I’m on a train clanking south toward Glasgow. Tomorrow I get picked up at my hotel at 6:30AM to begin a long day of travel home. I’m ready. I can’t stand any of the clothes I so carefully packed over a month ago. I’ve added one suitcase that is crammed full of memorabilia and gifts. Yet I’m still almost literally bursting at the seems. It’s time to go home.
But the train is passing through very scenic countryside. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of fields dotted with sheep and lovely “lochs” or lakes carved out by glaciers eons ago. But it’s more than just pastoral hill country that I’m sorry to leave. The train is taking me away from the land of my ancestors. I left the Isle of Iona by ferry this morning and had several hours back in Oban to walk about before hauling my accumulated stuff to the station. So I sat at an outdoor table on the Oban Esplanade and soaked in the city associated with my clan: the MacDougalls.
My paternal grandmother was a MacDougall. She was quietly proud of this. She had a picture of her father—James Ellis MacDougall—who is in full kilt regalia and playing the bagpipes. He has an awesome moustache but it can’t hide his smiling eyes. His daughter Jean (think Brigadoon song lyrics, “…go home with bonnie Jean..”) was very proud of her Scottish heritage. She was my great aunt and I was given her name as my middle name. She had a three piece suit made out of the MacDougall plaid that she wore in all seriousness for special family gatherings. That’s a lot of wool—especially for a middle-aged woman! Loyalty to one’s clan can be sacrificial. So our final leg of the family journey landed my sisters and me in Oban where there are two castles associated with our Scottish ancestors: Dunstaffnage and Donnollie.
Dunstaffnage is three miles out of Oban and is open to the public for tours. My three sisters and I hopped in a cab which dropped us off at the edge of a wooded property. Fortunately there was a sign to reassure us that he had not left us off somewhere to perish. So we followed the indicators into the woods and soon there was a green clearing. An enormous castle loomed in the distance. It was made of the typical Scottish construction material: large stones and mortar built upon an outcropping of rock. No wonder these ancient dwellings endure! We learned that it was built by one of the earliest MacDougalls in 1220 when the clan was relatively newly formed and powerful. If my 13th century kin wanted a status symbol, this castle certainly would have done it!
Really old structures in Europe have layers of history: additions to the building and losses from fire or natural decay. A house was built within the walls in the 1700’s that added significantly to the (comfortable) sleeping quarters the castle could offer. There was a tower with narrow windows for firing upon the enemy. There was a dungeon just beneath the sleeping area of the family. How convenient to be able to hear any uprising-in-the-making of your prisoners while drifting off to sleep! The castle is built on a promontory at the entrance to Loch Etive. It would be impossible for an enemy to approach Dunstaffnage by sea undetected. And if they tried to come in through the backwoods, arrows were poised, ready to shoot through the narrow slits in the three meter thick stone walls. It’s an under-appreciated feature in our modern homes. Perhaps a hidden camera at the front door is our closest equivalent!
The Donnollie Castle was within walking distance of our hotel, the Oban Bay Hotel. We walked up a path that climbed toward a farmhouse built in the 1700’s when the original stone castle was no longer habitable and far too costly to renovate. This was a smaller castle, again built on an elevated parcel of land that looks over the Oban bay. A tower remains and a wall marked by a Celtic cross. In both clan “homes” their Christian faith was evident. At Dunstaffnage the clansmen actually built a chapel within walking distance of the home. As recently as the 20thh century, MacDougalls were buried there. At Donnollie the home is inhabited by the present clan chief, Lady Morag. They live in a portion of the old farmhouse during the summer and have dedicated the lower level as a museum. We carried our great grandfather with us on our tours in the form of a grainy black and white photograph. At the end of the tour we showed this to our guide and told her we, in fact, belonged in this space! She was either threatened or intrigued because Lady Morag’s son emerged from the home to greet us. Three of us were wearing MacDougall plaid scarves so that made it easier for him to identify us. I can’t say that we had particularly remarkable conversation with him or will add him to the Christmas list. But it felt very special to connect with a direct descendant of those who had built and claimed this castle as home for hundreds of years.
For us 21st century MacDougalls, the most meaningful aspect to these castle visits was to experience the life of our ancestors by breathing their air, standing in their personal living space, and looking out their windows at stunning scenery. We learned a few things about our clan through these tours. At Donnollie Castle there was a room for making cheese (one sister’s eyes lit up and she said, “I like cheese!” Proof of our heritage, no doubt!) They did weaving and crafted lovely items. I’ll claim the aesthetic roots. They were thrifty! Check. Wherever they journeyed, they took samples of local plants that they liked and added it to their lovely garden. The result at Donnollie is an estate filled with a very unlikely and interesting mix of foliage. We learned that the MacDougalls have a progressive attitude toward women! A couple of generations ago the clan chief had three daughters and no sons. Normally he would have nabbed a nephew or younger brother as his successor. But this leader divided up the land three ways and gave each daughter a parcel. The present clan chief is a woman and she is respected in her role. Finally we learned that our clan was peace-loving–another attribute that we liked. We provided safe keeping for those on the run. We declined participation in a couple of wars, wishing to simply tend to our land and family instead. So we were all about that feature of our heritage. But that strong point became our weakness, as is often the case. One guide, before she knew we were MacDougalls, stated that the clan was known for making poor decisions. Dang. We were doing so well! It turns out that being peaceable in times of savagery was disadvantageous!
Aren’t we still trying to figure that one out as Christians today? How do we preach Christ when the arrows are slinging at us from above? When do we pick up a sword and when do we walk away from a fight, exposing our hind quarters? How do we muster the courage to take a stand for a just way of life when it might cost us our castle, like it did my ancestors? Dunstaffnage was overtaken by the Campbell clan which was much more aggressive at war. Donnollie had to be abandoned for a long period because they refused to fight against the king and chose to stay home and mind their garden. This cost them their land and home. Peace is costly. History tells a story that often isn’t evident in the moment. I`ll proudly claim my MacDougall clan, warts and all. I suppose that’s what being family is all about.