Clan gathers to select first chieftain since 1786

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The Independent Online

Not since its warriors bloodied English noses at the Battle of Bannockburn 800 years ago and suffered defeat at Flodden in 1513 has the Clan MacAulay had such cause to dust down their claymores and once more join battle. A group of 11 elders and 35 members of the MacAulay tribe yesterday gathered with solemn dignity to elect their 13th chieftain, the first since one Aulay MacAulay died drunken, destitute and without heirs in 1786.

The sole candidate before them was 80-year-old Iain MacAulay, a former prisoner of war of the Japanese in Sumatra, and champion of the clan's reunification and rebirth as a "modern, democratic body" for the past 30 years. Mr MacAulay was duly elected 11-0 among elders and 34-1 among clan members despite having no blood link to the dissolute Aulay.

But while the Sassenachs largely stayed away from the Highland castle where the Derbhfine or heraldic court was held, no feudal succession would have been complete without a power struggle.

Step forward, confusingly, another Iain MacAulay, one-time challenger to his clan's crown and now a campaigner for a five-year moratorium on the choosing of a new chieftain.

Mr MacAulay, 59, a business consultant from Chester, had claimed he was the true descendant to last leader but, after being given a year to prove his claim, was unable to find acceptable evidence. Instead, he told the court that given Mr MacAulay Senior also could not prove a direct lineage, there should be an extension to the 215-year interregnum in case a blood descendant comes forward. Despite speaking for seven minutes on the subject, his argument for a true chieftain was not accepted.

The once-fearsome and feudal clan, gathered at the Tulloch Castle hotel in Dingwall, near Inverness, decided instead to enter the 21st century with a leader elected on merit.

The Derbhfine (pronounced der-feen) was attended by around 60 clansmen and women from as far afield as a New Zealand and the United States. The MacAuleys, believed to have descended from Kenneth McAlpin, the 41st Pictish king from 841 to 860, fought beside Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314.

But the true villain of the piece was Aulay MacAulay, whose fondness of a dram caused him to fritter away the clan seat, Ardencaple castle. He died in poverty without a wife or children. Mr MacAulay Snr, who plans to manage his disparate tribe from his former council bungalow in Drumbeg, Sutherland, said: "There is absolutely no point in waiting a further five years for a chieftain.

"It is widely accepted that there is no traceable descendant of the last chieftain. Since I was a child I have been interested in the clan and I can now take it forward as a modern, democratic body. There will be a secret ballot attended by the elders and most senior figures of the clan. I want to unite all Celts of the MacAulay name. I have proved I can revive interest in the clan across the world."

Mixing the flamboyantly archaic with the solidly contemporary (Mr MacAulay Snr hopes to set up a bursary scheme to help educate young clan members), the proceedings were presided over by a representative of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, head of the Edinburgh heraldic legal court.

The vote by elders who must have their own coat of arms will be passed to the Lord Lyon, Edinburgh solicitor Robin Blair, to confirm within six months.

Once approved, the new MacAulay chieftain is given the right to use the "undifferenced" or original clan coat of arms, currently kept under lock and key by the Crown.

All of which, said the younger Mr MacAulay, amounted to an argument for not rushing into a succession which, despite the older clansman's democratic aims, would be hereditary.

The business consultant, originally from Helensburgh, near the site of Ardencaple, said: "I would suggest we should wait five years before any chief is appointed: put a time limit on it.

"We have lasted 200 years without a clan chief – what difference will a few more make?"

Such an opinion was popular with fellow clan members who had already voted to send his namesake as the sole leadership candidate to the Derbhfine.

Mr MacAulay, whose development of physiotherapy in the armed forces was awarded with an MBE, was made a commander of the clan in 1997 and arranged its first assembly in Perth a year later.

If his election is confirmed by the Lord Lyon, he will relish the task of reuniting three separate branches of the MacAulay clan, and live up to its motto of Dulce periculum, or Danger is Sweet.