There are many theories on the origin of this unique group of families which did not follow the ordinary pattern of other Scottish clans, but rather became a community or confederation, consisting of various descendants of the original ancestors. They were distinguished by the wildcat which figures prominently in their heraldry. One theory states that they came from the Catti, a tribe of Gauls driven out by the Romans; another says they took their name from Catav in Sutherland. The most widely accepted, however, says they descended from Gillichattan Mor, the great servant of St Cattan. Gillichattan was probably the co-arb, or baillie, of the abbey lands of Ardchattan. Around the time of Malcolm II they became possessed of lands at Glenloy and Loch Arkaig, where Torcastle became the chief’s seat. Little is certain until the clan became established around Lochaber at the close of the thirteenth century. In 1291, Eva, daughter of Gilpatric, or Dougal Dall, of Clan Chattan in Lochaber, married Angus Mackintosh, sixth of Mackintosh. After his marriage to Eva, Angus lived for some time at Torcastle in Glenloy, but due to the enmity of Angus Og of Islay he withdrew to Rothiemurchus. The Camerons, claiming that the lands around Arkaig had been abandoned, occupied them by right of conquest. Thereafter a long and bitter feud was fought between the Camerons and Clan Chattan which lasted until 1666. In 1370 four hundred Camerons made a raid into Badenoch but while returning home with their spoils they were met at Invernahavon by a strong force of Mackintoshes supported by the MacPhersons and Davidsons. The Camerons were defeated, but the battle was the origin of feuding between the MacPhersons and the Davidsons. In 1503 the Camerons rebelled against the king and ravaged Badenoch. Despite several bloody encounters, it took some three years to quell the insurrection.
Prior to the fourteenth century, Clan Chattan appears to have been a conventional clan though little is known of it. Subsequently, however, it evolved into a confederation or alliance of clans made up of (a) the descendants of the original clan (Macphersons, Cattanachs, Macbeans, Macphails), (b) Mackintoshes and their cadet branches (Shaws, Farquharsons, Ritchies, McCombies, MacThomases), and (c) families not originally related by blood (MacGillivrays, Davidsons, Macleans of Dochgarroch, MacQueens of Pollochaig, Macintyres of Badenoch, Macandrews). By the eighteenth century the clans in and around Strathairn (Shaw, Macbean, Macphail, MacGillivray) looked to Mackintosh as their chief, having none of their own, but whether this was as Clan Chattan or Clan Mackintosh is unclear, the histories of both clans being inextricably entwined.
The Reformation and the general turmoil in Scotland after the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, was a difficult time for the confederation, the MacPhersons in particular having become disaffected. In an attempt to consolidate their power a gathering was summoned in 1609 by William Mackintosh of Benchar, the uncle of the seventeenth Mackintosh chief who was still in his minority, to meet at Termit, where the leaders of the families swore a bond of union and loyalty to Mackintosh.
In the risings of 1715 and 1745 Clan Chattan declared for the Stuarts, and suffered as a consequence. Among the dead and captured after the Battle of Preston in 1715 were numbered many bearing Clan Chattan surnames, especially MacGillivrays. The Mackintosh chief was imprisoned until August 1716 and he died at Moy in 1731. When Bonnie Prince Charlie returned in 1745 to promote his father’s claim to the throne, the chief of the Mackintoshes was an officer of George II in command of a company of the Black Watch. He did not rally to the prince’s call to arms, but his wife, Anne, daughter of Farquharson of Invercauld, raised the confederation in his absence, selecting MacGillivray of Dunmaglas as commander. Under him the Clan Chattan Regiment fought at the Jacobite victory of Falkirk in 1746. It is of note that there were separate Macpherson and Farquharson regiments.
The suppression of the Highlands after the Forty-five undermined the nature of the confederation, and its members largely sought independent destinies. The major families continued to dispute the vestiges of power, but no more violently than in heated debate before the Court of the Lord Lyon. As early as September 1672, the MacPherson claim had been swept aside by the Lord Lyon, and Mackintosh was declared to be chief of the name of Mackintosh and of the Clan Chattan. The chiefs of Clan Mackintosh continued as captains of Clan Chattan until 1947, when Duncan Alexander Mackintosh of Torcastle was recognised by the Lord Lyon as thirty-first chief of Clan Chattan. The present chief lives in Zimbabwe.