What about Clan Gregor?

People are likely to become fictitious when speaking of their ancestry. — Henry Latham Magruder, 1894

But, after all, what one wants ancestors to do is mainly something interesting. — Alice Maude Ewell, 1931

Many American Magruders believe that we are descended from and members of Clan Gregor, a tale I know well. I was raised in the heart of the American Clan Gregor Society–my great-grandfather was a founding member, my mother and grandmother both served as Registrar (genealogist), and my father (who married into this Magruder madness!) served for decades as Assistant Chieftain, in essence the executive director of the society. The ACGS was founded in 1909 by Magruders who believed they were MacGregors. They lobbied Clan Gregor in Scotland–where there is no oral tradition of McGruders as McGregors–and gained acceptance from the hereditary chief.

I began reading Clan Gregor history and Magruder history when still in high school, and even then I was aware that they were two separate stories, never overlapping. My mother could shed no light on the problem. When she was young she was taught that we are descended from McGregors who, when forced to change their names during the genocidal Proscription, changed it to the phonetically similar McGruder, but by the time I came along she knew that was false. Researchers had traced the McGruder origins to well before the 1603 Proscription, with no McGregor connection. She shook her head in a who-knows manner, and that was that.

I would venture to say that in the years since I have read more Clan Gregor history than any other American Magruder–all the published sources (both reliable and not), including the 16th century Black Book of Taymouth, plus Martin McGregor’s unpublished PhD dissertation on the clan’s political history and the (partially fabricated) genealogy of its chiefs. I have also read everything available about the McGruders, and the American search for both McGruder roots and the Clan Gregor missing link. Documented interactions between the two kin groups are few, and mostly hostile. There is zero evidence in the paper record that the distinctive McGruder family history has anything to do with the complex, violent, and often romanticized history of Clan Gregor. (See below for sources for MacGregor history.)

At the close of the 20th century, two projects came together to finally lay to rest the Magruder/McGregor legend. In Scotland, Duncan McGruther began to publicize his exhaustive search of Scottish records, unearthing every early reference to McGruders (in all the spellings). He had set out to prove the McGregor connection, but wound up disproving it. He then took part, with some American Magruder men, in a DNA comparison to the well-established Clan Gregor DNA record. Because Clan Gregor was scattered, the homeland lost, the name often lost, the Clan Gregor Society in Scotland was an early adopter of DNA evidence to support application for clan membership. Their DNA project database is substantial, and McGregor markers are clear. Unsurprisingly, the McGruther and Magruder men did not match those markers.

Nevertheless, American Magruders and McGruders can have a hard time letting go of the McGregor belief, and I continue to receive messages expressing puzzlement, surprise, scorn, or anger, as well as the occasional argument for keeping the legend alive. I understand the emotion. For me, facing up to the evidence and letting the story go brought a kind of grieving.

So here is a run-down of the most common–and a few uncommon–protests and arguments, along with my refutations.

The Magruders/McGruders were McGregors who changed their names.
McGruder / MacGrouther history long predates the 1603 Proscription of Clan Gregor. McGregors chose or were assigned new identities attached to large clans who could absorb and protect them within clan lands, and to whom they had to swear fealty. The McGruders were not a clan, but a small family who could offer neither shelter nor protection, and had no lands on which MacGregors might settle. Their landlords and benefactors, the Drummonds, were close confidants of King James VI of Scotland, who succeeded to the throne of England in 1603, as James I. When he reached London, his first official act was to send to parliament an act of proscription “to extirpate Clan Gregor and to ruit oot their posteritie and name.” A few MacGregors took the name Drummond and renounced the Clan Gregor chief, but there is no record of a McGregor becoming a McGruder. Additionally, the Drummonds and McGruders were Protestant, the MacGregors Catholic, at a time when religious differences could be matters of life and death. The war in which Alexander would be captured and transported to Maryland was a religious war.

Alexander, as an individual, could have chosen to ally himself with the McGregors. This probably comes under the heading of “nothing is impossible,” but unless we find evidence it remains fanciful. He was born in 1610, when the Proscription was in full force. MacGregors who had not surrendered, changed their names, and renounced their chief were hunted like animals. A person could purchase a license to hunt and kill them, afterward sharing their property with the crown. The only imaginable scenario would be Alexander having committed crimes and been himself outlawed, leading him to take to the hills and join the McGregor resistance. There is no record of his having committed a crime past a minor youthful charge of shooting birds and small game illegally. He was twelve. One of the other lads charged was a McGregor, so we can imagine this was the start of a life of McGregor banditry for the son of a high-ranking Drummond family official–imagine being the operative word.

Alexander named no Maryland plantation for a site associated with Clan Gregor.

Alexander could be descended from a McGregor woman, perhaps the unknown wife of his grandfather, James (II).

Pure speculation, though possible. It would not explain why he might identify with Clan Gregor to the exclusion of his McGruder family and Drummond connections.

DNA is unreliable or imprecise. Autosomal DNA is a random sample of your ancestors’ DNA, what you personally have inherited, and may not reveal all your ancestors, even within the five or six generations it draws from. It was not used in the Magruder DNA project because it doesn’t go back enough generations to reveal anything about Alexander. The Y-chromosome, however, passed only through males, can be followed back indefinitely. That’s why the Magruder-McGregor DNA comparison included only males. It is extremely precise. You can start learning about DNA in The Beginner’s Guide to Genetic Genealogy.

Not everybody’s daddy is who he’s supposed to be. Alexander could have been descended from an infidelity, which would explain why American Magruder men didn’t match the Scottish MacGregor DNA. Possible, of course. You would have to believe the same about Don McGruther’s family–not descended from Alexander and historically not neighbors to his family, but living in a different part of the Drummond lands.

If you look up Clan Gregor in a tartan book, you’ll see the McGruders listed as a sept of the clan. It is well documented that as the 18th century turned to the 19th, and Scottish woolen manufacturers promoted the new fashion of clan tartans, their promotional publications swept up many smaller families into the larger clans, in order to sell more tartan. When I ask Scottish historians how they think the Americans adopted the Clan Gregor identity, this is most often what they tell me. In our time, you can easily find a source online, tell them your name is Feinstein, García, or Tolstoy, and they will find you a Scottish clan, along with a tartan, a coat of arms for your wall, and anything else they are selling.

We shouldn’t simply discount oral tradition. Personally, I did not discount it; I investigated it. I found testimony from two sources, both rooted in Prince George’s County, that said in their families the belief in McGregor identity went back to the turn of the 19th century. I have found nothing older than that.

One source is Alice Maude Ewell, great-granddaughter of John Smith Magruder, of P. G. County, who in 1820 changed his children’s names to McGregor. In A Virginia Scene, or Life in Old Prince William (Lynchburg: J.P. Bell & Co., 1831), a memoir of her grandmother, Ellen McGregor Ewell (b. 1800), Ewell tells us that the cult of Sir Walter Scott was handed down in the family. Scott drew from Clan Gregor history in no fewer than six published works, including The Lady of the Lake, published in 1810. Scott became the first best-selling author in the young American republic, and in his hands the outlawed MacGregors were Romantic literature’s first noble savages. John Smith Magruder read Sir Walter Scott aloud to his children, and his great-granddaughter wrote of her own childhood, “Of course we read Scott. That was part of our religion. Had he not directly brought about the Restoration of our Clan?” She also made it clear that the family believed they were descended from MacGregors who had survived the Proscription, hiding in caves, defying kings, living by their wits and by their swords. She believed it was this inheritance that helped her grandmother, Ellen, survive the hardships of the Civil War and the subsequent loss of her enslaved laborers, who had provided the family’s comfort and prosperity.

It is next to impossible that Alexander himself handed down any tales of the outlaw life, sleeping in the heather, rustling cattle, and surviving the loss of his patrimony. So where did this belief come from?

I believe the answer to that question is James Truman Magruder (1768-1830), a captain of merchant ships, born in Maryland. In unpublished letters, now held in the ACGS library, James’ great-grandson, Henry Latham Magruder, recounted a family story in which James was said to have met the Chief of Clan Gregor in Aberdeen, in 1800, and to have brought back to Maryland a painting of the Clan Gregor coat of arms. Investigating the details of this story, I found that the Chief of Clan Gregor whom James is reputed to have met (Alexander John William Oliphant MacGregor, 3rd Baronet of Balhaldie) was a Captain in the British Army serving in the West Indies. There is no indication he ever lived in Aberdeen (which is far from MacGregor and McGruder lands) and I have found no evidence in Captain Magruder’s surviving ship logs that he himself ever sailed to Aberdeen.

MacGregor of Balhaldie was born in France in 1758, but sprang from a “tame” Perthshire family (never outlawed) that during the Proscription adopted the name Drummond. He was not descended from the direct hereditary line of Clan Gregor chiefs–that family had been executed–but from a cadet line known as the MacGregors of Roro. He succeeded to the chiefship on the death of his father in 1765. When the Proscription was lifted, his clansmen in Scotland elected General John Murray MacGregor of Lanrick as chief. Balhaldie brought a court case against MacGregor of Lanrick, and may have continued to style himself Chief of Clan Gregor. He died in the West Indies in 1794.

If the exiled Scot and seafaring American did meet–perhaps in the West Indies, and certainly well before 1800–it’s easy to imagine a “small world” moment when Balhaldie recognized McGruder as a name from his childhood summers in Perthshire. Given what we know, it is unlikely he embraced James Truman Magruder as a fellow clansman, though we might surmise he had his own reasons for attaching the young ship’s captain to his circle.

Whatever did or did not happen, the story James carried home is a likely origin of the McGregor contagion. When he retired from the sea, James Truman Magruder settled for a few years in Prince George’s County before migrating to Mississippi in 1803, with a group of related families. In Prince George’s, he was a neighbor and exact contemporary of John Smith Magruder. Whatever tale he told–likely rather different from his great-grandson Henry’s version, 90 years later–I believe he planted a seed that flourished in the heated soil of Sir Walter Scott’s influence.

The American Clan Gregor Society Yearbooks contain a lot of information about Alexander and his descent from Clan Gregor. Yes, but repetition doesn’t make it true. Let’s consider where that information came from.

Henry Latham Magruder, great-grandson of Captain Magruder, traveled to Scotland in 1889, and again in 1893, to investigate Magruder connections to Clan Gregor. Quickly discovering that McGrouther family history long predated the MacGregor Proscription, he switched his focus to finding the missing link between the two kin groups. By 1894 he had developed an unsupported theory that a younger son of the late 15th century Chief of Clan Gregor was the link to, and ancestor of, the McGrouthers. Calling him “Gillespie the Cruiter” (Gillespie the Harper, more properly cruitear), he theorized that Gillespie’s sons adopted the patronymic MacCruiter, son of the harper. Against this theory we have Gaelic linguists, who say Macgruder, in whatever spelling, evolved from grùdair, brewer, not from cruitear, harper. No historical trace of Gillespie the Cruiter has been uncovered among Clan Gregor poets of his or the following generation. As a chief’s son, it is not likely he would disappear from such history. The best place to find him is in Charles Kurz’s “McGruder Lineage in Scotland to Magruder Family in America,” where Henry Latham Magruder’s theories are adopted (in an otherwise reliable article). You can read that here. Kurz2

Despite having himself conjured this theory of descent, when men who were organizing the American Clan Gregor Society contacted him for information–at one point sending a list of questions about Alexander for him to answer–Henry suggested they instead found a Magruder society. In answer to the question How do we know that Alexander Magruder, the Emigrant, was a member of Clan Gregor? he replied, “It is not known that he was actually a member of that clan, and I am much inclined to doubt his being a member.” His arguments for a Magruder society were 1) that if there was a McGregor link it lay in “derivation from a common stock” in a time before the use of surnames; 2) that, at the risk of looking ridiculous, Magruders should not set themselves up as representing all McGregors; and 3) that the name Magruder had a long history and wide diffusion in the United States, while McGregor “has no distinctive history in this country,” and that “agitation on these points tends to cheapen the name of Magruder.” “Tis a great thing to be a MacGregor,” he wrote, “but tis also a great thing…to be a member of the great Southern family of Magruder.” When his arguments were not heeded, Henry asked that the ACGS preserve his letters, “so that my position on this matter, should it ever be investigated, may be clearly understood.” They are still in the ACGS library, now part of Special Collections at the University of Baltimore. You can read them here. Henry Latham Magruder corr 1  Henry Latham Magruder corr 1

Be warned, however, that the letters are full of genealogical errors, as well as the totally spurious assertion that Alexander Magruder’s elder brother, James McGruder of Cargill, was elected chief of Clan Gregor after all men of the hereditary chief’s line had been shot or hanged. In contradiction to his own belief that any connection to Clan Gregor was ancient, he postulates that MacGregor of Balhaldie was James’ son. See McGruther/MacGregor/Campbell/Drummond: Are You Confused Yet? for the detail of why this assertion is beyond absurd…not to mention the difficulty of a man born about 1607 (James McGruder) fathering a son born in 1758 (MacGregor of Balhaldie).

In articles in the early ACGS yearbooks, you will see the figure of Gillespie the Cruiter enlarged from Henry Latham Magruder’s personal theory to the status of accepted belief, introduced with phrases like “it is believed” and “it is traditional.” This is one example of why anything presented as oral tradition has to be questioned and examined, like any other source. Always ask who has handed a story down, where, for how long, and why. We have oral tradition in America of a McGregor identity; we have no oral tradition regarding Gillespie the Cruiter.

You may also find, in an ACGS yearbook of the 1930s, an imagined scene of Alexander Magruder arriving in America, singing “MacGregor’s Gathering” as he strides boldly ashore. How surprising that he knew by heart a song that would not be written for another 150 years, by (who else?) Sir Walter Scott.

The best widely available sources for Clan Gregor History

Ronald Williams. Sons of the Wolf: Campbells and MacGregors and the Cleansing of the Inland Glens. Isle of Colonsay: House of Lochar, 1998.

Forbes MacGregor. Clan Gregor. 3rd Revised Edition. London: Steve Savage Publishers, 2012. Originally published by The Clan Gregor Society of Scotland, and still endorsed by them, this is close to an official clan history,

Martin MacGregor’s PhD dissertation from the University of Edinburgh, “A Political History of the MacGregors before 1571,” presents far more detail and critical analysis of the clan’s history, but unfortunately remains unpublished. For 150 years the MacGregors enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with their feudal masters, the Campbells of Glen Orchy, functioning in effect as Glen Orchy’s private army. Together they conquered and assembled a large territory, the Lordship of Breadalbane, which neither clan could have held without the other. In October, 1506, the MacGregor chief—Ian Dubh of Glenstrae–hosted King James IV for a week of hunting at a Clan Gregor castle near Beinn Dòrain, near the headwaters of Glen Orchy. Seven years later, in September 1513, James IV–along with 10,000 men, the Campbell Laird of Glenorchy, and much of the Scottish nobility–died at the battle of Flodden Moor, fighting the army of his brother-in-law, Henry VIII. In the power vacuum that followed, the MacGregors made an ill-fated attempt to expand their lands, and the Campbell-MacGregor relationship broke down, beginning the clan’s downward spiral. Their unequal struggle with the powerful and many-branched Clan Campbell–headed by the Earl of Argyll–culminated in the loss of all their lands and, ultimately, the Acts of Proscription, enacted in April 1603 and not fully repealed until 1774.

As you can surmise from Ronald Williamson’s subtitle, he bears no good will toward Campbell chiefs and chieftans, well known for political intrigue, duplicity, and vicious retribution, even among themselves. A Highland proverb says of them, Clan Campbell grew by the way of the wild ash, a tree straight and fair that kills all living things within its shadow. With the ear of the king, a voice in the Privy Council, and an uncanny knack for choosing the winning side in Scotland’s bloody power plays, Clan Campbell leadership consistently outmaneuvered their enemies–of whom Clan Gregor was but one.

As for the “wild” MacGregors, who did not comply with the strictures of Proscription, the list of their crimes is ample. Landless, they lived by the sword. Denied baptism, marriage and burial rites, education, and the basics of food and shelter, they descended in the generation after Proscription from the patrons of poets and keepers of castles to illiterate cattle thieves, brazenly selling their stolen herds at Lowland markets. I have written elsewhere that their pipe tunes reflected their neighborly ways: “The Burning of the Black Mill,” “Lifting the Cattle,” “The Fallen Chief.” Even the “Reel of Tulloch” was, according to legend, composed by a happy fugitive who had killed every man of a band who had pursued him. In other words, they were, by Alice Maude Ewell’s standard, the perfect ancestors–endlessly interesting, dashingly dramatic, conveniently distant from the trials of an ordinary, American life.