MacDonald clan chief wins bitter court battle for title

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The Independent Online

In the days when its members were the first to ally themselves to Bonnie Prince Charlie's efforts to restore Stuart kings to the thrones of England and Scotland, it took a man of immeasurable talents to lead the Clan MacDonald of Keppoch.

Today, the responsibilities are as limited as the bragging rights which the title brings, along with a coat of arms, a mottoPer marre per terras(By land and sea), and a personal tartan.

But that hasn't stopped a retired hearing aid specialist, Ranald Alasdair MacDonald, from waging - and winning - a bitter 20-year court battle to be installed as the first chief of Clan MacDonald of Keppoch since 1848. His ascent to the position was concluded yesterday when, at a civic ceremony in the heart of the clan's ancestral homeland at Lochaber in the western Highlands, he assumed the title he coveted: 32nd Chief of the Honourable Clan Ranald of Lochaber Mac Mhic Raonuill.

Mr MacDonald was also presented with his Letters Patent and Ensigns Armorial by another dignitary, Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw, Rothesay, Herald of the Lyon Court, at the Highland Council's chamber in Fort William.

"The record has been set straight," Mr MacDonald, 75, said. "That is the point." Those who had resisted his inauguration, he added, were indulging in "clownish antagonistic propaganda".

Mr MacDonald's grip on power rests on the concept ofsloinneadh (pronounced slo-ny-ug) - a Scottish Gaelic word referring to the genealogy of the male line handed down orally from generation to generation.

The case made the Labour Party leadership squabbles look like a playground spat. Mr MacDonald's push for the leadership began in 1986 and twice went before the Court of the Lord Lyon, Scotland's heraldic tribunal, before reaching the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

In 1990, the Lord Lyon found against Mr MacDonald on the grounds that his ancestor was an illegitimate child. Mr MacDonald appealed, presenting further evidence in 1995, but lost again.

He was then able to take his case to the Court of Session, and in 2004, the judges said that sloinneadh could be relied upon to prove Mr MacDonalds' heritage. This allowed the resurrection of a title that has been dormant since 1848, when the 21st chief died leaving no male heirs.

Scottish historians are divided on the subject of Mr MacDonald. Rory MacDonald, a historian of the Keppoch clan - a branch of the broader Clan Donald - said many clansmen will still not recognise Mr MacDonald as their leader. "You cannot become clan chief without the acceptance of your clan," he said.

Hugh Peskett, the editor of the Scottish edition of Burke's Peerage and an expert on Scottish heraldry, disagrees. Through examining public records dating back to the 1550s, he was able to trace MacDonald as a direct descendant of Donald Gorm MacDonald of Inverroy, who was the fourth son of Alistair Buidhe, the 14th chief of the MacDonalds of Keppoch.

"This case is proven," Mr Peskett said. "I do not think any chiefship has been so soundly tested in the courts for a long, long time. But there are people who do not like the decision. This is just sour grapes by bad losers."

Words have not always been enough to resolve such issues. In the 17th century, the chief Alexander MacDonald and his brother Ranald, were stabbed to death by rivals seeking to usurp the title. Their murderers were beheaded.

The new clan leader preferred simply to remember the courage of his predecessors, hundreds of whom - including the chief - were slaughtered by the Duke of Cumberland's forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the bloody finale to the 1745 Jacobite uprising.