People carrying the surnames of MacGregor, McGregor and Gregor are descended from a Scottish highland clan known in the original Gaelic as “Clann Grioghair.” The story of this surname in Scotland is an interesting and unique tale that certainly affects the genealogical research of many people of Scottish descent, even if they don’t actually carry the MacGregor surname. This is because having the MacGregor surname was once banned throughout Scotland on pain of death.

In 1603, King James IV of Scotland rose to the English throne as King James I of England. This created dissent in Scotland on just how much they wanted to merge with the English and be ruled by English ways. Scotland was divided into clans that lived in certain territories, ruled themselves and sometimes fought each other. One of the more pugnacious of these clans was clan MacGregor. Their territory was rough, rocky and mountainous – not at all a hospitable place in which to live. They were described in the 1600s as the “wicked and unhappie race of Clangregor,” known for raiding and looting neighboring clans. They, along with their allies – including the MacFarlane clan – had been attacking other clans, particularly clan Colquhoun (pronounced “ca-hoon”). This clan lived in a fertile valley near Loch Lomand. The Colquhouns had secured royal permission to arm and protect themselves against the MacGregor attacks. In February of 1603 the Colquhouns gathered forces of 500 men on foot and 300 mounted men and moved north to confront the MacGregors.

In response to King James giving the Colquhouns permission to attack the MacGregors, the MacGregor leader, Alister, planned a showdown with the Colquhouns. Four hundred MacGregors, led by Alister and their allies, proceeded south toward the Colquhoun lands. The conflicting clans advanced toward one another and collided at Glen Fruin on Feb. 7, 1603. 

Alister MacGregor and his brother John had split their troops and surrounded the Colquhouns. The battle and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of 140 Colquhouns. Very few MacGregors were killed. Following the conflict, the MacGregors plundered their enemies’ lands and made off with 80 horses, 600 head of cattle and 800 sheep. They also burned Colquhoun houses and crops.

The massacre resulted in royal warrant being signed by the King on Feb. 24, 1603, issued against Alister MacGregor for attacking the Colquhouns. Alister MacGregor and 17 others were arrested and tried for these crimes. Alister and the others were hanged, drawn and quartered (a brutal form of torture before death) for these crimes.

On April 3, 1603, it was decreed by the King that all variations of the McGregor surname should be “altogidder abolished.” Due to “barbarous and horrible” deeds the clan was to be “exterminated and ruttid out.” Anyone bearing the name from thence forward would suffer the pain of death.

Bloodhounds were sent to hunt down MacGregors as they tried to hide in remote areas. For this reason, they were referred to as “children of the mist.” In addition, MacGregor women were captured, stripped, whipped and branded; their children were taken away and given to other families. Many women and children were sold into servitude. 

MacGregors could not travel the streets in groups of over two persons and were not allowed to carry knives, even for cutting their meat. They were denied the sacraments of the church. Civil law did not permit them to be issued bonds or securities, including marriage bonds.

This surname ban was removed 57 years later, in 1661, by King Charles II. But in 1693 it was reinstated by William of Orange.

It was lifted for good in 1784.

Next week, we will discuss some of the other surnames taken by MacGregors.

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