The MacDonells of Glengarry

The crest of the MacDonells of Glengarry is a raven perched upon a rock. In his beautiful 1982 book “The Highland Clans” Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk concluded the raven is an indication of the Norse influence in Clan Donald and represented Odin’s raven. With all respect to the author and his wonderful work, I take issue with his conclusion regarding the raven. Although it is true the Norse god Odin was often depicted with his two ravens Huginn & Muninn (thought & memory) perched on or flying above each shoulder, but in Celtic culture it is the salmon that symbolizes wisdom & knowledge. Ravens do have a significance in Celtic culture. As depicted in the Celtic legend The Death of Cú chulainn the Celtic people thought of the raven as an omen of war & death often called the “battle crow”. The Gaelic word for raven is fhithich pronounced “eeich” (sounds like a raven’s screech). The battle cry or motto for the MacDonnells of Glengarry is “Cragan an Fhithich” meaning “the Raven’s Rock”. Many large rocks all over the Highlands are called Cragan an Fhithich by the locals because they mark the location of a significant battle in the area. The Celtic explanation is consistent with the Gaelic motto, the Norse explanation is not.

The gleann garu or Glengarry

The Glengarry, was part of the lands granted to Angus òg, Lord of the Isles, by Robert the Bruce after Clan Donald’s support at the 1314 Scottish battle of independence at Bannockburn. Angus òg’s son, Good John of Islay, was the next Lord of the Isles. Good John’s eldest son, Ragnall (often rendered Ranald) by Amie MacRuairi, was the founder of Clanranald. Raghnall’s son, Dhòmhnaill (often rendered Donald), was the founder of the MacDonells of Glengarry, as they chose to spell the surname. Glengarry is Gaelic Gleann (glen) and garu meaning rough or turbulent. Guru would be an appropriate description of both the rough glen and the turbulent loch. This branch of Clan Donald was considered part of Clanranald until the 15th century when it rose to prominence as one of the problem clans to King James IV after the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles. The King thought he would bring the West Highlands & Islands under his control by replacing the Lordship of the Isles with rival Clan Chiefs. Some Clan Donald chiefs accepted the King’s demand they forfeit the lands of their fathers. Alexander Macdonell of Glengarry did not. King James gave Glengarry to the Earl of Huntly and southern MacDonald lands to Campbell of Argyll. The chief and the people of Glengarry refused to pay rent or acknowledge Huntly as their leader. Finally Alexander of Glengarry committed the Macdonells of Glengarry to support his kinsman, Alexander of Dunnyveg’s 1531 attempt to restore the Lordship of the Isles by sword. After they failed, both of them, with other Clan Donald chiefs, were summoned before King James for treason. They submitted to the King and were forgiven past offenses, but the King still would not acknowledge Alexander and his clan as the rightful holders of Glengarry. The King granted Ewan Cameron of Lochiel (Gaelic for leather strap, the shape of the loch) 12 merk lands of Glengarry for the inflated rent of 40 merks (a merk =13 ½ pence). Locheil received little more respect from Glengarry than did Huntly. The Anglo/Saxon feudal concept of landlords was totally unacceptable to the Highlanders. The Lordship of the Isles was established in the Celtic style of local leaders selected from the derbfine (leading family) who made up the Council of the Isles. The Council of the Isles then selected the Lord of the Isles from eligible candidates of the ruling family. The Lordship of the Isles was basically a democratic republic predating the United States Constitution by 500 years. The Sassanach (Gaelic for Saxon, usually said as if a swear word) believed in the king’s Divine right to rule by birthright. Ironically, these 16th century monarchies of Britain labeled the Celtic government of Clan Donald primitive and barbaric. The Celtic form of government was really before its time.

The Glengarry branch of Clan Donald was particularly resistant to the idea of rent and leadership appointed by what they felt was a foreign King. Alexander of Glengarry was a close ally of John Moidartach (Clanranald) and their combined forces proved too formidable a power even for the Scottish King. Alexander died in 1560 with his clan holding the lands of their ancestors in every way except the Kings papers. Unlike his father, Angus of Glengarry sought and obtained office from the Scottish crown to patrol the lochs for fish poachers. Although Angus maintained unquestioned allegiance to the government, he was not able to be at peace with his neighbors. Then his son, Angus Og of Glengarry attacked their old enemies, the Mackenzies of Kintail in 1601. Life in Glengarry must have been terrifying at this time with Clan Donald men off on raids while Mackenzie men retaliated in the Glengarry. The most foreboding indication of the end of the Lordship was that Glengarry went into battle without the support of their Clan Donald kinsmen. When the forces of both sides met in battle the slaughter was devastating to both. Angus Og was killed and the castle of Strome was demolished.

The seat of Glengarry shifted to Invergarry castle built upon the “living rock”. The raven’s rock is a fitting symbol of Glengarry who had to battle neighboring clans and even kinsmen to maintain their lands. Donald mac Angus of Glengarry battled his own kinsmen of Knoydart who raided Glengarry lands in 1610. Rather than retaliate, Donald appealed to the King’s Privy Council to judge between him and his Knoydart kin. The Council awarded Donald the royal charter to all of Knoydart. Glengarry then fell victim to raids upon the recently acquired Knoydart lands by Clanranald, but Donald found a peaceful solution without appeal to the crown. King James VI, newly crowned King of England as well as Scotland, had little time to bask in the newfound loyalty of his formerly rebellious Highlanders. The Protestant reformation became a civil war in England and Scotland that tragically brought Fire & Sword on Glengarry.

See Glengarry in the Clan Donald Journey to Armadale video

In 1661 Alexander 13th Chief of Keppoch was as unlucky as his number. Alexander was raised by his uncle Sir James of Sleat and sent to the continent for his education. He returned with very continental ideas of the chief being above his “subjects”. He was not a popular chief. On September 5th, 1663 a group of men fell upon Alexander and murdered him in his sleep. The Keppoch bard Iain Lom was outraged at the lack of Keppoch enthusiasm for revenge. He took his case for revenge before Glengarry, but found the same apathy. He presented his case before Sir James of Sleat who wisely sought and obtained the Privy Council’s commission to apprehend the nine murderers. Two had fled the country, but the other seven were slain when they resisted arrest. Iain Lom cut off their heads and washed them in a spring which became known as “Tobair nan Ceann” (Well of the Heads).

Glengarry Events

Aeneas Ranald Donald (Donald) MacDonell, 22nd Chief of Glengarry, a much-beloved and respected Chief of Clan Donald, died on June 7, 1999. A memorial to the 22nd Chief of Glengarry was commissioned in the form of a bronze statue of the Raven on an actual piece of The Raven’s Rock from Invergarry. The monument was mounted adjacent to the Museum of the Isles at Armadale.

Want to own a piece of Glengarry?

A few years ago those who had dreamed of being a “Laird” or “Lady” of their own piece of land in Scotland could go on line and purchase a wee plot of land from the battle crow’s point of view (one square foot!) in Glengarry. The land purchases seemed to be doing well for a bit, but then the web site suddenly disappeared. A similar opportunity to acquire a title for a nominal fee is now being offered South of Glencoe by Highland This information is offered tongue in cheek (along the lines of “Believe It Or Not”) and not meant as an endorsement. I do tip my balmoral to these British entrepreneurs (headquartered in the Channel Islands, not Scotland). Kind of like paying a company to send you a certificate that they named a star after someone you designate. Why not have some fun with your heritage? So my children saw an add for the Highland Titles and signed up my wife and I for a square foot! I received a certificate stating I am now a Scottish Lord! All I have to do is relinquish my birth name (after 66 years I don’t think so) and legally change my name to Lord Larry McDonald and I will legally be a Scottish Lord! The nicest part of their gift is they want to take us to see our land. Now that’s a great reason to go back to Scotland.