Obituary: David Irvine of Drum, chief who helped end a centuries-old clan feud

David Irvine of Drum (Picture: Gordon Casely)
David Irvine of Drum (Picture: Gordon Casely)
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David Irvine of Drum, clan chief. Born: January 20, 1939, in Birkenhead. Died: February 9, 2019, in Aberdeen, aged 80.

David Irvine of Drum was the chief who fitted his clan for the 21st century, and whose interest in history led to his famously concluding a 600-year clan feud.

He also played a colourful role at the sexcentennial of a notable battle, exchanging swords with the descendant of his own ancestor’s adversary.

In private life, David of Drum was quite the most personable of clan chiefs. He and his wife Carolyn headed across the world to participate in Clan Irvine activities.

At home he served as treasurer of various bodies including the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs; Wallace 700 (the charity remembering Sir William Wallace); and the Scout movement.

He was a patron of Aboyne Highland Games and a regular face at the great Aberdeenshire gatherings of Braemar, Ballater and Lonach.

His friendliness and charm were at odds with an unashamedly bloody history involving a centuries-old feud with neighbouring Clan Keith. That began in 1402 when Irvines slaughtered an invading war party of Keiths at the Battle of Drumoak. It concluded only on 4 August 2002 when David and his Keith opposite number, Michael, 13th Earl of Kintore finally met to shake hands and sign a peace treaty. This they did on the only piece of neutral ground between their original holdings: the middle of Park Bridge over the river Dee. Overseeing the accord as impartial witness was the Marquess of Huntly, chief of Gordon.

The fighting talent of the Irvines was notably displayed when Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum, in his role as chief, led his clan in the battle of Harlaw in 1411, an Aberdeenshire event remembered in the ballad “Gude Sir Alexander Irvine the much renounit Laird of Drum”. Sir Alexander engaged in a duel with Red Hector of the Battles, chief of Maclean of Duart, both warriors dying from wounds inflicted on each other.

It became a tradition that on the date of the battle every century, the laird of Drum and the chief of Duart would exchange swords as a sign of peace. At the 600th anniversary of Harlaw in July 2011, David and Sir Lachlan Maclean of Duart maintained the custom.

David spent a happy childhood at Drum Castle, home of his line since 1323, soaking up knowledge of his family 
history. He would point to his surname as being the only one he knew whose variations started with each of the five vowels, plus the consonant Y, and could nimbly identify the 19 ancestors each named Alexander, out of 26 heads of the family.

He was schooled at Blairmore, Aberdeenshire and Radley College – and to the end of his days, he remained a proud Old Radleian. Determined on a financial career, in 1958 he joined Cunard as a purser, sailing all seven seas, and completing a world cruise on the Caronia.

Transfer to the Queen Mary brought an introduction to a Carolyn Colbeck, fellow crew member serving as a physiotherapist, and granddaughter of Captain William Colbeck, the Antarctic explorer. They married in 1964, after which David entered the Midland Bank, ultimately becoming a senior manager in Manchester and settling his family in Cheshire.

David’s heart was never far from family matters, and in 1996 he and Carolyn moved to Banchory on Deeside, within sight of the ancient lands of Drum, to be closer to family and his seven grandchildren.

Chief or no chief, David proved the ultimate democrat. He knew everyone, and everyone knew David. He once partnered fellow chief Jamie Burnett of Leys in a Commoners v Peers golf match against the Marquess of Huntly, chief of Gordon, and Lord Forbes, chief of that name. As David later related: “In tune with these democratic times, we commoners won”.

Originally the complete non-dancer, David became an overnight convert to Scottish country dancing after his move to Deeside, with rarely a Wednesday passing without the chief of Irvine being on the dance floor in the village hall at Kirkton of Durris.

A lover of the Scots language, he described himself as “a lifetime learner of Doric”, and rejoiced in conversing, dram in hand, in the native speech of Aberdeenshire. He appeared in Who’s Who In Scotland, cheerfully christening the latter Fa’s Fa.

His motto Sub Sole Sub Umbra Virens (Flourishing alike under sun and shade) reflects the ability of the holly adorning his coat-of-arms to thrive in times both good and bad – as has the family down the centuries.

Clan chief, golfer, genealogist, heraldist, banker, gardener and a much-loved father and grandfather who doted on his family throughout more than half-a-century of 
marriage, he was, with 
Carolyn, a long-time member of St Ternan’s Church in Banchory.

David’s connection to St Ternan’s was close: his great-grandfather funded much of the interior, including the splendid woodwork of the pulpit, and generously made funds available for the fabric of the building.

David’s eldest son and heir Alexander, now 27th of Drum, follows the tradition of chiefly Irvines in assuming the additional name of Alexander, with Hugh’s eldest son Thomas, David’s grandson, already bearing the name.

GORDON CASELY