The MacRae Clan

The MacRae Clan was a warrior clan whose forefathers once ruled the spectacular mountains of Argyllshire in Scotland. The name means "son of grace." The heirs of Finlay Dubh prospered in Kintail and continued to serve MacKenzie as constables of Eilean Donan castle and trusted advisors. The MacRaes recognized MacKenzie as their chief. So valuable were the "wild MacRaes" that they became known as "MacKenzie's shirt of mail." MacRae chieftains served as constables of the castle, chamberlains for MacKenzie, and vicars of the parish church. While generally removed from the politics of Scotland, the MacKenzies and the MacRaes were loyal to the King of Scots. This led to conflict with the nearby MacDonalds who professed a separate nationhood under the Laird of the Isles. Gaelic speaking Scotland in the Highlands and the Isles prized its independence and its heroic warrior culture.

The early years of the MacRaes are filled with bloody battles and martial achievements. In 1488 at Blair na Pairc (battle of the Park) young Donnachaidh Mor nam Tuag (Big Duncan of the Battle ax) slew MacLaine of Lochbuie, the principal MacDonald warrior. In 1534 another young Duncan MacRae defended Eilean Donan against a large raiding party of MacDonalds. Duncan's arrow slew Donald Gorm of Sleat, the last claimant to the title Laird of the Isles. In 1687 James VII, the last Stuart king to occupy the thrones of both Scotland and England, was deposed.

The new royal house of William and Mary was determined to tame the wild Highlands. The Highlands, of course, resisted, and followed the Jacobite cause to restore their "rightful king." The MacRaes fought in all of the Jacobite "risings." In 1715 the MacRaes took heavy losses at the battle of Sherrifmuir and their chieftain Ian Mor na Conchra (Big John of Conchra) was killed. In 1719 another rising was staged in the MacRae country of Kintail. The Jacobites were defeated and Eilean Donan castle destroyed. In 1745 the MacRaes were not officially out as a clan but many fought for the Bonnie Prince at Cullodon. The first civilian executed after the rising (allegedly for harboring the fleeing Prince Charles) was a MacRae.

After the wars, the power and isolation of the Highland clans was broken and government troops, new roads and a new economy came into the land. Highland regiments were raised for the government to provide employment for the warriors. In 1778 a Gaelic speaking MacRae regiment was commanded by English speaking officers at Edinburgh. The MacRaes felt betrayed and staged their own "rising," seizing the rocky crag named Arthur's Seat. They refused to give in until their enlistment terms were honored and they had Gaelic speaking officers. The government met their terms and the regiment went on to distinction in the colonial ward abroad. The last MacKenzie chief died in 1815 and the long years of MacRae service came to an end. The economic clearances arrived in Kintail and the MacRaes moved into exile in North America, Australia and New Zealand. The old villages of Kintail fell unto ruin and large landholders used the land for private hunting preserves and sheep farms.

In the twentieth century a Scottish Revival began to take hold. The castle was restored by Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap. A Clan MacRae Society was founded. Memorials to clan history were erected. A petition was filed with the Court of the Lord Lyon to recognize a MacRae Chief. Because the two branches of the MacRaes (the house of Conchra and the house of Inverinate) could not agree, the title of Chief has remained vacant for 90 years. Only when the leading representatives of the MacRaes agree will a Chief be recognized. The house of Conchra has long been recognized by the Clan MacRae Society of North America as the proper chief. The current head of Conchra is the Baroness Miranda MacRae Van Lyndon. The legal struggle continues but appears close to resolution.

Following the failure of the 1719 Jacobite Rebellion in which all the fighting was restricted to Eilean Donan Castle and Glen Shiel, Lord Seaforth, head of Clan MacKenzie, had his lands forfeited to the crown, including the lands tenanted by the MacRaes in Kintail. Taking no notice whatever of this decree, his chamberlain, continued to collect the rents and conveyed them to his master in exile in Europe. The Commissioners for the forfeited estates tried to demand payment of the rents for themselves, but their attempts to do so were frustrated by the wildness of the countryside and the opposition of the MacRaes. On one occasion, the Commissioners launched an armed attack, but their soldiers were driven off by the MacRaes after a skirmish in the mountains between Kintail and Glen Affric.

Seaforth was eventually pardoned in 1726 and his lands were bought back for his son. Although nurturing Jacobite sympathies, the son had perhaps learned a lesson from his father’s period of exile and forbade his people from joining the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Despite this, a few MacRaes did join Bonnie Prince Charlie’s forces.

In July 1746, in the wake of the disaster at Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie and some companions passed through Kintail, having slipped through the cordon of redcoats closing in to trap him. They rested for a day in Glen Shiel in the shelter of a great boulder which can still be seen today, on the north side of the river, about a mile east of Achnangart. In the years after Culloden, when the wearing of tartan and other aspects of Highland life were proscribed, many of the men of Kintail emigrated to America. Many others enlisted in the British Army, but were not honourably treated.

In a census prepared in 1793, all of the inhabitants of Kintail were MacRaes except for two or three families. It appears that the clan system in Kintail at that time was as strong as anywhere in the Highlands. When Boswell and Johnson had visited Glen Shiel just a few years earlier, they found primitive conditions. Boswell described it thus: We sat down on a green turf seat at the end of a house, and they brought us out two wooden dishes of milk. We had there in a circle all about us men, women and children, all MacRaes, Lord Seaforth’s people. Not one of them could speak English. I said to Mr. Johnson that it was the same as being with a tribe of Indians. "Yes," said he, "but not so terrifying." I gave all who chose it snuff and tobacco. I also gave each person a bit of wheat-bread, which they had never tasted. I then gave a penny apiece to each child."

Today, the area remains one of the most scenic in Scotland and Eilean Donan is one of the best known and most photographed castles in the Highlands. Today, the heart of Kintail, including the series of mountain peaks known as the Five Sisters of Kintail, is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

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