There is little in the way of historical information on the origins of Clan Morrison. It is generally accepted that the hereditary judges, or brieves, of the Isle of Lewis were chiefs of the clan until that office disappeared in the early 1600’s. The seat of the brieves was at Habost in Ness, near the Butt of Lewis. One tradition is that this line of brieves were descended from a Morrison heiress of the original line and a Macdonald of Ardnamurchan who married her in the 1300’s. The Morrisons of Harris claim to be of the original line.
The Gaelic name of the Morrisons is Mac Ghille Mhoire, which means “son of the servant of the Virgin Mary.” Gille Mhoire was once a common name in Gaelic-speaking areas since it was the practice to name children after Christian saints in this fashion. The choice of the saint’s name may have been connected with the name of the local church, and there were more churches named after the Virgin Mary than any other saint. Other examples of names that developed this way include Gilbride, for St. Bridgit, and Malcolm, for St. Columba.
The one-time popularity of the name Gille Mhoire probably accounts for the origin of a number of independent Morrison families along the western coast of Scotland. Depending on regional patterns, the name was also modernized in other ways, including Gilmour, McIlmorrow and McIlvory, and is found in Ireland and the Isle of Man as well.
The name Morrison probably originally developed to denote a “son of Maurice [pronounced Morris].” Maurice was a name brought to Scotland by the Normans about 1000 years ago. A number of different Morrison families in Scotland likely obtained their name in this way. The popularity of this name in the Lowland areas resulted in it sometimes being used to anglicize a Gaelic name such as Mac Ghille Mhoire.
The seat of the Morrisons of Harris was at Pabbay (Gaelic: Pabaigh), a small island off the coast. One branch of this family were hereditary armorers to the MacLeods, who were the dominant clan of the Isle of Harris. It is from the Morrisons of Pabbay that our current chief descends. It is interesting to note that one of the two churches on Pabbay was named Teampull Mhoire, or “Mary’s Church.”
Some genealogies of the MacLeods claim that their progenitor, Leod, was a son of Olaf the Black, King of Man. The Kilbride Manuscript, dated about 1550, gives a genealogy of the MacLeods that includes the name Oilmoir in the family. Later versions render this name as Gillemuire, and that is the basis of various stories of a connection between the Morrisons of Lewis and Harris and Olaf the Black.
There are various accounts of the origins of the Morrisons of the Outer Hebrides, or Clan Mac Ghille Mhoire, but we have no definitive proof of any of them. The following is a somewhat romanticized version of one of these accounts.
One of the Popular Tales:
Eight centuries ago, a Norse ship struggled in heavy seas off the Scottish island of Lewis. A proud Kintyre noblewoman named Lauon stood on the deck cradling her new-born infant son, Gillemorrie, in her arms while her husband, Olaf the Black, shouted orders to the crew. Despite his Herculean efforts the ship foundered. Olaf, Lauon and their son plunged into the frigid waters and clung to a piece of driftwood floating near their sinking vessel. Fortune smiled upon the shipwrecked trio, and they were deposited safe but wet upon the stony Lewis shore.
Lauon married Olaf in 1214 and bore him one child (Gillemorrie). The fact that she was a cousin german to Olaf’s first wife was unacceptable to the church. Bishop Reginald of the Isles declared their relationship incestuous and nullified the marriage, thereby rendering her son illegitimate.
Gillemorrie, upon achieving manhood, married the last heiress of the Clan Igaa (also known as the Clan Gow). She held the stronghold of Pabbay Castle near Harris as her birthright. It was from this union that the Clan Morrison sprang.
Two distinct branches evolved; the Morrisons of Harris and the Morrisons of Lewis. The Morrisons of Lewis established a fortress named Dun Eistein on the northern tip of the island. They gave rise to ten generations of hereditary brieves (experts in law) which held sway over the outer Hebridean islands until 1613. This branch of the family vanished from the pages of history following the issuance of “Letters of Fire and Sword” on August 28, 1616.
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