Standing on the uppermost battlements of Duart Castle, looking out to the distant mountains and islands, the view has changed little for a millennium. Apart from the distant twinkling lights of Oban and the occasional flashing of the Lismore Lighthouse keeping ships safe, the view is as it was 700 years ago when the Maclean’s of Duart first came to their formidable seat on the island of Mull. The Castle then was on part of the land belonging to the Lord of the Isles.
The deep sound of Mull meets Loch Linnhe at the tip of Lismore, and the steep cliffs of the lonely Morven peninsula run almost parallel with the coast of Mull until Morven gives way to Ardnamurchan and the most westerly point in mainland Great Britain.
For over 700 years, Duart Castle, the seat of Clan Maclean, has dominated the view to the sound of Mull and Loch Linnhe with its huge curtain walls and solid keep. Acting both as a defensive fortress and a noble home, the strength of Duart allowed the Clan Maclean to establish its powerbase, not only on the Island of Mull, but the lands of Morven, Ardgour, Drimnin and at Dochgarroch on the mainland.
These days, the most common view of Duart Castle is from the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, where thousands of visitors pass by on their way to Mull. Most passengers take photographs of the castle, and wave happily, but it wasn’t always this way.
700 Hundred years ago, the sighting of a vessel approaching the Castle would have engendered an entirely different response, and as a result the rotting hulks of dozens of Birlinns* litter the seabed of the sound of Mull. In the days before roads, the seaways were the life blood of the islands and remote peninsulas and are a feature of the West Coast of Scotland. To control the sea was to control trade, transit goods and the movement of people, in short, to control the country. The Macleans’ exerted an iron grip through the strategic position of their stronghold Duart, and their substantial fleet of Brigs and Birlinns.
The land here, although beautiful, is wild and fierce and was reflected in the character of the people (and some would say still is!). Internecine Clan warfare was common place and society was often unstable. Life in the 14th Century was tough and dangerous.
Famine and poverty were common place and the eradication of another Clan was seen simply as a matter of survival. Attaching yourself to a powerful and largely benign Clan was a good way of keeping you and your family safe. The MacLeans of Duart were held in high esteem and the Maclean Clan Motto “Virtue Mine Honour” summed up the noble and loyal clan mindset, which persists to this day.
Between 1350 and 1678, The Macleans of Duart ruled the islands around Mull and Iona and set up bases on the neighbouring islands of Coll and Tiree. Their influence grew to include the Morven peninsula, and mainland ports of Argyll. During the 14th and 15th centuries the Macleans were part of a loose collection of Clans who supported the Lord of the Isles. But things were changing and the Maclean name became increasingly powerful through the acquisition of land and ships, until they were considered a formidable Clan and free from the influence of the Lords of the Isles.
This came at a cost, as their new standing brought them to the attention of the new Scottish King, James V, who was making his presence felt in the Islands. As the Maclean influence grew so did the question of who they supported.
In 1631 King Charles, the first of Scotland, brought the Macleans firmly in to the Stuart camp by making Sir Lachlan Maclean, a Baronet. This ultimately led to the MacLeans losing all their lands, a situation which would persist for 221 years.
Royal warfare was not only a bloody business, but reeked of politics. Bet the wrong horse in the political race and you could find yourself divested of your land, arms and gold. From 1631 onwards, the Macleans were involved in pretty much every major campaign between the crowns.
Sir Lachlan Maclean, the 17th Clan Chief joined the legendary John Graham, The Marquis of Montrose’s Highland army against the Government led by General Leslie. When Leslie’s army invaded Mull, Sir Lachlan could not hold Duart, and in 1678 the seat of the Macleans fell in to the hands of their arch rivals The Campbells, led by Sir Archibald Campbell who would become the first Duke of Argyll.
The Maclean loyalty was to be their undoing, and their fierce and unswerving devoting to the Stuart line, who many saw as the rightful rulers of Scotland, was punished by forfeiture of their lands and Castles.
Once in Duart, The Campbells set about demolishing the Castle, and many of the original stones can be found scattered around the area, some were used to build cottages to house the surviving Macleans. The lands were passed to the neighbouring Torosay which marches on to Duart lands.
No Maclean would set foot on Duart for 211 years, until in 1910 Sir Fitzroy Donald Maclean the 26th Clan Chief purchased the Castle and lands from Torosay Estate, and set about restoring it to its former glory.
Which brings us neatly back to the present, where Sir Lachlan Hector Charles Maclean of Duart and Morven, 12th Baronet, CVO, DL, (born 25 August 1942) is the 28th Chief of Clan Maclean, and now resides at Duart Castle.
Nowadays the battles fought by Sir Lachlan are more about the business of ‘noblesse oblige’, nobility obligates or privilege entails responsibility, with the continued effort of preserving Duart and the Clan for generations of Maclean’s scattered all over the world. While a great deal less bloody, the pilgrimage back to Mull for the International Clan gatherings, are no less exciting and no less moving for the Macleans.