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Issue 58 - The Clan Maclaren

Scotland Magazine Issue 58
August 2011


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The Clan Maclaren

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

The Maclarens are said to descend from a mermaid. Some suspect this not to be altogether true but it does hint to the clan’s less romantic but still distinguished alternative origins. The supporters on the chief’s coat of arms are indeed mermaids but these may not indicate a semi-piscine maternal ancestor but are taken from the shield of the Celtic earls of Strathearn. The Highland district of this ancient province round Balquhidder and Loch Voil, which lies between Lochs Katrine and Loch Earn, is the clan country of the Maclarens.

Strathearn was a Pictish kingdom and the likelihood is that earliest named ancestor of the clan, Lawrence, Abbot of Achtow, who lived in the 1200s, was a member of the ruling family. Maclaren means son of Lawrence. In the Celtic church abbots could marry and were often powerful lay figures as well as ecclesiastics.

The Maclarens never held charters of their lands but were kindly, or perpetual tenants, to a series of overlords, latterly the Dukes of Atholl. But they were not just simple farmers. Three signed the Ragman Roll in 1296 when the most powerful men in Scotland swore allegiance to Edward I before he arbitrated on claimants to the Scots throne.

In the Middle Ages, Maclaren warriors were men-at-arms and archers in the service of the King of France. They joined in the invasion of Italy in 1499 when Bernard Stuart, Marshal of France, captured Genoa and conquered Lombardy. They did not join in the assault at the siege of Padua, being said to be too well born to fight with the common soldiers. Instead they fought with the other gentlemen. Two were ennobled by the King of Sweden in the 17th century.

The clan is recorded as taking part in the Battle of the Standard under David I against the English in 1138. They fought with Bruce at Bannockburn, with King James III at Sauchieburn, at Flodden with James IV, and at Pinkie during the reign of James V.

In 1445, whilst returning to his seat at Dunstaffnage castle, Sir John Stewart, 3rd Lord of Lorne, met and fell in love with a daughter of Maclaren of Ardveich who produced a son named Dugald. Sir John already had a wife, but a decent interval after her death in 1463, he decided to legitimise Dugald by marrying his mother. On his way to church for the ceremony, he was ambushed and received a mortal wound from Allan Macdougall, an ally of the Campbells, but managed to whisper ‘I do’ to the priest before he expired.

Macdougall took Dunstaffnage but Dougald strengthened Castle Stalker where he based himself to fight for his inheritance against the Campbells, the Lord of the Isles and others who did not want a Stewart and a strong supporter of the king in their midst. The Maclarens joined Dugald in his struggle. At the Battle of Leac a Doth both sides suffered heavy losses. Dougald spent the next few years consolidating his base in Appin before, at the Battle of the Stalc fought opposite Castle Stalker in 1468, he and his Maclaren allies beat the opposing forces and killing his father’s murderer Allan Macdougall. In 1470 Dougald received a charter of Appin from the king.

The alliance with the Stewarts was not all one way. In 1497, the Maclarens carried out a highly successful cattle raid against the Macdonalds but they were bounced by the rightful owners on the way home and their booty was lost. They appealed to Dougald of Appin for help. Their combined forces met the Macdonalds at the head of Glencoe and in the bloody struggle that followed both Macdonald of Keppoch and Dugald were killed.

Closer to home the clan had its troubles with the neighbouring Buchanans and Macgregors. The most famous clash with the former came during the 16th century. At a market near Callander a Maclaren, said to be a bit simple, was mocked by a Buchanan who slapped his face with the tail of a salmon. Unsurprisingly the victim got cross and told the Buchanan that he would not dare behave like that at Balquhidder in his own clan country. On the next fair day there, a large force of armed Buchanans was seen approaching. The simpleton reported his encounter in Callander and the fiery cross was immediately circulated round the farms.

Outnumbered at the start, the Maclarens were driven back to within a couple of hundred yards of the church before they rallied. The result was the death of every Buchanan.

The Macgregors have the most tragic history of any clan, having been hounded and driven off their lands by the Campbells of Breadalbane. They turned to brutal banditry to survive. In 1542 they swooped down on Balquhidder without warning and killed 27 members of the clan. Worse was to follow in 1558.

The Macgregors returned, slaughtered the inhabitants of 18 farms and took them over. Such was the chaos of that period that justice was never delivered to the victims. In the kirkyard of Balquhidder a stone records the atrocity.

Following such incidents many clan members migrated to Appin under the shelter of their Stewart kinsmen. With them the clan participated in the Jacobite risings of the 18th century. They were present at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 and fought with the Appin regiment throughout the campaign of 1745-46 under Donald Maclaren of Invernenty. 13 of the clan were said to have been killed and 14 wounded. Invernenty himself escaped after the battle but was captured close to his farm west of Loch Voil. On his way to Carlisle for the trial that would have led to his execution he managed to evade his escort and hide up to his neck in a bog with a turf on top of his head until the searchers gave up. He returned to clan country and, disguised as a woman, he was protected by his neighbours until the Act of Indemnity of 1747.

Today the clan is fortunate to have as its 25th chief Donald MacLaren of MacLaren and Achleskine. A retired diplomat, he was a keynote speaker at the Clan Convention held in the Scottish Parliament during The Gathering in 2009. He and his family live at Balquhidder in the heart of his ancestral lands.

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