The MacDonalDs (MacDonells) of Keppoch

On the 13th of September 2006 the Lord Lyon matriculated the arms of Ranald Alasdair MacDonald of Lochaber Mac Mhic Raonuill as Chief of Keppoch MacDonalds. The crest authorized by the first chief of the Keppoch branch since 1848 incorporates the eagle with outspread wings (or ” Rising Eagle“) wearing a crown. The motto the chief has chosen is“Air Muir `s Air Tir” which is the Gaelic translation of the Latin “Per Mare Per Terras”, meaning “By Sea By Land”. The crest at right is our artist’s rendition of the crest atop the matriculated arms of the new chief. The wearing of this belted crest by those associated with the Keppoch branch of Clan Donald has been authorized by the Keppoch chief. The 1750 Keppoch artifact tartan was selected for his clansmen to wear rather than the Keppoch tartan registered in 1815. The new chief’s surname is a classic example of the various spellings of the surname. The current Keppoch chief spells his name MacDonald (with a capital D), but his grandfather spelled his name MacDonell. Many of the Keppoch branch have used the McDonell spelling and there are records of a few MackDonald spellings. It will be interesting to see if the new chief’s surname will determine his clansmen’s spelling of the name in future generations.

See the Keppoch lands in the Clan Donald Journey to ArmaDale viDeo

Also known as Clanranald of Lochaber, the MacDonalds or MacDonells of Keppoch (Gaelic Ceapaich = plot of land) inhabited the point of land between Loch Linnhe and Loch Leven. Lochaber is from the P-Gaelic (Pictish) meaning the convergence of lochs. The P-Gaelic “Aber” is more commonly seen in northeast Scotland as in Aberdeen (the mouth of the river Dee). The reason “Aber” is at the end rather than the beginning is unknown. Possibly there was an assumption by a non-Gaelic speaker who didn’t know that “aber” was Gaelic meaning “land between the mouths of two lakes”. The original Gaelic would have been two words, aber loch and it is unknown if or when the two words were reversed. The Q-Gaelic (Scots) equivalent of “Aber” is “Inver” as in Inverness (mouth of the river Ness). Loch is believed to have originally been the name of a Celtic goddess of deep darkness or deep water. I find it fascinating that a language that has literally hundreds of different words to describe different rock formations would use the same word to describe a fresh water lake, a salt water bay, and a large pond. It is likely the Gaelic word Loch refers to the depth of the water rather than the shape or source as we do in English.

The oldest record of Lochaber is of King Alexander II conferring Lochaber to Walter Comyn, Chancellor of Scotland, in 1228 AD. Lochaber was already populated by MacDougalls and MacDonalds by that time. Comyn was a powerful Anglo/Norman family who supported the Balliol family’s claim to the Scottish throne. The descendants of Somhairlidh (Somerled) also supported Balliol’s claim until Angus Og befriended Robert the Bruce who had murdered John Comyn during a “quarrel”. When Angus Og hid the Bruce he departed from generations of Clan Donald support for the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne. Balliol, with an English political alliance, had promised recognition of the Lordship of the Isles as a sovereign kingdom. But most Scottish nobles demanded the Lordship submit to the Scottish King. When Angus Og was elected Lord of the Isles he mustered a formidable army to support the Bruce at Bannockburn. In 1309 Robert the Bruce bestowed Lochaber and many other western lands and islands upon Angus Og which expanded the Lordship far beyond it’s pre-Bannockburn boundaries. The royal charter to Lochaber was passed on to the next Lord of the Isles, Good John, who married Margaret, princess of Scotland. From this marriage with Scottish royalty sprang three of the branches of Clan Donald including the Macdonells of Keppoch from their youngest son, Alasdair Carragh (Gaelic = pillar of strength). Most histories identify him as Alasdair Carrach which has a much less desirable meaning (scruffy). What a difference changing just one letter makes in Gaelic! Three other branches came from Good John by his first wife Amie MacRuairi. But neither royal charter, nor royal blood guaranteed the Keppochs’ right to dwell on the lands of their ancestors. They held them for over 400 years, but they held them by sword, rather than royal decree.

The Keppochs retained the ancient Celtic order of the chief being elected from the derbfine after most clan chiefs became feudal land lords appointed by the crown, collecting rent from their crofters, and enforcing royal edicts of “Fire & Sword”. An example of the Celtic manner of leadership was the Keppoch chief Iain Aluinn (handsome). Iain turned over a popular Keppoch warrior, Domhnall Ruadh Beag (Gaelic = Little Red Donald), to the Mackintosh chief on condition “no blood be spilt”. He was accused of cattle theft (it was a frequent pastime in the Highlands). Small bands of men would rustle a few head of cattle. If they succeeded in returning to their clan, the victims only recourse was to complain to the royal privy (government) who were not powerful enough in the Highlands to take on the entire clan. A summons would be issued which the chief would usually ignore. Iain departed from the common practice and turned Domhnall Ruadh Beag over. The Mackintosh hung Domhnall by the neck until dead, thereby keeping his promise that “no blood be spilt”. The Keppoch clan was so incensed that in the Celtic manner they removed Iain as clan chief and elected Iain’s uncle as the new chief according to the Celtic law of Tanistry (the most worthy of a family rather than the eldest son).

The Keppochs had more than their share of deadly quarrels with neighboring clans. Ranald Mor, 7th chief of Keppoch was betrayed by his brother-in-law, William Mackintosh, and turned over to Huntly to be beheaded in Elgin. In 1563 Ranald Og, 9th Keppoch Chief contracted with Colin Campbell of Glenorchy to execute “Fire & Sword” against the outlawed Clan Gregor (Children of the Mist) in Rannoch Moor. Alasdair nan Cleas (of the tricks) was an outstanding Keppoch Chief who established an effective peace with neighboring clans. After the 1638 signing of the Covenant (a declaration of civil war against Catholics) the Macdonells of Keppoch (as they spelled it at that time)found it necessary to join with other Highland Episcopalian and Catholic clans to battle Campbell of Argyll who lead many Covenanter troops into Keppoch country to burn Episcopalian and Catholic chapels and slaughter those who believed a church should be governed by Bishops (Covenanters often failed to distinguish between Episcopalians & Catholics). Donald Glas (gray) of Keppoch joined the legendary John Moidartach of Clanranald and Angus Mac Alan Dubh (dark) of Glencoe to fight with Montrose. They were instrumental in outmaneuvering Campbell forces in the mountains over Inverlochy. The Argyll forces were completely taken by surprise. The Keppoch poet, Iain Lom reminded the Campbells, “to not forget their bonnets floating in the river, but get on with their swimming lessons!” (1645).

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). The Keppochs fought bravely from Harlaw in 1411 to Culloden in 1745 the Keppoch men formed the strength of the Highland fighting force. Alexander 17th of Keppoch charged into the fray alone at Culloden shouting, “Mo Dhia, an do threig clann mo chinnidh mi?” (My God, have the children of my clan forsaken me?) The Keppoch men were among the last to lay down their arms after Culloden.

Keppoch Current Events

Keppoch chief, Ranald of Lochaber Mac Mhic Raonuill (Gaelic = son of Ranall’s son) has announced his intention “to create a permanent memorial to our ancestors…one in the historic burial ground of Clan Ranald of Lochaber, the ancient 7th century Celtic burial ground of Cille Choirill in the Western Highlands of Scotland, our duthas (Gaelic= clan territory). The memorial will be cast in bronze, and our Chieftain Stanley F. Drake, our fear-tarruing dhealbh (Gaelic= Clan Artistic Limner )…