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Living With the Curse of the Campbells

From Glencoe to Victoria, is there no place the clan of 'the twisted mouth' won't go to wreak havoc?

By D. Grant Black 22 Jan 2004 |
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The arrival of Robbie Burns Day this Sunday invites contemplation of Scotland's most infamous clan. We speak, of course, of the Campbells. And we ask, are the Campbells cursed?

How else to explain the shocking demise of Glen Campbell, his drunken, assaulting shenanigans in the news recently, the once great Vegas act left to belt out "Rhinestone Cowboy" from his jail cell?

How else to explain B.C.'s own unfortunate drunk tank denizen named Campbell, a year later saddled with an economy that won't raise itself off the cold, hard floor, his government's offices raided as part of a sprawling organized crime investigation?

In Vancouver, Mayor Larry Campbell has his own version of the curse to deal with. Next April, he'll be saddled with an unmanageable homeless problem when B.C.'s welfare access gets stripped away -- by fellow clansman Gordon Campbell.

Anybody remember Avril Phaedra Campbell? We can add this exiled Campbell clanswoman to the Vancouver-spawned. She's the Tory changeling PM who took the 1993 election bullet for shirker Brian Mulroney. As Vancouver Centre MP, Kim was the-little-engine-that-could, but she now dines out on her political career working the speaker's circuit.

If we head across the pond to the UK fashion runways, we find supermodel and recidivist bully Naomi Campbell. She was back in the "Celebrity Justice" news cycle in November when she whacked yet another personal assistant with a cellphone.

The Campbells: A brief, dark history

These are but a few of the cursed and sometimes wicked Campbells. The Campbells, as noted above, are the black sheep clan of the Scottish Highlands. After the decline of Paganism, most Celtic Highlanders embraced Catholicism and some later even followed their chieftains into the Episcopalian faith. The opportunistic and reviled Campbells joined the dour Protestant Presbyterians (Lowland Scots). To other clans, that was one of their first big mistakes.

The hated Campbells are best known for the massacre at Glencoe at the ancestral lands of Clan MacDonald. In the early hours of February 13, 1692, 36 MacDonalds were slaughtered -- including women and young children -- after they had welcomed the Campbells into their homes. The Campbell contingent arrived there to convince the stubborn MacDonalds to pledge allegiance to the new Protestant Scottish king, William of Orange, as all other clans had done so they wouldn't continue to be harassed or killed.

At Glencoe (and in other nearby Highland villages) to this day, there are signs in restaurants, inns, pubs and shops that state: "We Don't Serve Campbells." And they aren't referring to the Campbell's soup cursed with MSG.

So they're good at ambushing and killing, but in case one wonders about whether these Campbells are known for being straight talkers, there's a metaphorical reason for that shortfall. Like all Highland clan and family names, Campbell was anglicized. The Gaelic spelling of their name, "Cambeul," translates cleanly as "twisted mouth," such as the common "Mac" translates as "son."

The Campbells acquired their lands mainly through guile, but also through legal process, largely with the support of some of Scotland's kings -- and after the union of 1707 -- England's kings.

Unwilling to just go about their lives satisfied with what lands and good fortune they already possessed, the Campbells were stricken with a desire to bully their way into the adjacent ancestral lands of other clans. It was the Campbells who hounded the MacGregors, the MacEwans, the MacNabs and many other unfortunate clans to the verge of extinction.

Highland clans aren't partial to forgiveness of Campbell treacheries past. Author Compton Mackenzie, in one of his books on the Highlands, has a character who trained his dogs to attack at the command: "Campbells!"

Several centuries ago, the fortunes of clan Campbell first began to change for the worse after a curse, foretelling their extinction, was placed upon them by the Old Woman of Lawers. Nowadays, though most Campbells have left Scotland and immigrated to the four corners of the globe, the curse has followed them wherever they stalk a political riding, casino lounge or fashion catwalk.

How to properly insult a Campbell

When it comes to ancient curses, the best defence is a good offence. So, the next time you are in Inveraray, near Loch Fyne in north-west Scotland, which happens to be HQ for the Campbells, consider partaking in this quaint ancient custom. As you drive past their dour castle over a narrow bridge, you extend your hand towards it, with the forefinger and little finger extended and the middle fingers curled into the palm (the devil's horns sign). Then you say "buitseach" (a Gaelic curse) three-times and also spit between the fingers three times.

Several years ago, a MacMillan carried out this act at Inveraray Castle. Three weeks later, the roof burned off it.

In the heather-covered Highlands, there's an irony that could be attributed to the curse. The Campbells' earlier land-grabbing ways have left them with nary a place to piss upon in the 21st century. In the 1920s, taxation and the lack of direct descendants forced Campbell heirs to sell off lands to meet their substantial debts. In 1948, the last of the ancestral lands were sold, although they have retained their Inveraray headquarters in Argyll.

Here I should confess. I too am of the cursed clan since my paternal grandmother was born of a Campbell mother from south of Ottawa. It is a hard burden to carry, but my MacGregor, MacMillan, MacEachern and Fraser clan genes fight those Campbell genes daily, not to mention living with a scrappy member of Clan Robertson.

If like me you have Clan Campbell blood, I suggest you keep it to yourself. It's nothing to be proud of and you'll just be embarrassed if you ask where the table knives have gone at the Robbie Burns Dinner on January 25th. That's when the other diners at your table will tell you that it's common practice to remove the knives when one dines with a Campbell.

Journalist D. Grant Black most recently has written for Ski Canada, Air Canada's enRoute, and a version of this piece appeared in the Globe and Mail. He created, a Web site for the rejected/killed stories of Canadian journalists and social satire written with his partner Patricia Robertson.  [Tyee]

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