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Brooch of Lorn: valued item but experts doubt its age. Photograph: Scottish Field
Display plan for clan Bruce relic
By Alastair Dalton
IN THE MacDougall clan memories run long. They were outraged when their prized war trophy – ripped from the breast of a fleeing Robert the Bruce – was stolen in a Campbell raid in the 17th century.

The fabled Brooch of Lorn was returned at the beginning of the 19th century, and so fearful were the MacDougalls of again losing the relic that it has lain in a dusty bank vault, which the clan chief alone can open, ever since.

Only now, 200 years later, is the distrustful Highland clan cautiously considering allowing the public to see the historically significant relic. The royal jewel is said to have been torn from the Scottish king’s cloak as he fled from defeat at the battle of Dalrigh, near Tyndrum, in 1306.

It was later stolen from the MacDougalls during the religious wars of the 1640s and has been closely guarded by the clan since its return almost 200 years later. One of its last appearances was when a previous chief wore it for the Queen’s visit to Oban in 1956.

But the brooch, an oval-shaped crystal set in silver and surrounded by pearls, could now 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 memento.

The MacDougalls, whose motto is ‘To conquer or die’, attacked Bruce in 1306 in revenge for the king’s murder of his rival , 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. But 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 before 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. But it was captured when the castle was sacked by General Leslie, backed by English troops, in 1647.

It did not resurface until 1819 when it was found 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. "It is one of the most important relics in Scottish medieval history and people will be extremely interested to see it," she said. It is part of a major Highland folk art collection amassed by the late Hope MacDougall, aunt of the current clan chief.

Dr David Brown, a lecturer in Scottish history at Glasgow University, said the brooch fell into MacDougall hands at a key point in Bruce’s reign. "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 have survived."

However, some art experts have questioned whether the brooch in question really did belong to Bruce, suggesting it dates 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: "The family is happy for a 19th century replica of the brooch to be made available if the museum project comes off. However, they are very conscious of its importance, and if the circumstances were right, display of the actual brooch might eventually be considered."
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