Chiefs and Clans Explained
An extended family affair introduced to the Highlands and islands by Gaelic-speaking Irish Celts, the clan system flourished between A.D. 700 and 1700. Clan chiefs, descendants of early Irish kings, ruled by custom rather than legal right, but had life-and-death power over their clansmen, with whom they shared a common ancestry (clann in Gaelic means "children"). In exchange for their willingness to die for clan territory, the chief protected his people while pursuing whatever policy—invariably based on plunder and pillage—he felt coincided with clan interests.
With their history of bloody dispute and shifting alliances, the clans were fated to come to grief over the Jacobite movement, whose aim was to restore Scotland's ancestral Stuart dynasty to the British throne. The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the exiled Stuart heir apparent who led the Rising of 1745, gave the world one of the great sagas of romantic endeavor. It ended in failure and misery for the Highlands.
After their defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Jacobites were subjugated with spectacular brutality by a British government determined to rid the world of the clan system. Highland chiefs lost their lands, their clansmen were disarmed, and the destitute people of the straths and glens were "cleared" to the New World. Yet clan sentiment has survived, and even gathered strength, thanks in part to the Internet. Clan Web sites post clan histories; provide everything-you-need-to-know answers about castles, tartans, and crests; and help put visitors on the trail of their ancestors—a search that often results in a journey to the homeland.
Sir Lachlan Maclean of Duart and Morvern
28TH CHIEF OF CLAN MACLEAN
From the Caledonian Macbrayne ferry that plies the sound between Oban and the Isle of Mull, Duart Castle, ancient seat of Clan Maclean, is an awesome sight. The granite fortress rising from a strategic headland above the Sound of Mull was thought to be impregnable until captured by the Campbells in 1691. A ruin for 160 years, Duart was restored by Sir Fitzroy Maclean, 25th chief and a veteran of the Crimean War, who, on completion of the massive undertaking in 1914, declared, "I do this for my family—the clan."
The same could be said by his great-grandson, and my own chief, Sir Lachlan Maclean, a soft-spoken 60-year-old ex-soldier for whom the upkeep of Duart is an onerous job. "We are enormously lucky to have Duart as a clan rallying place," he says, "though living here has its problems." With 14-foot-thick walls that hoard the cold and damp, the private part of the castle is only barely habitable in the winter. And from April through mid-October, when Duart is open for tours, Sir Lachlan can scarcely crack the door to the courtyard without finding himself the subject of a photo opportunity. But Lochy, as he prefers to be called, and his wife, Mary, are cheerfully pragmatic. They live much of the year in Perthshire—Lochy commutes to Glasgow, where he works for a charitable trust—and regard Duart as part vacation house, part family business.
At Duart, Lochy considers it his chiefly role to point people interested in discovering their roots (whether from the Duart, Ardgour, or Coll branches of the clan) in the right direction. He also enjoys detailingthe pleasures of Mull. Perhaps the most beautiful of all the Hebrides, the island has spectacular wilderness (from eagle-haunted Ben More to the white sands of Calgary) and unexpected sophistication (the Lorimer-designed gardens at Torosay Castle, Mull Theatre).
Those requesting an audience with the chief are seldom turned down. People bring boxes of family papers, hoping to deposit copies at Duart. They want advice from Lochy on Highland etiquette, on when to wear which tartan—he recommends the green hunting sett for everyday, the red dress Maclean for formal occasions. They inquire about getting married in the Great Hall, or scattering Grandmother's ashes from the battlements, where Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones dallied in the movie Entrapment. Lochy's answer to both is a guarded yes: "I only ask them not to throw human remains on the flower beds or the hedge."