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Issue 13 - Lord of the isles (Donald)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


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Lord of the isles (Donald)

In the first in a new series on the great clans of Scotland James Irvine Robertson traces the history of the dominant clan Donald

The story of Clan Donald is the history of the Highlands. Other clans have had their moments but, for generation after generation, Clan Donald was pre-eminent. Their chiefs were Lords of the Isles, independent of Scotland with diplomatic links to the courts of Europe. It took nearly a millennium before the Scottish crown won control and the Prince of Wales still boasts his Scottish forbears’ achievement in his title of Lord of the Isles.

Now the island strongholds of the Macdonalds are amongst the most remote and inaccessible parts of Europe. But the centre of power always lies at the centre of communications and, in the early centuries of Scottish history, the glorious land and seascapes of the Hebrides made a broad highway for the swift galleys of the progenitors of Clan Donald. In contrast the king’s authority could only toil along muddy tracks threading through swamp, mountain and moor.

Modern DNA tests establish that the half million Macdonalds worldwide share a common gene with Somerled, King of the South Isles, who was killed at the head of an army of 15,000 fighting against King Malcolm IV at the battle of Renfrew in 1164. His forebears had married into the royal houses of Scotland and the Kindred of St Columba, deep into Gaelic history, but the common male line stretches back another five centuries to Ingiald, the last of the ‘Peace-Kings of Uppsala’ in modern Sweden. These men were Vikings who exploded from their northern fastness at the end of the eighth century to become the most feared and successful warriors of their day.

Somerled ruled over the South Isles from Bute to Ardnamurchan Point as well as Argyll, Lorne and Kintyre. On his death his territories were split amongst his descendants. In 1266 the Western Isles were ceded by Norway to Scotland and descendants of Donald of Islay from whom the Clan takes it name came to control half of northern Scotland, the Western Isles and Antrim in Northern Ireland.

When this kingdom was at its height in the mid 1400s, Alasdair Macdonald, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, presided over the Council of the Isles which met on the island in Loch Finlaggan on Islay. He had his own officers-of-arms, Islay Herald and Kintyre Pursuivant. At his northern capital in Sutherland, he had Ross Herald and Dingwall Pursuivant. As well as the high point in the power of Clan Donald, this was the high point in Gaelic culture with poets and musicians attracted to Alasdair’s court and benefiting from his patronage.

But such ascendancy could not be tolerated by the Scottish king and peaceful coexistence was not an option considered by either party. When Alasdair harried crown lands and destroyed Inverness by fire, James I beat him in battle and imprisoned him, but the unrest did not cease. In 1476 the earldom of Ross was annexed to the crown and, in 1493, the lordship of the Isles was finally forfeited and the leadership of Clan Donald devolved on the House of Sleat. The Lordship of the Isles had been a federation and now the individual branches of Clan Donald and other vassal clans – McLean, McLeods, Camerons, Clan Chattan, Mackenzie etc – became independent, although as late as 1545 a alliance of Western clans rose in an attempt to restore the Lordship. Many of the clans that were once its allies show a galley on the coats of arms.

Thenceforth Clan Donald lost its primacy. Its main branches – Sleat, Clanranald, Glengarry – became great Highland clans in their own right and others such as Glencoe, Keppoch, Islay, Ardnamurchan operated independently and made their own marks upon Scottish history.

Always Clan Donald was recognised for prowess in battle. Donald of Islay’s son and grandson supported King Robert Bruce in the Wars of Independence and led their clan at the battle of Bannockburn.

For their unflinching support in the conflict whose outcome was uncertain for decades, Bruce rewarded them with vast territories and the clan was granted the honour of being on the right of the Scottish line of battle in perpetuity. In 1745 when Duncan Forbes of Culloden produced a tally of the fighting strength of the clans, Clan Donald could field 2330 warriors, second only to the Campbells whose rise of power was largely at the former’s expense.

Although the Stewart kings had been instrumental in the downfall of the Lordship of the Isles, Clan Donald fought for them throughout the troubled 17th and 18th centuries. One of the greatest of all Scots war leaders, Alasdair McColla, brought over a ferocious army of Macdonnells from Antrim in 1644. His main purpose was to waste Clan Campbell but he was recruited by the Marquis of Montrose to fight for Charles I against the rebellious Scots Convention which was allied to the English Parliament.

The string of dazzling victories that resulted over the subsequent months were largely due to McColla and are almost without equal in European history. The warriors of Clan Donald were the main component in the force which routed the redcoats at the battle of Killiecrankie (1689) in the first of the great Risings in favour of the deposed Stuart kings.

As punishment the government selected the Macdonnells of Glengarry for extirpation to cow the Highlands. In the event it was the Glencoe branch of the clan that suffered in the Massacre that still resonates more than three centuries later.

Clan Donald was out in the Risings of 1715 and 1745 and suffered along with the rest of the Highlands as the government wreaked revenge by destroying the social structure of Gaeldom and tried to destroy its culture.

Chiefs became landlords, tried to cut a dash in aristocratic circles in Edinburgh and London and were largely swept away by debt.

Those who bought their lands encouraged or forced its ancient occupiers from their farms. With its tradition of sea adventuring and geographic position thousands from Clan Donald left for the Americas. An example can be found in a census of 1852 of Glengarry, Canada. More than 3225 were of Clan Donald stock. The next most numerous were the Macmillans with 545.

This huge diaspora gives Clan Donald immense vigour today; no other modern clan society can match its achievements with flourishing societies around the world. In the USA, it has pioneered the use of DNA in tracing ancestry and beginning to show that the Gaelic word clann (family) is no more than the literal truth in Clan Donald. Other clan societies are following the same path to show the blood relationship that links them.

At Sleat on southern Skye, The Clan Donald Lands Trust owns 20,000 acres and the ruins of Armadale Castle, once the seat of Lord Macdonald of Macdonald. There is sited a library and study centre and the new Museum of the Isles, which interprets the proud heritage of Clan Donald.