IN this, the penultimate column in a short series on the Highland clans, I will be concentrating on Clan Cameron.

I will show how this mighty family was almost an archetype of clanship in that it arose from one territory in the Highlands, became a recognised clan in the 14th and 15th centuries, followed the “rules” and culture of a clan, fought with their neighbours a lot, and suffered great depredations in the aftermath of Culloden and the Clearances but survives today with thriving associations in Scotland, England, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Like some of the other clans I have featured in this series, the origins of Clan Cameron are vague and frankly lost to the past as there was no contemporary written history of its formation. The name Cameron derives from the Gaelic for “crooked nose”, suggesting that one prominent individual – perhaps as far back as the 13th century – came to the fore in an existing clan and his descendants adopted his nickname and went their separate way from whichever family the original Cameron grew up in. According to one chronicler, that family could have been any of the clans in the confederation known as Clan Chattan – about whom more later.

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One manuscript of clan history printed in The Memoirs of Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel states: “The Camerons have a tradition among them that they were originally descended of a younger son of the Royal Family of Denmark, who assisted at the restoration of King Fergus II, anno 404. He was called Cameron from his crooked nose, as that word imports.” This would place the original Cameron in the Kingdom of Dalriada, which Fergus ruled over in the second half of the fifth century. Perhaps like other clans, the Camerons wanted to be linked back to ancient royalty, and none were greater than Fergus Mor, who some credit with being the founder of Scotland.

The historian and antiquarian William Forbes Skene (1809-1892) – author of The Highlanders of Scotland, Their Origin, History and Antiquities – suggests that “it is more probable that they were of the aborigines of the ancient Scots or Caledonians that first planted the country”. Skene quotes the chronicler John Major (Mair) writing in the 1520s saying he has “placed the matter beyond a doubt, for in mentioning on one occasion the Clan Chattan and the Clan Cameron, he says, ‘Hae tribus sunt consanguineae’. They, therefore, formed a part of the extensive tribe of Moray, and followed the chief of that race until the tribe became broken up”. Unfortunately for Skene, there is simply no evidence for his contentions of a shared ancestry for the Camerons and the Chattan confederacy.

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Another theory is that the clan had its origins in the Cambrune or Camburn family, three of whose members signed the Ragman Roll pledging loyalty to King Edward I of England (above) in the 1290s. That is certainly possible, because a Sir John de Cameron is mentioned in church documents in the 1250s.

Tradition has it that the Camerons fought for Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn and were rewarded by the king’s follower Angus Og, Lord of Islay, with the grant of lands in Lochaber. There is strong evidence for that theory because one of the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 translates from the original Latin as John Cameron. The clan was growing, with the Macgillonies and MacSorlies absorbed into their ranks while their lands expanded with the acquisition, possibly by marriage, of the Lochiel area. The Camerons of Lochiel would later become the principal officers of the clan which had three septs – the Camerons or MacMartins of Letterfinlay, the Camerons or MacGillonies of Strone, and the Camerons or MacSorlies of Glennevis.

YET they were still not recognised as a clan in their own right. That would only come after the extraordinary Battle of the North Inch in Perth in 1396. If the Camerons were indeed part of Clan Chattan, then they enjoyed fighting the other members, such as the Mackintoshes. In a period of conflict in the Highlands, probably in 1386, the Camerons raided the Badenoch lands of the Mackintoshes, whose chief Lachlan called out the Clan Chattan confederacy and engaged the Camerons at the Battle of Invernahavon. Clan Macpherson usually led the Chattan forces, but Lachlan Mackintosh wanted the glory for himself.

The Macphersons reportedly slunk away and the Camerons duly mauled the Mackintosh and Davidson remnant, only for the Macphersons to return and win a decisive victory over the Camerons. The fighting continued, and eventually in 1396 King Robert III decreed that 30 men from the Chattans against 30 men of the Camerons would fight it out on the North Inch island in the River Tay at Perth. We know this conflict definitely happened, because the court records showed the expenditure on the platform from which King Robert watched. Traditionally, only one Cameron remained alive against 11 of the Chattan clans, who were most probably Macphersons and Mackintoshes.

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The Camerons went home to Lochiel and asserted their independence as a clan. The most famous early chief of the clan was Donald Dubh – Black Donald – who fought alongside Donald, second Lord of the Isles, at the bloody Battle of Harlaw in 1411. At issue was the Earldom of Ross which had been claimed by Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, even though Donald of the Isles had a better claim. In 1429, when the royal army of King James I marched on the Lord of the Isles, tradition has it that Clan Cameron split, with the MacMartin Camerons going to Donald and the rest adhering to the king, including Donald Dubh. The MacMartins were scattered with some retreating to Ireland, while Donald Dubh reportedly married the heiress of MacMartin of Letterfinlay, uniting the clan under his unarguable chieftainship.

After James I put the new Lord of the Isles, Alexander, in prison, the latter’s followers rose up and mostly comprised of MacDonald forces, their army defeated the royal army – which included Clan Cameron – at the first Battle of Inverlochy in 1431. After James I was assassinated in 1437, Alexander wasted no time in taking his revenge on the Camerons, and one report has it that Donald Dubh had to flee to Ireland.

He was definitely back in Lochiel by 1440 as he led the clan at the Battle of Corpach to defend their territory against a land grab by the Macleans. Another clan which fancied capturing Cameron land was Clan Mackintosh, and the raiding and counter-raiding between them went on for many years.

SO far, so very much Highland clannish. Feuding with neighbouring clans, taking one side or other in national conflicts and civil wars, gaining lands and imposing the rule of the chief were all very much activities that clans conducted in the 14th to 16th centuries, and the Camerons were no different. They were also strong followers of the Stewart kings, and Ewen Cameron supplied a contingent of troops for King James IV at the fateful Battle of Flodden in 1513. Some Camerons fell, but the chief escaped, only to be executed for treason by the Earl of Huntly, the Lieutenant of the North, at Elgin in 1547.

The Camerons fought for Mary, Queen of Scots, and briefly backed a Catholic rebellion against Protestant forces, and at the time of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Clan Cameron was firmly on the royalist side. It is at this point that a mighty clan chief arose – Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, who led his men into action in the spring of 1652 at the age of just 22.

They joined the Earl of Glencairn’s royalist army and Ewen Cameron so distinguished himself in battle against Oliver Cromwell’s occupying forces that Charles II wrote to him from France to thank him for his courage. He would need every ounce of it, for at the Battle of Achdalieu in 1654, Lochiel was about to be killed by a redcoat officer when he jumped up and bit the man’s throat clean out of his body. “The sweetest bite ever”, said the chief.

Now based at Achnacarry Castle, the Camerons fought on the Jacobite side in the various Risings from 1689 onwards. John Cameron, the son of Sir Ewen, was exiled after the 1715 Rising and it was his young son Donald who became clan chief. He is famed in history as The Gentle Lochiel. In 1745, when Charles Edward Stuart came to Scotland, Lochiel at first refused to meet him but eventually went to the Bonnie Prince. Overcome by emotion, he pledged his clan’s full commitment to the cause.

After the astonishing victory at Prestonpans, in which the Camerons played a full part, the Jacobites took no reprisals against the redcoat troops or the people in Edinburgh who had supported the Hanoverian government. This was largely due to Lochiel’s insistence.

He was also very strong in insisting to the prince that the Jacobite army should not march south, but that he should stay in Edinburgh and reign over an independent Scotland. Charles had promised that his father’s restoration to the throne would see him end the Union.

After going all the way to Derby, the Jacobites retreated north of the Border and occupied Glasgow. Once again, Lochiel intervened and the Jacobite soldiers were warned not to pillage or loot the city. It is for that and his demand for no reprisals in Edinburgh that he became known as the Gentle Lochiel.

At the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Camerons attacked the powerful left flank of the Duke of Cumberland’s army and were cut to pieces. It is estimated that half of their 700 men were killed. Lochiel himself was badly wounded, both his ankles broken by grape shot, and had to be carried from the field.

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The Gentle Lochiel made it to France and died there in exile in 1748. Achnacarry Castle was burned to the ground by Cumberland’s rampaging redcoats but was subsequently re-built and is still the clan seat today. The Cameron lands were forfeited to the Government, but were restored to Donald Cameron, 22nd chief and grandson of the Gentle Lochiel, in 1787. Lochiel was just a boy at the time and a trust was set up to run the estates. It was at this time that a controversial conundrum emerged – should the Camerons of Lochaber and Lochiel stay in poverty and often famine, or take their chances by emigrating? The only other choice seemed to be service in the British Army, and over time, no fewer than four regiments would be founded by the likes of Sir Alan Cameron of Erracht and subsequent officers.

There is no doubt that deliberate clearances took place and that Camerons were forcibly evicted from their land, but accounts of the time speak of many Camerons choosing to go abroad. That’s why the clan is widespread, and many famous Camerons have been proud to carry their name: former prime minister David Cameron, space shuttle commander Kenneth Cameron, and Titanic director James Cameron to name but three.

Clan Cameron acknowledges the chieftainship of Donald Angus Cameron, who is the current Lord Lieutenant for Inverness until he retires on August 2. He is the 27th Lochiel, the name by which all Cameron chiefs are known.