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Clan Donald Genealogical Chart

We recently took part in a podcast for XpoNorth and Museum and Heritage Highlands' new project "Highland Objects", which celebrates the weird and wonderful objects that can be found around the north of Scotland. We nominated our fantastic Clan Donald Genealogical Chart - you can listen to the podcast here or read a transcript below!

Compiled in 1814 by John Brown, genealogist to the Prince of Wales, it is a beautifully written and illustrated chart depicting both the ancient Kings of Scotland and the Lords of the Isles. It has obviously been really thoroughly researched, and in fact, John Brown has included an extensive list of sources used. Each name featured includes a short fact, for example how they died or who they married, and other information is depicted by images – a crown represents a sovereign prince, shaking hands show a marriage between branches and a baton sinister denotes illegitimacy.

At the very base of the tree, in the trunk, is Crynan/Crinan. He was Thane of Dull and the Western Isles at the beginning of the 11th Century, and is essentially the link between the Scottish Kings and the independent Lords of the Isles. Crinan married Princess Bethoc, or Beatrix, daughter of King Malcolm II and here the tree breaks into two branches: one following their older son King Duncan I and his descendants, the House of Dunkeld or Canmore, and the other following the other son, Donald, and leading to Somerled and eventually splitting into the various branches of Clan Donald.

Those are some famous names, and in fact the tree features some of the most significant figures in Scottish history. Crinan’s oldest son King Duncan I, was perhaps most famous for featuring in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. His entry on the tree reads: “he was a mild, good and virtuous prince, but was traitorously murdered by his cousin Macbeth in the castle of Forres in the sixth year of his reign”. Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s most famous King, also appears as he was a descendant of Duncan’s grandson King David I, or Saint David.

On the Donald side, I’ve already mentioned Somerled, the half-Celtic, half-Norse warrior who is remembered for breaking the Norse hold on parts of Western Scotland and the Hebrides and for creating his own Kingdom which remained independent from Scottish rule until 1493. His grandson Donald gave his name to Clan Donald. Also featured is Angus Mor, who provided safe refuge for Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Scottish Independence after he murdered his rival to the throne, and MacIain – the 12th Chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe who was murdered during the infamous Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. Flora MacDonald, probably one of the most well-known MacDonalds of all time, also appears. Her entry reads: “This lady is famous for the protection she afforded to Prince Charles after his defeat at Culloden”.

We often see trees depicting the Royal families – in fact, John Brown himself created another family tree of the Royal Family of Scotland – but what I think is really significant about this tree is that it acknowledges the independence of the Lords of the Isles alongside the Scottish Kings, and in doing so almost holds them to the same importance. It is, however, difficult to gauge exactly how accurate it is; there are some names or family relationships that aren’t consistent with what we know from other sources, and if you look closely there is evidence that all is maybe not as it seems. The baton sinister, which I previously mentioned as denoting illegitimacy, appears across two of the main branches of Clan Donald, Sleat and Clanranald. To understand what this means, you have to be aware of what was happening within Clan Donald at this point in history. In the early 1800s, the three main branches of Clan Donald, the MacDonalds of Sleat and Clanranald and the McDonnells of Glengarry, were fighting over their claims to the overall chiefship of Clan Donald, and yet here our chart seems to suggest that actually Glengarry had the only legitimate claim. Interestingly, John Brown accused Glengarry of removing his original plate from the engravers and making his own changes, presumably in order to raise the significance of his own family over the other MacDonald branches. So, the chart is perhaps not a fully accurate historical record of Clan Donald, but it is still significant in the context of what was going on in that period in history, in that it gives us a glimpse of how the clan was divided and the power struggles that were at play following the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493 up to the 19th century and beyond.

Unfortunately, we don’t have records of how or when the chart was donated to the museum. However, the museum had close ties to Clan Donald in its early days through a lady called Jean MacDonald-Clarke, who was a direct descendant of MacIain and the Glencoe Chiefs and the museum’s first patron. Many of our most significant Jacobite and MacDonald objects came to us through her, including a bible belonging to the MacDonald Chiefs and a chair belonging to Bonnie Prince Charlie, so it is very possible that’s how we acquired this family tree as well, particularly if it had been in the possession of a member of Clan Donald.

I know of another two in existence: one was bought at auction by a private collector a few years ago, and the other is held in the National Records of Scotland, but it is very likely that there are others out there and obviously we’d be interested to hear about them! It would have been printed from an engraved lithograph plate and then coloured by hand. Photos of other existing copies show that it was quite colourful – each nameplate was yellow, the crowns were a bright red and the leaves and vines were green – but unfortunately the colour in ours has faded over time, likely from exposure to light (although if I’m being entirely honest, I actually prefer ours to the coloured versions). It was also damaged by smoke and water in 1984 when an arsonist set fire to our thatched roof. It underwent conservation in 1993, at which time it was restored to the condition it is in today, framed and sealed to prevent damage from fluctuations in environmental conditions, and protected by UV film to avoid further fading.

The tree has been on display in the museum since its restoration, but due to its size it has been high up on the wall and not accessible to visitors. This year we brought it down to ground level in our main building as part of a new Clan Donald display. Obviously, circumstances have meant that nobody has been able to visit it yet, so it will remain there for the foreseeable future. We’ve been posting small sections of it online, but we can’t wait for people to be able to come and see it for themselves!

Make sure you check out Highland Objects to hear about other amazing objects from museums around the Highlands!

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