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Issue 30 - To conquer or die (Macdougal)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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To conquer or die (Macdougal)

James Irvine Robertson turns his attention to one of the oldest clans in Scotland, the clan Macdougall

Son of the Black Stranger is the meaning of Macdougall. It is doubtful whether the original of the clan was that dark and he was certainly not that strange since his family had been amongst the most powerful in Scotland for generations.

He was a descendant of Somerled the Viking, progenitor of the Lords of the Isles. Somerled ruled the west coast and the islands before being defeated in 1164 at Renfrew by the forces of Malcolm IV under Walter the High Steward. In the early 13th century Donald, Roderick and Dougal were Somerled’s descendants and had split his realm between them. Dougal and his family held sway on the mainland as Lords of Argyll and Lorne.

But with such power, and so much to keep under control, it is impossible to be static. You must either expand or perish, and that means that you have to engage in politics, and becoming involved in politics means that you have to make alliances and compromises. It is not the right side you must back, but the winning side. And Alastair, the head of the Macdougall family and 4th Lord of Lorne, didn’t.

It was bad luck. He could not foretell the future, and he seems to have done all he could to further his family’s fortunes by marrying into Scotland’s most potent dynasty, the Comyns, with three earldoms and 32 knights in the family. He wed the daughter of the Lord of Badenoch. Her nephew was one of William Wallace’s most redoubtable supporters, a Guardian of Scotland, victor of the Battle of Roslin in 1303, and a true champion of the nation’s independence against Edward I. He is better known to history as the Red Comyn and he was shockingly and treacherously murdered on Febuary 10, 1306 in front of the high altar of the Church of the Minorites in Dumfries. Naturally family honour demanded vengeance, and this pitted the Clan Macdougall against the assassin.

And the alleged assassin was none other than King Robert Bruce.

Initially matters went well. Bruce was excommunicated for the deed, fled north, scrambled together a farce of a coronation more than a month later at Scone, and was beaten in battle a few weeks after that before disappearing into the Highlands.

John of Lorne was Alastair Macdougall’s son. He ambushed and very nearly caught King Robert in August that year near Tyndrum in what became known as the battle of Dalrigh, which means ‘Field of the King.’ Robert, with his supporters, was defeated and fled, dumping their weapons in a little lochan to speed their departure. The King was cornered in a gully by three assailants who tried to drag him from his horse. He fought his way free, but had to leave his plaid behind – and its clasp, the Brooch of Lorne, which is perhaps the oldest and most significant of all clan relics. King Robert fled into legend, to the cave where he watched the spider, and then he came storming back.

He revenged himself on John of Lorne on the shores of Loch Awe at the Battle of the Pass of Brander, and soon their fatal and unavoidable adherence to the losing faction had cost the Macdougalls their land and their power. The two heiresses to the Lordship of Lorne were married to Stewarts, the new powers in the land.

But Alastair of Lorne had a younger brother named Duncan, and he had supported King Robert Bruce and been given Dunollie Castle by him. In 1451, the Stewart Lord of Lorne confirmed Iain, his descendant, in the lands of Dunollie, Oban and the island of Kerrera, and this branch of the family became chiefs of the clan and remain so today.

However the clan was soon faced with the irresistible rise of their neighbours, the Campbells of Argyll, who came to dominate the nation like no Highland clan before them and were ruthless towards anyone who stood in their way. The Macdougalls supported the royalists against the Campbells in the Marquis of Montrose’s campaign and had their strongholds of Dunollie, and Gylen on the island of Kerrera, destroyed by General Leslie’s troops in 1647, when the Brooch of Lorne was stolen. In 1715, when the clan could field 500 fighting men, they backed the Jacobites and their lands were subsequently forfeit as a result.

Better luck came their way in 1745 when the chief hesitated long enough before deciding which way to commit his clan to understand that this Rising was also doomed to fail. For his foresight, the estate was restored and the chief still lives at Dunollie Castle, near Oban. The Brooch resurfaced in 1819 when it was found in a chest after the death of Major Campbell of Bragleen and five years later was returned to the Macdougalls.

In 1842, it could easily have been lost once more.

That year, Queen Victoria visited Taymouth Castle and her host, Lord Breadalbane, laid on a glorious tartan extravaganza for her. It was so successful that the Queen was inspired to buy Balmoral Castle a few years later. At the end of the visit, the Queen processed down Loch Tay in a ceremonial barge and wrote in her diary: “The boatmen sang two Gaelic boat-songs, very wild and singular; the language so guttural, and yet so soft. Captain McDougall, who steered, and who is the head of the McDougalls, showed us the real ‘brooch of Lorn’, which was taken by his ancestor from Robert Bruce in a battle.” What Queens admire, Queens expect to be given, so the captain showed resolution worthy of his ancestors to have held on to the jewel. It is still in the charge of today’s chief Morag MacDougall of MacDougall, 30th of Dunollie.

Clan Macdougal Info

Motto : Buaidh no bas (To Conquer or Die)
Plant badge : Bell Heather
Animal Symbol : Raven