Band and Statues of Icolmkill

Iona Abbey.
Iona Abbey.

[T]he first of a succession of measures taken by the Scottish government specifically aimed at the extirpation of the Gaelic language, the destruction of its traditional culture and the suppression of its bearers.

Gaelic: A Past and Future Prospect. MacKinnon, Kenneth. The Saltire Society 1991, Edinburgh.

Whoever would understand one of the most important transactions in the History of the Scottish Highlands must read those six printed pages, containing the actual text of ‘THE BAND AND STATUTES OF ICOLMKILL.’ The purport of the BAND is that, at a Court held by Bishop [Andrew] Knox [of the Isles] in the sacred Island of Iona on the 24th of August 1609, nine of the Highland and Island chiefs, — viz., Angus Macdonald of Dunivaig in Islay, Hector Maclean of Duart in Mull, Donald Gorm Macdonald of Sleat in Skye, Rory Macleod of Harris, Rory MacKinnon of Strathordaill in Skye, Lauchlan MacLean of Coll, Donald Macdonald of Ylanterim in Moydart (Captain of Clanranald), Lauchlan Maclean of Lochbuy in Mull, and Gillespie MacQuharrie of Ulva, — had bound themselves by the most solemn oaths to future obedience to his Majesty and to the laws of Scotland.

The Statutes of Icolmkill.

They are nine in number as follows :–

  1. The ruinous kirks to be repaired, and a regular parochial ministry to be established and maintained, with the same discipline as in other parts of the realm, the same observance of the Sabbath and of other moralities, and the suppression in particular of the inveterate Celtic practice of marriages for a term of years.
  2. Inns to be set up in convenient places in all the Islands for the accommodation of travellers, so as to put an end to mere idle wandering and to the burden on the resources of poor tenants and crofters by the habit of promiscuous quartering.
  3. To the same purpose, all idle vagabonds without visible and honest means of living to be cleared out of the Isles; and the chiefs themselves to cease from capricious exactions upon their clansmen, and be content each with a household retinue of as many gentlemen and servants as his means will support, — e.g. MacLean of Duart with eight gentlemen, Angus Macdonald, Donald Gorm, Rory MacLeod, and the Captain of Clanranald, with six gentlemen each, and so proportionally with the rest.
  4. Still to the same purpose, all sorning and begging, and the custom of “conzie,” to be put down. [Sorning is the practice of extorting free quarters & provision. Conzie is the practice of billeting the lord’s soldiers upon the tenantry.]
  5. A main cause of the poverty and barbarity of the Islanders being “thair extraordinair drinking of strong wynis and acquavitie, brocht in amangis thame pairtlie be merchandis of the maneland and pairtlie be sum trafficquaris indwellaris amangis thameselffis,” all general importation or sale of wine or aquavitae to be stopped by penalties, with reserve of liberty, however, to all persons in the Islands to “brew aquavitie and uthir drink to serve thair awne housis,” and to the chiefs and other substantial gentlemen to send to the Lowlands for the purchase of as much wine and aquavitae as they may require for their households.
  6. Every gentleman or yeoman in the Islands possessing “thriescore kye,” and having children, to send at least his eldest son, or, failing sons, his eldest daughter, to some school in the Lowlands, there to be kept and brought up “quhill they may be found able sufficientlie to speik, reid, and wryte Inglische.”
  7. The Act of Parliament prohibiting all subjects of his Majesty from carrying hagbuts or pistols out of their own houses, or shooting with such firearms at deer, hares, or fowls, to be strictly enforced within the Islands.
  8. The chiefs not to entertain wandering bards, or other vagabonds of the sort “pretending libertie to baird and flattir,” and all such “vagaboundis, bairdis, juglouris, or suche lyke” to be apprehended, put in the stocks, and expelled the Islands.
  9. For the better keeping of these Statutes, and in conformity with the rule that the principal man of every clan is answerable for all his kinsmen and dependents, this present agreement to be a sufficient warrant to all chiefs and sub-chiefs to apprehend and try malefactors within their bounds, seize their goods for the King’s use, and deliver over their persons to the judge competent to be farther dealt with; the chiefs becoming bound not to reset or maintain within their bounds any malefactors that may be fugitive from the bounds of his own natural superior.

— Register of Privy Council of Scotland, Vol. IX, 1610-1613 (1889).

With regard to the “inveterate Celtic practice of marriages for a term of years,” Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn observed eight-five years later:

It was an antient Custom in the Islands, that a Man should take Maid to his Wife, and keep her the space of a Year without marrying her; and if she pleased him all the while, he marry’d her at the end of the Year, and legitimated the Children: but if he did not love her, he return’d her to her Parents, and her Portion also, and if there happen’d to be any Children, they were kept by the Father: but this unreasonable Custom was long ago brought in disuse.

A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, by Martin Martin, 1693.

Formalities Observed

A romantic depiction of Highland chiefs, in Stewart and Gordon tartans; J. Logan, The Scottish Gaël, 1831.
A romantic depiction of Highland chiefs, in Stewart and Gordon tartans; J. Logan, The Scottish Gaël, 1831.

Every Heir or young Chieftain of a Tribe was oblig’d in Honour to give a publick Specimen of his Valour before he was own’d and declar’d Governor or Leader of his People, who obey’d and follow’d him upon all Occasions.

This Chieftain was usually attended with a Retinue of young Men of Quality, who had not beforehand given any Proof of their Valour, and were ambitious of such an Opportunity to signalize themselves.

It was usual for the Captain to lead them, to make a desperate Incursion upon some Neighbour or other that they were in Feud with; and they were oblig’d to bring by open force the Cattel they found in the Lands they attack’d, or to die in the Attempt.

After the Performance of this Achievement, the young Chieftain was ever after reputed valiant and worthy of Government, and such as were of his Retinue acquir’d the like Reputation. This Custom being reciprocally us’d among them, was not reputed Robbery; for the Damage which one Tribe sustain’d by this Essay of the Chieftain of another, was repair’d when their Chieftain came in his turn to make his Specimen: but I have not heard an Instance of this Practice for these sixty Years past.

The Formalities observ’d at the Entrance of these Chieftains upon the Government of their Clans, were as follow:

A Heap of Stones was erected in form of a Pyramid, on the top of which the young Chieftain was plac’d, his Friends and Followers standing in a Circle round about him, his Elevation signifying his Authority over them, and their standing below their Subjection to him. One of his principal Friends deliver’d into his Hands the Sword worn by his Father, and there was a white Rod deliver’d to him likewise at the same time.

Immediately after, the Chief Druid (or Orator) stood close to the Pyramid, and pronounc’d a Rhetorical Panegyric, setting forth the antient Pedigree, Valour, and Liberality of the Family as Incentives to the young Chieftain, and fit for his imitation.

—  A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, Martin Martin, 1703.