Lost Clan Campbell Seal Reveals Clues to Scottish Feud
Archaeologists in Scotland excavating a castle on the western isles have discovered a seal matrix forged in a time of great struggle between the clan Campbell and clan MacDonald.
In the early 17th-century the clan Campbell, loyal to the crown, battled furiously with the clan MacDonald for strategic territories on the west coast of Scotland and one of the most important island strongholds was the Isle of Islay, the seat of the MacDonald Lord of the Isles.
A new paper published in the journal Antiquity, by researchers from the Department of Archaeology, University of Reading , presents the results of a castle excavation on Islay at which a rare artifact was recovered pertaining to the great feud between the clan Campbell and clan MacDonald.
Dunyvaig Castle, Lagavulin Bay, Islay, where the clan Campbell seal was found. (Darko Maricevic ̌ & Steven Mithen / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).
Like Chalk and Cheese
Dunyvaig Castle is located on the tip of the eastern promontory of Lagavulin Bay on the Isle of Islay and archaeologists believe this 16th-century tower was built upon the ruins of a much older fortification. The castle was a major stronghold of the MacDonalds of Dunyvaig and the clan’s “Lordship of the Isles” was also centered at Finlaggan on Islay.
The MacDonalds held Dunyvaig Castle until AD 1494, when they were forfeited to the crown. From that time a string of successive, and repressive, Campbell “Earls of Argyll” applied their royal-supported authority in the west coast of Scotland and increasingly encroached on ancestral MacDonald territories. In 1615, the crown gave Dunyvaig Castle to Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, which sparked off the historic battle between the clan Campbell and clan MacDonald.
A Tiny Seal with a Big Story
In August 2018, Islay Heritage and archaeologists from University of Reading opened two excavation trenches at the castle and on a clay floor beneath a collapsed wall they discovered the seal matrix. Pressed into wax, the artifact would have been used to identify enclosed missives and as a means of authenticating documents secrecy.
Left: Trench 2, excavation at the sea gate. Right: Trench 1, excavation of building B showing where the clan Campbell seal matrix was found. (Darko Maricevic ̌ / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
“Armorial seal matrices,” like this one, were made and used by Scottish aristocratic and noble classes. Cast in the form of a flower and forged from a lead and tin alloy, with antimony and silver, the seal matrix measures 36mm (1.4in) in diameter and lead author Steven Mithen says it “reveals the personal story of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor (1576–1642).”
A New Seal Matrix for a New Head of Clan
The owner of the seal matrix was identified by the broad-pointed shield on one side, which bears the Campbells of Calder (or Cawdor) arms and the Thanes of Cawdor, that were matrimonially united in AD 1511, and it is thought to have belonged to a Sir John Campbell of Cawdor.
Clan Campbell seal matrix of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, from front, side and back. (Sarah Lambert-Gates & Darko Maricevic ̌ / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
On the reverse side is the date 1593 and a maker’s mark reading “DM,” which the researchers think stands for David Mylne. This Edinburgh based goldsmith is known to have made a very similar seal matrix for James Hamilton , and because the type of punches used in the decoration are the same on both examples, the authors of the paper think the two matrices were probably produced in the same workshop.
Detail on the clan Campbell seal showing: A) the maker’s mark DM; B) the stag’s head; C) the galley. (Sarah Lambert-Gates & Darko Maricevic ̌ / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
The date 1593 is thought to be related to a particularly troublesome time in the history of the Campbells of Calder, for only one year previously Sir John Campbell, the laird of Calder, was assassinated by men from his own clan. The researchers speculate that his son, another John, possibly made a new seal matrix to ensure that official family business could continue in his name.
Sinking the Seal into Context
Trying to put the seal matrix in its appropriate historical context, the researchers say the castle was attacked and regained at least four times by MacDonald clansmen in the years 1614, 1615 and 1647, but soon after each capture the Campbells took the castle back. The seal matrix is thought to have been lost or hidden during the siege of 1614 when Sir Oliver Lambert and Sir John Campbell successfully seized the island stronghold.
The archaeologists learned even more about the artifact when scans revealed that building B, in which the seal matrix was discovered, was constructed after the 1614 siege when the Campbells used it as an administrative center. Therefore, it is suggested that maybe a constable or clan Campbell official had used the seal matrix for official ‘royal’ documentation.
In 1615, the castle was retaken by Sir James MacDonald and on this occasion, it wasn’t retaken by the clan Campbell until October that year, which leads the authors to consider maybe Sir James MacDonald had built the ramparts over the ruined walls of the castle, burying the seal matrix.
Top image: Clan Campbell seal matrix of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor. Source: Sarah Lambert-Gates & Darko Maricevic ̌ / Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Ashley Cowie
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