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Issue 57 - The Clan MacNachtan

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011


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The Clan MacNachtan

James Irvine Robertson looks at another of Scotland's great familes

Spelling was never a subject of much interest to our ancestors. Anything seemed all right so long as others knew what was intended. When it came to family names, only the advent of the census in the 19th century led to some kind of codification and, when the clerk was an English speaker and the name was Gaelic, some curiosities resulted. So just as people of the same descent can be Stewart, Stuart, Steuart and so on, so the MacNaughtons are the same as the MacNachtans and both are pronounced MacNorton.
The name means from ‘Son of Nechtan’ an old Pictish royal name that appears several times in the king lists from the 5th century in north east Scotland. It was also used by the Cenel Loarn, the royal house of Lorne in the Dark Ages and, since the Clan MacNachtan first appear in the record as land holders in Argyllshire, it is probable that the founder of the clan first won power in the west of Scotland. The first chief in the record was Malcolm MacNachtan, mentioned as the father of Gillechrist MacNachtan who built a church at the head of Loch Fyne and presented it to Inchaffray Abbey in 1246. He received a charter of hereditary keepership of the royal castle on Fraoch Eilean, the heathery isle, in the middle of Loch Awe from Alexander III in 1267. A mile further up the loch lies the mighty Castle of Kilchurn built by the Campbells and the MacNachtans did a remarkable job in keeping their identity in the shadow of such powerful neighbours. In 1292 Gilbert MacNachtan was one of the dozen barons whose lands made up the Sheriffdom of Argyll when it was created by Parliament.
His successor, Donald, had kinship links with the MacDougalls of Lorne. Alexander MacDougall was the brother-in-law of John Comyn. Bruce stabbed his son, the Red Comyn and rival claimant for the Scots throne, in front of the altar of Greyfriar’s Church in Dumfries. It pitched the MacNachtons on the side of the losers in the struggle for the Scottish crown. At the battle of Dalrigh in 1306, where the MacDougalls and their allies beat Bruce and turned him into a fugitive ‘MacNaughton, who in his heart took great heed of the king’s feats of arms, and admired him greatly in secret. He said to the Lord of Lorne, “Assuredly ye now behold retreating the starkest man of might that ever ye saw in your life. For yonder knight, by his doughty act and amazing manhood has slain in short space three men of great strength and pride, and so dismayed all our host that no man dare go after him, and so often does he turn his steed that it would seem he has no dread of us...God knows, saving your presence, it is not so. But whether he be friend or enemy that wins the praise of knightly deed, men should speak loyally thereof. And assuredly, in all my time, I never heard tell, in song or romance, of one who so quickly achieved such a great feat of arms.”
But he still lost his estates when the king took power and eradicated his rivals. Nonetheless the MacNachtans fought for Bruce at Bannockburn and were high in the favour of his son David II who granted them lands in Lewis.
At Flodden, Sir Alexander MacNachtan led his clan in the initial charge but died in the battle. His grandson John attracted the attention of James VI who made him a page when he succeeded to the English throne. John’s elder brother Malcolm was chief and, in 1627, Charles I gave him a commission to take 200 bowmen to fight with a 6,000 strong expeditionary force which made an unsuccessful attempt to relieve La Rochelle in Western France where the Protestant Huguenots were besieged by the forces of Cardinal Richelieu.
The chiefs were staunchly royalist and this brought them into conflict with the Campbells to whom they were in debt. Their clansmen had no option but to fight against Montrose at the battle of Inverlochy in 1645 when the forces of the Earl of Argyll were routed and took heavy casualties. About that time many MacNachtans shifted east, still within the domains of the Campbells, to Loch Tay. It may be that some MacNachtons were there already since a member of the clan anciently held the post of toiseach of Fortingall. This was a pre-feudal judicial post under the King. Local tradition says that this family arrived from Invernesshire in the late 12th century.
Colonel John was a favourite of Charles II and the king paid for his burial at the Chapel Royal in Whitehall. His son, another John, raised the clan for James VII and took part in the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. The Scots Parliament forfeited his estates in 1690 and they were lost forever. A remarkable tale comes from the Rising of 1745. James Menzies of Culdares sent a fine horse as a gift for Prince Charles on his advance through England. It was delivered by his servant of John MacNachton from Glen Lyon. He was captured, taken to Carlisle, tried and condemned. He was offered a pardon if he would name his master. When brought out for execution, he was again pressed to inform on his master. He asked if they were serious in supposing him such a villain. If he did what they desired, and forgot his master and his trust, he could not return to his native country, as he would be despised and hunted out of the Glen. Accordingly, he kept steady to his trust, and
was executed.
The last chief of the direct line was John MacNachton of MacNachtan. Inherited debt forced him to pass his ancestral lands of Dunderaw to the Campbells when he was 20. He became the much loved and much respected collector of Customs at Anstruther in Fife. He was a long-time elder of the Kirk and represented the Presbytery at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. And for 30 years until his death in 1773 he was sovereign of the gentleman’s club called the Beggar’s Benison. Only the top flight of society could join. Its purpose? To celebrate male sexuality. Masturbation was an important part of its rituals, as were bawdy songs, enjoying loose women and dirty jokes. It only proves the truth of L.P. Hartley’s aphorism ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’