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The Clan MacArthur is one of the oldest of Argyll and its age is referred to in the proverb, "There is nothing older, unless the hills, MacArthur and the devil". The MacArthurs themselves claim descent from Arthur, that early resistance fighter who may have fought against the expansionist English for the Scots. The MacArthurs supported Bruce and were rewarded with grants of extensive lands in Argyll including those of the MacDougalls and the chief was appointed Captain of the Castle of Dunstaffnage. This was indeed the peak of their fortunes for when James I returned from exile in England, in his launch to regain power he executed Iain MacArthur chief of the clan from which the clan never recovered. From thereafter it was the name of Campbell rather than MacArthur that flourished in the region. A family of MacArthurs held land in Skye granted to them by MacDonalds of the Isles as part of their rights as hereditary pipers to the MacDonalds. Clan descendants however have brought fame particularly in America and Australia. John MacArthur of the principal family of Strachur was deemed "father" of New South Wales. He arrived in 1790 and laid the foundations to the wool industry introducing the cross Bengal with the Irish sheep and the Merino. He also planted the first Australian vineyard in 1817, and in America, a grandson of a Strathclyde emigrant became General Douglas MacArthur, the conqueror of Japan during the Second World War

Dunstaffnage Castle
Dunstaffnage Castle
Photo by Scottish Panoramic

Another Account of the Clan

BADGE: Garbhag an t-sleibh (lycopodium selago) Fir club moss. Also Lus mhic righ Bhreatainn (thymis syrpillum) wild thyme.
SLOGAN: Eisa! O Eisa! (possibly should be Eisd! O Eisd! meaning Listen O Listen)

MacArthurWHILE many clans appear to have flourished and immensely increased their power and possessions under the early feudal system, there were others whose fortunes were very different. Like a plant with a worm at the root they wilted and did not thrive. In some cases, like that of the Bissets, they seem to have been snuffed out by some great feud or disaster; in others they became chiefless, broken men, without a common cause and therefore ineffectual in the page of history; and in many instances they subsided to the position of mere septs of another clan. No more striking instance of contrasting fortunes of this sort could perhaps be cited than that of the clans MacArthur and Campbell. In their case the original position and chiefship appear to have been exactly reversed, the MacArthurs, who were originally the main stem and chiefs of the clan, having become in course of time something like a sept under the protection of their younger offshoot.

In this connection the whole question of the origin of Clan Campbell is discussed by Skene in his well-known work on the Highlanders of Scotland. All students of Highland history are aware of the theory according to which the name of Campbell is made out to be originally Norman-French, and the ancestor of the family to have been one of the Norman notables who "came over with the Conqueror." Against this theory Skene points out that no such name as De Campo Bello appears in the Roll of Battle Abbey, Domesday Book, or other record of that time. This fact would not necessarily render the theory of Norman descent untenable, but there is, further, the evidence of the old Gaelic genealogies to show that the family was originally understood to be of Celtic origin. The old theory was similar to that of a Norman origin for the Clan MacKenzie, which has been shown by actual documents to be impossible. De Campo Bello, it is said, acquired the first property of the Clan in Argyllshire by marriage with the heiress of a certain Paul O’Duibne. This, Skene points out, is the common form which family tradition has taken in the Highlands in cases where the chiefship has been usurped by the oldest cadet of the family. He cites the oldest Gaelic genealogists to show that the Campbells were descended in the male line from this very family of O’Duibne, and in support of his statement that the Campbells were originally a cadet branch, he points out that the MacArthurs of Strachur, as "the acknowledged descendant of the older house," have at all times disputed the chiefship with the Argyll family. The tradition of the MacArthurs is that the Campbells were an offshoot of their house; and an old saying in Argyllshire runs, "There is nothing older, unless the hills, MacArthur, and the Devil."

At the first appearance of the race in history in the reign of Alexander III. it is divided into two great families, distinguished by the patronymics of MacArthur and MacCailean Mor. MacCailean Mor, ancestor of the Campbells of to-day, first appears on the historic page as witness to the charter of erection of the Burgh of Newburgh by Alexander III. in 1266. At that time he is believed to have been Sheriff of Argyll, an office created by Alexander II. in 1221. But till the reign of King Robert the Bruce, according to Skene, the family possessed no heritable property in Argyll. The MacArthurs, on the contrary, were possessors of very extensive territory in the old earldom of Garmoran, and were clearly, in power as well as in seniority, at the head of the Clan. As early as 1275 Cheristine, only daughter of Alan MacRuarai, granted a charter " Arthuro filio domini Arthuri Campbell, militis, de terris de Mudewarde, Ariseg, et Mordower, et insulis de Egge et Rumme." In the early years of the following century MacArthur embraced the cause of King Robert the Bruce, fought for him at Bannockburn, and was rewarded handsomely out of the lands of the defeated MacDougals. He was made Keeper of Dunstaffnage, and granted a considerable part of Lorne. To these possessions his descendants added Strachur, in Cowal, on the shore of Loch Fyne, as well as parts of Glenfalloch and Glendochart.

It was in the days of Robert the Bruce that the MacArthur chiefs reached the climax of their fortunes, and it is interesting, in view of later events, to enquire what was their actual ancestry. Herein lies a point of much more interest, with much better foundation of history to support it, than may have been commonly supposed.

According to the legendary account of the Highland clans in early Gaelic manuscripts, given by Skene in Appendix VIII. of his Celtic Scotland, Cailean Mor, from whom the modern chiefs of the Campbells take their patronymic, and who is known to have been slain in the famous pursuit on the Sraing of Lorne, was the grandson of Dugall Cambel or "Crooked Mouth," from whom came the name of Campbell. Dugall’s great-great-grandfather was Duibne, whose daughter, according to the legend of Norman descent from De Campo Bello, carried the chiefship to a family of that name; and Duibne was great-grandson of Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, son of Ambrosius. The Red Book of Argyll declares the ancestor of the race to have been Smervie Mor, son of King Arthur of the Round Table, and the statement is supported by the fact that the badge of the clan is the Lus mhic righ Bhreatainn—" the plant of the son of the King of Britain," wild thyme.

Here we have a link which may well startle the student of Highland history, an actual claim in early manuscripts that the Clan Arthur and the Clan Campbell are descended from the famous Arthur of British history, whose deeds have formed the favourite subject of romancer and poet almost from his own time till the present day. The claim is, however, by no means so strange or so entirely unlikely as it looks. Elsewhere in his Celtic Scotland Skene has shown that the actual historic Arthur fought his battles, not in the south of Wales, as modern readers of Tennyson, Swinburne, and Matthew Arnold are apt to suppose, but in the Lowlands of Scotland and on the fringes of the Highlands, on Loch Lomondside, and the northern district of Northumberland. The pages of Nennius, the historian of those early centuries, remain as undoubted evidence of this fact. It can be easily shown how all subsequent Arthurian literature has had Nennius for its original, and also how the popular tales of the deeds of Arthur have followed the Cymric, British, or Welsh language as it ceased to be spoken in the Scottish Lowlands and early princedom of Strathclyde, and came to have its chief seat in Wales and Cornwall. The present writer has shown elsewhere, from documentary evidence, that, as son of Eugenius, or Owen ap Urien, King of Reged or the Lennox, in the sixth century, St. Kentigern or Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, was grand-nephew of this historic Arthur, and the fact may be taken to show how not at all unlikely is the claim of the ancient Gaelic manuscripts for an Arthurian origin of the Clan Arthur and Clan Campbell. There are many enduring memorials of the great King Arthur in Scotland, including some two hundred place-names, from Arthur’s Seat in Midlothian to Ben Arthur in Argyll; but surely none of these is so interesting as the memorial remaining in this name of the ancient Highland clan which had its seat under the shadow of Ben Arthur itself on the shore of Loch Fyne.

The causes which led to the decadence of Clan Arthur and the ascendancy of Clan Campbell, though they are to some extent obscure, might be well worth the pains of the historic antiquary to trace. It has already been mentioned that the MacArthur chief took arms in the cause of King Robert the Bruce. So did the chief of the Campbells, Sir Neil, grandson of the famous Cailean Mor, from whom the later Campbell chiefs have all been known as MacCailean Mor. Both of these chiefs earned the gratitude of the king, and both were generously rewarded with lands of Bruce’s enemies. But Sir Neil Campbell had another reward which was bound to bear still greater fruit in years to come. This was the hand of a sister of the Bruce, and there can be no question that the royal relationship gave the Campbells a rise in influence which nothing else could have done. To this marriage, indeed, typical of many others by which the Campbells afterwards advanced their fortunes and increased their estates, may probably be ascribed the real foundation of the subsequent greatness of that house. It was not very long afterwards when the Campbell chiefs began to show the leadings of their ambition. In the reign of Bruce’s son, King David II., MacCailean Mor made the first effort to secure the chiefship of the clan. The attempt was resisted by MacArthur, who procured a charter declaring that he held his lands from no subject but from the king alone, and the MacArthurs continued to maintain this position till the time of James I., Bruce’s great-great-grandson.

Down till the time of that king and even later, the feudal dependence of the Highland chiefs upon the Crown remained in many cases more nominal than real. The Lords of the Isles, we know, still at intervals claimed to be independent sovereigns. In the reign of James II. the Lord of the Isles made an independent treaty as a sovereign prince with the King of England, and, in the interests of the defeated Earl of Douglas, his lieutenant, Donald Balloch, invaded and harried the shores of Clyde. Later still, the MacGregors, with the proud boast "My race is royal," declared that they would hold their lands by no "sheepskin tenures," but by the strength of their own right arm and the ancient coir a glaive or power of the sword. It was to put an end to this ancient allodial and irresponsible tenure, which constituted a grave danger to the State, and to establish uniformly in its place the system of feudal tenure under which each chief should acknowledge that he held his territory from the Crown, and should become answerable to the Crown for the administration of law and for the defence of the realm, that King James I. summoned his famous early parliament at Inverness. The Highland chiefs were called to attend that Parliament, and among those who came was John MacArthur, chief of the name. Bower, the continuator of Fordoun’s Chronicle, describes MacArthur as "a great chief among his own people, and leader of a thousand men"; but MacArthur’s hour had come. Along with a considerable number of others whose independence and turbulence the king considered a danger to the State, MacArthur was seized, imprisoned, and beheaded. All his property was forfeited to the Crown excepting Strachur, and some of his lands in Perthshire, and so great was the blow thus struck at the family fortunes that the MacArthurs never again appeared as makers of history in the North.

The act of King James I. effectually cleared the way for the ambition of the house of MacCailean Mor, which from that time remained in undisputed possession of the honours of the chiefship of the race. Soon afterwards their position was made still further secure by their being raised to the rank of the nobility, and from century to century, by means of advantageous marriages and shrewd tactics, they continued to raise themselves in power and influence. At the same time the MacArthurs sank to the position of private gentlemen, and though they never ceased to claim the honours of the chiefship, they never found themselves in a position to make that claim effectual. MacArthur of Strachur, last in the line of chiefship, died unmarried about the middle of the nineteenth century.

A number of MacArthurs remained for centuries about Dunstaffnage, but where their chief had once been hereditary keeper they had become merely tenants to the Campbells. Among others of the race were the MacArthurs, who, from father to son, throughout a long line, remained hereditary pipers to the MacDonalds of the Isles. Several anecdotes of these MacArthur pipers are recorded by Angus MacKay, piper to Queen Victoria, in his work on Pibroch music. The last of the race, who was for many years piper to the Highland Society, and a composer of many pieces still held in high esteem, died about the middle of last century in London.

It is sad to think that a clan which could boast descent from so great and romantic a figure as the King Arthur of British history should thus so completely melt and die away from the proud ranks of Highland chiefship. Inishail in Loch Awe is the recognised burying-place of the clan.

Septs of Clan MacArthur: Arthur, MacCartair, MacCarter.

The reluctant chief of Clan Arthur

AS MISSING persons cases go, the disappearance of the title of chief of the Clan Arthur is in a class of its own.

Last seen in India in the 1780s, the title vanished with the death of one Charles MacArthur of Tirivadich. Childless and with no obvious male heir, his death appeared to have consigned the hereditary chiefdom to history.

But now, an heir apparent has been found after a genealogist spent 15 years tracing the clan’s family tree.

More than 220 years after the disappearance of the chiefly line, the Clan Arthur stands on the verge of having a leader once more. The man they have placed their faith in is James Edward Moir MacArthur of Tirivadich and Milton, 87, a former Coal Board employee living in Edinburgh.

Mr MacArthur, however, is something of a reluctant standard bearer, anxious no-one should think he is putting himself forward for the title.

Yesterday, he said: "I must stress this, it is not for me, it is for the clan. I am only a cog in the wheel. But a clan has got to have a chief to be a real clan."

It was the senior members of the clan who set the search in motion in 1986, hiring highly-respected genealogist Hugh Peskett to delve back through 12 generations of MacArthurs to find a common ancestor for the last chief, Charles MacArthur of Tirivadich, and the man their hopes now rest on.

Mr Peskett found his man back in the 16th century in the shape of another Charles MacArthur, the 12 times great-grandfather of James MacArthur.

That Charles MacArthur died in 1525 and the chiefly line continued through his eldest son, eventually dying out with the final Charles sometime between 1786 and 1788.

His ancestor, however, had two more sons, and the current James MacArthur is descended from the third one.

The discovery provided the common ancestry the clan needed to present its claim to Robin Blair, the Lord Lyon King of Arms.

Mr MacArthur was appointed commander of the clan - one step down from chief - ten years ago after Mr Peskett presented his initial findings to the senior members of the clan, but it will be up to the Lord Lyon, who is appointed by the Queen and whose office dates back to at least 1318, to decide whether to recognise him as the rightful chief.

Mr MacArthur explained: "I was popped in as makeshift commander and the clan became a clan once again having had no leadership for several hundred years.

"It took Mr Peskett more than ten years to find the connection between the house of Milton, which I am, and the house of Tirivadich, which is the chiefly line, because the chiefly line appeared to have died out.

"Now that Mr Peskett has investigated and found the connection back to the Tirivadich family, the clan wished to put forward a chiefship. I am simply there to obey instructions."

Married with a son, John, and two grandsons, Mr MacArthur spent time in the Far East after the Second World War before returning to Britain to work for the Coal Board.

Despite his reluctance to press his case for the chiefship, he admitted he first discovered he had a claim in 1922. "My father told me on a Sunday walk in the country that our family was the leader of the Clan MacArthur," he said. "But he said the family had never bothered about it."

Even then, nothing might have come of it had it not been for the interest of the overseas members of the clan, which has branches in New Zealand, Australia, Southern Africa, Canada and the United States. It was the Americans in particular who decided they needed a chief.

Bob McArthor, the editor of the clan magazine Round Table, explained they had been actively seeking a chief for at least the last 20 years after turning up for a clan gathering in Scotland.

He said: "I guess it is our fault. We sent a letter to the court of the Lord Lyon inquiring what we should do to restore our kinship.

"Someone recommended James and at first he was reluctant because he is a very modest man, but we persuaded him he was the best person to fill this post and he agreed to go through with this.

"As a result we held a derbh-fine [conclave] in Scotland and by popular vote elected James.

"We in the States are responsible for pushing him. I think he is afraid of offending the Lord Lyon but we love him and he really is our hope."

Mr Peskett said there was little doubt about the claim, adding: "It took me a long time and a lot of work but I am satisfied that James MacArthur is the rightful heir.

"Other people might try, and they often do, but I am satisfied that he is the right man."

Yesterday, the Lord Lyon’s secretary said a petition had been received and an advert had been published to allow anyone else with an interest in the chiefship to come forward. Unless someone else emerges in the next 40 days, it will be deemed there is no-one with a better claim.

If the Lord Lyon is happy with the information before him, the MacArthurs will have their first chief for more than 220 years.

Gethin Chamberlain
Thursday, 7th February 2002
The Scotsman

Ancient clan installs its first chief for 230 years

ONE of Scotland’s oldest clans, Clan Arthur, has its own clan chief for the first time in more than 230 years.

James MacArthur of the Noble and Ancient House of Milton, an 87-year-old former Coal Board employee, has been officially installed as chieftain at a ceremony in Edinburgh.

His inauguration, in the presence of members of the clan who had travelled to the city from across the globe, has ended more than two centuries of a leaderless existence for the Clan Arthur and marked the culmination of a 17-year search by senior members of the clan to find the true successor.

The title of Chief of the Clan Arthur ceased to exist officially in 1771 when the last chief, Patrick MacArthur, died in Jamaica, leaving no children and no obvious male successor.

Any hope of finding a legitimate heir to the title appeared lost until 1986 when Hugh Peskett, a renowned genealogist, began poring through 12 generations of the MacArthur family tree.

Through his studies, he uncovered the heir apparent, Mr MacArthur, who had been born in Canada but had emigrated to Edinburgh to work for the Coal Board .

Mr MacArthur later recalled that he had first discovered he had a claim to the title as a young boy, in 1922. "My father told me on a Sunday walk in the country that our family was the leader of the Clan MacArthur but he said the family had never bothered about it," he said.

Then, in 1991, Robert McArthur, another prominent member of the clan, organised a "derbfine" - a meeting of the arms-bearing members of the clan - in Argyll, at which the clansmen agreed that "James Edward Moir MacArthur of the Ancient and Noble House of Milton" should be proposed for appointment as leader.

Last August, following another ten years of genealogical research, Mr MacArthur successfully petitioned the Lyon Court to be appointed the first Chief of Clan Arthur after an interval of 231 years.

Almost 100 clansmen from as far as the United States and Australia attended yesterday’s ceremony. A spokesman for the clan said: "It was a warm and friendly historic occasion - a truly a momentous day in Clan Arthur’s future."

Tuesday, 22nd April 2003
The Scotsman



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