Clan Ross

Clan Ross (not 'the Ross Clan' as is commonly spoken in American English) is considerably older than the surname.   On a practical level, however, the two usages are quite similar because of the manner in which they evolved.   It appears the first use of Ross as a surname occurred in 1371 when Hugh of Rarichies assumed the name of Hugh Ross.   He and his ancestors were powerful and influential Earls of Ross -- of the county or minor kingdom of Ross.   Kingdoms of varying status had existed in Scotland since prehistoric times.   In the territory of present day Scotland there were once seven kingdoms, each of which had both subordinate and superior echelons.   Subordinate were the clan chiefs, leaders of the clan branches (septs) and the heads of individual families; superior was the monarch, most easily recognized in the form of Mary, Queen of Scots.   That she was Queen of Scots (the people) and not Queen of Scotland (the land) is immensely significant because it reflects the attitude, even of the monarch, in those days.   Each of the layers of leaders was a leader of his (or her) people.   Ruling the land was a secondary function of Scottish leadership, and was generally important only in its relationship to the well-being of the inhabitants.

During the Middle Ages, smaller kingdoms were gradually consumed by larger ones, and by the end of the fifteenth century all Scottish leaders had discontinued styling themselves kings (save the monarch, of course).   In their place came the consolidated functionaries of Earls and Clan Chiefs.   The former was a regional master, representative of the king -- the Earl of Ross, for example, having dominion over the County of Ross; while the Clan Chief was more directly related to the supervision and care of a particular family name, or Clan.   Within the Earldom of Ross were representations, at least, of numerous clans (the Clans of Munro, MacDonnell, McCulloch and MacLeod are traceable to Ross-shire in the sixteenth century).   The Earl was the earl of all these people, but the chief of Clan Ross was the head of all those who bore the surname Ross and of others who claimed allegiance through affiliation with Clan Ross.

Ordinary Highlanders did not necessarily have the same name as their chief, because at that point in history very few Highlanders had surnames at all.   The belonging to a "Clan," meaning "children" in Gaelic, was patriarchal and somewhat territorial, but the feeling of oneness was not in the least diminished by the inability of Clan members to trace their origins to the chief.

A primary function of the Clan was to provide fighting forces.   Assemblies, or Gatherings, of able-bodied clansmen were held periodically to insure they were fit and properly equipped to fight.   To summon his clansmen, the chief would dispatch a "fiery cross": two pieces of charred wood fastened together in the shape of a cross, to which was fastened a rag that had been dipped in sheep or goat blood.   This representation of fire and sword, being both burned and bloody, was sent in relays throughout the Clan territory.   The messenger shouted the name of the Gathering Place, and clansmen hastened to this location bearing their arms.   In times of peace, Gatherings commonly included martial rehearsals and contests - from which the popular and well-known Highland Games are descended.   It was seldom necessary to employ any form of force to assemble the warriors because the vast majority were loyally responsive.

Clan Ross Crest:  Spem Successus Alit (Success Nourishes Hope)
Clan Ross Crest: Spem Successus Alit (Success Nourishes Hope)

One must bear in mind that the Scots were essentially Celtic pagans and were deeply superstitious in the most strict religious sense.   The chief, though no longer called king, was still a sacred being, considered to be descended from the gods.   It was this mixture of devotion and superstition, more than coincidence of birth, that caused the union within a Clan.

Superstition, between the Reformation in Scotland (1560) and 1722 (when the last Highland witch was burned at the stake), was far more than idle wariness (not walking under ladders, knocking on wood, black cats, and the like).   Men of the highest rank joined with the most humble in pagan rites of witchcraft.   Witches were plentiful, and sinister underground cults existed throughout the Highlands.   There is little doubt that they offered human sacrifices.

Yes, there were even Ross witches!   Katherine (sometimes spelled Catherine), daughter of Alexander Ross, ninth Chief of Clan Ross, was tried for witchcraft.   She was spared, but two accomplices, Christina Ross and Thomas McKean, who assisted Katherine in a plot to poison Chief Alexander's wife, were convicted and burned at the stake in 1577.

Through a series of political maneuvers and conspiracies, the Clan chieftainship slowly passed variously from one earl to another Clan "laird", and so forth.   The next several pages will be concerned with the Chiefs of Clan Ross; however, before beginning those accounts, it is important to quickly summarize the end of the Clan as a significant aspect of Highland life.

A rebellious Scottish effort to reinstate Bonnie Prince Charlie as the rightful leader of the Scots ended in 1746 with the Battle of Culloden.   This blind welter of courage and carnage was to be the end of the Highland race--a race of people known for centuries to be honest, but fearsome; savage, but romantic; and wealthy in heritage, despite the privation of their existence.   Not only did the slaughter take a terrible toll in human life, but the rigid laws which followed were of such a nature as to kill the Highland spirit as well.   They were forbidden to wear tartan (plaid) or any part of the Highland Dress, particularly the kilt--the only clothing they had.   No Highlander could possess arms; not even the traditional broadsword, which was more a part of the Highland dress than was the kilt.   The official punishment was imprisonment for six months, but soldiers enforcing the Act were commonly instructed to arrest violators and "bring them in dead or alive."

This total indignation and subservience of the Highlander was a far extreme from the spirit exhibited at the Battle of Culloden just months earlier--a battle aptly described by Alexander Taylor, who was there:

"They came running upon our front line like troops of hungry wolves."

While first-time violators of the Disarming Act and the Act against the tartan were given automatic six-month sentences, those convicted of a second offense were "transported (banished) to any of His Majesty's plantations beyond the sea, for seven years."

Many of the American Rosses are here as a direct result of these actions by the conquering English.   Naturally, many of our ancestors were "transported" to America, but there were a good many others who fled this outrageous repression of their own volition.   Nevertheless, the Battle of Culloden was significant in the background of the Highland Clan Ross, and particularly those of us who now find ourselves in "His Majesty's plantation beyond the sea".

© MCMXCIII  Hank Ross