History

Clan Arthur

Gaelic: Clann Artair, meaning: The Children of Arthur

Reproduced with the permission of John MacArthur of that ilk, Chief of Clan Arthur

Chief: John Alexander MacArthur of that ilk

Chief Seat: Tiricladdich, Loch Awe, Argyll

Clan Crest: Two laurel branches in orle proper (a fruited laurel wreath)

MacArthur Clan Crest

Clan Shield: Three antique gold crowns set two over one on an azure background

Clan Motto: Fide et Opera, meaning: By Faith and Work

Clan Battle Cry: Eisd O’ Eisd! meaning: Listen O’ listen!

Clan Plant Badge: Wild Thyme (also known as King’s Plant)
Gaelic: Lus mhic righ Bhreatainn, meaning: The plant belonging to the son of the King of the Britons

Wild Thyme

 

The Scottish name of MacArthur (Gaelic: Mhic Artair, meaning: Son of Arthur) is so ancient that its true origin is lost in the mists of time, faery tale, political intrigue and downright skulduggery. An old Argyll proverb relates:

“There is none older, save the hills, the Devil and MacArthur”

This ancient fragment of wisdom may appear to be a mere quaint saying, but interpretation can precisely date the origin of the Children of Arthur. The Devil is a concept of the Christian mind and the Christian Devil was brought to Pagan Argyll by Saint Columba, father of the Celtic church, in 563 AD.

The Children of Arthur trace their descent from the legendary “King” Arthur – the 6th century Christian War Chief of the Strathclyde Britons and contemporary of Saint Columba. The Red Book of Argyll states that the ancestor of the Clan is “Smervie Mhor, the son of Arthur of the Round Table, who was born in the Red Hall at Dumbarton, but he never came to the throne as he was a wild man of the woods” (or remained pagan in a newly Christianised tribal society).

Another ancient Argyll couplet asks the question:

“The hills, the streams and MacAlpine, but from whence came forth MacArthur?”

The MacAlpine referred to is Kenneth MacAlpine, the King of Scots who defeated the Picts in 848 AD and amalgamated the two kingdoms founding the prototype Kingdom of Scotland. Again, ancient wisdom points to an origin, establishment and acknowledgement of MacArthur power in western Scotland well before the 9th century.

The Clan enters recorded history as supporters of Robert the Bruce against MacDougall of Lorne at the Battle of the Pass of Brander in 1308 AD and they took to the field again with Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314 AD. A MacArthur seal is appended to the famous Declaration of Arbroath from 1320 AD.

A map showing the Clan MacArthur Lands of Loch AweIt is generally accepted that MacArthur was given grant of the defeated MacDougall lands on Loch Awe for his services to Bruce and the Chief seat was established at Tirevadich (now called Hayfield). The holy Isle of Inishail was the Clan burial ground and the peninsula of Inistrynich (the Isle of the Blackthorn) was acquired, latterly becoming the Chief seat of Tiricladdich (the Shore Land). MacArthur was the Knight of Lochow (Loch Awe – the dark loch) who was known as the Black Knight (a character from Arthurian legend).

It is possible that the lands at Loch Awe were already held by MacArthur prior to 1308 AD and that The Bruce simply reaffirmed the land charter. If not, then the question has to be asked as to where MacArthur came from and on which lands the Clan Arthur warriors of 1308 AD were raised?

The MacArthur name also has ancient associations with the Earldom of Lennox around Loch Lomond Dumbarton and Darleith. There is also reference to lands in Glen Falloch to the north of Loch Lomond and in Glen Dochart connecting to the west end of Loch Tay. The name of MacArthur was common on both sides of Loch Tay around the pre 15th century place name of Tir Artair (The land of Arthur) illustrating that Clan Arthur had an ancient presence on all three of Scotland’s great inland waterways; Loch Lomond, Loch Awe and Loch Tay.

McArthur's Head lighthouse Sound of Islay
McArthur's Head lighthouse, Sound of Islay - Photo by Neil Wright

Another prominent contingent of the clan are the MacArthurs of Islay just to the west of Argyll. They were blacksmiths and armourers to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, holding lands at Proaig, just south of the aptly named McArthur's Head lighthouse at the entrance to the Sound of Islay. The MacArthur name is still extensive on the island today.

MacArthur cairn at Duntulm, Skye, Scotland
MacArthur cairn at Duntulm, Skye, Scotland - photo by Marie Stockholm

The MacArthur’s of Skye who lived around Kilmuir are famous as the hereditary pipers to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles and as hereditary keepers of Flora MacDonald’s grave. After a major dispute some of the family were banished to the Isle of Ulva off Mull. It is not known, which branch of Clan Arthur that the Skye MacArthurs originate from, although the name is common to many of the Western Isles. The islands of Tiree and Lewis in particular still hold large contingents of the Clan’s descendants.

Clan Arthur and Clan Campbell (Gaelic: Cam buel, meaning: Crooked mouth) are brother clans descending from a common ancestor, but like all siblings, there is a complex history between them. There is nothing queerer than an ancient intertwined family.

Most historians agree that the patronym of Arthur is far older than MacCailean Mor which is the patronym of Clan Campbell and as such, the Campbells were a cadet branch of Clan Arthur, but the name of Arthur remained popular with the Campbells. As one Clan Campbell genealogist put it “The MacArthurs begat the Campbells, and the Campbells begat the MacArthurs”.

Painting of possibly Chief Iain MacArthur of Strachur, leader of 1000 men

Arthur Campbell also fought alongside MacArthur and Bruce at the Pass of Brander in 1308 AD. His son, “MacArthur” was given captaincy of Dunstaffnage Castle and acquired “the rough bounds of Garmoran”, an Earldom surrounding Castle Gruagach (the Castle of the Brownie) on the west coast of Loch Linnhe. MacArthur’s power grew and by 1427 AD, the Clan Chief, Iain (John) MacArthur of Strachur, was described as a man of princely state and one of the five primary Scottish highland chiefs, “The leader of a thousand men”.

James I of Scotland’s authority was threatened by the independent power of some his Chiefs. He held parliament at Inverness and summoned all the Highland Chiefs to present and prove their land charters. The meeting was a trap. MacArthur of Strachur was seized, imprisoned and beheaded. All his lands except, Strachur and some lands in Perthshire, were forfeited to the crown and his clan were scattered. This act by James I effectively cleared the way for the ambition of the house of MacCailean Mor and Colin Campbell (Cailean) was en-nobled first Earl of Argyll in 1457 AD, later becoming Baron of Lorn.

But Clan Arthur was still alive and kicking. In 1497 AD a group of Loch Awe MacArthurs were out on Ben Dorain when they encountered the Battle of Leachdar. They swiftly got involved on the side of the MacDonells of Keppoch and their adversary, the powerful Dugald Stewart 1st of Appin, was slain. Fearing retribution for their part in the battle, these MacArthurs moved north to take refuge with the MacDonells in Lochaber. They were given lands in Glen Roy where they remained as loyal henchmen until defeat at Culloden in 1746 AD, being some of the last to surrender their arms.

By the 16th century the younger and more powerful neighbouring Clan Campbell had become immensely jealous of the MacArthur’s long-standing position in Highland life. One day in 1567 AD, Duncan MacArthur, Chief of Clan Arthur (Loch Awe) and his son were out on the loch in the clan galley. They were carrying the clan documents and seal and they may have been lured to a false meeting (again). They were ambushed by Clan Campbell, the galley was overturned, the Chief and his son were drowned (presumably with several oarsmen), and the Chief's seal and charters were lost in the loch.

The documents probably included every Highlander's prize possession - his genealogy. Every Highlander knew their own genealogy. It defined who they were and their place in Highland society. They would recite their ancestors’ names to invoke their spirits prior to charging into battle. When you fought a Highlander, you fought the spirit of every warrior who had been before him.

The attack on the Chief of Clan Arthur was obviously murderous intent, and murder usually has a strong motive. The objective was not only to remove the Chief and his heir, but to destroy Clan Arthur's history and clear the final challenge to Clan Campbell supremacy. With the loss of Clan Arthur documentation, the only genealogy available tracing the Clan’s descent to King Arthur, is the so called “Ane Accompt of Clan Campbell” dating from the 17th century. It is likely that this genealogy was “created” not long after the drowning and deposition of Clan Arthur, but the claim to descent from King Arthur is much older. The following Ulster Bardic Emissary’s poem from 1595 AD proves that the Irish were not only certain that Clan Campbell (and therefore Clan Arthur) were descended from King Arthur, but that King Arthur had also held tribute over large swathes of Ireland:

“Cruacha Aoi (seat of power in Connacht), the Boyne
The swan-fresh Galey (Co. Sligo),
The flow of the everlasting Boyle (Co. Roscommon),
Were under tribute to King Arthur, from whom you sprang
O Mac Cailein of the bare blades,
Thus she (Ireland) is due your assistance,
Your ancestors held possession of tribute
Over Tara of the Three Men”

(From Images of Scottish Warriors in Later Irish Bardic Poetry by Wilson MacLeod)

The drowning was a hammer blow, but Clan Arthur raised another Chief and continued to inhabit the shores of Loch Awe and the west of Scotland as their younger sibling rival grew ever stronger. By 1745 AD the scattered fragments of Clan Arthur found themselves on both sides of the Jacobite rebellion fighting alongside MacDonalds with Bonnie Prince Charlie and Campbells with King George. Many MacArthurs emigrated or were transported in the aftermath of the disaster on Culloden Moor in 1746 AD. Today the name in all its spelling variations can be found scattered widely in the British Isles, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Life in post Culloden Scotland was harsh. The Chiefs were stripped of their powers, culture and people as the British Government smashed an ancient way of life and occupied the country. MacArthur of Loch Awe’s fortunes declined and the estates were sold off to fund a doomed sugar cane enterprise in Jamaica. Sale of the last clan lands were not completed until 1776 AD. When reminded that he had forgotten Inishail, Patrick MacArthur reputedly replied “Let the tail go with the head”. Clan Arthur’s Holy Isle remained unclaimed until recent years. Patrick “of Inistrynich”, the last Chief of Clan Arthur died without heir soon after arriving in Jamaica in February 1771 AD, and so an ancient and honourable clan lost their chiefship and their last toe hold in the ancestral homeland.

MacArthur of Strachur, the last in the line, died unmarried in the middle of the 19th century.

But this story is not over, this story is just beginning . . .

Around 1590 AD, John MacArthur, third son of Charles of Tirevadich moved from Drishaig on Loch Awe to Dunoon in Cowal. In 1653 AD his descendants bought land from the 8th Earl of Argyll and so founded the House of MacArthur of Milton (The mill town of Dunoon) and Ascog (Bute). They were the ancestors of one James Edward MacArthur Moir who was born in Calgary, Canada in 1914.

In the 1990’s research into the history of the Clan was initiated by a group of MacArthurs in the United States.  Genealogist Hugh Peskett was engaged to research all possible lines of succession for the Chiefship of Clan Arthur, and James’ 16th century family connection to Charles MacArthur of Tirevadich was confirmed. In August 2002 James was recognised by Scotland’s High Seannachie, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, as the new Chief of Clan Arthur.

James Edward Moir MacArthur was officially inaugurated by the Clan in Edinburgh, on 13th April 2003 and Clan Arthur was reborn. One of Scotland’s oldest clans had become the youngest:

The “once and future clan” descended from “the once and future king”

Sadly, James only enjoyed one year as Chief of his beloved Clan and he passed away on 1st April 2004. James is succeeded by his son, John Alexander MacArthur of that ilk , Chief of Clan Arthur.

Today Clan Arthur welcomes all MacArthurs of all spelling variations, MacArthur-Campbells and even Campbells. We are all Arthur’s children.

Clan Arthur Battle Standard Reproduced with the permission of John MacArthur of that ilk, Chief of Clan Arthur
Clan Arthur Battle Standard
Reproduced with the permission of John MacArthur of that ilk, Chief of Clan Arthur

Updated October 2020 by:
Hugh D.P. McArthur, FSA Scot
Clan Arthur Seannachie
High Commissioner for Clan Arthur in Britain