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Issue 94 - The Clan Carmichael

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017


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The Clan Carmichael

James Irvine Robertson investigates the history of another prominent clan

If your name is Carmichael, your roots are on the banks of the River Clyde in the parish of Carmichael, in South Lanarkshire. In the Cumbric language of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, in which it once lay, 'Caer' was a word for 'stronghold'. In the 11th Century, St Margaret, queen to Malcolm Canmore, founded a church dedicated to St Michael that was near the site of the later parish church – the surrounding neighbourhood received its name.

There are many surnames in Britain that are related to places. It differentiated you when you left your birthplace and settled elsewhere. Wallace comes from Wales, where the ancestors of our national hero had his roots; Washington comes from northeast England; and Lincoln from further south, but not many names are as precise or exclusive as Carmichael. Remarkably, Carmichael is still held by the clan chief, Richard Carmichael of Carmichael, 26th Baron of Carmichael, and the 30th Chief of the Name and Arms. Although they had likely been there for many generations, the first recorded Carmichael in possession of lands was Robert, in about 1220. The family were tenants of the immensely powerful Lords of Douglas. The first earl, nephew of King Robert Bruce's great commander, gave charters to the most important of his adherents who brought their men to fight with him in the Wars of Independence. Amongst these was William of Carmichael.

William's son, Sir John, was the first Baron of Carmichael. His grandson, also Sir John, was in that glittering army of some 7,000 men that sailed from Glasgow in 1419 to fight against the English in France. At the Battle of Baugé, in 1421, he unhorsed the enemy commander, the Duke of Clarence, who was standing in for his brother Henry V. It was recorded that he 'spurred his mount on with such dash that he shattered his lance on the breast plate of the Duke, who was unseated by the blow'. The duke was immediately killed and the broken lance became the chief's crest. Sir John survived the battle of Verneuil that wiped out most of the Scots and received from Charles VII of France the surprising post of Bishop of Orleans in 1429 'in recognition of the great services rendered by Scots in France'.

The Carmichael chiefs and their clan were loyal to the Black Douglases, who became almost as powerful as the king during the reigns of the early Stewarts. Other members of the family were granted estates around Carmichael. In 1452, King James II murdered the 8th Earl of Douglas in Stirling castle and the Douglas adherents rose in rebellion.

The Red Douglas, the Earl of Angus, sided with the monarch and defeated the rebels at the Battle of Arkinholm in 1455 and thus the estates of the Black Douglas were forfeited. It was a time of great danger for their followers, but John Carmichael, a son of the hero of Baugé, snapped up the widow of the victorious Earl of Angus and he was first of the lands of Balmedie in Fife.

The family was now nationally important. One of its interesting members, another John, was implicated in the 'Raid of Ruthven' – when the Earl of Gowrie seized the 15-year-old James VI in 1582 and made himself ruler of the kingdom for the year or two before he lost his head. If Carmichael was involved, he was soon cleared by the king and was given Fenton Tower, which is south of North Berwick and where he built a castle. Today, the tower is available to rent as luxurious holiday accommodation and exclusive event venue.

Later, Sir John was appointed ambassador to Denmark, in order to help negotiate the marriage between James and Anne, the Danish king's daughter, and then he became envoy to Queen Elizabeth. He was appointed Warden of the Western March but was waylaid and murdered by Thomas Armstrong, during a crackdown on this most notorious tribe of reivers.

Thereafter, his grandson died without issue and the leadership of the family devolved to his cousin, James, who had the Hyndford estate that lapped against the lands of Carmichael. He became Lord Carmichael and was both a courtier to King James and a government official. Described as ‘anxious to avoid trouble, supporting neither the king nor his opponents with any vigour when the troubles began’, he survived through the civil wars and died in his bed aged 93. He sided with King Charles I, while two of his sons fought for the parliamentarians and the other two were royalists. At the Battle of Marston Moor, in 1644, one of the royalist sons, John Carmichael, was tragically killed while fighting against his own elder brothers.

The second Lord Carmichael was an enthusiastic Presbyterian. He kept his head down during the Stuart Restoration, but when William of Orange came to the throne he became a prominent politician. When Secretary of State for Scotland in 1701 he was created Earl of Hyndford. In 1742 the 3rd Earl was dispatched by George II to prevent a war in Europe and he negotiated the Treaty of Breslau. He was appointed a Knight of the Thistle in 1742 and a Privy Counsellor in 1750. He was Vice Admiral of Scotland from 1764 to 1767 and was also known as an agricultural improver, commissioning extensive plantings on the Carmichael estate.

However, not all Carmichaels stayed in Carmichael and followed the chief. Some moved to Argyllshire and became a sept of the Stewarts of Appin. From this branch descends Alexander Carmichael, who collected Gaelic folklore and culture in the 19th Century, while the tradition was still alive. His main work Carmina Gadelica has been described as a 'treasure house...a marvellous and unrepeatable achievement'.

Unfortunately, the direct male line of the family failed in 1817. This led to the ownership of the estate passing down through the female line, which separated from the chiefship. Happily, the 30th chief, born in New Zealand, succeeded in buying the estate and has now built a thriving business, including a visitor centre that features a history of the clan, on the lands of his forebears.

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