THERE can be little doubt that, after the Stewarts, the mightiest and most influential of the Highland clans for centuries past has been Clan Campbell.

Described by John and Julia Keay in their Encyclopaedia of Scotland as “not perhaps the most popular Highland clan”, the Campbells have been at the forefront of Scottish affairs for more than 600 years and have succeeded down the centuries by having the remarkable attribute of being on the winning side most of the time, albeit the clan suffered grievous damage during some periods.

As ever with accounts of clans, I refer to the book The Great Historic Families of Scotland published by Dr James Taylor in 1889, and still relied on by historians as a valuable source book. He says of Clan Campbell: “Throughout their long career, the Campbells have always been staunch supporters of the cause which, whatever temporary reverses it might suffer, was sure to win in the end — the cause of the independence of Scotland against foreign aggression; the cause of Protestantism against Popery and of freedom against despotism. Hence, in spite of repeated forfeitures, and temporary ruin … their ancestral possessions have descended to their present owner comparatively unimpaired.”

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One terrible atrocity has tainted the Campbell name. The Massacre of Glencoe (below) in 1692 is nearly always viewed as a Campbell war crime against their great rivals the MacDonalds, but as I have shown in previous writings it was more of a state persecution than a clannish slaughter. The Campbell origins are the stuff of legend, and they have to be legendary and even mythical because as always with Scottish history there are precious few written records that survive from before the reign of Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century.

The National:

The Clan Campbell Society of North America’s website is a mine of information, not least about the history of the clan, and I am indebted to them for their excellent research. They happily admit that the myth of the Campbells being descended from King Arthur is exactly that – a myth.

Intriguingly, the website suggests a plausible origin of the Campbells in Dumbarton and surrounding area, as they may have been originally a Brythonic people and Dumbarton was, of course, the ancient capital of the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde.

The website states: “According to legend, here in An Talla Dearg, the Red Hall of Dun Briton, was born the first ancestor of the Campbells who appears in all three of the early Gaelic genealogies, Smervie or Mervyn, son of an Arthur, who became known as ‘the Wildman of the Woods’, perhaps being a notable hunter. If the legend is based upon a real character, he likely lived in the 11th or 12th century. However, those names at that period can have absolutely no actual connection with the legendary Arthur, whose possible existence is said to have been many centuries earlier.”

Taylor’s book cites ancient manuscripts for his account of the origin of the clan. He wrote: “In the ‘Black Book of Taymouth’, … it is stated that ‘Duncan Campbell, commonly called Duncan in Aa, Knight of Lochaw (lineallie descendit of a valiant man surnamit Cambell quha cam to Scotland in King Malcolm Kandmore his time, about the year of God 1067, of quhom came the house of Lochaw) flourished in King David Bruce his dayes. The foresaid Duncan begat twa sons, the elder callit Archibald, the other namit Colin, wha was first laird of Glenurchay.”

Translated, that reads: “Duncan Campbell, commonly called Duncan in Aa, Knight of Lochaw (lineal descendant of a valiant man surnamed Cambell who came to Scotland in the time of King Malcolm Canmore about 1067, of whom came the house of Lochaw) flourished in the time of King David Bruce. This Duncan had two sons, the elder called Archibald, the other named Colin who was first lord of Glenorchy.”

THIS is the other origin myth – that a man named Campo Bello, presumably from Italy, came to Scotland in the 1060s and set up home in the area around Loch Awe. Just not possible, really. Even less likely is their claimed descent from the Irish demi-god Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, hence the clan being termed the Seed or Sons of Diarmuid. The fact is that clan society in the Highlands did not really get started until the 12th and 13th centuries and the Campbells were among the first to get themselves organised. Apparently they got the name “cam beul”, which means crooked or curved mouth in Gaelic from Dugald, an early chief of the family at Loch Awe. The first Campbell on record was Gilleasbaig (Gillespie or Archibald) Campbell of Menstrie, whose name appears in a charter of King Alexander III in 1263.

It was his son Colin, Cailean Mór or Great Colin, who brought the Campbells to prominence, being knighted and given the lands at Loch Awe in the 1280s, these lands being the true ancestral homeland of the Campbells.

His mother, Afrag, was most probably of the Gaelic family of the Earls of Carrick and he was therefore a cousin of Robert the Bruce. Historical records attest to the fact that Cailean Mór was a supporter of the Bruces in the contest against the Balliols and Comyns for the throne of Scotland, the Great Cause, in the 1290s – he was named as one of the Bruce contingent who pleaded their cause to King Edward Longshanks.

Cailean Mór and the Campbells made enemies of one clan in particular – the MacDougalls. Some time after 1296, Great Colin was killed in a skirmish with the MacDougalls, the Battle of the Red Ford, but the Campbells got their revenge when they sided with Robert the Bruce and smashed the MacDougalls at the Battle of the Pass of Brander in 1308.

With Niall mac Cailean, the son of Great Colin – all Campbell chiefs are known by the honorific Mac Cailean Mór – at their head, the Campbells fought against the English at Bannockburn. Niall was rewarded for his loyalty to King Robert by being given the hand in marriage of the king’s sister Mary, by whom he had a son, Iain.

Niall had two sons from his previous marriage, Colin Og and Dugald, the latter being named Sheriff of Argyll. The Campbells then supported King David II In his eventually successful campaign to rid Scotland of Edward Balliol, would-be usurper of the throne. Royal grants plus intermarriage with other notable families greatly expanded Campbell lands and influence and by 1445 the Campbell chief Duncan was officially a lord. His son became the first Earl of Argyll in 1457, and from then on, the name Campbell was never far from the activities of royal courts and the earls usually held the title of Chancellor.

The clan was also amassing tremendous assets across Scotland. Through marriage and sheer financial power, whole areas came into their possession so that at one time their small empire stretched through Argyll, Cowal, Perthshire, Fife and Aberdeenshire, with another tranche in Ayrshire.

TAYLOR describes the rise of Clan Campbell in Argyll: “Beginning as simple lairds of Lochaw, the chiefs of the race of Diarmid have, by dint of remarkable ability, shrewdness, energy, and good fortune, not only absorbed, one after another, the smaller clans of Lome and Kintyre – the M’Naughtons, who once were masters of those beautiful valleys through which the Aray and the Shiray flow to Loch Fyne, and the M’Alisters and the M’Fies – but have also ousted the once powerful clan Donald from the supremacy which they long held in the Western Islands.”

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It was all too much for one single family and Clan Campbell developed several branches such as the Campbells of Breadalbane, though the chieftainship always remained with the Argyll heads of the family whose seat was at Inveraray. One of their rare reversals of fortune came when the 2nd Earl fell at the side of King James IV at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. His son, the 3rd Earl, was made Master of the Royal Household, a hereditary title.

Under the chieftainship of the 4th Earl, Archibald, the clan converted to the Protestant cause, reportedly after John Knox himself preached to them. The 5th Earl was heavily involved in the many intrigues surrounding Mary, Queen of Scots, and changed sides several times, though he eventually was her army commander at the Battle of Langside that ended Mary’s time in Scotland.

It was the 8th Earl, Archibald, who took the Campbells to unprecedented heights of power. He was still in his early 20s when he was given control over all Campbell assets, which continued to expand. The feud with the MacGregor clan had seen them outlawed and their lands given to the Campbells, while they also gained more territory from Clan Donald.

Archibald became a leading Covenanter and King Charles I tried to win him over by making him the first Marquess of Argyll. The Marquess was not persuaded, however, and in the war of the Three Kingdoms he took up arms against the royalist forces in Scotland led by the Marquess of Montrose.

On February 2, 1645, the Campbells were virtually annihilated by Montrose’s men at the Battle of Inverlochy. After Cromwell’s victory, the Marquess had the satisfaction of seeing Montrose led to his execution in Edinburgh in 1651, only for Argyll himself to suffer the same fate in 1661 after the Restoration of the Monarchy.

His son Archibald, the 9th Earl, was famous at first for an incident when he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. He had been sentenced to death or treason but realising how unpopular Argyll’s execution would make him, King Charles II had him imprisoned. On December 20, 1681, Archibald’s stepdaughter Sophia Lindsay came to see him at the Castle accompanied by her page in a wig and bandaged face. She left with Argyll in the same disguise, and her floods of tears were so convincing no-one would challenge them.

Fleeing to the Continent, Argyll returned in 1685 after the accession of James VII and II, bringing 300 men to start what became known as the Argyll Rising. It ended in abject failure, as did the Monmouth Rebellion in England, and, like his father, Argyll was executed by the Scottish form of the guillotine, the Maiden. On the scaffold he is reported to have said she was the sweetest maiden he had ever kissed.

His son, the 10th Earl, managed to survive the ignominy visited on the clan by their role in the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, and for his staunch support of the usurpers William and Mary he was made a Duke in 1701.

Successive Dukes of Argyll became successful soldiers and politicians, and their alliance with the Hanoverian Government was a major reason for the failure of the Jacobite Risings – the 2nd Duke was the Hanoverian army commander at the indecisive Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715.

There are simply too many renowned members of the clan to detail them all here. Even as their landed possessions have diminished through sheer economic necessity, the Dukes of Argyll have continued to lead Clan Campbell with distinction. The only real hint of scandal was in 1963 when Margaret, then Duchess of Argyll, was infamously pictured indulging in a sex act with an unknown man.

The present clan chief, the 35th, is Torquhil Ian Campbell, the 13th Duke of Argyll. The clan seat remains Inveraray Castle.