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Bloodfeud in Scotland

Painting of Jame VI of Scotland and I of Great Britain


Blood had a strong visual impact in ‘a society where symbol and ritual were important means of communication’. In 1593 some poor women from Nithsdale travelled up to Edinburgh with the bloody shirts of their husbands, sons and servants who had been slain in a raid by the Johnstones. Carrying these bloody clothes, they paraded through the burgh exposing the king’s inadequacy in providing protection or justice. The presentation of bloody objects was a common form of both demanding justice and presenting ‘proof’, and in barony courts people who had been assaulted brought blood-stained clothes before the judge. However, the blood was not always genuine. The Aberdeen council wanted justice for some burgesses who had been attacked by the Leslies; they needed bloody shirts to present to the king:

…micht not haiff the bludie sarks to send to you thair for ye men do the best ye can thairin and furnes sarks and put bluid thairon.

…might not have the bloody shirts to send to you there for the men; do the best you can there and furnish shirts and put blood thereon. (Brown 1986:  29)


Bloodfeud was the means of settling disputes not only between Highland clans, but also between Lowland families between 1450 and 1650. The Stewart kings depended on the support of noble families to control violence, but they were not always able to accomplish it.

A link existed between feuding, that is, violence between clans or families, and training in war. Thousands of Scots mercenaries made military careers on the continent. Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV of France) had 1500 Scots in service in 1589; others found employment in the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Spain. During the Thirty Years War, 50,000 Scots fought mostly on behalf of the Netherlands and Sweden. Highlanders from the West Highlands and Islands went as mercenaries called gallòglaich (young foreign warriors) and ceatharnaich (strong, well-built men) to Ireland. 

Most men owned and carried arms. By the end of the 16th century, there were thirty gun craftsmen in Edinburgh and eighteen in Dundee, and more than a few guns were imported from abroad.  When the laird of Johnstone clashed with the lairds of Cessford and Drumlanrig, they exchanged 25 shots. At this time it required one or two minutes to load each pistol.


Land was the greatest source of conflict in this period. James VI observed that most feuds arose from arguments about marches (boundaries), teinds (tithes) and the casting of faill and divot (taking away peats for fuel from common pasturage). In the Highlands conflicts between Gaelic customary law and feudal law caused feuds. One heir to the clan chief claimed the chiefship by Gaelic law, a type of limited election, and another by feudal law in which the eldest son inherited the lion’s share of an estate. 

Lowland Feuds

When Lord Oliphant and Lord Ruthven faced one another in an open field, a number of men were killed and wounded as scores of shots were fired. Campbell of Cawdor was shot dead through a window, and, fortunately, Lord Spynie wasn’t at home when the Ogilvies blew in his windows and gates with a petard (bomb). In 1595 a revolt by the boys of the Edinburgh Grammar School ended when one of the boys shot dead a town baillie who tried to talk with him. There can be no doubt that such universal carrying of weapons gave every confrontation the potential for manslaughter. 

Highland Feuds

A broadsword and targe or shield
A Highland Targe (shield) and broadsword

In the Highlands there was still competition for lands after the forfeiture of the Lords of the Isles. A long-standing inheritance dispute over Strome Castle and lands in Lochalsh, Lochcarron and Lochbroom were at the heart of the feud between the MacDonalds of Glengarry and the MacKenzies of Kintail. In 1582 the latter launched a devastating attack on the MacDonalds and captured a large number of them. About 30 prisoners were put to death by the MacKenzies who:

…band thair handed with thair awin sarkis, and cruellie and unmercifullie, under promise of sauftie of thair lyffes, cassit murther and slay thame with dirkis, appointing that they suld not be bureit as Christian men, bot cassin furth and eitten by doiggis and swyne.

…bound their hands with their own shirts, and cruelly and unmercifully, under promise of safety of their lives, caused murder and slay them with dirks (daggers), deciding that they should not be buried as Christian men, but cast forth and eaten by dogs and swine. (Brown 1986: 7)

This incident was recorded in the Lowlands–you can tell by the English/Inglische. When reading material about the Highlands written by Lowlanders, there is often a great deal of exaggeration to make Highlanders look ‘barbarous and cruel’. No doubt there was a feud between MacKenzies and MacDonalds of Glengarry over land and property, and some were killed. 

Scotsmen of one kindred looked upon another as complete foreigners, another ‘race’. The feud between the MacDonalds and MacLeans was disastrous for both sides.

This warr whilk fell furth at this tyme between those two races of people… was prosecuted to the destruction almost of both their families. (Brown 1986: 16)

This war which fell out at this time between those two races [MacDonalds & MacLeans] of people …was prosecuted to the destruction almost of both their families.

Feuds in Church!

Greyfriars Church Edinburgh
Greyfriars Church build in the 1630s

Feuding over seating arrangements in local churches was a cause of feud in both Scotland and England. The reason was more about status and prestige than the actual seat. One kirk became too small to accommodate the number of lairds who thought they should be accorded pre-eminent status in the congregation. Andrew Wood of Largo and Robert Lundy of Balgownie feuded over a seat in the kirk for over a decade, during which time the laird of Largo destroyed the seat installed by the laird of Balgownie. Both men defied the presbytery and the crown, and disrupted the atmosphere in church to the point where the congregation was often unable to meet for worship. 

In 1576 the minister in Ancum refused to baptise the child of a man who was thought to keep images in his house (i. e. he was a Catholic). After the mother died a short while later, the husband ‘conceived a deadly feud against the minister’. On 4 July 1586 Thomas Burnet went at night to the home of the minister of Birse kirk, next to the church and assaulted his wife. Then on 20 September, her returned with his father and a dozen friends and savagely beat the minister who was studying in the glebe house. He couldn’t give a service in the church for fear of his life. (Brown, 71-2)

Control of Violence

Contemporaries thought Scotland a violent place. The kingdom was unstable during the minorities of the Stewart kings in the 15 & 16th centuries, especially during that of James VI.

There were brawls and duels (called cartels in Scotland), but the fear of incurring a bloodfeud was great. The Scottish nobility made agreements with each other to reduce tensions; that is, they were linked with each other by ties of kinship and alliance called bonds of friendship (between equals) or of manrent (between a superior and a lesser man). In a feuding society, the king or his regent would think twice about harassing a magnate because of the reaction of his kinsmen and friends. And the opposite was true: violence was controlled by the fear that the privy council would intervene. 


Keith Brown, Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573-1625, 1986

Gordon Donaldson, Scotland: James V – James VII, 1971

Jenny Wormald, Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent 1442-1603, 1985


  1. Alex Greer

    The Lowland area most know for feuds was the Borders, the disputed territories between Scotland and England. Authors like George MacDonald Fraser have documented this in books like “Steel Bonnets.”

  2. Sheila Currie

    Hi Alex, So good to hear from you! Yes, I’ve read ‘Steel Bonnets’ and it’s a keeper. Have you read ‘The Reivers’ by Alister Moffat? Also very good. It deals with the skirmishes on the Borders from the 14th to the 16th centuries.

  3. Alex Greer

    Thanks Sharron! Good to hear back from you too. I’ll have to read “The Reivers” , and also Graham Robb’s “The Debatable Land.” Although the border reivers were largely moved out by James VI and I, they were shipped to Northern Ireland. Then many of their descendants (often known as “Scots-Irish”) crossed the Atlantic in the 1700s to the backcountry of the American colonies. David Hackett Fischer wrote “Alboin’s Seed: British Folkways in America.” This book looks at the four main founding British peoples of the USA: the Puritans, the Cavaliers, the Quakers and the Borderers. There is a section on each group and their contribution. Many of the folkways from the Borders were transplanted to the American frontier, and they live on in everything from guns and hunting, moonshine, country and bluegrass music, horse and NASCAR racing, storytelling, and yes clan feuds! It was only about a decade ago that the Hatfields and the McCoys formally ended their feud! (Also watch “The Guid Scots Tongue”, which is part of the “Story of English” series by broadcaster Robert C. MacNeill, which at how the Lowland speech went with these people, and influenced American English. This episode does conclude with looking at the plight of the Highlanders.)

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