Saturday, October 5, 2013

Military Monday - The Battle of Drumnacoub and the Origins of Clan Bain

When it comes to giving your brain a work-out, there is nothing like trying to follow the threads of a Scottish feud, and the internal feud of Clan Mackay is a doozy.
Mackay Clansman

Let’s begin with Phase One of the feud.  The trouble began in 1426 when Angus Du Mackay (1365-1433) was the seventh chief of the Clan Mackay of Strathnaver,  the valley (strath) of the River  Naver on the northern coast of Scotland.  The Strathnaver area was home to the Mackays in that era.  [Note to members of Clan Bain: Not this Mackay, but his cousin Neil was our ancestor. More to come below.]

Now, in 1426 Angus Du, with his son Neil, decided to invade Caithness to avenge himself on his hated enemy, the Sutherlands, who had killed his grandfather, the clan chief, at Dingwall Castle in 1370.  Angus Du got as far as Harpsdale, which is south and east of Halkirk, at which point the locals gave battle.

Sir Robert Gordon (1580 -1656), the author of the Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, later recorded  that “there was great slaughter on either side.[i]

Bass Rock, Firth of Forth
Though there was no clear victor, King James I got wind of the fight and rode north from Edinburgh to Inverness, where Angus Du submitted himself, offering his son Neil as a hostage.  Neil was promptly imprisoned on Bass Island from which he got his nickname, Neil Vass (a phonetic variation, sometimes spelled Wesse). 

At this point, we reach Phase Two.  Angus Du Mackay had three cousins—the brothers Thomas Mackay, Morgan Mackay, and Neil Neilson Mackay II, the latter of whom is ancestor to Clan Bain.  In 1427, Thomas Mackay got himself into serious trouble when he killed Mowat of Freswick in Tain, Ross-shire.

Old St. Duthus Chapel, Tain
A. J. Lawrence, author of The Clan Bain, explains it well, saying that Thomas, “held vast possessions, including the lands of Creich, etc., which he obtained from his cousin, Angus Du—probably to get and ensure his support; about 1427, he fell upon Mowat of Freswick for having betyrayed him, and pursued him into the Chapel of St Duthus, to which he set fire, killing Mowat.  Killing was one thing, in those days, but burning a consecrated Chapel could not be ignored.  Thomas was outlawed and his lands promised to whomever [sic] should capture him.  It so happened that his brothers, Morgan and Neil, had married daughters of Angus Moray of Cubin, a retainer of the hated Suthlerlands; and Angus [Moray], instigated by the Sutherlands, induced them to help him betray their brother, who was captured and beheaded.” (p. 35).[ii]

See.  I told you it was complicated.

Okay, so Angus’s son, Neil Vass, is locked up on Bass Rock, one nephew has been executed, and the other two have taken up with his mortal enemy, the Sutherlands.  But the chief still had one more champion, his illegitimate son, John Aberigh Mackay, who began to advise his aging father.  Morgan and Neil, along with Sutherland and their father-in-law Moray (pronounced Murray), desired to wrest the remaining lands of Angus Du from his hands. 

Angus Du sent word that he would resign all of his property to them except for Kintail, which was in Strathnaver, but this was not good enough for Morgan and Neil.  With the full support of the earl of Sutherland, the two brothers pressed forward against John Aberigh, who promised his 68-year-old father that he would retain the lands or die trying.

Site of the Battle of Drumnacoub
The two armies met at a place called Drumnacoub, which was two miles from Tongue, a coastal village where Angus Du resided.  One historian gives this account of the battle and its aftermath:

There ensued a cruel and sharp conflict, valiantly fought a long time, with great slaughter, so that, in the end, there remained but few alive on either side. Neil Mackay, Morgan Mackay, and their father-in-law (Angus Murray), were there slain. John Aberigh, having lost all his men, was left for dead on the field, and was afterwards recovered; yet he was mutilated all the rest of his days [apparently having lost an arm]. Angus Dow Mackay, being brought thither to view the place of the conflict, and searching for the dead corpses of his cousins, Morgan and Neil, was there killed with the shot of an arrow, by a Sutherland man, that was lurking in a bush hard by, after his fellows had been slain. This John Aberigh was afterwards so hardly pursued by the Earl of Sutherland, that he was constrained, for the safety of his life, to flee into the Isles.[iii]

Bass Rock with Castle
by Andrew Spratt
Now we reach Phase Three of the feud.  In 1437, Neil Vass managed to escape from Bass Rock with the assistance of a kinswoman who was married to the governor of Bass, Sir Robert Lauder.  Because he had been imprisoned for a decade, Neil Vass lacked the necessary military savvy to carry on the feud with his cousins and the Sutherlands, so a year later, he took up with his half-brother John, who obviously had plenty of military experience, and they advanced with 500 men towards Thurso in Caithness. 

Site of Sandside Chase
Soon they were joined in fight by the larger army of Caithness men. At Sandside, a violent conflict got underway.  John Aberigh’s men were able to corner Sutherland’s troops below Sandside House near the bay, driving many of them into the sea.  “Around the ancient fort of Cnoc Stangar between Sandside House and the sea, where the fight was fiercest, the bones of the slain may yet be dug out of the sandy soil.  This conflict is known as Ruaig Handside, [or] Sandside Chase.”[iv]
Afterwards, many of the clansmen sought to have John Aberigh made chief, but John conceded the leadership of the Mackays to Neil Vass, the legitimate heir.  Neil, in turn, bestowed on John lands in Strathnaver, though apparently over time, those lands eventually passed to the Sutherlands.

Loch Gairloch
Meanwhile, what about the sons of Neil Neilson Mackay II and Morgan Mackay, the brothers of the executed Thomas Mackay?  In 1430, three years before his death at Drumnacoub, Neil Neilson had received Thomas’s former lands in Gairloch in Ross. 
Olrig (top center)
However, after Drumnacoub, the tension between Neil’s widow and son, on the one side, and the family of Angus Du, on the other, was so severe that, in 1435, Neil Neilson’s widow could no longer stand the strain and was removed to Olrig in Caithness by her son, John.  A. J. Lawrence, Bain genealogist, stated that “they received a friendly welcome due to the knowledge that their troubles had been inspired by the Sutherlands.”  

"Et Marte et Arte" means
"By Strength and Skill"
(Tile available on
At this point, John took the name John Bane (“the Fair”) Mackay to distinguish him from other John Mackays, perhaps including John Aberigh Mackay, the illegitimate son and defender of Angus Du.  John eventually dropped the name Mackay, and the original spelling, Bane, was standardized to Bain in 1616.[v]  The Bains of Caithness and Ross are descended from this individual.
The Bain motto, Et Marte et Arte (By Strength and Skill), well expresses what it took for the descendants of John Bain Mackay to survive and thrive after their new beginning in 1435.

[i] Recorded in “Battle of Harpsdale.” Wikipedia.
[ii] The Clan Bain and Associated Families. Inverness: Highland Printers, 1966.
[iii] “Conflict of the Clans: The Conflict of Druimnacour.”
[iv] Mackay, Angus.  The Book of Mackay.  Edinburgh, 1906.  Available on Google Books; Mackay, Gary. “The Correct History of the Clan Mackay.” 9 May 1999.

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