Origins of the clan

The name Matheson has been attributed to the Gaelic words Mic Mhathghamhuin which means Son of the Bear or Son of the Heroes. Traditionally the Clan Matheson descends from a twelfth century man called Gilleoin, who is thought to have been from the ancient royal house of Lorne. According to tradition the Clan Matheson were among the followers of the King in his wars with the Picts, whom he finally overthrew at the great Battle of Cambuskenneth near Stirling in 838. The Clan Matheson settled around the area of Lochalsh, Lochcarron and Kintail and gave their allegiance to the Clan MacDonald and the Lord of the Isles.

Scottish Norwegian War

Kenneth MacMathan, constable of Eilean Donan is recorded in both the Norse account of the expedition of Haakon IV of Norway against Scotland in 1263, and in the Chamberlain Rolls of that year, which culminated in the defeat of King Haakon at the Battle of Largs.

15th century & Clan Conflicts

††††† At the beginning of the 15th century the Clan Matheson chief was said to be strong enough to defy the powerful Earl of Sutherland the chief of Clan Sutherland and upon the latter descending upon Lochalsh, intent upon punishing so presumptuous a person, he was actually defeated and slain by the Clan Matheson. The scene of the encounter is still pointed out at a spot known from the event as the Battle Crnoc an Cattich. However conflicting accounts state that this battle was actually against the Clan MacKay in 1438 where Alistair MacRuari Matheson is said to have been killed. This again conflicts with accounts which state he was executed in 1427.

††††† The Clan Matheson fought for Donald, Lord of the Isles at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. At that time the Clan Matheson was a large and powerful clan with a force of around 2000 men. Chief Alastair Matheson, leader of 2000 men, was arrested by James I at Inverness. Upon King James I of Scotland’s return from his long captivity in England there were many turbulent clan chiefs chiefs of clans who supported the Lord of the Isles in his claim to the Earldom of Ross and his struggle against the power of the Scottish kings. Summoning them to a “Parliament” at Inverness, King James promptly arrested the most dangerous of them, executed some on the spot, and carried others to Edinburgh, where a number more were tried and condemned to the same fate. Chief Alastair MacRuari Matheson was among the latter, and was executed in 1427.

††††† Alastair left a widow with two sons, and his widow presently married again, her second husband being a son of the chief of the Clan MacLeod of Lewis. This individual took advantage of the youth of his stepsons to endeavour to establish himself in possession of their property, and at last, finding themselves probably in actual danger, the young Mathesons fled from Lochalsh. While the younger went to Caithness, John, the elder of the two, went to his motherís father, the chief of the Clan MacKintosh. He did not, however, give up the hope of recovering his property, and by having arrived at years of manhood, he obtained from his grandfather a force of men from the Clan MacKintosh for his purpose, and set out to surprise the MacLeods. It was night when the party arrived at Lochalsh, and having observed the utmost precautions of secrecy, young Matheson succeeded in his purpose. Making a sudden assault, he set the castle on fire, and as the garrison was forced to come out they were slain or captured by the Mackintoshes. Anxious to save his motherís life, Matheson took up a position at the gate, and when she appeared, she was, by his orders, safely passed through the lines of the Mackintoshes. In the midst of the tumult, however, and flashings of the torches, it was not perceived that she was walking in an unusual way. She was wearing an arisaid, or wide plaited garment with heavy folds doubled around the hips. Under this she had managed to conceal her husband, and in a few moments the latter was beyond the light of the torches and able to escape in the darkness.

††††† The Matheson chief then took possession of his property, but he was not allowed to enjoy it long in peace. MacLeod, hastening to the Lews, raised a considerable force, with which he returned and deliberately invaded the Matheson country. In the encounter which took place he was finally forced to retreat, and as he fell back upon his birlinns or galleys, his force suffered severely from the flights of arrows poured into it by a company of Matheson bowmen under a certain Ian Ciar MacMurghai Mhic-Thomais. From this incident the battle is remembered as Blar-na-saigheadear. However MacLeod was not yet completely discouraged. Once more he gathered his men on the Lews, and once more came back. But in this second attempt MacLeod was defeated and slain, and the MacLeods troubled the Mathesons no more.

††††† Not all of the Mathesons were known for their warlike pursuits; Dougal mac Ruadhri Matheson established the name in both the organisation of church and state. He was Prior of Beauly from 1498 to 1514, and also sat in parliament when Ross was erected a separate sheriffdom.

16th century

††††† By the 16th century the power of the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles had warned and the Clan Matheson found themselves squeezed between their two neighbouring clans, the Clan MacLeod of Lewis to the west and the Clan MacKenzie on the mainland to their east. The Mathesons gave their allegiance to the MacKenzies. Chief Iain Dubh Matheson died whilst defending the Castle on Eilean Donan island against the Clan MacDonald of Sleat for the Clan MacRae and Clan MacKenzie in 1539.

††††† By the middle of the 16th century the Clan Mathesons had greatly diminished in size and influence, and John Mathesonís son Dougal possessed no more than a third of the ancient Matheson property on Lochalsh. Even that property he was in danger of losing by engaging in a dangerous feud on his own account with Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry. This powerful chief had established himself on the shores of Loch Carron at hand, and he presently seized Matheson and threw him into prison, where he died. This incident brought about the final ruin of the Clan Matheson as a powerful clan.

††††† With a view to avenge his fatherís death, and recover his lost territory; Dougal’s son, Murdoch Buidhe Matheson, relinquished all his remaining property, excepting the farms of Balmacara and Fernaig, to the chief of the Clan MacKenzie of Kintail, in return for the services of an armed force with which to attack the Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry. The lands thus handed over were never recovered from the MacDonnells. Neither Mathesonís generalship or the force given to him by Clan MacKenzie seems to have been enough to the task of forcing terms upon MacDonnells of Glengarry.

††††† Murdoch Matheson’s son, Ruari, the next Clan Matheson chief, had more satisfaction, when, as part of the following of the Clan MacKenzie chief, he set out to punish the MacDonnells of Glengarry. On this occasion Glengarryís stronghold of Sron, or Strome, on Loch Carron, was stormed and destroyed. By this time the Mathesons appear to have been merely the “kindly tenants” of the Clan MacKenzie compared to the more powerful clan they once were. In course of time that kindly tenancy, or occupation on condition of rendering certain services, was changed into a regular rent payment, and Balmacara and the other Matheson properties passed from the hands of the chiefs of that name for ever. The family was afterwards represented by the Mathesons of Bennetsfield.

18th century

The Mathesons of Lochalsh had been baillies to the Earl of Sutherland since the late fifteenth century, when they had settled on the north side of Loch Shin. During the early Jacobite Uprisings Donald Matheson of Shiness who was chief of the branch of Clan Matheson who resided in Sutherland fought against the Jacobites during the rising of 1715.

Dugald Matheson’s son (Ian Og Matheson) had extensive lands in Lochalsh. He left these to Alexander, the eldest of his three sons, who purchased more land in Lochalsh. Ian Og also had a fourth son, who was killed at the Battle of Glenshiel in 1719.

However John, second of Bennetsfield, was, unlike his Lochalsh-Sutherland cousins and a Jacobite who fought at the Battle of Culloden. When the princeís army was defeated, John escaped and, according to story, fell into the hands of Hanoverian officers who were unaware of his Jacobite sympathies. He gave them some advice on the location of sound building stone, and returned safely to his home as a result.

Highland clearances

During the Highland Clearances many Matheson families suffered great hardship in the Kildonan clearances. It is probably from these Sutherland evictions that Sir James Matheson left Scotland, and eventually founded his commercial empire, the well-known trading house of Jardine Matheson Holdings in the Far East.

19th century

Eilean Donan Castle was bombarded and destroyed in 1719 by the English fleet at the time of the Battle of Glenshiel in 1719. When Sir Alexander Matheson bought the land in 1851 the ruin must have been included. It was later sold by his eldest son Sir Kenneth Matheson, 2nd Baronet, to Major John Macrae-Gilstrap, who restored the castle to its present state.

In 1822, it appears, from a MS. history of the clan quoted by James Logan, author of the letterpress of MíIanís “Clans of the Scottish Highlands,” the lineal representative of the ancient heads of the clan was a certain Alexander Matheson who lived in Sallachie. The Chiefship is now believed to be held by Hayling Matheson, who was resident in England.

Clan profile

††††† Gaelic Name: MacMhathain.

††††† Motto: Fac et spera (Do and hope)

††††† Badge: Broom.

††††† Lands: Lochalsh, Sutherland.

††††† Origin of Name: Bear’s son.

Clan castles

††††† The seat of the Chief of the Clan Matheson was at Fort Matheson which is now a ruin.

††††† Later Mathesons, including Sir James Matheson resided in Lews Castle.

††††† The current chief Sir Fergus Matheson, 7th Baronet, and his wife Lady Matheson of Matheson now reside in Norfolk, England.

Clan chiefs

Lochalsh branch





flourished 1225


died 1304


flourished 1300s


flourished 1300s


flourished 1300s


flourished 1300s


flourished c 1400


died 1427 or 1438

either executed by King James I in 1427 or killed at Battle of Cnoc nan Catach by the MacKays in 1438

Iain Dubh

the elder died 1490s

Alasdair MacRuaidhri

died 1506

Iain Dubh

the younger died 1539

Chamberlain of Eilean Donan Castle

Dugald Roy

flourished 1540s

Murdoch Buidhe

flourished 1530s-1570s

Roderick (1st of Fernaig)

died before 1600

Iain (2nd of Fernaig )

flourished 1600s

Also known as Iain McRuari Mhic Mhathoin

Iain Og

flourished 1660s

Bennetsfield branch




Iain Mor

died 1715

Alexander (1st of Bennetsfield)

held Chiefship 1715 - 1754

John (2nd of Bennetsfield)

1754 - 1768

Present at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Colin (3rd of Bennetsfield)

1763 - 1825

John (4th of Bennetsfield)

1825 - 1843

James Brook Young (5th of Bennetsfield)

1843 - 1886

Eric Grant (6th of Bennetsfield)

1886 - 1899

Heylin Fraser (7th of Bennetsfield)

1899 - 1945

Bertram Heylin (9th of Bennetsfield)

1945 - 1975

Lochalsh branch




Sir Torquhil Alexander Matheson, 6th Baronet

1975 - 1993

Sir Fergus John Matheson, 7th Baronet

1993 -

The current chief

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