SCOTS Heritage Magazine - - Contents -

Richard Eric Lau­rence Oliphant of that Ilk is the first chief of the Clan Oliphant since 1751

Over the cen­turies Clan Oliphant, as much as any Scot­tish clan, has seen its for­tunes rise and fall against the back­drop of tur­bu­lent his­tor­i­cal events. Richard Eric Lau­rence Oliphant of that Ilk, who was recog­nised as the 34th Clan Chief in 2003, is now on a mis­sion to raise the pro­file of what was once one of the more dis­tin­guished and pow­er­ful clans in Scot­land. ‘I’ve al­ways de­scribed it as pick­ing up the one coloured tile that is your clan and putting it back into the pan­theon mo­saic of Scot­tish his­tory,’ he says. ‘If ev­ery­one does the same, not for what it is in it­self, but for its part in his­tory, we can to­gether re­pair a com­plete pic­ture of the so­cio-cul­tural his­tory. In that sense it is im­por­tant.‘

Un­til 2003, when Richard ma­tric­u­lated at the court of Lord Lyon, the Oliphants had not had a Clan Chief since 1751. He points out that other clans, such as MacArthur and Skene, also suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate in the wake of the failed 1745 Ja­co­bite re­bel­lion and the sub­se­quent ban­ning of High­land dress and tar­tan in 1747. ‘The gap in time is due to the sig­nif­i­cance of the clan chief no longer be­ing

a fo­cal point in so­ci­ety. That is chang­ing again now – at least half of the cur­rent clan chiefs had not been recog­nised as clan chiefs 30 years ago and the Stand­ing Coun­cil of Scot­tish Chiefs now has 150 chiefs.’

Like many Scot­tish clans, the Oliphants have nu­mer­ous clan branches. Only the chief­tains of Gask, Rossie and Bachilton, and Richard as the 12th Chief­tain of the Condie Branch, are ex­tant to­day.

At the mo­ment the clan has no fam­ily seat, although Lau­rence Oliphant, chief­tain of the Gask branch, has hosted the Blair­gowrie Games at Ard­blair Cas­tle in re­cent times. Ard­blair also houses the pre­pon­der­ance of known Oliphant mem­o­ra­bilia, in­clud­ing the Lords Oliphants’ char­ters and pos­ses­sions, Ja­co­bite relics and fam­ily por­traits, many of which are now in the Na­tional Li­brary of Scot­land.

Hat­ton Cas­tle in An­gus was built in 1575 by Lau­rence, 4th Lord Oliphant. It was said that he would fire a can­non at trav­ellers pass­ing by to en­cour­age them to ‘re­ceive his hos­pi­tal­ity’ in the cas­tle ‘to pay a toll’.

In 1984 the Hat­ton Cas­tle Trust, formed by Richard’s brother and clan his­to­rian Rod­er­ick Oliphant of Oliphant, Younger, bought back the cas­tle but it had to be sold in 1995 fol­low­ing losses sus­tained at Lloyds of Lon­don in the late 1980s.

Rod­er­ick had set up a tax struc­ture for the Clan to sup­port the re­build and a sim­i­lar scheme has re­cently been set up by the Oliphant Clan & Fam­ily As­so­ci­a­tion of North Amer­ica for the Clan So­ci­ety mem­ber­ship, ex­plains Richard.

‘There are ac­tive Clan So­ci­eties in South Africa and Aus­tralia which will need sim­i­lar schemes. I am very ex­cited about the lev­els of en­ergy put into co-or­di­nat­ing clan ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing in­creased rep­re­sen­ta­tion at var­i­ous clan games. I join in a monthly Skype con­fer­ence call with the North Amer­i­can so­ci­ety where clan busi­ness world­wide can be aired and it’s likely other re­gional clan so­ci­eties will join this to pro­mote com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween them all.’

The last Oliphant Clan Gath­er­ing in 2014 at Strathal­lan School in Perthshire at­tracted 50-60 peo­ple. There are plans for a five-day gath­er­ing this year in Stir­ling and some­where be­tween 250-350 peo­ple are ex­pected to at­tend the 2018 Oliphant Clan Gath­er­ing, which is also to be held in Stir­ling.

I join in a monthly Skype con­fer­ence with the North Amer­i­can group where clan busi­ness world­wide can be aired

Clan mem­bers at th­ese forth­com­ing events will be able to visit churches, houses and lo­ca­tions of sig­nif­i­cance to the Oliphants and be­come ac­quainted with the his­tory of the clan.

Not only do the Oliphants have a rich and colour­ful his­tory, but due to the pres­tige of the clan, it has been rel­a­tively well-doc­u­mented. The ear­li­est in­for­ma­tion can be found in the 1046 Abbey of Saint Wan­drille records where Os­bert Oli­fard is doc­u­mented as be­ing the Se­neschal of Nor­mandy for Wil­liam I, known as Wil­liam the Con­queror. His chil­dren were sub­se­quently made Earls of Here­ford and Le­ices­ter in 1067 af­ter Os­bert died de­fend­ing the in­fant Wil­liam I. How­ever, Os­bert’s off­spring, in their later ef­forts to de­pose the over­bear­ing Wil­liam I, lost ev­ery­thing.

‘His­tor­i­cal records show that the fam­ily then reap­pears soon af­ter in Northamp­ton­shire,’ says Richard, ‘af­ter which David Oli­fard saves the life of King David I at the siege of Winch­ester Cas­tle in 1141.

‘He was given Smail­holm and Crail­ing to com-

mand the Bor­ders and was made Ju­di­ciary of the Loth­i­ans, the first recorded. He was sec­ond only to the king’s brother so the Oliphants flour­ished in Nor­mandy and in Scot­land where, how­ever, their luck changed.’

Richard says that like many large Scot­tish clans, the Oliphant for­tunes have ‘cy­cled’ sev­eral times through­out his­tory.

‘Oliphants have fought and fallen in nearly ev­ery ma­jor Scot­tish bat­tle,’ he says. ‘They died at Flod­den, sur­vived Cul­lo­den, Pre­ston­pans and Kil­liecrankie, but there are fewer of them than there might be. The land hold­ings of the Clan have also de­creased over the cen­turies.

‘The 4th Lord Oliphant owned land in at least seven dif­fer­ent coun­ties and in Caith­ness alone he owned roughly a quar­ter of the county, in­clud­ing the town of Wick. He also had large es­tates in Perthshire, An­gus, Fife, East Loth­ian while in Ed­in­burgh he had Brox­burn, which is where the air­port is – that would have been fun to have on a lease – and Muir­house, which has the beau­ti­ful walk at Gypsy Brae.’

How­ever, de­spite in­her­it­ing this vast and im­pres­sive wealth, the spend­thrift na­ture of Lau­rence, the 5th Lord Oliphant (1583-1603) meant that ev­ery last acre was lost in his life­time. For in­stance, Muir­house was sold in 1605, fol­lowed by the Caith­ness es­tates and Glen­saugh the fol­low­ing year.

By 1626 the es­tates of Turin in For­far, Kel­lie in Fife, Newtyle in An­gus, Auchter­tyre in Strat­hearn, Perthshire had also passed out­with the Oliphant fam­ily. Strat­hearn, the cra­dle of the Oliphant fam­ily, had land oc­cu­pied by up to 15 branches of the clan for the fol­low­ing 200 years un­til the 19th cen­tury.

Rod­er­ick ex­plains that the Stu­art kings didn’t like the Lords Oliphant be­cause of their part in the Raid of Ruthven, so many peo­ple who bought Oliphant prop­erty were en­no­bled as a means of blank­ing out the Oliphant name.

Richard, a for­mer City fi­nancier, was born and brought up with his brother Rod­er­ick in Hong Kong where lat­terly, he says, they lived in a house at the top of the Peak. ‘As chil­dren we had lit­tle idea of Scot­land ex­cept that our fa­ther some­times wore the kilt – at 6ft 3in he did so with panache – and played the pipes and taught reels in Malaya, Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong.’

Richard and Rod­er­ick were sent

to an English prep school and when their par­ents were on UK leave, they would take the boys to visit fam­ily in Skye.

‘My fa­ther de­lighted us by telling sto­ries, over and over, dur­ing the long car jour­ney about in­ternecine clan fight­ing. The fam­ily also teased him about be­ing the Oliphant “Monarch of the Glen”. All of this spurred Rod­er­ick and me to take an in­ter­est in our fam­ily his­tory.’

It proved the fam­ily be­lief that Richard’s cousin, Lt-Cdr Ralph Henry Hood Lau­rence Oliphant, was heir-male to a dor­mant chief­taincy, be­com­ing Oliphant of Condie in 1985. When Ralph died af­ter Richard’s fa­ther, Richard in­her­ited the chief­taincy and later in 2003 the chief­ship was con­firmed by the Court of the Lord Lyon, part of the Scot­tish ju­di­ciary.

As well as act­ing as a cen­tral fo­cus for Clan Oliphant and rep­re­sent­ing it on for­mal oc­ca­sions, such as at the Stand­ing Coun­cil of Scot­tish Chiefs, Richard also irons out his­toric mis­in­for­ma­tion about the in­tegrity of the tar­tan, septs and the al­le­giances sworn by other clans.

Along­side his re­search as clan his­to­rian, Rod­er­ick pro­motes the mod­ern day Clan So­ci­ety and the Oliphant Clan Gath­er­ings. The dou­ble act works well, with Richard wel­com­ing any clan mem­bers to Ed­in­burgh while de­fer­ring any ques­tions on kith and kin to Rod­er­ick.

‘Over time the role of the Clan Chief has changed sig­nif­i­cantly,’ Richard points out.

‘Clan means chil­dren, so although an em­i­nent ge­neal­o­gist told me that chiefs held a sim­i­lar rank to earls, with the power of life and death over clans­men, there is no ver­ti­cal dis­tance be­tween a chief and his clan to­day. I’ve al­ways iden­ti­fied with this egal­i­tar­ian ap­proach rather bet­ter than the his­toric ver­ti­cal so­cial struc­ture in Eng­land. I was told by a so­cial his­to­rian, the earls and their equiv­a­lents had the power of life and death.

‘Nowa­days, the prac­ti­cal role of the Clan Chief is to serve as a clan fo­cus. We wel­come clan mem­bers com­ing to Scot­land and make their visit a richly in­ter­est­ing experience. The ben­e­fit now of the clan is not only for what it is, but for what it is part of – in that sense it’s an im­por­tant piece of Scot­land’s so­cial his­tory.’ an im­por­tant part of our so­cial his­tory.’

Over time the role of the Clan Chief has changed sig­nif­i­cantly


Words Su­san Nick­alls Im­ages An­gus Black­burn

Right: Richard in the heart of Oliphant coun­try, Strat­hearn. Above: The fa­mous 19th cen­tury nov­el­ist and his­tor­i­cal writer Mar­garet Oliphant.

Left: Strat­hearn was in­hab­ited by branches of Clan Oliphant for two hundred years. Above: New­ton of Condie be­fore the fire.

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