Since the first revival of interest in clan history, around the time of King George IV’s famous trip to Edinburgh resplendent in Royal Stewart kilt and pink tights, people have known of the existence of a Clan Ewen, and MacEwens, McEwans, Ewens, Ewings and all other variants of the name have looked to a common origin on the romantic shores of Loch Fyne. We have called ourselves a ‘broken clan’ or a ‘scattered clan’, or even ‘children of the mist’ – but that mist hides secrets indeed.
In clans with a strong and unbroken historical tradition, there is often an awareness that a name can have more than one origin, and that a shared name does not necessarily suggest a shared clan.
In the case of Clan Ewen, the official history of the clan was more-or-less entirely based on written sources as interpreted by Skene and Keltie. The situation was hardly changed by the work of R. S. T. MacEwen, because although he drew on new sources including oral testimony, he tried to understand these sources entirely in the context of the existing historical account. So, for the past two hundred years MacEwens have attempted to reconcile their own historical traditions with the book-learned history of the clan.
Unsurprisingly, those two centuries have left an indelible mark on local family traditions, and I have yet to discover a MacEwen who does not believe that his family originated in the Clan Ewen of Otter. But there is good evidence for at least two separate origins for the name, and these two other MacEwen clans must have modern descendants, even if they now think of themselves as MacEwens of Otter.
The traditions of the MacEwens of Galloway go back to the fourteenth century, when one Patrick MacEwyn is recorded as Provost of Wigtown (1331). Like the Agnews of Lochnaw, Patrick had probably come to Scotland from Ireland under the patronage of Alexander Bruce, Lord of Galloway. Galloway had been staunchly loyal to the Balliols, and Alexander wanted to replace the key men in the region with trusted allies. Amongst them were the Agnews of Larne who were settled at Lochnaw, and seemingly also the McKeowns (or MacEoins) of Glenarm, who were given Wigtown and dubbed MacEwyn.
These McKeowns were actually descended from the Scottish Bissets, but had fled to Ireland after the murder of Patrick, Earl of Atholl, in 1242. However, they seem to have retained the old Bisset crest of a leafy oak stump and the Bisset motto Reviresco. Agnew tradition records their own family’s ongoing alliance with the local MacEwen clan, who supported them in their struggle with Black Archibald Douglas in the late 1300’s.
A more recent MacEwen clan has its origins in Clan Cameron. Indeed there might actually be two separate Cameron septs with the name, both of which originated at more-or-less the same time.
The first of these stems from the romantic figure of an Taillear Dubh na Tuaighe, ‘The Black Tailor of the Axe’, who is a hero of Clan Cameron to this day. Taillear Dubh was the son of the 14th chief, Ewen Beag Cameron (d.1553), and so is known by his patronymic as Donald MacEwen Cameron. He appears in sixteenth-century documents as the leader of a distinct group which is styled as ‘Clan Ewen’. Donald Taillear Dubh MacEwen settled in Argyll on the Cowal peninsular, and it seems likely that MacEwens in this area today may be descended from his clan.
If Donald Taillear Dubh MacEwen is the hero of the sixteenth-century Clan Cameron, its anti-hero must be his arch-enemy Ewen MacEwen Cameron of Erracht. Ewen MacEwen was the son of the 12th chief, and he stood by while his two nephews took the chiefship. But when the 15th chief died leaving only a tiny baby as heir, he figured his turn had come and made a bid for the chiefship himself. He was opposed by an Taillear Dubh, who remained loyal to the infant Allan Cameron of Lochiel.
History is rarely fair, and had events followed a different course, Ewen MacEwen could well have been cast as hero with Donald MacEwen as recalcitrant villain. But it was Donald MacEwen’s cause which won out, condemning the MacEwen Camerons of Erracht to the role of treacherous outlaws. In sixteenth-century documents, the Camerons of Erracht are often described simply as MacEwens, and this is probably the name that many of their descendants bear to this day.
Other possible origins for the name MacEwen occur in Clan Dougall, Clan Donald and Clan Gregor.
But there is also confusion over the fate of Clan Ewen of Otter. Many people assume that when the old chief Swene MacEwen died in 1493, the clansmen were left ‘chiefless in Cowal’, and dispersed sporadically across Scotland over the intervening centuries. But this is not really a very plausible scenario.
The core of the clan was its chiefs and warriors. This warrior elite is bound together through family alliances, and they are more interested in the honour, status and social cohesion of their kinship group than they are in the land. When warriors were granted estates by the clan chief, their loyalty remained to their clan and to their chief – to the real source of their wealth and status. If their chief went, they followed. So, when the MacEwens lost the barony of Otter they wouldn’t stay on as tenant farmers under a new baron (who would never be able to rely on their loyalty in any case), they would go and find a more honourable position elsewhere even if this entails loss of wealth.
Any who stayed behind were tacksmen and tenants, whose ancestors had probably lived in the area long before the MacEwens arrived. Their loyalty was to the land, and they will have been as happy to live under Campbell rule as MacEwen. It is largely the descendants of these local farmers that we are likely to discover in Cowal today, while the descendants of the clan itself have long since moved on. But these farmers will have readily adopted the clan names of their new rulers, and are more likely to appear today as Campbells, Lamonts and MacLachlans than as MacEwens.
According to a tradition recorded by R. S. T. MacEwen, the MacEwens sought the protection of the Earl of Lennox in the fifteenth century under their own chief. So, it would seem that Swene MacEwen was succeeded by a new chief, who led his clan to a new homeland around Loch Lomond and Dumbartonshire in the Earldom of Lennox.
Although it is certain that Swene MacEwen died without a legitimate son, this does not mean that the chiefship remained vacant. Whilst he had signed away the barony of Otter, he had not signed away the chiefship of the clan. A chief in Swene’s position could appoint a ‘tanist’ from among his male kindred who would succeed him as heir after his death. A charter of Swene MacEwen dated 1431 names ‘John, son of William MacEwen’ as witness. This John MacEwen probably represents another line of descent from the clan’s founder (he might have been Swene’s uncle or cousin), and either he or his sons would have been likely heirs to the chiefship by tanistry.
Up until now, it has been to the Otter clan alone that MacEwens have looked for their ancestral roots. This was the only clan listed in the books, and we didn’t simply know that there were any other possible roots, so we all assumed that we were descendants of a single clan. As a result, family traditions have apparently been adapted to fit with the official history. Perhaps, it is too late now to undo this process and to uncover traditions that have not been overwritten by the myth of descent from Clan Ewen of Otter.
Nevertheless, I hope that the members of Clan Ewen today can embrace this broader history, and that some might be able to re-explore their heritage in the light of possible alternative origins, adding new richness to the tapestry of MacEwen history.
Thor Ewing is the author of New Notes on Clan Ewen.