From Morvern to Morocco

Scots have always been able to adapt to a wide range of alien environments while retaining their national identity and characteristics.  Few demonstrated this ability more markedly than Harry Maclean.  A descendant of the Macleans of Drimnin in Morvern he spent 43 years in Morocco, became commander of the Sultan of Morocco’s army, adopted Moorish costume; but managed to play the bagpipes at every opportunity and retained a very Scottish personality. 

In a remarkable career he became both a trusted adviser of successive Sultans and an unofficial agent for the British Government. This position was not without its perils, he was captured and held hostage for several months by a bandit chief with whom he had been sent to negotiate on behalf of the Sultan. 

Harry Aubrey de Vere Maclean was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1848.  His father, Andrew, was Inspector General of Army Medical Services and a grandson of Allan Maclean, chieftain of the Macleans of Drimnin.  Young Harry was found employment in the civil service but this did not prove congenial and he asked his father if he might join the army.  Maclean was commissioned into the 69th Foot (The South Lincolnshire Regiment) and served with them in Canada, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

In 1877 the Sultan of Morocco sent 100 soldiers to Gibraltar to be trained as a cadre of instructors for his army and asked the British Ambassador to Morocco, Sir John Drummond-Hay, to find a British officer who would enter the Sultan’s service and train his army. Harry Maclean accepted the appointment and spent the next thirty years in the service of the Sultan, Moulay Hassan, and his successor, Moulay Abdelaziz.


Kaid Maclean in local costume

Morocco was an unusual country, being one of the few Arab states which had maintained an indigenous monarchy, neither falling under the control of the Ottoman Empire, nor becoming a colony of a European power.  Although close to Europe, daily life continued as it had done for centuries, largely untouched by outside influences. However the major European powers had interests in Morocco and interfered in its affairs, to a greater or lesser degree, to promote trade or for reasons of international politics.  After Maclean’s time at the Sultan’s Court, France established a protectorate and took over effective control of Morocco in 1912.

Maclean’s first task was to learn Arabic so that he could drill the troops, this he did within a few months and became a fluent speaker, although his accent apparently amused the Sultan.  A later traveller in Morocco wrote of Maclean: “speaking Arabic with a strong Scotch accent.”  Maclean was soon promoted to Kaid of askar – commander of infantry – and took up residence at the royal court and Kaid Maclean became a familiar figure in Morocco and in European accounts of Morocco.

Large parts of Morocco traditionally paid little more than token loyalty to the Sultanate. Hassan was anxious to extend his rule over all the land and went on frequent journeys to the remoter areas of the country and Maclean would accompany him as commander of the royal bodyguard. On other occasions Maclean commanded the royal army when tribal insurrections had to be suppressed.

Maclean was soon well established in his tricky dual role as a trusted courtier of the Sultan and a confidential adviser to the British embassy. In delightfully gentlemanly fashion the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office had written to Maclean in 1889 to say that the Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, had authorised him: “to place a sum at your disposal in recognition of the services you had rendered to the British Legation in Morocco and to H M Government.”  From then onwards Maclean was paid quite substantial sums from the Foreign Office’s Secret Service account.   In 1892, while a French diplomatic delegation was causing concern to Britain, Maclean, who was at the Sultan’s court twice a day, was a significant source of confidential information about the progress of the French mission and was presented by the British Minister to Morocco, Sir Charles Euan-Smith, with a gold watch and chain, as a gesture of appreciation for his assistance.

In 1893 the new Ambassador, Ernest Satow, proposed to the Foreign Office that Maclean should be paid a regular retainer of £200 a year (around £13,500 at present day values) and that he would advise the Sultan:

…that whenever he [Maclean] makes any statement to him on my behalf, he is to regard it as coming straight from me. In short, that he should recognize that Kaid Maclean is a confidential go-between. 

Maclean’s role as a go-between was enhanced by his ability to obtain secret information from the Sultan’s court.  Satow also wrote that Maclean was a poor man “who finds it impossible to make money in the way Moorish officials do” – a reference to the extensive corruption in the Moroccan state.

Maclean’s poverty is questionable – it was reported after his death that he had an income from the Moroccan government of £7000 a year  – perhaps £470,000 at present day values.  However he also had large expenses, having to travel, at his own expense, with the Sultan on his progresses around the country.  In any event he maintained palaces at Marrakech, Fes and a residence in Tangier and also had a series of country houses in England and when he died he left an estate valued at over £71,000 – perhaps around £1.7 million in contemporary values – so poverty is perhaps a relative term!



In 1898 Britain recognised Maclean’s work in Morocco by making him a Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George, an order specially used for Foreign Office staff and servants of the Empire.

Morocco was anxious to maintain good relations with all the European powers and in particular to build up links with Britain as a counter-balance to French ambitions in North Africa.  When Queen Victoria died in 1901 a high-ranking Moroccan delegation was sent to London to congratulate King Edward VII on his accession. This colourful party was led by the Moroccan Minister of War and Kaid Maclean.  A letter from the Sultan was presented to the King and translated for his benefit by Maclean.  On their second audience with the King Maclean was knighted and thereafter rejoiced in the sonorous title of Kaid Sir Harry Aubrey de Vere Maclean, KCMG, CMG.  Maclean would later stay at Balmoral on a number of occasions as a guest of Edward VII.

Maclean had been close to Sultan Hassan, but was equally highly thought of by his successor.  When Sultan Hassan died while on a tax-gathering expedition in 1894, Maclean, and the Sultan’s Chamberlain, together conspired to keep news of the death secret until Hassan’s favourite son, Moulay Abdelaziz, then only fourteen, could secure the succession. The Sultan’s death was kept secret from all but his personal slaves for five days and the body remained unburied, contrary to Islamic custom, until the expedition reached the capital.

This subterfuge did much to cement the relationship between the new Sultan and his Scottish army commander. The new Sultan was interested in Western ideas and influences but found his path blocked by traditional forces.  “The Times” published a profile of him in 1901, in which its correspondent noted that, however exotic and strange Morocco might be, it had one thing in common with the rest of the world, namely the presence of the “ubiquitous Scotsman” and suggested that Kaid Maclean was probably the only person in Morocco to share the Sultan’s modernising views.  Maclean also catered for the young Sultan’s interest in western novelties such as bicycles and cameras by importing them  for the Sultan and taking a commission on the deal.

In June 1907 the Kaid was sent by the Sultan to negotiate with a notorious bandit chief Raisuli. Maclean was seized by Raisuli, despite guarantees of safety, and held hostage for seven months in conditions of some hardship and danger.

Maclean’s captivity was not quite as isolated an experience as some more recent hostages such as Terry Waite or John McCarthy have suffered.  A thick file of letters in the Public Record Office from Maclean to the British Ambassador Sir Gerard Lowther, and from Lowther to Maclean, indicate that a regular courier service between the British Embassy, the Sultan, and Raisuli went on during this time.  In some letters Maclean thanks Lowther for sending him cigars and for arranging for the supply of provisions including wine (Maclean’s adoption of Moorish dress and customs did not involve giving up alcohol.)  Conditions were undoubtedly hard although Raisuli and Maclean at first got on reasonably well, Maclean being invited to join Raisuli in a boar-hunt and Raisuli even sent to Tetuan for bagpipes:  “those curious pipes like cushions full of air which his people play.” However matters deteriorated and in order to get Maclean to sign certain letters Raisuli resorted to psychological warfare and had Maclean’s guards play drums and cymbals outside his tent to keep him from sleeping at night.  Even before this Maclean had written to Lowther in October:

The man in charge of my guard is an awful brute – three days ago I had a big row with him & since he and all his men have made a dreadful noise just outside my tent every night until past 4 o’clock in the morning, only to annoy me

Earlier he had noted in a letter “I am writing on floor and my bones all pain me from sleeping so long on the floor.”

Eventually, in February 1908, terms were agreed – a cash payment of £20,000 and guarantees of British protection for Raisuli and his family, and Maclean was delivered to the British Ambassador.

However by this time affairs in Morocco were becoming confused, the Sultan’s older brother Moulay Hafid had been declared Sultan in Marrakech and a civil war broke out which lasted until August 1908 when Hafid triumphed.  The new Sultan was apparently ready to employ Maclean, but they could not agree on terms and his career as a Moroccan Kaid was over. Maclean returned to England but he and his family were reported to be “miserable and longing to get back” to their accustomed life in North Africa.

Maclean had married Catherine Coe in 1882 and had five daughters and a son.  Two daughters died of smallpox while in Morocco.  Maclean was very far from the typical picture of a stern Victorian father – he was devoted to his children and personally nursed the two girls who contracted smallpox.  One of his surviving daughters recalled that as a little girl she had refused to take a bath and had only been persuaded to do so by her father getting into the bath fully clothed.  Although his wife and daughters respected Moorish customs by going fully veiled when in public, when they were indoors the family lived in an entirely British manner.

His marriage ended in a high-profile divorce action in 1905 when the Kaid sued for divorce on the grounds of Lady Maclean’s adultery with a British army officer. He re-married in 1913.

Eventually Maclean did return to his beloved Morocco, although not as commander of the Sultan’s army.  He divided his time in retirement between Britain and his Tangier house, which was called Drimnin after his clan lands in Morvern, and died there aged 71, in February 1920 and was buried in the graveyard of St Andrew’s, Tangier’s Anglican Church. [Pictured below]


Although Maclean identified himself so fully with Morocco he never lost touch with his Scottish roots – even his Berber cloak was woven in Maclean tartan.  “Ma conscience!” was a phrase often on his lips and he formed a tartan-clad pipe band among the Moroccan army.  His musical skills extended beyond the pipes to the guitar, piano and to composition. In 1916, he published a piece for piano solo: “The Lament of Clan Maclean” dedicated to his Clan Chief Sir Fitzroy Maclean.  His daughter recalled that every Christmas Day in Morocco the Kaid would pipe his guests into dinner dressed in Highland costume, and that in his retirement in Tangier he played the pipes each morning.  On a visit to Scotland in 1912 he attended a Clan Maclean rally at Duart Castle, in Mull, and went on to visit his ancestral lands in Morvern.

His obituary in The Times described Maclean as a “keen-eyed, alert man with a decisive manner” – he was also an excellent shot, and while he was doubtless keen-eyed this was only true of one eye – the other one was glass! 

[This article originally appeared in The Scots Magazine December 2004]

(c) Brian D Osborne

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