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Camerons in Lochaber - Yesterday Today and Tomorrow
by Colonel Sir Donald Hamish Cameron of Lochiel, K.T. XXVI Chief of Clan Cameron
circa 1988

Today, as in centuries past, the district of Lochaber is home to the Cameron Clan.  Many of the Clan now live in far lands, but they still join with their Chief, remembering their history, and supporting him in his plans for the preservation and display of historic documents and Clan relics.

The original Clan lands were on Locheilside and the first known charter to this territory was given by the Lord of the Isles, Alexander of Lochalsh, in 1491.  Places named in this charter bear a close relation to names used in the district today - Banwe (Banavie), Corpach, Kilmalzhe (Kilmallie), Chanlochiel (Kinlochiel), to mention but a few.  At that time, the Chief, Ewan, son of Allan was recognised as Captain of Clan Cameron, and lived on an island in Loch Eil known as "Eilan nan Craobh."  This charter was rendered null and void a year later by King James 1V who wished to curb the authority of the Lords of the Isles.  Two years later however, a new charter was granted by the King, but this eventually led to Argyll becoming superior of the Cameron lands.

For the next two hundred years Clan Cameron was engaged in Clan battles, customary forays to "lift" cattle, and costly disputes, mainly with Clan Macintosh.  Fortunately, in 1527, King James V granted Ewan MacAllan a charter of the disputed lands of Glenloy and Locharkaig, which was the first time the Camerons had legal possession of these lands as well as the lands of Locheil; this was also the first time that the Captain of Clan Cameron was named as "of Lochiel."

Ewan MacAllan then decided to leave the island on Loch Eil, and to build himself a strong house at Torcastle, on the banks of the River Lochy about five miles from the present town of Fort William; this was the site where there had been a castle for hundreds of years, since the days of Banquo, Thane of Lochaber.  Here he and his descendents lived until the time of the great Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel.  Ewan MacAllan was eventually executed by Huntly, then Lieutenant of the North, because he was implicated in a revolt by the Earl of Lennox.  However, the Clan was by then an influential force in Lochaber, having as followers the indigenous tribes of the country, such as the MacMartins, the MacGillavries, and the MacSorlies; it was also supported by MacMillans, MacPhees and MacPhails.

The Camerons always suffered from the rivalry between the two great houses of Argyll and Huntly, for their lands came within the sphere of influence of both noblemen.  If it had not been for their fierce bravery, for the skilful leadership of men such as the "Taillear Dubh" ("Black Taylor of the axe, renowned warrior and leader of the Clan in battle) and some of the Chiefs such as Allan MacDonald Dubh, the Clan would undoubtedly have been driven from their hard won territory.

Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel (1629-1719) was perhaps the greatest Chief of them all; he was admired and trusted by his men, who would follow him in any exploit; his personal integrity and martial successes were an example and encouragement to his fellow Highlanders, and he managed to leave the Clan estate in a more secure position than ever before.  He is said to have killed the last wolf in Lochaber, and there are many stories about his prowess which cannot be detailed in this article. His portrait hangs at Achnacarry, and below a print of Sir Ewen, dated 1688, are the lines:

The honest man who Virtue sways
His King adores, his God obeys;
Does fractious man's rebellious pride
And threatening tyrant's rage deride,
Honour's his wealth, his rule, his aim,
Unshaken, fixed and still the same.

Tradition tells us that Sir Ewen decided that his home at Torcastle was too near the garrison at Inverlochy to be safe from English soldiery, so he moved his residence to a more remote place by the River Arkaig.  Here he built the old house of Achnacarry (Achadh na caraidh -the field of the weir) which was constructed of fir planks from the old Caledonian forest.   Today, all that remains of this house is a stone gable, since the house was destroyed on the Duke of Cumberland's orders in 1746.  Sir Ewen's grandson was known as the "Gentle Lochiel" and he was managing the estate in a peaceful and enlightened manner when he heard that Prince Charles Edward had landed on the West Coast in an effort to regain the throne for the Stewarts.

The Highland Chiefs had always said that a successful rising was dependent on massive French aid, and on the support of the English and Lowland Jacobites, so when Prince Charles met Lochiel he had to exert all his charm, and use all his wiles, to persuade him to bring his clan out in support of his cause.  Lochiel could not, as a loyal Jacobite, resist the appeal, and so he agreed to share the fate of his Prince.  If he had decided otherwise, there would almost certainly have been no rising, no '45, and the subsequent history of the Highlands would have been a very different story.

After the final battle of the Rising at Culloden Moor, Lochiel, who had been wounded in the feet and carried off the field by his clansmen, went into exile with his Prince.  The Lochiel estate was forfeited to the Crown, the houses of the clansmen burnt to the ground, and a fearful retribution exacted.  The estate was returned to the family in 1784 on payment of a large fine, and in 1805, the Gentle Lochiel's grandson, Donald, commenced the building of the present house, employing Gillespie Graham as architect.  This Lochiel and his wife did not like the idea of living in the Highlands, having been brought up in France and London, so the house was left unfinished, and was completed by his son Donald in about 1837.  A wing was added to the house in the latter part of the 19th century, but in all other respects it remains unchanged.  During the last war, the house was occupied by Commandos, who used Achnacarry as their training base.  A fine memorial near Spean Bridge commemorates the Commandos who died in the War - most of whom were trained at Achnacarry.  During their occupation, a bad fire did a lot of damage to the house, so much reconstruction, and some modernisation was necessary when the Lochiel family got the house back after the war was over.

Today, Achnacarry is still the house of the Chief of Clan Cameron, who lives there with his wife and family, managing a large sheep farm and a renowned Deer Forest.  The present Chief is the 26th Chief of the Clan, in direct descent from the original Chiefs; he is always glad to welcome members of the Clan to the ancestral home in the centre of the historic Clan lands.

There are many Clan relics and interesting portraits in the house, and historic landmarks outside.  For example, there is the Beech Avenue along the bank of the River Arkaig.   The Gentle Lochiel was planting an avenue of beeches to the south of the castle when he heard that Prince Charles had landed; he quickly heeled them into a trench, intending to go on with his planting when he had persuaded the Prince to return to France.   The Prince won him over, and he never returned home; the trees, now 240 years old, have grown up very close together, just as he had planted them in that trench.

All these reminders of days long gone can be seen by visitors to Achnacarry, but there is a plan now in hand which will be of great interest to Clan members at home and overseas.  Lochiel and his family are embarking on an interesting project to establish a Clan Cameron Museum at Achnacarry.  The museum will be housed in a building known locally as "The Old Post Office" which is about 400 yards from Achnacarry Castle.  This building is the oldest on the estate, dating back to the 17th century, although, like other Clan houses it was partially burned in 1746.   It was subsequently restored as a residence for a gardener but, in latter years, has been unoccupied and has been falling into ruin.   Work has been going on to rebuild it and to turn it into a museum; already it has been re-roofed, and the exterior finished.  The architect was keen to keep it looking as near as possible to its old appearance.  It will cost at least 50,000 to pay for the restoration of the building, acquire furniture and fittings, and provide for general maintenance.  For this purpose a Clan Cameron Charitable Trust has been formed, and friends of Achnacarry, and members of the Clan are being asked to contribute to the Trust.  The Trustees will be Lochiel and his two sons, The Earl of Dalkeith, who is related to the family through Lochiel's grandmother, and the Marquis of Graham, who is related to Lochiel through his mother.  It is early days to be precise as to what will be displayed in the museum, but it is hoped to include Clan tartans, a pictorial history of the Clan, some artefacts and relics, maps showing where Camerons live throughout the world, a register of subscribers, pictures, furniture, examples of the Victorian age and other items of interest presently in the Castle.  It is also intended to have family trees and other information which would provide help with regard to genealogical research.  The Museum will, hopefully, grow in stature and content over the years, and we believe the Clan overseas will find this idea exciting and worthy of support.