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Issue 95 - The Clan MacAulay

Scotland Magazine Issue 95
October 2017


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The Clan MacAulay

James Irvine Robertson tells the tale of another great family

The clan system evolved after King Robert Bruce. The nation united under him, acknowledged the feudal system with him as its head and accepted the rules and obligations this imposed. But the weakness of his successors gave room for leaders in the remote parts of the nation to build their own fiefdoms where the nascent rule of law withered and was replaced by the whims of the chiefs.

Often little kinship groups found themselves within the orbit of some powerful warlord and either took his name or acknowledged him as their chief and became septs of his clan. MacAulays were to be found on Lewis and on the shores of Loch Broom, on the adjacent mainland. Their patronymic is believed to come from the Norse Olafr and they followed the MacLeods of Lewis. But to the south, just across the Highland line from the Lowlands, were the lands of the Clan MacAulay. The name of the chief Aulay MacAulay stems from the Gaelic Amhlaidh, rather than Norse.

The chief held the lands of Ardincaple (the Cape of the Horses), that is the site of modern Helensburgh, and further holdings north along the shore of the Gare Loch, today the home of the UK's Trident submarines. They lay in the ancient earldom of Lennox. In about 1285 a MacAulay first appears in the record as witnessing a charter granted by Malcolm, the 4th Earl, and a Morice de Ardincaple signed the Ragman Roll in 1296. Most authorities consider that he was likely a son of Alwyn, the 2nd Earl. It is probable that the succession of control of Ardincaple devolved in this family and the clan is clearly established by the end of the 15th Century. Aulay de Ardincaple was granted the estate of Faslane further up the loch in 1518 and his son is believed the first of his line to use the surname MacAulay.

The Earl of Lennox was one of the great men of the nation and the ancestors of the MacAulays would have been part of his army at Bannockburn and during the Wars of Independence, and at Flodden where so many lost their lives. However, half a dozen different families, most of them royal, were created earls of Lennox and most of them were more interested in national politics rather than their own estates. Consequently, the MacAulays had to look out for themselves. Their own swords and uncertain alliances with their neighbours were all that stopped them being swallowed up by the immensely powerful Campbells, the Buchanans, or the Colquhouns.

In 1591 John Campbell, Thane of Cawdor, and the guardian of the teenage Earl of Argyll, was murdered by a faction of Clan Campbell seeking power for themselves. Aulay MacAulay was suspected by the young earl of complicity in the plot. Perhaps for this reason, MacAulay signed a bond of manrent, of mutual protection, with Alastair MacGregor of Glenstrae. The bond stated that the MacAulays were one of the seven clans that made up the Siol Alpin, the descendants of Kenneth MacAlpin, traditionally the first king who ruled over both Picts and Scots. This is the only evidence for such a history and the bond stated that the MacAulays were a sept of the MacGregors and would pay a tribute of one eighth of his cattle or produce.

The MacGregors could not be said to be the surest guarantors of the MacAulays' security and it could have gone disastrously wrong because Glenstrae was already a hunted man because his clansmen had murdered the King's forester in 1589. In 1603 came the Battle of Glen Fruin, fought on the edge of the MacAulays' country when the MacGregors slaughtered some 200 Colquhouns. The entire Clan MacGregor was outlawed and its members hunted for their lives. Glenstrae himself was executed in Edinburgh a year later along with 11 of his henchmen. The Campbells licked their lips, did their best to assassinate Aulay MacAulay and would have happily swallowed the clan and its lands. But the Duke of Lennox, a close friend and kinsman of the king, gave the MacAulays protection and Aulay MacAulay joined that exultant band of Scots who processed south with James VI when he went to London to be crowned King of England and Ireland.

It demonstrated the weakness of the law, even as close to the Lowlands and the royal castle at Dumbarton, that the MacAulays had to do their own fighting to survive but in the 17th Century the chief made his peace with the Campbells. Walter of Ardincaple was twice sheriff of Dumbarton and was appointed by the Earl of Argyll to command its castle after it was captured by the Covenanters in 1638. Archibald MacAulay of Ardincaple supported the Glorious Revolution and raised a company for the Argyll Regiment but the prosperity of the family was in decline with the chief's income inadequate to support his pretensions. When the last chief died without an heir in 1767 his remaining lands were sold to the Duke of Argyll and the clan, for the time being, ceased to exist.

This, however, was not the end. An extraordinary renaissance took place 20 years ago, when an association of MacAulays was formed. They elected a clan commander and petitioned Lord Lyon to make him their chief and unite the disparate MacAulays. Lord Lyon declined on the grounds that the MacAulays did not all stem from one family and a potential chief needed to prove a blood link to the last chief. So the clan decided to be democratic. They elected a 'Chief of the Clan MacAulay Association' for a five-year period and they are currently on their third. He is Hector MacAulay, an education consultant from Crieff, who was first elected in 2011.

As well as the MacAulays stemming from the Lewis families and Ardincaple, the name MacAulay stretches far back into history in Ireland. Many from Scotland also crossed the Irish Channel in the 16th and 17th centuries and the links between the MacAulays in Ireland and the clan in Scotland are cherished.

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