Cuidich 'n Righ - Help the King

As the motto adopted in the late 18th century by the Seaforth Highlanders says, loyalty and service to the crown became the watchword of the MacKenzies. The myth of Colin FitzGerald, and the story of how the cabarfeidh (stag's head) became the symbol of the clan, all served to emphasise this [see Legends]. 
        Initially however Clann Choinnich’s loyalties lay with the Earls of Ross, and when they came into conflict with the crown, the MacKenzie chiefs - and later their historians - found themselves with a long-running problem. It's not clear for instance if the Matheson-MacKenzie kindred supported the Earl of Ross when he deserted the hitherto accepted King of Scots - John Balliol - in favour of the coming man, Robert the Bruce. Though the first histories of the MacKenzies were insistent that they were with Bruce at Bannockburn (as the Earl of Ross is presumed to have been) the clan may not have existed as a separate entity at the time, and traditional accounts of the early chiefs' close connections with the MacDougalls - who were bound by marriage to Balliol's allies the Comyns - might suggest some shennachies rewrote history to put the MacKenzies on the winning side in 1314 (as the historians of a number of other clans did).
        The execution of Coinneach na Sroine in 1346, on the orders of the Earl of Ross, certainly points to a change in the clan's loyalties at that point, as do the traditions of his successors having to take refuge with the MacDougalls in Argyll until the arrival of new earls may have allowed them to return to Ross, albeit perhaps to Kinellan in the east rather than to Kintail and Eilean Donan in the west. When things changed again in the Earldom of Ross, and the MacDonalds made their claim to inherit it, the position of the MacKenzies once again becomes unclear. Though the clan’s own histories say their chief refused to support Donald MacDonald in the lead-up to the battle of Harlaw, the apparently more reliable MacDonald history (probably written in the 17th century by a member of the Beaton family, who served both the MacDonalds and MacKenzies) insists the MacKenzies did fight there under the Lord of the Isles - so against the official supporters of the Crown - and that their chief was married to Donald’s sister.   
       After Donald withdrew from Ross and the Regency government regained control, there appears to be a record in 1414 of the Mackenzie chief - documented as Keneath Murchirson de Rosse - being paid for trying to restore peace to the province. In 1427, when the king summoned the clan chiefs to Inverness, Coinneach Mor and MakMakan (i.e. Matheson) are said each to have come with two thousand men. Though the number of their followings is undoubtedly an exaggeration, the fact that the Lowland chronicler counts them alongside the other main Highland chiefs shows how far they had come in the century they had existed as separate clans. James I however threw them and the Lord of the Isles in prison - to remind them who really ruled, even in the Highlands - which shows that the MacKenzies were not yet the reliable servants of the crown that their later propaganda was to suggest. They were still in fact feudally bound to MacDonald, as Earl of Ross; a connection strengthened by the marriages to members of Clan Donald both of Alastair Ionraic - Coinneach Mor's brother - and Alastair's son Coinneach.
      Things changed however when MacDonald was stripped of the Earldom of Ross, and later of the Lordship of the Isles; thus ceasing to be the king’s instrument of rule in the Highlands, and becoming instead the main obstacle to the extension of royal power in the Gaidhealtachd. New instruments had to be found by the crown, and while the Campbells came quickly to hand in Argyll, it took a while for the MacKenzies to emerge in that role in Ross. There the Stewart kings initially looked to the Gordons of Huntly and then to cousins promoted to the earldom of Moray; but neither of these noble houses had their roots in the Gaidhealtachd in the way Clann Choinnich had. The transformation of the Mackenzies from — as Aonghus MacCoinnich put it in 2003 — "Kingis rabellis to Cuidich ’n Righ", was a gradual process, but it was later dramatised for the clan histories in the person of Alasdair Ionraic’s son Coinneach. Though distrained by the crown for non-payment of rents and seen as an ally of the rebellious Clan Donald, he turned against his erstwhile allies, is said in some later accounts (but not in the early histories) to have sent his MacDonald wife packing in the most humiliating fashion, and then defeated the MacDonalds and their allies at the battle of Pairc, to become Coinneach a Bhlair (“Kenneth of the Battle”). His importance to the MacKenzies and their policy of Cuidich 'n Righ is demonstrated by his magnificent tomb in Beauly Priory - pictured below - which announces his clan's arrival as a power to be reckoned with in the east, as well as in the west, of Ross.

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