Heritage Revisited by William Naylor McDonald III

The 1977 International Gathering through the eyes of an overseas clansman, the North Eastern Commissioner, Clan Donald USA.

Clan Donald kindred from many lands including Australia, South Africa and Belgium as well as the more predictable Canadians and Americans “came back again” for a two-week International Clan Gathering in May of 1977. For centuries the largest in Scotland and the fastest growing clan society overseas; about 350 joined Glasgow and Edinburgh clansfolk in Edinburgh festivities and afterwards at their Clan Donald World Center at Armadale Castle on the Isle of Skye.

Overseas clansfolk found common ground and long lost roots in the Highlands and islands, as boundaries of age, sex, wealth, success or failure were broken. As ties of kinship emerged, unexpected sun and blue sky appeared highlighting Edinburgh’s matchless squares which bloomed with flowers and its dour castle surrounded by startlingly green grass.

Planned and organized by Scots, the week in Lowland Edinburgh included a profusion of events and excursions oriented to Highland clans. During the second week, ancestral lands were the destination for each clan’s celebration. For Clan Donald with several branches in widely separated places the newly established World Center was an ideal headquarters. The motto: Per Mare Per Terras pointed first to the sea as the way to see the most with ease. So for some clansfolk, of our own and others, a cruise ship was the way to explore Clan Donald’s ancient domains and solved the hotel problem in Edinburgh.

To many living in Scotland, the yearning of Scots in other lands for better understanding of their ties, traditions and heritage appears overdeveloped. Generations may have mixed their blood but the Scottish dominated for participating New Zealanders (32 hours away by plane) and South Africans (seven plane changes). Predictably, Canadians and Americans divided top honors for the best turnout.

News media made much of the “well heeled” visitors whose ancestors had been herded into ships bound for new worlds during the infamous Highland Clearances. The Chief of the MacLeods spoke on this prevalent theme when he said: “I think people coming back to the Gatherings are coming with hope and happiness. They do not want to look back”.

Formal festivities began on May’s first Sunday with an early morning service on Arthur’s Seat overlooking Edinburgh. That afternoon the visitors in whirling kilt marched by nation to skirling pipes at Meadowbank Stadium, 63 chiefs in the grandstand were conspicuous in their eagle-feathered bonnets. Lord Elgin, the event’s chairman and Chief of Clan Bruce, took the salute of interspersed members of Clan Donald including Ian MacDonald of South Africa, Guy Magdonelle represented Belgium and Australia’s High Commissioner, Grahame MacDonald was there with Colin MacDonald, leader of the Canadian delegation. Six Regional Commissioners of the U.S. society included James MacDonald of Savannah, John R.H. McDonald of Chattanooga (author of Clan Donald Castles and Clan Donald Tartans), Owen MacBride of Houston, the Rev. Robert Carroon of Milwaukee and Harry P. Murdock of Seattle, and the writer.

The next day the busiest spot was the Assembly Rooms on George Street where clan booths, manned by the Glasgow and Edinburgh societies registered visitors, provided informative pamphlets and tickets to festivities. Through the hubbub, chiefs warmly greeted their own and other clansmen indiscriminately.

A Clan Donald Grand Ceilidh at the Ross Band Stand on Princes Street planned for that evening was rained out. But much of the outstanding entertainment was presented the following night during the 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. “At Home” of Clan Donald at the Royal Arch and Egyptian Halls on Queen Street. Morning coffee, afternoon tea and an evening buffet were served by members of the Edinburgh Society. Each of two ceilidh presentations was preceded by a procession featuring the High Chief as guest of honor. Talented performers sang and sometimes played MacDonald songs and music on the ancient clarsach which looks like a little harp. The performances were received enthusiastically by the overseas audience and were later televised. This event which included recording and television personalities was arranged by Norman MacDonald, editor of this magazine. As a well known Gaelic baritone, he was one of the star performers.

The rest of the festivities in Edinburgh involved selection from a vast number of possibilities many of which were especially arranged. This overseas clansman visited Dunfermline Abbey where Robert the Bruce is buried. He was closely associated with Clan Donald when Angus Og (MacDonald) and a force of Islesmen provided indispensable help in winning the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. As a result the MacDonalds traditionally fought on the honored right flank of the Scottish army. So it was a particular thrill to see the impressive stained glass window in the Abbey dedicated by the Queen in 1974. The figure on the right of the central one of Bruce was marked in stained glass: MACDONALD.

There was another thrill at Hopetoun House, the palatial seat of the Linlithgows near Edinburgh where there was a tartan display. The portrait dominating the entrance was a Lord MacDonald in what appeared to be a uniform of the Napoleonic period. He was undoubtedly the builder of Armadale Castle in its present gothic-baronial style which occurred during that period. Interested guides told us that he was the father of the Countess of Linlithgow at that time.

Previous visits to Edinburgh had made us aware of portraits of Clan Donald interest in the National Gallery on Princes Street. There we had found the Sleat Boys (with golf club circa 1750) and the larger than life size portrait by Raeburn of the Chief of Glengarry. He was the great friend of Sir Water Scott. Whenever we looked at the great statue of Scott nearby we were aware that the deerhound at his side had been the gift of that Glengarry.

A visit to the Museum of Antiquities revealed the sculptured tombstone of Ranald of Texa incongruously displayed on a stair landing. He was the son of John, first lord of the Isles, and progenitor of the Clanranald branch. This stone was one of the illustrations used by Moncrieffe in his authoritative book: The Highland Clans. Better displayed were replicas of the greatest Gaelic sculptured stones in another part of the Museum. We were happy to note that a copy of the Kildalton Cross dominated the jumble because we had been much impressed with the original in Islay, “cradle of Clan Donald”.

The need for displaying together now uncherished Clan Donald artefacts struck us Forcibly – replicas professionally presented with their stories. With present planning at the time of this writing envisaging a Museum of the Isles as the focal point of the Clan Donald Lands Trust, such a dream could come true.

The Saturday which concluded the Edinburgh week was marked by cruise-ship clansfolk honoring Donald J. Macdonald of Edinburgh, best known as Clan Historian and for his single-handed sparking of interest in Clan Donald worldwide. A scroll signed by all visiting MacDonalds was presented to him with the name of Ian MacDonald, South Africa, “correspondent of 12 years”, in a prominent position. The scroll itself was hastily prepared by the Advertising Department of the Glasgow Herald. At that time, its head was Hugh MacDonald.

After the heritage-culture melange in Edinburgh, the ship sailed around the top of Scotland to the Hebrides dominated for more than three centuries by the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles. At Iona, the finest of sculptured stones were found including many MacDonald Chiefs who were buried here as kings. Most outstanding were the ruins of the 12th century nunnery endowed by Reginald son of Somerled, Clan Donald’s common ancestor. His sister, Beatrice, was the first Prioress. Reginald was the father of the original Donald who gave us our name. Mac means son.

The next day at Oban the visitors boarded buses for Glencoe, the gorgeous land of Clan Donald’s smallest branch and scene of the famed Massacre of February 1692 which Donald clansmen commemorate with an impressive ceremony on the exact date it occurred: February 13th. On this misty May day, the travellers lunched at Rory MacDonald’s Clachaig Inn where Highland dishes were served, each with a recipe of ingredients. Today the Glencoe branch is without a living Chief. But that afternoon the living Chief of Glengarry greeted clansfolk at ruined Invergarry Castle further north in the Great Glen. A March Past was held there not once but twice. The second bus on which the piper (Angus MacDonald, Glasgow Society past-president) rode was late. So Glengarry was piped with banners the second time he gave his speech. He is one of the “few” fighter pilots who did so much for so many during World War II.

The next day Prince Charles Edward Stuart once again was rowed up loch Shiel to raise his Standard and launch the 1745 Rising. This time the event was appropriately portrayed by local residents – all members of the Glenfinnan Dramatic Club. Cameron of Lochiel presided that day as his ancestor had at the original Raising. An equally prominent role was played by the Chief of Clanranald and his clansmen in August of 1745. The present Clanranald Chief was delayed at his ruined 1370 Castle Tioram where he had a fire roaring in the Great Hall with whisky and food laid out for clansfolk who never arrived. Their tour bus couldn’t negotiate the last winding mile to Loch Moidart.

This writer was at the mike of that bus whose uninformed driver whizzed past the highspots of Clan Donald history which so fascinated his passengers. Having covered the same ground with Donald J. Macdonald, our clan historian, I took the mike and heard myself saying: “There on a hot July day in 1544 took place the Battle of the Shirts with Frasers and Clanranalds decimating each other. 80 Fraser heirs were born posthumously … Note the monument just north on Fraser land where Commandos were trained during World War II. Remember that Lord Lovat, Chief of the Frasers, with one piper led Allied troops onto Omaha Beach. Both were unarmed and both are alive today … Don’t miss the Well of the Heads by the road at Invergarry. Here Iain Lom, Keppoch bard washed seven heads before dumping them from a bag at the feet of the Chief of the Glengarry MacDonells intimating that Glengarry should have killed these Keppoch Chief assassins himself.

The present Chief of Glengarry with Clanranald and the Clan High Chief greeted the cruise passengers at our World Center on Isle of Skye. The ship had cruised along the Ardnamurchan coast passing the once mighty Clan Donald strongholds of Ardtornish and Mingary Castles where pictures were snapped from the ship. Other quick pictures of a once mighty castle were taken when the bus, driving from Mull to Iona, stopped briefly at the ruins of Aros. Still cherished pictures were taken by those, interested in the 29 well documented MacDonald castles, who stood outside of Armadale Castle with about 300 others for ceremonies conducted by the High Chief. They were able to explore their newly dedicated Clan Center with its newly arranged displays, its tearoom and its gift shop. Built in the oldest part of Armadale Castle which has been rebuilt and made structurally sound, it was made possible by the clansmen in Canada and the United States.

The big event for the free day at Armadale Castle was advertised as Sheep Dog Trials, familiar to clansfolk involved in Highland Games in North America. So the Midwest and Southeast Regional Commissioners of the US led a body of clansmen to Strome Castle, a Glengarry castle on the mainland nearby. There they reverently planted a banner with due ceremony. This writer made a pilgrimage to the matchless setting of Dunscaith on the western shore of the Sleat peninsula nearby. Afterwards we drove northwest on the Isle of Skye to Kingsburgh House. There Flora MacDonald brought Bonnie Prince Charlie dressed in women’s clothes to sleep between the sheets which were used 44 years later as Flora’s shroud.

We had visited her grave at Kilmuir on the northeast tip of Skye in 1975. The funeral procession for this never forgotten Scottish heroine, a Clanranald, was four miles long. Kingsburgh House, so crucial to this rescue, is seldom visited because it is privately owned. My wife and I managed to meet the owner and were able to bring back pictures with her permission.

The little program of the Glenfinnan Dramatic Club which presented the first part of the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie – the Raising of his Standard – closed with these words in Gaelic: “Traveller, if you wish to celebrate the deeds of former days, pay homage here now.”

Homage was indeed paid by clansmen from the four corners of the earth, thanks to Scottish clansfolk who paved the way and opened so many doors for them.

Photograph: Stone Mountain Games, Georgia, 21-22 October 1978. Left to Right: Wm. N. McDonald III (North East Commissioner); Lois, Lady Glengarry; Glengarry; Don Boney (Georgia Commissioner); John Boney (in front of Don) and R. Houston Saddler (South West Commissioner).