The 9 laws passed against the Highland clans that changed their way of life

On the sacred isle of Iona in August 1609, nine Highland clan chiefs put their signatures to the statutes that would begin the erosion of their way of life.

The new laws, known as the Statutes of Iona, were devised by James VI as he doggedly pursued his policy of bringing the Highlands and Islands under state control.

The statues are considered by some to be the first government attempt to break-up traditional Gaelic culture and tradition.

Read More
When the name MacGregor was banned for 150 years
James VI doggedly pursued his policy to 'civilise' the Highlands and Islands and weaken the clan system. PICS: Creative Commons.James VI doggedly pursued his policy to 'civilise' the Highlands and Islands and weaken the clan system. PICS: Creative Commons.
James VI doggedly pursued his policy to 'civilise' the Highlands and Islands and weaken the clan system. PICS: Creative Commons.
Hide Ad
Hide Ad

James VI’s efforts to ‘civilise’ the Highlands had been disastrous at times. In 1598, he sent in a gang of well-heeled Protestant lowlanders - dubbed the Adventurers of Fife - to occupy Lewis and exploit its natural resources to profit the Crown.

The colonists were met with fierce resistance by Clan Macleod with one leader kidnapped and held for six months. At least 20 of the new arrivals were killed not long after setting foot on the island.

In 1603, James VI moved to dismantle Clan MacGregor after its men killed 140 members of state-backed Clan Colquhoun and their allies at Glen Fruin near Loch Lomond.

The King ruled that the name MacGregor should be “altogether abolished” and that all people of the clan should renounce their name and take another, under the pain of death. A brutal campaign against its people followed.

By 1609, the King moved again against Gaeldom and the perceived excesses of the clan way of life.

He ordered Andrew Knox, the Bishop of the Isles, to meet clan chiefs in Iona and lay down the new rules.

According to some accounts, the chiefs were kidnapped and forced to attend the meeting.

Those in attendance were Angus Macdonald of Dunivaig in Islay, Hector Maclean of Duart in Mull, Donald Gorm Macdonald of Sleat in Skye, Rory Macleod of Harris, Rory MacKinnon of Strathordaill in Skye, Lauchlan MacLean of Coll, Donald Macdonald of Ylanterim in Moydart (Captain of Clanranald), Lauchlan Maclean of Lochbuy in Mull, and Gillespie MacQuharrie of Ulva.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

They “bound themselves by the most solemn oaths to future obedience to his Majesty and to the laws of Scotland,” according to accounts.

Critically, the statutes demanded that children of wealthier clansmen send their children to school in the Lowlands to learn to speak and write English.

In addition, Presbyterian ministers were to be appointed in Highlands parishes.

Pistols were not to be carried out the home and bards, the guardians of Gaelic traditions, stories and songs were no longer to be entertained chiefs.

The flow of drink into clan homes was also to be limited although chiefs were still allowed to travel to the lowlands to purchase liquor.

The nine statues in full:

1. The ruinous kirks to be repaired, and a regular parochial ministry to be established and maintained, with the same discipline as in other parts of the realm, the same observance of the Sabbath and of other moralities, and the suppression in particular of the inveterate Celtic practice of marriages for a term of years.

2. Inns to be set up in convenient places in all the Islands for the accommodation of travellers, so as to put an end to mere idle wandering and to the burden on the resources of poor tenants and crofters by the habit of promiscuous quartering.

3. To the same purpose, all idle vagabonds without visible and honest means of living to be cleared out of the Isles; and the chiefs themselves to cease from capricious exactions upon their clansmen, and be content each with a household retinue of as many gentlemen and servants as his means will support, - eg. MacLean of Duart with eight gentlemen, Angus Macdonald, Donald Gorm, Rory MacLeod, and the Captain of Clanranald, with six gentlemen each, and so proportionally with the rest.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

4. Still to the same purpose, all sorning and begging, and the custom of ‘conzie’, to be put down. (Sorning was the practice of extorting free quarters & provision. Conzie was the practice of billeting the lord’s soldiers upon the tenantry.)

5. A main cause of the poverty and barbarity of the Islanders was ‘thair extraordinair drinking of strong wynis and acquavitie’.

All general importation or sale of wine or aquavitae to be stopped by penalties, with reserve of liberty.

Drink allowed to be brewed to consume in homes and chiefs and other substantial gentlemen could send to the Lowlands to purchase as much wine and aquavitae as they may require for their households.

6. Every gentleman or yeoman in the Islands who possess more than 60 cattle and having children, to send at least his eldest son, or, failing sons, his eldest daughter, to some school in the Lowlands and brought up to sufficiently to speak, read and write English.

7. The Act of Parliament prohibiting all subjects of his Majesty from carrying hagbuts or pistols out of their own houses, or shooting with such firearms at deer, hares, or fowls, to be strictly enforced within the Islands.

8. The chiefs not to entertain wandering bards, or other vagabonds. They are to be apprehended, put in the stocks, and expelled from the islands.

9. For the better keeping of these Statutes, and in conformity with the rule that the principal man of every clan is answerable for all his kinsmen and dependents, this present agreement to be a sufficient warrant to all chiefs and sub-chiefs to apprehend and try malefactors within their bounds, seize their goods for the King’s use, and deliver over their persons to the judge competent to be farther dealt with.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Professor Tom Devine, in his book Clanship to Crofter’s War, said the Iona Statutes were the King’s attempt to produce a “final solution” to the Highland problem by tackling what were seen as the social roots of disorder”.

The historian highlighted how the chiefs were also bound to appearing personally before the Privy Council in Edinburgh at stated intervals as state scrutiny of their way of life tightened.

Devine wrote: “The statutes were a comprehensive attempt to impose lowland values on Gaeldom, destroy the basis of lawlessness and control the perceived excesses of clanship.”

“There has been considerable historical debate about the actual impact of these initiatives and whatever their effects as a whole, it is plain they did have a powerful influence on clan elites.”

Devine said some believe central government’s priority was to educate the clan leaders of their responsibilities as Scotland’s landed classes - and not to denigrate their status.

Nevertheless, the statutes set out an expectation that chiefs were now “partners with the state” in the maintenance of order and accountable for the conduct of their clansmen.