By Alastair Dalton
A CLAN which snatched a war trophy from Robert the Bruce as he narrowly escaped being killed in battle is preparing to finally show off its highly-prized bounty.
The MacDougalls are considering publicly displaying the brooch of Lorn, which their forefathers carried off in triumph almost 700 years ago, as part of a planned museum at the clan seat in Oban.
The rarely-seen royal jewel was torn from the Scottish king's cloak as he fled from defeat at the battle of Dalrigh, near Tyndrum, in 1306.
However, the brooch was later stolen from the MacDougalls during the religious wars of the 1640s and has been jealously guarded by the clan since its return almost 200 years later.
It is now kept in a bank vault, which can only be opened by the clan chief. One of the brooch's last appearances was when a previous chief wore it for the Queen's visit to Oban in 1956.
The brooch, an oval-shaped crystal set in silver and surrounded by pearls, could be displayed at Dunollie House, the clan seat, as part of a proposed museum of Highland social history. It was seen as a badge of authority, with the crystal unscrewing to reveal a chamber that may have held a relic or momento.
The MacDougalls, whose motto is To conquer or die, attacked Bruce in 1306 as revenge for the king's murder of his rival for the throne, John Comyn, a nephew of the clan chief.
Bruce, who was retreating west with 300 supporters from defeat by the English at Methven, found himself outnumbered by 1,000 clan troops and sought to escape. However, he was attacked by three clansmen who managed to grab the brooch from his shoulder before he could get away.
The brooch was kept at Dunollie Castle until being moved to another MacDougall stronghold, Gylen Castle on the nearby island of Kerrera, for safety during the Covenanting wars which accompanied the English Civil War. However, the brooch was captured when the castle was sacked by General Leslie, backed by English troops, in 1647.
It did not resurface until being found in 1819 in a chest after the death of Major Campbell of Bragleen. A paper accompanying the brooch confirmed it had been taken by the Campbells in the raid on Gylen Castle.
The brooch was returned to the MacDougalls by General Duncan Campbell of Lochnell, a trustee of the major's estate, five years later. Queen Victoria later examined the trophy during a visit to the MacDougall clan chief in 1842.
Mary McGrigor, a historian and author of the forthcoming "Argyll: Land of Blood and Beauty," said the brooch had major historical significance. She said: "It is one of the most important relics in Scottish medieval history and people will be extremely interested to see it.
"The MacDougalls have been scared stiff that the brooch would be pinched again and nobody is allowed to take it out of the bank except the clan chief."
Dr David Brown, a lecturer in Scottish history at Glasgow University, said the brooch fell into MacDougall hands at a key moment in Bruce's reign. He said: "It was the low point of his career. He had gambled everything and was making a desperate flight. He was a hunted man and was lucky to survive."
Members of the Clan MacDougall Society of North America, which is helping to raise funds to restore Gylen Castle, also expressed delight at plans to exhibit the brooch.
Alan MacDougall, its second vice-president, said: "I am very excited about the prospect of the brooch being on public display. It would be a wonderful contribution to Scottish history and the spirit of the family and clan if Dunollie House could be open to all."
However, art experts have questioned whether the brooch, which is believed to be of European design, belonged to Bruce because it is believed to date from a later period.
David Caldwell, curator of the Scottish medieval collections at the National Museums of Scotland, said: "It is a very important piece of west Highland art, but it dates from the mid 15th century, so cannot be Bruce's. Maybe the original brooch fell to pieces and this one was substituted for it."
Mike Robertson, factor for the Dunollie estate, said he hoped the brooch would be put on show as part of the museum plans. A feasibility study has just been completed into the scheme, to display a major Highland folk art collection amassed by the late Hope MacDougall, aunt of the current clan chief.
Robertson said: "The family has expressed a willingness for a 19th century replica of the brooch to be made available if the project comes off, but I hope the actual one will be eventually displayed.
"They are very conscious of its importance, and if the circumstances were right, it would be considered."