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Issue 98 - The Clan Donnachaidh

Scotland Magazine Issue 98
April 2018


Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

The Clan Donnachaidh

This sprawling clan of Atholl can also be known as Clan Robertson. James Irvine Robertson tells us more

Atholl, lying in the centre of Scotland, is one of the most fertile and beautiful stretches of the Highlands. It enters history as a Pictish kingdom from whose ruling family sprung the royal house of Dunkeld that ruled Scotland from Duncan I in 1034 to Alexander III in 1286. A line of Celtic mormaers, later earls, governed its thousand square miles until the heiress to the earldom was wed to David of Hastings in 1242. The title left its original family and was later granted by the Stewart kings to kinsmen on no less than nine different occasions.

Though the title may have been able to be passed on through the female line, much of the land went down through males. Specifically, through Conan, son of the 3rd Celtic earl, to Duncan (Donnchadh in Gaelic) – who was the first chief of the Clan Donnachaidh and a close adherent of King Robert Bruce. At the request of the king, Duncan named his son Robert and his descendants called themselves the Robert-sons, hence the clan is both Clan Robertson and Clan Donnachaidh. The chief is known as Struan (Gaelic for 'streams'), which is the name of the parish at the core of the clan lands.

The clan first erupted into history in 1379 when, probably as the result of a land dispute, the chief's sons joined with a couple of bastards of the Wolf of Badenoch, the Earl of Buchan, to launch a raid into Angus. The Lowland gentry put on their armour, mounted their warhorses and caught up with the marauders as they drove their stolen cattle back to Atholl.

A couple of fierce clashes high in the heather resulted in defeat for the Angus men. Sir David Lindsay, just back from defeating all comers at a jousting tournament in front of King Richard II on London Bridge, skewered a Highlander with his lance. The story goes that his dying opponent wriggled up the shaft and dealt such a blow that it split the steel covering the knight's foot and left him with a wound most grievous.

The incoming Stewart earls hungered for the Clan Donnachaidh lands with which they were surrounded. In 1451 the chief received a crown charter for them as a reward for capturing the assassins of James I but this protection was insufficient in the anarchic years after the country lost its leaders in the 1513 catastrophe of Flodden. The clan chiefs were children and the earls of Atholl their guardians. Within a few decades the earl had executed one, his cousin, and taken half the clan estate and left the rest laden with debt.

With such a powerful magnate in charge of the regality of Atholl, it could have been the doom of the clan. But the Robertsons were too entrenched. Stewarts came in, but a good half of the earl's vassals belonged to the clan Donnachaidh and they continued to follow their chief. Added to this, the clan's interest in defending their country was shared by the new Stewart inhabitants. So they usually fought together as Athollmen.

In Montrose's campaign in 1644–1645 they were under the command of the Tutor of Struan. Montrose won every battle in which they fought. At Inverlochy, he singled out Duncan Robertson, a blacksmith, for congratulations. He had killed 19 men by himself. In fact, ‘The Robertsons of Athole’ were long esteemed the best swordsmen in Scotland. A tales goes that Robertson of Lude once cut off the two buttons on his adversary’s shirt collar as a hint that his head might follow.

The Clan fought in the 1689 Rising. Their young chief, Alexander, 13th of Struan, was the first to raise his sword for King James when he led a troop of horse against his fellow students at St Andrews University when they tried to proclaim William as king. The clan regiment was bounced by dragoons after Klliecrankie and Struan was captured. He escaped, was recaptured, escaped, fled to France and his lands were confiscated. He returned, without a pardon but safe in the midst of his clan. In the 1715 Rising he led a brigade of 500 that the earl of Mar said was the strongest contingent in his army. He was captured at Sheriffmuir, escaped, was recaptured, and yet again escaped to France.

He was back home, illegally, by 1726 and safely cosseted in the heart of the clan. Come the '45 and the old man was out and at it again. The clan was present at Prestonpans, Falkirk, and, like the rest of the Athollmen, suffered terrible casualties at Culloden. Afterwards, the Redcoats devastated clan country and the estate was taken over by the Forfeited Estates Commission. Struan, well into his 70s by this point, was allowed to live out his days and died in 1749.

Of the Robertsons, one 1893 source says: ‘The last final migration of the agricultural population took place during the American War, when certain manufactures were started in the villages at the entrance to the Highlands, Blairgowrie, Dunkeld, etc. and the Robertson Clan being the nearest to these villages flocked into them.... The Robertsons are now found in great numbers in the large towns of Scotland and throughout England and the British Empire, but these last can almost all trace back to the time, rarely more than a century ago, when their ancestors lived in Scotland. In all families, whether living in Scotland or elsewhere, the tradition of a Perthshire origin is universal.’

It is worth mentioning that the Clan Donnachaidh chiefs never cleared their tenants from their land. One consequence of this was that the debt each chief inherited from his predecessor eventually meant that all of their land was sold. Another consequence, it could be said, is the strength of the bonds that still hold the 25 worldwide branches of the Clan together. The first clan Society was started in Edinburgh in 1825. After various vicissitudes during the World Wars, it sprang into vigorous life, built its own museum and is now raising money to buy and endow the redundant Clan Kirk at Struan, where lie generations of chiefs and clansmen.

In August this year, a special celebration will be held in Clan country to mark the 80th birthday of Gilbert Robertson, 23rd of Struan, and the 35 years that he has been chief.