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Clan Donnachaidh Annual
The Burial Places of the Chiefs of the Clan Donnachaidh

     The burial places of the early chiefs of Clan Donnachaidh are shrouded in uncertainty. Much of what we ‘know’ is based on legend or oral history and oral histories are notoriously unreliable. Nevertheless, oral histories tell us of what was once believed to be true and about beliefs that may have guided action. They may also, in the absence of other data, be a starting point for research.  It is therefore important to record oral traditions as well as historical data lest they be lost to us.

     Our first chief Duncan Reamhair (circa 1275-1355), legend suggests, was buried in the now deconsecrated and unused parish church at Dull near Weem in Strathtay. The History and Martial Achievements of the Robertsons of Strowan, published in 1797, declares that Duncan Reamhair was ‘buried at Dull in Athole where his grave is still to be seen and much admired for its extraordinary length’.  Duncan Reamhair was reputedly a man of great stature. Consistent with this account is an oral tradition prevalent in Atholl as recently as the 1960s that held that his grave lies just outside the eastern end of the present church. Duncan Reamhair, being an important person, would have been buried in, rather than outside, the church but, according to this tale, the apse of the church was removed during one of its many remodellings; as a result his grave is now to be found outside the church (papers of Langton Robertson of Struan, 23rd Chief, 1969). This is not an improbable tale. The present church is believed to have been built on the site of earlier ecclesiastical foundations dating back to an eighth-century abbey founded in memory of St Adamnan. The abbots of Dunkeld were also the abbots of Dull and, according to Skene, Duncan Reamhair was a direct descendant of the abbots of Dunkeld and Dull and proprietor of the abbey lands. So it is possible that he was buried here. 

Burial View

     Some time later  - possibly in the fifteenth century - Struan church at the confluence of the Garry and the Errochty, became the burial place of the chiefs. There is documentary evidence of the existence of a parish church in Struan as far back as the thirteenth century. The present church was built in 1828 alongside a stone church of greater size built some time before 1600 (the late Donald Cameron, minister of Blair Atholl and  Struan, Clan Donnachaidh Annual 1955).

     The plan of lairs in Struan churchyard shows that two lairs located a few feet to the right of the altar end of the present church are reserved for Robertsons of Struan. The first would have been within, and at the sanctuary end of, the old church. The second lair is adjacent to the first but would have been just outside the old church. It is because these lairs are believed to be the burial place of the early chiefs of the Clan that the Chief and his family have traditionally stood here after the service in the Kirk that brings the Clan's annual gatherings to a close while the Chief’s piper plays a Lament in memory of our Chiefs and of all our departed forbears.

     The Poet Chief, Alexander Robertson of Struan (the 13th chief, circa 1670-1749) is the only chief of whose burial at Struan I have so far been able to find a documentary record. He was apparently buried with great ceremony in the family vault beneath the aisle of the old church.  James Robertson in his history of the Chiefs of Clan Donnachaidh 1275-1749 and the Highlanders at Bannockburn (published in 1929) says that ‘his funeral was the largest that has ever been seen in Rannoch, having been attended by two thousand persons of all ranks’. Struan’s coffin was apparently borne by a carrying-party all the way from Carie, where he died, to Struan. (This account was written nearly 200 years after the Poet Chief’s death and is not sourced. Subsequent accounts that I have come across are derived from it)

     In the centuries that followed the Poet Chief’s burial at Struan a ‘foreign field’ was to be the final resting place of three of the chiefs. A secluded walled enclosure on the Dunalastair Estate by the Tummel  became the burial place of at least four chiefs. The burial place of two chiefs remains shrouded in uncertainty. In 1983, with the interment of the ashes of Langton, the twenty-third chief (Gilbert’s father), Struan churchyard once again became the final resting-place of a Donnachaidh chief.

     The Poet Chief’s successor, Duncan (the fourteenth chief) was, like him, an active supporter of the Jacobite cause and died in exile in France circa 1780. He is reputedly buried at Givet in the Ardennes.

     The fifteenth chief, Duncan’s son Lt-Col Alexander Robertson, died in December 1822 and was buried on his Dunalastair Estate on January 2, 1823. By this time the ‘old’ Struan church was derelict  and the family vault beneath its aisle had been sealed. This circumstance may have led to the fifteenth chief’s choice of Dunalastair as his final resting place and to the establishment there of what is now known as the Chiefs’ Burial Ground.  His funeral is recorded in The Perthshire Courier of January 10, 1823. Their correspondent wrote:

     ‘Wednesday the 1st curt, being the day appointed for removing the body of Colonel Robertson from Rannoch Barracks [where he died] to Mount Alexander, about 17 miles distant, nearly 400 persons, chiefly of the name of Robertson, assembled in the morning to pay the last services to him whom in life they had so much honoured and respected. As soon as the coffin, containing the body of the deceased, was placed on the lawn in front of the Barracks, all the company uncovered, and in a solemn and orderly manner marched round the body two a-breast, after which an elderly man advanced forward to the head of the coffin, and delivered a long oration in Gaelic, enumerating the deeds and virtues which adorned the deceased chieftain, both as a friend and benefactor. When this was concluded, the company again marched round the coffin in the same order as before, when another elderly man delivered an oration similar to the first. The corpse was then conveyed to the hearse, which set out for Mount Alexander, followed by all the company, and arrived there in the evening  and next day the body was consigned to the grave, in a piece of ground marked out by the chieftain for that purpose, a short time previous to his decease’.

     From this last sentence, it is perhaps reasonable to infer that Col Alexander was the first chief to be buried on the Dunalastair Estate.

Dull Kirk

     The sixteenth chief, Captain Alexander Robertson (1745-1830), and the seventeenth chief, Major-General George Duncan Robertson (1766-1842), Langton (the 23rd chief) was told by a local savant in the 1960s, were buried in Struan churchyard. This tale is plausible. When Captain Alexander died in 1830, the church at Struan had been rebuilt and it is reasonable to suppose that he and his successor, Major-General George Duncan (who died in 1842), were buried in the Struan lair that lay just outside the walls of the old church. However, I have not been able to find any documentary evidence of their burials. And it is also possible that they were buried at Dunalastair thus establishing a tradition that the eighteenth chief was to perpetuate.

     When the Dunalastair Estate was sold in the 1850s, the eighteenth chief, Lt George Duncan Robertson (1816-64) reserved for himself and ‘his heirs and successors in the remainder of the said Barony of Strowan the right and privilege of interment in the family Burying Ground for the members of his family of Strowan with the necessary access at all reasonable and proper times thereto for the purpose of interment or for visiting the same or for the repairing the walls thereof’ (from the Notarial Instrument of Struan propy,  1865). The eighteenth chief was himself buried there in  1864. An obituary notice in The Scotsman (April 18, 1864) records that he was ‘carried shoulder-high by his men and the stout shepherds of Rannoch and lowered into his rest by his brother officers of the Athole Guard’.

     The nineteenth and twentieth chiefs, Alexander Gilbert (1806-1884) and Alasdair Stewart (1863-910) were also buried at Dunalastair. Alexander Gilbert’s burial there is recorded in the Perthshire Constitutional of October 22, 1884. Of Alasdair Stewart’s funeral, the Perthshire Advertiser (June 1, 1910) records:

     ‘After passing through the grounds of Dunalastair, the coffin covered with beautiful white flowers, was carried from the avenue to the burial ground by relays of the Rannoch men, most of them wearing the kilt, and by representatives of the Clan Donnachaidh Society preceded by pipers Thomas M’lauchlan, Auchleeks, and John Stewart, 1st Scottish Horse, playing The Flowers o' the Forest and Struan’s Lament.’

     A colourful and detailed description of his funeral by the then Secretary of the Clan Society, Sarah Robertson Matheson, later appeared in the Celtic Monthly (September 1910) and was reprinted in the Centenary Clan Annual of 1993. 

     Alasdair Stewart died without issue and so was succeeded by the great-grandsons of the sixteenth chief, Robert Joseph Stewart (1865-1926) and George Duncan (1867-1949). Their grandfather (the youngest son of the sixteenth chief) was among those nineteenth-century Scottish colonial pioneers who, seeking to escape the economic dislocations of the Highlands, helped to people, defend and build the British Empire and Commonwealth. He settled in Jamaica in the 1820s and his son and grandsons lived, worked and died there. Robert Joseph Stewart died, unmarried in 1926 and is buried in the parish of Clarendon. His brother, George Duncan, died in 1949 and is buried in the parish church of St Andrew in Kingston.

     Langton (George Duncan’s son and Gilbert’s father) also lived, worked and died in Jamaica. He visited the clan lands twice, in 1970 and in 1975. He chose Struan as his final resting place. His ashes were interred at the site of the first Struan lair in Struan churchyard in a moving ceremony in October 1983. A memorial stone bears the simple inscription for which he had asked and which eloquently signifies his deep attachment to the country of his forbears and the people amongst whom he was the Chief. It reads:

Here were laid the ashes of
Chief of Clan Donnachaidh.
Born June 4, 1898.
Died August 23, 1983.
The Chief who came home from a distant place.

All three burial places of the chiefs in Scotland have been designated places of architectural and historical importance. Dull and Struan were given B listed status in 1971. The Chiefs’ Burial Ground at Dunalastair was given C/S listed status in 1981 as having local historical significance, and merit as a structure pre-dating 1840, surviving in a substantially unaltered state (Historic Scotland: letter dated December 16, 2003). The Clan Society has in some measure been involved in cherishing all three. Members of the Society are currently involved in an archaeological dig at Dull (reported on elsewhere in this Annual) which it is hoped will shed some light on the early Christian and medieval periods of the church.  Struan church is cherished as the place where generations of clansmen and women have worshipped and are buried as well as the burial place of our early chiefs. When the church was being refurbished in the 1950s, the Clan Society presented it with a baptismal font and a carved panel of the Evangelists. The Chiefs’ Burial Ground at Dunalastair was for decades  maintained by the Rannoch and Highland branch supported by donations from the chief’s family and the London and Southern Counties branch. At the beginning of the 1990s it was purchased for the Clan Society from the present owner of the Dunalastair Estate by US members of the Society and a trust established for its maintenance in perpetuity. Memorial tablets to two of the chiefs buried there, George Duncan and Alasdair Stewart (the latter placed by Langton in 1968) have been in place for some time. Memorial tablets to the fifteenth and nineteenth chiefs are now planned.

     Both Struan and Dunalastair have been vividly described in our annals. Of Struan church, it has been said: ‘On that green knoll at the confluence of the Garry and Errochty there is a sense of peace and the stillness that speaks to the hearing ear. It is a simple, little church, quiet in its surroundings, suited to the environment and blending with one of the beautiful scenes of Scotland.’ (the late Rev Donald Cameron, M.A. Minister of Blair Atholl and Struan in a  sermon at a clan service).

     And of the Chiefs’ Burial Ground at Dunalastair, it has been written:

     ‘A more exquisite place is not in all the Perthshire Highlands - of which it is the very heart - a little wooded knoll near Dunalastair within whose lofty pines the shadow of death gently and for ever broods, even at noon, over the few graves of the lords of the clan and their kin, at its foot the wild Rannoch, now asleep, now chafing with the rocks, and beyond the noble Schiehallion, crowned as it was on that day [the day of the burial of the eighteenth chief] with snow and raked with its own pathetic shroud-like mists.’ (from the Obituary Notice of  the 18th Chief, George Duncan, which appeared in The Scotsman, April 18, 1864).

Faith Robertson Elliot

I would like to hear from readers who may have further information about the burial places of the chiefs of the Clan and in particular of the sixteenth and seventeenth chiefs, Alexander Robertson and Major-General George Duncan Robertson. I may be contacted through the Clan Society or by e-mail   

     I would like to thank Patricia Kerr, former curator of the Clan Donnachaidh Museum of drawing my attention to a letter in the Blair Castle archives that first revealed the burial at Dunalastair of the fifteenth chief.

Jeremy Duncan of the A.K. Bell Library, Perth, and the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, for their help in tracing newspaper accounts of the funerals of the nineteenth century chiefs.

Historic Scotland for information on the listed status of the burial places.

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