The Search for The Keppoch Charm Stone and The MacDonells of Insch by A. Grahame MacDonald FSA Scot.

The Keppoch Charm Stone was an oval of rock crystal, about the size of a small egg, fixed in a bird’s claw of silver, with a silver chain attached, by which it was dipped in water from a streamlet which issued from Tobar Bhride or St Bridget’s Well near Keppoch.

The following incantation was said over the Charm Stone as it was dipped in the sacred water:

Bogum thu s’a bhurn,
A leug bhuide, bhodheach bhudhar,
Ann am burn a dh-fhior uisge,
Nach d’leig Bride a thruailleadh
An ainm nan Abstol Naomh,
‘S Muire Oigh Nan Beusan,
‘N ainm na Trianaid Ard
‘S nan aingeal dealrach Uile,
Beannachd air an uisge,
Leigheas tinneas cleibh
Do gach creutar ciurte.
Let me dip thee in water
Thou yellow, beautiful gem of power,
In water of purest wave
Which Bridget did not permit to be contaminated
In the Name of the Holy Apostles
In the Name of Mary Virgin of Virtues,
In the Name of the High Trinity,
And all the shining Angels a blessing on the gem,
A blessing on the water and
A healing of bodily ailments
To every suffering creature.

According to Josephine MacDonell of Keppoch, who compiled ‘The MacDonells of Keppoch and Gargavach”, “This Keppoch Charm Stone was in the possession of Angus MacDonell of Insch in the year 1854. Said Angus MacDonell of Insch emigrated to Australia, and is believed to have carried the Stone with him.”

My interest in the Charm Stone and the Insch family was initiated by a letter from Donald J. MacDonald of Castleton dated 6th December 1959. Donald J. referred to a letter he had received some time previously from a Mr Coady in Sydney who wrote stating that he had seen a letter in the Sidney Morning Herald written by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor asking about the whereabouts of the famous Keppoch charm-stone, believed to have been taken to Australia by Angus Macdonell of Insch, a cadet of Keppoch.

On consulting Vol. 3 of “Clan Donald” by the Revs. A. and A. Macdonald, I found the following reference: 

Angus of Inch, who married Mary, daughter of Colonel Coll Macdonald, son of John Macdonald of Morar, and had Coll, Archibald, Frances, Fanny and Georgina, who married Captain Carey, without issue. Angus and his family emigrated to Australia. 

From the same source, I learned that Angus was the third son of Lt. Col. Archibald MacDonell and his wife Margaret, daughter of MacLachlan of Kilichoan. Archibald was the second son, but successor to Angus Ban MacDonell of Inch, whose wife was Christina, daughter of Archibald MacDonell of Achnanoichean. Angus Ban was the eldest son of the famous Alexander XVII of Keppoch who fell at Culloden with Angus Ban at his side. I later learned that the authors of ”Clan Donald” erred in referring to three daughters of Angus and Mary, as Frances and Fanny were the same person.

Knowing that many Clan Donald clansmen came to Victoria in the early 1850s, I wrote to the Public Library of Victoria seeking information on Angus MacDonell in June 1960. The reply provided no information on the particular Angus whom I sought, although reference was made to other Angus McDonnells and McDonalds. My next move was to write soon after to the editor of “The Age” in Melbourne. This letter was published and brought forth much valuable information on other clan families – but nothing on the Insch people. Turning my attention to New South Wales, I wrote to the National Library of Australia in Canberra for a possible lead. This library’s staff checked their entries of immigrants of the period for NSW, Victoria and South Australia without success. Letters to the editors of the “Sydney Morning Herald” and the “The Advertiser” in Adelaide, South Australia, followed with similar results, in 1962. In the following year, I sought a record of Angus’ death (between 1854 and 1891) from the Government Statist in Melbourne. That authority advised that they held no record. Hoping to trace the elusive MacDonells through relatives in 1965, I contacted Father Roderick Macdonald of Campbletown, Scotland (who had previously assisted me with other families) for information on Father Archie MacDonell who was also of the Insch family. Nothing came to light that could assist my search.

During the same year, I wrote to Victorian MacDonells whose names I gleaned from the telephone directory. None of them had heard of Angus MacDonell of Insch. Discouraged by lack of success and impossibility of doing any personal research as the area of interest was approximately 2,000 miles away, nothing further was done until November 1968 when a letter arrived from Rory MacDonald of Clachaig Inn, Glencoe. Rory had taken up the search, unaware of my efforts. He stated that the MacDonells came to Australia in 1865, which caused me to do some checking, as I understood that they emigrated in 1854. A valuable clue came from Rory to the effect that Angus’ wife Mary died soon after their arrival. Therefore I sought a copy of her record of death circa 1855, but without success.

A break-through came in 1970 quite by accident. Rory Mackay of Inverness, with whom I had corresponded for many years regarding Clan Ranald families, sent me a photocopy of some pages of a journal of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. This material dealt with the Morar family of MacDonalds. The following is an extract:

Colonel Coll Macdonald, only brother of Simon 9th of Morar, married Miss Frances Cochrane, and left an only child Mary. … Mary Macdonald married Angus Macdonell, commonly called “Angus Inch”, from his farm in the Brae of Lochaber. Mr Eneas Macdonell, Morar … describes Mrs Macdonell of Inch, in answer to my specific enquiries, made in respect that she and her descendants became heirs of line of “Mac Dhugail” – “Mrs MacDonell was regarded by everyone who saw her as a very handsome and beautiful woman … She retained her good looks and graces to the last. She was little past middle life when she died … I am not sure whether Mrs Macdonell died before or after the family emigrated. My impression is that her death took place in this country. Mrs Macdonell was an elegant, agreeable, well-informed woman.” I observe that in August of this present year, 1888, Archie, youngest son of Mr and Mrs Macdonell of Inch, died at Melbourne.

The last sentence was of vital interest to me, and prompted me to apply to the Government Statist in Melbourne for a copy of the relevant Death Certificate. In my application, I listed the names of “Archie’s” parents. In due course I was rewarded with a copy of a Death Certificate pertaining to Gillespie McDonell. Fortunately my limited knowledge of Gaelic was sufficient for me to know that Archibald is the English equivalent of Gilleasbuig. Now I was on The trail of the Keppoch Charm Stone!

The Death Certificate revealed that Gillespie McDonell died at Melbourne on the 29th August 1888, aged 50. He married Mary Tonner at Ballarat and left nine children: Anna, Florence, George, Gillespie, Frederick, Ewen, Cuthbert, Allana and Fitzroy. MI I flow had to do was to trace the movements of the family and the descendants of Gillespie’s children. My search appeared to be nearing its end.

Another letter went off to the State Library of Victoria (formerly the Public Library of Victoria) and another to the Office of the Registrar of Probates for information on Gillespie MacDonell. Neither brought any result, so the National Library at Canberra was again contacted, without success. I then wrote to every MacDonell, McDonell and Macdonell I could find in the Australian telephone directories. Some of them replied but could not assist me. Knowing the family to be Catholic, I then wrote to several parish priests in the mining towns of Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, assuming that the family had been attracted to the gold rush areas. This effort also brought a negative result. As Gillespie MacDonell was married in Ballarat, I wrote to the editor of the “Ballarat Courier” seeking descendants or relatives of his wife Mary Tonner. A letter to the Ballarat Historical Society followed as did a letter to the Town Clerk in Bendigo. These efforts proved fruitless. Where had the MacDonells gone?

In 1973,I decided to obtain a copy of the record of birth of the youngest of Gillespie’s children – Fitzroy – in case some further information was revealed. This revealed Gillespie’s occupation as a miner, which confirmed my conjecture. It also gave me the full names of all the children. They now became Annie Frances, Florence Jane, George John, Gillespie James, Frederick Edward, Ewen Coll, Cuthbert Daniel and Fitzroy Elphinstone.

In 1975 my interest was renewed and I again tried to find a clue which might lead me to the Insch family and the charm stone. It occurred to me that some of these MacDonells may have been involved in the l9l4-l8 War. I therefore perused the “Clan Donald Roll of Honour” which lists all MacDonalds however spelled plus many other clansmen who were either killed or decorated during the war. I found three McDonells, not with the initials corresponding with those of Gillespie’s sons,  but worth investigating. The Australian Army Central Records Office provided me with relevant information, but the people concerned were obviously not connected with those whom I sought. I therefore wrote to the Bendigo Historical Society, as Fitzroy Elphinstone MacDonell was born in Bendigo on 3rd May, 1884. This society was not able to assist. The next target of my endeavour was the Keeper of Public Records in Melbourne. His copies of the electoral rolls for the Bendigo and Ballarat districts for the years 1900-1930 contained none of the names of Gillespie’s children. During the following year the Bishop of Bendigo was approached for assistance, resulting in many more letters going to priests throughout the district – unsuccessfully. The Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies in Victoria was then approached for assistance, but they were not able to provide any. 1977 proved to be another “break-through” year. On the 30th January of that year I again acted on the assumption that at least one of Gillespie’s sons could have enlisted in the Australian forces in World War 1. I wrote again to the Army Records Office listing the names and years of birth of the six sons of Gillespie MacDonell, stating that, if any of them did in fact enlist, Bendigo would probably have been the place of enlistment. Three weeks later I received the following reply: “None of the people referred to by you are recorded as having served in the army, however a Fitzroy McDonell did apply to enlist in the army. The following information may be of assistance to you:

Date of application to enlist: 20th January, 1915.
Age stated on applicalion: 29 years and eight months.
Place of Birth: Bendigo, Victoria.
Next of Kin stated as mother, Sulphide Street, Broken Hill, NSW.

Broken Hill is one of the best known mining towns in New South Wales, but it did not occur to me to search in that vicinity.

However, it does seem a logical place to which a miner would move if he faced lack of work in his own district. Now I had only to find present day descendants which appeared relatively easy after the previous searches.

A visit was then made to the Townsville Post Office and the Broken Hill telephone directory perused. It contained the name of McDonell – a Mr G.B. McDonell of 167 Wyman Street. I phoned the number and spoke with Mrs McDonell. Sure enough, her husband was related to the McDonells of Sulphide Street. They had never heard of the MacDonells of Insch, but that did not matter to me – I had found them and made contact! unfortunately they had no knowledge of the Charm Stone.

From this initial contact, I was put in touch with Mrs Violet Stephens of Moorabbin, Victoria, who is the oldest living Grandchild of Gillespie MacDonell, to whom she referred as Archibald. Another granddaughter is Mrs Alison Eckermann of Victor Harbour, South Australia. Although the family has been located, it is disappointing that not one of the descendants has any knowledge of the Charm Stone. Mrs Stephens stated that she had been told that her grandfather’s two sisters, Frances MacDonell and Georgina Carey lived in France in the early 1900s. She was also told that they had deposited paintings and gold plate with the Bank of England. Georgina’s husband is said to have been Acting Governor of Victoria at one time. However, records show that a George Carey who was Acting Governor of Victoria in the 1860s is married to Hester Olivia Thompson, so that tradition  is obviously incorrect.

Whilst present day descendants are now known, much is still to be learned about the early life in Australia of Angus of Insch. To that end, I wrote again to the Public Record Office in Melbourne in July, 1979 and was rewarded with the information that “The Eagle” arrived in Melbourne 5th April, 1855, having left Liverpool 23rd December, 1854. Among the unassisted passengers were Angus McDonell age 40, and Gillespie McDonell, age 17. All were Scotch. There is no record of the arrival of Coll, Frances and Georgina up to 1860. It seems that Frances and Georgina were in Australia at one time, possibly just to visit their relatives. It appears doubtful that Coll was in Australia. He may have been in New Zealand, but my efforts to substantiate this so far have been unsuccessful. Coll is said to have contemplated joining the priesthood but changed his mind. In June, 1979 Rory MacDonald now of Edinburgh, again wrote mentioning some further sources of information. He stated that Angus of Insch died in Melbourne in 1869 and that his wife Mary died on arrival in Melbourne. This information came Rory’s way in the form of notes written by a niece of Angus MacDonell about 1895.

In May, 1980, my wife and I moved from Townsville to Toowoomba in Southern Queensland, a distance of approximately 1,000 miles. Shortly after our arrival, I was browsing through the local telephone directory, checking on the Clan Donald names when I noticed the name MacDonell. This spelling is rare in Australia, so it caught my interest. The listing was for W.A. MacDonell, storekeeper. I therefore called at the store at the first opportunity, and found Terry MacDonell, husband of Wendy under whose name the family business operates. Terry was intrigued by my interest, but had no knowledge of his family background. After a little questioning, he informed me that his family had moved to Toowoomba from Broken Hill. Here was a vital clue, which when supported by further information from Terry’s mother (widow of Gillespie MacDonell) proved them to be MacDonells of Insch. Terry also has a sister in Toowoomba, Leonie, wife of Ian Marks, with four children. They are all very interested in their history and extremely happy to have been “found”. From information obtained to date, it appears that there are only four male MacDonells of Insch in Australia – Geoffrey and his son Peter of Broken Hill, Keith, son of the late Ian of Broken Hill, and Terry of Toowoomba. As, according to “Clan Donald”, there are no other males of this family surviving, Geoffrey MacDonell is now the present representative of this most interesting family.

Apart from the MacDonells of Keppoch, this family is descended from chiefs of the MacDonald or MacDonells of Sleat, Ardnamurchan, Glencoe, Clan Ranald, Dunnyveg and Glengarry. Although much of the story of the family in Australia has yet to be recorded, the MacDonells of Insch have been found. But where is the Keppoch Charm Stone?