Sutherland Branch of Clan Matheson

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One of the oldest branches of the clan to become separated by time and geography from the main line resided in Sutherlandshire. The "History of the Mathesons" contains a rather far fetched but entertaining tale of how the Mathesons came to be domiciled in Sutherland.

In the 13th century a Matheson Chief by the name of Kenneth bestowed upon his son in law, Colin Fitsgerald, some land on the condition that his eldest son be named Kenneth. Colin accepted the gift but named his eldest son Colin despite the covenant. A subsequent son was named Kenneth which added further insult. A group within the Matheson clan abducted the younger Colin Fitsgerald when he was a teen and executed him. Supposedly this caused the Matheson Chief great displeasure and the criminals were banished from Localsh. The rebels eventually settled in Shiness in Sutherland. At that time Sutherland was newly acquired from the Norse and underpopulated. It was a safe haven for broken men cast out by their clan.

A more credible theory has been proposed by Rev. William Matheson who has unearthed an Alexander MacMan, a cleric who flourished in the 14th century. MacMan, an archdeacon in Ross, was appointed Bishop of Caithness in 1381. The See included both Caithness and Sutherland with the principal seat in Dornoch, Sutherlandshire. It is suggested that he may have been responsible for settling various of his kinsmen throughout Sutherland and Caithness. The Bishop had control over large amounts of land reserved for the church. As Bishops were often unpopular with certain elements of the population, it would have been prudent to have one's kinsmen placed throughout the area for protection. Patronage ran rampant in both the church and state. This practice continued into the 16th century when we find that the Matheson Chancellor of Caithness granted lands to his brother in law John Gray in Golspie.

Life in Sutherland was seldom peaceful. The MacKays held the northern portions of the area since the 11th century when they were banished from Moray. The Sutherlands and Murrays were placed in the southeast to enforce the King's rule. The two factions feuded incessantly for over five centuries. In the midst of this upheaval were smaller clans who had relocated to the area. One such family was the Mathesons.

A famous battle called Drum Na Coup was fought near Tongue around 1430. One Ivor MacMhathain of Shiness chose not to become involved in matters that didn't concern him. However his wife, no doubt a Murray or Sutherland, accused him of cowardice and forced him to go to battle. Ivor arrived at Drum Na Coup after the battle was over. The only one on the field was Angus, Chief of MacKay, was surveying the dead. Ivor killed him with an arrow and fled.

The MacKays were outraged and pursued Matheson for several months. He was apprehended and beheaded at a place called Cnocan an Ceann, Hillock of the Heads. The incident also caused the MacKays to proceed to Lochalsh to lay waste to any of the name Matheson. The MacKays were met on the heights of Lochalsh and turned back after a bloody battle.

In the 16th century the Mathesons were well established in Sutherland and had aided the MacKenzies in becoming settled in various areas of the county. Traditionally the Mathesons and MacKenzies tended to lean towards the MacKays much to the distress of the Earls of Sutherland. In 1616, the Gordon Earls of Sutherland requested that the Mathesons appoint a chief to be accountable for their behaviour. The Mathesons were thus separated from the rebellious MacKenzies and remained forever loyal to the Earls.

The main line in Sutherland followed the Shiness Mathesons. The leaders of this particular family figured prominently in military service under both the MacKays and Sutherlands in government service. The last resident chieftain was Captain Donald Matheson of Shiness who was peacefully evicted from some of his holdings in the Parish of Lairg in 1818.

Captain Donald's son James was educated at the University of Edinburgh, (his maternal grandfather being a very influential minister), and afterwards founded the very successful trading house of Jardine, Matheson and Company. The founders of this company made a considerable fortune trading between India, China and the UK. The company played an important part in the settlement of Hong Kong. James returned home in 1842 and embarked on a career in the British Parliament. He purchased the Island of Lewis and spent considerable sums on its improvement and the alleviation of famine. He also owned an estate at Achany near Lairg.

Prior to 1800 the Mathesons were found to be living primarily in the Parishes of Dornoch, Rogart and Lairg with a few families in the Parishes of Loth, Clyne, Kildonan, Golspie, Assynt and Eddracalles. In the late 1700's the Countess of Sutherland married Lord Stafford of England and together they became the largest landowners in Europe. They entrusted the Sutherland Estate, which included most of the county, to agents. These agents embarked on an aggressive scheme to convert the crofting townships into large sheep farms. In order to do this it was necessary to remove the inhabitants who had occupied these homesteads for generations. Many of the people were forcibly removed while others resigned to the inevitable and went quietly to docks to emigrate overseas. A number of Matheson families who settled in Northern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton left Scotland under these circumstances.

Not all Mathesons left Sutherlandshire under force. In the 1770's a famine caused some of the more adventurous to risk passage to North America to improve their fortunes. Around 1802- 03 a number of soldiers returned to Sutherland only to be underemployed and adding to near state of famine. Several families embarked to Nova Scotia during that period.

Although Mathesons came to Nova Scotia from other parts of Scotland, the Sutherlandshire contingent was certainly the largest.

Taken from: The Matheson Clan in Eastern Canada: Selected Notes on the Clan's History and Migration to the Maritime Provinces.
by Glen M. Matheson.

Copyright (C) 1995: Glen M. Matheson

Included here with the kind permission of Glen M. Matheson
To Contact Glen Matheson

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