Scotland Magazine Issue 78
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The Clan Donald
James Irvine Robertson looks at one of the five chiefly lines of The Macdonnells of Glengarry
The idea that all members of a clan descend from a common male ancestor is a myth. Clans were formed by powerful men and, when the authorities decided that the normal Gaelic string of Macs and Vics would not do for official purposes, their dependents often took their surname from the chief's family.
However in the case of Clan Donald, a remarkably high percentage of those bearing the name have a common ancestor in Somerled, King of the Isles, who is reckoned to have some half million living male descendants. Clan Donald provided the later Lords of the Isles and, on the collapse of the lordship, branches of the family formed their own clans.
Today there are five chiefs of Clan Donald.
The chiefs of Glengarry, who plumped for the spelling Macdonell – most of the time – name their primogenitor as Ranald of the Isles, the grandson of King Robert Bruce's most faithful adherent Angus Og. The lands of Glengarry stretch in a rectangle east from Knoydart, described as the last wilderness in Scotland, to the Great Glen, just south of Loch Ness.
Having previously held the land as a rather insubordinate royal tenant, Alexander Macdonell of Glengarry received a charter from the King in 1539. His mother was a daughter of Macdonald of Lochalsh, and he bequeathed her half of his estates -– Lochalsh, Loch Carron, and Attadale, with Strome Castle.
Mackenzie of Kintail bought the other half and soon the two clans were involved in a feud, perhaps the most bitter and bloody in Highland history. After some murderous titting and tatting, the Mackenzies captured Glengarry himself, killing all of his followers, who included two of his uncles, and seized his new castle at Strome. Glengarry himself was taken to Edinburgh where Kenneth Mackenzie pleaded his own cause before the Privy Council. He made a good case, and Glengarry fled the city while letters of Fire and Sword and a large fine were issued against him.
Angus Og, younger of Glengarry, was now the clan's war leader and he launched a ferocious raid on Kintail, Mackenzie's heartland, killing every man, woman, and child he could find, and drove a great spoil south to Glengarry. In retaliation, Mackenzie gathered an army of 1,700 men and harried Macdonell territory 'and drove away the greatest spoil ever seen in the Highlands.' Angus attacked Kintail once again while his cousins wasted Applecross and Kinlochewe. The two sides made alliances, Glengarry with other Macdonalds and the Mackenzies with the Macleans of Duart and Clan Ross. In November 1602 Angus Og with a fleet of 17 birlinns harried Loch Carron. Laden with booty, they rowed homeward. After nightfall in the narrows between Skye and the mainland, the ships were intercepted by a single birlinn, sent by the Lady of Kintail at Eilean Donan. It attacked Angus's vessel, which sank. Those who struggled ashore were slaughtered 'like selchies [seals].' Angus and the 38 men on his ship were killed.
The last incident of the feud took place the following year when a band of Glengarry raiders caught some Mackenzies at worship near Muir of Ord, some dozen miles from Inverness. They barred the door, set the church on fire, and their piper marched round playing the tune that has become the pibroch of the clan. The feud ended in 1607 when Mackenzie of Kintail received a crown charter for the disputed lands.
Later in the century, the civil wars began. In the History Of The Kings Majesties Affairs In Scotland, it states that Aeneas Macdonell of Glengarry 'deserves a singular commendation for his bravery and steady loyalty to the king, and his peculiar attachment to Montrose.'
He had his house at Invergarry burned for his efforts but at the Restoration, Charles II made him Lord MacDonell and Aros, a short-lived peerage since he died without issue a decade later and was succeeded by his cousin.
However, the clan was prominent in all the Risings for the Stuarts after the Hanoverian succession to the throne. At Killiecrankie in 1689, 'at the head of one large battalion towered the stately form of Glengarry, who bore in his hand the Royal Standard of James VII.' Later he was seen mowing down two men at every stroke of his broad sword. He led the clan regiment of 800 men at Sheriffmuir. Clanranald was killed, so Glengarry took command of the right wing – Clan Donald's position in every battle since Bruce awarded them this honour after Bannockburn – and urged the clan forward. They charged, routing the government army's left wing – and Glengarry had his house torched again.
It was burnt once more in 1746 after the prince spent two nights there. The Glengarry Battalion reached a peak of 1200 men. They distinguished themselves at Prestonpans and Falkirk but their commander, Angus, the chief's second son, was accidentally shot after the battle and this had a shattering effect on the clan's morale and led to desertions. Some of their men had been sent north in pursuit of Lord Loudon on the day of the Battle of Culloden and the 500 or so of the clan regiment were upset to find themselves on the left wing. The rebel army was skewed; the clan had some 200 yards further to charge than the right, across boggy ground with the government cannon tearing holes in their line. It suffered severe losses.
The next chief introduced sheep, increasing his income sevenfold, but this led many of his clansmen to emigrate to Canada to found the settlement of Glengarry, now a county in Ontario, Canada.
His successor dissipated his inheritance. He was the celebrated 17th chief, Alexander Ranaldson. He managed to clash with those such as Sir Walter Scott who were busy rehabilitating the Highland culture by taking it to extremes. After his death in 1829, his heir, left with nothing but debts, emigrated to Australia and the estates were sold.