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Clan Donnachaidh's First Chief


Duncan de Atholia

Duncan is said to have been born in the year 1275, just in time to take part in the opening rounds of the War of Independence against the English. Traditionally, William Wallace sought refuge in Atholl after his defeat at Falkirk in 1297 but one is on surer ground when considering the chief’s relationship with Robert Bruce. John Baliol was installed as Edward of England’s puppet king in 1292 but his master removed him four years later for “contumacy”, leaving the country without a monarch. Bruce and the Red Comyn were rival claimants for the throne. At a meeting in the Franciscan priory at Dumfries in 1306, Bruce slew his opponent in front of the high altar. Alastair Macdougall, Lord of Lorne, was married to the dead man’s aunt and therefore now had a blood feud with Bruce.

In 1306 Bruce was crowned at Scone and soon after was routed at the battle of Methven. He, his queen, and a few followers escaped into Atholl and were received by Duncan. He had his stronghold in a castle on the island in Loch Tummel, which was submerged in 1950 when the loch was raised by five metres by a hydro-electric dam, and Bruce took refuge in the Wood of Kynachan just a couple of miles to the west. A ford on the Tummel, now beneath Dunalastair Water, was the King’s ford. The King’s Hall was in the woods to the south and the Queen’s Pool was a little further downstream. Strong tradition tells of an unrecorded battle between Lochs Tummel and Rannoch at this time. Innerhadden was where the battle started. Dalchosnie next door means field of fighting; Glen Sassunn is the glen of the southerners, the route taken by the enemy troops. The result was a victory thanks to the women of the day who supported their menfolk by filling stockings with stones and using them as clubs to devastating effect.

With Duncan and his Clan by his side the king ventured west and was defeated at Dalrigh (the field of the king) near Tyndrum by the Macdougalls of Lorne and retired back to Strathtummel. In this battle the king lost the brooch with which he pinned his cloak, and this is still in the possession of the victor’s descendants. Eight years later the Clan went down to Bannockburn to fight alongside Bruce to defeat the English and make him undisputed king of Scots.

Bannockburn, of course, is the seminal battle in the fight for Scots independence from England. As a result, every clan wishes to claim that it was part of Bruce’s army. The earliest written reference to the participation of the clans seems not to come until 1822, when the historian David Stewart of Garth listed twenty one Highland chiefs that were there, but he gives no source for the information.

As far as Clan Donnachaidh is concerned, there is a very strong logic that Duncan, unquestionably a close associate of the king, would have been there with the Clan and he is one of those on Stewart’s list. As well as strong logic, there is strong tradition that supports this. Clan Donnachaidh is said to have been a little bit late for the conflict, and were part of the contingent that came down from Gillies Hill at the decisive moment of the battle and these reinforcements tipped the balance in Bruce’s favour.

The Clan had several more encounters with the MacDougalls. The only record of one was written down by Ewen Macdougall. Clerk to the Earl of Breadalbane at Taymouth, in the 1820s and describes the aftermath of a cattle raid or creach against Clan Donnachaidh. The Macdougalls were tracked west and the two forces met in Glen Orchy ‘where they fought bitterly, the Rannoch men were slain and their Chief fled with difficulty. The slain were buried and the cairns are still called Cairn nan Rannoch, or Rannoch Men’s Cairns, and their arms cast into a small Loch near the Cairns called Lochan nan Arn.’ It seems likely that this is a traditional local interpretation of Bruce’s defeat at Tyndrum after which the losers’ weapons were also said to have been thrown into the loch. If so, it would indicate that the bulk of Bruce’s army were Clan Donnachaidh men, and that the ordinary Macdougall warriors were more pleased to have defeated them than the king. The monarch must have been a remote figure to most people, intent on consolidating his national position. Duncan’s followers were local rivals against whom clashes must have been frequent.

However, with Duncan at its head the Clan was usually on the winning side. It is possible that his most famous meeting with the Macdougalls is an amalgam of several skirmishes, particularly since the date given by one source of 1338 would make him past his prime for legendary feats of agility. They sent an army into Atholl and Duncan, disguised as a beggar, entered the enemy camp to scout it out. His cover was penetrated and he had to flee for his life. He chopped down one of his pursuers and then jumped across the chasm of the river Errochty to escape. The spot is now beneath the dammed Loch Errochty so the distance, reported variously between 11 and 16 feet, cannot be confirmed. His Gaelic name, Donnachd Reamhar ( pronounced ‘rev-ar’), means literally Fat Duncan, but a gravitationally-challenged warrior in his mid-fifties is unlikely to have managed such a leap. ‘Robust’ or ‘stout’ would surely be a more accurate translation. Another of his sobriquets was Gaisgeach Mor Fea-Chorie…the great hero of Fea Corrie. The corrie, a remote cleft in the hills west of Trinafour, was the muster point for Duncan’s warriors before any campaign. It, too, is submerged beneath Loch Errochty.

The battle was the following day. At first light, the chief’s standard was pulled from the ground and with it came the Clach na Bratach…the Stone of the Standard. This snooker ball-sized globe of rock crystal is one of several charm stones to have survived. That of the Stewarts of Ardvorlich is the Clach Dearig…the red stone. The Campbells of Glenlyon had one but theirs was given to them by a visiting ‘wizard’ in the 16th century, presumably part of his stock in trade. Such stones have been made and venerated in all cultures for millennia. They are to be occasionally found as grave goods in pagan Saxon burials and would have had religious or mystical significance in pre-Christian religion. But how one came to be in the wilds of Atholl can only be guessed at. 

The Clach na Bratach is the most famous and has the oldest history of any of these stones. It was said to be carried into battle before the Clan, confined in a little cage on top of the standard pole. Otherwise it lived in a silken purse, the last knitted for it by the Countess of Breadalbane. Its prime function was for healing. Any water in which the stone had been dipped had curative properties for both man and beast. It could also predict the future. When the stone became cloudy, it signified the approaching death of a chief. The consternation of the Poet Chief in 1715 when he consulted the Clach before going off to fight in the Rising can be imagined when he saw that it had developed a great crack through its heart. Perhaps it told the truth. If Struan had not joined the rebellion, his own fortunes and that of his successors might have been very different.

With the newly-found charm, Duncan and his Clan trounced the Macdougalls and captured their chief. He was imprisoned on Eilean nain Faoileag…the Island of Gulls, now topped with a castellated Victorian tower, at the west end of  Loch Rannoch. One day a man rowed out with barrel of apples. These were upset and during the confusion as the guards scrabbled around to retrieve them, Macdougall took the boat and escaped, leaving his captors marooned. An older version of this story has MacDougall living in comparative freedom under parole and breaking it to make his escape.

Duncan’s death and its circumstances appears in a manuscript written by Duncan, the 14th Chief, in the eighteenth century. He said he was copying what originally appeared in the Red Book of Clan Donnachaidh which was destroyed in a fire at Meggernie Castle, Glen Lyon, in the 1650s.

‘Duncan, desirous to have the whole or some part of his large possessions secured to him and his posterity by written rights from the crown, repaired to court which was then at Scoon or at Perth. He had his enemies but it seems they could not prevail against his favour with the King; his business was finished of an evening, and next morning he was to pay his court and receive charters from the King’s own hand. Besides other occasional attendants he always had twelve chosen servants about his person but one of them was a traitor, Blair by name, who was bribed to destroy his master. This he actually accomplished, for when Duncan was getting himself dressed in the morning for his appearance at Court, Blair with his fist struck a razor or knife into the crown of his head, and then attempted to escape, but his master drove a chair at him which broke his back and Kenneth McGilivie, another of the servants, dispatched the traitor with a spear. All this was hushed up for the time. Duncan immediately caused his head to be bound up with bandages and caps and went to the Court. The King, observing his countenance as well as the tying up of his head, asked of him what was the matter and he answered that indeed the Gentlemen of the court had made him sit up and drink more than was fit for a man his age. He received his papers and departed but had not gone far from court when his People were obliged to put him in a litter; his papers were laid under him, he ordered his men to carry him to Dull and not to slacken their speed whether he was dead or alive, and if he should die by the way his body was not to be touched till his son Robert should arrive. Robert found the charters and buried his father at Dull where his grave is shown to this day as a rarity for its length.’

Duncan married twice, once to a daughter of the Earl of Lennox through whom he secured Rannoch and secondly to the co-heiress of the Ewen, Thane of Glentilt, and thus greatly extended his lands. By this second marriage he had a son, Patrick, who obtained Lude and his descendants held that property for the next five centuries.

But others were establishing a presence in the neighborhood. The original Menzies was one of those French knights who came to Scotland to make their fortunes. The family had land in Atholl before 1300 and, like so many others of their kind, they founded a clan. The Stewarts, from Brittany in France, also arrived in the area. Walter the Steward married Bruce’s daughter and their son became king. He held the earldom of Atholl himself and granted it to his son in1375. In his ‘Book of Garth and Fortingall’ in 1888, Duncan Campbell, the schoolmaster in Fortingall, delightfully described the first Stewart Earl and the arrival of others of his kin thus: ‘His revenue and estates were not very great, but he had a great many allies, and pretty numerous company of gentlemen of his own surname to surround his motehill and fight under his own banner. Some of the Stewarts were cadets of his own house; many were collaterals that had been called in from Lorne. A few were descended from the Walter of Atholl line, and more than a few from the Wolf of Badenoch. To these were added Stewarts who boasted ancient or illegitimate descent from kings and princes who, when hunting the deer, wooed Highland maids in sequestered glens.’

Time and again over the ensuing generations members of Duncan’s Clan would marry Stewarts. Time after time over the years their interests would coincide. In combining to defend all Atholl they would gain the reputation as the most formidable warriors in Scotland.

Reprinted from ‘The Robertson; Clan Donnachaidh in Atholl” with permission from the author, James Irvine Robertson

The complete book is available at

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