In Scotland, in order to rally clan members to arms, a “fiery cross” was used as a declaration of preparedness and war, usually due to an attack, insult or impending danger. The practice is described in the novels and poetry of Sir Walter Scott. A small burning cross or charred piece of wood would be carried from town to town, village to village and hamlet to hamlet, until all clansmen were informed and rallied. The correct term, initially used in the western highlands of Scotland amongst Gaelic speakers, was “Crann Tàra”, which translates as the “Fiery Cross”.
It was used as a method of communication between the clansmen or between allied clans as a method of initiating speedy support in times of need.
It was a simple but effective method, which could be recognised by night or by day, and as the cross played such a significant part in the daily lives of the Scots, a formidable rallying banner. It was only used when danger occurred to either to the clan itself or to those classed as friends and allies by the chief. It was therefore a method of alarm for the protection of those for whom the cross was carried. An attack on a small clan by outside raiders, if unprepared, could so easily have seen to its total demise.
During the period in which it was used, clans-people would be scattered throughout the clan’s lands, most living in small hamlets and villages which were individually vulnerable. During this time, violence and conflict was rife, and the protection of the wealth and prestige of the clan lay in its land and stock of cattle and sheep, all much-prized by enemies.
Some historians claim that the cross was made from the slow-burning wood of the yew or hazel tree, which was then bound together with soaked leather in the shape of a cross. It is suggested that either the full cross was set alight, or only the horizontal bar or one side, with a white blood-soaked cloth hanging from the other.
Some suggest it was half-burnt and dipped in blood, to signify the penalty for those who chose to ignore it. The cross would be passed on by relay to pre-appointed messengers as the runners or riders got tired. This was to ensure that all the habitations the clan held were communicated with. It was found to be an effective method of communication across large expanses of land. According to Edward Dwelly (1973) in his Gaelic Dictionary, he states that “in 1745 the crann tàra traversed the wide district of Breadalbane, upwards of 30 miles in just three hours.”
The cross was therefore not a thing to be ignored, as clan duty and honour were of great importance. It was a foundation of the very existence of the clan itself, and to a certain point, is continued to this today.
The appearance of a rider or runner carrying the cross aloft, would initiate an immediate readying for battle by the clansmen who would then set off to the clans’ pre-set rendezvous point. The call was absolute, there was no getting away from it, irrelevant of the task you were doing. Everything was expected to be dropped for the sake of the clan. Those who chose to ignore the cross were seen as traitors and cowards, and were expelled from the clan lands and often as not, disowned by the clan itself.
A widely known use of the ‘cross’ was in the 1715 Jacobite uprising to rally the clans to Loch Tay, to support the Earl of Mar, led by the Laird of Glenlyon. It is suggested that the cross was used more recently among Scottish settlers in Canada to rally troops during the War of 1812 against the United States. Again, as recently as 1820, 800 fighting men of the Scottish Clan Grant were gathered, by the passing of the Fiery Cross, to come to the aid of their Clan Chief and his sister in the town of Elgin.
This occurred during a heated election campaign of 1820. Some of the local townspeople in Elgin favoured a rival faction and blockaded Grant Lodge, where they were staying, in an attempt to intimidate the Chief, the Earl of Seaforth and his sisters;Anne, Margaret and Penuel.
Lady Anne managed to send a message by a trusted servant to Captain John Grant of Congash, the family’s factor in Strathspey, informing him that his Chief was being harassed and mistreated. This prompted the famous Raid on Elgin in which six hundred men of the Clan Grant were raised by the fiery cross, mustered at various locations in Strathspey, and marched all night to Elgin.
When the clan arrived early in the morning, the townspeople fled to their homes and the local leaders assured the clan that their Chief and his sisters would not be bothered further. Although the raid ended peacefully, it was the last time a clan was raised for battle in the annals of the Scottish highlands.
So as a Border clan, how did this affect Carruthers in the south west of Scotland, and is there any connection?
During the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, Edward the VI, supported by his parliament, attempted to force a marriage between both monarchs. This was done in an attempt to bring Scotland under the English yoke. Being aware of the plan, the marriage was refused by the Scots and the English invaded Scotland. The Scots responded by attaching a crann tàra to a spear and sent it across the length and breadth of the land which, in a short period, culminated in an army of between 22200 and 36000 Scots in assembly. This led to the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, which saw a resumption of the Rough Wooing and a great defeat for the Scots. The Battle, giving it its full title of the battle of Pinkie Cleugh, was a disaster for both Scotland and the many borderers who fought there. It was to be the last pitched battle between England and Scotland
Although the House of Holmains would not become Chiefs until the death of Simon Carruthers of Mouswald, a year later in 1548, their laird, John Carruthers 5th of Holmains and 1st Baron (married to Blanche Murray), took up the call and led around 200 light cavalry. These Border Scots Horsemen were sadly part of the cavalry troops who were badly mauled on the first day of the battle.
The House of Holmains was listed as one of the King’s adherents in Dumfriesshire in 1454, and was thus seen as being loyal to the Crown. At the Battle of Pinkie, the Laird of Holmains, with the 162 followers he had left, were compelled to surrender to the English.
What is interesting is in the following year, the same John of Holmains was declared a traitor by Scottish Parliament in 1548. How circumstances change in the space of 12 months! However, things greatly improved for the House of Holmains, who went from strength to strength and who were to become, that very year, the Chiefly line of Carruthers.