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Clan Campbell and Clan MacDonald - The Great Feud

Memories run long in the highlands of Scotland and, we've heard tell, the bitterness between Clans Campbell and MacDonald continues to this day.

The clash between these two ancient Celtic houses, which has lasted for hundreds of years, is not just about lands, religion, Jacobitism, or even betrayal. Rather, it is about power.

The Clan Donald traces its roots to the great 12th century Gaelic-Norse warrior king, Somerled. His name meant "summer wanderer" and was the name given to the Vikings, who at that time controlled much of the western Isles. Somerled defeated them, adding their territories to his own lands in Argyll. Reginald, his son, styled himself King of the Isles, while his son, Donald of Islay, gave his name to the clan.

When Robert the Bruce fought for his crown, the MacDonald chief unfortunately chose to support the Comyn. Losing his life, and his son's as well, a brother, Angus Og, threw his support to Bruce, and thereby gained the clan lands and titles. This appears to be the only intelligent political move the MacDonald's made for about 500 hundred years.

The MacDonald's later rebelled against the house of Bruce, temporarily losing their lands. In 1344, however, the chief (John) was reinstated and began to style himself "Lord of the Isles", a sobriquet steeped in romance and wonder. Unfortunately, each of the succeeding Lords of the Isles rebelled against their king, often in cahoots with the English kings.

Flora MacDonald - Hid Prince Charlie during the '45They sought an independent Highland kingdom and bitterly resented paying fealty to lowland Scots. They had been kings and wished to be kings still. Yet, they were completely unsuccessful and there were only four acknowledged Lords of the Isles, followed by a pretender or two, before that particular MacDonald line failed. By the late 1500s, the Lordship of the Isles and the glory of the MacDonalds was a thing of the past.

There are several MacDonald septs - the Sleat MacDonalds, descendants of the Lords of the Isles; MacDonald of Glencoe (known as MacIan); the Clan Ranald branch, descended from a younger son of John, first Lord of the Isles; Macdonell of Glengarry; and Macdonell of Keppoch.

In setting themselves against the kings of Scotland, seeking always the ultimate power in the land, the MacDonalds ensured that their power would wan and their lands diminish. Much of this was accomplished by the Campbells - who sought their power and wealth through cooperation with the Scottish kings, rather than opposition.

Clan Campbell is as ancient a Celtic family as the MacDonalds, though their historical records are inaccessible before their rise to prominence. The Campbells trace their ancestry through Sir Colin Mor Campbell of Lochow, killed in 1294. In English, their name is Clan Dairmid. The surname Campbell is attributed to the gaelic nickname for one of their chiefs, cam-beul, meaning a wry or twisted mouth (perhaps called that by the MacDonalds!).

The Campbells supported Bruce and have been supporting the rightful (or presently sitting) Scottish monarchs ever since, to the great aggrandizement of their lands and influence. Rather than seek independence as the MacDonalds did, the Campbells cooperated with the ruling powers, becoming their eyes, arms and legs in the west. When a Scottish king needed help to put down the MacDonalds or other troublesome clans, the Campbells were there to do the job. As a reward, forfeited lands came into their possession.

The Campbell lands lie in Argyll (once ruled by Somerled). By the 16th century, the chiefs were Earls of Argyll, and these days (and for some time past) there has been a Duke of Argyll, the 9th of whom married a daughter of Queen Victoria.

The Campbells enjoy a reputation as the "bad guys" in Highland history, deserved or not. No doubt much of it is because they were the winners in the Scottish struggles for power and dominance. The truth is, many Campbell chiefs acted out of conviction as much as for gain, particularly in the religious warfare of the 17th century and in the Jacobite risings. Because they were Protestant, while most highlanders were Catholic, they were bound to end up fighting for the other (winning) side.

Still, there were times when the Campbells crossed the line between the usual highland rivalry and outright abuse of highland tradition and mores. Many small clans were virtually annihilated by the Campbells and their persecution of the MacGregors, in particular, leaves a stench behind (see our MacGregor page for more on this).

Most importantly, the attitude of all Highlanders coalsced into a loathing for the Campbell clan after the massacre at Glencoe in 1692. While it was not only Campbell soldiers who participated, nor their commander, Sir Robert Campbell, who initiated the order to commit genocide on the MacDonalds of Glen Coe (the MacIan and his family), there was certainly complicity and willingness.

What inflamed the Highlanders was the flagrant and inexcusable abuse of the highland tradition of hospitality. After quartering his men in the villages of Glen Coe for two weeks, the anticipated order arrived to: "fall upon the M'Donalds of Glencoe and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have special care that the old fox (the MacIan) and his sons do upon no account escape..." Miraculously, two sons and a grandson did escape. All told, 38 men, women and children were murdered, with many more freezing or starving in the hills where they fled (this was in February, during a snowstorm).

Throughout the centuries, the Campbells have played their cards very well, gaining lands, titles and fortunes, making them one of the wealthiest and most influential noble families in Britain. The MacDonalds lost the material prizes, but have maintained their standing at the heart of highland culture and tradition. Both clans have produced many famous men and women who have provided capable, intelligent, and courageous leadership to the Scots and to the British Empire.

Whether your name is MacDonald or Campbell, there is much family history in which to take pride and inspiration.

Read more about it in The Great Feud : The Campbells & the MacDonalds by Oliver Thomson.

I am indebted to Charles MacKinnon and his wonderful book, Scottish Highlanders, for much of the information in this article. This book is out of print, but may be available used.

Some famous MacDonalds:

George MacDonald (1824-1905) - author, influencer of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) - British Prime Minister
Sir John Alexander MacDonald (1815-1891) - First Prime Minister of Canada
Flora MacDonald (1722-1790) - Highland royalist, hid the Prince

Some famous Campbells:

Sir Colin Campbell (1792-1863) - Commanded the Highland Brigade at Balaclava and was Commander-in-Chief during the Indian Mutiny (he took the Campbell name from his mother; he was born a MacLiver)
Joseph Campbell - Cofounder of Campbell Soup Company
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) - British Prime Minister
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) - world famous mythologist and author

The Great Feud - Campbells and MacDonalds
The Great Feud : The Campbells & the MacDonalds

By Oliver Thomson
Entertaining, if not always perfectly accurate, telling of the legendary feud - right into the 20th century. Lots of pictures and lists of famous Campbells and MacDonalds.

Clan Donald
Clan Donald

By Donald J. MacDonald
Very comprehensive history of Clan Donald from it's earliest founding by Somerled, first Lord of the Isles over 800 years ago up until around 1900. While 100 years old, this is still the classic history.

A History of Clan Campbell
A History of Clan Campbell

By Alastair Campbell of Airds
First of the three volumes on the history of Argyll and Clan Campbell by a well-respected Campbell archivist and historian.

The Lords of the Isles: A History of Clan Donald
The Lords of the Isles: A History of Clan Donald

By Raymond Paterson
From the legends of Somerled through the height of MacDonald power, to their defeat at Culloden, this is a marvelous history of the MacDonalds and the Lords of the Isles.