Black Duncan of the Cowl

Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy (1545–1631), by unknown artist, 1619; National Galleries of Scotland.
Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy (1545–1631), by unknown artist, 1619; National Galleries of Scotland.

The seventh laird [of Glenorchy], Sir Duncan, our author’s patron [i.e. the author of the The Black Book of Taymouth], is a person on whose history we dwell with more pleasure. Bowie records a glorious list of conquests of lands and church possessions, and the provisions he bestowed on his children, legitimate and illegitimate. But we have interest of another kind in Black Duncan — Donacha dim na curich, as he is called from the cowl in which he is represented in his picture at Taymouth. He was, if not the first of Scotchmen, the very foremost of Highland proprietors, to turn his attention to the rural improvement of his country. His predecessors had indeed built rude dwellings and places of defence, round which time and decay have thrown a picturesqueness little thought of in their erection. But we find no signs of these earlier lords appreciating their beautiful country, or trying to increase its comforts or its productiveness. It cannot be said that Sir Duncan himself had taste for the picturesque, but he knew the profit as well as the beauty that might accrue from clothing the hill-side with timber and securing shelter round his mansion. He had some feeling for art also “with chapel and painterie.” He built the tower of Achalladour, repaired Ilankeilchurn, built the house of Lochdochart, a great house at Barcaldine in Benderloch, (between Loch Etive and Loch Criran,) defended the grounds of Balloch against the river by a great embankment. He built or repaired the Church “of Glenurchy, and built a bridge over the water of Lochy, contentment and weal of the country.” He was enterprising enough to travel abroad and passed to the courts of England and France, and in 1602, thought good to take a view of Flanders and of the wars. He took measures for enforcing an old Scotch law which enjoined the planting of a few trees about every tenant’s and cottar’s dwelling, and on the greater scale which became the landlord, he “caused make parks in Balloch, Finlarg, Glenloquhay, and Glenurquhay, and caused sow acorns and seed of fir therein, and planted in the same young fir and birch.” He seems to have imitated his cousin, William Earl of Gowrie, in introducing trees of foreign growth, and tradition points to him as the planter of the venerable chestnut and walnut trees at Finlarg and Taymouth. He was probably the first of Scotchmen who brought in fallow deer, for our chronicler tells us that in 1614 he took a lease of the Isle of Inchesaile from the Earl of Argyll, and in 1615 “put fallow deir and cunnyngis” therein. In another department of rural policy, it is not so certain that he was first, but it is of him that we have the first evidence, in connexion with the rearing of horses. In one bloody foray the M’Gregors slew forty of Sir Duncan’s brood mares in the Cosche of Glenurchy, and at the same time a blood horse,– “ane fair cursour sent to him from the Prince out of London.” The horse had come to an untimely end even before his royal master was taken away, but the stud went on increasing under the careful eye and vigorous management of Black Duncan.

Duncan Campbell, 7th Laird of Glenorchy, engraving by W. Forrest after original painting (1619) in the Breadalbane Apartments, Holyrood.
Duncan Campbell, 7th Laird of Glenorchy, engraving by W. Forrest after original painting (1619) in the Breadalbane Apartments, Holyrood.

We have abundant evidence that the seventh laird was a man of affairs, and well maintained his place in that age of unscrupulous politicians. In his own territories, castles, and family, he practised a very vigorous personal control and the most methodical administration. The estate books and books of household accounts and inventories kept under his direction give us the earliest picture we have of the life of a great Highland lord. It is not so easy to imagine the rough chieftain cultivating literature: yet grim as he stands in the picture [above] the black Duncan had a taste for books, read history and romance, and is not quite free from the suspicion of having dabbled in verse himself. Several of his books are still preserved at Taymouth, where the frequent inscriptions in his own hand shew he took pleasure in them; and we must remember that book collecting was not yet a fashion. One of his favourites, in which he evidently much delighted, was “The Buike of King Alexander the Conqueroure,” a ponderous romance in MS. Some original verses, mostly moral and religious, written on the blank leaves of his books, would be worth preserving, if it were possible more satisfactorily to establish their authorship. The influence of Sir Duncan Campbell extended over an unusual length of time. He was forty-eight years lord of the family estates, and was eighty-six years old when he died in 1631.

— From the Preface of Cosmo Nelson Innes’ The Black Book of Taymouth, Edinburgh, 1855.

Published by Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

Join the Conversation


  1. Dear Christian
    Do you know of any poems that Duncan Campbell wrote? I understand a few of them have been translated from Gaelic.

  2. My 13th great grandfather
    He was also a cunning and ruthless politician who oversaw the rise of clan Campbell to the most powerful in Scotland, he was also a vicious old bastard on occasion!

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply