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A brief look at our Clan’s history

By Peter McGillivray


It is important to remember that the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders had their origins in the ancient Irish kingdom of Dalriada. In the third and fourth centuries they came in waves to settle on the western shores of Scotland, naming their new settlement also Dalriada.


History records that the MacGillivrays came with these earliest Dalriadic invasions, setting themselves up in the regions of Morven, Lochaber and Ardgour in considerable strength.


In 1153, the Clan took part in the ill-fated rebellion against the Scottish crown, under Somerled, the progenitor of the McDonalds. The rebellion was put down by Alexander II, and the Clans participating were scattered far and wide. Many MacGillivrays settled in Mull, Skye, and the Western Isles, but a large proportion of the Clan threw in their lot with the Campbells of Cawdor, an Alliance that did not endure. Later they took the protection of Farquard, fifth Chief of Clan MacIntosh, an alliance under which they prospered, and which has endured to today.


The Clan took a prominent part in the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, and at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Clan Chattan Regiment, the only regiment to break through the English lines, was led into battle by the Chief, Alexander MacGillivray. The Regiment’s onslaught almost wiped out the left wing of the Hanoverian army, but Alexander was killed in battle along with many of his clansmen. The Highlanders paid dearly for their defeat.


Several years were to pass before the MacGillivrays regained possession of their forfeited lands, but lot by lot, the lands had to be sold to pay off debts. Several clansmen migrated to Canada and the United States of America. Among the more colourful of these exiles was Lachlan MacGillivray of Georgia, whose son, Alexander, became High Chief of the Creek Indians in Alabama and William MacGillivray of Dalscoilt, who became superintendent of the North West Trading Company of Montreal, after whom Fort William in Ontario was named.


The main inflow of our Clansmen to Australia took place in the mid 1800’s, following the Highland Clearance, and the great famine of 1840.


The last Chief, John Farquhar, died without issue in 1942, and since then the Clan has been Chief-less. In 1989, Colonel George B. Macgillivray of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, the joint author of `A History of The Clan MacGillivray’, was appointed Commander of the Honourable Clan MacGillivray by Lord Lyon and served in this role until his death in 1994.

(Since this article was written, a new Clan Commander, Iain Donald MacGillivray, has been appointed.)


It must be emphasised that our Society upholds only those aspects of the ancient clan system which are relevant today. We are not in the business of perpetuating old inter-clan feuds, or to see only (in the words of the Cultoquhey Litany) “greed in the Campbells, ire in the Drummonds, pride in the Grahams and wind in the Murrays”. Our ancestors wisely left such thoughts behind in Scotland along with their dirks and broadswords.


Our motto  -  “Touch Not This Cat”


In it’s complete rendering the motto has existed for 300 years or more as “Touch Not The Cat Bot (But) A Glove”. This is often understood as meaning “Touch not the cat unless you are wearing a glove” - however, the ancient interpretation is that the word “Bot”, meaning “without”, relates solely to the cat and not to the person so warned. A cat is said to be without a glove when the claws are extended beyond the soft under part of the paw.


The cat is then on the defensive and dangerous to tackle, so the meaning would be “touch not the ungloved or unsheathed cat”, or “don’t try to tackle a MacGillivray with his claws showing”.


It is unfortunate that no MacGillivray chief, despite the well documented charges in the 16th century seals and the 18th century headstones, bothered to matriculate with Lyon Court. In fact, there were very few matriculations for the Clan Chattan clans before the end of the 17th century. In 1967, when arms were matriculated in the name of Farquhar MacGillivray of Dunmaghlas, VI Chief, c.1672, the attitude of Lord Lyon was to limit the complete motto to the chiefly line of Mackintosh and Macpherson, and he ruled that our MacGillivray Motto would be “Touch Not This Cat”.


This wording fits well with the favourite type of highland motto which is a warning or cautioning, such as “tak” care, be mindful, touch not, all being synonymous with the well known Latin motto on the Royal Arms of Scotland “Nemo me impune lacessit”, or it’s more earthly equivalent “Wha duar meddle wi me”. 




Well of the Dead where Alexander MacGillivray of Dunmaglass died at the battlefeild of Culloden, 1746.

This is one of the stones erected by Duncan Forbes of Culloden in 1881 marking mass graves.




Hon. John MacGillivray

XI Chief (1852)

b. 1777 d.1855


Neil John MacGillivray

XII Chief (1855)

b. 1827 d.1886


There is some doubt about if this is Neil John. Some dates don't appear to match up. The picture is said by some to be Captain William MacGillivray (uncle of Neil John).


John William MacGillivray

XIII Chief (1886)

b. 1864 d.1914




Images: Robert McGillivray 2004, "The Clan MacGillivray", Self Published, Edinburgh.



Since Farquhar the Second Chief (about 1550), Dunmaglass served as the ancestral home of the chiefs of Clan MacGillivray.

In the 1860s Chief Neil John, while living in Canada had the Dunmaglass Lodge and a farmhouse built. He and his family left Canada in 1880 and took up residence in Dunmaglass. Before that, previous chiefs lived in a farmhouse on the estate. The Lodge has been altered many times, and is now privately owned as a country hotel and function venue.

Image: Dunmaglass Lodge, home of Clan Chief Neil John.


Source: Robert McGillivray 2004, "The Clan MacGillivray", Self Published, Edinburgh.

Image: Dunmaglass c1850; watercolour by Peter MacGillivray, grandson of Andrew, the last of his name to reside on the estate.


Source: Robert McGillivray 2004, "The Clan MacGillivray", Self Published, Edinburgh.

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