Scotland's clan system may have officially ended in the 18th century, but each region still has its own pater or mater familias, many with castles to tour—and even to rent. Charles Maclean, a chieftain himself, leads the way into glorious domains.
Harry Benson

I was raised in the Highlands and encouraged to feel proud of being a Maclean and belonging to a great clan. My maternal grandfather and uncle were chiefs, and I grew up in awe of their Mafia don-like reputations as "fathers" of Clan Fraser of Lovat. Leaders of men in war and peace, splendidly unconcerned that the clan system had been abolished some 250 years before, they were among the last of their kind. Or were they?

Curious to know what it means to be the head of a clan today, I visited five chiefs who see themselves more modestly as historical links in a family chain that loops the world. What has survived of clan spirit may be mere sentiment or yearning for identity, but as every chief told me, it is a powerful enough force to make anyone with even the vaguest Scottish connections want to claim affiliation. Of course you don't need Highland blood to appreciate a landscape still resounding with the clash-of-steel echoes of Braveheart, Rob Roy, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the heroes who inspired the romantic (and Hollywood) view of Scotland. All you need is a map and a car.

As you drive through one of the last great wildernesses in Europe, past hilltop castles and desolate battlefields, you see no signposts indicating old clan territories, but Highlanders have long memories. In many places the commonest name in the phone book still corresponds with the heartland of a clan. Argyll, for instance, where I live, is unmistakably Campbell country, not least because the chief of Clan Campbell maintains a high profile at the imposing clan seat of Inveraray Castle. A Maclean usurper in the home of our former enemies, I am myself a chieftain (the head of a cadet branch of a clan), and the hereditary keeper of an uninhabited, wave-swept rock in the Firth of Lorn.

My journey into the clan territories took me through some of the most extraordinary scenery in Britain. Starting from Strachur in Argyll, I made my way up the west coast to Oban and crossed by ferry to the Isle of Mull. Joining the mainland again at Lochaline, I drove on through Morvern and Lochaber and over the Skye Bridge to the Isle of Skye; then up the Great Glen to Inverness and the Moray Firth on the east coast.

Dropping by some of the most inviting chiefly spreads, I discovered that besides being knowledgeable guides to their regions, many of today's chiefs have embraced the hospitality business. Yet those who have held on to their estates remain more than just colorful figureheads. I was struck by how seriously they take their clan duties, responding with genuine warmth to being hailed by stray kin from all over the globe.

Patriarchy is by its very nature enduring, which perhaps best explains why chiefs, clans, and their trappings (eagle feathers, tartans, sporrans) exert such a hold over our imaginations. In the modern age, clanship proves the lasting appeal of that most basic of human ties: the blood bond, which, as the Gaelic saying puts it, "can withstand the rocks."

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
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."

Maclean Territory
Isle of Mull
STAY AT Western Isles Hotel, Tobermory; 44-1688/302-012;; doubles from $188.
Tiroran House, 44-1681/705-232;; doubles from $164.
EAT AT Western Isles Hotel (see above)
Back Brae Restaurant, Main St., Tobermory; 44-1688/302-422; dinner for two $54.
The fish-and-chips van, Fisherman's Pier, Tobermory.
CHECK OUT Duart Castle, Lochdon; 44-1680/812-309;
Torosay Castle & Gardens, Craignure; 44-1680/812-421.
Mull Theatre, Royal Buildings, Main St., Tobermory; 44-1688/302-828;
Island Encounter Wildlife & Birdwatch Safaris, 44-1680/300-441;
The neighboring islands, Iona (the Abbey), Staffa (Fingal's Cave), and the Treshnish Isles (bird-watching).

Euan Maclachlan of Maclachlan
Many an overnight visitor to Castle Lachlan, in Strathlachlan, has felt a gentle tugging at the duvet and awoken to see an apparition hovering at the foot of the bed. The popular explanation is that the Maclachlan familyhas been protected for centuries by a spirit called the brounie. Euan Maclachlan's mother, the late Madam Maclachlan of Maclachlan, the 24th chief (since the 1890's chiefships have been allowed to pass down in the female line), admitted to encountering their benefactor but refused to describe him, reporting only that the brounie had an aversion to untidiness in the castle.

With their three young children and posse of dogs roaming the halls, the present chief and his wife, Lisa, live at Castle Lachlan in what might be called charming disarray. The obsessive brounie no doubt approved of their decision to turn the grander half of the castle into a spotless rental; no one has complained yet of unbidden room service.

A sheep farmer with a 1,500-acre estate to maintain, Euan is happy to share his home for the privilege of continuing to live there. "It works well," he says. "We give guests exclusive use of the tennis court, garden, and billiard room. The way the castle is divided we're hardly aware of each other. And there's plenty for guests to see in this unspoiled corner of Argyll."

The current castle, with its long southerly views down Loch Fyne, was built in the late 18th century. It replaced Old Castle Lachlan, bombarded from the loch by an English ship in retaliation for the Maclachlans' part in the 1745 Jacobite Rising, and now a picturesque ruin. As we climb over its green ramparts—perfect for a picnic—Euan tells the story of the horse of Colonel Lachlan, who was killed at Culloden. According to legend, the animal found its way back from the other side of Scotland, and swam across Loch Fyne to bring news of the chief's death. It took up residence in the ruined fortress and died there. On moonless nights, some claim to have heard the sound of hooves clambering over rocks, and a ghostly whinnying.

Here in the western Highlands such tales are still told with the immediacy of news. And when you consider that Maclachlans have lived here since the 13th century, family stories—whether of a dust-hating sprite or a riderless horse—are harder to dismiss as mere legend.

Maclachlan Territory
Southern Argyll
STAY AT Castle Lachlan, Strathlachlan; 44-1369/860-669;; from $3,300 per week for up to 12 guests.
Strachur Estate Cottages, Strachur; 44-1369/860-627;; doubles from $393 per week. [Editor's note: Owned by the author of this story.]
Creggans Inn, Strachur; 44-1369/860-279;; doubles from $133.
Creggans Inn (see above)
Inver Cottage Restaurant, 44-1369/860-537; dinner for two $31. Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Clachan, Cairndow; 44-1499/600-264; dinner for two $63.
George Hotel, Inveraray; 44-1499/302-111; dinner for two $63.
CHECK OUT Inveraray Castle, Inveraray; 44-1499/302-203;; open April 5-October 26.
Benmore Botanic Gardens, Dunoon; 44-1369/706-261;
Kilmartin Glen & House, 44-1546/510-278;

Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel, Knight of the Thistle
If you want the best of the Highlands in one region, Lochaber has it all. It's as rich and varied in natural beauty—from the oak woods of Loch Sunart to Mallaig, fishing port and gangway to the Inner Hebrides—as it is in historical associations. Lochaber is, above all, Bonnie Prince Charlie country, and, from earliest times, the homeland of the Camerons.

At the age of 92, the distinguished scholar, soldier, and businessman Cameron of Lochiel smokes half a pack of cigarettes a day and enjoys walking over his 60,000-acre estate in the Lochaber hills. A true Highland patriarch, he has lived at Achnacarry House, seat of Clan Cameron, for half a century.

The old castle of Achnacarry was burned down by English troops after Culloden to punish the 19th chief, "the Gentle Lochiel," whose support for Bonnie Prince Charlie influenced other Jacobite clans to join the Rising. It was 40 years before his great-grandson was allowed to buy back the forfeited Cameron lands and rebuild the house.

Since then, every 5 to 10 years, the Camerons hold a clan gathering at Achnacarry, hosted by Lochiel, with Highland games, music, and a shinty match (a no-holds-barred version of field hockey) against the Frasers. Camerons the world over are awaiting word on when the next will take place. "It's the overseas people of Highland origin who keep the clan going," Lochiel says. "They return to the land of their forefathers and feel reassured to find us here."

A decade ago, inspired and enormously helped by his son, Donald, he turned a cottage on the estate into the Clan Cameron Museum. Every year it attracts thousands of people, come to bone up on Cameron history and to see Bonnie Prince Charlie's magnificent red-and-gold vest and a reward poster that put a £30,000 bounty on his head.

Lochiel encourages visitors to roam his estate in the footsteps of the fugitive prince. He recommends his own favorite spot above Loch Arkaig, a half-mile hike from Achnacarry, for its stunning wildness, its almost eerie sense of isolation. On the far shore of the loch you can scramble up to the cave where Bonnie Prince Charlie sheltered, or search for his gold. Buried for safekeeping by the Gentle Lochiel's brother somewhere among the Lochaber hills, it has yet to be recovered.

Cameron Territory
STAY AT Inverlochy Castle Hotel & Restaurant, Torlundy, Fort William; 888/424-0106 or 44-1397/702-177;; doubles from $518.
Old Pines, Spean Bridge, Fort William; 44-1397/712-324;; doubles from $251, including five-course dinner and full breakfast.
EAT AT The hotels above.
Pier House Hotel, Port Appin, Argyll; 44-1631/730-302;; dinner for two $94.
CHECK OUT Clan Cameron Museum, Achnacarry, Spean Bridge; 44-1397/712-480.
West Highland Museum, Cameron Square, Fort William; 44-1397/702-169.
The Commando Memorial, Achnacarry, Spean Bridge.
The Jacobite steam train that journeys in summer from Fort William to Mallaig (44-1463/239-026; This is the very locomotive that delivers students to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.
The walking path along the Caledonian Canal.

Colin Campbell
It has long been held that William, third thane of Cawdor, was told in a dream to tie a coffer of gold to a donkey's back and build a castle wherever the animal lay down to rest. The donkey settled under a holly tree—pagan and Christian symbol of life and good luck—and the thane did as instructed. The trunk of the holly still stands in the vault of Cawdor Castle; the tree is estimated to have died in 1372, more or less when the castle's foundations were laid.

Twenty-two thanes and a moatful of legends later—one of the most persistent arising from the dramatic license taken by Shakespeare when he made Cawdor Castle the setting for Macbeth—Colin Campbell seems to have inherited the genes of a practical dreamer. As Thane of Cawdor, he is a chieftain of the great and, at one time, enormously powerful Campbell clan, renowned for its political savvy at backing the winning side. Colin takes pride in his ancestry, wears a kilt when he feels like it (and not just to weddings and funerals), but doesn't have much time for clan duties.

Brought up at the castle, which he loves for its "huge mass of protective stone, like a giant, rather well organized cave," he studied architecture at Pratt Institute in New York before setting up his own practice in London. His father died in 1993, and Colin, then 30, moved back to Morayshire to run the Cawdor estate. He now puts all of his energy, time, and design skills to developing the small empire he inherited. In the past three years, he and his wife, Isabella, a former fashion editor at British Vogue, have overhauled three run-down farm cottages and built a new one as rentals; two more are currently being renovated. "They're simple but luxurious," Colin says, "the sort of places we would love to find ourselves."

Ideally situated for touring the northeast, Cawdor is barely a musket shot from the battlefield of Culloden, the National Trust's Brodie Castle, and the beaches of Culbin Sands on the Moray Firth. Guests can also drop in at Cawdor Castle and roam its 18th-century overgrown Big Wood ("like a forest in a fairy tale," Colin says). Groups of up to 20 can take over Drynachan Lodge on the river Findhorn. Built in the 1820's as a sporting retreat and revamped by the present Cawdors, the lodge looks onto a glen, where Colin has introduced pheasant and partridge shooting. Success, measured by the fact that he now employs six gamekeepers, may be due more to vision and good publicity—Annie Leibovitz snapped Victoria (Posh Spice) and David Beckham here for Vanity Fair—than luck. But it can't hurt having a mystical holly tree in the castle vault to safeguard happiness and prosperity for the House of Cawdor.

Cawdor Territory
30 miles northeast of Inverness (
STAY AT Cawdor Cottages, 44-1667/402-402; one-bedroom cottage $648 a week;
Dunain Park Hotel, Inverness; 44-1463/230-512; doubles from $314;
EAT AT Dunain Park Hotel (see above)
Golf View Hotel, Seabank Rd., Nairn; 44-1667/452-301; dinner for two $88.
CHECK OUT Cawdor Castle, 44-1667/404-615;; open for tours May-October.
Brodie Castle, 25 miles east of Inverness; 44-1309/641-371;; open April-September.
Culbin Sands Nature Preserve, 1 1/2 miles east of Nairn;
The whisky distilleries in nearby Speyside—11 are open for tours and tastings.
The battlefield of Culloden, five miles east of Inverness.

Lord Macdonald of Macdonald
It comes as a pleasant, value-added surprise to many of the guests at Kinloch Lodge, the acclaimed country-house hotel on the Isle of Skye, to learn that their welcoming, graciously attentive host is of royal blood. An unassuming chap in his early fifties, married to Claire Macdonald, the ebullient queen of Scottish cookbook writers, Godfrey, high chief of Clan Donald, like all Highlanders takes his lineage seriously.

"As Lords of the Isles," he expounds over tea in the gleaming kitchen designed for Claire's cooking demonstrations, "the Macdonalds controlled Scotland's western seaboard from the eleventh through the fifteenthcentury, and were the largest, most powerful of the Highland clans. We were in the fullest sense," Godfrey emphasizes, "an independent royal house and, although the kingship was annexed to the Scots crown in 1493 and the title Lord of the Isles is now borne by the Prince of Wales, I am by blood the true representative of the House of the Isles." "God, darling?" Claire interrupts—the appeal to the Almighty, I'm slow to grasp, merely an affectionate reduction of her husband's name—"Did you remember to do the wine for tonight?"

High chief to 15 million Macdonalds around the world, Godfrey has his own exclusive tartan, his own personal piper, and a hereditary bard he can call upon for ceremonial occasions. "I am not naturally a showy person," he says. "But if we have a large group coming to Kinloch, I tend to don the kilt and the finery and my piper will play us into dinner. I also have a purse bearer—historically, the chief of the Macsporran clan. I tracked him down and he turned out to be a florist from Dunfermline...not in the least interested!"

It all seems wonderfully strange and grand until you learn that of the several Macdonald chiefs who make up Clan Donald—Glengarry, Sleat, and Clanranald being the most important—none owns any land and, with the exception of Kinloch Lodge, not a castle or a house between them that isn't a ruin. Godfrey's father died young and the estate, which had once included large tracts of Skye and North Uist, with mortgages and bonds going back to the 1800's, had to be sold to pay off death taxes. A familiar story in the Highlands. But in this case all was not lost.

When the estate was being broken up, some of his clansmen approached their new chief and asked if he would object to their buying back part of it for the clan. Godfrey encouraged them and the Clan Donald Lands Trust was formed in 1971. Twenty thousand acres were saved, and the Clan Donald Visitor Centre established around the ruins of Armadale Castle on the Sleat Peninsula. It now holds a museum, restaurants, rental cottages, a gift shop, garden, library, even a resident genealogist.

"People can come to study, they can pursue their family roots, they can walk on their own land. It's really quite an achievement," Godfrey says. He clearly enjoys running Kinloch Lodge, which in its own way has become another clan center. "Every year, I see hundreds of Macdonalds. Not just those who are guests. They ask to meet their chief, and I never refuse. It may be an inherited duty, but I feel the bond of our common ancestry very strongly. I consider myself fortunate to be what I am. Of course, on Skye," he adds, "you are judged for what you do, not who you are."

His own achievement, with Claire's energetic help and talent, in turning the dilapidated shooting lodge he inherited into a successful hotel has been remarkable. After 30 years, Kinloch is known all over for its heavenly food and unstuffy ambience. It has given Skye, ever a magnet to visitors thanks to its glorious Cuillin Mountains and romantic association with Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald, the reputation of a culinary destination. After all, it's where God chooses the wine.

Macdonald Territory
Isle of Skye
Reachable via bridge from Kyleakin (
STAY AT Kinloch Lodge, Sleat; doubles from $534, including dinner and full breakfast; 44-1471/833-214; Ask for a view of the loch.
EAT AT Kinloch Lodge (see above)
Three Chimneys, Colbost, Dunvegan; 44-1470/511-258; three-course tasting menu for two $116; Six guest rooms are also available.
CHECK OUT Armadale Castle Gardens and Museum of the Isles, Armadale, Sleat; 44-1471/844-305; With a museum, restaurants, and rental cottages.
Dunvegan Castle, Dunvegan; 44-1470/521-206; House tours, restaurant, and cottages to rent.
Talisker Distillery, Carbost; 44-1478/640-203.

Charles Maclean is a novelist who lives on an estate in Argyll with guesthouses to rent (see His latest book is The Silence (HarperCollins).

High season in the Highlands runs from May to September. Go in spring to see the wildflowers, August when the heather is blooming, or fall for bright woodland colors. And be warned: The saying goes that there's no such thing as bad weather in these parts, only bad clothes. If you plan to do some walking—and you should—bring a waterproof coat. Insect repellent is also a good idea for combating that ferocious predator, the Highland midge.

Key Web Sites

Travel Information Where to stay, where to eat, and what not to miss. The tourist board's site also includes an impressive genealogy section. Hotel and package listings, plus links to Scottish heritage sites.

Kinloch Lodge

Food-focused retreat where cookbook author Lady Claire Macdonald runs on-site culinary demonstrations.

Rates include breakfast and a 5-course dinner.