West Highland Notes & Queries: Clan Ewen of Otter

In a recent article for this journal [‘1467 MS: The MacEwens,’ West Highland Notes & Queries, Ronald Black, 2014] Ronald Black has shed important new light on the medieval genealogy of Clan Ewen of Otter as recorded in the 1467 MS.(1) Black’s article meticulously explains how he came to decide on each element of his transcription so we can follow his thinking at each stage of the process. It is unlikely that anyone has paid the genealogy such close and careful attention before, and his is without doubt the most authoritative transcription to date. The transcription and translation (including line numbers) arrived at by Black are as follows:

[8] genelach mhic eoghain na hoitreach annso
[9] baltar mac e[a]in mhic eogain mhic gillae[p]spaig
[10] mhic eagan mhic donnchaidh mhic sa barain donn
[11] sleibe mhic aoda alainn re[na]ba[r]tha
[12] an buir[r]c[e] [mhic] anradan mhic flaith[ber]tac


[8] The genealogy of MacEwen of Otter here
[9] Walter son of John son of Eoghan son of Archibald
[10] son of Eoghan son of Duncan of this son of Baron Donn
[11] sléibhe son of handsome Aodh who is called
[12] the Buirrce son of Anradhán son of Flaithbheartach

One interesting point which arises from this genealogy is the unique association of this clan with a territorial designation. Whereas other clans may be referred to simply as ‘Clann Cailin’, ‘Clann Mhaoil Anfaigh’ or as ‘Mhic a’ Ghille Mhaoil’, here the MacEwens are allotted a particular geographical location in the barony of Otter (na hoitreach). The customary explanation is that the genealogist or a later copyist took a special interest in the ownership of the barony of Otter, which was inherited by Celestine Campbell at a date after 1432. It has been suggested that the 1467 MS represents a handlist of clans loyal to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles in their struggle against Clan Campbell, and that the MacDonalds would have supported the restoration of Clan Ewen’s claim to the barony. There are difficulties with this explanation, which appears to be based on the somewhat unlikely supposition that, had they ever conquered Cowal, the MacDonalds would have preferred to set right the supposed wrongs of history rather than use the spoils to reward their own leading supporters. It also assumes there was hostility between MacEwens and Campbells, whereas such evidence as there is suggests that the opposite was more likely the case. Many of the clans listed in the 1467 MS have a history as allies rather than enemies of the Campbells, and indeed the Campbells themselves appear particularly prominently among the recorded genealogies.

Significantly, there was no controversy over the ownership of this barony at the time the genealogy was originally composed in around the year 1400, so, if the reference to Otter was included because the right of ownership was contested, it must have been added by a later copyist. If some later scribe had indeed taken such an interest in the MacEwens’ right to this minor barony, one might have expected him to trace the claim through descendants of the barons to his own day so that the current heir could be identified, yet in contrast to the genealogies of several other clans, there is no evidence that the MacEwen genealogy was ever updated after its initial composition, and the last-named chief, Walter, probably died before 1410 when his son Ewen was witness to a charter. This suggests that the words na hoitreach (‘of Otter’) were included in the original text before there was any dispute over title to the barony. Thus, the suggestion that the inclusion of a territorial designation is related to the ambitions of the MacDonalds is not only politically unrealistic, but may require us to abandon the few historical facts which are known.

A more probable explanation for the presence of a territorial designation here is that it was important to distinguish these MacEwens from another clan of the same or similar name who lived elsewhere. Other similarly named clans in existence before 1400 include the McEwens of Galloway who are said to have opposed Black Archibald Douglas at Lochnaw in 1390, and although their correct Gaelic name may have been Mac Eoin rather than Mac Eoghain, the similarity of these two names led to frequent confusion even among Gaels. The various branches of Clan Macpherson have also historically been designated as MacEwen so, for instance, Nisbet writes of ‘the family of Clunie, which was then and since known by the name of McEwen’ and this statement is confirmed by the Ardross and Kinrara manuscripts and the Invereshie Book of Genealogy. There is also a well-attested MacEwen sept in Clan Dougall and, although there is evidence that at least some of these MacEwens of Clan Dougall descend from a later Ewen Mor MacDougall of Balinreoch, many have traditionally traced their descent from the thirteenth-century Ewen Mor MacDougall, King of the Isles.(2)

A second curious aspect of the genealogy is the apparent presence of an unnamed generation in the phrase ‘Donnchaidh mhic sa barain Donnsleibe’ (‘Duncan of this son of Baron Donnsléibhe’). Quite why the genealogy should leave this generation unnamed is somewhat mysterious. It may be that the text from which the genealogy was copied was more explicit, or that its original context somehow revealed the identity of this ‘son of Baron Donnsléibhe.’ According to other genealogies, this Donnsléibhe (or Dunsleve) had three sons, Fearchar, Suibhne and Gillacrist, so it is presumably from one of these three that Clan Ewen of Otter was descended, and it is worth examining the three possible candidates in turn. Evidence from the MacLachlan genealogy suggests that one of the sources for the 1467 MS was especially interested in the MacLachlan line, which was descended from Donnsléibhe through Gillacrist, which suggests the possibility that the Ewen of Otter genealogy was once placed in a context where ‘this son of Donnsléibhe’ clearly referred to Gillacrist. In fact however, the 1467 MS omits to mention Donnsléibhe in the MacLachlan genealogy, skipping from Gillacrist straight back to ‘handsome Aodh who is called the Buirrce’. Both Sellar and Moncrieffe agree that this Gillacrist had three sons named Gilleasbaig, Gillapatrick and Ewen, and although some early writers assumed that Ewen mac Gillacrist was the progenitor of Clan Ewen of Otter, this clearly contradicts the genealogy of 1467 MS according to which the earliest Ewen is the son of Duncan.(3)

The descendants of Donnsléibhe’s son Suibhne gave rise to Clan MacSween. We know that after his dispossession, Eoin mac Suibhne (fl.c.1310) led an expedition to regain the clan lands in Scotland, and it is tempting to imagine that, whilst he failed to recapture Knapdale and Castle Sween on the western shore of Loch Fyne, he might have settled in Cowal on the eastern shore where his descendants held the Barony of Otter as Clan Ewen. But such fanciful speculation quickly comes unstuck as, although the name Eoin does appear in the genealogy, it is impossible to reconcile this with either the known dates of Eoin mac Suibhne or with his recorded genealogy.

That leaves Fearchar, who is known as the progenitor of Clan Lamont through his son Malcolm and grandson Lauman. Fearchar is known to have had other descendants besides the Lamonts. The 1467 MS identifies his son Sorley as the ancestor of the MacSorley’s of Monydrain and, more significantly in this context, Lauman appears alongside his uncle ‘Duncan son of Fercher’ in a charter of about 1235 in the Register of the Monastery of Paisley. Although we cannot be completely certain that Donnsléibhe had no other grandsons named Duncan, the fact that we know of this Duncan Mac Fearchar allows us to pencil the name Fearchar with some confidence into the remaining gap in the genealogy.

A further area of interest surrounding Clan Ewen of Otter, is the loss of their barony in 1432. This episode perhaps raises questions which may always remain unanswerable, but I would welcome the thoughts of readers who might be able to help solve the riddle. When in 1432, Swene MacEwen of Otter surrendered his barony to King James I, the king confirmed Swene in possession of his lands but added an important clause regarding the inheritance of the barony after Swene’s death. Having not yet had the opportunity to see the original documents for myself, I quote from the account of Niall Campbell, 10th Duke of Argyll:

“On 20th March 1432, King James I., by a charter under his Great Seal, dated at Perth, confirmed to ‘Sufnnus Eugenii,’ that is, Swene McEwen, all and whole his Barony of ‘Ottir-in-werane,’ lying in Cowale shire of Argyll, which had been resigned by Sween into the King’s hands. Failing heirs male to Suibhne, the Barony was to pass to Celestine Cambel, son and heir of Duncan Cambel of Lochaw and his heirs whomsoever (original at Inveraray).”(4)

On the one hand, this gesture by King James I appears to reward the Campbells for their loyalty. What’s less obvious is why Swene was disinherited in this way. Perhaps Swene or his father Ewen had leant support for the rebellions of James Mor Stewart of Albany (James the Fat) in 1425 and 1429. If so, the case against Swene cannot have been clear-cut, or he would surely have been attainted and dispossessed with immediate effect.

For the next scene in the drama, I turn once more to the account of Niall Campbell:
“On 7th June 1432 a most interesting agreement was entered into at the Ottir by this Gillaspy (alias Celestine) Cambel, son and heir to Duncan Cambel, lorde of Lochawe, on the one part and Suffne McEwyn ‘larde of ottir in weran’ on the other part, which is written in the Scots vernacular. From its terms it appears that the Lord of Ottir was married, but had not yet been blessed with an heir, for he pledges himself ‘that quhat tyme that God wil that the said Suffne gets ane ayr mail lachfully with his lachful spusit wyfe that he oblyssis him . . . to pay to the said gillaspy cambel his ayris . . . on a day betuix the sonis rysyng and the gangyng to or otherwas at the said gillaspy cambelis wil thre score of marks . . . and fyve and twenty sufficeand marts and that to be paid owthir at the ottirweran, or at Inche chonil or at Innerayra’ or else to give him the two Larragis and the lands of Killala in the Barony of Ottir in tack for yearly payment of half a mark mail at Whitsunday and Martinmass if asked for. And if Suffnes male heir died before he begot another that the agreement would remain valid and Suffne should give [G]illaspy the first offer of the land if leased in wadset. To this deed both parties ‘has gyfyn thar bodely athis the haly ewangelis thuichid,’ etc. The Lord of the Ottir’s seal is lost, but the deed which is at Inveraray is in a fine state of preservation.”

This goes somewhat further than the original agreement made in Perth, which has led some to suspect that there is more to this deal than meets the eye. In recent times, people have embellished the narrative with tales of gambling debts, or of a MacEwen massacre. There is no reason to imagine that these speculations have any basis in truth, and the situation has not been helped by a readiness to glorify modern conjecture with the name of legend.

One aspect of the genuine historical evidence however has seemingly been largely overlooked—the loss of the barony in 1432 was more-or-less immediately preceded by a charter of 1431, whereby Swene granted lands at Strone and Barlagan to his affiniti (‘relatives by marriage’). This charter is preserved in the archive at Inveraray alongside the two charters of 1432 by which Swene went on to resign the Barony of Otter. Swene’s affiniti are named as Duncan son of Alexander, and Duncan’s own son Duncan; it is witnessed by John son of William son of Ewen, who is probably Swene’s nephew.

Swene’s reference to his affiniti in his charter of 1431 may be an indication that he was then recently married, and that the charter forms part of his marriage settlement. If so, it is interesting that Swene’s resignation of his barony in 1432 appears to come immediately after his marriage. In the article cited above, Niall Campbell expressed the opinion that the document of June 1432 implied that Swene was already married, which would tend to confirm this interpretation, and suggest that Swene’s affiniti, Duncan and his son Duncan, are likely to be the father and brother of his wife. Niall Campbell suggests they were probably Campbells, which would explain the presence of this charter in the charter chest at Inveraray.

It thus seems likely that Swene had allied himself closely in marriage with the Campbells of Lochaw. Is it possible that the elder Duncan (‘son of Alexander’) in Swene’s charter of 1431 is in fact Duncan Skeodan Campbell (c.1346-c.1435), whose father Gillespic Mor is, according to some (possibly unreliable) online sources, recorded under the names Archibald and Alexander? If so, Swene may have contracted a political marriage with a daughter of Duncan Skeodan Campbell or some other Duncan Campbell mac Alasdair, at a time when she was already beyond childbearing age. This marriage could then have been unscrupulously used to open the door for her Campbell relatives to inherit in place of the MacEwens, which would explain the peculiar fixation of the agreement of June 1432 on “ane ayr mail lachfully [gotten] with his lachful spusit wyfe”.

The Campbells of Lochaw had shown their capacity to acquire their neighbours’ lands in somewhat similar circumstances sixty years earlier when, in 1361, Christina, heiress of Craignish, had resigned all her lands and barony to Colin Campbell of Lochaw. The later manuscript history of the MacDougall Campbells of Craignish complains that this deal was “done to Defraud her uncle and his succession being the reighteous heir male” and as with the agreement over Otter, the estates were to pass to the Campbells of Lochaw “failzieing [i.e. failing] of heirs male in a direct line, by which it seems collateralls were passed by.”

I would be very grateful to hear from readers who may be able to assess the merits of this suggestion with regard to the acquisition of the barony of Otter by the Campbells of Lochaw.

John Thor Ewing

1. WHNQ, Ser. 3, no. 24, Jan 2014, pp. 15–22.
2. for more on the various MacEwen clans, see my edition of R. S. T. MacEwen’s Clan Ewen: Some records of its history (Welkin Books, 2016) especially ‘Introduction’ p.vii, and notes to p.15, 28 and 31.
3. see W. D. H. Sellar, ‘Family origins in Cowal and Knapdale’, Scottish Studies 15 (1971) 21–31, and ‘Scrymgeour’ in Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk, The Highland Clans, (Revised Edition, 1982), London, 215-7).
4. Niall D. Campbell, ‘MacEwens and MacSweens’, Celtic Review Vol.VII no.xxvii (1905).