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The Camerons Marching On
from The Press and Journal
June 2004

What was probably the longest tenure of any clan chiefdom ended with the recent passing of the Camerons' 26th leader. While hoping to build on his father's successes, the son who inherits the role hinted to Iain Ramage that a subtle change of outlook was likely

The clan's motto, Aonaibh Ri Cheile - unite - says it all. It is what hundreds of Cameron clan members from around the world did earlier this month at the family funeral of their chief to demonstrate the strength of the bond between them.

At 93, Colonel Sir Donald Hamish Cameron of Lochiel was the longest serving and, for many, most loved of Cameron chiefs. He lived through the period of the greatest change in world, Scottish and Cameron history.

His ultimate legacy is considered priceless - the uniting of Cameron "family members" across the globe, from Seoul to Hawaii and Patagonia to Alaska, where loyal Cameron associations keep the flag flying high.

His successor, his eldest son, 58-year-old Donald Cameron Younger of Lochiel, the 27th clan chief, is aware of the task ahead of him.

Speaking at the 200-year-old family home of Achnacarry Castle, near Fort William, he said: "Dad will be a hard act to follow. What I think he did, very much, was to encourage overseas associations. He travelled to encourage clan members to form branches, to take the interest to come over here.

"But we're not a big clan; we're not a rich clan at all, unlike the Macdonalds, for example."

The clan's strength was undoubtedly bolstered during Sir Donald's 50-odd years at the helm with his creation of the First Light project, an exchange scheme of clansmen between Lochaber and New Zealand.

With regard to the existing Clan Cameron Association, Sir Donald not only continued the works of his father and grandfather, but added to their efforts, supporting the establishment of two new worldwide branches, in the US in 1968 and England in 1981.

He also sought to preserve the "Cameron Country" lands of Lochaber, not just for the people of Scotland, but for Camerons worldwide to return to and visit.

The Younger Lochiel is optimistic that ancient roots will continue to spread, aided by the latest technology.

"We recognise that a clan has to be a bit more modern than perhaps it was in the last century. For example, we have been part of the internet, with a website run from Illinois, since 1995," he said.

"One can't wallow in the past. I think the clan today is an internationally loose-knitted family, and if one can make those family members more aware of what's going on in other clan members' countries then it can only lead to improvement in relations between them, with the focus on the links between Scotland and New Zealand, America and Canada."

Sir Donald's tenure was not without problems. Death duties incurred by the passing of his father in 1951 cost the family half its estate.

"We have retreated, certainly," said the new chief.

"We have sold parts of the estate which, quite honestly, we could not afford to keep up."

Half a century on, the mild-mannered new Lochiel is likely to raise eyebrows for expressing some views not usually associated with those blessed with inherited wealth. Some will find such opinions refreshing in an age of increasing globalisation.

"I think, in the modern day, having someone owning vast tracts of land is probably not very politically correct; it's inappropriate," he said.

"Even though those tracts of land are probably of no use to anybody - in that they are wild hilltops.

"We have retreated into an estate which is much more manageable, although still large (90,000 acres). So I'm not worried by having seen the estate become smaller. In the 21st century, that is probably a good thing.

"Running a Highland estate is not an easy task in that the main thing we do is stalking, and venison prices have been abysmal in recent years. We rent some cottages. We let Loch Arkaig to Marine Harvest (fish farmers).

"There is some forestry, but that is cyclical because timber prices are bad at the moment and you must have the wood maturing at the right time.

"When we have sold bits of the estate, it has enabled us to remain going on the remaining part. That, obviously, cannot go on forever. So one has to take some tough decisions about running what's left in the most economical way."

On land access, Donald was quick to point out Scotland's absence of a trespass law.

"People have always been able to wander wherever they like. Dad loved welcoming people here and there are more Camerons coming here than ever before."

That was helped by his own creation, in 1989, of the estate's Cameron museum, with which he was ably assisted by his wife, Lady Cecil.

More than 4,000 people now visit each year - not bad for a venue at the far end of a twisty, single-track route. Among the visitors was the mother of Titanic movie-maker James Cameron, who later donated some of the film's memorabilia as permanent exhibits.

Continuing the land-ownership theme, the new chief had some other surprises.

"A significant change has been crofting, something my father would have been all for, that these guys were allowed to buy their crofts on the estate.

"It was a potential source of income, but I am all for it. Someone who has lived there all his life should have the right to buy his home."

He continued: "People have very long memories about the Clearances. I think it is time now, surely, to forget the Clearances."

When asked why, he replied: "Because it comes up so often and how, in a way, what's happening now is, in some way, recompense for what happened. I do not think it should be the motivation for this change."

Oxford-educated Donald became a chartered accountant and "travelled a bit", working for a while in Australia before working in the Achnacarry estate office. He then spent 25 years with investment bank Schroeders, where he added the skills of PR and recruitment to his CV.

Multiple sclerosis was the deciding factor in his premature retirement from the City.

"I felt very tired after a set of tennis in 1985, saw a GP and he sent me to a specialist. It only affects the extremities of my arms and legs. Other than that, I'm pretty chirpy."

How could it affect his new duties?

"I don't think I'll be going to next year's clan gathering in New Zealand simply for logistical reasons. The problem with MS is that it is very difficult to plan long term because you simply do not know whether it is going to get worse, probably not get better, but you hope it will plateau."

London-based Donald, who has gradually increased the frequency of his visits to Achnacarry over recent years, soldiers on - often using a quad bike to get around the estate. Soon, he intends to move in permanently.

Despite the family's recent bereavement, spirits remain high.

Donald offered a riddle: "It's 'Love to be a muddled Cameron' - an anagram."

The answer: romance.

"I think we are a very romantic clan in that we have supported the losing side consistently, but still have the nucleus of something special here at Achnacarry."

So what of the clan's prospects in the century ahead?

"If one can continue to foster the spirit that exists, who knows? Just think of what has happened in the last 50 years in terms of communication. I think people, if they are interested in their genealogy, will always want to come to the place from whence they first came. We will continue to foster that kinship."

Donald describes himself as apolitical despite having Michael Ancram as a brother-in-law and Charles Kennedy as a mate.

As for the Anglo-Scot in him, he fondly remembers a whisky advert which proclaimed "I support two teams: Scotland and whoever is playing England, signed Donald Cameron".

"People rang, asking if I said that! I denied it."