Mr. Brown's Tree

In March of 2017 I found myself in the right place at the right time.

A copy of John Brown's Genealogical Tree of the Lords of the Isles was offered for auction, and I was successful in purchasing it. I knew absolutely nothing about the Tree at the time, but felt instinctively that it ought to be returned to the ownership of a member of Clan Donald.

The panel measures 39 inches (width) by 52 inches (height). It is formed by two equal parts joined horizontally on the central axis. The parchment is backed by some form of fine canvas and the whole is supported by timber rods top and bottom. The bottom rod is circular and intended, I suspect, to roll the parchment towards the top for storage purposes.

The lower panel incorporates all of the "supporting" information...i.e. the full title, the author and his authority, Armorial Bearings (Glengarry, Slate and Antrim), date (1814), authenticity and sources of information etc. It also incorporates the lower section of the "Tree", from the 10th century, through Somerled, and up to and including Angus Mòr.



All images can be viewed in the Gallery at the foot of the page.

The upper panel then shows the branching out of the various families of Clan Donald from Angus Òg onwards, up to and including (it is implied) the year 1814.

The full title, as shown bottom left, is as follows.

Of the Potent & Independent
Lords of the Isles
Earls of Ross
With their Illustrious Descendents
From the X Century to the Year MDCCCXIV
And many other Ancient & Honourable Families



Genealogist to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales

Author of the Genealogical Tree of the Royal House of Stuart etc. etc.

Of the three Heraldic Devices referred to, that of Glengarry is shown at the base of the Tree, i.e. it's source, while those of Slate and Antrim have secondary locations.

My first task was to try and discover something of John Brown. I found him fairly elusive.

There is some evidence of his Royal House of Stuart Tree (actual title is The Royal Family of Scotland). A copy is held by the National Records of Scotland can be viewed in part, on line. It is dated 1792  and incorporates an approbation from the Lyon Office Edinburgh dated 3rd March 1792. The style of the graphics and presentation of this Tree closely resembles that of the Lords of the Isles Tree and clearly comes from the same hand. In his approbation, the Lord Lyon (James Cumyng) includes the following observations

I have examined your Historical and Genealogical Tree of the descendents of the Royal Family of Scotland. There are two other Trees on the same subject- one compiled by Mr Duncan Stewart, the other by the late Sir Robert Douglas; but I observe that yours is more compleat and full than both of them together, and consequently more valuable.


I sincerely wish you Success in obtaining Subscriptions for the publishing of it.

There is also a letter, dated Edinburgh 6th March 1792, from the Earl of Buchan, which includes the following observation...

I have examined Mr Brown's Historical and Genealogical Tree of the Royal House of Scotland and House of Stuart, which he intends to publish, if he meets with suitable encouragement, and, as the work requires a considerable expence in engraving, I have subscribed to it per advance, etc. etc.

This would appear to indicate that the author produced a "draft" or "preliminary" copy, sufficient to illustrate the final production (possibly a folio sheet as noted below), in order to attract funding to cover the cost of publishing.

Reference can be found to two other Trees by Mr Brown (circa 1808), one for the House of Elphinstone, the other for the Family of Graham, but I have not been able to trace images. It may be, of course, that the necessary funds were not forthcoming, and they were never published. There is, however, reference to a folio sheet for both Trees.

A useful source of information on John Brown comes from the Lodge Edinburgh St. Andrew, No 48. I quote

During the Mastership of Spottiswood, Dr John Brown was Senior Warden. He was an amazing man with that touch of genius which is akin to madness. He was born of peasant stock and, after a brilliant scholastic career, studied for the ministry. After passing, however, instead of taking a charge, he returned to the little school at Duns where he had been a pupil, and acted as usher.

He then took up the study of medicine, and founded the Brunonian Medical School. It is said that the Chair of Medicine at Edinburgh University was his for the asking. Instead of pursuing a medical career, however, he opened a lodging-house for students. He was a profound Latin scholar, and was appointed genealogist to the Prince of Wales.

and again

This remarkable man, unfortunately, developed intemperate habits. He became a drug addict, and died in penury in London in his fifty second year.

Finally by reference to the Bibliotheca Heraldica Magnae Britanniae the following insertion is noted

Died beginning of the year 1821 at an advanced age.

It does occur to me that to those of us who can scarcely recall having been 52, it hardly qualifies as an "advanced" age!

Is there an error in the record? If one puts "Brunonian Medical School" into a search engine, many curious, impressive and contradictory "facts" present themselves. For example a birth date of 1735 and a death date of 1788 are recorded. That indeed could give a lifespan of 52 years. On the other hand "our" John Brown could not possibly have died in 1788. If 1821 is the correct date (and there are a number of independent sources which indicate this) and we accept 1735 as a birth date, then he would have been 85 or 86 which is indeed an "advanced" age.  

Moving on from the author to the Tree itself, and here when I refer to Glengarry I refer to Alexander (Alasdair) 15th of Glengarry.

The Lord Lyon, on this occasion, appears to have offered no "approbation".

The first thing to note is that the Glencoe Folk Museum exhibits a copy. I understand that it has been "restored" (details sadly unavailable) and it has lost all of its colouring (save for two very small patches) which renders it a little flat and lifeless. The Museum made a photograph available (13.01.10) to the BBC website "A History of the World in 100 objects" together with the following text.

People from all over the world travel to the Glencoe Folk Museum to use this unique document as an integral component of their research.

Laying aside the wisdom, or otherwise, of such a pilgrimage, what I find of particular interest is that the photograph clearly shows the Tree complete with its original colours. This would appear to indicate that the colours were lost between the date of the photograph and 2017, an unhappy situation if correct.

The same photograph and a similar text can be found on the Scotclans website (www.scotclans.com).

An article dated 1984/5 by Ian McDonald titled "Colonel McAlester of Tarbert" includes in its sources of reference and information

The Clan Donald Family Tree by John Brown courtesy of J.R.M. MacDonald of Largie.

There is no photograph on this occasion. Might it be the copy donated to the Glencoe Folk Museum? The curator was unable to find any record of the donor. Further research required.

The copy that I have has retained all of its original colours which may have been hand applied following printing. This rather suggests that it has either been stored during the last two centuries, or alternatively hung well away from daylight. In any event it is pleasing to view it in what must be close to its original condition.

My initial inspection of the Tree caused me both confusion and concern.

The date of 1814 checked very accurately with the entry for James MacDonell, brother to Glengarry. All his principal battle honours are listed other than the one for which he is possibly best remembered, Waterloo. But Waterloo was fought in 1815 so that made sense.

However what did not make sense was the inclusion of eight of Glengarry's children, one of whom was not born until November 1815. In addition not one of the other branches of the Tree show any children born at this time. Indeed no other contemporary marriages are recorded either. It is rather as if all the other branches of Clan Donald withered while Glengarry flourished and bore fruit.

It should also be noted that the Tree springs from the Armorial Bearings of Glengarry (which are described as also being of the Sovereigns of the Isles) with the main trunk (the primary stem) rising up to and closing with Glengarry and his wife and children. As if to emphasise the point, five of the other branches have the baton sinister applied, indicating illegitimacy.

Why would John Brown chose to do this?.

There is little doubt that in his various consultations and researches, Glengarry, if given an opportunity, would have guided Brown in this direction.  But the other heads of families would surely have influenced him otherwise.

Is it then possible that, notwithstanding his lengthy list of sources on which he claims his work was founded, Mr Brown restricted his source information to that supplied by the Chief of Glengarry?. There is, perhaps, a clue in one part of his text on the lower panel.

The Compiler of this truly Illustrious Genealogy is sensible that many errors & omissions may be discovered in this undertaking notwithstanding all his endeavours to prevent them having travelled for inspiration through the Macdonell Countries viz from the Cape of Kintire Argyleshire to Cape Wreath in Caithness once under the Jurisdiction and Sovereignity of the Lords of the Isles; and from Bute to Barra, Uist, Herries, Lewes etc. Hoping that he has attained in a great degree that correctness and accuracy so requisite in a work of this kind..........etc. etc.

This is a truly remarkable observation, even for someone favoured with the name of MacDonell. The "logic" as I see it is that if Glengarry is the "true and senior" descendant of the Lords of the Isles then it can be argued that all the original territories of the Lordship become part of the "Macdonell Countries". Even allowing for the aspirations of the 15th Chief  of Glengarry, this is an outstanding assumption.

We should perhaps, at this juncture, reflect on Glengarry's other activities at this time, i.e. at or about 1814.

From 1812 onwards he was regularly pressing his case for the re establishment to his family of the hereditary peerage of Scotland granted to his ancestor Aeneas Macdonell, who died in 1680 without issue. His Petitions to Government and through Government to the Crown are well documented in Brian Osborne's publication The Last of the Chiefs. The fact that there was a Genealogical Tree allegedly produced  by the Genealogist to the Prince of Wales fully supporting his claim to Precedence in Clan Donald would, one would have thought, made at least some small contribution to his argument. However both the argument and the book are silent on this matter, as indeed are A and A Macdonald (The Clan Donald) and Norman H MacDonald (The Clan Ranald of Knoydart & Glengarry).

All of these authors must have been aware of the circumstances surrounding Brown's Tree. How should we interpret their silence?.

From 1817 onwards Glengarry was also deeply involved in a very public argument with both Slate and Clanranald regarding the question of Precedence within Clan Donald. This became known as the Clanronald Controversy.

In 1821 Glengarry published his Vindication of the Clanronald of Glengary A footnote on page 4 reads as follows,

Other works of this kind are in embryo, and a splendid Genealogical Tree of the CLAN OF MACDONALD by the late Mr John Brown, GENEALOGIST TO HIS MAJESTY, is already announced for publication etc. etc.

This reference to the Tree in the Clanronald Controversy led me to look a little closer at the various letters which the protagonists had published in local newspapers.

In a letter dated 23rd June 1818 from Clanranald we read

I mentioned that a tree had been published in London, said to have been by John Brown, genealogist to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent; and I will now mention, that I became anxious to see this tree; I accordingly procured a copy of it, and my surprise was great indeed, when I discovered that all the MacDonald race were thereby stigmatised as bastards (a slight, if understandable, exaggeration), excepting Glengarry's family.  I was not aware of this; and naturally applied to Mr Brown for information, when he wrote me the following letter:- In consequence of the inquiry you have made me, relative to a tree of the family of MacDonald, I beg leave to state, that I never made out the tree published in London, and bearing my name. The only tree of the McDonalds which I ever made out , was delivered to Mr Malcolm Rymer, engraver, Summerstown, near London, to be engraved. He had finished the under plate (lower plate?), when Mr McDonald of Glengarry went to him and took away the upper plate, which he then altered in many material points, and afterwards published as my production, and this publication bears to be , "London, published May 1816, by R.S. Kirby, 32 Pater-noster Row". I have already emitted two affidavits on this subject before the magistrates of Edinburgh, one dated 5th March, and the other 4th April 1817, and have no objection whatever to your procuring copies of these, as they point out several of the alterations made by Glengarry, and published by him; and I have only to add, that I never have published any tree of the McDonald family, because, after the spurious tree, already published, I was afraid the clan might be misled,  I am etc.

Clanranald then reported that he managed to procure a copy of the affidavit of the 4th April 1817 from which he goes on to quote as follows

He (Brown) depones that his tree commenced with Somerlett. It did not designate either Hugh or Celestine as the second son of Alexander Earl of Ross. It did not designate any of the clan McDonald as illegitimate; and that, particularly, it did not designate either the Sleat branch or the Clanranald branch as illegitimate. That the tree made out by him did not designate any of the descendants now in existence as the representatives of the McDonald clan. That he never found any evidence that the Slate or Clanranald branches being illegitimate, and does not believe them to be such. That he never saw the plate of the tree which has been published by Mr Kirby, which he solemnly depones he never furnished materials for making out.

I feel the need to pause here and take stock. Insofar as there are any "facts" what might these be?

The Tree contains information only available after November 1815.

John Brown claims the Tree was published, (but not by him), in May 1816. He further advises having "emitted two affidavits" in March and April of 1817. One wonders what took him so long.

Clanranald's correspondence with John Brown is, regrettably, not dated, but must have been sometime after 4th April 1817 and prior to 23rd June 1818.

John Brown does acknowledge having prepared a "McDonald tree", but not the one that was published in 1816. He claims the upper plate of his tree was taken by Glengarry, modified, and subsequently published by a different company. This, as reported by him, is not credible. Both plates would have been required to create the finished product.

Nevertheless the seeds of doubt are now well and truly planted. Such serious accusations (and do remember all of this was published in a local Inverness newspaper) would require some form of immediate, and firm, response.

On the 19th July 1818 a reply was published from "CARAID DON FHIOR RAONUILLICH" (it should be noted that none of these letters identified their authors, but identification was considered an open secret. On this occasion Caraid etc would imply a friend or relative of Fior Raonuillich who in turn was generally accepted as being Glengarry).

It closes with the following N.B.

The oaths and declarations of Brown will not alter the facts. He revised and approved the proof sheet of the tree, as published, before it was published, and marked his approval with his own hand on the back of it. He wrote a letter to Mr Rymer, the publisher, intimating his approval, and transmitting the proof sheet. He also sent a letter by post to Mr Sydie, at Perth, homologating, as his work, the tree of the Macdonalds, both of which will be lodged with you, to satisfy the public that it is so. Mean time, pray insert the following copies of them.

Edinburgh 14th March 1817

Sir - Having lately published a tree of the Macdonalds, you will receive from Glengarry several copies, for the purpose of disposing of them in the usual terms; and, for particular, I refer to him; and whatever agreement he makes, I shall abide by it.

I am, Sir,  Your obedient servant,  (signed) John Brown

Mr Sydie, Post Office, Perth.

and again

Sir, - I have examined the tree of the Clan Macdonell, as delineated by you, on an engraved plan, and it appears to be quite correct; so you may strike it off according to the plan.  

I am, Sir, Your most obedient servant,  (signed)  John Brown

To Mr Malcolm Rymer, Engraver, Sunerstown, London.

N.B. - The copy I have approved is marked "corrected proof", in red ink.

Just when a possible explanation was within grasping distance, all is thrown into confusion once again!.

It is probable that the true facts cannot now be retrieved after so long a passage of time. Is there anything that we can rely on?.

The Tree was printed and circulated. This probably happened in 1817. Its style and format were unquestionably that of an earlier production by John Brown. It would be naive not to accept some interference by Glengarry, if not complete control and manipulation. It occurs to me, for example, that, given the content, no other Head of Family of Clan Donald would have been interested in part funding this publication (and clearly Clanranald had not been approached) and I wonder, therefore, if Glengarry incurred all costs, thus leaving him free to dictate the content. However attractive this "explanation" might appear, it also lacks conviction. Preparation of the plates had clearly been instructed, suggesting that funding was already in place. If the preliminary art work contained information which Glengarry considered inaccurate and requiring "correction" this would imply that other sources within Clan Donald had already exercised some degree of influence including, possibly, financial backing. This backing might well have been withdrawn when it became known that Glengarry had modified the content to better represent his family's interest, thus leaving him no option other than to fund the entire enterprise himself.

All of this must remain pure speculation on my part. Perhaps further evidence will surface in time. The reference, by John Brown, in his letter to Malcolm Rymer, styling the tree as that of the Clan Macdonell, may be significant. It is certainly a little more accurate than the formal title.

The contradictions between the various letters claimed to have been written by John Brown, may in part be explained by his state of health. In 1817/18, (the probable date of all of them) he was already upwards of 80 years of age. We are told he was impoverished  and in poor health, added to which it is believed he was addicted to heroin as a consequence of experimenting with that drug earlier in life, as part of his self medicating. For all of these reasons he could have been vulnerable to manipulation, and could very easily have, from time to time, been responsible for writing contradictory accounts of events.

All of this might, to the purist, seriously question the validity of the Tree, even to possibly considering it historically worthless. To take such a position is, in my opinion, to rather miss the point.

I now recognise that what the Tree demonstrates is not a historical record of the Clan Donald from Somerled onwards, but rather a reflection of the internal (Clan Donald) family stresses and power play prevailing at the end of the 18th, and into the first decades of the 19th century. Viewed in that light it offers further insights into the beliefs and family traditions that drove the 15th Chief of Glengarry to such extraordinary lengths, and eventual financial ruin, in pursuit of impossible (some would say pointless) dreams.

In conclusion however, let us not overlook the possibility, however remote, that Glengarry was indeed correct!.

Charles MacDonell  October 2017.

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