Macdonalds of Glencoe search for clan chief of Mac-harajahs

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THE Macdonalds of Glencoe are better known for the blood they shed at the hands of the Campbells than the Indian blood coursing through their veins.

But that could change now that the search is under way for a long-lost line of Glencoe clan chieftains, who stem from an illicit love affair that produced a noble family of Macdonalds who were as Indian as they were Scottish.

Since the death of the last clan chief, Major Duncan Macdonald, in London in 1907, the clan that was slaughtered at the infamous Glencoe Massacre of 1692 has been leaderless.

A century later, Scotland's heraldic authority, the Lord Lyon, has been asked to investigate a formal claim for the chieftainship which, in turn, has led to research unearthing the clan's strong links to the subcontinent.

The Indian pedigree has come to light with the emergence of an octogenarian New Zealander claiming to be a direct descendant of the 17th-century leader of the 38 people killed in one of the most treacherous episodes in Scottish history.

Colin MacDonald, 83, a retired farmer from Christchurch, has proved that six generations ago his forebear was Alasdair Macdonald (or MacIain) of Glencoe, a huge man with a white flowing beard who was among those callously murdered in 1692.

But genealogists investigating Colin MacDonald's claim have discovered that there is a line of descent that has a superior claim to the title.

The rival line springs from MacIain's great-great-great grandson's romantic liaison with a mysterious woman reputed to be an Indian princess.

Before Colin MacDonald can be anointed clan chief, genealogists must first prove there are no surviving male descendants of Ewen Macdonald of Glencoe (1788-1840) and his lover, whom he seduced in India where he worked as a surgeon with the Honourable East India Company.

Their relationship might have raised eyebrows in 19th-century Glencoe, but yesterday its existence delighted Indian representatives in Scotland, who said it underlined Scotland's strong historical bond with India.

"This is a fascinating story," said Anil Anand, the Indian Consul General in Edinburgh. "These links go right back to colonial times. The Scottish people not only played an important part in the development of Indian industry and administration, but there was a friendly and co-operative atmosphere that exists to this day."

Macdonald family lore suggests that the woman – known as Bunnoo – was the daughter of a maharajah. Her royal credentials, however, may have been overstated.

The baptismal certificate of the couple's only child – a daughter Ellen born in Numuch, Calcutta in 1830 – simply describes Bunnoo as a "native Indian woman".

There are also doubts over whether the couple were actually married – a factor that can be important when deciding the fate of aristocratic lineages given the need for a legitimate heir.

According to Hugh Peskett, the Scottish editor of Burke's Peerage, there is a rumour that Ewen Macdonald and Bunnoo secretly married after he brought her back to Scotland – a journey that suggested their relationship was a genuine love match.

In any case, Peskett, who has researched the family tree, believes Ellen was "legitimated" by her parents claiming marriage "by co-habitation and repute".

More importantly, Peskett has found out that Ewen Macdonald created an entail – or legal document similar to a title deed – that ensured that the couple's daughter Ellen would succeed her father as chief, provided she married someone who was prepared to change his name to Macdonald of Glencoe.

Ellen's husband, Archibald Burns, added Macdonald to his name when they married in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1888.

They had seven children, including Major Duncan Macdonald, the last man recognised as a Glencoe chief.

Under the rules that govern the descent of hereditary clan titles, the claim from New Zealand has resulted in Peskett having to find out if Major Duncan Macdonald's two brothers had any children who would have a stronger claim to the title.

Records show that the elder of the two brothers, Ewen Burns Macdonald, was in Queensland, Australia, in 1877 and, according to the Oban Times, was resident in New Zealand in 1907.

The younger brother, Stuart Burns Macdonald, was last heard of in St Louis, Missouri, in 1877.

"We need to trace these two men to ensure that they left no descendants before a new chief is appointed," Peskett said yesterday. "Because if they exist they would be in line for the chiefship."

On the other side of the world, Colin MacDonald is waiting patiently in Christchurch. Years of painstaking family research have revealed that his ancestors fought with the Jacobites and Culloden before fleeing to France.

One of those was his great-great-great grandfather Donald MacDonald (1730-1802), who was a great-grandson of the chief killed at Glencoe.

His son, also Donald (1791-1849), emigrated to New Zealand after running into serious financial trouble when the wool trade failed. He owed 35,000 and was sequestrated, a move that led to him joining the Scottish diaspora and sailing to the Antipodes.

The family settled in New Zealand, from where Colin MacDonald has submitted his claim for the chiefship.

"So far we haven't found anyone to dispute the claim," he said yesterday. "To the best of my knowledge no one has yet made a serious claim. It is my wish that this should be sorted out before I die and I'm in my 80s so they'd better be quick."