The Captain of Dunstaffnage

James Lloyd visits the wild and hoary coast of Argyle, with a story about how no one ever went wrong sucking up to the government.

I want you to meet the Most High, Noble and Puisant Prince Torquhil Ian Campbell, thirteenth and sixth Duke of Argyle, Marquess of Kintyre and Lorne, Earl of Argyle, Earl Campbell and Cowall, Viscount Lochow and Glenyla, Lord Campbell, Lord Lorne, Lord Kintyre, Lord Inverary, Mull, Mover and Tiry, Baron Hamilton and Hameldon, Baron Sundridge, Baronet of Lundie, Master of the Royal Household in Scotland, High Justiciar of Argyle, Admiral of the Western Isles, High Sheriff of Argyle, Keeper of the Royal Castles of Carrick, Dunoon, Dunstaffnage, Sween and Tarbert, Chief of the Clan, Name and Arms of Campbell and MacCailein Mór.

Fit that on a cheque.

The story of how the Duke acquired his numerous titles could fill a series of blogs (and perhaps it will) but for the now the key to His Grace’s success can be summed up with one word: Sycophancy. Ever since they first emerged from obscurity in the thirteenth century, the Campbells have been notorious amongst Scottish clans as the least trustworthy of men, being depended upon only to stab one in the back. Their sole loyalty has been to the Crown – and quite right too but, in medieval Scotland, that made them relatively unusual, especially in the islands and crinkly edges of the western coast, the territory of the perpetually rebellious MacDonalds and their allies.

It was against this background that the Campbells were able to carve out a niche for themselves as the Crown’s hereditary hired goons, beating up their revolting neighbours (not always waiting for the King’s order to do so) and being rewarded with their lands. Hence the opprobrium in which the Clan Campbell is proverbially held in Scotland. Hence also their Chief’s fabulous wealth and name-tag-busting cavalcade of titles.

Dunstaffnage Castle, a quadrangular ruin on the peninsula at the mouth of Loch Etive, is an excellent example of their acquisitive success story. The site is believed to have been a fortress of the Dal Riata, the predecessor state of the Kingdom of Scotland but the oldest parts of the current site were begun by Duncan MacDougall, Lord of Lorne, in the first half of the thirteenth century.

This was a period of on/off war between Scotland and its ancient enemy Norway (yes, England, Scotland did have a life outside you) and the people of the Hebrides switched sides with the weather. The MacDougalls and the MacDonalds (who dominated the Isles) were both descended from Somerled, a half-Irish, half-Norwegian potentate who ruled the Hebridean islands as a vassal of the King of Norway. Under the Treaty of Perth in 1266, King Magnus VI of Norway ceded sovereignty of the Hebrides to Alexander III of Scotland but the region remained rebellious.

The MacDougalls’ uncertain loyalties were exhibited again during the succession war between the House of Bruce and the House of Balliol. With Robert de Bruce (that is not a typo – he was “de”, not “the”, Bruce) in the ascendant, the independently-minded MacDougalls naturally sided with John Balliol and paid for it in 1309, when Bruce, whom the Campbells supported, captured Dunstaffnage Castle.

The Castle Courtyard

The Campbells’ intrepid exploration of the Royal Posterior continued. In 1453 Colin Campbell was made Earl of Argyle and in 1470, with the latest attempt by the MacDougalls to re-take Dunstaffnage Castle defeated, the Earl was appointed the Castle’s hereditary Keeper. He in turn delegated his duties to his cousin, who was given the title Captain. This office too was made hereditary.

Much would change over the following centuries but the Clan Campbell’s ability to identify the winning team and side with it remained consistent. In the sixteenth century, Scotland turned Protestant and the Campbells turned with it. In 1651, the Chief, now Marquess of Argyle, crowned Charles II, only to proclaim Oliver Cromwell Lord Protector two years later, for which the restored King had him executed in 1661. In 1692, the Campbells reaffirmed their loyalty to the victor when they obliged William II with the murder of thirty-eight MacDonalds (including women and children) in Glencoe, to punish their chieftain for swearing the oath of allegiance two days late. In 1701, Archibald Campbell, tenth Earl of Argyle, was raised to Duke. The Hanoverian Succession of 1714 again confused loyalties but the Campbells’ allegiance remained clear: Whoever was winning.

In the Jacobite Uprising of 1715, the Old Pretender, James Stewart (son of the deposed James VII) planned to land at Dunstaffnage and capture the Castle but he had not planned for the weather (oddly, considering this was Scotland) and the attack was relocated. During the Uprising of 1745, led by James’s son Charles, the Castle was garrisoned in expectation of a siege but, in the event, its only involvement was to serve as a temporary prison for Flora MacDonald, who, having deposited Bonnie Prince Charlie on Skye (whence he would escape to Rome and begin a new and, arguably, more successful career as a corpulent, syphilitic drunk) was sent down to London for trial, the last time that the MacDonalds’ congenital urge for rebellion put them on the wrong side of the Campbells. (The concerned reader will be relieved to learn that Flora was released from the Tower of London in 1747, before emigrating to America, where she would rally troops to fight for George III when the colonists rebelled – funny how things turn out.)

A fire in 1810 gutted much of the Castle but to this day the Captain of Dunstaffnage spends three nights of each year in his official residence in the gatehouse, the only part of the Castle that remains intact, in order to fulfil the requirements of his benefice. The twenty-second and current Captain, the Much Honoured Michael Campbell of Dunstaffnage, is so fond of the Castle that he spent his honeymoon there. To him, if not to the MacDonalds or MacDougalls, his ancestors’ rapacity and principle-free adherence to the right side of history may not have laid up for them treasure in heaven but it has certainly laid up treasure on earth.

The reader may be surprised by the slightly forthright tone of this blog, or even offended on the Clan Campbell’s behalf but let him be reassured that all the preceding froth was meant with filial love. Your humble author, despite his insufferably Welsh surname and louche Sassenach upbringing, is himself the grandson of a Campbell and some of those hereditary prejudices still run deep. To this day nothing in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth will induce the author to eat at a McDonald’s.

Photo credits: Dunstaffnage Castle (JThomas) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dunstaffnage Castle (Michael Garlick) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dunstaffnage Castle and Marina (Christopher Bruce) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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