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The Last of the Chiefs - Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry 1773-1828

Author Brian D. Osborne
Details Soft Cover. Argyll Publishing. 254 pages
ISBN 1902831276

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Comment: The story of the rather eccentric Colonel Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry. Gives an excellent insight into the life of a late C18th Scottish landowner.

Extracts by Kind Permission of the Author.

From the Introduction

Alasdair Ranaldson Macdonell died in 1828, leaving behind little but debts and a trail of argument, controversy and on-going litigation. He never occupied any major posts in the state, wrote nothing of significance, failed in what was probably the dearest desire of his heart - to have a family peerage restored. Debts forced the sale of much of the once vast family lands shortly after his death and by the middle of the century, with the sale of Knoydart, the Glengarry estate was reduced to a ruined castle and a mausoleum. The case for writing, or reading, a biography of such an unsuccessful and ill-fated man may perhaps seem unclear.

However Macdonell was both an unusually interesting man and lived in interesting times. His life and career illustrate many of the most significant features of Highland life at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. His activities in raising troops to fight in the French wars, his estate management policies, his establishment of the Society of True Highlanders, his devotion to tradition (even to the point of maintaining a personal bard, and a blind one at that), his feuding with the Commissioners for the Caledonian Canal all cast light on the changes in the Highlands in Macdonell�s day and illustrate the significance of these changes in the way of life of the Highlanders.

Macdonell�s immense capacity for contradiction and seeming lack of any deep capacity for self-awareness or self-criticism allowed him to simultaneously promote sheep-farming and the clearance philosophy while promoting the ancient Highland customs and traditions which the new patterns of estate management were inevitably doomed to destroy. Similarly he could sell ground and timber to the Caledonian Canal, take a leading part in the celebration of the opening of the Canal, attack the Canal Company�s workmen when the Canal was being built and after it was opened sue the Commissioners because in his view the �passage boats and smoking steam vessels� using the Canal breached the privacy of what he considered a private waterway. To add a final twist to the tale, his wife was a shareholder in one of these �smoking steam vessels� and Glengarry himself did not disdain to travel on them; indeed his death resulted from a trip on the Stirling Castle steam ship.

In his own day Glengarry was seen as an eccentric aberration, as the �Last of the Chiefs�, as a man born out of his proper time. His Gaelic sobriquet was �Alasdair Fiadhaich� - Wild Alasdair or Fierce Alasdair, which does convey something of the light in which he was seen by contemporaries.

When Henry Raeburn painted the great portrait of him around 1812 he depicted him in a consciously archaic setting with targe and broadsword on the walls of some idealised baronial hall and with Glengarry holding an old-fashioned rifle with an octagonal barrel. Glengarry is, at first sight, a commanding and imposing figure, but there is also, on closer examination, a sense of distance almost amounting to insecurity in the pose. Glengarry does not meet the artist�s or the viewer�s eye, he looks out of the picture, as it might be to some distant focus of desire. This is hardly an accidental pose. Raeburn�s portraits combine technical excellence with a high degree of psychological insight - his subjects might have been drawn from �society� but no one could accuse Raeburn of being a �society portraitist.� His work goes below the skin, below the tartanry, below the accoutrements of sgian dubh and pistol, to show a man, proud in his position, traditional in his outlook and alienated from his contemporary environment.

From Chapter 2 - Mac Mhic Alasdair

�ni h-eibhneas gan Chlainn Domhall�
�it is no joy without Clan Donald�

When Alasdair Ranaldson Macdonell was born on 15th September 1773 he did not simply become the heir to a major Highland estate. He entered into a great dynastic tradition and into a potentially leading role in a once-powerful family whose members had for centuries ruled much of the Highlands and Islands.

The Macdonells of Glengarry were one of the nine major branches of Clan Donald. All of Clan Donald proudly traced their descent from Somerled, the twelfth century warrior leader, who won control of the western isles from the Norse and established himself as Ri Innse Gall, King of the Isles of the Norsemen. More distantly and mythically Clan Donald traced their origins back to Conn of the Hundred Battles, High King of Ireland. However it was Somerled�s grandson, Donald of Islay, who died in 1249, who gave his name to the clan. During the Wars of Independence one of Donald�s grandsons, Angus Og, was an early and loyal follower of King Robert the Bruce and Clan Donald was appropriately rewarded with lands in Lochaber formerly held by the Comyn family, unsuccessful contenders for the Crown, as well as lands in Mull and Tiree held by the MacDougall clan, allies of the Comyns.

As the years went on what became recognised as the Lordship of the Isles - the title was claimed from the fourteenth century under John of Islay but only officially recognised by the Crown in the fifteenth century - would embrace a huge sweep of the West Coast of Scotland. By the death of Angus Og�s son, John of Islay, in 1386 the Lordship in the Hebrides extended from Lewis south to Islay (with the exception of Skye) as well as the mainland coast and much of the interior from Knoydart, Moidart and Loch Oich in the North through Ardnamurchan, Morvern, Lorne, Knapdale to Kintyre in the South. The power and scope of the Lordship were significantly increased when one of John of Islay�s sons married an Antrim heiress and with her brought a large part of Northern Ireland into the family. John�s heir, Donald, the 2nd Lord of the Isles, by marriage to the heiress of the Earldom of Ross, laid the foundation for his son, Alexander, to become Earl of Ross and so to incorporate vast areas of the Central Highlands and the island of Skye in the Lordship.

The branch which became known as Glengarry traces its origins back to Ranald, the son of John of Islay and his first wife, Amy MacRuarie. In a politically inspired move John later was to divorce Amy to marry Margaret Stewart, a princess of the Royal house. John was succeeded in the Lordship by Donald the eldest son of this second marriage, while Ranald inherited the lands of the MacRuarie lordship of Garmoran - including Moidart, Morar, Knoydart, Ardgour, Eigg, Rum, the Uists and Harris. Ranald was the progenitor of two of the great branches of Clan Donald. From his first son, Allan, sprang the Clan Ranald and from his second son, Donald Ranaldson who died in 1420, came what would become the Glengarry branch.


All this was, of course, long in the past when Alasdair Ranaldson was born. However the reputation and memory of the Lordship remained strong in Gaeldom and the sentiments expressed in the sixteenth century poem preserved in the Book of the Dean of Lismore held true for many years after:

It is no joy without Clan Donald
it is no strength to be without them;
the best race in the round world:
to them belongs every goodly man.


This long family history stretching from the glory of the Lordship of the Isles to the tragedy of Culloden was part of the formation of Alasdair Ranaldson�s character. He was steeped in family history and in the history of the Highlands. Sir Walter Scott wrote appreciatively of him in his journal: �To me he is a treasure, as being full of information as to the history of his own clan, and the manners and customs of the Highlanders in general.�

Glengarry was indeed generous with information about the history of his family in particular and Clan Donald in general. He regretted, for example, that he had been unable to brief Scott adequately on clan matters, especially the falsely presumed precedence of Clanranald, when Scott was writing his epic poem The Lord of the Isles.

Did I not feel I was too late for your present work I would willingly hand you an acknowledged anecdote of one of my ancestors, a Lord of the Isles, trusting to your indulgence, if it has already reached your well-informed ears. Tho� I will first observe my regret that you seem impressed with a belief that Clanranald (ie MacDonald of Moidart �The Captain of Clanranald�) is of legitimate extraction, and no less so that it does not appear to have reached you that the Glengarries were the Chiefs of Clanranald which is the oldest branch of the whole clan.

Scott fully reciprocated this spirit of genealogical enquiry and passed on to Glengarry any matters of family interest that came his way. In 1816 he wrote to say:

� I have now in my possession � an original letter from Charles II to General Middleton in which he acknowledges himself bound by promise to give Glengarry the Earldom of Ross but excuses himself on account of the Act of Annexation � The letter is dated Cologne 6 Jany. 1654/5 and says many polite things of Glengarry�s services. I think it may be interesting to you to know that your family at all times maintained their claim to the Earldom and were not therein opposed by the counter claims of any other family but only by the State jealousy which would interfere to prevent the reestablishment of so great an authority as was possessed by the Earls of Ross.

It is perhaps difficult to visualise a young man being brought up into such a tradition who would not have harboured some ideas of his own importance and of the high position to which he had been born. Older and wiser heads, and the rough and tumble of daily life would, in most cases, have moderated these views and forced at least a surface compliance with the values and standards of a more modern age. It was Glengarry�s misfortune to be brought up in an isolated setting, without exposure to companions of his own class outwith his own family group, and in what was a peculiarly difficult household.

His father Duncan was not a strong character but his mother, Marjory Grant of Dalvey, more than made up for her husband�s weakness of character. She came from another old Highland family and she seems to have been determined to restore the Glengarry family fortunes and to this end took a very aggressive line in the management of the estate. Marjory had brought with her the very useful dowry of �2,000 which went some way to facilitating her plans. Charles Fraser-Mackintosh, a nineteenth century historian of the Highlands wrote of Marjory:

� her great rise in social importance moved her at once to strive with success to clear off the debts, to raise the rents and generally to aggrandise the position of the Glengarry family .

Much of the land was occupied by the tacksman class, the clan gentry, who sublet land to minor tenants and cottars. Many of the tacksmen held land by wadset, having long-term possession of the land as mortgage security against cash loans to the Chief. Under the urging of Marjory, Duncan Macdonell attempted, with considerable success, to buy out this type of holding and replace them with tenancies at a newly negotiated price. Many of the chief men of the clan were unwilling to embrace this change of status and there was a substantial emigration of the wadsetters and their closest followers to New England.

There had, in the traditional political and social structure of the Highlands, been a clear role for these tacksmen. The clan gentry had formed the officer corps for the clan regiments and had formed an advisory group around the chief, able to furnish a temporary commander if the chief was too old or too young to take the field in time of war. The post-Culloden pacification of the Highlands had removed this role and the reduced status of tenant farmer was not an attractive substitute.

The coming of the large low country sheep into the Highlands also drove the process of change. Sheep had been raised in the Highlands for centuries, but these were small, hardy beasts which could forage for a living on rough hill ground. The imported sheep needed winter grazing on low ground, land that was already occupied by small tenants and cottars. The large scale raising of the Cheviot or Blackface sheep was incompatible with the small-scale subsistence farming practised in the Highlands to this time.

The large population sustained by small-scale farming had been a matter of pride to the traditional clan chief, who measured his importance by the number of men of military age he could raise from his lands. In a settled and peaceful Highlands cash income was becoming more significant than a long muster roll.

In 1782 the first sheep farmer from the Borders was planted in Glen Quoich, then directly operated by Glengarry. A series of evictions took place on the Glengarry estates in 1785, 1786 and 1787. In 1786 around 500 people emigrated from Knoydart led by their priest, Father Alexander Macdonell of Scotus, and settled in what is now Ontario.

For more books by Brian D Osborne please visit the author's website.


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