The History of Clan MacLaren

A Review of The Documents & Historical Events That Define It

A Wee Bit More About Donald the Drover

There’s been a bit of controversy here and there as to whether Donald MacLaren was indeed a captain in the Appin Regiment or whether he belonged to a different regiment.  There is sufficient documentary evidence in my opinion to support the assertion that he was part of the Appin Regiment and not the Atholl Brigade as some have claimed.

First, an article in the Journal of the Society for Army Research – A. McK. Annand, ‘Stewart of Appin’s Regiment in the Army of Prince Charles Edward, 1745-46‘, (Vol. 38(153), 1960. Page 24 and Page 27).

The entry reads: “Whilst all the casualties suffered by the officers were amongst those with the surname of Stewart (with the exception of one MacLaren), of the remainder, 69 killed and 40 wounded bore other names….Of these the greatest number were MacColls with 18 killed and 15 wounded and MacLarens with 13 killed and 4 wounded”. The MacLarens who were killed and wounded, however, may have been residents in Appin so not Balquhidder. I have found no evidence to support their residency.

Listing of MacLaren and Stewart casualties at Culloden

Angus Stewart, in his article entitled ‘The Last Chief: Dougal Stewart of Appin‘, in The Scottish Historical Review, (Vol. 76(202), Edinburgh 1997, Footnote 41 on page 209): “There was a contingent of McLarens from Balquhidder with the Stewarts. This included Donald McLaren of Invernenty, listed as captain in the Order Book of the Appin Regiment and celebrated for an audacious escape from captivity in the aftermath of Culloden. An old blood tie is the usual reason given for the alliance, it may also be significant that Appin gave Invernenty credit and thereby acquired titled in 1748 as a secured creditor in the ranking of his creditors (service of heirs, SRO, C22/95/24)….”

This ties in nicely with a couple of things. First, the blood tie. Margaret MacLaren’s history of our clan and several Stewart family histories detail out the marriage between the daughter of the Chief of MacLarens of Ardveich and John Stewart. A previous liaison between the two had produced a son, Dugald. After John’s first wife died he sent for the MacLaren woman (whose first name I’m still searching to find) and Dugald (18 at the time) with the intent to marry her and declare Dugald his legitimate heir.  He had no male issue from his first marriage.

The powers that be in the Stewart clan weren’t too happy about this as they stood to lose any claim to the throne – so to speak. So they set about to have John killed. The idea being to see him dead before he could wed MacLaren and make his bastard son a legitimate heir.  So they set about hiring an assassin to stab John Stewart. Happily for MacLaren and son, John, in spite of life threatening injuries managed to hang on long enough to say ‘I do’ and declare Dugald his heir; basically dying at the alter. 

Unfortunately, at 18 and without a great deal of support, Dugald was unable to fend off his relatives and he was forced to relinquish his claim and departed for another part of Scotland where he went on to found the Appin Stewarts. 

That blood tie with the MacLarens was held and enforced across the centuries as the two clans went to each other’s aid when required. (See Henry Lee, History of the Stewart Family, New York: 1920, p. 36 onward and Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, p. 31)

This is nicely supported by Donald’s son, James, who sued the Stewart family after Dugald Stewarts’ death in an attempt to gain back the lands his father sold to Dugald after the uprising of ‘45. In his Memorial – which more or less equates to what we would call a deposition today – he says: “…He [Donald MacLaren] owed sundry debts to several persons, particularly to Dugald Stewart of Appin, who was his connection and confidential friend, who was a man of considerable influence in that part of the country, and who had taken the memorialist’s father, as being one of his followers, under his protection and friendship.” Here is a copy of that passage.  

Page from James MacLaren’s Memorial

Further, on page 142, listing number 2234 in the Prisoners of the ’45, Vol. III by Seton and Arnot, we find another reference to Donald MacLaren identifying him as a Captain in the Appin Regiment.

Listing of MacLaren as part of the Appin Stewart’s in the Prisoners of the ’45 book.

Finally, there is a listing in the Atholl Chronicles, Vol. III wherein Donald is listed, again, as a Captain in the Appin Regiment.  As these are the records of the Duke of Atholl it seems pretty unlikely that he would have written that MacLaren was an officer in the Appin Regiment if he was an officer in the Atholl Brigade.

Listing of Donald MacLaren from the Atholl Chronicles

All-in-all it looks to me that the preponderance of evidence strongly supports the argument that Donald was, in fact, an officer in the Appin Regiment during the course of the Jacobite uprising in 1745-46.

The Mermaids and MacLaren Heraldry

I’ve been asked about the presence of Mermaids on the Clan’s Coat of Arms.  Why mermaids?  Are they real representations of the some aspect of the clan or just a decoration that someone along the line thought looked nice.  The answer is: they are real representations of an aspect of the Clan.

First, let’s take a quick look at heraldry.  A Coat of Arms in Scotland only belongs to one individual. 1Alastair Campbell of Airds, West Highland Heraldry and The Lordship of the Isles, The Lordship of the Isles, Richard D. Oram, (ed), Vol. 68, 2014 p. 208.   In the case of the clans – any Scottish clan – the individual to whom the Coat of Arms belongs is the chief.  If the arms belong to a family name (as opposed to a clan name), then they belong to the head of that family. So although the MacLaren Coat of Arms belongs to our Chief Donald alone, it represents the rest of us as members of his clan.  Remember, the word ‘clann’ (with two n’s in the Gaelic language) is the Gaelic word for ‘children’.  Thus members of the clan can be considered to be the extended family of the chief. 

Heraldry can tell you a great deal about the individual, or in our case, Clan.  It can give you heritage information, origin information, virtues and moral values.  It can do this because each of the images that are part of a Coat of Arms are symbols representing something.  Even the way the images are laid out on the shield gives information.  As Alastair Campbell of Airds writes in his article on West Highland Heraldry: “And whatever critics may say, heraldry is intensely symbolic and allows its users to make statements which can be clearly recognisable and which can offer a valuable sidelight on history.” 2

For example, if we look at a couple of the clans from the isles, we see a Galley of the Isles (or Black Galley) and The Galley of Lorne symbols.  These go way back to the Isle of Man during the time of Somerled who is arguably the first of the Lords of the Isles in the 1100s, and who conquered the Isle of Man. 3W.D.H. Sellar, ‘The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45(140), 1966, p. 123  But going back even farther, we find that the galley symbol was also present on banners of Norse nobles.  So in Somerled’s case, this might well represent his connection with the Norse Lords. 4W.D.H. Sellar, ‘The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45(140), 1966, p. 123 and Ellis Caitlin, ‘Impressions of a Twelfth-Century Maritime Rule – Somerled: Viking Warrior, Clan Chieftain or Traitor to the Scottish King’, Northern Studies, Vol. 51 (2020), p. 3.  The MacDonalds, who are direct descendants of Somerled, display that historical relationship by the use of the galley on their Coat of Arms. 5Alastair Campbell of Airds, West Highland Heraldry and The Lordship of the Isles, The Lordship of the Isles, Richard D. Oram, (ed), Vol. 68, 2014 pp. 200-253

The MacLaren Coat of Arms has several symbols, including a galley, and you’ll find a comprehensive explanation of the MacLaren Arms in Chapter 11 The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran. 6Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, p. 130  But the ones we’ll discuss today are the mermaids; a symbol found on the Coats of Arms of other clans and families besides MacLaren, the Murrays for example.  So how did the mermaids come to be a part of our Clan’s heraldry?

The mermaids date back to the time of the Picts who were an independent pre-Roman people in Scotland until they were united with the Scots of Dalriadia by Kenneth McAlpin in around 843 AD. 7  To the Picts, the mermaid represented the Mother Spirit but they also have a variety of other attributes such as Eloquence and Strength. 8Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, p. I  No one is really sure, beyond the Pictish belief in the Mother Goddess, what any Pict symbol represents. But scholars have suggested that the mermaid, along with the comb and mirror, is representative of a female person as well as a relationship to the sea.

The mermaid symbols on the Clan MacLaren Coat of Arms represent the origins of the clan as it relates to the early people of Scotland.  But how do we more directly equate the early Picts with Clan Labhran? 

Well, it’s a little complicated but Strathearn and therefore Balquhidder was part of Fortrenn/Fortriu, a Pictish kingdom upon which the high-kingship of the Picts was based prior to the merging of the Pictish lands with those of Dalriada in the 9th century. What is now Perthshire was part of Fortriu and so the ancestral lands of the MacLarens were originally Pictish. 9C. Thomas Cairney, Ph.D., Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland – An Ethnography of the Gael a.d. 500-1750, Maryland: Heritage Books, (2006), p. 58 and Woolf, Alex, Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Georgraphy of the Picts, The Socttish Historical Review, Vol. LXXXV, 2 No. 220, (2006) pp 182-201 It could be suggested, then, that location plays a part in the presence of the mermaids.  

But so does hierarchy.  According to Margaret MacLaren when discussing the origins of the Clan and its relation to Pict mermaid symbology, “Even after the coming of Christianity she retained her symbolic importance in the minds of the people and when a Gaelic prince came over from Lorn and married their princess the mermaid survived as the tutelary emblem of the princess’s descendants, the Clan Labhran, whose Chiefs to this day, in token of their origin, bear mermaids as heraldic supporters for their Arms.” 10MacLaren, Margaret,The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, (1960) p. I

For further reading:

  • There’s a website which gives a lot of information on the Picts and seems quite comprehensive. (I can’t say how scholarly this site is.)
  • The Aberdeenshire Council page dedicated to the Pictish Symbol Stones

(For a fascinating video about Pictish symbols, have a look at this YouTube video:

  • 1
    Alastair Campbell of Airds, West Highland Heraldry and The Lordship of the Isles, The Lordship of the Isles, Richard D. Oram, (ed), Vol. 68, 2014 p. 208
  • 2
  • 3
    W.D.H. Sellar, ‘The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45(140), 1966, p. 123
  • 4
    W.D.H. Sellar, ‘The Origins and Ancestry of Somerled’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45(140), 1966, p. 123 and Ellis Caitlin, ‘Impressions of a Twelfth-Century Maritime Rule – Somerled: Viking Warrior, Clan Chieftain or Traitor to the Scottish King’, Northern Studies, Vol. 51 (2020), p. 3
  • 5
    Alastair Campbell of Airds, West Highland Heraldry and The Lordship of the Isles, The Lordship of the Isles, Richard D. Oram, (ed), Vol. 68, 2014 pp. 200-253
  • 6
    Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, p. 130
  • 7
  • 8
    Margaret MacLaren, The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, 1960, p. I
  • 9
    C. Thomas Cairney, Ph.D., Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland – An Ethnography of the Gael a.d. 500-1750, Maryland: Heritage Books, (2006), p. 58 and Woolf, Alex, Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Georgraphy of the Picts, The Socttish Historical Review, Vol. LXXXV, 2 No. 220, (2006) pp 182-201
  • 10
    MacLaren, Margaret,The MacLarens, A History of Clan Labhran, (1960) p. I

Donald the Drover

Donald was a Drover (cattleman) and a land owner in Invernenty.  He was also very close and good friends with the Appin Stewarts.  The relationship between the MacLarens and the Appin Stewarts goes back for centuries after a marriage that united the two families.

Many of you may be familiar with the story, Outlander.  If you are, you might see a correlation between Jamie Frazer and our own Donald MacLaren.  Donald, also known as Donald Mòr or Donald the Drover was a staunch supporter of the Jacobite cause and served as a Captain in the Appin Regiment of the Jacobite army in 1745-46.  Like Jamie, and several other men who served at Culloden, MacLaren was injured during the battle, captured, escaped and hid out in the remote hills near his home in Invernenty (Balquhidder) as he waited for a pardon from the King.

We can’t be sure of MacLaren’s reasoning for joining the Jacobite army, there was a wide variety of reasons why men and women supported the return of a Stuart to the throne.  Many were unhappy with economic and social affairs in the country, some were unhappy at the presence of a foreign, non-English speaking king as ruler, others simply believed that Charles Stuart was the rightful king. But it possible that MacLaren, with a group of his tenants, responded to a call to arms by Lord George Murray who wrote to him in the early part of 1746.

But unlike Outlander which portrayed the Jacobite army, at least Jamie’s part of it, as untrained farmers leaving us with the impression that the Jacobite army was a ragtag group of Highlanders charging blindly into battle.  The truth was quite the contrary.  The majority of the army, by the time they reached Culloden were well trained and armed with cannon, cavalry and foot soldiers. What they didn’t have, though, was enough food and clothing.

At Culloden, the Appin Regiment was assigned to the centre front line immediately to the left of Lord George Murray’s Atholl Brigade.  They were not alone in this position but in the company of the Frazers, MacIntoshes and several other clans.  After weathering a substantial cannon barrage, the order to charge was finally given and the MacIntoshes led the way with the Appin Regiment and the others close at their heels.  Donald, then, was very much in the thick of things leading his men into battle.

It’s not known how he left the field at Culloden, although records do show that he suffered an injury during the course of the battle.  So it was likely he would have been helped off the field by his fellow soldiers which probably saved his life.  And it was likely his injury was to a leg or foot as he is reported to have been seen on horseback leading men back toward Balquhidder. This certainly could point to an injury sufficient to prevent him from walking.  Injury notwithstanding, he made it to Balquhidder and disappeared. And it was a good thing that he did!

King George was determined to make examples of anyone found to be involved in any way with the uprising.  After all, the Jacobites had risen some 30 years before and a couple of times before that.  This time, though, they were far more of a serious threat and he decided enough was enough.  

As a result, the commander of his forces, the Duke of Cumberland, was dead set to capture and prosecute anyone even remotely suspected of supporting the Jacobite movement.  His patrols raided homes of suspected Jacobites, confiscating property and belongings, throwing people into the streets.  Anyone who so much as raised a toast to Prince Charles or had said something positive about the uprising was arrested.  Neighbours turned in neighbours or people they didn’t like.  Landlords were required to provide listings of all their tenants and any involvement or possible involvement by those people in the Jacobite movement.  Worse yet, there were priests under the control of Cumberland and his agents who made lists and noted which of their parishioners they believed to be a Jacobite or had political leanings in that direction.  There were spies everywhere!!

Thankfully, Donald managed to avoid all of these pitfalls and, at some point after his wounds had healed sufficiently he made his way some 14 miles or so to an area called Leny.  There he took refuge in a cottage with a few other Jacobite soldiers consisting of a couple of other officers including a Stewart and a few regular soldiers.  It’s something of a mystery as to how or why he wound up there.  Could he have been part of a party planning to regroup and fight again?  It’s possible.  Or perhaps it was simply a good place to hide where the likelihood of discovery was remote.  

In any event, eventually he was found and taken into custody.  There is a very interesting account of his capture and arrest from The History of the Rebellion in 1745 and 1746 from the Scots Magazine ( written in 1755).  Look a little ways down to the sentence that begins “And on the 15th, feven….”.  You will see where I’ve highlighted MacLaren’s name a little farther along.

But here is where things get a little muddy.  Culloden happened on April 16, 1746.  As we see in that short rendition of his capture and the prison records which follow below, Donald was not picked up and arrested until three months later in the middle of July.  How the Perthshire Militia found the men is unknown but certainly, with so many people working behind the scenes, so-to-speak to search out and identify Jacobite participants, it wouldn’t be amiss to assume someone reported them. 

Unfortunately, although recovered from injuries at Culloden he, once again, suffered an injury during the course of the short skirmish with the Militia; this time to his thigh. Because prison records show he was treated twice for his injury, we might speculate at this point that he probably wasn’t in the best of condition when he was incarcerated.  Add to that the travel time from Leny to Stirling, under constant stress of being transported to jail knowing it would likely end in his death, and, well,  it must have been a miserable journey for him.  

But it also raises some questions: When did they leave for Stirling?  The skirmish with the Militia wasn’t long and some records suggest the Militia came upon the cottage in the morning.  So the question becomes did they leave with their prisoners the same day?  If so it meant they would have spent three to four hours on the road covering 16 miles or thereabouts with wounds of varying severity.   But that doesn’t tally with the prison records which show he wasn’t incarcerated until July 20th.

At any rate, the first image below is the head of the page of Stirling prison records giving you the date, the location, the time and the name of the doctor. The date you see in the first image, Feb. 3, 1746 is the date the gaoler started the page and covers several subsequent dates.

You’ll notice that several words in the sentence are capitalised which we wouldn’t see written this way today:  “Different”, “Regiment”, “Rebels” for example.  During the 18th century people often capitalised words within a sentence to emphasise  them. 

The doctor noted, in most cases, the cause of the injury or condition requiring treatment and his charges for that treatment.  In Donald’s case, he simply says it was a wound in the thigh, no cause listed. The ‘Do’ that you see there simply means ‘ditto’.  Notice the date to the left of his name, July 20 – the date of his intake to the prison.  So he was treated twice on the same day he arrived.  

As I mentioned, after his capture by the Perthshire Militia he was taken to Stirling Castle to be held as a prisoner until his disposition could be determined.  As an officer he would most certainly be tried and executed for high treason.  So the future did not look good for him.  In this arrest record written by the gaoler we’re given the names of all the men arrested with him, by whom they were captured, the date they were brought into custody and their condition (all wounded). 

You’ll notice in this record that the gaoler gives the date they were received into custody as July 20th which, as I said, does not tally with the date given in the rendition of his actual capture at Leny on July 15th. In fact, the entry could be interpreted to mean that the prisoners were taken to Stirling the same day they were captured by the Militia! Because of that, I would surmise that the Perthshire Militia either picked him up on the 19th and arrived at the gaol in the morning on July 20th or he was captured and transported the same day (20th) to gaol. Thus the date is mis-stated in the document we saw earlier or there are roughly 5 days unaccounted for in the transport of these prisoners. 

Donald was held at Stirling for several months.  Finally, on September 3rd, after, presumably, he had an opportunity to recover from his wounds, Donald and another man by the name of King were  moved from Stirling Castle to Carlisle as you see in the image below.   

It was during this journey to Carlisle that Donald made his escape and was never recaptured.  There are a couple of versions of this escape which, for the most part, are similar but do vary in how he loosened himself from his guards.  A 1755 issue of Scotts Magazine relates Donald’s escape as:  “when being carried towards Carlisle, strapped to a dragoon, he cut the strap, threw himself over a cliff and escaped.” 

This version suggests that he managed to find a way to free himself which seems a bit unlikely although not impossible.  Logically, if we look at it from the standpoint of the Crown, he was a very valuable prisoner – an officer in the Rebel army and thus his death would have been a wonderful way to provide an example to all who might consider another uprising. So, that, in connection with the information that he was not riding on his own but bound to a dragoon, would suggest they wanted to make sure he got to trial in Carlisle.  And considering how difficult it might have been to lay his hands on a weapon sufficient to cut straps and then do so without the dragoon noticing and stopping the process, well, it just seems pretty unlikely this is what happened.

There is however, another version, which seems far more reasonable to me.  It suggests that he asked to relieve himself, was released from his bonds to do so and escaped. 

By whatever method, he did escape near Moffat about halfway between Stirling and Carlisle.  Wrapping himself in his plaid and tumbling down a ravine called Devil’s Beef Tub, he disappeared into the mist with the dragoons firing somewhat blindly in the hopes of hitting him.  Fortunately, they missed and Donald made good his escape.  

The Order Book of the Appin Regiment from 11th October 1745 to 18th January 1746. 1(C. Stewart Henderson (ed), pg. 168)  This is a book that provides information gleaned from the Appin Regiment Order Book on the movements of the regiment during the stated dates and was written in 1746.  It gives an interesting summary of Donald’s escape:

Donald MacLaren of East Invernentie, Balquhidder. Wounded at Culloden. He was again wounded and taken prisoner in the Braes of Leny on 19th July 1746. He was imprisoned in Stirling and Edinburgh. While being taken under escort to Carlisle he escaped; when passing the Devil’s Beef Tub near Moffat “Strapped to a dragoon, he cut the strap, threw himself over the cliff and escaped.” Under cover of mist he concealed himself with a turf on his head. He is said to have remained there for some days before making his way back to Balquihidder where he lived in hiding and disguised as a woman until the Act of Indemnity.”

But this passage demonstrates how difficult it can be to trace events.  This dates his capture to July 19th which may or may not tally with the prison records as we saw.  Further, I have found no recorded evidence that he was ever held in Edinburgh, assuming this references the gaol in Edinburgh and not some other location, which might validate this contention.

The next part of the story, which I have also been unable to confirm although it’s certainly possible, tells that after tumbling down the ravine, he headed north, spent a night in the Crook Inn  and eventually returned to Balquhidder.  This particular story, if nothing else, is just that, a good story  as the author tells us there was also a ‘party’ of soldiers residing at the inn and that he was able to keep himself unknown to them.  Must have made for a very uncomfortable night for Donald! 

In any event, after returning to Invernenty, he signed over his lands in 1748 to his friend Dugald Stewart and so lost ownership and control over all his property.  There is a bit more to this than simply relinquishing his property in the hopes it would not be confiscated or, as some sources suggest, in payment of debt.  But we’ll look into that in another article when we pick up the story of his son James, something of a prequel to Art Lowe’s excellent article from the last newsletter.

We can’t say with 100% certainty that his pardon was part of the The 1747 Act of Grace as his name wasn’t specifically mentioned as having received a pardon in any of the records. However, that Act was considered to be a general pardon of participants charged with treason. I think we can safely assume, and it is an unsupported assumption, that Donald was one of those receiving a pardon at that time.

I can’t help but admire Donald the Drover. To go through battle after battle, facing a barrage of cannon fire and still charging in leading his men, to be injured and escaped just to be injured again and captured must have taken remarkable bravery.  

  • 1
    (C. Stewart Henderson (ed), pg. 168)