The refashioning of history

The refashioning of history

Charles Maclean examines the curious story of Clan Campbell and its acquired pedigree

History | 04 Aug 1999 | Issue 5 | By Charles MacLean

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It appears that S. Campbell & Sons, the predecessors of Campbell Distillers, the owners of Clan Campbell, were not actually Campbells at all. Samuel Campbell’s original name was Samuel Rosenbloom, and before he became a Campbell he had changed his name to Ross. When asked why he did this, he replied, somewhat obscurely: ‘It’s so next time I go into the witness-box and they ask me my name, I say Samuel Campbell, and when they say “Mr Campbell what was your name before it was Campbell?” I say “Ross”.’ And this is by no means the only time in the history of Scotch that the past has been deftly reinvented. S. Campbell & Sons had bought the brand in the 1930s from Muir Mackenzie & Co Ltd. of Glasgow; it had been available only in the United States, and the brand had been registered in the 1940s. The only link, in fact, that the brand of Clan Campbell has with the eponymous clan is that the Duke of Argyll is on the board of House of Campbell, Campbell Distillers’ holding company. And that didn’t happen until soon after the French drinks giant Pernod Ricard bought S. Campbell in 1974. Appointing the duke to the board was in line with the new owner’s plan to stress the ‘heritage’ of their blend – it is promoted as ‘The Noble Scotch’ with ‘roots in the heart of Scotland’, enjoying a ‘unique alliance with the clan that bears its name’.So what is the eponymous Clan Campbell? Clann is a Gaelic word that simply means ‘children’ or ‘descendants’. ‘Campbell’ is thought to derive from an ancient ancestor’s nickname – Cam-beul, ‘Crooked Mouth’ – and the first time the name appears is in a charter dated 1266 (a date which is reproduced on Clan Campbell’s label). We do not know anything about ‘Crooked Mouth’, but the sennachies (clan genealogists) trace the descent of the chiefs from the mythical iron-age hero Diarmaid, the associate of Fingal who slew a great boar in Kintyre and died from standing barefoot on its poisoned bristles. Which just goes to show how ancient is the art of reinventing the past: in Gaelic, the Campbells are called Clann Diarmaid, and the clan crest is a boar’s head.By the time the clan system was abolished in the mid-18th century, Clan Campbell was the most powerful family in Scotland, and the influence and patronage exercised by its grandees persisted down to modern times. The majority of commissions in the army or navy, the excise, revenue or any other kinds of government service were controlled by scions of the family. During the 19th century the clan had no less than 15 noble branches headed by a peer.The first chief of Clan Diarmaid to be knighted (in about 1280) was Sir Colin Campbell of Lochawe, known as ‘Great Colin’ – to this day, the chiefs of the clan are referred to as MacCailean-Mor, ‘Son of Great Colin’. There is a charming story of an old Campbell woman who, when she was told that her chief’s son was engaged to be married to the Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, said: ‘Her Majesty’ll be a proud woman the day, what wi’her dochter gettin’ mairrit on the son o’ MacCailean Mor’.Throughout the 18th century, the Campbells remained loyal to the government in London, which meant that they were powerful opponents of the Jacobite Pretenders to the Throne, James III and his son, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Shortly before 1745, the strength of Clan Campbell was put at 5,000 fighting men, and a regiment of Campbells wrought terrible damage to the right wing of the Highland army at the Battle of Culloden. The exhibition panel at Edradour Distillery (owned by Campbell Distillers) which proudly informs that the Clan Campbell was present at Culloden, omits to mention on which side. Although not directly responsible for the bloody reprisals which followed the 1745 Rising, members of the clan were able to buy, seize or manage numerous estates forfeited by their Jacobite enemies, a fact which made them deeply unpopular with many other clans, but which further increased their wealth and power in the land.It might be claimed that this rancour exists even today, yet nobody can deny the political skill, legal acuity and moral courage with which members of Clan Campbell have conducted their lives. Nor their physical courage: in the last hundred years, the Campbells of Cawdor alone have been awarded three Victoria Crosses, 16 DSOs, three MCs, one AFC, one DFC, four Legions d’Honneur and three Croix de Guerre, with 12 mentions in dispatches. The current MacCailean-Mor, the 12th Duke of Argyll and 26th Chief of Clan Campbell, is a founder Patron and former Grand Master of the Keepers of the Quaich, the world’s senior whisky club. But back to the whisky. When Pernod Ricard bought S. Campbell & Sons it got with it Aberlour-Glenlivet Distillery on Speyside and the Glasgow Bonding Company. New bottling halls were built at Kilwinning, Ayrshire in 1979, and in 1982 the group acquired the assets of the once well-known firm of William Whiteley Ltd – Whiteley himself was nicknamed ‘The Dean of Distillers’ – among them Edradour (the smallest distillery in Scotland) and around a hundred brand names (including House of Lords, which is still being made). In 1989 Campbells completed its portfolio with the purchase of Glenallachie Distillery, situated close to Aberlour, from Invergordon Distillers. The Clan Campbell brand was launched properly just 15 years ago; it is already second favourite in France and in the top ten Scotches in Spain and Italy. Samuel Rosenbloom would be proud.
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