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Issue 48 - The ClanMacAlpin

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009


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The ClanMacAlpin

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

Siol Alpin, the Seed of Alpin, is a descent claimed by seven Highland clans. Their traditions state that their founding father was Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Picts, who died in AD 858 and is usually regarded as the first King of Scotland.

Clan Mackinnon is one such clan.

But there is another explanation of Clan Mackinnon’s origins, equally distinguished, but with a little more fact at its base.

Mackinnon means “Son of Fingon” , and the first clan lands were on the Isle of Mull adjacent to the Isle of Iona. The first abbey on Iona was a family business. Founded in 563, its abbots were traditionally of the kindred of Saint Columba. The monastery long held to the Celtic church, rather than Roman Catholicism, and the Benedictine order which was established on Iona about 1200 faced considerable local opposition. The Mackinnons nevertheless emerged from the kindred – evidence of the relationship is shown by the hand of the saint holding a cross on their coat-of-arms – to hold the primacy of the abbey almost until the Reformation. Even after the clan lost its adjacent lands on Mull, Mackinnon chiefs were buried on Iona and its abbots continued to come from their family.

The first seat of the chiefs of the clan is believed to be Dunakin Castle at Kyleakin on Skye. Its ruin still dominates the narrows at the Kyle of Lochalsh from where the Mackinnons exacted a toll on every ship that passed through. Of course, the great power in the Hebrides was the Lordship of the Isles.

Beneath its cloak, the early history of subsidiary clans was often lost and they struggled for recognition and influence. The first official mention of Clan Mackinnon comes in a charter of 1409 when Lachlan Mackinnon, already thought to be the 19th Chief, was a witness in a charter issued by Donald, Lord of the Isles.

The clan grew in favour with the Lords of the Isles, in spite of a hiccup in the midfourteenth century. Then Fingon, described as a ‘subtle and wicked’ man, the Chief’s brother and Abbot of Iona, whipped up John Mor against his elder brother Donald for the Lordship on the death of their father. John Mor lost and was pardoned. Fingon also escaped retribution, but the Mackinnon Chief lost his lands on Mull, and his head.

By 1400, the clan held the lovely Strathaird on Skye, then known as Strathardle, which runs from Broadford towards Elgol, and this became their heartland after the downfall of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493. Acharter of 1542 shows that Ewen, the 23rd Chief of Mackinnon, held territory there and had also regained clan lands at Mishnish in the north of Mull.

Inevitably, the Mackinnons repeatedly clashed with their neighbours on Mull, the Macleans. One tale from those times is refreshingly free of the bloodshed that so often characterised the rivalry between clans.

The Macleans seized Mackinnon lands at Mishnish in the north of Mull. The young Mackinnon Chief received information that the leaders of the interlopers were spending the night at Benderloch, a few miles north of modern Oban. He gathered his followers and found his enemies drunk, unguarded and sound asleep. He ordered his men to cut and trim fir poles and planted them in a circle round the house.

The Chief left his own pole untrimmed and hung his sword on the door. Then he and his men withdrew. The following morning the Macleans realised that they had been at the young man’s mercy and he had refrained from the normal practice of setting fire to the house and everyone inside. In recognition of his restraint, they withdrew and relinquished their claim on the disputed territory.

Of course, the Mackinnons naturally played their part in the raids and conflicts that pepper the history of the Highlands. In 1611, Mackinnon was one of the half dozen of the Hebridean chiefs who swore before the Council in Edinburgh to live in ’peace, love and amitie’. And the oath seems to have held – amongst themselves, at least.

The clan later fought for the doomed Stuarts under the great Marquis of Montrose in his remarkable campaign of 1644-5. It is said that the 27th Chief, Lachlan Mor, was knighted in 1651 by King Charles II on the battlefield at Worcester , the last battle of the Civil War, where the mainly Scottish army was annihilated by Oliver Cromwell.

At Sheriffmuir, the only and tactically indecisive battle in the first great Jacobite Rising of 1715, 150 Mackinnons under the 29th chief, John Dubh, fought with the Macdonalds. Afterwards, his estate was confiscated. In 1745, although into his sixties and infirm, he still managed to raise 120 of his clan, joined the march to Derby, and fight at the battles of Clifton and Falkirk. Fortunately, the clan survived the catastrophe of the Battle of Culloden since it was fighting north of Inverness with the Earl of Cromarty.

After the collapse of the 1745 Rising, John Dubh organised Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s escape. For this, he was imprisoned in 1749, in the Tilbury Fort on the River Thames before being put on trial. He was pardoned in view of his advanced age and infirmity, but as he was about to leave the court, the judge asked him what would he do if King George had been in his power? ‘I would do as you have done this day to me - I would send him back to his own country.’ Clan Mackinnon lost their lands, and John Dubh’s son was the last chief of the direct line. A descendant of the 29th chief was named as his successor, Anne Gunhild Mackinnon of Mackinnon, is 38th Chief of the Name and Arms of Mackinnon.

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