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Issue 21 - Northern warriors (Clan MacLeod)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


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Northern warriors (Clan MacLeod)

James Irvine Robertson looks at the durability of Clan MacLeod

As had been known since time immemorial, the MacLeods are of Norse origin and descend from Leod, son of Olave, brother of Magnus, the last king of Manthe, King of Man.

A few mavericks believed that the clan rose from the indigenous peoples of the west, and recent DNA testing of clan members gives a clear indication that the latter theory is much the most likely. However, the clan was once two.

Leod had two sons. Tormod was founder of the MacLeods of Harris, known as Siol – ‘the race of Tormod.’ Tormod’s younger brother founded the MacLeods of Lewis, the Siol Torquil.

He seems to have made an advantageous marriage with the heiress to the Nicolsons of Scorrybreac to obtain his lands and, as was usual, took over their Arms.

Siol Tormod’s first Charter was to Glenelg, that most beautiful country opposite Skye. This was the senior line of the clan and, after centuries of skirmishing and posturing between the two branches, the representative of Siol Torquil, MacLeod of Talisker, pledged his loyalty to the 28th chief Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod who died in 1976 aged 98. Dame Flora did much to stimulate the revival of the clan spirit throughout the world in the last century. In this she was following in the steps of her predecessors, for no clan has been closer to their chiefs and no chiefs have worked harder for the well-being of their clansfolk.

After the 1745 Uprising and the collapse of the clan system, the greatest service a chief could do for his people was to make or marry money, and the India-made wealth of Norman MacLeod, who succeeded in 1801, cushioned the clan from the devastation of the Clearances and enabled the purchase of grain during the potato famine which spilled across the Irish sea in the 1840s.

Dunvegan Castle is the seat of the chiefs and has been for 20 generations. The castle can make a case for being the oldest continuously inhabited building in the country.

With its sea gate at the head of Loch Dunvegan, the clan’s galleys had easy access to the Minch and the Hebrides.

Mainland clans must send their warriors toiling across mountains and bogs laden with weapons and rations, the MacLeods could skim the seaways in their loaded birlinns, swooping where they pleased.

It requires a leap in our imaginations to understand a world where the sea travel was quick and easy while land travel was always difficult and often unachievable when winter floods made rivers and burns impassible.

The two branches of the McLeods fought each other and amongst themselves. They fought the Lords of the Isles, the Crown. and the Macdonalds (often), the Mackays and the Mathiesons. They fought the Campbells, the MacIntoshes, for Montrose, for James VII, and some of them for Prince Charles Edward Stuart and the Jacobites Sometimes these encounters were epic sea battles when galley clashed with galley as in the Battle of Bloody Bay in 1480 when the Crown and the clans fought over the remains of the Lordship of the Isles.

Sometimes they took part in classic land battles such as the Battle of Worcester in 1651 when 28,000 of Oliver Cromwell’s troops beat 12,000 of King Charles I's followers, mostly Scots. 700 men of Clan MacLeod were said to have been killed that day and the chief had to pay £2,500 sterling to be absolved of high treason.

The other clans agreed not to ask the MacLeods to muster until they had bred replacements. Two generations later they could field 700 fighting men. The small inter-clan skirmishing that was common during the turbulent centuries before 1700 was fought with startling brutality.

Similarly the politicking of the chiefs was performed with a ruthlessness that would make Machiavelli gasp.

In this, the MacLeods were no worse and no better than anyone else, and were both perpetrators and victims in one of the more famous series of atrocities. In 1577, a few men of the clan were been bundled off to the Island of Eigg for mistreating the local women. The Chief descended on the island, but its 395 inhabitants had hidden in a cave on the seashore and took some finding. When they were discovered, a bonfire was built at the cave entrance and all of the islanders suffocated as a result. Two centuries later, Victorian antiquarians would still pick amongst their bones.

In revenge for this, however, a party of Macdonalds landed one Sunday at Trumpan, only eight miles from Dunvegan, and burnt the church with all its worshippers inside. The raiders were caught by the Skye men before they could retreat to their ships and were slaughtered.

In another encounter that rolled from the original incident, MacLeod sennachies tell of the son of MacLeod of Unish who was fighting valiantly when a MacDonald rushed at him, and hewed off his legs at the knees. Regardless he continued to fight standing on his stumps.

However, Clan society was about more than bloodshed. Gaelic culture was, and remains, rich in poetry and music. At Dunvegan, the chiefs had the famous MacCrimmon family as their hereditary pipers and kept them busy composing pibrochs to celebrate the clan's battles.

The lament for MacLeod – Cumha Cheann- Cinnidh na Leodach – has been played at the funerals of chiefs for generations. In their households, the MacLeod chiefs retained sennachies, fools, poets, pipers and other musicians. The most famous of these were Ruairidh Dall Morison, the Blind Harper and Mary MacLeod, Mairi Nighean and Alasdair Ruaidh, one of the greatest of all Gaelic poets.

Nursemaid to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, she is said to have died in 1664 aged 105 and been buried face down, the fate of witches.

The MacLeods of Raasay, by then representing Siol Torquil, fought at the Battle of Culloden, and their island east of Skye was devastated by the Duke of Cumberland’s troops in retaliation. But MacLeod of MacLeod had the wisdom to keep the clan neutral, and succeeding chiefs have since then managed to retain much of the clan lands.

Today, as a consequence, Clan MacLeod is unique among the island clans in that they still have their records, and their castle at Dunvegan is filled with glorious treasures.

In recent years, however, the castle has been in need of urgent multi-million pound repairs, and John MacLeod of MacLeod, the 29th Chief, looks likely to raise the necessary cash by handing over his ownership of the Cuillin Mountains to a public trust. If this comes about, it will be a neat swap of an immovable, virtually valueless asset, already controlled by environmental bureaucrats, and Dunvegan Castle will gain a new roof.