by James E. Fargo, FSA Scot

In 1457, King James II conferred the long dormant earldom of Atholl on his half brother, John Stewart of Lorne. It had been forfeited to the crown on the execution of Earl William Stewart for having been involved in the assassination of King James I in February 1437. On August 3, 1460 at the siege of Roxburgh Castle which was held by the English, King James II was killed in the accidental explosion of a bombard (cannon) and his nine year old son was crowned as James III.

Earlier in 1460, Robert 'Ruadh' Duncanson of Struan (our red headed 4th chief) died from his head wound suffered in an altercation with Robert Forrester of Torwood on his way to Perth. That same year, his eldest son, Alexander Robertson (5th chief) married his first wife Elizabeth Lyon.

In 1462, John MacDonald Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross made a secret treaty with Edward IV of England against the Scottish throne. Now with a powerful ally, he collected his people from various islands and launching his fleet of galleys, landed his people in Lochaber, marched to Inverness and seized the castle. With the governor a prisoner, he then proclaimed himself the King of the Isles.

MacDonald then marched his men rapidly south into Atholl, burning and pillaging as they went. He attacked Blair Castle and captured the Earl of Atholl and his Countess at the church of Saint Bride's where they had fled and taken sanctuary. The rapidity of the invasion and the retreat north happened so fast that the men of Atholl were unable to assemble in sufficient numbers to counterattack the invaders. The Earl and Countess were eventually released and John made restitution for burning and plundering the church.

A decade later, MacDonald again landed an army and plundered Inverness-shire. King James III had had enough and ordered his half-uncle, John Earl of Atholl and serving as Lieutenant-General of the kingdom, to assemble an army and proceed against the Earl of Ross.

The Earl of Atholl, remembering the previous treatment he had received from the Lord of the Isles, launched a military expedition along with the Earl of Argyll and others against MacDonald which was totally successful. Atholl attacked according to the customs of the times and his Athollmen took ample revenge for the losses they had previously sustained and captured MacDonald in his stronghold. The captured Earl of Ross and his chief men were brought to Perth and turned over to the King and compelled to submit to the King's authority in July 1476. The Earldom of Ross was annexed to the Crown and not returned by royal grant until December 1478.

Atholl was rewarded for this service with an addition to his armorial bearings of a man with his feet in fetters of iron, connected with a chain held in his right hand along with a lion on the dexter (right) side; a crest of a demi-savage, with a wreath around his head, a key in his left hand and a sword in his right, in allusion to the Earl of Atholl having opened the way by sword to the strongholds of the Lord of the Isles. The whole being confirmed by the motto of "Furth Fortune and Fill the Fetters", which remains part of the heraldic achievements of the current Dukes of Atholl.

Cowan, Samuel, "Three Celtic Earldoms", Edinburgh, 1909, p. 23-24.
Maclean, Fitzroy, "Highlanders, A History of the Scottish Clans", London, 1995, pp. 61-62.
Moncreiffe of that Ilk, Sir Iain, "Story of the Atholl Highlanders", undated pamphlet p. 4.
Robertson, James, "Chiefs of Clan Donnachaidh 1275-1749", 1929, pp. 46-47.
Stewart, Major-General David, "Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland", Edinburgh, Vol. 2, 1825, pp. 457-459.