Marriage in the Highlands in the Early 1500’s*
|Dunscaith, home of the Chieftain of the MacDonalds of Sleat|
The most surprising thing I learned in my research for my THE RETURN OF THE HIGHLANDERS series was about the marriage practices of Highlanders in the Western Isles, particularly the chieftains, at that time my books take place.
In the early 1500’s, these Gaelic-speaking Highlanders maintained their old Celtic customs alongside their Christian beliefs. Priests were not necessary to make a marriage, which was fortunate since priests were few and far between in the Highlands at this time. In Celtic secular marriage, it was common for couples to enter a trial marriage. At the end of a year, either party could leave the marriage. If the couple decided to stick with it, they could have their marriage blessed at the same time their first child was christened when the priest made his rounds. Children born of these trial marriages were considered legitimate, and men generally claimed children born outside of marriage as well. Divorce was permitted by either party on fairly loose grounds.
Chieftains, who were more than kings to their clans, disregarded edicts from Rome as freely as they ignored edits from the Crown. For them, marriage was a means of making an alliance with another clan—and they changed alliances all the time. Henry VIII had nothing on some of these chieftains when it came to multiple wives, though a chieftain could simply “set aside” a wife, rather than look for an excuse to have her killed.
The chieftains did not ignore the Church rules entirely, but Rome was a long way away so they generally followed the principle that it was better to ask forgiveness than permission. Though a chieftain might seek an annulment, he was unlikely to wait the two or three years to get an answer from Rome before taking a new wife. The petition for annulment was often based on the marriage being in violation of the rules of consanguinity, though everyone had been well aware of the issue at the time of the marriage.
As might be expected, a clan chieftain’s serial (and sometimes concurrent) marriages did not always lead to family harmony or good relations with other clans. The MacDonalds of Sleat, the clan of my fictional heroes, had their share of such conflict.
Hugh (Uisdean), the first MacDonald of Sleat and the grandfather of my fictional character Connor, was one of three sons that Alexander, the third Lord of the Isles, had by different women. Despite being admonished by the pope himself for putting away his true wife and “adhering” to Hugh’s beautiful and highborn mother, Alexander refused to part with her. His half-sons, however, got along well.
Hugh had six sons by six different women, all from prominent families. Unfortunately, his sons did not get along as well as Hugh had with his half-brothers. In fact, Hugh’s first son hated his half-brothers so much that upon his death he turned the clan’s lands over to the Crown to keep the others from inheriting them. Though later chieftains held onto the lands, their lack of legal title caused the clan problems for years. Two of Hugh’s other sons were murdered by their half-brothers, and another was murdered by Hugh’s grandsons.
This family strife plays an important role in all four books in THE RETURN OF THE HIGHLANDERS. In THE SINNER, I also included as secondary characters two couples who were wed in order to make alliances between their respective clans—with wildly differing results.
|Margaret Mallory at Eilean Donan|
I drew on a well-known incident involving the Maclean chieftain, Lachlan Cattanach (Shaggy), and his wife Catherine, whose father and then brother were chieftains of the powerful Campbell clan. I won’t say here what happened, but when Shaggy was found murdered in bed on a visit to Edinburgh some years later, everyone assumed it was done by a Campbell in retribution.
Catherine’s brother John had better luck in marriage. When the Thane of Cawdor died leaving his baby daughter Muriel as his sole heir, clan chieftains all over the Highlands hoped to arrange a match that would result in one of their sons becoming the next Thane of Cawdor one day. When Muriel was still a toddler, the Campbell chieftain preempted the others by having his men snatch Muriel when she was outside the walls of Cawdor Castle taking in the fresh air with her nursemaid. Muriel was raised in the Campbell chieftain’s household and married to John as soon as she reached twelve, the age of consent. By all reports, this marriage, which was made solely for the purpose of gaining lands and wealth for the Campbells, was a very happy one.
* My primary source is “Marriage, Concubinage and Divorce in Gaelic Scotland,” by David Sellar, from Volume 51 of the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. (Thanks to Sharron Gunn for referring me to the article.) I also found supporting information in clan histories from numerous sources.
I hope you’ll enjoy the slide show I put together of photos I took of some of the castles & other settings that appear in THE SINNER. To see the show, click here , then click on “show info” on the upper right for descriptions.
For Book Group Discussion Questions, blurbs, excerpts, and other information relating to my books, please visit my website: www.MargaretMallory.com.
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Four fearless warriors return to the Highlands to claim their lands and legacies. But all their trials on the battlefield can't prepare them for their greatest challenge yet: winning the hearts of four willful Scottish beauties.
IRRESISTIBLE DESIREAlex MacDonald is known for his skill as a warrior, his prowess with women, and his vow to never take a wife. But now his chieftain has asked him to make the ultimate sacrifice: wed Glynis MacNeil, a lass famed throughout the Highlands for her exquisite beauty—and defiant ways.
Familiar with heartbreak, Glynis refuses to fall for another handsome scoundrel. Yet when Alex's past sins force an unlikely union, Glynis gives in to temptation and becomes his wife. Will their newfound passion be strong enough to fight the enemy that threatens their home, their clan, and their very lives?