri, the son of Donald, the son of Morgan; and Macbeth was the son of Finnlaeic, the son of Ruadri, the son of Donald, the son of Morgan. Macbeth and Lulach were thus first and second cousins. See genealogies of the Highland Clans in Col. de rebas Alb.]
In the meantime Lulach, a second cousin of Macbeth, and, as some hold, the son of Gruoch by a former husband, became mormaer of Moray. Eventually Malcolm (afterwards known as Malcolm III or Canmore) the son of the slain Duncan, returned from England and with English help overthrew and slew Macbeth at Lumphanan in 1057, after three years' fighting. But the supporters of Macbeth were not utterly crushed. They now set up as king of Scots, Lulach, Mormaer of Moray, who had a claim to the throne through his mother, a daughter or granddaughter of Boete. Lulach, however, was not able to withstand the victorious Canmore for more than seven months, and fell in battle 17th Mar 1058, leaving a son Maelsnectan who became mormaer of Moray, and a daughter who married Aed, afterwards mormaer of the same province. In 1078 Malcolm Canmore again turned his attention to the Moraymen, administered some punishment and secured some spoil, but Maelsnectan managed to keep up the fight till he died in 1085.
[Footnote: About this time the old Gaelic title Mormaer was replaced by the Saxon title Earl.]
The next Earl of Moray was Aed, who married the daughter of Lulach [Robertson's Scotland]. Little is known of Aed. He is identified as the Earl Aed who witnessed charters by King David I, son of Malcolm III. Whatever he may have been during the chequered years which immediately followed the death of Canmore, the fact that he witnessed royal charters later on may indicate that he lived at peace with King David. He also appears to have become Earl of Moray in virtue of his marriage with Lulach's daughter, and may have sprung from a collateral noble family of Moray. He was succeeded by his son Angus, who again raised the standard of revolt and renewed the old conflict. The occasion of it was as follows: - David I became unpopular among his Celtic subjects owing to his introduction of feudalism from England. A nephew of his, Malcolm, counting on the support of the disaffected, endeavoured to wrest the sceptre from his uncle the king, and found Angus, Earl of Moray, only too ready to join. But with English aid David was enabled to overcome this formidable combination at Strathcathro, Forfar, in 1130, where there "fell 4000 of the men of Moray with their King Oengus, son of the daughter of Lulach" [Annals of Ulster]. The title Earl of Moray was suppressed on the death of Angus, and was not again revived until King Robert the Bruce bestowed it upon his nephew Randolph.
After the fall of Angus, his son Malcolm MacEth fled to the western isles, where he was beyond the power of the Scots king among a people who owned allegiance to the Norse crown, and gathered strength to recover his lost province. It is impossible to give a correct account of his doings, as they are inextricably mixed up with those of a cleric of the name of Wymund, Bishop of Man, who about the same time made insurrection and claimed to be a descendent of the house of Moray. Somerled, regulus of Argyle, espoused the cause of MacEth and gave him his sister in marriage. About 1134 he took the field, and seems to have carried on a system of guerilla warfare for a considerable time, retiring to the mountains when hard pressed, but returning again and again to the conflict and appearing in most unexpected places. After giving an immense amount of trouble, he was captured in Galloway with English assistance, and imprisoned in Roxburgh tower about 1137. Robert de Brus, in his reported speech before the battle of the Standard in 1138, reminds King David how he was supported by the English the previous year, against "Malcolm, heir of his father's hate and persecution" [Ailred L, 445]. But this did not end the struggle, nor was it the end of MacEth.
On the death of David I, his grandson Malcolm IV succeeded in 1153; and again we hear that the sons of Malcolm MacEth, supported by their uncle, Somerled, took up arms and "caused disturbance throughout a great part of Scotland". Donald, son of Malcolm MacEth, was captured at Witherne in Galloway (1156), and imprisoned along with his father in Roxburgh tower [Cron. St. Cross]. The warfare, however, was continued by the MacEths and Somerled until the following year, when the king found it good policy to set Malcolm MacEth at liberty and "gave him a certain province, which suspended the incursion he had instigated", as William of Newburgh informs us. The province bestowed upon Malcolm MacEth was Ross. About this time we find him witnessing a charter by Malcolm IV to the monastery of Dunfermline, as "Malcolm Mac Eth". The earldom of Ross, however, was but the north-eastern portion of the province of Moray, and as MacEth considered himself entitled to the patrimony of his ancestors, he naturally felt discontented, and renewed the struggle to his own undoing. In the ensuing tumult MacEth was at last overcome, captured, and blinded, about the year 1160. Then King Malcolm IV in sheer desperation determined to remove the Moray supporters of MacEth, and to plant the province with a people loyal to his throne. Fordun thus describes the event in his Annalia, of which we give the English translation: -
"At this time the rebel nation of the Moraymen, whose former lord, the Earl Angus, had been killed by the Scots, would, for neither prayers nor bribes, neither treaties nor oaths, leave off their disloyal ways, or their ravages among their fellow-countrymen. So having gathered a large army, the king removed them all from the land of their birth, as of old Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had dealt with the Jews, and scattered them throughout the other districts of Scotland, both beyond the hills and this side thereof, so that even not one native of that land abode there, and he installed therein his own peaceful people."
As is customary with early ecclesiastical writers, Fordun does not do justice to the claims, rights, and virtues of the Moraymen in his zeal for the Crown. We must not conclude that they were by any means less virtuous than their contemporaries, although they were unfortunately in conflict with the Crown.
In consequence of this treatment many of the Moray men, and among them the Clan Morgan, fled northward over the hills of Ross into Strathnaver, where the Norsemen gave them shelter; others found a refuge in Argyle and the Isles, beyond the king's power, whence came the Bute, Kintyre, and Islay MacKays; while some fled to the wilds of Galloway, then also under the Norse sway, and founded there a branch of the family. Those who settled in the Strathnaver valleys would receive a kindly welcome from Harold, the Norse earl of Caithness, whose interest it was to befriend the enemies of the Scots king. And they certainly had a good friend in Harold's wife, Gormlath, blue-eyes, the daughter of Malcolm MacEth, who as might be expected hated the Crown so cordially that King William, when making terms with Harold in 1196, endeavoured to stipulate, but in vain, that the earl should put her away [Chron. Roger de Hov IV, 12]. If our theory as to the Moddan family be correct, that they were a people of Moray extraction who found it to their interest to ally themselves with the Norsemen, it is natural to conclude that the Moddans also assisted the MacEths under the influence of Harold, who was himself a great-grandson of Moddan through his daughter Helga. It is even possible that the Moddan and MacEth families eventually merged into one people through marriage.
Fordun's statement, that the royal policy was to plant strangers in Moray, is supported from other sources of information. About this time Berowaldus, a native of Freisland, appears in the Cartulary of Moray as a holder of land in that province, and so does Freskin the progenitor of the house of Moray [Caledonia]. Chalmers derives Freskin also from Fresia, and Cosmo Innes in the introduction to the Cartulary of Moray approves of that view. Be that as it may, the application of this policy extended northwards as the king's enemies fell back, and Freskin's son, Hugo, thus came to have landed rights in south Sutherland. For two generations thereafter, and possibly for three, the descendants of Hugo continued to reside in Moray; their hold on Suderland was anything but secure until Earl William married the daughter of King Robert the Bruce [Introduction Cartulary of Moray and Hailes Annals]. It is very evident that the Freskin family obtained its title and possession in Suderland as a reward for helping to curb the turbulence of the northern peoples, both Celtic and Norse.
[Footnote: Hugo Freskin is the ancestor of the house of Sutherland. His son William, Lord of Sutherland (Willelmus, dominus de Suthyrlandia, filius et heres quondam Hugonis Freskyn), was father of William, 1st Earl of Sutherland. The latter died circa 1330 (Introduction Cartulary of Moray).]
In 1179 William the Lyon, brother and successor of Malcolm IV, finding the people of Ross turbulent, marched thither with a large army, inflicted some punishment and built two fortified places in Ardmanach, or the Black Isle.
Again in 1196 William pursued his enemies into the province of Caithness, which at that time included the present counties of Caithness and Sutherland.
Fordun describes the incident thus: -
"In that year (1196) there was so grevious a famine that men were starving everywhere. That same year king William led an army into Caithness. Crossing the river Oikel, he killed some of the disturbers of the peace, and bowed to his will both provinces of the Caithnessmen, (Utramque provinciam Catenensium voluntati suae subegit) routing Harold the earl thereof, until then a good man and trusty - but at that time goaded on by his wife, the daughter of MacEth."
There are traces of that royal visit yet, both on the hill-sides and in the traditions of the people. Near the top of Strathnaver there is an old battle-field strewn with tumuli, called Dall-Harrold, and overlooking the field is a small eminence, Cnoc Ri, king's hill, whence the king is said to have directed operations. Harold fell back down the strath and made his final stand on Fiscary hill, overlooking the township of Farr. His battle front, as the abounding tumuli show, extended for about a mile and a half east and west, his right wing rested on the spur above Crask, and his left on the rocks above the Swordly valley. His left face was covered by Loch Salchie, and from thence to the right there was a good deal of soft ground over which his assailants had to advance to the attack. The position was very strong, with Borve Castle on the sea-rocks about two miles to the rear; but King William was not to be denied. After fighting of the fiercest character - the ground is literally covered with graves - Harold was routed and driven to the sea. Some of the survivors fled to their boats in Rhivaal bay, about a mile east of Borve, as the gruesome trail of graves, which becomes a perfect cemetery above the landing place, shows. They must have fought desperately there to cover the embarkation of the survivors. Others may have fled to Borve Castle, an impregnable fortress perched upon a high rocky isthmus. We have ourselves seen a sword dug out of the Fiscary moss, with the characteristic Norse hilt, a relic of that bloody battle. Harold, however, and his followers continued to maintain the struggle for some time longer in Caithness, Ross, and Moray, as Fordun proceeds to show.
In 1214 Alexander II succeeded his father, William the Lyon, and the very next year the family of MacWilliam, who laid some claim to the throne of Scotland, together with the family of MacEth, burst into the province of Moray at the head of a large army. They were opposed by Farquhar mac in Tagart; and Kenneth MacEth, whom we take to be a grandson of Malcolm MacEth, lost his life in this struggle. It is very probable that the MacEths so designated themselves to perpetuate in this way their claim to the earldom of Moray, as descended of Aed, who married the daughter of Lulach. In 1223 we find the disaffected ones still fighting, and now the scene of conflict is again Strathnaver.
"This year (1223) also king Alexander levies an army and takes Gilespick and his three sons, with Roderick, the remaining firebrands of Mac William's rebellion in Strathnawerne, and hangs them with diverse of their followers on gibbets." [Balfour's Annals Vol. 1]
The Scottish annalists persistently record very little more than their defeats, but we feel sure that a race, who fought so determinedly as the MacEths did for over 130 years against the kings of Scotland, won battles as well as lost them. In fighting against the Crown they were practically fighting against fate, which fortunately destined the consolidation of Scotland into a homogeneous nation, the common heritage of Celt, Saxon, and Norseman.
The following presents in tabular form the descent of the MacEths from Aed their progenitor: -
|I. Aed Earl of Moray, married daughter of Lulach, circa 1085|
|II. Angus Earl of Moray, killed 1130|
|III. Malcolm MacEth, Earl of Ross, married sister of Somerled. Lost Ross circa 1160|
|IV. Donald MacEth captured in Galloway, 1156||Gormlath married Harold Earl of Caithness|
|V. Kenneth MacEth, son or nephew of Donald, killed 1215|
|A quo the Mackays of Strathnaver|