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Clan MacThomas: Its Origins and Early Chiefs

From Clach A' Choilich: The magazine of the Clan MacThomas Society.

William, 7th Chief of Clan Mackintosh and 8th Chief of Clan Chattan was the son and
heir of Angus, 6th Chief of Mackintosh, by his wife Eva, the heretix of Clan Chattan.
He succeeded his father in the chiefship of both clans in 1345, during the reign of
King David II, when he would have been about 50 years old. He married twice,
having children by both wives, as well as two concubines. We are told that it was
after the death of his first wife that William, (being then very old) had two bastard
sons, Adam and Sorald, by the second of these concubines, whose name has not
been preserved.

Adam, the elder of the two, grew up to be a man of considerable size (in which he
took after his father who, we are told, was of stature somewhat higher than the
ordinary, of a lean body and of great strength). For this reason Adam was known as
Adamh Mor (i.e. big Adam). He lived in Atholl for a time, but later moved north again
and settled at Garvamore, in the Lagan district of Badenoch, a few miles west of
Loch Crunachan, on the south bank of the Spey. His descendants, known as the
Sloichd Adhamh Mhor Mhic uilleam (i.e. the tribe of big Adam, son of William), are
reckoned 5th of the nine tribes of Mackintosh, but it would be a mistake to suppose
that they were thought of from the outset as a separate tribe. The household of a
single Highland gentleman could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered
a clan, in the normally accepted sense of that term. Therefore, Adam and his near
descendants; who it seems must have continued to dwell at Garvamore for some
generations; were obviously regarded by themselves and everyone else simply as
members of the main body of clan Mackintosh.

However, living as they did on the southern fringes of clan Chattan country it would
be reasonable to suppose that they were not much troubled by the somewhat
remote authority of the Mackintosh Chief. Consequently, they would have acquired
a certain independence, which would have grown stronger as they gradually
multiplied in numbers and gathered a following. About the latter half of the fifteenth
century they emerged as a distinct clan under Thomas, the grandson or great
grandson of Adamh Mor, and from him they took the name of MacThomas. Like so
many others of his race, he too was a big man, and so was affectionately named
Tomaidh Mor (i.e. big Tommy).

This new found autonomy of the MacThomases is perhaps best understood if it is
seen as part of a general process of fragmentation, which appears to have been
taking place in Clan Mackintosh at that time. Clan Chattan had by 1485 grown from
a reasonably compact handful of clans into an unwieldy confederation of no less
than fourteen separate tribes, each under its own chief. The larger the
confederation grew the less effective became the authority of the Macintosh, as
paramount chief, to bring to heel his own fractious Mackintosh cadets. During the
chiefship of Duncan, 11th of Mackintosh and 12th of Clan Chattan, which lasted
from 1464-96, several of them to become openly rebellious due to his mild
disposition. It was during this period that Rothiemurchus was made over to Alisdair
Ciar, founder of clan Shaw, whose following constituted the second tribe of
Mackintosh (from which the Farquharsons, or third tribe of Macintosh, were to hive
off during the following century). Additionally, Donald Mhic Angus removed to Atholl
with his following, which are reckoned the fourth tribe of Mackintosh. Tomaidh Mor
was almost certainly another contemporary of Duncan and, although we have no
definite information as to when the MacThomases left Badenoch and settled in
Glenshee, it would seem natural that this too should have occurred during the period
of disintegration. The naming of the clan after Tomaidh Mor would certainly be
consistent with it being he who led them across the mountains into that Perthshire
glen, still more remote from Mackintosh's authority, thus asserting their
independence as a separate clan, albeit acknowledging the over-chiefship of the

Just as we cannot say with any certitude when the clan first settled in Glenshee, so
we are somewhat uncertain as to the identity of the earlier chiefs. Tomaidh Mor is
of course regarded as the founder and first chief of the clan, and his grandson Aye
(i.e. Adam), who as Aye MacAne MacThomas was a party to the Clan Chattan band
of 2nd May 1543, is considered third chief. Quite possibly the latter's predecessor
was his father, Ane or Iain (i.e. John), but of this we cannot be sure. Roughly a
generation later than Aye we find our first positive indication of a chief dwelling in
Glenshee, and from then on there is a reasonably unbroken and well-documented
line right down to the present time. In those days, of course, the language of the
clan was the Gaelic, and the clan patronymic in that tongue was normally one or
other of the diminutives MacThomaidh (son of Tommy) or, less commonly, MacThom
(son of Tom). These are pronounced in English McHommy or McHom, so that we
generally find the early chiefs variously referred to as McComie or McColme, or some
such similar phonetic rendering.

The individual reckoned fourth chief, who may possibly have been the son or
nephew of Aye, referred to above, was Robert McComie or McColme, as he is
variously called. He is found as wadsetter, and later feur, of the lands of the Thom
(situated just to the east of Shee Water, opposite the Spittal of Glenshee).
Additionally, in 1595 he was one of several notables, who at Invercauld, gave an
heritable band of manrent to Lachlan, 16th chief of Mackintosh and 17th of Clan
Chattan, promising faithfully to serve and defend him as their natty chief. It was
probably during Robert's chiefship that Clan MacThomas in Glenshee was mentioned
in the act of Parliament of 1587, as one to the Clannis that hes Capitanes, Cheffis
and Chiftanes quhom on they depends, and the MacThomases were again mentioned
in the act of 1594.

Chief Robert McComie and his neighbours seem to have been turbulent characters.
In 1594 together with Duncan McRitchie of Dalminzie, Robert was called upon to
answer before the Privy Council for seizing the lands of the Spittal, which belonged
to David Weymyss of that Ilk, and, failing to do so, was declared a rebel. Three
years later he was involved in a potentially violent dispute with Duncan Robertson,
in Duncavane, and the same year the privy council sentenced him to be
incarcerated in Blackness castle together with several of his neighbours, for defying
an order of the courts with regard to tythes. Whether these sentences were carried
out seems doubtful.

Robert had married Barbara Rattray, presumed to have been a sister of Alexander
Rattray of Dalrulzion. He eventually seems to have been killed by a band of Highland
caterans, about 1600; two of his slayers: Donald na Slogg and Finlay-a-Baleia, were
caught by John Robertson, 6th baron of Straloch (the MacThomases western
neighbor), who hanged them from two birch trees in the woods of Ennochdhu.

Afterwards Robert's widow married Alexander Farquharson, 1st of Allanquoich, whose
younger brother John Farquharson, 1st of Tullycairn, married Robert's only daughter
Elspeth. She was infeft in the Thom as heir to her father on 8th August 1616, and
transferred the feu to her stepfather the same day, with her husband's consent.
Although all this may have been perfectly fair and above board, it would not be
difficult to see in this episode a sordid conspiracy, with the wretched girl's marriage
as no more than a device to enable a grasping step-father to possess himself the
MacThomas lands aided by the convenience of his brother and the infatuated widow
of their former owner. This may well have been the first act of Farquharson
aggrandizement at the expense of the MacThomases in Glenshee, whom they were
eventually to supplant and bring ruin.

See also the Clan MacThomas page of this site.

Yet another version of the history of Clan MacThomas:

Thomas, a Gaelic speaking Highlander, known as Tomaidh Mor (i.e. Great Tommy), from whom the clan takes its name, was a descendant of the Clan Chattan Mackintoshes, his grandfather having been a son of William, 8th Chief of Clan Chattan. Thomas lived in the 15th century, at a time when the Clan Chattan Confederation had become large and unmanageable. Therefore, he took his kinsmen and followers across the Grampians, from Badenech to Glenshee where they settled and flourished being known as McComie (phonetic form of the Gaelic MacThomaidh), McColm and McComas (from MacThom and MacThomas). To the government in Edinburgh, they were known as MacThomas and are so described in the Poll of the Clans in the Acts of the Scottish parliament of 1587 and 1595. MacThomas remains the official name of the clan to this day, notwithstanding the fact that few of its members have ever actually been named MacThomas.

The early chiefs of the Clan MacThomas were seated at the Thom, on the east bank of the Shee Water opposite the Spittle of Glenshee, the site is thought to be that of the tomb of the legendary Diarmid of Fingalian saga, with which Glenshee has so many associations. When the 4th Chief, Robert McComie of the Thom, was murdered (c. 1600), the chiefship passed to his brother, John McComie of Finegand. Therefore, the seat of the chiefs was moved to Finegand about three miles down the glen. Finegand is a corruption of the Gaelic "Feith nan Ceann" meaning "burn of the heads." This refers to the time when some MacThomas clansmen attacked a group of tax collectors. The clansmen cut off the tax collector's heads and threw them in a nearby burn. By now, the MacThomases had acquired a lot of property in the glen and houses were well established at Kerrow and Benzian with shielings up Glen Beag. The time was spent breeding cattle and fighting off those seeking to rustle them, one such skirmish, in 1606, being remembered as the Battle of the Cairnwell.

The 7th Chief was John McComie (Iain Mor). His deeds passed into the folklore of Perthshire and Angus, wherein he is generally known as "McComie Mor." The legends surrounding this Highland hero abound. In defense of a poor widow, he single handedly put to flight some tax collectors, he killed the Earl of Atholl's champion swordsman, he slew a man that had insulted his wife, he fought his son in disguise to test his courage, he overcame a ferocious bull with his bare hands, and he is said to have been familiar with the supernatural. Today, a large stone at the head of Glen Prosen is known as McComie Mor's Putting Stone, a nearby spring as McComie Mor's Well, and at the top of Glen Beannie a rock shaped like a seat is called McComie Mor's Chair.

Iain Mor joined Montrose at Dundee in 1644 and fought for the King's cause throughout the campaign. He personally captured Sir William Forbes of Craigivar, but after the defeat at Philiphaugh he withdrew from the struggle and devoted his energies to cattle raising. During this time the clan extended their lands and influence into Glen Prosen and Strathardle and Iain Mor purchased the Barony of Forter in Glenisla from Lord Airlie. Forter Castle had been burned eleven years earlier, as recounted in the ballad "The Bonnie House of Airlie." Thus, Iain Mor made his home at Crandart, two miles north of the castle. The government of Cromwell won Iain Mor's admiration for the prosperity that it brought to Scotland. However, this soured his relationship with Airlie and upon the restoration of Charles II in 1660 he found himself in trouble with Parliament. He was fined heavily and at Airlie's instigation a lawsuit decreed that the Canlochan Forest, part of the Forter estate, belonged to Airlie. Iain Mor refused to recognize this and continued to pasture his cattle on the disputed land, which Airlie had rented to Robert Farquharson of Broughdearg. Broughdearg was Iain Mor's cousin but the dispute over the forest led to a bitter feud that culminated in a skirmish at Drumgley, just west of Forfar. At a spot known as McComie's Field, Broughdearg was slain on January 28, 1673, along with two of Iain Mor's sons. The fine, feud, and crippling lawsuit that followed ruined the MacThomases and following Iain Mor's death his remaining sons were forced to sell their lands.

The MacThomas Chief is mentioned in Government proclamation in 1678 and 1681 but the clan was now drifting apart with some going into the Tay valley and changing their name to Thomson. Others went into Angus and Fife where they became Thomas, Thom, or Thoms. The 10th Chief, Angus, took the surname Thomas and later Thoms. He settled in northern Fife where his family thrived as successful farmers. Next they moved to Dundee and became prosperous merchants at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Thus, they purchased the estate of Aberlemno near Forfar. Still others of the clan moved into Aberdeenshire, where the name became corrupted to McCombie as well as Anglicized forms of Thom and Thomson. In Aberdeenshire, the principle MacThomas family was the McCombie's of Easterskene, who were descendants of the youngest of Iain Mor's sons. It is one of their party, William McCombie of Tillyfour, M.P. for South Aberdeenshire at the end of the last century, who is regarded as the father of the world famous breed of cattle.

Patrick Hunter MacThomas Thoms of Aberlemno, 15th Chief, was Provost of Dundee from 1847 to 1853. His hire, the eccentric George Hunter MacThomas Thoms, advocate, bon vivant, and philanthropist, became sheriff of Caithness, Orkney and Shetland in 1870. During his lifetime, he donated large sums to St. Giles Cathedral in
Edinburgh. Upon his death in 1903 he willed his vast fortune to St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, including the Aberlemno estate. Although having lost Aberlemno, in 1967, the latter's great-nephew was once again officially recognized by the Lyon Court by the historic designation 'The MacThomas of Finegand'. Patrick MacThomas of
Finegand, 18th Chief, married Elizabeth Clayhill-Henderson of Invergowrie in 1941. It was during his lifetime, in 1954, that the Clan MacThomas Society of Scotland was founded. He died in 1970, and was succeeded by his only son, Andrew, the 19th Chief, who is called in the Gaelic MacThomaidh Mhor (pronounced McHomy Vor).

"Early MacThomas History: Years of Obscurity"

In considering the succession to the chiefship after the breakup of the clan, about the end of the seventeenth century, it will be convenient to recall for a moment the sons of Ian Mor. These in chronological order of their birth, were John, Alexander, James, Robert, Thomas, and Angus, all of whom are amply documented in the records of the period. Additionally, there was a child named Donald who is never mentioned as a son of Ian Mor in any contemporary document, but who is nevertheless held by tradition to have been his youngest son.

Of the six elder sons, John and Robert, respectively the eldest and fourth born, were killed in the skirmish at Drumgley in 1673, leaving no issue. Alexander, the second son, who married an Ogilvie and had a son, named Alexander, who traditionally, drowned in the Tay near Errol, while yet unmarried in 1697. Furthermore, the senior Alexander had a daughter, Elizabeth, who married Duncan Mackintosh, brother of Brigadier William Mackintosh of Borlum of fifteen (1715) fame. This Alexander died in October 1687, having been passed over in the succession to the chiefship by his younger brothers: James (the third son), who succeeded as 8th Chief of the Clan in 1674. Likewise, Thomas (the fifth son), in turn succeeded as 9th Chief in 1676.

Neither of them apparently leaving male issue. Therefore, upon the death of the latter the Chiefship of the Clan, which as stated earlier, was not at the time considered worth the trouble of claiming once the family lands had been lost and the clan scattered, lay in the family of Angus, the sixth son of Ian Mor, of whom we shall now treat.

As the actual dates of their respective deaths are not known, we cannot say with any certainty whether Angus outlived his immediate elder brother, Thomas, so becoming dejure chief of the clan, but there is some tradition that he did so, and he is accordingly reckoned 10th chief. He must have been born about 1647, and had been educated at St. Andrews University, in the county of Fife, from which circumstance he is frequently found referred to as Mr. Angus. Although apparently not actually present at the skirmish at Drumgley, he had taken an active part in the feud with Broughdearg, when he would have been in his early twenties. He is found several times from 1668 onward as witness to bonds and deeds by his brothers, and seems to have been last recorded as a consenter to the alienation of the Forter lands by Thomas in 1681. Family tradition has it that he afterwards settled at Collairnie, in the Parish of Dunbog, in the north of Fife, anglicizing his Gaelic surname of McComie (i.e. MacThomaidh) as MacThomas or Thomas, and marrying a younger daughter of the already deceased laird of Denmylin, Sir James Balfour, sometime Lord Lyon King of Arms to King Charles I, having by her had two sons, Robert and John. The former, who was born in 1683, and is said to have married an Antonia McColm from Kirkmichael, and is in due course, found recorded in the Dunbog parish registers at the baptisms of his many children. From these entries may be seen the extreme fluidity of the family surname at this time, and the difficulty experienced in making a final choice. At the four baptisms occurring between November 1720 and May 1726 Robert appears as Robert Thom. In March 1728 he appears as Robert Thomas, in February 1730 as Robert Tam in Cullarnie Ground and finally, from May 1732 to June 1734, as Robert Thomas in Cullarnie. The surname Thomas was the one finally adopted, and was used by the family for upwards of eighty years.

This Robert, reckoned eleventh Chief, subsequently removed from Cullarnie and at his death on 29th April 1740, at the age of fifty-seven, is described on his tombstone in Monimail churchyard as tenant in Belhelvie. Belhelvie was a fine farm of considerable extent on the south bank of the Tay River. It lay in the parish of Flisk in Fife. Although he would have been of military age at the time of the fifteen, as would his elder sons have been during the forty-five, they do not appear to have become embroiled in the Jacobite rising, which added so richly to the history of so many other clans; doubtless remembering only too well the ruination of their family at the hands of the Stewart Restoration Parliament during the latter half of the previous century.

Robert was succeeded in 1740 by his eldest son, David Thomas, reckoned twelfth chief who, since he had been baptized on 29th July 1722, was still a minor at the time. He died on 12th January 1751, aged twenty-seven and apparently a bachelor, being succeeded by his younger brother Henry. This Henry Thomas, thirteenth dejure chief of the clan (baptized 17th, May 1724), continued to farm as tenant at Belhelvie, like his father before him. He married twice; his first wife being Margaret Miller, from Ceres, by whom he had four sons, William, Robert, David and Henry. Margaret died on 27th, November 1765, aged 37, and a little under two years later, on 14th, August 1767, Henry married Elizabeth Reid, by whom he had a further son, George, born in 1768, who was later to become a merchant in Dundee. Additionally, Henry and Elizabeth had a daughter, Christian. Henry died on 3rd January 1797, being succeeded at Belhelvie by his eldest son, William, fourteenth dejure chief, as appears from the notice of marriage of the latter and Helen Gardener, from the Muirhouse of Balhousie, Perth, two years later. It seems that William afterwards became a merchant in St. Andrews. He and his brothers all changed their surname from Thomas to Thoms, and it is William Thoms that he is recorded in the entry relating to his death at St. Andrews, on 15th, June 1843, apparently without issue. Lamentably all too little is known regarding the fate of the remaining issue of Henry Thomas's first marriage, but it has been assumed that by the time of William's death it had become extinct, and the dormant chiefship thus passed to the issue of the latter's half brother George.