Ancient Alba and the Rise of the Highland Clan System


Note regarding Clan Spens: It is within this environment that our Clan Spens ancestors came to Scotland from Normandy during the reign of King David.  As the article mentions, the Normans, including the Spens family brought with them both business acumen, as well as, the framework of continental European feudal system.  The early Spens people were successful business people in the early Scottish capital of Perth, where they prospered in the trades and the international shipping industry.


From: Regiments of the Scottish Highlands by Frank Adam

A further influx of foreigners into Scotland took place in the reign of King David, this time of Normans as well as of Saxons, made by the king to his new subjects Saxons and Normans, were in what are now known as the Lowlands of Scotland, and were feudal ones, namely a written grant by knight-service, in which the older Celtic system of land holding was gradually placed on record and incorporated in the great new and businesslike system of feudal tenure, under which, in Scotland, as in early medieval France, the family, as an organised unit, was given permanent recognition in law, and in connection with the fief mesnie, or in Gaelic, duthus. The Normans were by far the greatest business-men of the Middle Ages; they were quick to perceive the immense social value and practical advantage of the organised family which we recognise pre-eminently in the clan system, and the machinery which they had adopted in France, although somewhat unpopular in England where it had to be imposed after the Conquest and the national defeat of Hastings, nervertheless instantly appealed to the Scottish king and his Celtic nobles as a highly popular institution for effective co-ordination and perpetuation of the Celtic family system.

At a later period some of these non-Celtic families (of whom the Frasers and the Gordons may be cited as notable examples) obtained a footing n the Highlands, where they soon became Hiberniori quam ipsi Hiberni, more Highland than the Highlanders. Indeed, the latter of the above-named families (the Gordons) attained such power in the Highlands that their chiefs came to be known as “the Cocks of the North.”

Moray, however, was not long at rest; form in 1130, during the absence of King David in England, Angus Earl of Moray, along with Malcolm his brother, sons of Heth, Earl of Moray, raised another rebellion. The revolt, however, was not only completely quelled by the king, but the Celtic Earldom of Moray was forfeited. It was not revived until after the Battle of Bannockburn, when the Earldom of Moray was conferred by King Robert the Bruce on his nephew, Sir Thomas Randolph.

In 1139, Stephen, King of England, ceded to David’s son the whole Earldom of Northumerland, with the exception of the castles of Newcastle and Bamborough, and to David, Cumberland.
David’s reign lasted till 1153. He was remarkable for the liberal donations made by him to the Church. Indeed, of such a munificent description were these benefactions, that they drew from King James VI, the regretful complaint that David was “an sair sanct for the crown.”

David’s eldest son, Henry l, having predeceased him, his successor was his grandson, Malcolm IV, who was only twelve years of age at the time of his accession. Young as the king was he soon showed an aptitude for government, though he had a short reign of twelve years only, as he died in 1165. He had to deal with several insurrections, one of the most serious being that of the “Maister Men,” namely, several of the great earls who objected to the king’s continental expedition to the siege of Toulouse, and it is likely an attempt was made to dethrone him, which would apparently have been successful had good general ship not resented the development of an anticipated rebellion in Moray, as well as others in Ross and Galloway. During this reign the latter – which had hitherto been ruled by its own princes – was brought into immediate subjection to the Scottish Crown. In Moray, which had proved the most recalcitrant of the Scottish provinces, apparently on account of the tradition of the Macbeth claim, King Malcolm instituted a mass-readjustment of population, many of the troublesome Morays being given lands in Ross-shire and in the south of Scotland, whilst the swampy tracts in the Laigh of Moray were feued by knight-service to men competent to drain the marshes and become loyal vassals of the king.

The most striking feature of the reign is that all these improvements were effected by amicable arrangement, for in 1160 King Malcolm affected a treaty with Somerled, Lord of the Isles, who had been supporting the MacHeth parry in Moray, and which presumably related to these arrangements. Nevertheless they quarrelled four years later in 1164, when their opposing armies having met at Renfrew, Somerled was either killed in battle or, as some say murdered in his tent. Whilst Malcolm thus succeeded by firmness and diplomacy in materially consolidating his realm, he was nevertheless obliged in 1157 to cede the Scottish possessions in Northumberland and Cumberland to Henry II, of England. The proceedings in Moray connected with the MacHeth rebellion also bear on the history of the Can Murray (whose centre was the Castle of Duffus) and the Clan Mackay, which claims descent from MacHeth. If so, their seat as Ri Moreb was presumably the Castle Hill of Elgin, whilst possibly their territory comprehended the “dominium” of Kilmalemnock, with the “thaneages therein” as one charter express it. If so, there was evidently rivalry between the race of MacHeth and the race of Freskin for the “representation” – indicated by the title “de Moravia.” The Crown and Somerled seem to have agreed that the MacHeth line be transferred to the remotest corner of Scotland – Strathnaver, the Crown thus securing the main fortress of Moray whereupon the House of Freskin took the style “de Moravia,” as the principal house of the race left in Moray. Freskin, in this view, had an interest to concur in the expulsion of the line which claimed the “kinship” of Moray and the Castle Hill of Elgin.