MacDougall McCallum Foundation Scholarship report 2012
By Douglas McDougal
I spent from August 6, to August 26, 2012, in Oban as this year’s recipient of the MacDougall – McCallum Heritage Foundation Scholarship. My desire to make an extended trip to Oban and its environs was stoked by a trip I took to Scotland the preceding summer with my wife and two daughters. In the space of a week we explored Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Arts Festival, toured the Highlands by bus, and finished with an hour-long visit to Oban. At the first sight of Dunollie Castle, I felt as if I were coming home after a long absence. It was truly a wonderful feeling to stand within its walls with my family, knowing that people bearing our name had called it home for hundreds of years.
That visit ended much too soon, and there was much more I wished to see and do. In my application to the MacDougall – McCallum Heritage Foundation, I listed a few of them. Of course I wanted to meet our clan chief and her family and deliver greetings from my own kin, who arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1762. I wanted to see the isles of Mull, Iona, Lismore and Kerrera, to explore the castles of Gylen and Dunstaffnage, and to visit Kilbride Cemetery and Ardchattan Priory. I also had in mind to see if I could find any trace of my immigrant ancestor. Though I did not find his trail, I did learn some tantalizing facts that I hope to follow up on.
In preparation for this trip I read the account by Walter MacDougall of Journeying through MacDougall Country, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in the history of our clan. The lyrical account of his travels in Argyll and the islands is backed up by thorough research into historical accounts as well as Clan lore and family legend. He also includes a considerable amount of information about the flora and fauna of the region.
I was accompanied on this trip by my wife, Pat, who was very supportive of my desire to explore the environs of Oban and learn the history of our Clan. Many thanks are also due to Margaret Carasik and the MacDougall-McCallum Heritage Foundation for making this trip possible.
Arrival in Scotland
We arrived in Glasgow at 7:30 am on the morning of 7 August and caught the shuttle to Queen Street Station. The train trip from Glasgow to Oban was uneventful except for the beauty of the scenery and the pleasantness of the company. We sat across from two teachers, one a Scot and one German, who were on their way to holiday in the in the western Isles. The train winds its way along the shores of Loch Awe and through the Pass of Brander, site of so much glory and tragedy in the history of the clan. In Oban, we shared a whiskey with our new friends before they rushed off to catch their ferry.
Chance encounters such as this and new friendships were a constant theme of this trip. Wherever we went we met strangers that quickly became friends and contributed so much to our enjoyment of the trip and our appreciation for the country.
We had rented an apartment at the King’s Arms on George Street, overlooking Oban harbor. The view was fantastic! The west-facing window presented a beautiful sunset over the isles of Kerrera, Mull and Morvern. There were two bedrooms. The main room included a well-equipped kitchen, a dining area and a comfortable sitting area with television. We made a quick trip to Tesco for provisions, and then I went for a walk along the harbor so I could see Dunollie by night.
From its perch above the strait that separates the isle of Kerrera from the Scottish mainland, Dunollie keeps a protective watch over the harbor as it has since it was built by Ewan, the third chief of Clan Dougal. While it may have looked imposing and threatening to would-be invaders in the past, in its present state it seems to me a humble and homey presence. Thus assured that Dunollie still stands, I went back to the apartment and collapsed after a long, long day.
In the morning, we walked to Dunollie House to see if we could make ourselves useful. We were warmly greeted by Mary, the facilities manager, Elaine, the archivist and Robin MacDougall, son of Morag, the Chief of Clan MacDougall. We knew that Catherine Gillies, the project manager with whom we had corresponded before our arrival in Oban, was away visiting her parents. Dunollie House had not been open to the public on our visit the previous year. Now just one year later, several rooms had been renovated to house a small portion of Hope MacDougal’s extensive collection. We were extremely glad to find that Dunollie House and the Hope MacDougall collection of artifacts from rural Scottish life were in such good and capable hands. I understand that since our visit, work has proceeded apace and that more space has been made available in the North Wing of the house for display of the Hope MacDougall collection.
In the afternoon, we returned to town and took a small ferry to the northern end of the isle of Kerrera. We walked through farmers’ fields and saw lots of sheep and Highland cows. After our long walk we stopped into the Waypoint Restaurant for a dinner of homemade carrot soup, grilled oysters and a salad. I must say that this was the first time we had tasted Oban’s fine sea food, but it certainly was not the last. Delicious sea food was another recurring theme that made our stay in Oban memorable. We both agree that we have never tasted mussels so delicious, so clean and so well prepared as those we enjoyed in Oban.
Sight-seeing in the Western Isles
On Thursday, August 9, we took the early morning excursion to the isles of Mull, Iona and Staffa. We caught the 7:45 a.m. ferry from Oban to the isle of Mull, which lies just west of Kerrera. A bus, operated by Bowman’s tours, took us across the isle of Mull to the town of Fionnphort, a ride of about an hour and a half. Unfortunately, the early morning bus is mostly occupied by workmen with jobs on the island, so there is no narration by the driver to fill us in on the history and culture of the island. However, there is plenty of scenery, dominated by Ben Mor, a 3000 foot tall volcanic mountain.
At Fionnphort, we boarded a small boat for the isle of Staffa. On the way we saw seals and the dorsal fins of basking sharks which are plentiful in those waters. Staffa is a small island formed of lava that once poured from Mull’s huge volcano. When the lava cooled, it solidified into vertical hexagonal pillars of basalt. The island is the site of Fingall’s cave where the action of the waves has carved an immense cavern in the island’s cliffs. Felix Mendelssohn was inspired by the acoustics of the cave to write his Hebrides Overture.
From Staffa we continued to the isle of Iona, site of Scotland’s first Christian settlement, founded by Saint Columba in 563 A.D. We spent 3 hours roaming the grounds of the abbey, which is the burial site of many Scottish kings, including MacBeth.
In the Heart of MacDougall Country
On Saturday, August 11, we accomplished another of my goals when we visited Dunstaffnage Castle. I should point out that all of our travels in the region were accomplished by public transportation, with only slight inconvenience.
At Dunstaffnage we got our first glimpse of the power that Clan MacDougall once held. Where Dunollie seems a homey refuge, Dunstaffnage has the appearance of a seat of government and military power. Strategically situated where Loch Etive joins Loch Linnhe at the entrance to the Great Glen, it controls the outlet to the sea and the entrance to the heartland of the MacDougall holdings on the isle of Britain. Now in the hands of Clan Campbell, headed by the Duke of Argyll, it can be reached by public bus. Even in its present state, it is still impressive, with its massive walls and large courtyard.
The chapel, located a short walk from the castle is an idyllic architectural gem. This was the site of the “Murder at the Chapel” in 1460 of John Stewart, Lord of Lorne by Allan MacCoul, leader of a renegade faction of the MacDougall Clan. The murder occurred as Sir John was on his way to be married in order to legitimize his son Dugald and secure succession of the Lordship of Lorne to Dugald. Sir John survived the attack but succumbed to his wounds soon after the conclusion of the marriage ceremony. HYPERLINK “http://www.macdougall.org/chiefs.html” http://www.macdougall.org/chiefs.html
On Sunday, August 12, we took an early sightseeing bus to the Town of Elllenabeich on Seil Island, once the site of a flourishing slate industry. It was known as “the town that roofed the world.” The slate quarries are still visible, but now unusable because they filled with seawater in a storm early in the 20th century. Seil Island is separated from the mainland by a thin channel of the Atlantic which is traversed by the Clachan Bridge, popularly known as “the Bridge over the Atlantic.” It is a beautiful one-lane bridge with a semicircular arch, built in 1793. From Ellenabeich one can take a ferry for the short hop to Easdale Island, once a slate quarrying town, now a picturesque village of about 60 people.
We returned to Oban by the same bus and decided to explore the south end of Kerrera. Since the ferry for Kerrera lay to the south of Oban down a winding one-lane road without a sidewalk, we took a taxi to the ferry. When we landed on Kerrera, we followed a twisted path through farms and sheep pastures, past the Parrot Sanctuary (Parrot Sanctuary?) to the Tea Garden, where we enjoyed some delicious carrot cake, and on to Gylen Castle. This little jewel box of a castle, situated on a cliff on the south end of the island, overlooks the southern access to the town of Oban.
On Monday, August 13, we journeyed about 30 miles south of Oban to Kilmartin Glen, the site of Dunadd, the capital of the 6th century kingdom of Dalriada. There is a fascinating museum devoted to the history of the ancient peoples who lived here, and a one-mile walk through the glen allows the visitor to explore burial cairns, standing stones and stone circles. The Kilmartin Churchyard contains some 10th century crosses and medieval grave slabs.
We returned to Oban in time for a late afternoon tour of the Oban distillery, built in 1794. This entertaining tour includes a sample of the product, a smoky, 14-year-old single malt with a hint of sea salt and orange.
Back Home to Dumollie
On Tuesday we returned to Dunollie house for tea with our chief, Madame Morag MacDougall of MacDougall and Dunollie. We were joined by her husband Richard, an avid canoeist and kayaker and their son Robin, whom we had met previously. Madame MacDougall was a gracious hostess, and we were assured that she extended an invitation to all clan members who found their way to Dunollie. She gave us a tour of the house, every corner of which contains some curious memento of family history. There were a number of stuffed animals on display, including a wild boar and an albino peacock that had once been a pet at Dunollie. Curios from the Far East are in abundance, collected by the 25th chief, Sir John of Dunollie, R.N., K.C.B, during his service with the Navy. In an upper room is a portrait of Sir John, depicted wearing a beautiful five-piece suit of plaid adorned by the Brooch of Lorne. The suit itself is on display nearby. Other portraits, of Sir John’s wife, and of the three sisters Colleen, Hope and Collina adorn the walls, along with one of Morag.
Afterwards we went down to the reading room and spent the afternoon organizing the Hope McDougal Library. Many volumes relating to Scottish History, rural life in Scotland, arts and crafts, antiques and much more.
The next day we took a ferry to the Island of Lismore. Lismore lies to the north of Oban at the mouth of Loch Linnhe. It is approximately 10 miles long and no more than 1 mile wide at its widest part. It has a population of about 180. The island is named for its lush green vegetation which is the result of its limestone-rich soil.
There is much to see on Lismore, and the main items of interest are widely separated. In addition, there is no public transportation, and the last ferry back to Oban departs at 6:15 on weekdays. Accordingly, if you visit Lismore, I recommend you take a bicycle or call ahead to rent one.
Lismore is the site of an ancient stone defensive structure known as a broch. The broch provided the residents with a place of refuge in the event of attacks from the sea. It is visible in the distance from the ferry landing at Achnacroish. From there it certainly looks impressive: a large, circular stone structure poised on the crest of a seaside promontory and looking like the mouth of an extinct volcano.
From the ferry landing we headed to the Visitor Center. The museum contains a wealth of artifacts and archival documentation pertaining to the island donated by Liosachs (residents of Lismore) from the distant past to the present. A database of genealogical information exists and is being updated as information becomes available. There we met Barbara MacDougall, who gave us directions to Coeffin Castle. After much wandering through farmers’ fields, we arrived at the Castle. Even as a ruin, Coeffin is an impressive sight! As usual, the MacDougalls sited their castle on a cliff beside the sea. The walls are massive and enclose a rather large space. Together with Dunstaffnage on the British mainland, it guarded the entrance to the Great Glen. The strategic location of these two castles, as well as the fact that the cathedral of Argyll was situated on Lismore is evidence of the importance of the Loch Linnhe region to the MacDougall holdings.
On Thursday, August 16, we reported to Dunollie House for training in cataloguing the archives. Here we met eight dedicated local volunteers who help out at Dunollie House. Training was sponsored by the McDougall Society of North America and conducted by Kirsty Stewart of the Edinburgh University Library. Together we spent the day learning the science of archiving, looking through a box of 19th century documents.
Pat’s allergies were acting up, so she requested some outside work. She was put to work ridding the grounds of Dunollie castle from the ravages of an invasive non-native species. In short – pulling weeds. This is more important than it sounds. Dunollie is home to a unique collection of plants brought from all over the world by the sea-faring members of the Clan. They have all been catalogued; many of them are medicinal; some are poisonous. One of them, known as Indian Balsam has overrun the grounds and is crowding out the other vegetation. Since it has a relatively shallow root system there is little to hold the soil together when it dies back in the winter. The plant produces large numbers of seeds in pods that ‘explode’ on touch scattering them over a wide area which allows the plant to spread quickly.
On Friday the 17th I checked in at Dunollie House and was given boxes of documents dated from 1700 to 1720 to practice what I had learned in the archiving session. One thing led to another and soon I was holding in my hands the marriage contract of Iain Ciar. I also read some correspondence between him and his wife written during the time of his exile.
On Saturday August 18, we made the pilgrimage to Ardchattan Priory, final resting place of Dougal, his son Duncan, his brother Alan and his father Somerled, the patriarch of both the MacDougall and the MacDonald clans. Also on view at the priory is the MacDougall cross, said to be one of the oldest sculptures in Scotland that bears the name of the sculptor. After hitching a ride back to Oban with a lovely couple from London, we decided to climb Pulpit Hill for a different view of the harbor. On the way, we were hailed by a resident who invited us in for tea. We sat and talked with her for about an hour, then finished our climb.
On Sunday, we explored the Kilbride churchyard, the burial place of MacDougall clan chiefs. This was the only site that was inaccessible to public transportation. So we took a cab from the train station, and quickly arrived at our goal. There we found the grave of Iain Ciar, the 22nd chief, said to be the first to be buried at Kilbride, the author of the correspondence that I had found so touching. We also found the more recent graves of 29th Chief Alexander James MacDougall, the father of Hope (of the Hope MacDougall collection at the 1745 House), Jean (mother of Morag the current chief) and Coline (the 30th chief) MacDougall.
We meet Catherine Gillies and Margaret Carasik
In the afternoon, we returned to Dunollie to meet Catherine Gillies, the project manager of Dunollie, who is a wealth of information about the Clan and its history. We learned that she had originally been contacted by Hope MacDougall, who solicited her help in cataloguing her collection of artifacts of rural Scottish life. From that beginning, and with the encouragement of Madame Morag MacDougall, she expanded the scope of the project to include the present display facilities and the preservation of Dunollie Castle. She was also instrumental in producing some of the historical displays at Lismore Heritage Center.
We were especially pleased to meet Margaret Carasik, a board member of the MacDougall McCallum Heritage Foundation, who became a dear friend, with whom we spent many a delightful hour during the remainder of our visit.
Preparations at Dunollie
On Monday, August 20, we spent the day at Dunollie assisting in preparations for a Hog Roast and a performance of MacBeth by the Walking Theatre to be held at Dunollie at the time of the Argyllshire Highland games. Together with Margaret, we laminated posters and hung them in various places around town, we also distributed flyers to coffee shops, and the ferry, bus and train terminals. I wheeled bark mulch and placed it in the muddy spots on the path up to the castle.
On Tuesday we continued with the preparations for the big weekend, pulling weeds and wheeling bark mulch. Unfortunately, we would miss Friday’s events because we needed to leave for home early that day. Catherine gave us a tour of the castle grounds and pointed out some of the exotic plants. It sounded like a class from Harry Potter: feverfew and woundwort abound, and hemlock grows within the courtyard walls.
On Wednesday, Pat and Margaret went into town to distribute more flyers, while I stayed behind to help Catherine search the archives for documents for a BBC documentary about Oban. I specifically was told to research the relation of Dunollie to the town. I found references to the arrival of the railroad in Oban, the tobacco trade, and the establishment of the Oban distillery.
The Highland Games
Thursday, August 23, was the grand conclusion of our stay in Oban: the Highland games. The festivities began that morning with a parade from Argyll Square to the athletic field. The march was preceded by a pipe band of about 20 pipers, all in full Highland regalia, and each in a different tartan. Then followed the landed gentry, similarly clad, led by the Duke of Argyll. Among them was our own Chief, Morag, wearing the eagle feather as a badge of her rank and accompanied by Richard and Robin. It was a wonderful day, with foot races, a demonstration of dogs herding ducks, a bagpipe competition, sheaf tossing and, of course, hammer, stone and caber tossing. One feature of the day was a Scottish dance competition. This was a world-class event with dancers from all over the world, including a Catherine McDougal from Campbelltown (!)¸ California. Kudos to our chief and her family who lent their support to our clansman, for the entire afternoon. At this time we also were pleased to meet Morag and Richard’s daughter, Fiona and her family, including her two beautiful daughters.
The next morning we began our homeward journey. I was pleased that we had accomplished most of our goals. We had visited the two most sacred shrines of the MacDougall Clan: Kilbride and Ardchattan; we had seen the castles of Dunollie, Dunstaffnage, Gylen and Coeffin. We had visited the isles of Mull, Iona, Staffa and Lismore. We had contributed our own small effort to maintaining Dunollie as a place where Clan heritage is preserved. But undoubtedly the best part of the trip was the friendships we formed with the wonderful people we had met. Thanks be to the staff of Dunollie House: Catherine, Mary, Elaine, Tara, and Angus for the good work they do on behalf of Dunollie House and the Hope MacDougall Collection. Thanks also to Robin for his efforts in furtherance of the work of the staff. We all are indebted to Madam Morag MacDougall and Richard for their support, guidance and care in the preservation of the history of their family and our Clan. Foremost in our hearts is the gratitude Pat and I bear to Margaret Carasik and the MacDougall-McCallum Heritage Foundation for making our visit to Oban possible, and to Margaret herself whose presence was such a great part of our time in Oban.