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Clan Ross
The Earls of Ross

This article was kindly donated by Doug Ross

"Scotland was not a single unit; the old pieces that made up Pictland still had a life of their own, Atholl and Gowrie, Fife and Fortriu (or Fothrif which may have been Kinrosshire), Angus and Mearns, Mar and Buchan, and most distinctive of all, Moray and Ross."
Rosalind Mitchison, A HISTORY OF SCOTLAND. Methuen, London, 1970. p.13


Among the summaries of Clan Ross history, there are many inconsistencies in its origins. As with many origin myths, one source is quoted by the next until even the most recent texts begin to quote each other's inaccuracies. Most, however, do not repeat a couple of particular errors found in some Clan Ross histories. Very few claim that Fearchar Mac an t'Sagairt (Farquhar MacTaggart), "son of the priest" was a direct descendant of Anrias (Andrew), who was supposedly descended from Gilleon na h'Airde.

While it is true that Fearchar was made a Norman knight in 1215 "on the seventeenth day before the Kalends of July" for the reasons outlined, it would be false to claim that he was the first Earl of Ross (as many have many have done). He was, in fact, of the O'Beolan line in Western Scotland, and earned his right to the lapsed title of Earl in 1234 through his mother (in the old Pictish tradition).

But who was the first Earl of Ross ... so neglected by the historians of our clan except as a "shadowy predecessor"?


1. William, the third Earl of Ross of the O'Beolan line, and the Earl of Sutherland, his former ward, were the only two earls present at the first Parliament held by Robert the Bruce in 1309. This ward was closer to the origins of the O'Beolan Earls of Ross than are the later writers of Clan Ross history, and he stated, "... the laird of Balnagown's surname should not be Ross, seeing that there was never any Earl of Ross of that surname." "Besides, all the Rosses in that province are unto this day called in the Gaelic language Clan Leandries (known today as Clann Aindreas), which, by their own tradition is sprung from another stock."

2. The Earls of Ross after the O'Beolans were the Leslies, Sir John Stewart, title annexed by James I from 1424 until 1427, the MacDonalds, title annexed by the crown in 1476 until Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, was created Earl of Ross in 1565 by Elizabeth I of England.



The first Earl of Ross did not have the powerful Public Relations afforded to the O'Beolan Earls.

On page 43 of an article about "Clan Ross" in the March 1970 issue of SCOTLAND'S MAGAZINE one reads:

"The first recorded chief appeared about the time of Malcolm the Fourth's reign and evidence of his power and influence in the land is amply reflected by the fact that he was one of the 'seven Maister Men' of Scotland. By the time of completion of the REGISTER OF DUNFERMLINE, the ruling Earl of Ross was known as Malcolm, allegedly a spokesman of substance."

On page 155 of THE SCOTTISH HISTORICAL REVIEW, Vol. 17/18, you may read that "Malcolm is referred to as 'the son of Macbeth'" in J. Stevenson's translation of the CHRONICLE OF MELROSE beneath the date 1134.

The same first Earl of Ross, i.e. Malcolm Macbeth (with interesting variations on the spelling in some sources), is named also in Bouterwek's edition of the extended CHRONICLE OF HOLYROOD, the FRASER CHRONICLES and on page 155 of THE SCOTTISH HISTORICAL REVIEW, Vol. XVII & XVIII, 1920-1921.

The Earldom of Moray was forfeited after the rebellion of 1153-1154, and Malcolm and his son Donald were imprisoned in Roxburgh dungeon until other troublesome Morays were relocated to Southern Scotland. In the abbreviated edition of the CHRONICLE OF HOLYROOD under the date 1157 one finds "Malcolm Machet (sic) cum rege Scottorum pacificus est" or (translated) Malcolm Macbeth is at peace with the King of Scotland. This coincided with the creation of Malcolm as Earl of [the separated land of] Ross in 1160. In Bouterwek's edition of the same extended chronicle, we are informed that Malcolm Macbeth died as Earl of Ross in 1168.

Come to think of it, Somerled, self-styled Lord of the Isles, did not live long after making peace with the same king, Malcolm IV ( who reigned 1153 - 1165). Somerled was killed in 1164, four years after making peace in 1160. Kings survived by killing off rivals or setting clan chiefs against each other.

It is not surprising that the king spared Malcom as long as he was useful. He could keep another half-dozen rebellious Maister Men in check. The seven Maister Men served at the ceremony when the king sat on the Stone of Scone to be validated as king.



l. I have come across a couple of dozen different spellings of the name Macbeth, some of which interpret "Mac" as "the son of". The problem arises from the letters "b" and "h" which have an identical appearance in the old records. In fact, since both are aspirate, the name "Macbeth" might have sounded more like "Mackay".

Even one of my favourite authors, John Prebble, illustrated the problems with source materials on page 52 of my hardcover edition of his LION IN THE NORTH, where he states, "Malcolm IV, the last Scottish king with a Celtic name, had scarcely taken his grandfather's seat when the Gaels rose under the pretender Donald MacHeth, one of Lulach's ubiquitous descendants. His father-in-law Somerled, Under-King of Argyll and Lord of the Hebrides, raided Clydeside as far as Glasgow before Walter FitzAllan drove him back to his ships. The revolt in Moray lasted longer, and it was three years before MacHeth and his father were locked in Roxborough dungeon."

2. A few counties such as Sutherland, Ross and Fyfe are true Counties in the sense that the territories were once held by Counts (Comes) or Earls. For the COUNTY of Ross, we may thank Malcolm Macbeth, the first Earl of Ross. Other territories were shires (Thaneages or Sheriffdoms, i.e. governed by Thanes or Sheriffs). Ross also became the first erected clan (in 1160) from the paired districts once ruled by Mormaers and Righs.


I located a further reference pertaining to the earliest Earls of Ross in CLANS, SEPTS AND REGIMENTS OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS by Frank Adam, 1970. "During the Royal campaign in Galloway, material aid was rendered to the king by Farquhar Macintagart (sic), SECOND Earl of Ross. In recognition of the Earl's services he received a grant of land in Galloway ...." Fearchar/Farquhar seemed more than willing to toss out the ancient clan system in favour of a feudal system, for which his price was a Norman Knighthood, the first in the Highlands. His knighthood was also a reward for cutting off the heads of the king's enemies during the Galloway uprising and presenting them as new gifts to the new king.

Fearchar's feudal attitudes would eventually erode the relationship between the ordinary clansperson and the chiefs, who became increasingly arrogant and indifferent. Descended from the fourth Earl of Ross in the O'Beolan line (i.e. the fifth Earl of Ross), the Balnagowan chiefs were more inclined to be chiefs of the

land rather than of the clan. They gradually frittered away clan wealth when, as absentee landlords, they appointed Factors. During the clearances, these Factors were empowered to get rid of cotters in favour of sheep or to create larger tracts of land for "improved" farms by evicting cotters from their smaller run-rig fields (after they had been cleared of trees and large stones).


1. There are only two ways in which the O'Beolan Earls of Ross may be referenced, and the examples for Fearchar and Hugh are sufficient. Highly respected historians of Clan Ross and very reputable Clan Ross Associations have both committed the aforementioned errors.

2. The earliest Earls of Ross lived during exciting times for the most part, as did the earliest clan chiefs. Given the facts of this outline, you should be able to judge the quality of any material pertaining to the Ross Clan, as presented by historians and Clan Ross Associations.


"The Earl of Ross's March" and another, different piece, "Salute to the Earl of Ross", were allegedly written by Donald Mor MacCrimmon around 1600. That was after Lord Darnley (2nd husband of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1565) had expired with the title in 1567. No matter ... none of the holders of that title was surnamed "Ross", not even the first five O'Beolan Earls nor the Leslies nor the Stewart nor the MacDonalds nor Darnley.

Perhaps the only holder of the title to come the closest was Malcolm Macbeth, the first Earl of Ross. At least he was born within the once "paired district" of Moray and Ross. There is also a traditional tale that his ancestor, Macbeth son of Findlaec, was born around the turn of the eleventh century on the banks of the Peffery River in Dingwall.

In the Ancient Teutonic language, from which many northern languages sprang and developed, you will discover that "Ross" meant "noble stead". Just look at the shape of Easter Ross with Loch Eye exactly where it should be! (Yes, we know the meaning given in clan histories). The name of "Ross" existed before the Earls. Even the earliest sea-faring Picts would know the shape of the coastline. So would the Mormaers ("Stewards of the Sea") of Moray as well as the Norse Vikings who created "resorts" beyond their stronghold in Caithness. It would be quite common, subsequent to the reign of King Macbeth but slightly before the era of Malcolm Macbeth, for the people of Ross to name themselves after the name of the land.



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