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Issue 59 - The Clan MacBean

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


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The Clan MacBean

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of Scotland's great families

The origin of the name is still open to debate. Pronounced, and sometimes spelt, Macbane, some say it comes from the Gaelic ban, meaning fair; others that it derives from beathan, the lively one; still others that it derives from beinn, as in Ben Nevis, meaning that the family lived on high ground. Since much of the highlands is pretty lofty and difficult enough to farm without resorting to the mountain tops, this last seems unlikely.

The MacBeans are part of the great Clan Chattan federation of 16 clans that united under the leadership of the Mackintoshes to control and protect their territories in the central Highlands.

They are thought to be part of the kinship group of Eva, daughter of Dougal of Clan Chattan, who married Angus, 6th Chief of the Mackintoshes, who became the first leader of the federation. The dominant family in this part of the Highlands at the time were the Comyns, deadly rivals to Robert Bruce. William MacBean and his four sons are said to have killed the Red Comyn’s steward at Inverlochy after Bruce had stabbed his master in front of the altar of Greyfriar’s Kirk, leaving him to be finished off by his followers. The MacBeans were at Bannockburn on the side of the king.

Although some of its members fought with the Camerons, the clan as a whole was close to the Mackintosh chiefs of Clan Chattan throughout the centuries. Their own stretch of country was on the southern shore of Loch Ness as tenants of the Mackintoshes. In 1609 the chief, Angus MacBean, signed the Bond of Union reuniting the Clan Chattan federation on behalf of his clan and a year later he obtained a hereditary charter of his lands of Kinchyle, just south of the loch.

The clans in the central Highlands were particularly turbulent and there were frequent conflicts between Clan Chattan and the Camerons but the Gaels were not picky when it came to finding enemies. Sometimes they fought the Gordons or the Munros - or the Comyns, or the Macdonalds, or the Cochranes, or the Mackenzies.

The MacBeans took a prominent role in such warfare - or brawls. One account says that at a market at Logiebride in 1597, a brother of Macleod of Raasay, swaggering about with a ‘tail’ of half a dozen henchmen, assaulted a merchant and his wife. Ian Bain MacBean remonstrated with the aggressor. The latter answered scornfully, and from hot words the dispute came to blows. Ian Bain had only his foster-brother to support him, but he slew Macleod and two of his men. The Mackenzies then took the side of the Macleods, while the Munros came into the fray to support Ian. In a running fight several were slain on both sides, but Ian and his foster-brother escaped unhurt and took refuge with Lord Lovat at Beauly. Lovat not only protected them, but sent his kinsman to represent their case at court, with the result that Ian was cleared, while proceedings were ordered to be taken against his opponents.

Perhaps the clan’s darkest hour was in 1411.

Donald of Islay, the Lord of the Isles claimed the vacant earldom of Ross through his wife. He was opposed by the Scottish regent the Duke of Albany on behalf of his niece. The two forces and their allies met near Aberdeen at ‘Red Harlaw’.

The indecisive battle cost 1500 lives and the island men retreated back to the Hebrides. Clan Chattan was fighting with Donald. The MacBeans were said to have suffered the heaviest casualties of all the clans involved.

The MacBeans, like the rest of the federation were strong supporters of the Stuart kings. They fought for Montrose and in the Rising of 1715 in which Aeneas MacBean brought 100 of his clan to join with the Mackintoshes in the Earl of Mar’s army. They were part of the detachment of 1500 men who crossed the Forth and marched south to link up with Jacobite supporters in northern England and were forced to surrender at Preston.

Many MacBeans were transported to the Americas in the aftermath.

Perhaps the occasion that brought the greatest glory to the name of MacBean in the Highlands was the battle of Culloden in 1746. The chief of the Mackintoshes was in the Black Watch and had sworn to support the government. It was left to his wife, Anne, to raise Clan Chattan for Prince Charles. Gillies Mor, was 6’4” tall and an innkeeper. He was the MacBean chief’s brother and a major in the Mackintosh regiment. This was the first formation to charge into the killing ground on the left of the Government army where over a thousand men died within a few minutes beneath a hail of musket balls and cannon shot. The Argyll regiment outflanked the rebels on their right and broke through a wall. Gillies Mor stationed himself in one the gaps with his broadsword and targe, hewing down the enemy as they tried to come through. With bayonet wounds, a thigh broken by a musket ball and a sword cut to his head, he finally settled himself with his back to the wall and prepared to sell his life as dearly as possible. Struck by his heroism, a Government officer appealed to his men to spare him but he was too late, Gillies Mor was already dying. He is said to have killed 14 men, which meant that he was single-handedly responsible for 28 per cent of those lost in Cumberland’s army. His son became chief but inherited debt which forced the sale of his lands in late 18th century.

The 22nd Chief of Clan McBain (MacBean) James McBain of McBain lives in Tuscon, Arizona.

He has represented the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs at more than 50 Scottish games and events. His father created the McBain Memorial Park on the old clan lands at Dores on the south shore of Loch Ness.