Among the summaries of Clan Ross history, there are many inconsistencies in its origins. As with many origin myths, one source is quoted by the next until even the most recent texts begin to quote each other's inaccuracies. Most, however, do not repeat a couple of particular errors found in some Clan Ross histories concerning the very first Earl of Ross. Only a few claim that Fearchar Mac an t'Sagairt (Farquhar MacTaggart), "son of the priest", was the first Earl of Ross and that he was was a direct descendant of Anrias (Andrew), who was supposedly the eldest son of Gilleon na h'Airde. There is, however, a charter from William O'Beolan (fifth Earl of Ross in that line) to a cousin Paul MacTire, which is mentioned in a manuscript of 1450 and indicates that both the O'Beolans (the progenitors 0f Clan Ross) and Clan Gilleanrias (Servant of Andrew, commencing with Paul MacTire) are traced back to Gilleon na h'Airde (Collin of Aird) who lived in the tenth century. Actually, Fearchar was only the first Earl of Ross in the O'Beolan line from Wester Ross.
But who was the first Earl of Ross ... so neglected by the historians of our clan except, perhaps, as a "shadowy predecessor"? The first Earl of Ross did not have the powerful Public Relations afforded to the O'Beolan Earls. Skene, allegedly an authority on clan histories, ignores this earl completely after casting him aside into the category of a myth.
In his book, "The Great Clan Ross", Dr. John Robert Ross mentions that some authorities refer to Malcolm MacAedth holding the earldom from 1153 to 1168. These authorities, writing about the origins of Clan MacKay, also speak of MacAoidh (son of fire) or MacEth in referring to this same earl. The translation of the Chronicle of Holyrood by J. Stevenson gives Malcolm's name as Malcolm Machel (truly a son of fire) under the date 1157. Thus, "some authorities" do present evidence of the existence an earl named Malcolm ... in spite of Skene's prejudiced stand. As we shall learn, the MacKay tribe was dispersed from the ancient lands of the Mormaers of Moray during the rebellions of 1153-1154. There can be no doubt about the connection of the MacAedths or MacAoidhs to the Moray alliance, but the earldom of Ross was not created until years after the MacKays were banished.
One of my favourite authors, John Prebble, illustrated the problems with source materials on page 52 of my hardcover edition of his LION IN THE NORTH, where he states, "Malcolm IV, the last Scottish king with a Celtic name, had scarcely taken his grandfather's seat when the Gaels rose under the pretender Donald MacHeth, one of Lulach's ubiquitous descendants. His father-in-law Somerled, Under-King of Argyll and Lord of the Hebrides, raided Clydeside as far as Glasgow before Walter FitzAllan drove him back to his ships. The revolt in Moray lasted longer, and it was three years before MacHeth and his father were locked in Roxborough dungeon."
Come to think of it, Somerled, self-styled Lord of the Isles, did not live long after making peace with the same king, Malcolm IV (who reigned 1153 - 1165). Somerled was killed in 1164, four years after making peace in 1160. Kings survived by killing off rivals or setting clan chiefs against each other.
On page 43 of an article about "Clan Ross" in the March 1970 issue of SCOTLAND'S MAGAZINE one reads: "The first recorded chief appeared about the time of Malcolm the Fourth's reign and evidence of his power and influence in the land is amply reflected by the fact that he was one of the 'seven Maister Men' of Scotland. By the time of completion of the REGISTER OF DUNFERMLINE, the ruling Earl of Ross was known as Malcolm, allegedly a spokesman of substance."
The June Quarterly Edition, 1889, of The Scottish Antiquary contains the following information: "Malcolm, Earl of Ross, had a mandate from Malcolm, King of Scots, to protect the monks of Dunfermline, dated at Clackmannan A.D. 1153-65 (Reg. de Dunfermlyn p. 25). He was of the Celtic Family of O'Bealan or Builton, as Sir Robert Gordon writes it (Hist. of Earls of Sutherland). There never was an Earl who bore the surname of Ross, but when the title passed to descendants in the female line, the Lairds of Balnagown assumed the name as male representatives of the Earls. Malcolm must have lived also during the reign of William the Lion, 1165-1214.
On page 155 of THE SCOTTISH HISTORICAL REVIEW, Vol. XVII & XVIII, 1920-1921 you may read that "Malcolm is referred to as 'the son of Macbeth' in J. Stevenson's translation of the CHRONICLE OF MELROSE beneath the date 1134." This interpretation is highly suspect unless it refers to one of the MacBeths other than the king, either a Sheriff or a Thane of Falkland, named in charters to the Culdees. It is quite possible that Malcolm's surname of Macbeth was adopted during the time frame prior to his appointment as Earl of Ross.
The Earldom of Moray was forfeited after the rebellion of 1153-1154, and Malcolm and his son Donald were imprisoned in Roxburgh dungeon until other troublesome Morays were relocated to Southern Scotland. In the abbreviated edition of the CHRONICLE OF HOLYROOD under the date 1157 one finds "Malcolm Machet (sic) cum rege Scottorum pacificus est" or (translated) Malcolm Macbeth is at peace with the King of Scotland. This coincided with the creation of Malcolm as Earl of [the separated land of] Ross in 1160. In Bouterwek's edition of the same extended chronicle, we are informed that Malcolm Macbeth died as Earl of Ross in 1168.
Since Clan Fraser was like a next door neighbour of Clan Ross, it might be wise to give equal weight to the Fraser Chronicles which "also support the reading of Milcolm Mackbeth and likewise refer to Donald son of Melcolm Mckbeth".
I have come across a couple of dozen different spellings of the name Macbeth, some of which interpret "Mac" as "the son of". The problem arises as more modern writers have been responsible for placing a capital in the middle of the name. We must also remember that there was no uniformity in spelling until centuries later. This issue is further exacerbated because of the letters "b" and "h" which have an identical appearance in the old records. In fact, since both are aspirate, the names "Macbeth" or "Macheth" might have sounded more like "Mackay". Clan Mackay claims descent from MacHeth, a rival of the Freskins, for the right of representation in the paired district of Moray and Ross. According to Frank Adam (op.cit., p. 18) "The Crown and Somerled seem to have agreed that the MacHeth line be transferred to the remotest corner of Scotland - Strathnaver, the crown thus securing the main fortress of Moray". [For additional information about MACBETH and MACHETH, please see the footnotes which are with the references.]
It is not surprising that the king spared Malcolm Macbeth as long as he was useful. He could keep another half-dozen rebellious Maister Men in check. The seven Maister Men served at the ceremony when the king sat on the Stone of Scone to be validated as king.
"In a list of hereditary precedence of Scottish Clans and Names deriving from Baronage, Ross is first in precedence, dating from 1160," having been raised from one of the seven paired districts once ruled by Mormaers and Righs. The reason for this outstanding record rests with the actions of King Malcolm IV, who elevated the land of Ross from a "paired district" to its new status, and to Malcolm Macbeth, who was made the first Earl of that territory by the same king. Accordingly, this outline of the Clan Ross history presents succeeding Earls of Ross in their proper order following Malcolm Macbeth. [Most current references and brochures about Clan Ross contain corrected data about Malcolm Macbeth ... and this serves as one aspect by which Clan Ross histories may be evaluated.]
A few counties such as Sutherland, Ross and Fyfe are true Counties in the sense that the territories were once held by Counts (Comes) or Earls. For the COUNTY of Ross, we may also credit Malcolm Macbeth, the first Earl of Ross. Other territories were shires (Thaneages or Sheriffdoms, i.e. governed by Thanes or Sheriffs).
. . . TO BE CONTINUED . . .