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!