The MacNeishes

Donald MacInnes of Cumbernauld, March 2003

A stroll across the old Killin bridge at the Falls of Dochart takes one above the small wooded burial island of Inch Buie - the ancestral resting place of Clan MacNab. The island nestles in the swirling waters of the River Dochart. The old gravestones invariably depict a severed human head – this decapitated head represents the head of the last Chief of the MacNeishes of Loch Earn.

MacNaois is Gaelic for MacNeish, which in itself is a derivative of MacAonghais and MacAonghusa. Both of course, mean the ‘Son of Angus.’ There are numerous variant spellings of the name Neish and MacNeish: MacNish, MacNeece, MacNeice, etc. The Gaelic for the Antrim name Neeson is also MacAonghais and MacAonghusa.

The MacNeishes are associated with Glen Dochart and Loch Earn – the loch of the Irishman – in old Breadalbane. The seat of the Chiefs of the MacNeishes was Loch Earn Castle a stronghold located on a crannog – a man-made island – at St Fillans on Loch Earn. The MacNeishes occupied this island fortress from the thirteenth century until well into the seventeenth century. The MacNeishes were continually at war with their neighbours the MacNabs. This warring was said to lead to the virtual extinction of the MacNeishes. The Stewarts of Ardvorlich on Loch Earnside subsequently garrisoned Loch Earn Castle, now a ruin, on the downfall of the MacNeishes.

The underwater causeway to the ‘Neish’ Island can still be detected.

One of the most important stories connected with the MacNeishes is the massacre conducted by the MacNabs on the MacNeishes. There are a number of versions of the massacre; and near extinction of the MacNeishes of Loch Earn in the seventeenth century – the stories vary in content but the theme is consistent. Here is one traditional account.

The MacNeishes of Loch Earn appear to have been predatory raiders like their MacInnes kin in not so distant Glencoe. At a council meeting held at Linlithgow during the year 1490 King James the Fourth issued an edit to Lord Drummond in the following terms:

“Whin is dias fra this dai furth to get cast doon ye hoos of ye Easter Isle of Loch Earn and distroy all ye strengthis of ye samen and tak away ye bate and put her to ye Wester Isle.”

This instruction to pull down the MacNeish castle and transfer their boat – the only boat on the loch - to the west end of Loch Earn gave only temporary respite to raiding and pillaging by the MacNeishes.

In the year 1522 we learn that a vicious battle was fought in Glen Boltachan between the MacNeishes and the MacNabs. The Chief of the MacNeishes and three of his sons were killed. A red lichen covered stone is said to mark the spot where the Chief of the MacNeishes died. A core of MacNeishes reached the safety of their island stronghold. It is interesting to note that the MacNeishes were said to carry a banner emblazoned with a bow and arrow.

Nearly one hundred years later in 1612 an event was to take place, which led to the virtual elimination of the clan. A number of Clan MacNab were returning from Crieff with garron ponies laden with victuals for Christmas. The MacNeishes waylaid the travellers and stole the merchandise.

The MacNab Chief was furious and is said to have quoted to his twelve sons “Tonight is the night – if the lads were the lads!” Iain Min – Smooth John – the eldest son of the chief - took up the challenge and called his brothers and the rest of the clan to arms.

The MacNab boat was on Loch Tay. A gruelling distance of rough terrain separates the two lochs of Tay and Earn. The MacNabs rose to the challenge and manhandled their boat up the side of a mountain and down Glen Tarken on to the shores of Loch Earn to row across the loch to the MacNeish fortress.

A prophecy had warned the MacNeishes that when there were two boats on Loch Earn the clan would be vanquished. The prediction was about to be come true when the MacNab boat was launched onto the waters of Loch Earn.

Silently the MacNabs approached the island fortress of the MacNeishes and took the MacNeishes by surprise who were said to be lying in a drunken stupor from some of the drink stolen from the MacNabs earlier.

The tale tells us that all the MacNeishes on the island were slaughtered – with the exception of a boy and girl who hid under a table. Iain Min cut off the head of the MacNeish chief and instructed his brothers to follow suit. This they did. The MacNabs carried the decapitated heads home to the castle of Eilean Ran at Killin on Loch Tayside. As the MacNabs retraced their steps homewards the MacNab boat was abandoned in Glen Tarken. The remains of which were claimed to be visible until well into the twentieth century.

We are told that the elderly chief of the MacNabs awaited the return of his sons in great trepidation. But was relieved when his returning sons called out “Dread nought!” This expression became the war cry of Clan MacNab and the trophy severed head of the Chief of Clan MacNeish the clan crest. Hence the MacNeish heads among the tombstones of Inch Buie.

There are stories that the two surviving MacNeish children made good their lives. The girl, who was said, to have been the daughter of the murdered chief married into a Stirlingshire family at Torwood a few miles from Cumbernauld and the boy became the progenitor of the MacNeishes and MacNishes of today. The latter can hardly be true when one surveys the numerous MacNeishes and MacNishes and their variants in Scotland today.

The tartan clan books often list the MacNeishes as a sept of Clan Gregor. Is this a throwback to the time when the name MacGregor was proscribed by law and the MacGregors adopted alternative surnames. Rob Roy MacGregor used his mother’s name Campbell and many members of Clan Gregor used the name MacInnes during the period of proscription. What is beyond dispute is that MacNeish - and its variants - are MacInnes names !