WHEN TWO TRIBES GO TO WAR; This Year Will See the Biggest Gathering of the Clans for 200 Years. So Will It Be a Day of Peace. or a Bitter Revival of Centuries of Bloody Hatred?

Article excerpt

Byline: by Jim McBeth

IN another age, they would come prepared for war, ready to die for their chief and the honour of a clan name that was soaked in the blood of conflicts so ancient that not even the oldest of the living could remember their beginnings. When the 'children' of the clan gathered, the outcome was sudden death, with victory to the last men standing.

IThe fighting may have been masked in practical considerations - control of territory, acquisition of beasts, a greater share of produce from an unforgiving, inhospitable landscape - but mostly they fought for fuileachd - the blood feud.

There are two Highland sayings. The first is that one should have a long memory and a longer sword. But as Edinburgh prepares to welcome the greatest gathering of the clans in history, it may behove traditional foes to remember the second saying - that the oldest of enemies often make the best of new friends. On July 25, in the presence of Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay and Lord of the Isles, up to 8,000 chiefs, elders and clansfolk will march together through the capital in an unprecedented display of unity not witnessed for nearly 200 years.

The cynical suggest that The Gathering 2009 - the centrepiece of the Year of Homecoming celebrations - is a tourist event. For others, it is a coming together of ancient friends and enemies, who can forever lay aside differences that have been written in blood in the story of Scotland.

From the Borders, where Armstrongs, Johnstones and Scotts battled the Douglases, to the ancestral lands of the Sinclairs in the far north-east, no clan knew peace.

The hatred of guttersnipe Campbells for MacDonalds, a Highland royalty, is well known because of the despicable massacre at Glencoe in 1692. But consider the less well known but quite spectacular feud between the Gunns and Keiths of the north-east, who only officially made their peace in 1978 - after 638 years - when their chiefs signed a covenant ending a dispute that began in the 14th century.

The feud, which makes a Mafia vendetta look like a playground spat, began in 1340 when Dugald Keith set eyes on Helen Gunn, the 'Beauty of Braemore'. But she rejected Dugald - who turned up on the eve of her wedding with murder in mind. Helen was kidnapped, raped and imprisoned until she jumped to her death from a castle battlement, an incident that led the two clans to kill each other at every opportunity for centuries.

Both will be well represented in Edinburgh in July 25 and 26 - and they promise to behave. 'We have continued to be good friends,' says Iain Gunn of Banniskirk, commander of Clan Gunnand, a signatory to the covenant of friendship and peace that ended 600 years of war.

He adds: 'The Clans Gunn and Keith had a long-running conflict, which led to the attempted reconciliation at St Tayre's Chapel at Ackergill around 1478. It was agreed that 12 from each clan should meet at the chapel to sign an agreement. The Gunns arrived as agreed - but the Keiths came two to a horse and overcame the Gunns, and killed their chief and most of the party.'

If the Gunns and the Keiths can lay aside such differences, it should be no problem for a Campbell to march with a MacDonald, a Munro with a Mackintosh and MacPhersons, MacGillivrays and Macbeths with the clansmen of Kay.

It should also mean the ancient enmity between the Colquhouns and Rob Roy's MacGregors is a thing of the past. It is from the MacGregors that the word blackmail entered the language - derived from 'black meal', a tribute they levied from their neighbours to ensure their cattle did not vanish mysteriously.

The war on Loch Lomondside between MacGregor and Colquhoun endured for generations. On one infamous occasion in 1603, in Glen Fruin, Dunbartonshire, Dougal MacGregor Ciar Mhor got so carried away when slaughtering Colquhouns that he killed a party of innocent clerical students who happened to be passing. …