Chiefs and their Succession

The nature of clans and chiefship evolved through the centuries, along with the rest of Highland society. Clans were the descendants of great men, after whom they were often (but not always) named; and just as these great men belonged to existing families, so new clans were born into existing kindreds. The Coinneach who gave his name to Clann Choinnich belonged to a parental kindred that also gave birth to Mathan, the namefather of the MacMathans or Mathesons, and probably also to a clan called Gillanders. Some of the earliest individuals in the genealogies of each of these clans were chiefs of that parental kindred, and some of the traditions written down in the clan histories relate to the parental kindred and its chiefs rather than to the separate clans they purport to chronicle.
        By the time the histories of the individual clans came to be written down, primogenture had been adopted in the Highlands; i.e. a chief was succeeded by his eldest surviving son or nearest male heir of his line. The shennachies writing these histories projected this procedure back into a time when the old Celtic system of succession had applied, which meant that a group of cousins (great-grandsons of a previous chief) were eligible to succeed. The old chief might nominate his preferred successor - An Tanistear - but in the end the successful cousin would be the one that proved most worthy of the job, which he might do by eliminating all his rivals. The battles between the first MacKenzies and their Matheson cousins may perhaps be seen as a competition for the chiefship of what was then still one kindred. That was followed by fighting amongst at least two lines of descendants of Coinneach na Sroine for the chiefship of the infant Clan Choinnich (those descended from Murchadh Dubh mac Coinnich and Eoin mac Coinnich), then perhaps by a battle between Murchadh's sons Coinneach Mor and Alastair Ionraic - who may have been on different sides of a struggle for control of Ross between the Duke of Albany and the Lord of the Isles.     
        The Celtic system of succession - often known as Tanistry - has been shown to survive in parts of the Highlands into the 16th century, and we may well be able to see it at work in Clan MacKenzie in the late 15th century dispute between Coinneach Og and Eoin Chillfhinn, the half-brothers who were the sons of Coinneach a Bhlair, and in the tutorship of their uncle Eachan Ruadh who is often portrayed as seeking the chiefship for himself - as he would have had a right to do under the old system. The murder in 1550 of Eachan's sons John Glassich and Iain Tuach may also have been an attempt to stamp out the remains of a challenge to Eoin Chillfhinn's chiefship under this old system. The wicked uncle is a recurring 15th and 16th century figure in the histories of many clans, as the shennachies attempt to show the sole legitimacy of the chiefs for whom they were writing in the 17th century. The resulting genealogies of most clans are therefore single line pedigrees back to the progenitors that show many individuals who may not themselves have been chiefs, and fail to show many brothers, uncles, and cousins who were once chiefs.
        This explains why the medieval history of most clans is so difficult to decipher, and why there are so many different interpretations of the early genealogy of the MacKenzie chiefs. A number of these will be found on this site; for instance in Cabarfeidh's pedigree (the traditional recital of the chief's ancestors given by the Seanchaidh on formal occasions), in the family trees showing the Ancestors of the MacKenzies & the Lords of Kintail, and in the texts of the various articles about the origins and early history of the clan and its name. For further discussion of all these issues, see the works cited in Histories & Historians.

The following pages show the ancestry of the various chiefs and the branches of the clan descending from them: