The Vanished MacMasters of Kintail

Donald MacInnes of Cumbernauld, March 2003

In the 2001 November issue of the Thistle & Bee I wrote an article about the MacMasters of Ardgour. I have since been asked to explain why the Highland MacMasters are regarded as a family sept of both the MacInneses and Buchanans. In addition a booklet entitled ‘Clann a’Mhaighstir of Ardgour’ by a G.J.M. has recently been published in Paso Robles, California, purporting to be the “definite work on the origin of the MacMaster name and their early years in the Scottish Highlands”

Sadly the author of this account has made the common mistake of confusing the ‘MacInnes’ MacMasters of Ardgour and the ‘MacColman / Murchison’ MacMasters, or Mastersons of Kintail who have distant links to the Buchanans.

Although there are a number of gross inaccuracies in the ‘MacMaster’ booklet, a critique of the author’s work is not the purpose of this article. The aim is to give MacInneses posed with such an enquiry on the family sept question of the MacMasters a better understanding of the Buchanan connection and background.

Let me repeat: the Celtic MacMasters of Ardgour are MacInneses. The MacMasters of Kintail are of Buchanan origin – albeit tenuous. The Kintail MacMasters are MacColmans who take their name from Colman who was a brother to Gilbert the first Buchanan that took his name from the land of Buchanan on Loch Lomondside. If the Buchanan historians are correct there is no discernible kinship between the MacMasters of Ardgour and the MacMasters to the north in Kintail.

The MacMasters of Ardgour are descended from the MacInnes Chiefs of Ardgour. Ardgour is also the old territory of the MacInneses. In the various clan histories the same Ardgour chiefs are sometimes referred to as MacInnes of Ardgour, and again as MacMaster, MacInnes of Ardgour (for examples see Hugh MacDonald of Sleat, Nicolas Maclean-Bristol and other clan historians). In old Ardgour and Morvern the two names of MacInnes and MacMaster appear to be synonymous and interchangeable, as were the early names of MacInnes and MacGillivray in Morvern according to Clan Donald history.

Similarly in the ‘The Clans of The Scottish Highlands’ (1845) James Logan quotes “That there is a very respectable branch of MacGillivrays in the Isle of Mull, designated from the residence of the Cinn-tigh, or head of the house, as of Beinn-na –gall, the mountain of the stranger. They are probably descended from those in Lochaber and Morvern, who were dispersed on the discomfiture of Somerled by Alexander the Second, and seem to be otherwise called MacAonghais or MacInnes.

Despite the dispersal of the ‘MacInnes’ MacMasters of Ardgour by the MacLeans there are still MacMasters today around the old MacInnes clanlands. But the ‘Buchanan’ MacMasters of Kintail ‘seem’ to have vanished without trace. There is no record of a dispersal of the Kintail MacMasters – no battle in which these MacMasters were vanquished – no gory purge. There is no evidence that the name was ‘extirpated’ by force in Kintail. Yet the censuses and other listings are devoid of these MacMasters. .

I consulted James McLennan, an historian on Kintail, and a member of The International Association of Clan MacInnes, if he had come across the MacMasters of Kintail in any of his research for his book ‘The History and Traditions of the MacLennans of Kintail. James told me that the history records are silent but did send me the Reverend Murchison’s notes on the Murchisons.

So what happened to these ‘Buchanan’ MacMasters? Can any MacMaster of today place any credibility on their descent from Colman, the brother of Gilbert, the first and original Buchanan? I doubt it! Let me explain why.

The primary source for Buchanan history is ‘A Historical and Genealogical Essay Upon the Family and Surname of Buchanan’ by William Buchanan of Auchmar in 1723.

Buchanan of Auchmar first establishes the Buchanan pedigree as follows: Anselan Buey, or Fair, was the son of “Okyan” provincial king of the south part of Ulster and was of ‘Milesian stem or lineage.’

Anselan Okyan left Ireland in the year 1016, the 12th year of King Malcolm the Second and landed with some attendants upon the northern coast of Argyllshire, near the Lennox. There he was, “ by a nobleman who had a considerable interest in those parts, and in the king’s favour’s, introduced to the king, who took him into his service against the Danes.”

Anselan Okyan so signalised himself in that service that he obtained, in recompense of his service, several lands in the north part of Scotland. In this way he acquired the lands of Buchanan on Loch Lomondside and his descendants took the name of Buchanan.

The following passage from Auchmar is central to the Buchanan link: “Anselan, the third of that name, and seventh laird of Buchanan, who is ordinarily termed, in any record in which he is mentioned, Anselan son of MacBeath, and Sennescallus, or Chamberlain to the Earl of Lennox, in written mortifications, in the Chartulary of the Abbey of Paisley. This Anselan the third, with Gilbert, and Methlen, his two sons, are inserted witnesses in a charter granted by Malduin, Earl of Lennox to Gilmore, son of Maoldonich, of the lands of Luss, in the beginning of the reign of King Alexander the Second and they are designed in that charter the Earl’s clients, or vassals. This Anselan the Third, beside Gilbert his eldest son, and successor, who first assumed the surname of Buchanan, and Methlen his second son, ancestor of the MacMillans, had a third son called Colman, the ancestor of the MacColmans, as we shall see elsewhere more fully illustrated.”

It is through this Colman, the third son of the third Anselan, and brother of Gilbert, the first Buchanan, that the Buchanans base their link through the MacColmans to the MacMasters of Kintail.

But there is only one reference in the complete essay of Buchanan of Auchmar where MacMaster is mentioned – and it also gives us a clue as to why the name MacMaster disappeared in Kintail. Yet careful reading of the passage is quite revealing about the true circumstances of the name MacMaster in Kintail.

The single reference to the MacMasters occurs in the chapter ‘An Account of the MacColmans’. Here it is verbatim, written in 1723, with certain alterations for the old spellings:

“There is an other sept of these MacColmans in Kintail, in the Earl of Seaforth lands, descended of one Mr. Murdo, (or as the Irish term it) Murcho MacColman, who went from Argyll-shire into that country near two hundred years ago. These are termed in Irish ‘Macabhaisdirs’, or Mastersons, but term themselves in English Murchison, from Murcho their ancestors ancient name. The principle man of these is Murchison of Auchtertyre, in the parish of Locheilg in Kintail. They term themselves Dows, when in the Lowlands, and assert that the Dows upon Forth and other places to be descended upon them, which Dow of Arnhall the principle person of that name in a great measure owned, there being upon that account great intimacy betwixt the late laird of Buchanan, and him; but both their estates being gone to other families, through want of male issue, that correspondence betwixt the two names is ceased.”

Auchmar is saying that the MacMasters of Kintail are a sept of the MacColmans.

It is on this fragile link that some Buchanans – but not all – not The Buchanan Society of Scotland – perhaps the oldest of the Scottish Clan Societies - recognise the MacMasters through the MacColmans - as a sept of Clan Buchanan.

However, the above Auchmar excerpt of 1723 seems to indicate that these ‘MacColman’ or ‘MacCalman’ Mastersons of Kintail became Murchisons or Dows - intriguingly there is an old gravestone hard by Inverlochy Castle near Fort William to merchants in the town in which the parents are named as MacCalman and the children recorded as Dow.

In ‘The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness’, the Reverend T.M. Murchison on his ‘Notes on the Murchisons’ (1955) develops the MacColman and Murchison association at length - without reference to any Masterson connection.

“At the outset, also, one may notice the curious fact – at least many people express great surprise on learning it – that while one would expect the Gaelic equivalent of ‘Murchison’ to be ‘MacMhurchaidh’ (Son of Murdoch) – as indeed it is – the name invariably used, both by themselves and others is ‘MacCalmain.’ This suggests, of course, that the Murchisons are a branch of the MacCalmans, which in fact they are.”

The good Reverend goes on to write “ As already stated, and as we shall more fully consider later, the Murchisons are connected with the MacCalmans, and ‘MacCalmain’ means, of course, the Son of the Dove. The surnames ‘Dove’, ‘Dow’ and ‘Dowe’ are said to be anglicised forms of MacCalman, although some of the Dows may derive their name from the Gaelic ‘dubh’ (black).”

The ‘Notes’ quotes Geikle as saying “In the North West Highlands the Murchisons are called in Gaelic McColman.”

In discussing a manuscript given to him by the Reverend Donald MacKinnon the Reverend Murchison tells us: “The manuscript says that John MacMhurchaidh Mhic Calmain, Priest of Kintail, had, as his eldest son, Murdoch, who studied for the church and succeed his father as Priest of Kintail, and Castellan of Eilean Donan Castle, in which trust he presided till his death in the year 1618. Murdoch, we are told, commonly went by the name of ‘Maighistir Mor - the Big Master.” However his two sons, Donald and Evander, were known by the usual surname of Murchison.

So in Auchmar and the Reverend Murchison we appear to have found the answer to our mystery in Kintail.

The ‘Buchanan’ MacMasters or Mastersons of Kintail did not vanish – only the MacMaster name – which changed to became MacColman, Murchison, Dove, Dow, or some other derivative of these names.