Ian and Blanche

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1.1.2 Eilean Donan

Eilean Donan Castle in Wester Ross in the Highlands of ScotlandEilean Donan means Donan’s Isle, named for the sixth-century missionary St. Donan from the Inner Hebrides island of Iona. It is an ideal location for a castle, lying as it does at the intersection of Loch Duich and the contiguous estuaries Loch Alsh and Loch Long. Or as more colorfully described in the ballad "The Brave MacRa":

Where the western sea divides
On a small and rocky Isle
Flow Loch Long’s treacherous tides,
And Loch Duich’s depths beguile.

The origins of the castle are shrouded in mystery.  According to legend it was built by Alexander II of Scotland (about 1200 AD) as a defense against the incursions of Danes and Norsemen.  In 1266 the king granted a deed of possession to "Colino Hibernico," Colin Fitzgerald, for defeating Haco, King of Norway, in a battle at Eilean Donan in 1263.  The descendants of Colino took the family name MacKenzie.

The MacRas discharged their duties as keepers of the castle most dramatically on an occasion when Seaforth, lord of Kintail, was away at battle:

Kintail’s High Chieftain forth had gone
With belted plaid and burnished spear,
Against the Saxon, leaving none
To guard his island castle here.

Leaving none, that is, except the acting Constable, Duncan McRa, and two other clansmen, to fight off a sneak attack by an overwhelming force of MacDonalds led by an experienced warrior, Donald Gorm of Sleat.

A skilled archer, Duncan loosed arrow after arrow upon the attackers, striking down several.  But when his quiver was almost empty and the enemy still battered at the gate, he knew that his only chance to save the castle lay in scoring a mortal hit on the MacDonalds’ leader.  He waited at his vantage point at the loophole in the corner of the hexagonal well tower, in the hope that the wily Donald Gorm might show himself as a target.  Duncan’s chance came and he shot off his last arrow—to hit the chieftain not in the heart, as he’d aimed, but in the foot.   However, fortune smiled upon the Sons of Good Fortune; in a hasty attempt to pull out the barbed arrowhead, Donald severed an artery and the attackers withdrew with their chieftain dying from loss of blood.

The rest of the story of the MacRa stronghold can be understood against the backdrop of history.

Like most of the Highland Scots, the MacRas were opposed to the unification of Scotland with England and Wales.  Even after unification was formalized in the 1707 Act of Union, they continued to follow Seaforth in supporting the Scottish House of Stuart’s ultimately unsuccessful claim to the British crown.  Seaforth had meanwhile joined an alliance of Scottish, French and Spanish forces against the Hanoverian king of England.

In the 1715 Jacobite uprising inspired by the Old Pretender, James Stuart (James VIII of Scotland), the MacRas under Seaforth suffered a defeat at Sheriffmuir with the loss of 58 men.  The English claimed the castle and installed a garrison of 30 soldiers.

This was a dark time for the MacKenzies and their supporters, but as illustrated by the following story they were by no means abjectly subservient to the invaders.

The English soldiers, finding Eilean Donan castle uncomfortably chilly, ordered the people to supply them with sufficient firewood to heat the castle through the winter.   The Scots were outraged at what they saw as an unreasonable demand, and they sent a representative group of ten men to protest.  The English commander appeared at the meeting backed by the entire company of soldiers armed with muskets.  Angry words were exchanged, and the commander gave the order to shoot.  But before the soldiers could level their weapons the Scotsmen sprang upon the English with dirks drawn, killing all but one of them.

The castle being vacant, Seaforth put it at the disposal of his Spanish allies, and they established a garrison there.  Meanwhile the MacRas under Seaforth, joined by Rob Roy MacGregor and his followers, established a military position opposite Eilean Donan.

The Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain responded in force in 1719.   Three warships bombarded Eilean Donan, the Spaniards surrendered, and the old castle, rallying place of the MacRas, was blown up by gunpowder and reduced to ruins.

Eilean Donan Castle in Wester Ross in the Highlands of ScotlandBut wait—the story of the castle has a happy ending.  In 1913, Lt.-Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap purchased Eilean Donan and started restoring the castle to its state before the bombardment of 1719.  The restored castle has been open to the public since 1928.

Continue reading: 1.1.3 Restless feet


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1. Ian McRae (1904-1975) Background and Youth (-1929)

1.1 Scottish Origins

1.1.1 A Clan ‘til Death

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