The Macdonalds of Dalness By Charles M H Millar

The Macdonalds of Dalness are a cadet branch of the Glencoe Macdonalds, descended from Iain Dubh, a younger brother of Iain Og who died circa 1610. The genealogy of the family, as descended from Iain Dubh, is given in “The Clan Donald”, by Revs. A. and A. Macdonald, Vol.3, pp.216-221. Their account appears well founded on fact, but it goes wrong in several points of detail, and the following is an attempt to set the record right. It is based partly upon the papers in the legal processes of 1750-65, partly upon the documents relating to John Macdonald’s Testament, and partly also upon a family letter written in 1905 by Coll Macdonald WS’s granddaughter, which contains the oral tradition of the later members of the family.

According to “The Clan Donald” account, Angus, the eldest of Iain Dubh’s sons, obtained a tack of Dalness from Archibald Campbell of Inverawe, in 1608. It must have been a different Archibald Campbell (his grandson?) who in 1691 granted a wadset to Alexander, second of Dalness, redeemable any Whitsunday after that of 1713. The latter, we are told, obtained a Feu Charter in 1695, and became absolute owner of Dalness. This Alexander left two sons, Alexander who succeeded to Dalness, and James.

Alexander, third of Dalness, married Jean MacLachlan, and had four sons: Alexander, Coll, Dugald and John. He got into debt and, being unable to pay the installments of the wadset, retired to live in 1722 at Fort William, where he died in 1726. The education of the four sons was undertaken by their uncle James, to whom Dalness had been let by his brother. Meanwhile a Writer in Edinburgh, Neil Macvicar (perhaps agent for Campbell of Inverawe), got in 1727 a decree of adjudication of the wadset-lands against Alexander (now deceased), for the accumulated sum of £385 Scots. James Macdonald then became apprehensive that he and the children would be evicted from Dalness, as he was no more able than his brother to meet the costs of their education and the wadset. Thereupon Duncan Campbell of Inverawe (presumably Archibald’s son) offered to pay the money to Macvicar, to save the family from eviction, taking as his security the adjudication papers of Dalness. It is needless to enter into ramifications of the lengthy law-process which started in 1750. All we need to know is that suspicion seems to have been aroused about the intentions of Macvicar, Duncan Campbell and James Macdonald, Duncan’s tacksman: were they in fact not trying to save Dalness for Alexander’s sons, but simply to ensure for Duncan the hereditary rights to the estate, and for James quiet possession during his lifetime?

Alexander, the eldest of the four sons, succeeded his father as fourth of Dalness in 1726, but died abroad soon after, having gone to sea.

Coll, the second son, then succeeded as fifth of Dalness. He was in the Royal Navy, a Lieutenant in 1741, and Commander in 1750. He commanded a third-rate ship, the “Hampton Court”. He is said in “The Clan Donald” to have been a Captain, but the official list does not give him this rank. He it was who became anxious to make good his legal right to Dalness, and returning home he started the law-suit against Macvicar, Campbell and James Macdonald in 1750. He died circa 1759 before it came to an end.

Dugald, the third son, who was in the army, had died already in circa 1748, so the inheritance went to the fourth son.

John Macdonald, sixth of Dalness. He had gone out in circa 1734 as a merchant to Jamaica as a very young man, but returned to settle the law-suit, which he did in 1764. He was proprietor of  Dalness and also of Clemsfield in Stirlingshire, and when he died, 2nd May, 1775 (as the Scots Magazine says), he left his property to Coll Macdonald WS.

Here the question arises, who was Coll’s father? It is certain that his name was James; but there appear to have been two men of that name available: (1) the younger brother of Alexander, third of Dalness; (2) a fifth son of Alexander’s, by his second wife, Janet Campbell, daughter of the Duncan Campbell we have met already. (Was this marriage another ploy of Duncan’s to secure possession of Dalness?)

“The Clan Donald” authors, declaring for James (2), say that Coll succeeded to his uncle John and that John had executed a Disposition of Dalness in favour of his nephew Coll. But the legal documents make it quite clear: Coll was served Heir to his cousin James in 1792; in the Latin of the full Retour document John is filius patrui (son of the uncle) of Coll Macdonald WS, and Coll is “eldest son of James Macdonald, sometime in Dalness”,-not of Dalness, as the WS Book has it. In John’s Testament Dative, Coll “now of Dalness” is “cousin german and Executor Dative qua nearest in kin to the defunct”. This is dated July 1783, by which time James Macdonald, Coll’s father, must have been dead. There can therefore be no doubt at all that Coll was the eldest son of James, brother of Alexander third of Dalness. The only difficulty that might seem to arise is that there must have been a very considerable difference in the ages of the two brothers and their offspring. James must have been born before 1700, at the very latest; Alexander’s four sons, probably born circa 1710-17l8, were certainly much older than their cousin Coll. But James may have married very late, and Coll’s date of birth was not 1762 as is said in the WS Book, but 1756 if we trust “aged 80 years” on his tombstone in Greyfriars Kirkyard – his date of death being 1st January 1837. Part of the difficulty arises from the fact that the Registrars of births, marriages and deaths for Ardchattan (Dalness being in that Parish) only begin in 1758 and are sketchy even then.

James Macdonald had two sons, Coll and Duncan. Coll, seventh of Dalness, was born 1756. He married, 22.10.1796, Elizabeth Barbour Macbean, granddaughter of Gillies Macbean of Culloden fame. Their children were: James, eighth of Dalness, an Advocate, who died of smallpox in 1845; Anne, who died aged 19; alive till at least 1876; Donald, ninth of Dalness and the last of the line, who died 1855; Duncan (1809-42) who died in Demerara; Margaret Campbell, who married Captain George Dowling, in the Military Service of the East India Company; Elizabeth (11.9.1811-22.8.1888), who married Charles Neaves, later Lord Neaves; John, who died of an accident; Marjory Cameron (18116-93), who died unmarried.

In Coll’s Trust Disposition and Settlement, mention is made of “Betty Macdonald my cousin” and her brother Archibald Macdonald, but nothing more is known of them.

Coll became a WS in 1786 as “The Clan Donald” says Coll’s brother Duncan was in the army. He rose to be Colonel of the 57th Regiment of Foot (the “Diehards”) in the Peninsular War, was severely wounded at the battle of the Nivelle, when he was mentioned in dispatches and died at his brother’s house in Castle Street, Edinburgh on 27th November 1814. His story is a tragic one, but cannot be told here. [1]

Margaret Campbell Macdonald and Captain George Downing had a daughter Elizabeth Margaret, who married Dugald Stuart, son of Sir John Stuart of Lochcarron. She was proprietrix of’ Dalness from 1855 till her death in 1912. Thereafter the Estate passed to the Antrim McDonnells, who sold it, except the house, to the National Trust for Scotland in 1937.

It is most unfortunate that the Macdonald family papers, which were kept in Coll’s office, were burnt in a fire started by his apprentice, “much given to drink” as the family letter puts it.

Footnotes to the Online Edition.

1.    See The Dismissal of Colonel Duncan Macdonald of the 57th Regiment in CDM 10 by the same author. -RKWM.

2.    For further information on the Macdonalds of Dalness, see also:

Further Notes on the Macdonalds of Dalness by Charles M H Millar, CDM 11.

The Dalness Macdonalds by Iain S Macdonald, CDM 14. (Available for purchase). -RKWM.