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Issue 91 - The Clan Macintyre

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017


This article is 23 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Clan Macintyre

James Irvine Robertson relates the history of the Clan MacIntyre

In the mid 12th Century, Somerled was clawing his way up through Viking politics. He wished to marry Ragnhilda, daughter of King Olaf the Red, Norse King of Man and the Isles. This would give him a claim to the succession of the kingdom. Olaf would have none of it. Somerled's galley met with Olaf's and they moored together overnight. One Maurice McNeil, said to be a nephew of Somerled, managed to bore holes in Olaf's ship and plugged them with tallow. When the boat set sail in the morning and encountered the open sea, the waves washed away the tallow and the galley began to sink. But there was Somerled, offering to come to the rescue if he could marry Ragnhilda. The king had no alternative and Maurice plugged the holes with pegs he had earlier prepared. Somerled won his kingdom in 1154 and Maurice's legacy was his own clan.

MacIntyre, in Gaelic Mac an t-Saoir, means 'son of the shipwright'. It can also mean son of the carpenter, but on the windswept West Coast of Scotland a shipwright was a profession worth noting and every man could do what little carpentry was needed. The early history of the clan is very patchy since no records survive, but they had been established for centuries along the north flank of Ben Cruachan when they appear in the records of the 17th Century.

It is said that when seeking grazing for their cattle they encountered a mountain spirit who advised them to settle where their white cow chose to rest. She chose Glen Noe on Loch Etive, which became the estate of the chief. Today, travellers may visit the Stone of the Fatted Calf, just below the summit of Lairig Noe, which supposedly marks the spot. The clan was soon across to Loch Awe and they filtered up Glen Orchy. Later, a son of the chief founded a branch 100 miles further north on the shores of Little Loch Broom.

The chiefs of the clan had to tread a very delicate path as their lands were located between their own stock of Clan Donald and their greatest rivals, the Campbells. The latter embraced the feudal system and steadily took over ancient Clan Donald dominions, backing up their swords with charters and the law. By the 17th Century, the MacIntyres of Glenoe had wadsets, which meant that they held their land in exchange for acknowledging the Campbell earls of Breadalbane as their superiors. The annual tribute was a snowball gathered at midsummer from the corries of Ben Cruachan and a white calf that was the centrepiece of a feast between the clan and their powerful overlords.

In December 1644, the army of Montrose laid waste the Campbell lands from Loch Tay to Lismore, killing every man they encountered. The most ferocious of the three columns into which the general split his forces consisted of the Irish Macdonalds, commanded by Alasdair MacColla, which swooped down on Glen Orchy and Loch Awe. They spared the clan lands of the MacIntyres thanks to their ancient links with Clan Donald. After all, without the original Maurice McNeil, Clan Donald might never have existed. At Inverlochy in 1645, when Montrose destroyed the Campbell army, MacIntyres were fighting on both sides.

This pattern continued during the Jacobite Risings of the 18th Century. The chief followed a cautious policy, his lands and people always vulnerable to both sides, but clansmen were at both Sheriffmuir and Culloden. At both battles the MacIntyres were with Clan Donald regiments, the Mackenzies, the Stewarts of Appin and 14 are listed with the Macphersons.

The latter were part of a substantial population in Badenoch, said to descend from a MacIntyre bard who was captured in a raid by the Macintoshes on Rannoch in 1496. Indeed, the Rannoch branch was famous for producing bards and musicians. One family were the hereditary pipers to the Menzies of Weem and an ancient set of pipes, claimed to have been played by a MacIntyre at the head of the Menzies clan regiment at Bannockburn, is on display at the West Highland Museum in Fort William. Another of this family was piper to Macdonald of Clanranald and Kinlochmoidart. Malcolm MacIntyre was recorded as piper to the Macdonalds of Sleat in 1733 and, a generation earlier, the Earl of Breadalbane sent a MacIntyre to study under the MacCrimmons on Skye.

The most famous clan bard was Duncan Ban MacIntyre. He is one of the towering geniuses of the flowering of Gaelic pastoral poetry in the 18th Century. Born in Glen Orchy, he spent his early years as a forester and gamekeeper on the Breadalbane estate. He fought on the side of the government at the battle of Falkirk in 1746, lost his sword and wrote a poem about it. He was also in the Edinburgh Town Guard. His poem Praise of Ben Dorain, the mountain in whose shadow he was born, has been described as being among the great works of world literature. He hoped to be appointed bard to the Highland and Agricultural Society, but was pipped at the post by another. In 1816, another poet, Duncan MacIntyre from Glen Lyon, was granted a five guinea per year pension by the Highland Society of London — four years after the death of his namesake.

The contribution of the clan to Gaelic culture was immense, quite disproportionate to their numbers. Even James, chief at the end of the 18th Century, is best remembered for a satire he wrote on Dr Johnson and he was an important contributor to an early Gaelic dictionary. This James, who died in 1799, was the last chief in Glen Noe. His eldest son, a doctor, had already left for America. His younger son, Duncan, continued to run the estate until 1806 and a family connection continued for a few years afterwards, but the ‘snowball’ rent of yore had long been commuted to money and the Breadlabane estate was busily upping rents and clearing people from the land to replace with sheep.

Today's chief, five generations on from Dr Donald who immigrated to the USA, is Donald Russell MacIntyre of Glenoe, who lives in California.

Further Information

The next Clan MacIntyre gathering will take place on Tuesday 17 – Sunday 22 July 2018 in the area of Oban and Taynuilt, Scotland.

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