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Mysteries of a Clan Chief

By Colin Garvie - April 2008

One hundred and fifty years after disappearing, rare and valuable documents of a Hebridean clan have been brought back to Scotland.

  1. National Archives, Scotland, 2007

During 2007 historic legal documents of the Macleans of Coll going back to the 1500s that had gone missing from Scotland mysteriously came to light at a house clearance sale in Port Elizabeth!  By chance a British dealer spotted the lost papers in a house clearance sale in Port Elizabeth. These were displayed in 2007 at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. There is a remarkable connection with Durban.

When the island of Coll in the Hebrides was sold in 1856, the Macleans, the lairds of Coll, were scattered across the globe.  

The last of the chiefs of the Macleans of Coll in the direct line was Alexander (“Alister”) MacLean who settled in Umhlali and died in Umgeni in 1875.

Alexander, sixteenth and last of Coll - Sliochd Iain Ghairbh - inherited in a remarkable degree the characteristics of his family, great benignity and kindliness of disposition, which made his forefathers among the most popular landlords of their day. In 1849, he emigrated to Natal, Africa, where he died, July 11, 1875, aged forty-seven. He was never married. In him the family of Coll, in the direct line, became extinct. - J P MacLean, A History of Clan MacLean

Another MacLean historian recorded:

Alexander, eldest son of Hugh of Coll, succeeded his father as representative of the descendants of John Garbh. He was tall and athletic, modest, and full of kindness. He emigrated to South Africa in 1849. He died at Umgeni, near Durban, on Sunday afternoon, July 11th, 1875. He was in the forty-seventh year of his age. He was succeeded in the chieftainship of the Macleans of Coll by his brother, John Hector Norman. - A Maclean Sinclair, The Clan Gillean

Alexander’s sister Juliet joined him in 1857 and later married Ashe Windham, Magistrate of Greytown. 

Historian, Nicholas MacLean-Bristol who is now the custodian of the recently discovered MacLean documents, explained:

The Coll documents got to Port Elizabeth via Hugh Maclean last of Coll's youngest daughter Mrs Hamilton-Dundas who appears to have left them to Juliet Alexa's grandaughter. My brother-in-law Philip Erskine who lives at Ida's Valley knew about them many years ago but never told me about them. Another Windham daughter living in Cape Town apparently had them at some stage. Anyhow they are now back at Breacachadh Castle, Coll.

On the death of Alexander Maclean, The Natal Colonist, wrote:

The deceased gentleman was one of our oldest colonists, and the predecessor of Mr T Reynolds in the proprietorship of Oaklands, Umhlali. He was the eldest member of a very old Highland family, a considerable traveller, having visited South America and British Columbia... One of the gentlest yet bravest of men, Mr Maclean was thoroughly esteemed by all who knew him... an enthusiastic hunter and sportsman, and his commanding and powerful frame gave no token of so early an end. He was not married, and his only near relative in Natal is Mrs AF Windham, who was near him when he died....

At the time of his death at the age of 47 Alexander lived at Seaforth Lodge, Umgeni. According to his Estate papers he was buried in the St. Paul’s Cemetery (West Street Cemetery). Unfortunately his grave, described as a "vault", has not been found with definite certainty.

MacLean, J. P.  A History of Clan MacLean
MacLean-Bristoll of Coll, N. From Clan to Regiment ,
MacLean, Juliet. Natal Diaries
Maclean Sinclair, A, The Clan Gillean
National Archives of Scotland, "Long-lost clan papers brought back to Scotland after 150 years"

ADDED 10 January 2010

In an email, Colin Garvie wrote:

Dear Allan

About a year ago I wrote concerning the grave of Chief Alexander Maclean of Coll d.1875. We believe we have now located the grave with a good degree of certainty. The grave is severely weathered with no monument remaining.

For the record the grave is located at the West Street Cemetery, Durban Block 8, grave plot no. 24. The Cemetery Register records grave 24 to be that of "Alex McBean". This is believed to be an error. Estate documents of Chief Maclean substantiates the location.

I am in communication with the Macleans of Coll who are exploring the possibility of restoring the grave and erecting a suitable monument to their former laird.


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