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Issue 76 - The Clan Oliphant

Scotland Magazine Issue 76
August 2014


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The Clan Oliphant

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

Every child named Oliphant, the French for ‘elephant’, must have groaned under the obvious nickname. Fortunately, the Crusades introduced the wondrous pachyderm to the attention of Europe and the family took on board its glory.

King David I of Scotland spent his childhood at the court of his brother-in-law Henry of England and supported his niece Matilda in her war against King Stephen for the English throne. Matilda's forces were routed at Winchester in 1141 where David's life was saved by his godson, by then David Olifard, and his reward was lands in the south of Scotland.

An alternative explanation of the name's origins in Scotland is that it comes from a Viking named Holifarth who was shipwrecked on the east coast and married so well that his descendant at the beginning of the 11th century became Thane of Glenbervie in Aberdeenshire.

By the end of the 12th century, Oliphant lands centred on Aberdalgie, south of Perth in Strathearn, where lies the burial vault of the early chiefs.

Sir William of Aberdalgie fought under Bruce at Bannockburn and was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. His son married Bruce's youngest daughter, Princess Elizabeth.

From King Robert I, the family was granted more land in Perthshire and Forfarshire, but also held estates in Fife, Kincardineshire, and Midlothian.

However, the clan did not re-enter the pages of history until 1446 when Alexander Lindsay, heir to the Earl of Crawford, objected to being sacked from his post as Chief Justiciary for the Regality of Arbroath for 'lewd behaviour'. He gathered 1,000 men and in the ensuing battle, Sir John Oliphant was killed fighting alongside the Ogilvies against the Lindsays. Six hundred men died and the town and abbey were sacked.

Sir John's son, Laurence, sided with James II in his struggle against the Douglas family and was rewarded with the title of Lord Oliphant and appointed Sheriff of Perthshire.

In 1513, Laurence's successor Colin led the Clan to join with the King at the catastrophic Battle of Flodden where he was killed along with two of his sons.

The 4th Lord Oliphant, was a prominent supporter of Queen Mary but in 1582 became involved in the Gowrie Conspiracy when a 18 year old James VI was kidnapped and imprisoned by a group of nobles who wished to cleanse Catholic influence from the country.

The Oliphant Clan was always staunch in its support of the Stuart kings, fighting for Charles I and taking leading parts in all the Risings against the Hanoverians after James VII lost his throne in 1688.

The 9th Lord Oliphant led the clan at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 and was afterwards imprisoned. In the '45 Rising, the Oliphants of Gask, father and son, both Laurences, fought at Prestonpans, Falkirk
and Culloden.

Laurence junior was ADC to Prince Charles and began the impressive collection of memorabilia relating to the young Pretender that is kept, along with early Oliphant charters, by his descendant Laurence Blair
Oliphant at Ardblair Castle, in Blairgowrie, Perthshire. The two Laurences fled abroad after the final battle.

They returned from exile in 1763 and Laurence the younger, married another Jacobite refugee in France, Margaret, daughter of the Chief of the Robertsons. They named their daughter Carolina, after the Prince, and she grew up to become Lady Nairne, who has been described as second only to Robert Burns as a poet of Scotland. Certainly she was the bard of the rehabilitation and subsequent wild popularity of Highland Culture in the 19th century with songs such as 'Will Ye No Come Back Again?', 'Charlie is my darling.' and 'The Laird o' the Cockpen'.

The Oliphant Chief's direct line died out in 1748. However, in 2003, after a lapse of 250 years, the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms recognised Richard Oliphant of that ilk, descended from the 2nd Lord Oliphant, as Chief of Clan Oliphant.