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Issue 40 - The clan Buchanan

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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The clan Buchanan

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of another of Scotland's families.

The history of the Buchanans is untypical. The litany of bloody, often pointless, feuds with neighbours is largely absent. The glory of the clan does not derive from the sharpness of its swords, although these were flourished to great effect in the early days, but from intellectual, charitable and spiritual distinction.

Carve through the traditional mythical origins of the clan and one finds a charter of 1225 of the island of Clarinch in the south east corner of Loch Lomond.

This was granted by the Earl of Lennox to Absalon, son of Macbeth for the payment of a pound of wax every Christmas. Absalon was already a knight – Sir Absalon of Buchanan, from his lands on the loch shore and the name means ‘House of the Canon.’ This indicates that he probably descends from one of the leading families of the ancient Celtic Church.

‘Clarinch!’ became the battle cry of the clan.

During the Scottish Wars of Independence, Maurice, the chief, was one of the very few members of the Scots nobility who did not sign the Ragman Roll swearing fealty to Edward I of England. He was a stout supporter of Robert Bruce and gave the king sanctuary after the Battle of Dalrigh in 1305.

Acentury later, Sir Alexander Buchanan led a contingent from the clan to France to fight against the English, flush after their victory at Agincourt. At the Battle of Beaugé in 1421, he is said to have encountered the Duke of Clarence, the English king’s brother and commander of his army. Sir Alexander pierced him in the left eye through the visor of his helmet and carried off his coronet on the point of the lance. This is one explanation for the ducal coronet on the chief’s coat-of-arms. The other claims that it alludes to the descent of the Buchanan chiefs from the from Isabel, wife of Sir Walter Buchanan and the daughter of Murdoch, 2nd Duke of Albany, who was beheaded by his cousin James I for treason.

In the clan’s heartland east of Loch Lomond, the parish was known as Buchanan, and most land holders were cadet families of the chief. They included the Buchanans of Blairlusk, ancestors of American President James Buchanan. Sir Walter Scott recounts the famous story of John Buchanan of Arnprior who earned the sobriquet ‘King of Kippen.’ ‘When James the Fifth travelled in disguise, he used a name which was known only to some of his principle nobility and attendants. He was called the Goodman (the tenant, that is) of Ballengeich. Ballengeich is a steep pass which leads down behind the castle of Stirling. Once upon a time when the court was feasting in Stirling, the king sent for more venison from the neighbouring hills.

The deer was killed and put on horses’backs to be transported to Stirling. Unluckily they had to pass the castle gates of Arnprior, belonging to a chief of the Buchanans, who chanced to have a considerable number of guests with him.

‘It was late, and the company were rather short of victuals, though they had more than enough liquor. The chief, seeing so much fat venison passing his very door, seized on it, and to the expostulations of the keepers, who told him it belonged to King James, he answered insolently, that if James was king of Scotland, he (Buchanan) was king in Kippen; being the name of the district in which Arnprior lay.

‘On hearing what had happened, the king got on horseback, and rode instantly from Stirling to Buchanan’s house, where he found a strong fiercelooking Highlander, with an axe on his shoulder, standing sentinel at the door. This grim warder refused the king admittance, saying that the laird of Arnprior was at dinner, and would not be disturbed. “Yet go up to the company, my good friend” said the king, “and tell him that the Goodman of Ballengeich is come to feast with the King of Kippen.” ‘The porter went grumbling into the house, and told his master that there was a fellow with a red beard at the gate, who called himself the Goodman of Ballengeich and had come to dine with the King of Kippen. As soon as Buchanan heard those words, he knew that the king was come in person, and hastened down to kneel at James’s feet, and to ask forgiveness for his insolent behaviour. But the king, who only meant to give him a fright, forgave him freely, and, going into the castle, feasted on his own vension which Buchanan had intercepted.

Buchanan of Arnprior was ever afterwards called the King of Kippen.’ The ‘King of Kippen’ was killed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.

The 20th Chief gave £12,000 as scholarships to the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews. The 21st Chief, Sir George Buchanan, fought at the battles of Dunbar and Inverkeithing for the Royalists, and the poor management of the 22nd Chief, John, led to the sale of the family estates on his death in 1682 to the 3rd Marquis of Montrose. John was the last of the Buchanan chiefs.

But the story of the clan was far from over.

Perhaps its most celebrated son was George Buchanan, a younger son of Thomas Buchanan of Mid Leowen in the heart of clan country. He was one of the greatest scholars of the European Renaissance, a university professor in France and Portugal, a historian, author, the most distinguished Latinist of his day and became a champion of the Reformation. In his later years he became the tutor to both Queen Mary and her son James VI and was responsible for the king’s education which earned James the title of ‘wisest fool in Christendom.’ But one of the most interesting of the many achievements of the Clan Buchanan is its Society. George, son of the Laird of Gartacharan, near Drymen, fought as a Covenanter in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679 before making his fortune in Glasgow. His four sons also prospered and, in 1725, they founded the Buchanan Society.

This was two decades before the Rising of 1745, and preceded the formation of any other clan society by nearly a century. Its object then, as now, was ‘to provide support for the poor of the Clan and to assist their young in schooling, apprenticeship and, for those ‘of promising genius,’ at University or otherwise.

Pensions, scholarships and bursaries are still awarded. The Society is also the owner of Clarinch in Loch Lomond.