MacDonnell of Keppoch Ancestors – Historical Revisionism Revisited

As mentioned in my recent Patrick MacDonald, “Father of the Church of Scotland”? post, I’m back on the genealogy trail, in part prompted by a comment left here Graham Evan MacDonell, Principal Researcher at The Great Glen Genealogical Research Centre. He’d responded to my Macdonald/Macdonell of Keppoch Chiefs – Historical Revisionism? post from November last year.

Ironically, my enthusiasm for research into my family history had been severely dampened by a somewhat dismissive previous response from the Clan Donald Historian Norman H. MacDonald, which had been kindly forwarded to me by Rob McDonald Parker, Chamberlain to the High Council of Clan Donald. Timing wasn’t great either as I was in middle of moving from London to Brighton.

Since then I’ve been having a fascinating email exchange with Graham, and with his permission I’ll try and cover some of what we have been discussing. In the meantime, I’ll try and summarise what I’ve been writing about that captured his attention, but firstly I need to clarify that I’m not trying to establish any claim to the Keppoch Chiefship. I have two older brothers and they both have male offspring. So if the oldest wants to follow this up he’s more than welcome to do so. Alternatively, he could always try and settle this the old fashioned way, although I’d recommend he enlist a little help from our nephew Sam who seems to be cut from the same Tartan as his Keppoch ancestors (see My nephew saves his unit after bullet in head post).

Seriously, I’m simply interested because I’d always believed that my great great great grandfather Angus MacDonnell (died 1855) was a former Keppoch Chief, as was his grandfather Angus ‘ban’ MacDonell of Inch, the natural son of the Keppoch Chief that died at Culloden. Believe me when I say I have no romantic Braveheart-like delusions here having had to endure an education in the Highlands. It’s just that I’d seen a number of sources confirming their Chiefship, including online resources like Stirnet through to the likes of Debretts, and Burkes. There was also The MacDonells of Keppoch and Gargavach book by my great great great aunt Josephine M. MacDonell.

For my parents generation inclusion in Debretts/Burkes would be enough, so I was more than a bit surprised to find out that my ancestors weren’t recognized as being former Keppoch Chiefs on the Clan Donald website (sadly no longer online). This struck me as some kind of historical revisionism particularly as I had found an extract on the Clan Fraser Web site about Captain Ranald M’Donald, of Keppoch (c1732-1788) apparently styling himself “Son of Keppoch” when gazetted a lieutenant on January 14, 1757. The site suggested that this was a clear indication that Ranald felt his older “natural” brother, Angus Ban, in exile, was the rightful chieftain and not he. Ranald was the oldest legitimate son of Alexander Macdonald of Keppoch and succeeded his father following Culloden, but was still a minor. The extract also mentioned that when Ranald was promoted to captain, his older half-brother, Angus Ban, formally wrote out a resignation of the chieftainship in order that Ranald could start the process to reclaim the Keppoch lands.

I mentioned this resignation letter to the Clan Historian Norman H. MacDonald via the Clan Chamberlain and was told in no uncertain terms that it was a fantasy put about by my great great great aunt Josephine (mentioned above). To top this somewhat inappropriate response he also seemed to suggest that reference to my great great grandfather Angus and his family as ‘of Keppoch’ was self-styling on their behalf after having installed themselves as tenants at Keppoch House, which was by then owned by the MacIntosh family.

So for me there are two issues here:

    1.) Were my ancestors Angus ‘ban’ Macdonell of Inch and my great great great grandather Angus MacDonnell considered to be Keppoch Chiefs by their clan?
    2.) If not, then what was their status?

These issues raise some other related questions as far as how does one prove former Chiefship and/or status in the clan one way or the other, including:

    – Does being referred to as ‘of Keppoch’ mean you’re a Chief if male, or is it just a term that shows that someone has high status within the Clan?
    – Do Clan Chiefs need to be sworn in, and if so what’s the process and how is this recorded?
    – Is family/oral history (‘sloinneadh’?) credible source or is documented evidence required?
    – What constitutes Chiefship, and is it a matter for the Clan to decide, or a legal entity like the Court of Lyon?

I think this is where Pandora’s box starts to get opened and how there maybe a link between my questions about the Chiefship of my MacDonnell of Keppoch ancestors and the “for aught yet seen” ruling by the Court of Lyon in 2005 on the Keppoch Chiefship of Ranald Alasdair MacDonell.

Let’s start with what constitutes Chiefship because I can’t help being reminded by a comment once made to me by Ian Macpherson McCulloch, author of Sons of the Mountains, who said he believed that “the collective sense/honour of the clannadh”, or for that matter, the Gaelic ideal of chieftainship, both hold more merit in determining the true “warrior chieftain” of any Highland host pre-Culloden. He explained that as far as he understood it the actual word for chieftain in the Erse has a much deeper richer connotation of chieftain and all that it entails than the simple Sassenach concept of being landed gentry with some property. A chieftain as far as he was concerned, was “the father of his people, a protector of the broken men and lord high justice and executioner”.

The reason for mentioning all this is that Ranald Alasdair MacDonell was ruled by the Court of Lyon in 2005 to be the 14th Chief of Keppoch. I’m not sure what implications the ruling has for the likes of my ancestor and former Keppoch Chief Alexander Macdonald/MacDonnell of Keppoch who was previously either the 16th/17th Keppoch Chief. I’m pretty sure that those Clansman that not only followed him into battle at Culloden, but in most cases died alongside him, would have been certain of his Chiefship and wouldn’t have taken kindly to lawyers in Edinburgh stating otherwise!

The Court of Lyon also ruled that the sloinneadh is valid to determine Clan succession. Correct me if I’m wrong, but a sloinneadh is the traditional Gaelic genealogy of the male family line, passed down orally from generation to generation. In Ranald Alasdair MacDonell’s case the sloinneadh presented as evidence to Court of Lyon also included a handwritten note by a Mrs. Ann MacDonell. This puts a whole new perspective on Norman H. MacDonald’s comments about my great great great aunt Josephine being a fantasist, and in comparison to the evidence presented to the Court of Lyon her The MacDonells of Keppoch and Gargavach book sounds scholarly to me!

The point I’m really making is what evidence is required to prove my ancestors’ Chiefship given the evidence accepted by the Court of Lyon as far as Ranald Alasdair MacDonell’s Chiefship. That said I’m also intrigued as to why Ranald Alasdair MacDonell sought a judgment from lawyers in Edinburgh rather than let the matter be one for the Clan to determine … all very Robert “if you don’t succeed at first, try try again” Bruce I’m sure, but hardly what you’d call Braveheart!

Anyway, I can’t help wondering how how I go about proving the Chiefship of Angus Ban. Call me an amateur, but post-Culloden I’d hazard a guess that Angus Ban and his surviving clansmen would have been far more concerned with keeping a head on their shoulders. So if there was any ceremony I doubt there would have been enough of them for it to have warranted more than a nod any unlikely to have required any documentation.

My guess that if, as my great great great aunt Josephine suggested, that ‘Big Angus’ was believed to be head of the Clan by his younger half-brother Ranald, then the majority of Keppoch kinsmen, gentlemen and even gillies would probably have acknowledged it as well.

However, my chances of proving this one way or another though are a different matter. It might be easier to show documented evidence that my great great great grandfather Angus MacDonnell was consider to be a Keppoch Chief by the clan at the time. Even then it would probably take the skills of a genealogist/historian like Graham at the The Great Glen Genealogical Research Centre to show this, and that’s if he has the inclination to so.

It’s getting late and this post is now turning into a Proustian epic without even detailing my evidence with regard to my Keppoch ancestors. I’ll try and add some more specific posts soon, but suffice to say I think as far as a professional genealogist/historian like Graham is concerned my evidence would probably be considered anecdotal at best … although similar evidence seems to have been enough for the Court of Lyon to make their 2005 ruling on Ranald Alasdair MacDonell’s Keppoch Chiefship!

4 thoughts on “MacDonnell of Keppoch Ancestors – Historical Revisionism Revisited

  1. Picking up on your August 3, 2009 entry, never let divisive comments put you down, old chap, for our ancestry is our own and it is very precious to each and every one of us. Whether our ancestors were titled or not is really not important; whether they owned land is equally not important. They are OUR ancestors, our flesh and blood – or, more succinctly, we are theirs!!!! We should be as proud of them as we would wish them to be proud of us for carrying their name, their DNA, their family reputation forward.

    We should never have people bemoaning like Jeremy Clarkson in “Who do you think you are”, that “I could have been somebody!” (like Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy, cries out in “On The Waterfront”) just because his great-grandfather lost the fortune that his great-great-grandfather earned by developing the Killin jar (or something comparable to that).

    As I develop an extremely comprehensive genealogy of the Clan Keppoch, I should point out that chiefs of Highland clans achieved that position or role by: 1. tanistry, a Gaelic system for passing on titles and lands. In this system, the Tanist (Irish Tánaiste; Scottish Gaelic Tànaiste; Manx Tanishtagh) was the office of heir-apparent, or second-in-command, among the (royal) Gaelic patrilineal dynasties of Ireland, Scotland and Man, to succeed to the chieftainship or to the kingship. (See Wikipedia, if you want more!)
    2. Hereditary upon the death of a father or brother who was a clan chief.

    And the former can include people who were selected by the clanspeople after a natural or unnatural death or when the chief lost the esteem of the people due to his (or her behaviour) and there was no hereditary chief to turn to.

    But we must stress that the position was also held at the consent of the clanspeople as we witness with Alexander Boloine, 8th Chief of Keppoch. who is not regarded in some circles as a real chief; however, the clues to chieftainship are referral to a person as “Younger of” or “of ________”. These designations are usually ascribed to a chief’s son and a chief.

    A person who has not attained that stature might be referred to as “from _____” or “in ______”.

    Thus we have a variety of numerals attributed to Chiefs of Keppoch that vary according to author and author’s sourcing and attribution of chieftainship.
    This issue will be addressed in a book on the genealogy of Keppoch which the author is researching in order to commence writing.

    The issue of credibility of the author is at the root of any attribution of chieftainship to a particular person and that credibility is based on documentary evidence and objectivity presented by the author.

    Without wishing to demean the efforts of any local historian, attribution of chieftainship must be approached carefully as local perspectives of history are nearly reverential. Any question regarding the accuracy of sourcing by historians now passed can be viewed by their descendants and many current day locals as heretical. One could be shunned from the community for inferring that the said local historian (departed) was not 100 percent accurate in his or her writings.

    Yet, invariably, this is what has happened.

    We all like to explore our own genealogical history to find that we are related to a Highland chief. Victorian hype of many matters Scottish has elevated the role or position of chief far beyond that which it really was. They were not gods nor demi-gods but leaders of their people who had gained their respect and, in some cases, admiration. And, as for highland clan chiefs to be held in the same reverent position today begs the question: “What are you smoking?”

    They are ordinary lads or lassies who have virtually no power or authority and are mere figureheads in the periodic fascination that middle-aged Yanks, Canucks, Aussies and Kiwis have with their clan and personal ancestry.

    As one carries out research, one often carries a bias or expectation that one wants to have met with that research. It is a normal human trait that is often subconscious.

    When we begin to criticise current day historians, we must at first, know their background, their reputation, their integrity and their objectivity.

    However, today’s historians are at the end of a long list of historic writers that have come before them.
    Before Norman H. MacDonald was Donald J. Macdonald of Castleton; before him were the Reverends Doctors A. and A. MacDonald, held by many to be the penultimate recorders of Clan Donald history and genealogy; before them was William F. Skeene, Angus Macdonald and Clements R. Markham as well as Alexander MacKenzie. And before them all, the Earl of Selkirk.

    Researching to ascribe one’s lineage to ‘figures of greatness’ (even in the local or regional context) must be able to access primary resource material which not only includes books written well over a century ago, but estate papers, records of sasines, military records, and other archival information from the local to the national.

    It takes years carry out such genealogical research even on a full-time basis to be able to say, with credibility (and documentary proof) that a certain person was “chief” of a clan. Consideration by locals living in the same glen that one of their own was a “chief” is one thing but one has to go beyond local or regional records and anecdotal information that has been written to “verify” local history and genealogy.

    Stay tuned! “For Aught Yet Seen” will be on your bookshelves….but when, I can be definite at this point.

    Graham Evan MacDonell
    Principal Researcher
    The Great Glen Genealogical Research Centre
    Suite 324 -2 4 Station Square
    Inverness, Inverness-shire
    Scotland, UK IV1 1LD

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