The Brooch of Lorn is possibly the best known of an important group of three medieval turreted brooches, all from Argyll, and all linked by style, date or oral tradition. The other two are the Ugadale Brooch (privately owned) and the Lochbuy brooch ( British Museum). The smallest but best preserved of the three, the Brooch of Lorn is in the ownership of the MacDougall of Dunollie Preservation and is soon to be on display within the National Museum of Scotland.
This narrative explores the weaving of history and tradition that has sustained the iconographic importance of the Brooch of Lorn to the present day.
The Brooch is made of Scottish silver of 97% purity. The central crystal is an opaque silica charmstone set in a scallop-edged reliquary casket which screws onto the base of the brooch. The circular base carries almost all the decoration, comprising eight turrets mounted with Scottish freshwater pearls. The decoration would stylistically appear to belong to a continental school; it is almost identical to, but smaller than, the Lochbuy Brooch, and is thought to be by the same hand or workshop. The Ugadale Brooch is decorated with insular-type motifs. The back pin is a later replacement. There is no inscription or hallmark. The whole brooch is approximately 100mm across by 40mm high.
There is no reason to disbelieve the tradition that dates the charmstone to the late 13th century; charmstones surface around this time and are linked to the Crusades either in fact or in people’s imaginations for the added holy associations. The re-setting has been narrowed by style and historiography to roughly the third quarter of the 16th century.
The Brooch is in excellent condition, showing minor black sulphide tarnish in the silver filigree. It had been stored in silk-lined box made for it in the 19th century, but has recently been removed from this case and is now stored in corrosion intercept material in an inert plastic box.
The Brooch of Lorn is an iconic jewel for the Clan MacDougall, symbolising the height of their power in the 13th and early 14th centuries, and representing the moment when the Clan came within a hair’s breadth of bringing down Robert the Bruce and changing the course of Scottish history.
The story begins in the rivalry for the Scottish crown between the Balliol dynasty and Robert the Bruce. The first chiefs of the Clan MacDougall, titled Lords of Lorn or ‘de Ergadia’ were hugely powerful. Alexander of Lorn, 4th Chief, married into the Balliol family thus becoming the uncle of John ‘the Red’ Comyn, who had the support of Edward 1 of England in his campaign against Robert the Bruce.
In late 1305 the Scottish campaign was in stalemate and Bruce was planning a coup with our without John ‘the Red’ Comyn. He requested a meeting in Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries – probably just to talk, but matters became heated and Bruce killed John ‘the Red’ Comyn. For Alexander of Lorn and his son John, the murder of their kinsman propelled them and their Clan into an irreversible blood feud with Robert the Bruce, who was crowned six weeks later. Immediately, Edward 1 dispatched forces north with order to ‘raise dragon’, or show no mercy. Pursued from the south by Edward’s army and from the west by the Lords of Lorn, Robert the Bruce found himself with limited forces in unsafe territories.
A disastrous rout at the Battle of Methven in June saw the new Scottish King on the run; fleeing with his wife, daughter and other women among a small force of a few hundred men into the wild lands of Drumalban around modern-day Tyndrum.
They were heading for sanctuary with the monks of St Fillan, but it brought them head on with the Lords of Lorn at Dalrigh.
The tale of how the Brooch of Lorn came to be captured at Dalrigh has been told down through the generations of the Clan MacDougall to the present day, but the truth of what happened is clouded in the mixture of legend and history.
There is a detailed account of the skirmish at Dalrigh in John Barbour’s ‘The Brus’, an epic poem written 50 years after Bruce’s death but while it graphically describes the moment three assailants almost overcame Robert the Bruce, it does not mention the Brooch.
There may be lost documents, but a note from Captain John MacDougall, 25th Chief, to the journal of the Society of Antiquaries in 1828 probably sums it up when he says the brooch was “said by tradition to have been taken by my ancestors, the MacDougall, Lairds of Lorn, from King Robert the Bruce, at the battle of Dalry”.
It was probably the endless retelling of the great tale that gradually found its way into print, but apart from the significance of the Brooch of Lorn as an artefact in its own right, it is really the potency of the story which has the real value for the Clan MacDougall as a trophy of war and symbol of power down the centuries. The story is therefore enough as it is, and – without an attempt at disentangling fact and fiction – is told below.
John of Lorn or Iain Bacach (Lame John), son of Alexander the 4th chief, had gathered ‘the barons of Argyll’¹ and his men were “a thousand weill or ma” to Bruce’s few, although Bruce had the advantage of horses.
Fierce fighting ensued and Bruce’s men “slew and fellyt and woundyt sar” until overwhelmed, Bruce ordered a withdrawal, pulling his men – and women – into a group and defending their backs as they fled.
Three men of Lorn kept at their heels. Described as the ‘hardiest’ in the country, they were two brothers Mac an Dorsair; the doorkeepers to the Clan, and one other. They waited until he was in a narrow place and attacked, in one story seizing the bridle, or the stirrup, or mounting behind the Bruce; in another gaining such a hold on his cloak that he could not break free.
In the epic poem ‘the Brus’, Robert the Bruce kills them all and escapes with such “chivalry” and “outrageous manheid” that none from John of Lorn’s men dare follow.
But the Clan MacDougall remembers it differently: “the King was forced to louse the buckle of the brotch wherewith the mantle was closed, and so leaving mantle and broach escaped narrowly with his life (which broach was keepd by the McCouls in Dunolich as a monument of their victory”.² Another tale tells how “the Broach which that day beamed upon the breast of the Scottish monarch remained a trophy in the hands of the Victors”³.
Of Robert the Bruce’s many desperate encounters, this ranked high. Dalrigh and Methven transformed him from a new king with a functioning army to a small band of fugitives on the run across Rannoch Moor with their wives and women sent north for safety, and their heavy weaponry supposedly pitched into a small loch near Dalrigh to lighten their escape – it is still known as Lochan nan Arm.
Interestingly, during this flight Robert the Bruce is supposed to have rewarded the MacAllisters in Kintyre with the gift of a charmstone for arranging boats across to Arran: this charmstone became the Ugadale Brooch.
As soon as Robert the Bruce had regrouped, he came west with to endow a new priory at St Fillans in gratitude for their sanctuary, and to revenge his “most persistent foe” – the MacDougall Lords of Lorn.
In 1308 he drew them into the Pass of Brander and attacked them, slaughtering them at the bottleneck of the Bridge of Awe while their commander, John of Lorn watched ill and helpless from the deck of a birlinn on Loch Awe. The dead were piled into graves which local oral tradition identifies as the mounds still visible alongside the River Awe.
Robert the Bruce confiscated virtually all MacDougall territory. John of Lorn escaped to become the commander of Edward I’s northern navy, winning significant victories against the Bruce. His father Alexander made a necessary and fragile peace with Robert the Bruce, but the wealth and power of the MacDougall Lords of Lorn were never regained.
Thus the Brooch of Lorn was, and is, an icon: representing victory over the great Robert the Bruce, and symbolising the time when the MacDougalls were at the height of their power.
¹Quotes from Barbour throughout unless specified
²Family papers from before 1678
³Old paper at Dunollie
The Brooch, in its original setting (of which nothing is known) was guarded with extreme care after its capture – and as a charmstone, was probably revered as a talisman by the clan. Charmstones (of which Dunollie once had three) were in use for protection in battle or against sickness well into the 19th century.There was a resurgence of interest in charmstones in the 16th century, and the three Argyll brooches gained their new turreted settings.
The Brooch resurfaces dramatically during the Covenanter Wars: in 1647, General Leslie sent a Campbell commander north to quell the Royalist MacDougalls. Expecting an attack, the chief’s wife at Dunollie Castle sent the Brooch to Gylen Castle on Kerrera for safety. The troops diverted and laid seige to Gylen, which was eventually burned and almost all those inside killed. The Brooch of Lorn was captured – and presumed lost forever by the Clan.
Then in 1819, Major Campbell of Bragleen, near Oban, died. In his charter chest his Trustees found the Brooch of Lorn with identifying note. It was in fact a closely guarded family secret, which carried an instruction for it not to be sold unless it was necessary for the childrens’ education. His impoverished widow with three little girls perhaps thought the moment had come. However, after careful consideration, the senior trustee Colonel Campbell of Lochnell arranged for the Brooch to be handed over to Captain John MacDougall, the future 25th Chief, at Inveraray Castle in October 1824.
Coming only two years after the momentous visit by King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 the ceremonial return of this ancient, iconic brooch to its Clan was the stuff of storybooks. It is difficult to overemphasise the context in which the Brooch made its dramatic reappearance. The Scottish enlightenment had passed through earnestness into romanticism; MacPherson’s Ossianic series (albeit discredited) was still fresh and Sir Walter Scott still prolific. Wordsworth and Keats undertook Highland grand tours, and Mendelssohn would write the Hebrides Overture just six years later.
Scott had described “the brooch of burning gold” rather than silver in his poem about Robert the Bruce “The Lord of the Isles” published in 1815, but neither he, nor anyone other than the Campbells of Bragleen, had seen the Brooch in 150 years nor expected to again.
Captain – later Admiral - John, the 25th Chief had welcomed George IV to Edinburgh, and went on to be a celebrated participant in the Highland revival; collecting literature, receiving poets, embracing tartan. He had his portrait painted in a tartan suit with the newly discovered Brooch of Lorn pinned to his plaid, and wore it as he steered the royal barge for Queen Victoria on her visit to Taymouth in 1842, allowing her to handle it.
The Brooch of Lorn was famous. Its absence and return were hotly debated in correspondence and the newspapers, and when Princess Louise married the Marquis of Lorne in 1871 (a title no longer connected to the MacDougalls), a replica of the Brooch was among the main gifts.
In 1922, another replica was presented by young Coline MacDougall to the Princess Royal, Princess Mary, as a wedding gift. Coline was the eldest daughter of the 29th Chief and went on to be the 30th – and first female – chief. Her niece, Morag, is the current chief, and so the story comes right up to the present day.
Today the worldwide Clan MacDougall still hold the Brooch of Lorn to be the single most important object for the Clan and it is at the centre of renewed activity. The MacDougall of Dunollie Preservation Trust recently commissioned an exact replica from Hamilton and Inches; an exhibition and a play about the Brooch have been produced for the Year of Homecoming in 2009; and there have been suggestions that a (simpler) replica be made for commercial sale.
In the 21st century, the Brooch of Lorn has become an icon of the yearning for belonging and roots among MacDougalls worldwide. Whatever the truths or myths about its origins, the story is self-sustaining and its potency goes on.
Catherine Gillies 2009
The replica Brooch of Lorn is currently on display within the 1745 House Museum at Dunollie Museum, Castle and Grounds