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Issue 29 - Virtue mine honour (Clan Maclean)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


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Virtue mine honour (Clan Maclean)

This issue James Irvine Robertson considers the Clan Maclean

Although the usual fanciful pedigrees locates the clan originally 150 miles north east at Glen Urquhart in Moray, the Macleans are from the west coast island of Mull.

Gillean of the Battle-Axe, the first of the clan on record, fought against the Vikings in 1263 on the beach at Largs on the occasion that persuaded King Haakon of Norway to cede the Western Isles to the Scottish king.

Three of Gillean’s grandsons fought with King Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

However, a clash with the Lords of Lorne drove the family to Mull, to McKinnon country. In 1367, Lachlan Lubanach, first of the Macleans of Duart and builder of the mighty castle of the name, fell for Mary, daughter of Donald, Lord of the Isles who was then as powerful as the monarch.

Even six centuries later his effrontery appears outrageous. Donald with his retinue had been hunting on Mull. He set out to return to Ardtornish Castle, his stronghold on the mainland accompanied by the McKinnon chief and Lachlan. As Mackinnon was stepping into his galley to follow, Lachlan and Hector Maclean fell upon him and slew him. They then disarmed McKinnon’s men and hastening after the Lord of the Isles, seized his galley, forced him to grant them an indemnity for the deed and to approve of Lachlan’s marriage to his daughter. He did, and within a couple of generations the clan controlled Mull, Tiree, Coll and on the mainland, Kingairloch, Ardgour and Morvern.

In one of those delightful Scottish titles, the eldest daughter of the chief is still known as the Maid of Morvern. The clan became one of the principal tribes within the Lordship of the Isles and fought against the Scots king at the battle of Harlaw in 1411.

They were in at the death of the Lordship of the Isles when it was forfeit to the Scottish crown in 1493. Lachlan of Duart was killed along with his king and the leading aristocrats of Scotland at Flodden in 1513, but by then the clan had split into four independent branches – the Macleans of Duart, Lochbuie, Coll and Ardgour, who were feuding amongst themselves and with the Clan Donald.

Exasperated by the western clans and their feuds, in 1593 James VI forfeited both Lachlan Mor of Duart and Angus Macdonald of Sleat for their quarrelling. Lachlan Mor later redeemed himself and had his lands returned to him by fighting for the king against the Catholic faction at the battle of Glenlivet, but plunged straight back into feuding and was killed in battle against Clan Donald in 1598.

But all the while the Campbells of Argyll were scheming and growing in power. The Macleans fought alongside the Marquis of Montrose for the king in 1645, but this was a losing cause. One of the most famous incidents in the clan’s history came in 1651. To quote Colonel David Stewart of Garth: “in the battle of Inverkeithing, between the Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s troops, 500 of the followers of the laird of McLean were left dead on the field. In the heat of the conflict, seven brothers of the clan sacrificed their lives in defence of their leader, Sir Hector Maclean. Being hard pressed by the enemy, he was supported and covered from their attacks by these intrepid men; and as one brother fell, another came up in succession to cover him, crying ‘Another for Hector.’ This phrase has continued ever since as a proverb or watch-word when a man encounters any sudden danger that requires instant succour.” The Bank of Scotland opened for business in 1695. Before that the economy of Scotland depended upon notes of credit from landowners, many passed from hand to hand as security for other transactions and unredeemed for decades, if not centuries.

The Earl of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell, quietly bought up the Macleans’ promissory notes towards the end of the 17th century, prosecuted them through his own courts in Argyllshire and was able to foreclose on all of the Maclean clan lands and arrive with an army of 2,000 to enforce the law. In 1680 the Earl had possession of all Mull.

However, the Macleans were far from being alone in losing control of their lands and were still a force to be reckoned with. In 1724 General Wade reckoned ‘The McLeans in Mull, Rhume, Coil, Morvine, Ardnamurchan and Swinard, in Argyleshire ’ were amongst the ‘clans or tribes which were engaged in the late rebellion, most of them are armed and commit depredations.’ They had fought for King James VII and his Scottish commander, the Bonnie Earl of Dundee at Killiecrankie in 1689; for James VIII (The Old Pretender) and his lieutenant, the Earl of Mar at Sheriffmuir in 1715.

In 1745 when Prince Charles Edward Stuart landed in Scotland from France, the Maclean Chief, Sir Hector, was in Edinburgh, where he was arrested by the authorities and sent to London. This did not prevent 500 of the clan under McLean of Drimnin joining the rebellion. They were partnered by the Maclauchlans at the centre of the line at the Battle of Culloden and suffered severely.

“While seeking to rally his men, Drimnin was informed by one of his three sons, Ailean, that another, Lachlan, had been killed ‘all, do not worry about me. If you value your life, take care of yourself.’ Then shouting ‘It shall not be for naught,’ he rushed without wig or bonnet back into the battle and, encountering two English dragoons, killed one and wounded the other, before being himself cut down.” Through debt and the emnity of Clan Campbell, coupled with their loyalty to the Scottish Royal House of Stuart, the chiefs of the Macleans had largely lost their lands and power by the time of the Highland Clearances, which began in the 18th century. For their descendants this has largely meant that the widely dispersed clansmen departed from their home country without the bitterness and sense of betrayal which were so often the legacy of those evictions.

This may well be the reason why the Clan Maclean thrives like few others today. Another contributing factor may be that they have a resident chief in one of the most charismatic of Scottish castles – Castle Duart on the island of Mull which, having fallen into disrepair after 1751, was purchased and restored by Sir Fitzroy Maclean, 26th Chief, in 1910.

Its dominance as the guardian of the Sound of Mull is evident to every modern ferry passenger sailing from Oban within cannon shot en route to Craignure or Tobermoray, or onwards to the Outer Isles.