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Issue 20 - Great clansmen (Cameron)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 20
April 2005


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Great clansmen (Cameron)

The Cameron clan comes under the spotlight in this issue. James Irvine Robertson reports

The image of a clansman is recognised across the world as personifying Scotland. No other country, particularly a small northern European country, has a similarly powerful symbol of its nationhood.

The reality has not existed for 250 years and it is a tribute to the colourful blend of romance, honour, gallantry and ferocity in the myth that it is still so dominant.

The Camerons would have to be chosen as the clan that most closely matches that image. Their ferocity was legendary – ‘Sons of the hounds come here and get flesh’ was their slogan or war cry.

They sustained a feud of 360 years against the MacIntoshes. Their loyalty to the Stuart cause was unswerving. Their chiefs were outstanding. And they had to fight for centuries against other powerful clans to hold their wild and beautiful country of Lochaber.

Like most Highland clans, their roots are shrouded in obscurity and legend but it seems that the family is first recorded in Fife in the 12th century as offshoots of the royal house of McDuff.

A member of the family was Sheriff of Atholl in 1296 when a kinsman was the earl. Another signed the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Another emerged after, perhaps, a judicious marriage or two as leader of a grouping of families in Lochaber with kinship links to the Lordship of the Isles, the regional superpower of the times.

The subsequent history of the clan tells of continuous strife. The chief rarely had the security of a Royal Charter over clan country and instead they held their land by the sword.

Lochaber was bounded by mighty neighbours – the Lords of the Isles and their successors, the Earl of Huntly and, later, the Campbells. Such folk had their feuds with each other and the Crown and it took adroit footwork to avoid being crushed in the middle, particularly when clan territory covered the southern end of the Great Glen, one of the most strategically important locations in Scotland.

And then, of course, there were always the MacIntoshes. The enmity took root when the MacIntoshes acquired the captaincy of the federation of clans know as Clan Chattan in 1396 and the Camerons declared their independence from them under the leadership of the family of Lochiel.

The clans clashed often with bloody results. Often too some conflict would leave both clans weakened and their territory open to be ravaged by someone else. But always the chief, occasionally losing his head in the process, was able to command the loyalty of his people and preserve their honour and independence.

Since 1529, when the clan lands became the barony Lochiel, this has been the most common sobriquet of the chiefs, although an alternative style is MacDomhnuil Dubh after Domhnuil Dubh – Black Donald – the first great chief.

Others include his son Alan nan Creach who ‘made 32 expeditions into his enemy’s country for the 32 years that he lived and three more for the three quarters of a year he was in his mother’s womb.’ Sir Ewen Dubh, born in 1629, was ‘distinguished for his chivalrous character, his intrepid loyalty, his undaunted courage, and the ability as well as heroism with which he conducted himself in circumstances of uncommon difficulty and peril.’

He was only 16 when Montrose fought his dazzling campaign for the king and in 1650 he joined the forces of Charles II, distinguishing himself and his clan in Glencairn’s Rising against the Parliamentarians in 1652.

But Cromwell, the Lord Protector after the execution of Charles I in 1649, was virtual dictator of Britain. His troops built a fort at Inverlochy in the heart of Cameron country when Ewen Dubh was away campaigning for the exiled king. But uniquely in Scotland the chief did not take the oath of loyalty to the new regime. One of those great Highland anecdotes concerns his desperate single combat with an officer from the fort. Lochiel was on his back on the dry bed of a burn with his antagonist trying to stab him with a dagger. The chief tore the windpipe from his adversary with his teeth. He described it as the sweetest bite of his life.

Less well known is the corollary to the tale. Ewen was in London in later more settled times. He went to be shaved. The barber made such conversation as they do.

‘Where are you from?’

‘My father was a soldier in Scotland. Some savage ripped out his throat in a battle. If I could ever get that man under my razor...’

Lochiel is said to have held his peace. Ewen brought the clan to fight for the deposed King James VII of Scotland, II of England, at Killiecrankie in 1689 and led a successful charge down the hill at the redcoats at the age of 60.

The clan was out in 1715. The chief went into exile but his lands were safe since he no longer owned them. He had taken the precaution of putting the estate in his son’s name.

When Prince Charles raised his standard at Glen Finnan in July 1745, Sir Donald Cameron – Gentle Lochiel – went to dissuade him from the folly of rebellion. But the Prince’s charisma led to the Camerons being the first to join his army.

Had it not been for this, Charles could never have raised other clans. To that extent the Camerons are responsible for the cataclysmic climax of Highland history and the spawning of the myths that followed.

Gentle Lochiel led the clan through to Culloden where both he and his brother, Dr Archibald, were wounded. James Wolfe who died leading his army to victory at the Heights of Abraham at Montreal took part at Culloden as a captain in the Government army. The day after the battle he wrote describing the Camerons as the bravest clan amongst them.

Cumberland’s troops ravaged clan lands but the two brothers escaped to France. Lochiel died there but Dr Archie, who had been an ADC to the prince, took a trip to Scotland and was arrested. He was executed in 1753 at Tyburn in London before a sympathetic crowd, the last man to die as a result of the Rising.

The distinguished military history of the clan continued through the succeeding centuries. So did the distinguished service of their chiefs. They managed to hold on to their ancestral estate at Achnacarry of 100,000 acres where now is sited one of the best Clan Museums in Scotland.

The greatly loved Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel who died last year, followed in his father’s footsteps to be be Lord Lieutenant of Inverness-shire, the Queen’s representative in the county from 1971-1985 and, like his father, was created a Knight of the Thistle, Scotland’s highest order of Chivalry.

The 27th MacDomhnuil Dubh is married to a daughter of the Marquess of Lothian. Their eldest daughter Catherine was a bridesmaid to Princess Diana and he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Invernessshire in 2002.

The clan has a flourishing museum at Achnacarry as well as a flourishng presence on the web –

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