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Chat's and Book Reviews by Frank R. Shaw FSA Scot
A History of Clan Campbell


Alastair Campbell of Airds, Her Majesty’s Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms at the Court of the Lord Lyon, is gifted as a writer and eminently qualified to put pen to paper regarding the Campbell’s tribal history which has often been misunderstood, if not wrongly misinterpreted. While Clan Campbell, like all clans, has committed its share of questionable actions, Alastair Campbell has attempted to set the record straight about the Campbells or, as Ernest Hemmingway often said as a young man, "the true gen" or the real story.

Not many people have the privilege of working directly for their Chief (some are more successful than others), but Mr. Campbell was employed by the Duke of Argyll to be Chief Executive of the Clan (yes, these are modern times!) and was in charge of the Campbell archives for over a dozen years. As author of many books and articles through the years, Alastair Campbell has put forth the first of three volumes on the Clan Campbell. Volume 1 takes us "From Origins to Flodden". The other two, "From Flodden to the Glorious Revolution" and "From 1688 to the Present", will appear in 2002 and 2004, respectively.

His Chief, the Duke of Argyll, who recently passed away, says of the author, "From his first few decades he kept meticulous notebooks, for no particular purpose other than his own pleasure, and these were to prove invaluable in this work of heroic magnitude."

Several things need to be said about Volume 1 – it is the story of a clan in search of itself, the acquisition of land, power and prestige while, at the same time, it tells of Clan Donald’s loss of land, power and prestige over the years. Naturally, the emphasis is on Clan Campbell, but of necessity, the book is (to borrow Nigel Tranter’s title) "The Story of Scotland," albeit from the perspective of Clan Campbell. It is the story of a clan that was good at acquiring lands, holding on to them regardless, marrying well, fighting even better, being on the right side most of the time, as well as being very lucky. The "remarkable success" of Clan Campbell was not achieved without major discomfort to their neighbors and envy among those less successful. The author acknowledges they were good and lucky!

I started out thinking this might be just another book of dull, boring "begats" and maybe a bit self serving. But I quickly found out that the author has a winsome way with words, was warned constantly not to write a partisan history, uses modern illustrations to make his subject more appealing, gives a picture of Clan Campbell that is frank, to the point or, as the author himself says, one of "warts and all," and is interlaced with bits of humor.

Alastair Campbell is just as blunt as he is humorous when it comes to what septs should not be in Clan Campbell. Pity the poor Macelvies when Campbell says, "I can discern no reason for the inclusion of this name among the septs of Clan Campbell," or "Once again, the reason for attributing membership of all those of the name Hastings to Clan Campbell seem remarkably tenuous". Do not wear a red tartan as some Campbells have because the author says there was never "ever such a thing as the ‘Red Campbell Tartan’" – period! It is a myth! About pedigree, he bluntly states: "It need hardly be said that the earliest generations of the pedigree are purely mythical and not to be taken seriously, tempting as this is to the over-enthusiastic roots-seeker."

His description of the lands and isles in "Setting the Scene" transports one instantly to those wonderful memories of previous trips to Argyll. The kinship to Robert the Bruce is mentioned for the record but not dwelt upon. "Triumph and Disaster" is the rise of the Campbells and the fall of the MacDonalds. He does not rub it in writing about the MacDonalds. "The Clan: An Overall Survey" takes the wind out of the sails of those who strut too much at Scottish games. The "Broken Men" from "Broken Clans" is a fresh perspective on those of us who fit that category. "Chieftains" are not to be found in Clan Campbell and are not recognized by their Chief. If he did, he would have over 200 in his clan who meet the Lord Lyon’s requirements. I love the story of the artist who arrived to remove lines on the face of an Argyll portrait only to discover it was an offending line in the tartan that was to be removed! He packed his bags and left!

Every serious student of Scotland, not just members of Clan Campbell, needs this book, as well as the next two volumes. I paid $60 for my copy, and I’ll gladly do the same for volumes two and three. It is that good! There will be things you disagree with Alastair Campbell about, but you cannot disagree that this is a book worthy of any Highlander’s library. This book is copyrighted by The Clan Campbell Education Association and was published by Polygon at Edinburgh. It is an imprint of Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 22 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LF. A History of Clan Campbell, Volume 1, can be found at Ward Weems and Sons, who advertise regularly in The Family Tree, as well as at other fine book dealers.

Any author who wishes for their latest book to be considered for review in this column is asked to send a copy to me at 1320 Twelve Oaks Circle, NW, Atlanta, GA 30327-1862, USA. Whether selected to be reviewed or not, the books become the property of The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library in Moultrie, GA.


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