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History of the Clan

A 19th century engraving of a medieval bard with harpThe Clan Currie, anciently Clan MacMhuirich, has a long and honorable history. They are one of the earliest constituted Clans of the Scottish Highlands. In his book "Scottish Clans and Tartans", Scottish author and historian Ian Grimble writes "The Herbridean name of Currie is the corrupt English form of the MacMureach, one of the most ancient and distinguished names in Scotland's history. Through the MacMhuirichs, the Literary Torch in the Western Isles was preserved for generations. They were recognized as the most illustrious body of learned men who were specialists in the heroic literature and genealogy of the ancient Gaelic world".

According to Derek Thompson, Professor of Celtic Literature, Glasgow University, the origin of the name Currie dates from the fall of the Gaelic order in the 18th Century. During this period, many old Highland names were anglicized or an English name was chosen that had the faintest resemblance to the sound of the Gaelic one. The name MacMhuirich [pronounced MacVurich] began to appear in many forms including MacMureach, MacVurich, and MacCurry and eventually took on the form of the present day Currie and other related spellings such as Curry and Currey.

Origins of the Clan

A MacMhuirich gravestone on Islay. MacMhuirich is the old Scots Gaelic name for CurrieThe founder of the race was Muiredach O'Daly [1180 - 1222 AD], an outstanding poet of his time, who had studied at the famous Irish Colleges. The O'Daly's were established in their literary role as a bardic family by the 12th century. Muiredach was highly respected as the King's Poet at the court of Cathal Crodhearg of Connaught. However, he was forced to flee from Ireland in 1213 after making an enemy of the powerful chief of the O'Donnels, whose steward had arrogantly demanded rent from the Royal Bard. O'Daly's response was swift and final - splitting the steward's head in two with a battleaxe. Then, in traditional bardic arrogance, he expressed his surprise over the ensuing fuss in a poem:

Trifling our quarrel with the man,
A clown to be abusing me,
And me to kill the churl,
Dear God, is this a cause for enmity?

He arrived in Scotland in 1213 and settled in Islay, the stronghold home of Donald, Lord of the Isles and grandson of Somerled, the Celtic-Norse founder of the Kingdom of Innesgall.

Hereditary Bards to the Lords of the Isles

Loch Finlaggan, Islay: Seat of the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles and birthplace of Clan CurrieThe addition of the famed Bard to his court brought Donald additional prestige and the two men became great friends. Donald became the founder and namefather of Clan Donald, and Muiredach of the MacMhuirichs: the contracted Scots Gaelic patronymic Mhuireadhaigh son of Muiredach. Muiredach's fame and stature as a poet was without parallel in Gaelic Scotland where he held an honored and revered position.

The native Scots claimed Muiredach as their own as shown by the title bestowed him Muiredach Albanach or Muiredach of Scotland.

Muiredach's sons and their sons held the office of Hereditary Bards and Historians to the Lord of the Isles. The hereditary bard took precedence within the political structure of the Lordship and ranked immediately after the royal family. In war, the bard was responsible for summoning the clan to arms. His war chants and epic poetry reminded the warriors of past glories, and exhorted them on to victory. In peacetime, the bard was the authority on all matters of clan history, genealogy, and heraldry, and wielded extraordinary power and significance.

Such were the already ancient origins of Scotland's longest learned dynasty. Naturally, it attached itself to the Lords of the Isles when these maintained a virtually independent Gaelic principality in medieval Scotland.

The political and military influence of the Lordship of the Isles over the Western Highlands and Islands was unquestioned - a power which rivaled and often exceeded that of the Scottish kings. The position of the Lordship began to crumble in 1462 when the then Lord of the Isles, John II, over-reached himself and tried to negotiate the break-up of Scotland (to his own advantage) with Edward IV of England. So much so that in 1493, the kingdom was suppressed by King James IV of Scotland.

The Lordship of the Isles finally merged with the Scottish Crown in 1545. The title is currently held by the Prince of Wales.

After the Fall of the Lordship of the Isles

The Lord of the Isles holding court at Finlaggan as interpreted by the Scottish artist, MacIan in "Costumes of the Clans of Scotland"With the fall of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493 the connection with the literary schools of Ireland, maintained by the MacMhuirichs, ceased, and the patronage of learning in the Isles passed away.

At this time the Head of the Clan MacMhuirich was John who held lands in Kintyre in virtue of his office of Bard to the last Lord of the Isles. His eldest son and heir was Donald who chose war as his profession, being involved throughout his lifetime in the various attempts to resuscitate the Lordship of the Isles. He acquired the lands of Balilone in Bute, the senior family continuing thereafter to take this as their territorial designation up to the present day.

A junior cadet branch was destined however to preserve the literary tradition of the family. This Branch of Clan MacMhuirich stemmed from Niall, born about 1471, the youngest brother of John MacMhuirich who was the bard to the Last Lord of the Isles. Niall, aware of the changing fortunes in the Lordship of the Isles and having some training in the Bardic Art of his family, decided to offer his services to the MacDonalds of Clan Ranald in South Uist. It was a fortuitous arrival in 1491 for Niall because the Chief of Clan Ranald welcomed the idea of having a Bard, especially one from the great MacMhuirich family who already had served Clan Donald for 300 years.

The Clan Ranald line of MacMhuirich bards produced the largest collection of Gaelic poetry. The most notable being the famed Red Book of Clanranald, which was written by successive generations of Clan MacMhuirich.

One example of the poetry of this period is "The Song of Cathal for the MacDonald Chiefs". The poem was written in 1636 by Cathal MacMhuirich to lament the death of four MacDonald Nobles, an excerpt of which follows:

The heroes of the Race of Conn are dead
how bitter to our hearts is the grief for them!
We shall not live long after them,
Perilous we think it to be bereaved of the brotherhood.

Because the men of Clanranald have gone from us,
we poets cannot pursue our studies.
It is time for the chief bard to depart after them,
now that presents to poets will be abolished.

Niall MacMhuirich [1637 - 1726], the last of the bardic race, chronicled the wars of Montrose in the last body of Gaelic prose to be written in Scotland in the ancient Irish script style. When he died in 1726, the bardic order became extinct in Scotland.

Still, the power and influence of the MacMhuirich bards lived on. Through the folk tales and oral histories of their descendants in South Uist, and the preservation of the clan’s history by respective generations of the Chiefly line of the Currie’s of Balilone and Garrachoran, to the dedicated research of Gaelic scholars and archaeologists, the MacMhuirichs history and contributions continue to be discovered, understood, and appreciated.

Today, the Clan Currie continues to play an active role in preserving and promoting their highland heritage at Scottish Games, ethnic festivals, as well as community groups and classrooms. The Society produces a number of highly successful concerts featuring Scottish music and Gaelic poetry, Kirking services, and an annual Burns Supper. Clan Currie was the leading financial sponsor of all Scottish clans for the 2001 National Tartan Day ceremonies in Washington, DC. For the 2002 Tartan Day Ceremonies, Clan Currie sponsored the traveling exhibit, "Home and Away – Highland Departures and Returns", on loan from the National Museums of Scotland to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Learn More: For further information on the history of Clan Currie, become a member of the Society. Follow this link to register as a member of the Clan Currie Society.

Members of the New York Scottish Pipe Band march under the banner of the Clan Currie at the Clan’s 1994 Kirking of the Tartans worship service.
Photo by Ed Curry.