Glencoe – The Passing of the Chiefs by D. Rory MacDonald.

When Alastair Macdonald of Glencoe set up a trust for his family in 1813, the Clan seemed as firmly established as at any time in their history. The Clan lands were not extensive and the Chief had succeeded his father John in 1799 in the 33 Merklands of Polvig, Carnoch and the Glen of Leac-na-Muidhe – a modest estate compared even with the tacksman’s farm in Achtriachtan. Achtriachtan had been one of the early Highlanders in the sheep trade and by 1796 his lands stretching out through Achnacon onto the moor of Rannoch were described as being 30 miles long and from 3-4 miles broad. Learning possibly from his tacksman, Alastair had, during the good years of farming which coincided with the Napoleonic war, taken on the leases of a number of farms in Lochaber, the total area of which far outstretched his own Glencoe lands. These were mainly on the Lochiel estate, where a number of new sheep-runs were created in the redistribution of 1804. From 1807 he also had a lease of Keppoch, including the house itself, recently abandoned by their own Chief, the lands of Keppoch and those of the Inverroys, Bohenie, Murlaggan and Achluachrach. Alastair had reason to believe himself a wealthy man and although his activities were unpopular with many who suffered from the new leases, he was also able to do much for the people in the country – as in Brae-Lochaber, where he stood as cautioner for many of the Keppoch tenants, who were taking new leases from the Mackintosh.

The Trust which was to perpetuate Alastair’s family in their inheritance was well attested. The Trustees for his son were all family connections either his own or those of his wife. Her name comes first, Mary Cameron (Macdonald) daughter of Ewan Cameron of Fassifern. Then comes Ewan Cameron himself, Colonel Alexander Macdonell of Glengarry, Donald Macdonald, Lt. of Infantry at Fort George residing at Invercoe (not a brother, since Alastair had none, but perhaps a cousin?). Major John Cameron of the 92nd was Mary’s brother, as was Mr. Peter Cameron of the ‘Brunswick’, East Indiaman and also Duncan Cameron WS, later of Fassifern and Callart. Roderick MacNeill of Barra and Duncan Macpherson of Cluny were her brothers-In-law and possibly the remaining trustee Major Angus Cameron of Kinlochleven was also of her family. They are an imposing list from the last era when Highland chiefs lived on their estates and were still connected by marriage and interests.

In 1840, when Alastair’s son Ewan died, the family lands were still intact in Glencoe. There were no outside holdings and indeed their survival had only been assured by the money Ewan had made for himself as a surgeon in Bengal, and in all probability by the help he had received from his mother’s family at Callart, where he lived for the last years of his life. The Highland life which had, in many places survived the aftermath of the ’45, had largely been destroyed by the alternate boom and bust of the sheep farming and kelp industries. A year after his father had established the Trusts of 1813, he had died and the trustees were in such trouble after the war’s end and the collapse of sheep prices, that Ewan himself paid the family debts and he took over the estate, in 1817 in his own name. Even as late as 1824 the trustees, however, still held a lease of Keppoch at the inflated rents of 1807; payment of which must have been a heavy strain on the home farms of Carnoch and Glen Leac-na-Muidhe. Perhaps other leases which Alastair had guaranteed in Brae Lochaber had also been surrendered at his son’s expense during that hard ten years.

The funeral of Ewan Macdonald of Glencoe was not attended by the chiefs who had been his trustees. His life style and connection had been more humble than those of his father and life in the Highlands had changed. Nevertheless there was still an impressive array of Macdonalds asked – they came to his funeral and to witness the succession of his daughter Ellen Caroline Macpherson Macdonald. Having paid the family debts, Ewan had taken counsel’s opinion and was judged freed from entail. He left the estate to his natural daughter without obligation to his brother’s family. The funeral was witnessed by Adam Macdonald, formerly of Achtriachtan, but now possessor of only a small pendicle at Sron and by James Macdonald of Dalness, the Edinburgh lawyer who handled the affairs of both Glengarry and Keppoch as well as Glencoe. From Lochaber came old John Macdonell son of Angus Ban of Insh, his nephew Angus and the Tacksman of Killechonat, and Macdonald of the Aberarder family. Asked but unable, apparently, to attend were Ewan’s brother Ronald who was in Australia with the 50th of foot [1] and the survivor of the Invercoe family Capt. Ronald who lived at Leamington Spa.

Ellen Macdonald was to be last chief to live in Glen Coe. After her marriage, she went with her husband Archibald Burns to live at Gelston, Ceylon. There were rejoicings in Glen Coe and a bonfire on the shore to celebrate the birth of her eldest son in 1850 but neither she nor he seems to have been permanently resident in the Glen thereafter and seven years after her death in 1887 the estate was sold. Her eldest son died the same year but Duncan her second son survived, married and left two sons and a daughter to continue the line – sadly without the inheritance. [2]

While the direct line ended with Ellen’s dispossessed children, and the male line, descendants, as have been explained in this magazine of Ewan’s brother Ronald ended with his son in 1889, there were still in the nineteenth century Tacksmen’s lines of equally old Glencoe descent. They too have died out. Adam Macdonald was the last of the Achtriachtan family. He finally left Sron and departed overseas. The Dalness family, descendants of James, the lawyer, survived into the twentieth century in the person of Mrs. Macdonald Stewart. She left the lands of the Royal Forest to the Earl of Antrim and they too were in their turn sold. Of the trustees of Alastair’s estate and the Macdonalds who attended Ewan’s funeral as principals and family heads, there is not one today holding lands in the Highlands by unbroken descent.


[1] See Clan Donald Magazine No7 – Last of the Glencoe Chiefs? by A. Grahame MacDonald.

[2] See Clan Donald History Vol. III – Compenda p.644.

Other sources: Inverness Gaelic Society, XXIII; Fraser-Mackintosh MSS GD 128/130; Celtic Map 1901.