The Clan

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A look at one of Scotland's great Clans.

By James Irvine Robertson

Just off the west coast of the island of Mull lies Ulva, the Isle of Wolves in the language of the Vikings, who said they found an empty island when they first landed there. They created the Norse Kingdom of the Isles, which was conquered by Somerled in the mid twelfth century. One of his close collaborators was Airbertach who descended from the House of Lorne, Kenneth MacAlpin, the first king of Scotland, and the kindred of St Columba. It does not get much grander than that. Somerled's kingdom did not long survive his death and the Lordship of the Isles emerged, dominated by his descendants Clan Donald. But Airbertach's kin – Macmillans, Mackinnons, Maclennans – also got a slice of the action. One of his grandsons was Guaire and he is the name father of Clan MacQuarrie.

The Sons of Donald supported Robert Bruce in the War of Independence and they emerged as the new Lords of the Isles with the MacQuarries high on their Council. The chiefs were part of the ancient aristocracy of the Isles and buried at Reilig Odhrain on Iona alongside 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings. The clan was at the battle of Harlaw – Bloody Harlaw – in 1411 and at Inverlochy in 1431, when the Hebridean army beat the forces of the King. In 1462 the Lord of the Isles signed a treaty with Edward IV of England in which the monarch agreed to support the Lord of the Isles in a venture to take over the entire country north of the river Forth, so long as homage for the territory was made to the English king. When this was exposed, James III annexed the lordship and its mainland territories and the Hebrides descended into internecine warfare before James IV finally ended the Lordship in 1493. The Macleans of Duart had emerged over the preceding half century as the leading clan on Mull. The MacQuarries were their close allies and five successive chiefs married into the clan.

To this period belongs the story of the famous pirate of the Island seas, Alan a Sop. Alan's mother later married Maclean of Torloisk on the western coast of Mull opposite Ulva. Torloisk treated his stepson badly, and on one occasion thrust into his hands a burning cake which his mother was baking for him, so that he fled from the house. Years afterwards, having become the chief of a pirate flotilla, and hearing his mother was dead, he returned to avenge himself on his cruel stepfather. The crafty Torloisk, however, received him well, and, gaining his goodwill, suggested that he should attack and slay Macquarie of Ulva, and seize that island. By this means he hoped to get rid of Macquarie, against whom he had a grudge. The Chief of Ulva, however, also received Alan hospitably, and when the latter, on leaving, said the hospitality had cost him dear, and confessed what his errand had been, Macquarie turned the tables on his enemy, Torloisk, by reminding Alan of the incident of the burning cake, and suggesting this as a proper object of vengeance. Thereupon the pirate returned to Mull, brained Torloisk with a battle-axe as he came down the beach to hear of Macquarie’s death, and took possession of his estate.

During the British Civil Wars of the mid 17th century, the MacQuarries and the MacLeans fought for the Royalists. They were alongside Montrose when he trounced the Campbells at Inverlochy in 1645 and went on to victories at the battles of Kilsyth and Auldearn. The MacQuarries defended the stronghold of Castle Duart when the Campbells attacked in 1646, but suffered a disastrous reverse at the battle of Inverkeithing in 1651 when the Royalists were defeated by Cromwell's New Model Army, which went on to subjugate Scotland. The Scots army was forced to retreat, but the Mull men stood their ground and fought to the end. Maclean historians state that they lost 750 men, including the Maclean chief and Alan, chief of the MacQuarries.

The clan was involved in the first Jacobite Rising in 1689, but the subsequent domination of Mull by the Campbells meant that the chief is listed in 1715 among those who 'kept at home though prepared to join the rebels'. MacQuarries were at Culloden, fighting in Clanranald's regiment.

The last chief of the clan, Lachlan MacQuarrie, was the most famous. He lived on Ulva most of his life, had a couple of wives, mismanaged his lands and had to sell them, joined the army when he was 62, fought in America, survived on a Lieutenant's half pay of £40 for thirty years and died aged 103. Ulva was the gateway to Staffa for the rich aesthetes of the romantic revival. There were no inns and the sprinkling of local gentry was expected to give them free accommodation. Dr Johnson and Boswell dropped by in 1773.

The chief was saved from absolute penury by a kinsman, the most distinguished and famous member of the clan. Born on Ulva, Lachlan Macquarie rose to the rank of major-general and was appointed Governor of New South Wales. He has been described as the 'Father of Australia' and his tomb on Mull is looked after by the National Trust of Australia. His influence won officers' commissions for two of the chief's sons as well as half a dozen other clan members. He and his brother bought extensive estates on Mull, gave a home to the old chief and even managed to repurchase Ulva in 1825 some fifty years after it had been sold.

But Ulva was sold again and again. The highest recorded population of the island was 604 in 1837. But the collapse of the kelp industry meant the collapse of the economy of the Highlands and this was followed by potato blight. Ulva's population fell to 150 within a few years, cleared by its owner trying to make money from sheep rather than tenant farmers.

The MacQuarries joined the Highland diaspora that so enriched the New Worlds.