Family Feuds

by Donald D. Erwin


At one point, when President Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony on January 20, 1969, he was flanked by Lyndon B. Johnson and Billy Graham. To a modern-day Scotsman, or anyone familiar with Scottish Border history, it was one of those historical coincidences that send a little shudder through the mind. That moment was thousands of miles and centuries in time away from the Debateable Land, but there stood descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes who would have—in another time—reached for dirks or swords at the mere sight of each other.

To complicate matters during the reiving (raiding) period, many of the Border families were often feuding among themselves. And although feuding was common in England as well as Scotland, there is considerable evidence that the Scots held their grudges longer.  It seems that a Maxwell was instrumental getting an Irving (Irving is a Border branch of the Irvine family) legally executed on the English side of the border about 1560, and the Irvings made the Maxwells pay dearly for over thirty years afterward. The Irvings also, at one time or other, feuded with the Bells, Carlisles and the Grahams. At other times, however, it is recorded that they allied with one or more of these families against the Maxwells, the Armstrongs and the Musgraves.

Probably the bitterest and bloodiest family quarrel in English and Scottish history—including even those in the Highlands—was that of the Johnstones (Johnsons-Johnstons) versus the Maxwells. The Irvings were close allies of the Johnstones, and the Armstrongs were likewise aligned with the Maxwells, so these two families were often involved in the bloody Johnstone-Maxwell confrontations. On the other hand the Irvings were often at odds with the Maxwells directly, and Irving family tradition indicates that hard feelings, at least on the Irving side, continued for many generations. The Johnstone-Maxwell feud continued throughout most of the 1500s, and was often fueled by local political interests.

History records one action in 1585 when the Maxwells burned eighty Johnstone houses. The Johnstones retaliated with a raid on the Maxwell village of Duncow, and partly burned it before being driven off. In return the Maxwells gutted two Johnstone villages. The Maxwells and the Armstrongs then raged through the Johnstone’s Dryfe Valley, killing indiscriminately and running off livestock. A week later the Maxwells raided Lockerbie and hanged four Johnstones. They also burned 300 homes and rustled over 3000 head of cattle. At some point the Irvings became involved in the battle, for it is recorded that the Maxwells also attacked Bonshaw Tower, a stronghold of the Irvings, and located not far from Lockerbie. Although it appears that the Maxwells were ultimately victorious in the 1585 action, the next year the Johnstones struck back by capturing almost 100 of Robert Maxwell’s private army, and then made raids on Annan and Dumfries and burned a dozen Maxwell villages. Of course the Maxwells retaliated, and the feud raged on.

In 1593 the two clans met in pitched battle again. The Maxwells, with Crichtons, Douglases, and some others, had a combined force of over 2000 when they were preparing to besiege Lochwood, a Johnstone stronghold. The Johnstones were grossly outnumbered, for they had only a mixed band of about 400 Johnstones, Ellotts, Scotts, Irvings and Grahams. The Johnstone chief, however, was a crafty Border fighter, and he lured Maxwell’s vanguard into an ambush. The vanguard broke, and Johnstone’s riders drove it headlong into Maxwell’s main body on Dryfe Sands near Lockerbie. The battle surged into the town itself, and the Johnstone mounted fighters cut the unmounted Maxwell to pieces. It is said that there was an occasion in direct combat when the Maxwell chief, who was mounted, was knocked out of his saddle by the Johnstone chief. When he stretched out his hand in surrender Johnstone cut it off with a downward backhanded cut, a move that came to be known as “a Lockerbie lick.”

The Dryfe Sands confrontation, fought on December 6, 1593, was the last major clan battle on the Borders, and was the single most bloody family battle ever on English and Scottish soil. The number of Maxwell dead was estimated to be about 700, including many of the chief’s closest kinsmen. The Johnstones paid off a long score, but their losses, and those of their allied families, had also been heavy. But this costly action, to both sides, did not end the feud  itself, and despite outside efforts it lingered on until 1608. It was then that a meeting was arranged between Lord Maxwell and James Johnstone. Every precaution was made to ensure a friendly meeting, but it erupted into a hostile confrontation and Maxwell shot Johnstone twice in the back. Maxwell was eventually arrested and executed by the authorities. The feud was finally over.

Four centuries have passed since the worst of the feuding between the Border clans gradually subsided, but it is reliably reported that the makeup – as well as the outlook – of the Borderers (those clans or family groups living on both sides of the English/Scottish border) has remained relatively constant. George MacDonald, author of The Steel Bonnets, observes: “They are not, to put it as tactfully as possible, the most immediately loveable folk in the United Kingdom.” He further comments: “On the credit side, there is a Border virtue which in the human scale that should outweigh all the rest, and that is simply the ability to endure, unchanging. Perhaps the highest compliment that one can pay to the people of the Anglo-Scottish frontier is to remark that, in spite of everything, they are still there.”


One feud, which goes back over 600 years, was between the Irvines and the Keiths. Both families came to prominence on the northeast coast of Scotland near Aberdeen, and both got their lands and hereditary titles as a result of their service to Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, in the early 1300s during the Wars of Independence. Sir William Irwyn, secretary and armor bearer of Robert the Bruce, was granted the Tower of Drum, and about 8000 acres of surrounding land, in 1323. Sir Robert Keith was granted lands from the King’s Lordship of Garioch in 1308. In a charter from the King in 1324, the office of Marischal to the King was also granted as a hereditary honor to the Keith family.

Sir William Keith, a successor, owned land around Kintore and Inverurie, but in the late 1300s added estates in Kincardine, on the south bank of the River Dee, through his marriage to the heiress of the Chamberlain estates. This brought the Keiths and the Irvines, who owned land on the north bank of the Dee, face to face. It was probably about this time that the feud between the Keiths and the Irvines of Drum was the fiercest. To use the words of an old manuscript: “…the old feud was cruell betwixt the two families; as that Marischall’s people burnt one of Drum’s children in hot wort (fermenting malt); and Drum burnt Hall-Forest Castle (a tower in the forest of Kintore belonging to the Keiths), and wasted sundry lands of  Marichall’s in revenge of that wrong.”

Tradition has preserved an account of a particularly brutal encounter between the two clans. On this occasion (about 1402) the Keiths raided the Irvines and secured considerable booty. The Irvines immediately regrouped, however, and overtook them before they could cross back over the Dee. Not one of the invading Keiths was allowed to live.

The Duke of Albany, Regent of Scotland for the under age James I, mediated a reconciliation between the two families. It was proposed that the eldest son of Alexander (3rd of Drum) marry Elizabeth, the second daughter of Earl Marischal Keith. Thus the clans were reconciled by marriage, and the feud was finally settled.

Elizabeth’s husband succeeded his father as the 4th Laird of Drum in 1410, but was almost immediately killed at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. Prior to the battle, Sir Alexander is said to have had a premonition that he might die. Tradition has it that he secured a commitment from his brother Robert that should he fall in battle Robert would marry Elizabeth. In the ensuing Battle of Harlaw (July 13, 1411) Sir Alexander engaged in direct hand-to-hand combat with Maclean of Duart. Both died fighting.

As a result of the battle the Highlanders, then allies of James I, retreated, and the city of Aberdeen was saved. Robert duly married Elizabeth, and when he inherited the tile of Laird of Drum, he changed his name to Alexander, the traditional Christian name of the Lairds of Drum.

The Keith-Irvine feud was finally officially consigned to history in August 2002 when the two Northeast Scottish clans came together for a landmark gathering. Members of the Irvine and Keith clans met at Park Bridge at Drumoak, and accompanied by the background accompaniment of bagpipers, pledged continuing friendly relations. Standing on the north bank of the Dee, David Irvine, Baron and Laird of Drum and Chief of Clan Irvine, received an invitation to make peace. Hugh Irvine, the laird’s son, was symbolically taken hostage by the Keiths to guarantee a warm reception for the Keith Earl. When this had been satisfied both clans approached the center of the bridge, where the ceremony began. Clan flags fluttered in the breeze, and documents were signed by both clan chiefs to confirm future peace and tranquility between the clans.


The Scots, and especially the Scotch-Irish, did not change their character, or leave their feuding ways in the old country, when they emigrated to the Colonies. The Scots tended to settle in established communities and remain there. The Scotch Irish, however, settled primarily in Pennsylvania and Virginia, but then spread out to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas. They tended to move south and westward in groups, but often found themselves living in close proximity with English and German settlers.

There was inevitably a measure of necessary contact between the groups. As the Scotch Irish movement progressed, and the frontier moved ever westward, they encountered fewer and fewer English settlers. The Germans, however, continued to arrive in the United States in great numbers. It was usual to expect the Germans to be orderly, industrious, carefully frugal and not very interested in politics. The Scotch Irish, on the other hand, were quick-tempered, impetuous, inclined to work in fits and starts, reckless, and as a group, they tended to drink too much. When they were involved in politics they tended to be extremely outspoken and opinionated, and it was not unusual for them throw a punch to accentuate a point.

As time passed the westward and southern movement of  Scotch Irish in large family groups began to lose momentum. The start of the Civil War, and the resulting upheaval, brought it to an end. There would still be minor events that attracted individuals, such as gold strikes in the West and in Alaska, but families—as a rule—did not accompany the miners.

As the Scotch Irish spread out across the South and West they tended to leave pockets of their kin in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. As the civilizing process evolved on the frontier areas in the United States these isolated groups were often not included in the process. In fact, through lack of education and isolation one might say that they even regressed. As a result the inbred aggressive, pugnacious and suspicious character traits of their forbears were further emphasized. As might be expected these backward and isolated areas soon became known for their “feudin’ and fightin’.”

There are many recorded instances of family feuds, and often they were settled with a muzzle loading rifle. The most famous of these family feuds, or clan wars, is undoubtedly the Hatfield-McCoy feud. It has become an enduring part of our national folklore. At its peak it increased tensions between two neighboring states, and it ended only after the United States Supreme Court intervened. That ruling was over 100 years ago, and Kentucky and West Virginia commemorate the conclusion of the feud.

The Hatfields and McCoys—both with Scotch Irish roots—lived near the Kentucky-West Virginia border, along the valley of the Tug Fork River, off the Big Sandy River. The region remained largely unspoiled frontier until the late 19th century, rarely penetrated by the civilizing influences of outside society and its institutions. Families lived in crude log cabins and eked out a precarious existence in the remote recesses of heavily forested valleys.

Both clans were part of the first wave of pioneers to settle the Tug Valley. William Anderson ("Devil Anse") Hatfield, the patriarch of his extended family throughout the years of the feud, was born in 1839. Photographs reveal him to have been a huge, raw-boned, shaggy-haired individual. He was "six feet of devil and one hundred eighty pounds of hell," as one of his contemporaries described him. Randolph ("Ran'l") McCoy, the leader of the McCoy clan, was born in 1825 and had many of the same physical characteristics as Anse: a full beard, sullen gray eyes, and broad shoulders.

Anse and Ran'l—in contrast to most of their neighbors— were both prosperous yeoman farmers, although their crude cabins and lifestyle gave little evidence of their wealth. Anse, for example, owned several thousand acres of prime timberland. Both families were heavily involved in the manufacture and sale of illegal whiskey.

The Tug Fork marked not only the boundary between West Virginia and Kentucky, but also the dividing line between the two clans. The Hatfields occupied the West Virginia side of the river, and the McCoys the Kentucky side. Communication within each clan was generally by "backwoods wireless telegraph," a collection of unusual animal sounds and birdcalls signifying everything from the arrival of a stranger to a family gathering.

The origins of the feud are lost in the mists of history, but there were already bad feelings between the two families in 1878 when a dispute over the ownership of two razor-backed hogs in a Hatfield pigsty provoked the first recorded incident of violence. The McCoys, upset when a court decision over the pigs went against them, ambushed a group of Hatfields who were deer hunting. No one was killed, but a few days later Staton Hatfield fired on two brothers, Sam and Paris McCoy, injuring one before he himself was killed by a single shot through the head.

The Spring elections for Pike County, Kentucky in 1880 provided the next occasion for the eruption of hostilities. This was McCoy country, but Anse Hatfield and his two oldest sons, Johnse and Cap, suddenly appeared. Johnse is said to have been the most likable of the Hatfields; he was also a stylish dresser, and popular with the girls. That day he encountered Rose Anna McCoy, Ran'l's daughter. Photographs show her to have been a tall, slender woman with long, wavy black hair. Johnse, immediately captivated, offered Rose Anna a handful of gingerbread and began to chat with her as if there was no animosity between their families. In the relaxed carnival atmosphere of that election day Johnse and Rose Anna fell in love. That night she went to live with him in his cabin.

Ran'l was furious when he learned what had happened. He was perhaps even more outraged when the couple split up several months later and his daughter came home a "ruined" woman. An uneasy truce prevailed between the clans, but not for long.

Peace was shattered in August 1882. Once again the occasion was a Pike County election. The corn whiskey flowed plentifully. Soon Ellison Hatfield stirred from a drunken slumber, first to insult Tolbert McCoy, then to attack him. Tolbert and one of his brothers drew knives and stabbed Ellison; a third brother shot him.

Ellison, bleeding profusely from twenty-six stab wounds and a bullet in his back, was carried away. Anse and his kin quickly rounded up the three McCoys. Two days later Ellison died. The Hatfields tied the three boys, all sons of Ran'l, to pawpaw bushes on the Kentucky side of the river and pumped fifty rifle bullets into them.

Violence ebbed and flowed for the next several years. In 1886, for example, Cap Hatfield shot and killed Jeff McCoy, who had earlier attacked his cabin. Soon afterward bounty hunters jumped a Hatfield ally, killed him, and brought his scalp to Kentucky for a reward. Ran'l, meanwhile, had been waiting for West Virginia to extradite the Hatfields accused of  the deaths of his sons. In 1887 he took matters into his own hands. He helped organize a raid into Hatfield territory, seized a McCoy who had married a Hatfield, and brought him back to a Kentucky jail.

The news of the successful action inflamed the Hatfields, who decided that Ran'l and anyone else who might testify against them in Kentucky courts must be killed. On January 1, 1888, nine heavily armed Hatfields lay seige to Ran'l's cabin. After a battle that lasted an hour the building caught fire. Young Alifair McCoy stepped outside to douse the flames, confident that the Hatfields would not harm a woman. She was wrong. The Hatfields shot her in the stomach. As she lay screaming on the ground, her mother, Sarah, tried to get to her. "For the love of the Lord," she screamed, "let me go to my girl." A Hatfield pistol-whipped her until she lost consciousness.

The rest of the nation was stunned by the whirlwind of violence unleashed by Anse Hatfield and his family. For the first time stories of the feud became front-page copy in newspapers across the country.

Still more stories were generated when the governor of West Virginia turned down the Kentucky governor's petition to arrest Anse Hatfield and some of his kin. Bands of heavily armed McCoys, sometimes numbering upwards of fifty men, staged more raids across the border. Within a few weeks two more Hatfields had been killed and another eight were captured to stand trial for murder in Kentucky. The governor of West Virginia, infuriated, called up the National Guard. So did his counterpart in Kentucky.

West Virginia also instituted legal proceedings to head off the impending trials of the Hatfields. The attorneys charged that the Hatfields had been kidnapped without due process. The case went to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that there was no legal way to mandate the restoration of prisoners abducted from one state to another. So the eight Hatfields had to stand trial in Kentucky after all. All were found guilty of murder. Seven were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the eighth defendant received the death sentence for the murder of Alifair McCoy. Ignoring a state law prohibiting public executions, the authorities decided to hang the man publicly as a warning to the other Hatfields. Thousands of people attended the execution.

By that time the feud was for all practical purposes at an end. The bloodshed had decimated both families. Besides, new money was flowing into the area, attracted by rich deposits of coal, and the investors needed a more stable social climate. Police authority was increased accordingly.

As for the two patriarchs who had been at the center of all this trouble, they lived long, peaceful, and rather prosperous lives. Ran'l operated a ferry in Pikeville until he died his death,  caused by burns he suffered when he fell into a fire. He was almost ninety.  Anse started a logging operation, found religion, and lived to see his nephew Henry become governor of West Virginia. Henry later became a United States senator. Anse died of pneumonia in 1921.

By then the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys had long since gone out of history and into legend. It served as the inspiration for countless dramas, poems, novels, and films. In the end it became a badge of distinction to be able to claim descent from either family. Jack Dempsey, for one, boasted ancestors from both clans.

Perhaps the most appropriate epitaph to the history of the two families was provided by John Spears, an early historian of the feud, who in the late 1890s visited the long-abandoned cabin of Anse Hatfield on the east bank of the Tug Fork. Inside he found hanging over a fireplace a gaudy lithograph that read: THERE IS NO PLACE LIKE HOME. A previous visitor, obviously someone familiar with local history, had scribbled in the white margin: "Leastwise, not this side of hell."