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Issue 14 - Bravest hearts of them all? (The Campbells)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


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Bravest hearts of them all? (The Campbells)

James Irvine Robertson continues his series on the great clans of Scotland. This issue:The Campbells

In 1822, the great Highland historian David Stewart of Garth wrote: “It is rather humiliating for those who have made politics their sole study to find that no less art, sagacity, address and courage has been displayed in the petty contests of illiterate mountaineers, than in their most refined schemes of policy and their most brilliant feats of arms. That they should be able, by intrigue and dexterity, to attach new allies and detach hostile tribes from their confederates, is a still more mortifying proof how nearly the unassisted powers of natural talent approach to the practices of the most profound politicians.”

To put it another way, the clan chiefs could have given Machiavelli a masterclass.

By 1745 it was clear that the outstanding victors of these centuries-long battles for power amongst the clans were the Campbells.

They had been pre-eminent in the Highlands for over a century. The ruthless genius of their leaders, the loyalty of their people and the ferocity of their warriors made the clan by far the richest and most powerful force in the Highlands and often in the whole of Scotland.

One part of the equation that has given the ancient Gaelic culture such resonance down the centuries is the theme of romantic loss. The Campbells were winners: losers, even after two and a half centuries, can sometimes find this hard to forgive or forget although such rivalry these days is tongue-in-cheek.

The progenitors of Clan Campbell – the name means crooked mouth – emerged from the ancient tribes that inhabited Strathclyde.

At the beginning of the 13th century, the first documented forbear of the clan was Duncan mac Duibhne who held land by Loch Awe in Argyllshire. The first great chief was Sir Colin Campbell who was knighted by Alexander III in 1280. Subsequent chiefs have carried the name Mac Calein Mor – the Great Son of Colin.

His son Sir Neil fought by King Robert Bruce’s side at virtually every conflict of the War of Independence including Bannockburn. His reward was great estates and the king’s sister Lady Mary Bruce in marriage.

Duncan of Lochawe, a descendant of Sir Neil’s brother, became the first Lord Campbell in 1445 and he had two sons. Archibald, whose island castle was Ardchonell on the island of Innischonell in Loch Awe, became the first Earl of Argyll; this line moved west to found Inveraray on Loch Fyne.

His younger brother was Colin, founder of the Campbells of Glenorchy with his stronghold at Kilchurn Castle at the east end of the Loch Awe. He founded the family that went east to control Glen Orchy and Loch Tay and became the earls and marquises of Breadalbane, the second great branch of the clan.

The Campbells have an exceptional reputation for courage and effectiveness in battle, but so have other clans. Their chiefs were always careful to ensure that the loyalty of their people was absolute; again other chiefs did no less.

What singled out the leaders of the clan was the genius of their political judgement.

Highland politics had no greys. The aim of a chief was his clan’s expansion; to stand still meant being swallowed by a neighbour.

Morality and natural justice could never be considerations and a vital tool was pitiless violence. Where the Campbells were remarkable was their clear-sighted understanding of the power of the law and the power of money.

They bought up other chiefs’ debts. When repayments failed, they obtained legal title over the debtors’ lands and sent in their clansmen to take it.

When other clans rebelled against the king and the forces of the state brought such subjects to heel, the Campbells were often the crown’s instrument of control which ensured they were there for the spoils.

The Glenorchy branch of the family picked off smaller clans – Fletchers, Macgregors, McNabs – in an eastward expansion which gave them mighty Taymouth Castle and ownership of half a million acres.

The Earls of Argyll would gain immense wealth and power by exploiting the downfall of the Lordship of the Isles and the toppling of Clan Donald. Clan leaders were not only instruments of government policy, they ensured they were in a position to shape that policy to their interests.

Colin, first earl of Argyll, was Ambassador to France and became Lord Chancellor of Scotland and Master of the Royal Household in 1464, a post which became hereditary in the family and is still held by the Duke of Argyll.

Colin, the third earl, was Lord Warden of the Marches and defended the country’s border against England. The fifth and sixth earl were each Lord Chancellor.

A miscalculation as to the winning side by the 8th and the 9th earls cost them their heads when the Stuart monarchs fell in the 17th century but such mistakes were not made again and the 10th earl earned himself a dukedom by being one of the two Commissioners who offered the Scottish crown to William of Orange and his wife Mary.

The Campbell army of 5,000 was often the most powerful force in the nation. The 9th Earl of Argyll led the campaign that eventually defeated the Royalist Marquis of Montrose in 1645 and his great-grandson, the 2nd Duke of Argyll, outmanoeuvred the rebels and held Scotland in the Rising of 1715.

The clan was also proud to have fought for the Hanoverian Government at Culloden in 1746 and played an important role in the victory. Only a romantic could say they supported on the wrong side.

Even before 1745, economic forces were signalling the decline of the clan system and the ancient haphazard system of agriculture. The 5th Duke of Argyll introduced reforms and invested huge sums of money in an attempt to provide employment for his clansmen.

He developed Oban and Inveraray, and the industries of fishing and tanning to provide employment in the Highlands.

But the people left just anyway. The network of patronage gave many opportunities in the Empire. It was said there were more Campbells in India than Argyllshire. The armed forces provided another outlet for the Campbells, with the clan providing manpower for a dozen regiments for the British army.

The Highland Regiments sprang from the Independent Companies formed in the early 18th century to police the Highlands. These were almost entirely officered by Campbells and in the first engagement of the Black Watch regiment at the battle of Fontenoy fought against the French in 1745, the five officer casualties were all from the clan.

In the two World Wars the 50 male descendants of the Earls of Cawdor, won three VCs, 15 DSOs, three MCs and a DFC. No other clan can surpass this record of gallantry.

In some clans the legacy of bitterness from the Clearances has cast a shadow but the spirit of Clan Campbell is still a potent force.

After the great fire at Inveraray Castle in 1975, the money for its restoration flooded in from all over the world.

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