Like most clans, the Mathesons are at a loss for an accurate, documented history of their beginnings. Legends and traditions have led us to accept that the clan originated in Ireland under the name of Mathan, (literally bear). The name continued in Ireland under the names of Mahon and Mahoney but became MacMathain in Scotland. Another tradition exists that the name and clan had Viking origins in the form of Maddadson, etc. This tradition has survived for centuries among the Sutherlandshire people. Undoubtedly Scandinavian blood exists in the clan as the Viking warriors left progeny behind in Scotland. For the present time we will subscribe to the more popular theory that the Mathesons were among the Irish immigrants to the West Highlands prior to the ninth century.
In the ninth century King Kenneth of the Scots wrestled control of mainland Scotland from the Picts, the indigenous race. Among his loyal followers was a MacMathain and kin. After the war King Kenneth is said to have bestowed Lochalsh on MacMathain and thus the clan became rooted in that locale. The clan, either through marriage or segregation of offspring, evolved into three distinct clans by the 12th century, Matheson, MacKenzie and Andrias (Ross). Members of the Clan Andrias were regarded as descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Ross-shire and thorough an heiress begat the ancient Earls of Ross. All three clans enjoyed their lands at the pleasure of the Earls of Ross.
In the thirteenth century Scotland regained control over the Western Isles from the Vikings. A Cormac MacMathain was credited by both Scot and Norse historians as the one who destroyed the Norse habitations on Skye and drove them out. At this time Lochalsh was reaffirmed to the Matheson clan.
By the 15th century the Mathesons had risen to a position of considerable power in the west. In 1427, an Alasdair MacMathain was brought before the King and described as the leader of 2,000 men. Legend has it that Alasdair was executed for his part in various barbaric feuds of that era. Whatever the cause of his death, his powers fell upon his widow until his son would come of age. The MacLeods of Lewis were in an expansionary mode and the opportunity presented itself for a MacLeod to marry the widow and thus usurp her leadership. The sons escaped to other parts of Scotland to await their revenge.
Eventually the elder son returned to Lochalsh in disguise and recruited some of his countrymen to regain his title. MacLeod had meanwhile posted various of his clansmen throughout the parish to ensure that such would not be possible. The son informed the mother of his plans so that she would be spared. On the scheduled evening, the son set fire to the Matheson house and escorted his mother to safety supposedly while his stepfather slept. However MacLeod was wise to the plan and escaped the fire under the skirts of his wife. Although MacLeod escaped a fiery death, he and his clansmen were soundly defeated.
The Mathesons were traditionally loyal to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, particularly after the MacDonalds had become their superiors when they acquired the Earldom of Ross. The MacDonalds came to be recognized as the holders of Lochalsh through whatever means while the Mathesons became reduced to vassals.
In the 16th century the relationship became strained as the MacKenzies were gradually expanding their power over the West Highlands at the expense of the faltering MacDonalds. The Glengarry MacDonalds or MacDonnells became their superiors which led to a series of confrontations and humiliations for the Mathesons. To avenge these injuries, Murdoch Matheson (1600), entered a pact with the MacKenzies and ties to the MacDonalds were officially ended. The MacKenzies became the superiors over the clan. However some of the clan did not follow suit and appear to have been banished. This has been offered as the theory as to why branches of the Mathesons show up at that time in various parts of the Hebrides, particularly Skye.
The line of Chiefs continued at Fernaig in Lochalsh through to a John Matheson who flourished in the 17th century. He enjoyed formal education at the expense of the Bishop of Moray, a MacKenzie relative. With a good education and exposure to commerce, John became a successful cattle dealer and amassed a fortune. He purchased lands around Bennetsfield on the Black Isle as well as other tracts in Ross as they became available. He continued to call Fernaig home however his heirs removed to the Black Isle. Thus the seat of Chief came to rest at Bennetsfield.
While the senior line of the clan evolved at Bennetsfield, an equally prominent line succeeded in Lochalsh. This family purchased the Attadale estate around 1730. John Matheson, fourth of Attadale, married Margaret Matheson, daughter of Captain Donald Matheson of Shiness, Sutherland. Captain Donald was considered to be the chieftain of the Sutherlandshire branch, although the designation had ceased to be recognized. Thus one of the oldest branches became reunited with the main line. Unfortunately the Matheson lands were greatly reduced during this period and Attadale was sold in 1825.
Alexander went to Hong Kong to work for his uncle, James Matheson of the famous Jardine, Matheson and Company. From this company he retired with wealth and experience at the age of 36. He founded Matheson and Company of London and continued to prosper. He used his wealth to purchase large parcels of land in the Highlands including parts of the clan's ancient holdings in Lochalsh. He spent large sums improving his estates and re-employing his tenants in new forms of agriculture. While many of his neighbours were banishing their tenants to make way for sheep farms, Sir Alexander was able to achieve change while maintaining the social fabric of his townships. He was also instrumental in having the railway extended through Ross to the Kyle of Lochalsh. In public service he was an MP for many years. In 1882 he was created Sir Alexander Matheson, Baronet of Lochalsh.
He was succeeded by Sir Kenneth Matheson who showed great promise as a benevolent landlord. However his father had acquired a series of debts prior to his death which caused the sale of many of the properties acquired by Sir Alexander.
Sir Alexander was the grandfather of Sir Torquhil Matheson the Baronet of Lochalsh and the Chiefship of Clan Matheson. Sir Torquhil succeeded Col. Bertram Matheson of the Bennetsfield line as Chief and was very successful in rejuvenating the Clan both in the U.K. and overseas.
Glen M. Matheson
The Mathesons were at one time one of the most powerful clans in the north, capable of bringing two thousand warriors into the field, it was said. The name MacMhathain derives from 'Mathaineach' - the heroes or son of the bear. The clan held lands in Lochalsh as early as the time of Kenneth MacAlpin.
Like the MacRaes, the Mathesons have long been associated with the MacKenzies, both the MacKenzie and Matheson chiefs holding lands under the Earls of Ross; but whether the Mathesons are a branch of the MacKenzie clan or whether in fact the MacKenzies are an offshoot of the Mathesons is not clear.
In 1264 Cormac, the 2nd Matheson chief, is mentioned as supporting the Earl of Ross against Norse invaders. He was also constable of Eilean Donan Castle and later, when Eilean Donan became a MacKenzie possession, the Mathesons seemed for a time to have shared the constable- ship with the MacRaes.
The clan was involved in the rising of Donald, Lord of the Isles, in 1411 and fought for the MacDonalds at Harlaw that year.
In 1427, when James I held a Parliament at Inverness, he promptly seized the Highland chiefs who were becoming either too powerful or too troublesome, and the Matheson chief was among those arrested, which indicates that at that time the clan was of political importance. The Matheson estates were seized by the Crown.
It is probably from this time that the Mathesons became MacKenzie followers. The clan feuded with their Glengarry neighbours, and in 1539 the Matheson chief, Donald Dhu, held Eilean Donan against the Sleat MacDonalds. Another Matheson chief, Murdoch Buidhe, was constable of Eilean Donan in 1570. A branch of the clan settled in Sutherland, but the Lochalsh Mathesons were the stem clan and provided the clan chiefs.
Their disappearance from the Highland scene seems to be connected with the MacKenzies, whom, like the MacRaes, they served faithfully. Both of these ancient clans, who were considerable powers in their own right, seem to have lost their lands to the MacKenzies and contented themselves thereafter by supporting the MacKenzie chiefs,who were extremely well served by them.
It is not clear how this was achieved without bloodshed. Perhaps the MacRaes and Mathesons were absorbed peacefully by marriage. In any event it makes a pleasant change from the less peaceful fate of some of the ancient clans in Argyll who got in the way of the MacDonalds and Campbells and became geographical casualties of that particular power struggle.
In 1851 Sir Alexander Matheson was able to purchase the clan estates in Lochalsh which had been forfeit since 1427. A descendant of Murdoch Buidhe, who was constable of Eilean Donan in 1570, was recognized as chief of the clan in 1963.
As has happened in a surprising number of cases, the wheel has come full
circle, and the clan has been restored.