Ardencaple Castle and the Clan MacAulay

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ardencaplecastleONLY one tower of Helensburgh’s Ardencaple Castle now remains, but it is still a beacon which calls members of the Clan MacAulay from all over the world.

Most of the ancient castle was demolished in July 1959, but it is very close to the hearts of clan members no matter which variant of the spelling of their name they use.

What is the magic of the ancient ‘Fort of Arncaple”? It is not a happy story, indeed in many ways it is tragic — but it is also the romantic history of the clan and indeed of Helensburgh and Garelochside.

The MacAulay clan once ruled the land from Ardincaple, as it was spelt then, to Portincaple, Loch Long. Now only the tower and a quadrant of houses in the town, and the Ardencaple Hotel at Rhu, bear the name.

The first record of the castle is in a script of homage to King Edward 1 of England signed by the Scots in 1296. Among the signatories was one Maurice de Ardencaple.

But his successors until 1556 are not thought to have been men of great distinction, although in 1473 Alexander de Ardencaple is known to have served in the inquest on a well known person.

In 1566 Walter de Ardencaple became the chieftain, and he enlarged and strengthened the castle. But within 20 years the MacAulays were associated with the unruly McGregors, of whom Rob Roy has become a legendary figure, and they were aligned against the other local clans, the Colquhouns and the Buchanans.

But true to Scottish form of those times, sides changed — and in 1610 Walter’s son Aulay was knighted for his avid persecution of the by then outlawed McGregors.

In fact a lot of hunting was indulged in during the 16th century, and in Walter’s time the castle — with its approach along a green shady avenue of venerable trees — was still being used by the Kings of Scotland as a hunting lodge.

Mary, Queen o’ Scots and daughter of James V, is said to have been a member of royal parties to Ardencaple in happier days before her tragic end.

It was midway through the 17th century that the rot set in to the MacAulay fortunes.

Aulay’s grandson, the eighth laird, also Aulay, began in 1644 a fairly riotous social life. Perhaps successful with the ladies, he certainly was not successful at the gaming tables. To pay his debts the estate was sold off bit by bit.

His son Archibald made his only mark in life when in 1685 he served as one of the Commissioners at the trial of the Covenanters. But the decay in fortunes could not be stopped.

The last laird, perhaps fittingly, was also an Aulay. He died destitute in Rhu, and in 1787 the castle was bought by the Duchy of Argyll.

The Duke of Argyll restored the castle — and what he restored was essentially the building which was demolished in 1957. On April 30 1823 George John Douglas Campbell, 8th (Scottish) and 1st (UK) Duke of Argyll, was born at Ardencaple Castle and went on to become a scholar and statesman of renown.

In 1862 he sold the castle to Sir James Colquhoun of Luss, of whom the present Laird of Luss, Sir Ivar Colquhoun, is a descendant.

But Sir James was no more fortunate than Mary, Queen o’ Scots, or the later MacAulays. He drowned in a boating accident on Loch Lomond with four boatmen. The bodies of only two of the boatmen were found, but to this day it is not known what befell the other two.

ardencaple_castle_interior In the 20th century the castle was bought and restored again by Mrs Henrietta MacAulay-Stromberg, and in September 1927 it was thrown open to the public in aid of a nursing charity — perhaps its last great occasion.

Mrs MacAulay-Stromberg saw her dream of the castle becoming a centre for the MacAulay clan come true for a day at least, as members travelled from all over Scotland to contribute the then enormous sum of £700 to the good cause.

She was the last family owner of the castle. After she died in 1931 the liferent of the property went to Adelaide Parker Voorheis until 1935, when the castle was sold to Mr and Mrs Hendry, who sold the Tower Lawn to a consortium of developers who developed that ground into a housing estate in 1936-37.

During World War Two the Navy requisitioned the castle, which they finally demolished in 1957, leaving one battle tower standing.

This tower was used as a navigational mark for submarines returning to Faslane until the early 1990s. When the nature and size of submarines changed, replacement navigation towers were necessary in the Firth off Helensburgh, although the tower is still a navigational mark for general shipping on the Clyde.

After the death of the last Ardencaple MacAulay clan chief, the clan was dormant for over 200 years, without prospect of finding a new chief.

That was until April 25 1998 when Japanese prisoner of war camp survivor lain MacMillan MacAulay M.B.E., commissioned Commander of the Honourable Clan, called it to its first meeting in Perth. Twenty MacAulays stepped out of the past and with loyalty and hard work Clan MacAulay started the long journey back to rehabilitation.

The first task was to search for a bloodline to the deceased chief and to find the Undifferenced Arms.

The Lord Lyon ruled that one clan member who had long sought his bloodline back to the ancient chief should be given a year and a day to prove his claim, with a deadline of January 2001.

The clan honoured the agreement but the deadline came and went and after extensive genealogical research the claim was not substantiated.diarmid_macaulay

The way was now clear to hold an ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’. In this ancient patriarchal Celtic court, tradition and democracy are united.

The Elders of the clan, Armigers and Landowners, are allowed to select one from their ranks to be presented to Lyon as their choice for chiefship, a system which has developed over centuries.

The legal and historical nuances of the Derbhfine could not overshadow the joyful occasion when Clan MacAulay retrieved the unity so long lost.

The ceremony was supervised by Charles Burnett, Ross Herald of Arms, representing the Lyon Court and ensuring the Laws of the Court were observed.

Hector-MacAulay-wIt took place on August 3 2001 at Tulloch Castle in Dingwall. Clan members gathered from around the world to select and acclaim the new chief.

Ian MacMillan MacAulay, then 80, was unanimously elected to be the next chief. Sadly, he suddenly passed away on August 9 2003, in the company of friends.

The executive committee met on March 6 2004 to consider the nominations and to announce the procedure for voting for a new chief.

Diarmid Iain MacAulay (pictured right), eldest son of the late chief, was elected chief, and he assumed the role as head of the clan at the gathering on July 31 2004.

On the breakdown of his father’s health in 1966 he returned to Scotland to manage the family 4,000-acre Hill Farm at Ardbhar in Sutherland.

In turn he was succeeded by Hector MacAulay (pictured left) of Crieff. The next election of the Chief will be held in 2019.

  • The castle interior, Diarmid Iain MacAulay and Hector MacAulay images are by courtesy of the Clan MacAulay Association.