Clan Matheson

Clan Matheson
Crest badge suitable for wear by a member of Clan Matheson.

Clan Matheson is a Highland Scottish clan.



Origins of the clan

The name Matheson has been attributed to the Gaelic words Mic Mhathghamhuin which means Son of the Bear or Son of the Heroes. Traditionally the Clan Matheson descends from a 12th century man called Gilleoin, who is thought to have been from the ancient royal Cenél Loairn (House of Lorne), part of the Scottish Dál Riata kingdom which was established c. 470 by the sons of Erc of Dalriada who was King of Irish Dal Riata in Antrim. The clan has been undertaking DNA tests of male line Mathesons, and there are Matheson males who show the Dalriada DNA signature. The current chiefly line from Lochalsh, Ross-shire is of R1a Viking descent, while the chieftain line from Shiness, Sutherland is of R1b Celtic descent. Another significant group within the clan are the Isle of Lewis Mathesons which show another R1b Celtic DNA signature.

According to tradition the Clan Matheson were among the followers of the King in his wars with the Picts, whom he finally overthrew at the great Battle of Cambuskenneth near Stirling in 838. The Clan Matheson settled around the area of Loch Alsh, Lochcarron and Kintail and gave their allegiance to the Clan MacDonald and the Lord of the Isles.

Scottish Norwegian War

Kenneth MacMathan, the traditional ancestor of the Mathesons and Mackenzies, is recorded to have followed the Earl of Ross in a vicious attack on Skye in 1262. At the time, the island was part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, ruled by Magnus Olafsson. Magnus was a vassal of Haakon IV of Norway, who claimed overlordship of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. The earl may have been encouraged in his attack by Alexander III of Scotland, who unsuccessfully attempted to purchase the Hebrides from Haakon the year before. In 1263, Haakon IV of Norway led a massive fleet to Scotland, and came into direct conflict with the Scots. Haakon's campaign culminated with the inconclusive Battle of Largs. The same year, Kenneth's name appears recorded in the Chamberlain Rolls.

15th century & Clan Conflicts

At the beginning of the 15th century the Clan Matheson chief was said to be strong enough to defy the powerful Earl of Sutherland the chief of Clan Sutherland and upon the latter descending upon Lochalsh, intent upon punishing so presumptuous a person, he was actually defeated and slain by the Clan Matheson. The scene of the encounter is still pointed out at a spot known from the event as the Battle Crnoc an Cattich. However conflicting accounts state that this battle was actually against the Clan Mackay in 1438 where Alistair MacRuari Matheson is said to have been killed. This again conflicts with accounts which state he was executed in 1427.

The Clan Matheson fought for Donald, Lord of the Isles at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. At that time the Clan Matheson was a large and powerful clan with a force of around 2000 men. Chief Alastair Matheson, leader of 2000 men, was arrested by James I at Inverness. Upon King James I of Scotland's return from his long captivity in England there were many turbulent clan chiefs chiefs of clans who supported the Lord of the Isles in his claim to the Earldom of Ross and his struggle against the power of the Scottish kings. Summoning them to a "Parliament" at Inverness, King James promptly arrested the most dangerous of them, executed some on the spot, and carried others to Edinburgh, where a number more were tried and condemned to the same fate. Chief Alastair MacRuari Matheson was among the latter, and was executed in 1427.

Alastair left a widow with two sons, and his widow presently married again, her second husband being a son of the chief of the Clan MacLeod of Lewis. This individual took advantage of the youth of his stepsons to endeavour to establish himself in possession of their property, and at last, finding themselves probably in actual danger, the young Mathesons fled from Lochalsh. While the younger went to Caithness, John, the elder of the two, went to his mother’s father, the chief of the Clan Mackintosh. He did not, however, give up the hope of recovering his property, and by having arrived at years of manhood, he obtained from his grandfather a force of men from the Clan Mackintosh for his purpose, and set out to surprise the MacLeods. It was night when the party arrived at Lochalsh, and having observed the utmost precautions of secrecy, young Matheson succeeded in his purpose. Making a sudden assault, he set the castle on fire, and as the garrison was forced to come out they were slain or captured by the Mackintoshes. Anxious to save his mother’s life, Matheson took up a position at the gate, and when she appeared, she was, by his orders, safely passed through the lines of the Mackintoshes. In the midst of the tumult, however, and flashings of the torches, it was not perceived that she was walking in an unusual way. She was wearing an arisaid, or wide plaited garment with heavy folds doubled around the hips. Under this she had managed to conceal her husband, and in a few moments the latter was beyond the light of the torches and able to escape in the darkness.

The Matheson chief then took possession of his property, but he was not allowed to enjoy it long in peace. MacLeod, hastening to the Lews, raised a considerable force, with which he returned and deliberately invaded the Matheson country. In the encounter which took place he was finally forced to retreat, and as he fell back upon his birlinns or galleys, his force suffered severely from the flights of arrows poured into it by a company of Matheson bowmen under a certain Ian Ciar MacMurghai Mhic-Thomais. From this incident the battle is remembered as Blar-na-saigheadear. However MacLeod was not yet completely discouraged. Once more he gathered his men on the Lews, and once more came back. But in this second attempt MacLeod was defeated and slain, and the MacLeods troubled the Mathesons no more.

Not all of the Mathesons were known for their warlike pursuits; Dougal mac Ruadhri Matheson established the name in both the organisation of church and state. He was Prior of Beauly from 1498 to 1514, and also sat in parliament when Ross was erected a separate sheriffdom.

16th century

By the 16th century the power of the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles had waned and the Clan Matheson found themselves squeezed between their two neighbouring clans, the Clan MacLeod of Lewis to the west and the Clan Mackenzie on the mainland to their east. The Mathesons gave their allegiance to the Mackenzies. Chief Iain Matheson, son of Chief Iain Dubh, died whilst defending the Castle on Eilean Donan island against the Clan MacDonald of Sleat for the Clan Mackenzie in 1539. Murdoch Buidhe was fighting for Donald Gorm MacDonald outside the castle and when he became clan chief chased the supporters of Iain out of Lochalsh. Murdoch Buidhe's descendants test R1a Viking. The next two paragraphs claim the Murdoch Buidhe was the son of Dougal, son of the Iain who died defending Eilean Donan castle. Other sources claim he was the son of Ruari, son of Alasdair who was beheaded in Edinburgh in 1506. It seems likely that there were two chiefly lines contending for control of the clan from the late 15th century on.

By the middle of the 16th century the Clan Mathesons had greatly diminished in size and influence, and John Matheson’s son Dougal possessed no more than a third of the ancient Matheson property on Lochalsh. Even that property he was in danger of losing by engaging in a dangerous feud on his own account with Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry. This powerful chief had established himself on the shores of Loch Carron at hand, and he presently seized Matheson and threw him into prison, where he died. This incident brought about the final ruin of the Clan Matheson as a powerful clan.

With a view to avenge his father’s death, and recover his lost territory; Dougal's son, Murdoch Buidhe Matheson, relinquished all his remaining property, excepting the farms of Balmacara and Fernaig, to the chief of the Clan Mackenzie of Kintail, in return for the services of an armed force with which to attack the Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry. The lands thus handed over were never recovered from the MacDonnells. Neither Matheson’s generalship or the force given to him by Clan Mackenzie seems to have been enough to the task of forcing terms upon MacDonnells of Glengarry.

Murdoch Matheson's son, Ruari, the next Clan Matheson chief, had more satisfaction, when, as part of the following of the Clan Mackenzie chief, he set out to punish the MacDonnells of Glengarry. On this occasion Glengarry’s stronghold of Sron, or Strome, on Loch Carron, was stormed and destroyed. By this time the Mathesons appear to have been merely the "kindly tenants" of the Clan Mackenzie compared to the more powerful clan they once were. In course of time that kindly tenancy, or occupation on condition of rendering certain services, was changed into a regular rent payment, and Balmacara and the other Matheson properties passed from the hands of the chiefs of that name for ever. The family was afterwards represented by the Mathesons of Bennetsfield.

18th century

The Mathesons of Lochalsh had been baillies to the Earl of Sutherland since the late 15th century, when they had settled on the north side of Loch Shin. During the early Jacobite Uprisings Donald Matheson of Shiness who was chief of the branch of Clan Matheson who resided in Sutherland fought against the Jacobites during the rising of 1715.

Dugald Matheson's son (Ian Og Matheson) had extensive lands in Lochalsh. He left these to Alexander, the eldest of his three sons, who purchased more land in Lochalsh. Ian Og also had a fourth son, who was killed at the Battle of Glenshiel in 1719.

However John, second of Bennetsfield, was, unlike his Lochalsh-Sutherland cousins and a Jacobite who fought at the Battle of Culloden. When the prince’s army was defeated, John escaped and, according to story, fell into the hands of Hanoverian officers who were unaware of his Jacobite sympathies. He gave them some advice on the location of sound building stone, and returned safely to his home as a result.

Highland clearances

During the Highland Clearances many Matheson families suffered great hardship in the Kildonan clearances. It is probably from these Sutherland evictions that Sir James Matheson left Scotland, and eventually founded his commercial empire, the well-known trading house of Jardine Matheson Holdings in the Far East.

19th century

Eilean Donan Castle was bombarded and destroyed in 1719 by the English fleet at the time of the Battle of Glenshiel in 1719. When Sir Alexander Matheson bought the land in 1851 the ruin must have been included. It was later sold by his eldest son Sir Kenneth Matheson, 2nd Baronet, to Major John Macrae-Gilstrap, who restored the castle to its present state.

In 1822, it appears, from a MS. history of the clan quoted by James Logan, author of the letterpress of M’Ian’s "Clans of the Scottish Highlands," the lineal representative of the ancient heads of the clan was a certain Alexander Matheson who lived in Sallachie.

Clan profile

  • Gaelic Name: MacMhathain.
  • Motto: Fac et spera (Do and hope)
  • Badge: Broom.
  • Lands: Lochalsh, Sutherland.
  • Origin of Name: Bear's son.


Bairnson, MacBirnie, MacBurnie, MacMahon, MacMath, MacMathon, MacMhathain, Massey, Matheson, Mathewson, Mathie, Mathieson, Mathison, Mathyson, Matthews, Matthewson, Moannach.[1]


The seat of the Chief of the Clan Matheson was at Fort Matheson which is now a ruin. Later Mathesons, including Sir James Matheson resided in Lews Castle. The current chief Sir Fergus Matheson, 7th Baronet, and his wife Lady Matheson of Matheson now reside in Norfolk, England.

Clan chiefs

Lochalsh branch

Name Dates Comments
Mathghamhain flourished 1225
Kenneth died 1304
Murdoch flourished 14th century
Duncan flourished 14th century
Murdoch flourished 14th century
Duncan flourished 14th century
Murdoch flourished c 1400
Alasdair died 1427 or 1438 either executed by King James I in 1427 or killed at Battle of Cnoc nan Catach by the MacKays in 1438
Iain Dubh the elder died 1490s
Alasdair MacRuaidhri died 1506
Iain Dubh the younger died 1539 Chamberlain of Eilean Donan Castle
Dugald Roy flourished 1540s
Murdoch Buidhe flourished 1530s-1570s
Roderick (1st of Fernaig) died before 1600
Iain (2nd of Fernaig ) flourished 17th century Also known as Iain McRuari Mhic Mhathoin
Iain Og flourished 1660s

Bennetsfield branch

Name Dates Comments
Iain Mor died 1715
Alexander (1st of Bennetsfield) held Chiefship 1715 - 1754
John (2nd of Bennetsfield) 1754–1768 Present at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Colin (3rd of Bennetsfield) 1763–1825
John (4th of Bennetsfield) 1825–1843
James Brook Young (5th of Bennetsfield) 1843–1886
Eric Grant (6th of Bennetsfield) 1886–1899
Heylin Fraser (7th of Bennetsfield) 1899–1945
Bertram Heylin (9th of Bennetsfield) 1945–1975

Lochalsh branch

Name Dates Comments
Sir Torquhil Alexander Matheson, 6th Baronet 1975–1993
Sir Fergus John Matheson, 7th Baronet 1993 - The current chief

See also

External links


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