The Chief of Clan Donald
recorded by John Dye

M. G. 1 Vol 559 No 222

29 King St,
Truro, N.S.

Feb 11th, 1952

The Editor, The Casket,
Dear Sir:
Several years ago when my friend Charlie Macgillivray was living, I used to contribute occasionally an article or so on Highland history. I do not know if the Casket now publishes articles of that sort, but in case you do I am enclosing a short one on the matter of the chief of the MacDona1ds. If you do not think it worth publishing, please return it to me. My articles, including sketches on the Clanranalds in 1935, were published under the pen name of "Mac Ian".

Yours truly

Colin S. Macdona1d


On May 1st, 1947, The Lord Lyon King at Arms, of Edinburgh Scotland, gave judgement in respect of a petition presented by the Right Honourable Alexander Godfrey MacDonald, (Lord MacDonald), M.B.E., of Skye, Scotland. Along other points, the decision declared Lord MacDonald to be the chief representative of Clan Donald. As is well known, there has been no officially declared and widely accepted chief of this ancient and powerful family for centuries. In fact, one may say that since the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles about 1476, there has been no chief. The last Lord of the Isles was John MacDonald, whose direct line failed, and the decision of the Lord Lyon above referred to declares that the clan chief or representative should be Lord MacDonald who is senior in direct male descent from Hugh (or Huisdein) MacDonald of Sleat, a natural brother of the last Lord of the Isles.

The Clan Donald were for centuries the chief opponents in the North and West of Scotland of the Lowland government, or in other words, were the chief proponents of the Highland and Celtic way of life. The long struggle between Celt and Saxon ended with the collapse of the rising of 1745, and this practically meant the end of the clan system, for the heritable jurisdiction of the chiefs were abolished, the Highland garb was proscribed, and no arms were allowed to be held by Highlanders. Profound changes took place, chief of which was the emigration abroad from 1770 onwards of many thousands of clansmen, and in the case of the Clan Donald, chiefly from those branches of the clan which had supported the
Jacobite rising.

Though controversy arose since then from time to time over the matter of the chiefship of Clan Donald, the matter was never brought up officially before the Lord Lyon until this was done by Lord MacDonald's petition, already referred to. In 1910, the chieftains of the three main branches of the clan, Sleat, Glengarry and Clanranald signed an agreement whereby though no one of them abandoned his claim to the chiefship, it was jointly agreed that on any occasion when the chieftains, or more than one of them were present at a formal dinner or meeting, the question of precedence was to be settled by the toss of a coin, but for that occasion only. The action of Lord MacDonald, and the decision of the Lord Lyon do away with the tri-partite agreement.

Under Scottish law, the court of the Lord Lyon has supreme authority in matters of heraldry and genealogical rights, but it may be that there are some other angles from which the matter of t the chiefship could be considered. In ancient times, Clan Donald inhabited parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and constituted for centuries a more or less homogeneous body, united usually in struggles against the Lowlanders and other clans, and this was so to a large extent even after the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles and in fact right down to about the year 1700. The struggles and divisions caused by the reformation had occurred meantime, and while the Sleat MacDonalds, (Clan Huisdein), became Protestants, the other branches such as Clanranald, Glengarry and Keppoch adhered for the most part to the old faith.
Realistically speaking, it would seem that acceptance of a supreme chief by the chieftains of the various clan branches should properly be obtained. In olden times, when the clan system was operative, it was not extremely rare that chieftains or chiefs were elected by the chief men of the tribe. The one elected would not necessarily be the senior in male descent, but would be of the old original family from which came the chieftains. One such case I can quote readily because the reference happens to be on my desk; the election of MacGregor of Balhaldie to be chief of Clan Alpin, circa 1710. Some similar instances occurred in various branches of Clan Donald.

The most of the Clanranald, Glengarry and Keppoch folk emigrated abroad, and descendants are scattered around the world, so it may be said that it is now impossible for a chief to be elected by the leading men. And that is true, and probably it was one of the reasons which led to the execution of the agreement of 1910.

In the Jacobite rising of 1745, the Glengarry, Clanranald and Keppoch men were out for Prince Charlie, and the result was that after Culloden, they were exposed to all sorts of tribulation. But the Sleat MacDonalds held aloof until things were going against the Jacobites, and then formed some armed parties which helped the Lowland soldiers in rounding up the Jacobite fugitives. Whether for this fact or for the difference in religion, it seems that since 1745, the three Jacobite branches of the Clan have not felt a close connection with Clan Huisdein. This last branch of the clan prospered by reason of taking the Government side in 1745 and 1746 and the Sleat chieftain was shortly afterwards rewarded with an Irish peerage.
Taking all the circumstances into consideration, there are some who will think that it might have been better if the matter of naming a chief had not been placed before the courts. The Glengarry and Clanranald branches could have put in claims of their own. Nevertheless, the time was certainly propitious for a Sleat claim, for there is no recognized Clanranald chieftain since the last one died about 1944, and he owned no property in the Highlands. As to Glengarry, I know the Highland property has been sold but cannot say who is the present chieftain. At all events, no representatives of these two clan branches appeared and gave evidence before or made representations to the lord Lyon, and the latter would have to decide on the evidence before him.

John Dye