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Issue 17 - A clan spanning the generations (Robertsons of Clan Donnachaidh)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


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A clan spanning the generations (Robertsons of Clan Donnachaidh)

In the latest of his series, James Irvine Robertson looks at his own clan name – one of the oldest families in Scotland

THE Robertsons of Clan Donnachaidh are the oldest family in Scotland, said the Historiographer Royal W.F. Skene in the middle of the 19th century. Since every family is as old as every other one, this is Victorian shorthand for the family that can trace its origins back the furthest.

And Clan Donnachaidh – pronounced donnachy – stems from the rulers of the ancient Pictish kingdom of Fotla, now Atholl, which lies at the centre of Scotland. This family gave the last Celtic kings of Scotland in the line of King Duncan, killed by MacBeth, and, from the last of the Celtic earls came Duncan of Atholl, considered the first chief of the clan.

The Gaelic for Duncan is Donnchadh, in the genitive case Donnachaidh, so the name of the clan literally translates to ‘Children of Duncan’.

During the Wars of Independence, King Robert Bruce was defeated at the Battle of Methven outside Perth in 1306 and fled into Atholl where he was given protection by Duncan. They fought together at the battle of Dalry where the king lost his brooch to the Macdougalls of Lorne and Duncan and his clan were beside their monarch at Bannockburn. Duncan named his eldest son and heir Robert after his king.

The fourth chief, Robert Riabhach – meaning “grizzled” – tracked down and captured Walter of Atholl and Sir Robert Graham who assassinated James I in Perth. For this the new king offered him an earldom. Instead he preferred a legal charter to his lands which then stretched from the gates of Perth to the beautiful landscape round Lochs Tummel, Rannoch and Tay.

His successor who spawned most of the chieftains of the clan used the name Robert-son in honour of his father and this became the preferred surname of his clansfolk, although others chose Duncan or, after a red-headed son of the first chief, Reid.

The Menzies’ from the Scottish lowlands were granted land and moved into Atholl. The earldom fell to Stewarts who ruled from Blair Castle and whole tribes of them – bastards and cousins of the king – followed. The daughter of the last Stewart earl married a Murray and this family are still the Dukes of Atholl.

William the 6th Robertson chief lost his head and half of his lands to the earl, but those living on them remained Robertsons, often ignored commands from Blair Castle and followed their chief.

The heart of Clan Donnachaidh land lies at Struan a few miles west of Blair Atholl. The chief is traditionally known as Robertson of Struan, or Struan Robertson or simply Struan.

This was a turbulent country rife with cattle thieves from the wastes of Rannoch Moor and Clan Macgregor refugees from the persecutions of the Campbells of Glenorchy with their seat on the edge of Atholl at Taymouth.

More than any other tribe, Clan Donnachaidh suffered from its support for the Stuart kings. The earls and dukes of Atholl, though not all of their family, supported the Government.

But under Robertson command the men of Atholl during the 17th century banded together to fight for the noble Marquis of Montrose. In his glittering campaign of 1644 he won every battle in which they took part.

In the words of the historian Robert Scott Fittis, ‘The Robertsons of Athole were long esteemed the best swordsmen in Scotland, and their prowess, under the royal banner, contributed to the brilliant triumphs of Montrose.’

In 1688, the Stuarts finally lost the throne of Great Britain. The young clan chief Alexander was at St Andrews University. He cut short his studies and raised the clan to fight for the deposed king.

This Alexander was one of the most remarkable men of his time. As well as a fighter and devoted supporter of King James VII, he was a bon viveur and highly rated poet, writing in English, French, Gaelic, Latin, Italian and Greek. During one of his periods of exile in France, Louis XIV described him as ‘The First Gentleman of my Court.’

Alexander Robertson of Struan was unique in Scotland for participating in all three of the great Jacobite Risings – 1688, 1715, and 1745.

In the last, he was an old man, but joined Bonnie Prince Charlie at Perth and watched his clan join in the rout of the Redcoats at the Battle of Prestonpans, near Edinburgh.

After that he was escorted home in the captured carriage of General Cope with a barrel of the general’s brandy beside him for refreshment. When they reached the wilds of the clan’s heartland, his escort removed the coach wheels and carried it on their shoulders to the old man’s home in the shadow of Schiehallion.

When he died in 1749, 2,000 men marched 15 miles behind his coffin to the burial ground at Struan Kirk.

However, after the 1745 Rising, Clan Donnachaidh lands were forfeit to the Crown. When Alexander’s successors regained them in 1782, they were saddled with his debts and, piecemeal, the estates were sold off.

But the chief never lost the respect of his people, perhaps because no clansman in Atholl was forcibly evicted from their farms during the clearances. The population drained away, but these movements were voluntary, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the proximity of clan country to the Lowlands. From there, many emigrated to the New World.

The Clan Donnachaidh Society began in 1823. In 1969 it built the first purpose-built Clan Centre and Museum in Scotland at Bruar near Pitlochry. Today, Clan Donnachaidh’s DNA surname project with the Family Tree DNA testing laboratory of Houston, Texas, is showing kinship links between members still living in Scotland, and Robertsons, Duncans, Reids and other clan names now scattered across the world. With 17 overseas branches, clan spirit still flourishes.

The Clach na Brataich or ‘Stone of the Standard’ is a globe of rock crystal, and was discovered during a campaign by Duncan, the first chief, against the Macdougalls of Lorne.

Thenceforth, it was carried in a little cage at the top of the pole when the clan went into battle. The Clach is the most famous and has the oldest history of any such charms. Its prime function was for healing.

Any water in which the stone was dipped had curative properties for both man and beast. It could also predict the future and went cloudy at the approaching death of a chief.

The consternation of the Poet Chief can be imagined when he consulted the Stone on the eve of the Jacobite Rising of 1715 and saw a great crack running through its heart. Certainly if Struan had not joined the rebellion his own fortunes and that of his successors would have
been very different.

The supporters – the dove and the serpent – indicate descent from the Kindred of St Columba. The wolves’ heads are said to commemorate Duncan’s sterling work in ridding Atholl of these pests. The motto means ‘glory is the reward of virtue’, the slogan or battle cry ‘fierce when roused’.