Aonghnas Mac Dhomhnuill – sketch

Angus Macdonell 20th Chief of Keppoch
Angus Macdonell, xxi of Keppoch?

I’ve been reading the Macdonald Bards from Medieval Times by Keith Norman Macdonald, M.D. It was published in 1900 from papers by Dr Macdonald that had originally appeared in The Oban Times. It includes the following ‘sketch’ about my great great great grandfather Angus MacDonell, where he is referred to as “xxii of Keppoch” and having represented “the chieftainship from 1831 until the time of his death”:

The subject of this sketch, Angus MacDonell, xxii. of Keppoch,* was a grandson of Barbara, daughter of “the gallant Keppoch,” of “the forty-tive,” and of the Rev. Patrick MacDonald ot Kilmore and Kilbride, the author of the famous collection of Highland airs published in 1784. He represented the chieftainship from 1831 until the time of his death. He married Christina MacNab, of the MacNab’s of Inishowen, who was a grand-daughter of Charlotte, the youngest daughter of the famous hero of Culloden already mentioned, and, therefore, a second cousin of his own, by whom he had a large family. He was a very handsome man—tall, fair, wellknit together—and inherited some of the best traits of his distinguished ancestors. A staunch Jacobite, of course, and full of the ardour of his patriotic race he would have been an ideal chief, and no doubt if occasion had arisen during his time he would have been found “aye ready” for any emergency, and would have shown that the blood of the Keppochs had not in the slightest degree degenerated. He wrote several pieces of poetry, chiefly in a humorous or satirical vein, all of which, except one, have been mislaid or lost. He also saved some traditional paper relating to the family, which were in the possession of his uncle, John MacDonald of Inch, and who was on the eve of burning them a short time before his death.

I’m not presenting this as evidence of my great great great grandfather’s Chiefship because despite my earlier somewhat tongue in cheek petition to have this recognised, I actually find it more interesting that there is a difference of opinion. I’m reminded by the advice given to me by the genealogical researcher and writer Graham Evans Macdonald in the comments on my MacDonnell of Keppoch Ancestors – Historical Revisionism Revisited post:

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.

Sadly, I don’t have the time for this more ‘forensic’ research and analysis, and it would appear that neither do the Court of Lord Lyon given the evidence they accepted with regard to Ranald Alasdair MacDonell’s claim to the Keppoch chiefship in 2005. For me the more interesting question is not about whether Ranald is or is not entitled to be chief, but what it actually now means to be chief, as well as how that is decided and by whom. I think the same or similar question should be asked about my great great great grandfather Angus MacDonel, and also his grandfather Angus Ban Macdonell of Inch. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but I’d like to draw your attention first to another point point made by Graham:

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.

I have actually taken the time to look at some of the earlier historical writings that Graham mentions, or at least those that are freely available online. I was interested to discover that the none of the accounts tallied. The status of A Family Memoir of the Macdonalds of Keppoch (1885) by Dr Angus Macdonald ‘of Taunton’ is given away in the title, and I’m not sure the editorship by the geographer, explorer, and writer Sir Clements Robert Markham adds any weight. I found History of the Macdonalds and Lords of the Isles; with genealogies of the principal families of the name (1881) by Alexander Mackenzie easier to follow because his genealogical account was more structured. That’s probably because Mackenzie was editor of The Celtic Magazine and historical writer. Interestingly, his account of the Keppoch succession does not tally with the one put forward in The Clan Donald: Volume 3 (1896) by the Reverends Doctors Angus and Archibald Macdonald.

The Reverends Macdonald acknowledge their indebtedness to my great great great aunt Josephine Mary Macdonell of Keppoch who wrote An Historical Record of the Branch of “Clann Domhnuill” called The MacDonells of Keppoch and Gargavach (1931). I have not read her account, but I have seen what I am guessing are versions of her family’s take on the Keppoch succession, e.g.  The Jacobite peerage, baronetage, knightage and grants of honour by Marquis of Ruvigny and Raineval; Loyal Lochaber and its associations historical, genealogical, and traditionary (1898) by William Drummond Norie; etc. Her account seems to have also influenced Burkes Peerage (1999) used by Peter Barns-Graham on his Stirnet Genealogy site (see copy of his Macdonald06 Keppoch succession here).

I also haven’t read Norman H. Macdonald ‘s book The Clan Ranald of Lochaber – A History of the MacDonalds or MacDonells of Keppoch (1972) either. That’s because it’s also not freely available online, and I’m pretty sure that his Keppoch succession was the basis for the The Clan Donald Genealogy Database put together by Roddy MacDonald. The database is sadly no longer online, but you can see a comparison I made some years back between the Keppoch succession it showed and the one on the Stirnet Genealogy site (see here).

The reason for mentioning all this is that I recently read Dr Keith Norman MacDonald: A Short Biographymore (2012) by William Lamb:

His romantic leanings can be seen in his position concerning the Ossianic controversy, and the rather inflated age that he ascribed to certain facets of Gaelic culture, such as puirt-à-beul. However, he must have shared a similar motivation to Alexander Carmichael in these regards: to counter the ingrained perception of the Gael as an uncultured savage; and to believe that one could still find traces of their earlier, Elysian age. These perspectives, and the lack of attention to detail from which some of his work suffered, indicate that Keith Norman probably valued moral and intellectual truth, and social ohesion, over empirical exactitude, but we must also recognise that the ethnographers of his era generally had a different set of guiding principles than those that followed.

It’s worth bearing in mind Lamb’s point about ethnographers of Dr K.N. Macdonald’s generation having a different perspective when you read his following thoughts on the “Chiefship of the MacDonells of Keppoch” from his Macdonald Bards from Medieval Times:

Regarding the chiefship of the MacDonells of Keppoch, the clan always reserved to themselves the right to have a say in the matter, as witness the case of Iain Aluin, who was deposed, irrespective of the question of succession in the male, or female line. The Brae Lochaber people regarded the late Angus MacDonell XXII, who was doubly related to the hero of Culloden, as head of the house of Keppoch, and representative of the chiefs, and being in possession (though not as a proprietor) he was the man whom the clan would have followed in an emergency. And they were equally emphatic regarding his son Donald, for when he first left home to seek his fortune in a foreign land, the whole of the Braes men went to see him off’ at five o’clock in the morning, and men of iron frame were shedding tears over the severance of the last link that hound them to the house of Keppoch, a chieftainship that existed for more than five hundred years, and when he visited them for the last time all the people turned out again to receive him, have him a grand ball, and had bonfires on the hills to welcome him, which they would not have done if they had not considered him”Ceann an taighe.” The lat chief of Chisholm, and the Macintosh, chief of Clan Chattan, claim through the female line.

Again I’m not presenting this as evidence, it’s just that Dr K.N. Macdonald touches on what it means to be a Clan Chief. The concept of chief is a notion, albeit essentially a genealogical one. As such, a more ‘objective’ forensic evaluation of primary sources about the genealogy misses the cultural and social anthropology of that notion, and so does a legal ruling based on primogeniture by the Court of the Lord Lyon. This takes me back to my question about how we evaluate the notion of Chiefship not just in terms of genealogy, but within the cultural, social and even economic historical context of the time. This also includes analysis of how the decision is made and by whom, and why.

I think this is the lens that should be used to view the Keppoch Chiefs that succeeded Alexander who died at Culloden in 1746. For example, Alexander’s son Ranald spent his early years being babysat by his illegitimate half brother Angus Ban, and lived overseas for most of the rest of his life. I’m not sure how much time Ranald’s son and heir Alexander had spent in Scotland as he’d been born in Jamaica and died unmarried in Barbados in 1808. Alexander’s brother Richard who succeeded him was at least born at Keppoch, but died in Jamaica in 1819. Richard was then succeeded by his uncle Alexander who had already emigrated to Canada by the time he’d become chief. He was succeeded by his son Chichester a year later, who died in Greenock in 1838. Clearly, the notion of Chief meant something completely different post-culloden particularly given their absence for the majority of the 90 or so years between the death of Alexander at Culloden in 1746 and Chichester in Greenock 1838.

I think the question of whether my great great great grandfather Angus MacDonell was or was not Keppoch Chief should, in part, be viewed in this context. As Dr K.N Macdonald points out Angus was descended from Alexander of Culloden through both his natural son Angus Ban, and also his daughter Barbara of Keppoch. Angus’s wife Christina MacNab was also a descended from Alexander of Culloden through his daughter Charlotte. Their families had, for the most part, also all lived locally since Alexander’s death, including: Insch, Torgulbin, Garvabeg, Sherrobeg and latterly at Keppoch House albeit rented from the MacIntosh owner.

Angus and Christina’s pedigrees and proximity to the clan are only one part of the story of his ‘Chiefship’. Other factors include the accolades about being highly cultured along with their social standing as represented by their inclusion in various accounts of nobility, and their daughter’s participation in these circles as part of ‘the season’.   I think the long absence of the former chiefs is another, as is the changes in land ownership that brought this about, and its impact on the clan in terms of the diaspora. At the same time, the notion of Chiefship had also changed through the Elysian romanticism of the Victorians. Angus, Christina, their children, and Macdonald relations and friends, such as Dr K.N Macdonald above, had all contributed to this with their historical writing, poetry and music. In this context, I can see how the local clan would have participated in some of the ‘ceremony’ of Chiefship with Angus and his family. I don’t think this more romantic notion of Chiefship would have just been pantomime either, particularly when compared to the ‘fancy dress’ notion of what a highland Clan Chief has now become with their gatherings, cèilidhean, and online merchandising. Dr K.N. Macdonald’s romanticism seems more appealing in this context, regardless of whether later historians, such as Norman H. Macdonald, see Angus and his family’s claims to Chiefship as self styling. Ultimately, I’m grateful that Dr K.N Macdonald saw them and their work as being worthy of writing about, because his sketches and the other material I have found helps bring them to life.


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