c. before 1470 – c. 1490
Relationship to Fawn: 16th great grandmother
Note regarding spellings: I am mostly using Anglicized spellings that might be easier for a typical reader to understand, though they most likely were not the spellings used in a Gaelic context at the time.
I was using other people’s research to see where one of my family lines would take me when I encountered Fiona O’Beolan. My first reaction was simply, “How great to have a Fiona in the family line.” The name has a humorous little story in our family. It was a name I had brought in for consideration when naming our daughter, Fawn. Then, when she was a child she announced the intention to change her name when she was older, and that name would be Fiona. Her preference for it came from having many times watched The Secret of Roan Inish, with the young heroine of the movie named Fiona. However, once past that initial reaction I found myself thinking a lot about the brief life of Fiona O’Beolan, and northwest Scotland as the cradle for the emergence of one our family lines.
Most of the people I’ve found tracing family lines that include the O’Beolans set Fiona’s years at 1470 – 1490. However, there is some indication she could have been born as early as 1455. If both sons of Iye Roy MacKay, her husband, were in fact sons of Fiona as well a date of birth earlier than 1470 make sense as John, the eldest of the two sons was born about 1484. Her son, Donald, and our direct ancestor, was born in 1490. If she died in 1490 it could have been as a result of childbirth. In any case, it was a short life by our standards today. If she was only 20, it was a short life even by their standards.
At the outset, it’s worth noting that when one is delving this far in the past documentation becomes scanty, written records of the characters themselves even scantier, if existing at all. We have to be open to the possibility of error and the reader should not consider any data as infallible. That said, and treading carefully, my objective here is to simply depict the area of the world in which this part of our family was formed, something of the dynamics of the era when O’Beolan and MacKay came together to form one line of our family, and personal reflections on the importance of that one short life.
I have no idea what talents Fiona possessed, what she wanted to do in her life, what made her laugh, what lessons she had garnered in her brief span of years, but her marriage to Iye Roy McKay of Strathnaver, 9th Chief of Mackay, and the birth of her son, Donald McKay of Strathnaver, who would become the 11th Chief of Mackay, set in motion a process moving relentlessly into the future. Sixteen generations and 499 years later, and 4,645 miles away, that process led to one Fawn Willow Gwynallen being born in Medford, Oregon. For that, how can one not be grateful to Fiona?
What do we know of Fiona?
Fiona O’Beolan was the lineal descendant of the priestly family of Applecross, Her father, therefore, was the hereditary abbot of Applecross Abbey. The abbey was founded by Maolrubhae (later St. Maolrubhae). Some assert that her grandfather, Patrick the Red (Gillepatrick Ruadh),who died on the 24th of July, 1411 at the Battle of Harlaw, was the last effective abbot of Applecross Abbey.
Fiona was apparently regarded as very beautiful. In The Scots Peerage (Founded on Wood’s Edition of Sir Robert Douglas’s Peerage of Scotland , page 162), referring to Iye Roy MacKay, she is described as: “According to the Knock MS.,’ he married a daughter of Norman, son of Patrick O’Beolan of Carloway, Lewis, a very beautiful woman ; and Gordonston ‘ describes her as ‘ a woman of the West Yles.’
She is also referred to in The Book of MacKay (Angus MacKay) as “a celebrated beauty, a daughter of Norman, son of Patrick O’Beolan of Carloway in Lewis, as is stated in the Knock MS., or as Sir Robert [Gordon] calls her, “a woman of the western isles.”
Fiona’s marriage to Iye Roy MacKay was apparently a handfast marriage and outside of church law. This is indicated because Iye Roy later saw the need to secure royal legitimation of their two sons, John and Donald. On 8th August, 1511, Iye Roy obtained from the king, a precept of legitimation in their favour the tenor of which warrants the conclusion, that their parents were married; for they are designed “sons of Odo Makky of Strathnavern,” and not natural sons or bastards, as was usual, where the parents were not married by canonical law.
Why take the step of securing legal certainty of the sons’ legitimacy? Some the1490s, Adam Gordon had been forming his plans to secure the earldom and estate of Sutherland that bordered MacKay territory to himself. Adam Gordon was the second son of the ambitious Earl of Huntley, George Gordon, and in his machinations at seizing the Earldom of Sutherland demonstrated that he was a credit to his father. (See Scottish Clans & Tartans by Ian Grimble for abrief summary of this episode.) Iye Mackay was opposed to his measures, so Gordon approached Mackay’s brother, Niel-Naverach, promising to support his claim to the succession, as John and Donald were accounted illegitimate. When Iye Mackay discovered this, he banished his brother Niel and his family from his territory. As Gordon was also courting the friendship of the Earl of Caithness, Niel left MacKay country to reside in Caithness. It is likely that Iye Roy’s discovery of the plot organized between Adam and Niel prompted his decision to procure the precept from the king to avoid challenge to his sons’ right to inherit the chieftainship.
Besides her well attested beauty, what can we assume about Fiona from these few facts? Given that she was part of an hereditary ecclesiastical family, she was probably more literate than the average woman of her time. Further, she must have been of an independent mind to have come from a church dynasty but enter into a marriage outside canonical law. Perhaps the romantic in us will tempt the theory that this was a marriage of love, not politics.
Who were the O’Beolans?
St. Máelrubai (Old Irish form) or Maelrubha (born circa 642) came to Scotland in 671 from the Irish monastery of Bangor, County Down. He founded Aporcrosan in 673 in what was then Pictish territory, and was the monastery’s first abbot, dying on the 21st April 722 at 80 years of age. The abbey was dedicated to St. Andrew and after the Viking period was administered by a family who used the Irish-style surname “0 Beolain.” Some historians suggest that perhaps the O’Beolans came to possess the abbacy through a female descendent during the transitional 12th century when the Scottish royal house went through upheavals with the marriage of the king to a Saxon princess.
The O’Beolans were the Hereditary Lay Abbots of the Abbey of Applecross. A “lay abbot” was a term used to define a layman upon whom someone in authority bestowed an abbey in return for services rendered, the abbey then becoming heritable property and a heritable position. The family possessed broad authority over the lands connected with the abbey. Those lands stretched across the coast of Ross from Gleneg to Lochbroom, and gradually extended inland. Over time these ecclesiastic rulers became Gaelic aristocracy.
The O’Beolans were also known by the Gaelic “Mac Giolla Aindreis”, meaning son of the servant of St. Andrew. “Mac Giolla Aindreis” was anglicised to “Gillanders”. The tribe that inhabited the abbey lands in western Ross were called in their native Gaelic – Clann Aindreis or “Giolla Aindreis” – the “race of Andrew” or Gillanders. The O’Beolans were the only Gaelic tribe to be so named.
The area of Ross was named from the Gaelic term Ròs, referring to a promontory. The land so named gave its name to an earldom and a clan. Malcolm MacBeth, born circa 1130, was the first Celtic Earl of Ross. There is a record in “Celtic Scotland”, Volume I, and page 483 that begins:
“The young king had barely reigned a year when he encountered the old enemies of the Crown, the families of Mac William and Mac Eth [MacBeth] who now combined their forces under Donald Ban, . . . A very important auxiliary, however, now joined the party of the king. This was Ferquhard or Fearchar Macintagart, the son of the ‘Sagart’ or priest who was the lay possessor of the extensive possessions of the old monastery founded by the Irish Saint Maelrubba at Applecross in the seventh century. Its possessions lay between the district of Ross and the Western Sea and extended from Lochcarron to Loch Ewe and Loch Maree; Ferquhard was thus in reality a powerful Highland chief commanding the population of an extensive western region. The insurgents were assailed by him with great vigour, entirely crushed, and their leaders taken, . . ..”
The Clan Ross Society states that MacBeth bound his family to O’Beolan of the great Irish royal house of Tara by the marriage of his daughter to an O’Beolan Priest circa 1158:
Their child was Fearchar (Farquhar) Mac an t-Sagairt (O’Beolan) which translates to “the son of the priest.” Ian Grimble states in Scottish Clans& Tartans that the chiefship of a Clan Ross originates with Fearchar, who became the second Earl of Ross circa 1234, after helping defeat Donald Ban and MacBeth – an extraordinary political calculation to support the Anglicized Scottish royalty against the legitimate heirs in an area generally opposed to the changes in the Scottish royal house. He was the first O’Beolan to become a secular ruler. Later, the king awarded Farquhar lands in Galloway. In 1230, he built Fearn Abbey and was buried there in 1251.
In the 14th century the O’Beolans became related to the MacDonalds. The History of the MacKenzies by Alexander Mackenzie relates that Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, although legitimately married to Elizabeth Seaton, met and fell in love with a beautiful, vibrant red-head (beauty ran in the family it seems!), known only to us as the daughter of Patrick Roy (the Red) who was the last lay abbot of Applecross Abbey. “Patrick’s daughter bore a son to Alexander, Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross, . . . . She was twice before the King, as MacDonald could not be induced to part with her, on occasion of her great beauty. The King said ‘that it was no wonder that such a fair damsel had enticed MacDonald.’ “
Sometime around 1400, the O’Beolan family began using the surname of “Ross.” “Robert Gordon (Earldom of Sutherland, page 36) writes that the Rosses were originally designated O’Beolan and Gillanders indiscriminately, according to the writer’s or speaker’s fancy”.
Where was the homeland of the O’Beolans?
Two locations in Scotland are identified with the O’Beolans: Carloway and Applecross.
Carloway (Càrlabhagh) is situated on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. It is a crofting township and a district rich in historic sites. A famous feature of the area is Dun Carloway (Dùn Chàrlabhaigh), a broch most likely built in the 1st century of the common era.
Dun Carloway is built on a rock on a steep south-slope overlooking Loch Carloway. During Fiona’s time the broch might not have been in use, but the walls may have been intact since the Morrisons of Ness were thought to be using in it in 1601. Dun Carloway is now owned by Historic Scotland. The visitor center is operated by Urras nan Tursachan (The Standing Stones Trust).
Applecross (A’ Chomraich – The Sanctuary) is a peninsula in Wester Ross, on the west coast of Scotland. The name”Applecross” is an Anglicization of the Pictish name Aporcrosan (sometimes Aber Crosan), meaning the confluence of the [river] Crossan’. From early in the 1200’s Applecross was part of the Earldom of Ross.
The name A’ Chomraich or Applecross is about 1,350 years old, but is not used locally to refer to the 19th century village with the pub and post office, which lies on Applecross Bay, and which some maps identify as “Applecross.” The existing row of houses on the bay is called Shore Street; the locals simply referring to it as “The Street.”
In practice, the name Applecross broadly applies to all the settlements around the peninsula, including Toscaig, Culduie, Camusterrach, Milltown, Sand, ‘The Street’, Lonbain and many others. Applecross is also the name of the local estate and the civil parish, which includes Shieldaig and Torridon. The small River Applecross flows into the bay at Applecross. The history center, Applecross Heritage has considerable information about the area.
The isolated area around Applecross is believed to be one of the earliest settled parts of Scotland. According to The Applecross Trust: “Recent archaeological digs at Sand have placed an ancient settlement there . . . 9,500 years ago.” Only accessible by boat until the early 20th century, the area known as Applecross is now connected by a winding coastal road, but still remains remote. The population of the peninsula has dwindled from nearly 3,000 people in 1850 to less than 300 today.
Applecross Abbey was a tribal abbey of the Celtic Church continuously active throughout the Viking period of the 9th through the 12th centuries. The kirk stood at the head of Applecross Bay as late as 1788. Nothing remains of the ancient monastery, but the abbey was located around the site of the later parish church (erected in 1817).
The people of this fertile peninsula and of the Clan Ross that emerged in the area were a diverse mix of Gaelic, Pictish, Norse, and even southern Scottish cultures. This mixing of cultures might be expected of a fertile land so close to the busy Moray Firth and North Sea and the mountainous north.
Strathnaver and Applecross
The marriage of Fiona O’Beolan and Iye Roy MacKay brought together the territories of Strathnaver (Srath Nabhair), the MacKay heartland, and the O’Beolan territory of the Applecross peninsula, now extending deep inland to what becomes known as the Earldom and County of Ross. This then, in far northwest Scotland is the cradle of this line of our family.
The MacKay territory was called Strathnaver (Srath Nabhair), the fertile valley of the River Naver, a famous salmon river, that flows through the land.
The MacKay country was also referred to in English as Reay Country and in Scottish Gaelic as Dùthaich MhicAoidh. It extended from Cape Wrath along the north coast to the Caithness border, varying between 16 – 20 miles in depth, the southern frontier “defended by bleak uplands and splendid mountains.” (Scottish Clans & Tartans, Ian Grimble).
The ancient seat of the MacKays was Castle Varrich (Caisteal Bharraich). It is located in the far north near to the village of Tongue. The castle, now only a ruin, sits on a high point of rock, overlooking both the Kyle of Tongue and the village of Tongue.
The castles’ precise origins and age are unknown. It is believed to be possible that the Mackays built their castle on the site as early as the 14th century, and were likely residing there when Iye Roy and Fiona married. There are believed to be caves under the castle which were once inhabited by the Mackays.
I began examining where and how Fiona lived to understand something of the land that was the cradle of a line of our family, but what I began thinking about most regarding Fiona’s brief life is on what fine threads the life we know now was passed down to us. It’s amazing we are even here given all the possibilities that could have interrupted that 16 generations and 499 years. Had Fiona died in childbirth with her first child I would not be here. Had Adam Gordon succeeded in destroying Iye Roy MacKay Fiona might have died earlier, and there might not have been a Donald MacKay for us to descend from or at least no progeny of him. Dynastic battles, wars, accidents, famine, death in childbirth – so many obstacles. Life and culture pass from one generation in ways as fine as a spider web, so precarious, so tenuous, so precious.
Perhaps we understand at a gut level the precariousness of life and that’s why we focus so intensely on our children, their safety, their futures, and their role in carrying us into the future.