Clan MacTavish

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A Brief History of the Clan MacTavish

Patrick Thompson
Clan MacTavish Seannachie
Copyright 2006 Clan MacTavish

The name MacTavish stems from Taviss (Taus) Coir, a son born to Colin MacDuine of Lochow (Colin Maol Maith — Good bald Colin) of the family MacDuine, and a daughter of Suibhne Rudah of Castle Sween (Lord and Toisech of Kintyre, Knapdale). Maol Maith had been married to a niece (by whom he had one son, Gillespick, from whom Clan Campbell springs) of King Alexander I and upon her death, he married Suibhne's daughter (1105-1007 AD), having by her two sons, Taviss Coir (singular or eminent) and Ivor Cromb (bent or fierce). (1, 2) The origins of the two brothers, and the clans they founded, are mentioned by well known historians in no less that seven accountings of those ancient times.

The brothers Ivor and Taviss are noted as being distinguished in the art of war, and attributed with taking lands in Cowal from the ancestors of the Lamonts, or Clan Mhic Earachar. (Highland Papers)

In the Kilmartin Church Yard is a weathered, ancient, moss-covered grave stone with etched two-handed sword, and lettering in the Gaelic or Latin, which appears to spell Tamhais or Tamhas. It is so worn that the lettering is hard to decipher. Could this be the grave of Taviss Mhor, brother of Ivor Crom, mentioned by Principal Campbell over two centuries ago? Also at Kilmartin is newer, yet still ancient stone, often called the MacTavish Chief’s stone. It is an etched effigy of helmeted; mail clad warrior, with broadsword, the letters “MacTavish” chiseled across the chest. We have no way to know who it was that once lay beneath this stone, which has been moved to a roofed enclosure for preservation.

Taviss Mhor, a Conqueror of Cowal, was the progenitor of the Clan Tavish and his brother, Ivor Cromb, the progenitor of Clan Iver. With the gradual changing of the Gaelic to English, MacTamhais became phonetically “Englished” to MacTavish. MacTamhais’ literal translation is "Son of Thammais" (Son of Thomas). In old charters, the name had many variant spellings. Some spellings found within old charters, post-Culloden parish registers, and in The Commons Argyll appear as MacAvis, MacCamis, McCawis, McKavis, McKnavis, M'Ash, MacAnish, and mcTais, MacTavifh and mcThavish, to give but a few. It seems that from near the end of the 1600's, the spellings, MacTavish and/or Thom(p)son or Thomas were the most common. Variations in surname spelling within the one document are often seen for the same person. (3)(4) The Clan is of great antiquity with Chartered lands from the 12th century in both North and South Knapdale. The Clan was seated at Dunardarie where they were one of the clans known as "the Children of Colla" or "children of mist"*. (5) The Dalriadic Kingdom of Dunadd was encompassed by the lands of Dunardarie.

During the Battle of Flodden Field, 9th September 1513, the Scots Army faced the English, and many of Scotland's Nobles and Chiefs lost their lives with King James IV. Chief Ewin MacCawes (MacTavish) was one of those. (Airds, Hist. of Clan Campbell)

In 1715 the Jacobite cause saw its first failed attempt to place the Stuarts back on the throne of Scotland and England. During this time Chief Archibald MacTavish was sympathetic to the Jacobite cause but took no action to support either the Government or the Jacobites. Sympathies strengthened in 1745, when many of the Heritable Lieges of North Knapdale supported Prince Charles Edward Stuart. (North Knapdale, Fraser)

During the period known as the Jacobite uprisings, the MacTavish, as with many Highland Clans, were sympathetic to placing the Stuarts back on the throne, as was their right. When Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed on Scottish soil in July of 1745, some Highland Clans were preparing to join Prince Charles in his quest to regain the throne of Scotland.

Adjacent to the Lands of Dunardarie was, Achnabreck, the lands of Sir James Campbell who was a great friend to the MacTavish Chief (Archibald), and was also a Jacobite sympathizer; he was very "anti" Campbell of Argyll in thought. Unknown to both Sir James and to Chief Alexander, and Dugald MacTavish, Younger, the Duke of Argyll had installed a servant in the house of Sir James, as a spy. This servant intercepted four letters written to Sir James Campbell from Dugald MacTavish, Younger, of Dunardarie, making arrangements and plans for raising their men to join Prince Charles Edward Stuart's Highland army. During this time the Sheriff of Stonefield wrote two letters to Dugald, the Younger, asking him to keep alert for any Jacobite plotting or the movement of the Young Pretender, Prince Charles. Dugald MacTavish found this request to be most distasteful. (6, 9)

When Argyll received the letters between Dunardry, Younger and Achnabreck from the servant, he sent the Sheriff of Stonefield, John Campbell, to confront Chief Archibald MacTavish of Dunardarie and Dugald MacTavish, Younger. Dugald admitted to writing the letters as, "these are of my hand". A warrant was issued, and Dugald MacTavish, Younger, was arrested for “treasonable acts” against the Crown, and transported to Dunbarton Prison, September 1745. The Duke of Argyll hoped this would put an end to the Jacobite plotting in Knapdale. He took no action at this time against Sir James, no doubt because Sir James was titled and a Campbell kinsman. However, the Duke took measures against Sir James after Culloden, the finale of the 1745 Rising. A tremendously large request of funds was demanded from Sir James Campbell of Achnabreck as part of his "contribution" to the costs incurred by the Campbells of Argyll for placing the Argyll troops at Culloden. The Duke of Argyll knew well that Sir James Campbell of Achnabreck could never pay this amount. The Lands of Achnabreack were sold at public auction to pay the debt; and the "House of Campbell of Achnabreck" was no more. Dugald was released in the General Pardon in 1747 and upon the death of his father, became Dugald MacTavish of Dunardarie. Dugald later bought Lot #4 (consisting of 8 Merk Lands) of Achnabreck land, which was the area of Kilmichael-Inverlussay and adjoined the border of Dunardarie lands. (6, 9)

Due to the fact that Dugald, the Younger, was imprisoned in September of 1745 and his father, the Chief (Archibald) was quite elderly during the 1745 Jacobite Rising, the MacTavishes did not attend the Army of Bonnie Price Charlie as a Clan. Some of the MacTavishes fought within the ranks of their neighbor, MacIntosh (Zaczeck); and the Gartbeg McTavishes (part of Fraser of Lovat) were there as well. Stories abound that many of the clan simply made their way to join Prince Charlie's ranks and were never formally enlisted in the Stuart cause. For this reason there are few instances of the MacTavishes or Thomsons being noted as Jacobite soldiers, as they came and went of their own accord, having no formal leadership from within their own clan. Some of the Garthbeg McTavishes, however, were formally joined to the Highland Army.

On 16th April 1746 the Highland army was defeated by a much larger force of the English army (5000 fighting for Prince Charles and 9000 fighting for the Government). The largest Highland force fighting for the English was the Argyll Highlanders. How different history could have been had the Argyll Campbells fought with the Highlanders rather than for the English. On that day, the Highland army of Prince Charles lost the battle, and the fate of the Jacobite cause was sealed.

After Culloden and for upwards of 2 years Argyll’s Highland troops were acting as agents for the government in the Highlands. Unfortunately, after Culloden, some Jacobite Highland Chiefs joined with the victors and treated their own clansmen very badly transporting their Clan members off their land and, indeed, from their country. This was the period known as the Clearances. The MacTavish Chiefly line, still seated in Dunardarie with their clansmen, were not involved in the "clearing" of their own kin, and no MacTavish kindred were put off the lands. (5, 7)

Soon after the rebellion was put down, the English, under King George II, implemented a series of Acts to eliminate the Scottish threat. Ingenious in their conception, these laws not only restored order, they virtually eliminated a way of life by destroying the Chiefs powers, the clans, their identities and economic structures. The rule of the Scottish lairds and their absolute control of the Clans had to be broken, and on August 1st, 1746 the Act of Proscription went into effect, forbidding the wearing of any type of Highland Dress, tartan, trews, kilt, belt, etc…. The Act of Proscription was closely followed by the Heritable Jurisdictions Act. This new Act forced all Scottish landowners to either accept English jurisdiction or forfeit their lands. The impact of these Acts on all levels of Scottish society was swift and brutal. Landed peers who participated in the '45 had already lost their territory to the English outright. Now all the remaining lords of the land lost power over their subjects except the rights of landlord. The English system of law was forced on to the people and there was no turning back. It was not until the Repeal of the Act of 1782 that the Wearing of Highland Dress was granted to the Scots. (6A)

After Culloden, many more of the MacTavish started to use the Thom(p)son spelling, for it was not healthy to be known as a "Mac". Use of an obvious Gaelic name, like MacTavish, could draw a suspicious scrutiny as a Jacobite sympathizer if used. Taking an "Englished" spelling of the name was believed to lessen such suspicion, and hopefully avoid trouble. Many MacTavish kin scattered to the border country, to Ireland and to the New World. The Chiefly line of MacTavish, however, retained the name MacTavish and remained seated at Dunardry. If there was one advantage in Dugald MacTavish, the younger, being incarcerated in Dunbarton Prison, it was that the MacTavishes kept their lands without penalty. If Clan MacTavish had attended at Culloden as a Clan, the clan land might have been forfeit. It is of interest to note that the Duke of Argyll, the same man who had Dugald arrested in 1747, was advised by King George III (in the 1750s) to place Dugald MacTavish as Argyll's Chamberlain and Bailie of the area. One of Dugald's first cases in this position was between the Duke of Argyll and a young woodsman who worked for Argyll. The Duke of Argyll lost his case. (7) By this time very few MacTavish Clan Members remained on the old Clan Lands, having left for the new world, or the lowlands.

Dugald's son and Heir, Lachlan MacTavish succeeded his father in 1775; but by 1785, was forced to sell Dunardry at public auction on the 31st December, as he fell into financial difficulties, partly due to the building of the Crinan Canal, which split the MacTavish lands in half. The Canal had lasting effects for Scotland, and against the MacTavishes, and its building eventually broke the Clan and was the cause of the scattering of the MacTavish kindred. Lachlan, his wife and son, Dugald, who was three years old, moved to Edinburgh where Lachlan was installed as Governor of Taxes for the Crown, living at St. James' Court. Lachlan and his wife, Mary, had three more children: John George (1787-1847), Margaret and Flora. Lachlan registered his Arms in April 1793 and was attempting to buy back Dunardry but passed away in September 1796 without accomplishing this quest. His Heir, Dugald, was a mere lad of 14 (under the age of consent) and did not attempt to register his Arms. Dugald was well schooled and studied law, and was appointed one of His Majesty’s Writers to the Signet (WS) for Kintyre. (Sir Malcolm Innes of Edingight, former Lord Lyon King of Arms, is also a Writer to the Signet). (6)

During his tenure as WS and Sheriff-Substitute of Kintyre, Dugald MacTavish built "Kilchrist House" (now known as Kilchrist Castle) at Stewarton, Argyllshire, in 1824. It was a palatial house resting on 10 acres of prime land. His wife, Letitia Lochhart, bore him 10 surviving children. The first born, Lachlan, died at birth. The second son, William (1816-1870) at age 18 immigrated; sailing in 1833 to Canada with the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) as a company clerk and later became a Chief Factor, taking up duties at Fort Garry. He succeeded as Chief on the death of his father, Dugald, in 1855. William rose within the HBC to be appointed as Governor of Assinaboia and Ruperts Land (now Manitoba) and was instrumental in the formation of events leading up to the confederation of Canada in 1867, along with John A. MacDonald, first Prime Minister of Canada. (9)

Lachlan's son, Dugald, under age in 1796, did not register the MacTavish arms; and as a grown man, with his duties as the Sheriff Substitute of Kintyre he obviously did not feel inclined to do so, as he was, legally known as MacTavish of Dunardry. He died without having registered the Arms. Unfortunately, this carried on with his son William who had moved to the wilds of Canada. William also declined to matriculate. It is nominally suggested by Lord Lyon that at least every other generation re-register the Chiefly Arms, to avoid dormancy of the Clan. As a result of William not matriculating for the arms the Chiefly line was "lost" until 1949, when the Lord Lyon, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, contacted the MacTavish family in Canada, advising them that they were the missing Chiefly line, inviting them to petition for the Arms and Chiefship of the Clan. (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

William's great grandson, Edward Stewart Dugald MacTavish, was matriculated by the Court of the Lord Lyon 23 July 1997 and granted the Arms and Title of Chief of the Clan MacTavish of Dunardry, and was the 26th Chief of the Clan in an unbroken line. He passed away on 19 June 2005 at his home in Vancouver, BC. He is succeeded by his son and heir, the 27th Chief, Steven Edward Dugald MacTavish of Dunardry. (13)


  • Manuscript History of Craignish, P. Campbell, 1720 [Return to History]
  • The House of Argyll and Collateral Branches of the Clan Campbell, Tweed, 1871 [Return to History]
  • Commons of Argyll, D.C. MacTavish, 1941 [Return to History]
  • Potallach Writs, THE GENEALOGIST NEW SERIES. A Quarterly Magazine of Genealogical, Antiquarian, Topographical, and Heraldic Research. Edited by H. W. Forsyth Harwood, Barrister-at-Law (supplied by P. Adams, Clan MacTavish Genealogist) [Return to History]
  • Anals of the Four Masters, Ancient Eire, University of Dublin [Return to History]
  • Culloden, by John Prebble, 1998 [Return to History]
  • MacTavish of Dunardry, E.F. Bradford, 1997 [Return to History]
  • Composite of the: Highland Proscription Acts [Return to History]
  • Sheriff Advocate Records, Argyll, Argyll & Bute [Return to History]
  • Encycolpedia of Canadian Biography, Governor William MacTavish [Return to History]
  • The Letters of Letitia Hargrave, Champlain Society, M. A. McLeod, 1947: Upon his father’s (Dugald MacTavish or Dunardry, WS,) he (William MacTavish Governor for HBC) inherited the Chiefship of Clan Tavish, but he never matriculated. [Return to History]
  • MacTavish Family Papers, Argyll and Bute. [Return to History]
  • 1997 MacTavish Matriculation, Court of the Lord Lyon. The matriculation vellum names Edward Stewart Dugald MacTavish of Dunardry, Chief of the Clan MacTavish, and Steven Edward Dugald MacTavish as heir to the Chiefship. [Return to History]* Not to be confused with Clan Gregor, who are known as "The Children of the Mist". [Return to History]


    1. Margaret Arnett McLeod (1878-1966), a prominent Canadian Historian, was commissioned by the Champlain Society, Canada, to research and write an encompassing book based on the correspondence of Letitia (MacTavish) Hargrave and others of her family and acquaintances; she was daughter to Dugald MacTavish of Dunardry. Mrs. McLeod found that Letitia’s family was the Chiefly line of Clan MacTavish who had migrated to Canada, but had failed to matriculated for the Chiefship. Mrs. McLead contacted the Lord Lyon, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, who agreed with this discovery and invited the MacTavish to re-matriculate. The Letters of Letitia Hargrave, by M.A. McLeod, was published in 1947. Mrs. MacLeod was awarded the Merit Award of the Canadian Historical Association for "outstanding contribution to local history in Canada". In 1964, Premier Duff Roblin invested her in the Order of the Buffalo and that same year she was made a life member of the Manitoba Historical Society.

    2. Sheriff or Sheriffs-Substitute
    Since 1769 the sheriff-deputy has held his office ad vitam See also: AUT aut culpam. Power was given to him by 20 Geo. II. c. 43 to appoint one or more sheriffs-substitute. In 1787 the sheriff-substitute was placed on the civil establishment and paid by the crown:… While the sheriff-deputy has still power to hear cases in the first instance, and is required to hold a certain number of sittings in each place where the sheriff-substitute holds courts, and also once a year a small circuit small-debt court is appointed to be held, the ordinary course of civil procedure is that the sheriff-substitute acts as judge of first instance, with an appeal under certain restrictions from his decision to the sheriff-deputy, and from him to the court of session in all causes exceeding £25 in value. The sheriff-substitute also has charge of the preliminary investigation into crime, the evidence in which, called a precognition, is laid before him, and if necessary taken before him on oath at the instance of his procurator-fiscal, the local crown prosecutor. The sheriff-substitute may competently exercise all the judicial jurisdiction of the sheriff, subject to appeal in civil cases other than small debt cases. As regards his administrative functions he assists the sheriff generally, and may act for him in the registration and fiars court, and he superintends the preliminary stage of criminal inquiries, consulting with the sheriff if necessary; but the other administrative duties of the office are conducted by the sheriff-deputy in person.

    A Sheriff-Substitute is thus a full-time official, with complete jurisdiction in Sheriffdom in which he presides.
    (Source: Volume V24, Page 850 of the 1911 Edition, Encyclopedia Britannica)

    With only insignificant exceptions, the Heritable Jurisdictions Act 1747 abolished the heritable jurisdictions of Feudal Lords in Scotland. This Act breached the Treaty of Union which expressly preserved the feudal right to hold court. The Heritable Jurisdictions Act 1747 left a judicial vacuum and, as so often happened in Scots legal history, an existing institution evolved to fill the space — the sheriff. Many sheriffs were hereditary office holders with a qualified depute actually holding court. When the hereditary office ceased, the sheriff depute filled the role of sheriff. The sheriff depute (from 1828, the sheriff) appointed sheriffs substitute who held office under him. In 1787 sheriffs substitute became salaried and in 1877 the sheriff substitute became a Crown appointee.
    (Source: A General History of Scots Law)
    [Article is a PDF. Click link to view PDF. Right-click to Download.]

    4. Writer(s) to the Signet
    Writers were originally clerks who prepared letters under the king's signet seal. However, when the signet came into widespread use as the means of sealing all summonses to the king's court and all diligences issued by it, they increased in number and, as writers to the signet, not only prepared all summonses and diligences, but acted as agents or attorneys in presenting cases in the Court of Session.
    (Source: Research Tools)

    Originally, the Signet was the private seal of the early Scottish Kings, and the Writers to the Signet were those authorized to supervise its use and, later, to act as clerks to the Courts. The earliest recorded use of the Signet was in 1369, and Writers to the Signet were included as members of the College of Justice when it was established in 1532, but the Society did not take definite shape until 1594, when the King's Secretary, as Keeper of the Signet, granted Commissions to a Deputy Keeper and eighteen other writers.
    (Source: The Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet)

    5. Dugald MacTavish of Dunardry, eldest son of Lachlan MacTavish, was appointed Writer to the Signet (Attorney for the Crown). He was the Sheriff (Substitute) in Campeltown (1822 to 1845). Within the text of Dugald’s Will and Estate Inventory, he is lawfully identified as Dugald MacTavish of Dunardy. Argyll Commissary Court record books, 7 February 1856, Court Register, pages 358-361. In this document, Dugald is defined as “Dugald MacTavish of Dunardry Esquire, Writer to the Signet sometime Sheriff-Substitute for Campbeltown”, who died at Kilchrist, 20th July 1855.

    6. Accepted sources for the origins of Taviss Mhor (Coir) and Ivor Cromb:
    “Ane Accompt of the Genealogie of the Campbells”, Duncanson, Highland Papers, Scottish Hist. Society
    “Manuscript History of Craignish”, P. Campbell, ca 1720
    “ Celtic Monthly”, R. S. T. MacEwen, 1904
    “MACEWENS AND MACSWEENS” Oban Times, by N. D Campbell, 10th Duke of Argyll.
    CLAN TAVISH, Oban Times, by N. D Campbell, 10th Duke of Argyll.
    “The House of Argyll and Collateral Branches of the Clan Campbell”, Tweed, 1871
    “An Inquiry into the Genealogy and Present State of Ancient Scottish Surnames with the Origin and Descent of the Highland Clans”, By William Buchanan, originally published 1723.

    7. “ARGYLSHIRE, A Contribution to Argylshire History
    Being a Monograph Sketch of the SWEYNES OF SKIPNESS and the MACTAVISHES OF DUN-ARDRIGH, KNAPDALE AND ELSEWHERE, their Ancestors and Descendants” by George D. Mathews, D.D., L.L.D. “Argylshire” confirms much of the above brief historical conclusions. This work was researched and edited by Patricia Adams, Genealogist for Clan MacTavish, Copyright P. Adams. It was originally written at the turn of century (late 1800s to early 1900s), and is an extensive survey of the origins and history of the MacSweens and MacTavishes, by the distinguished Dr. Mathews, himself a descendant of the MacSweens and MacTavishes. Mrs. Adams has re-researched, added to and edited this work, providing clarifications from sources unavailable to Dr. Mathews. The original text was left intact. It is a prized source of information for Clan MacTavish.

    Posted with permission of the author, Patrick Thompson, Seannachie, Clan MacTavish, from:, the Officially Sanctioned Website of Clan MacTavish.

    President of Clan MacTavish USA, Larry Thompson
    Convener for the Memphis area:
    Charles Viar, 623 Morning Road, Dyersburg, TN 38024
    Charles is also the Region 3 Commissioner for Clan MacTavish USA.