by Cass and Deborah Wright
Night in Mid-Autumn falls swift and deep over the sere and savage landscape of Rannoch Moor; long, long are the shadows, crook’d as old bones, and strong roll the echoes, the wind shrilling like unto the knell of fifty dying souls!
Fergus tried not to dwell on such, as he trudged resolutely twixt the hummocks and the burns, the gnarled stumps and the murky ravines, wishing he’d returned along the road by which he’d driven the cattle to market at Fort William, but his home and hearth waited in Mallaig, and he so yearned to be hame!
An hour before moonrise, Fergus felt the shape come up behind him, and every hair sprang erect on his head. He strove to hush the hammering of his heart. Its breath was charnel on Fergus’ shoulder as it asked: “Thu coisich ri Dachaigh?”
“I spake not o’ the auld tongue.” Fergus replied, though ‘twere a lie, for he knew full well it had asked him if he were headed home. “Nae bother, Friend,” hissed the thing that strode with him, “I ken the Saxon speech . . . walking for home, be you?”
“No, just stretching me shanks,” replied Fergus; he’d have liked to whistle, but his mouth was parched sore dry with fear. “Come” urges the dread companion, “nae need tae walk, for I can carry ye, whe’ver bound!” So, a kelpie!, thinks Fergus, a daemon horse o’ the high moors!
“Only tell me where yer hame be, Man, and ye can ride me soft unto yer bed!”
Och, aye, thinks Fergus, so she can hunt in the night for me wife and bairns, after she’s gnawed me ain poor heart!
“Aye, guid, then,” says Fergus, “I’ve a map to me croft drawn right here, on this square o’ wool.”
And with that, Fergus pulled his hand from out his pocket and pressed the object into the horrible, grasping black talons of the thing at his elbow . . . but no scrap of wool that, but an Eye of Brigid, all woven from colored yarn to a wee cross of yew, and dedicated to the woman who was the Matron Saint of all Gaels.
And then did the Moors echo thunderously with the tortured scream of the hissing, gnashing, writhing kelpie, as she roared into a great purging ball of flame . . . and vanished in a rasping spray of black ash upon the wind . . .
“Ha!” sighed Fergus mightily, turning up his collar against the rising chill, hands yet trembling, “yon dread beestie should ne’er ha’e stalked a man o’ the Clan MacMillan!”
Few families of Scotland can claim to have occupied more widely varied and remote regions of the country than the far-roaming MacMillans. There are many theories on the details of their origin, but the most popular belief is that they are descendants of the mighty Siol O’Cain, a Pictish tribe of Moray whose history stretches back beyond the Dark Ages.
The name MacMillan is, undeniably, monastic in origin, probably from Mac Gillem-haoil , whose source means “Son of the Tonsured servant,” broadly suggesting a descent from a pre-Medieval line of Celtic abbots.
An Gillemaol, himself a priest of some historical note, lived near Elgin in the year 1132, where he was listed as one of the witnesses in the Book of Deer, the oldest of all Scottish archives. A stronger version of that reasoning brings along the following path: In that era, the Columban church permitted their priests, indeed all of their clergy, to marry, such being a long tradition among early Celtic churchmen; but this was a way of life that came under fire from the cultural reformation sought by the court of the Canmore, as Queen Margaret pressured her new subjects to conform to the edicts of the papacy in Rome.
Her son, Alexander I, attempted to quell the two factions during his reign, by appointing a Columban priest named Cormac as the new Bishop of Dunkeld. Among Cormac’s own several sons was an adventurous young cleric known as Gille Chriosd (“disciple of Christ”), and it was this historical figure who is generally considered to be the progenitor of Clan MacMillan,” the name deriving from the tonsured hair of priests in remembrance of St John, whose name in Medieval Gaelic appears as Mhaoil-Iain, and thus renders, over time, into MacMillan.
Many family historians also point out that the MacMillans were, for several generations, closely related to Clan Buchanan, due to evidence of a MacMillan ancestor named Methlan, a younger son of Anselan, 7th chief of the Buchanans, who flourished in the early 1200s. Their original home was at Lawers, which can be found on the north shore of Loch Tay, in the shadow of hunched and brooding Ben Lawers. Lamentably, these clansmen were driven away in the 1300s by the Chalmerses, having obtained a charter to those same lands from David I, but who were later forfeit of them, for their involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate James I, during his Christmas holiday at Blackfriars Abbey.
The MacMillan chief who had been so expelled from Lawers allegedly had no less than ten sons, some of whom became the progenitors of the line known as the Ardournags, as well as other families in Breadalbane; but their chief relocated to Argyll, from whence he obtained lands in Knapdale from the MacDonald Lord of the Isles, and thereby became known to most as MacMillan of Knap. This MacMillan is widely believed to have had his charter engraved in Gaelic on the top of a mossy boulder at the boundary of his land, a fascinating inscription that can still be visited today.
By marriages, the MacMillans increased their holdings in Knapdale, most notably with an heiress of Hector MacNeill, a maiden named Erca, thereby coming into considerable importance in the district. One of the towers of Sweyn Castle is known as MacMillan’s Tower, and in the old kirkyard of Kilmorie Knap, where the chapel was built by the MacMillan chief, stands a cross over twelve-feet high, richly sculptured with foliage, and picturing a Highland chief hunting deer, with an inscription to “Alexandri Macmillan.”
From an earlier time, a branch of the Clan had settled elsewhere; the reason for this being the tale of the stranger known as Marallach More, who settled in Knapdale, and by his overbearing disposition made himself especially hostile to one of the Chief’s sons, who lived at Kilchamag. The affair came to open aggression, and finally, in a mortal duel, MacMillan killed his adversary, but as a result, had to leave the district.
With only a half-dozen followers he resettled to Lochaber, where he secured the protection of Cameron of Lochiel, being granted residence on lands beside Loch Arkaig. Another story claims the early seat of the MacMillans was on both sides of Loch Arkaig; and that, on Lochaber being granted to the Lord of the Isles, the clan became servitors to the MacDonald of Isla; and further, when the Camerons seized possession of the area, the MacMillans became, perforce, their tenants.. This claim, though, is found debatable in that Macmillan of Knap was widely recognized as Chief of the Clan.
And not unknown to the Kings of the Scots were the MacMillans, as when Robert the Bruce himself, fleeing the early wrath of the Comyns, after the death of their John the Red, took refuge with the MacMillans, sheltered specifically by their chief Maolmuire, in his home on Ben Lawer. In point of fact, when the Bruce chose to depart that haven, the chief’s brother, Gilbert went with him, and was still in his company when he fought at Bannockburn, leading many of his own clansmen. Those kin are descended in modern times to the MacMillans of Brockloch, based mostly in Galloway.
Among the legends widely known and cherished by the MacMillans of Knapdale is the tale of Gillespie Ban. That particular individual, while attending a seasonal fair, became engaged in a quarrel with a personage of great local importance, and following a short but fierce struggle, slew the man in the passion of the moment. Fleeing the scene of his crime, he struck out overland, and managed to reach Inveraray Castle, where, still endeavoring to elude capture, he rushed in, barging his way to the common ovens of the Earl of Argyll’s great kitchen.
Finding the cooks there busily engaged in baking, Gillespie swiftly clad himself in an apron, and so disguised, began kneading and flouring the barley bannocks he found set out on the room’s long boards. Being engaged therewith when his pursuers came bursting through the castle’s kitchens, he was mistaken for merely a simple domestic in service to the Earl’s general staff. The time thus won by this ruse allowed for a “calp” (a restitution for a felony) to be arranged by his relations for payment to the kin of the slain man, and so Gillespie was free to live thereafter in peace.
Some time later, Gillespie settled himself and his family in Glendaruel, where his descendants were known, in commemoration of the facts of that quaint escape, by the surname of MacBacster, or “sons of the baker.”
Today, many folks from farther up that tree, adorn their mailboxes with names like “Baxter”, “Bakerson” or even “McBaker.”
The MacMillans in Lochaber, dwelt in Muir Laggan, Glen Spean, and Caillie. Their militia was reckoned at 100 fighting men, and they were held to be among the most loyal followers of Lochiel, who made use of them often in his most critical enterprises. In the 1600s, trouble arose betwixt them and a sept of the Camerons, commonly called the MacGhilleonies; in a pitched battle with twelve of them, one MacMillan was killed . . a detail which many a Cameron has found to be dubiously apocryphal, ever since.
But the tale does go on to say, that fearing blood vengeance, those dozen MacGhilleonies fled to the fastness of the hills, hoping to hide there until their foes, the MacMillans, could be appeased. The MacMillans, however, demanded their right to pursue their adversaries outright, purportedly warning Lochiel, Chief of the Camerons, that if his permission to do so was not given, they would unleash their dire wrath on all within the offending sept.
Offering no defense for his judgment, Lochiel granted his leave, and thereby did the MacMillans set off hunting their quarry, howling their way through the hills like foaming furies. The result of this great route, was that, with no loss of life to any MacMillan combatant, though many had fallen wounded, all twelve MacGhilleonies were overtaken, and either captured, or slain.
Despite decades of severe encroachment by the Campbell Earls, MacMillan of Knap was still hailed as Chief of the Clan when his line expired in 1665; the title passed to the Dunmore branch, and from them to the Lagalgarve branch, where it is still vested.
After the chiefship passed from the House of Knap (or: “Chnap” as it is still rendered for the MacMillan battle standard), to the younger line of the MacMillans of Dunmore, a unique example may be seen of the Clan’s fervent devotion to their new Protestant roots, when chieftain John MacMillan of Murlaggan challenged Prince Charles Edward Stuart at Glenfinnan to renounce his Catholic faith, or lose the support of the MacMillans.
Murlaggan’s own sons refuted the vanity of such an ultimatum, and led a company of their clansmen under Lochiel’s banner; sadly, the massacre on Culloden Moor left Murlaggan’s estates on Loch Tarbert entirely without heirs.
Following the massacre, a cousin, Donald MacMillan of Tulloch, was promised protection and clemency by the Duke of Cumberland in exchange for the surrender of his men, but, to the surprise of few, in retrospect, they were instead transported to the Caribbean as convict labor, without benefit of trial.
But even the immolation of Jacobite glory could not long suppress the MacMillan spirit of adventure, and though the House of Dunmore wavered out, the Clan survived through the Lagalgarve MacMillans. William Macmillan, a career military man of that final line, served as captain of marines under Admiral Horatio Nelson on the flagship HMS Victory, and his great-grandson rose to the lofty office of Governor of Edinburgh Castle.
Whether crossing a haunted moor in the highlands, or daring the inferno of fugitive ovens, the MacMillans, ever raise high their swords!