Honour killings: when blood feuds ruled the clans

David with the Head of Goliath, by Michelangelo Merisi/Caravaggio

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Scotland in the late Middle Ages was so riddled with feuding clans that King James VI was forced to intervene, as broadcaster Billy Kay reveals.

My father's record collection included an album by Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar. A song that haunted my childhood in Ayrshire was his rendition of The Bonnie Earl o' Moray.

Ye Hielands and ye Lowlands, O, whaur hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl o' Moray, And laid him on the green. He was a braw gallant, And he rade at the ring, And the bonny Earl o' Moray, He micht hae been a king.

Find out more

  • Killing: The History of Murder in Scotland is a 4 part series exploring the social history of homicide.
  • In episode one Billy Kay looks at the role honour played in the early history of Scottish murder.
  • It is broadcast on Monday 4 March at 14:05 on BBC Radio Scotland.

I still know the words by heart and can sing it to this day. What I did not know until I made the series, Killing: The History of Murder in Scotland, was that, like all great songs, it distilled a way of life and a historical process into a few emotive verses.

Fair game

What the ballad expresses is the era of the blood feud in Scottish history. This was a time of clan and family vendettas which reached a chaotic height in the 1590s.

The feud between the Moray and Huntly clans of north east Scotland mentioned in the ballad was just one of many. Keith Brown, author of Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573-1625, believes that at least 390 feuds ravaged the peace of the nation.

Start Quote

Medieval patricians and aristocrats alike considered violence to be their special prerogative”

End Quote Pieter Spierenburg Author, A History of Murder

Blood was the substance that bound the kindred together. Anyone of the same blood was a potential victim and regarded as fair game.

'Bang it out bravely'

In a more dispassionate moment, James VI outlined the scale of the problem in this description of his unruly subjects from his book The Basilikon Doron:

"An for anie displeisure that they apprehend to be done unto them by their neighbours (they) tak up a plain feud against him, and (without respect to God, King or Commonweal) bang it out bravely, hee and all his kinne, against him and all his."

Among those fighting, or continuing to "bang it out bravely", were the Lindsays and Ogilvies in Angus in the 1400s, the Cunninghames and Montgomeries in Ayrshire in the 1520s, and Highland clans such as the McDonalds and Mcleans almost in perpetuity.

We now think of murder as a mainly urban phenomenon perpetrated by a knife-wielding or gun-carrying underclass, but in the past the majority of murders came about in the bloody aftermath of insults to the honour of aristocratic men and their kindred.

The Battle of the Clans Clan warfare was commonplace in Scotland in the late Middle Ages
Sanguis Clamat

In his book, A History of Murder, Pieter Spierenburg writes, "Medieval patricians and aristocrats alike considered violence to be their special prerogative."

Fascinatingly, many held to the old belief expressed in the Latin phrase sanguis clamat - that the blood of a victim even when dead could rise and cry out for justice in the presence of the murderer.

King James wrote about this in his book 'Demonology'. The rich Scots language of the period resonates across the centuries.

Portrait of James VI King James VI attempted to end the bloody clan rivalries when he became King James I of England and Ireland

"In a secret Murther if the deid carcase be at ony time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it will gush oot o blude, as if the blude wer crying to heaven for revenge."


Blood feud and vendetta of course survived into the 20th century in remote areas of Europe such as Corsica, Southern Italy and Albania. In American states such as West Virginia and North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains, family feuds also thrived until very recently.

Many commentators blame this on the predominant Scots and Ulster Scots ethnicity of the area. In other words, feuding was in the migrants' blood and they took it to America with them.

That is debatable, as the Lowland Scotland they left behind had long since abandoned the feud as a legitimate means of settling disputes.

Ending the fighting

There were distinctively Scottish circumstances in the curbing of the feuding families after 1603, when James VI became James I of England.

What was the Union of the Crowns?

  • When England's Queen Elizabeth I died childless her distant cousin James VI of Scotland inherited her throne.
  • He became known as James I in England, but retained his title of James VI in Scotland.
  • James promised to return to Scotland every few years but eventually managed only one trip home.
  • James had designs on being the official 'King of Great Britain', but the English parliament was unenthused.
  • There was little enthusiasm north of the border, and James's grand plan did not come to fruition during his lifetime.

The last thing James wanted on the Anglo-Scottish border was a continuation of the reiving and cattle rustling way of life which had perpetuated the violence of the feud.

James encouraged the rising powers of Sweden, Poland, Prussia and Russia to import these fighting men from the reiving families of the Borders and elsewhere to channel their fighting prowess as soldiers of fortune.

With the Union of the Crowns in 1603 the "auld monster o deidly feud", as described by James VI, declined.

Social changes such as a focus on the nuclear family rather than the extended kindred after the Reformation, the rise of the state and the spread of law and commerce were also influential in bringing this violent period to a close.

As ever with the Scots the end of the era is captured perfectly in song - The Mosstroopers Lament.

Our King's is ower the Border gaen, In London for to dwell; And friens we maun wi England be, Sin' he bides there himsel: We'll gang nae mair a roving, A roving in the night, We'll gang nae mair a roving, Let the moon shine e'er sae bright. O we'll gang nae mair a roving!

Killing: The History of Murder in Scotland will be broadcast on Monday 4 March at 14:05 on BBC Radio Scotland. It will be available on the BBC iPlayer afterwards.

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