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Issue 49 - The Clan Donald

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


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The Clan Donald

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

Clan Donald has many branches, five of which have chiefs recognised by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the official authority on the subject. All of them descend from Reginald the younger son of Somerled, the great piratical “King of the Isles “ of the 12th century.

And they really do. One of the most serendipitous of results from DNA ancestry research showed that all of the chiefs of the clan share his genes, which proves that adultery was a rare thing amongst the aristocratic women of the Western Isles or, at least, they kept it in the family.

Reginald’s great-grandson Angus Og fought with his clan alongside Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. In recognition of the part Clan Donald had played in the victory, Bruce gave the clan the honour of always fighting on the right hand side of the Scottish army.

Angus Og’s grandson Ranald had three sons and the youngest of these, Donald, was the father of the MacDonells of Glengarry.

The spelling was the choice of the chiefs. The earliest form of the name read Mhic Dhòmhnaill , but the Gaelic spelling, as with the English derivation, varied wildly from generation to generation and was not considered important. Individuals could sign their own names in different ways, even within the same document. Most people descended from Clan MacDonell now spell themselves MacDonald or McDonald.

Alexander, the sixth chief, married a daughter of Donald of Lochalsh through which he became the pre-eminent chief of Clan Donald until the Privy Council gave this position to the Laird of Sleat in the late 17th century. When Alexander died, his estate was split between Glengarry and the Mackenzies of Kintail which led to a desperate and bloody feud between the two clans lasting for 50 years and in which women and children were indiscriminately slaughtered by both sides in a series of devastating raids on each other and the disputed territories.

For the MacDonells of Glengarry, like many Highland clans, the Reformation and the National Covenant of 1638 were matters of interest to Lowlanders and not themselves.

They remained Catholic and enthusiastically joined in the Marquis of Montrose’s campaign in 1645 and the subsequent Risings in favour of the Stuarts.

At Killiecrankie the heroism of the Chief, Alastair Dubh MacRanald, was remarked upon by his contemporaries, and his brother died after performing great deeds of valour with a dozen pike heads stuck into his targe.

In 1715, Alastair Dubh led his 800 warriors through the campaign to Sheriffmuir and until the disbanding of the Jacobite army in February 1716.

In the 1745 Rising,the clan was the first to join Prince Charles Edward Stuart when he raised his father’s standard at Glenfinnan and fought throughout the campaign.

Bonnie Prince Charlie spent the night after the Battle of Culloden sheltering at the Chief’s castle of Invergarry after which the building was destroyed and the fierce old chief, John, spent years incarcerated in Edinburgh Castle.

Probably to escape from his father, his successor Alastair Ruadh had joined the Royal Scots regiment in France in 1738. In 1744, he was sent to Scotland as a Jacobite agent and returned with a letter of support from the clan chiefs signed in their own blood. Bonnie Prince Charlie had already left for Scotland by then, so Alastair embarked to join him with a contingent of the Royal Scots.

His ship was captured and he spent 22 months in the Tower of London. Remarkably Alastair was revealed in the 19th century to be Pickle the Spy who from 1749 fed information on Jacobite conspiracies to the government of George II.

In 1788, Alasdair Ranaldson, a towering eccentric, became the 15th Chief of Glengarry. It was he who invented the Glengarry bonnet as uniform for the Fencible regiment which he raised in 1794. He also tried to maximise the revenues of his estates.

This inevitably led to evictions so that when the regiment was disbanded in 1802, most of its members emigrated to form Glengarry County in Canada.

By out-tartan-ing them, Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry managed to alienate the most powerful factions of that astonishing rebirth of Highland culture in the early 19th century. Sir Walter Scott and David Stewart of Garth found him extremely irritating, particularly when, mounted and in full Highland Regalia, he forced his way through waiting grandees who had gathered to greet King George IV at Leith in 1822.

He formed the neighbouring gentry into the Society of True Highlanders who wore intricate costumes and dined very freely. He presided at his own Highland Games where pastimes which he deemed appropriate were displayed. These included prowess at twisting the leg of a dead cow.

When a section of the Caledonian Canal was being built through his estate, he organised his followers in raids on the navvies and their equipment. But the canal killed him.

In 1828, on his way to Glasgow through the canal, the steamer upon which he was travelling, broke down and drifted into the rocky shore.

He was the only casualty. Typically impatient, he jumped onto a rock, slipped, banged his head and died.

The current Chief is Aeneas Ranald Euan MacDonell, 23rd Chief of Macdonell of Glengarry, who lives in England.