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Issue 22 - A tale of two kingdoms

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005


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A tale of two kingdoms

James Irvine Robertson delves deep in to history to explain the fundamental cultural divisions of Scotland

The great cultural division in Scotland was once Pict and Scot. It lasted for some three and a half centuries and is forgotten.

Asimilar gulf, now virtually petered out after lasting somewhat longer was, in the language of one of them, Gael v Gall. The Gall were the southerners, the sassenachs speaking Scots, a language closely related to English. The Gael were the northern and westerners, the Gaelic speakers.

Vying for control of the nation was, on one side, the King of Scots. And on the other were the Lords of the Isles. The king won but his victory was not straightforward.

In some ways it was a rivalry between an elephant and a whale. When pushed the elephant could put 10,000 men in the field with armoured knights and disciplined footsoldiers able to form schiltroms, bristling with pikes.

But the lordship of the isles was a sea power. Its knights had fleets of galleys; its footsoldiers manned the oars – 15 each side.

So the twain need rarely meet. And when they did the issue was uncertain.

The lordship could tap the terrifying gallowglasses, mercenary troops from northern Ireland, many Irish Macdonnells, and the armies of the king were beaten by them on three occasions in the 1400s.

The lordship’s view of the world was different too. The king saw himself in a small country unfortunately attached to immensely richer and more powerful England. At the edge of his dominion lay the Gaels.

To the Lord of the Isles, the King of Scots was but one ruler who bordered his enormous realm. The centre of the sea nation lay on the island of Islay and his galleys ranged swiftly throughout his island domain which included parts of Ireland as well as much the northern and western Highlands.

Before the Vikings, the southern isles were ruled by the Gaels of Dalriada who also controlled Dublin, Waterford, the Isle of Man, parts of north west England and southern Scotland.

In the north the Picts held sway. The latter melded with the Scandinavian invaders establishing two rival sea kingdoms. They were briefly united under Somerled – his name means Summer Warrior or Viking – in the middle of the 12th century but then split once more amongst his kindred, those in the north being backed by Norway and the south by the King of Scots.

The Treaty of Perth in 1266 marked the withdrawal of Norway and the isles, nominally, came under the control of the King of Scots who supported the Gaels in a final struggle to win the Isle of Man, but the Lord of the Isles supported Balliol in the fight for the Scottish Crown. His cousin Angus Og MacDonald supported Robert Bruce; Bruce won and Angus’s prize was the Lordship of the Isles.

There were four Lords of the Isles. Their downfall was their expansionist ambitions at the expense of the Stewarts, particularly their pursuit of the earldom of Ross which dominated Scotland north of Inverness. To win this they gnawed at royal power when it was weak.

Donald, the second lord, claimed the earldom through his wife, the daughter of Robert II. But the Regent Albany conferred it on his own son.

The bloody and indecisive battle of Harlaw in 1411 was the result.

James I tried and failed to control the lordship but, as well as the crown, it was making enemies in the north, particularly the increasingly powerful Gordons and Mackenzies.

The lordship’s final, fatal error was the Treaty of Ardtornish in 1462 when they forged an alliance with the Douglas family, who were fighting for the crown of the 10 year old James III, and Edward IV of England. The Douglases lost.

Edward IV made peace with the King of Scots and the existence of the treaty was revealed. He tore into the Lordship which was finally forfeited in 1493.

There followed a bloody struggle for power amongst the island kindred which established the clans of the isles, but the winners were the crown.

The court of the lordship was on the Isle of Loch Finlaggan in western Islay. There Angus and his successors held sway, counselled by the ‘royal blood’ of Clan Donald and the other major families of the Isles – McLeans of Duart and Lochbuie, MacLeods of Dunvegan and Lewis, the McKinnons, MacQuarries, McNeills, McKays, MacNicols, MacEacherns and McMillans.

Apart from the normal business of justice, administration, the granting of land charters etc, the council also dealt with foreign policy, particularly with England.

The court produced the great flowering of the Gaelic civilisation. The Lord of the Isles patronised the arts; the education system provided poets, judges, historians, clerics, doctors, craftsmen and musicians. The Beatons were the hereditary physicians with links to Paris and the medical knowledge of the Arab world.

Another such family were the MacConachers who became physicians to the Campbells.

The MacMhuirichs were poets, granted estates by the lordship in Kintyre. Their near neighbours were harpists, the MacIlshenaichs. They were the most powerful force in this oral culture.

The praise poems, chanted to the harp, could spread the power and influence of a great man.

Equally, the satires, could damn him ‘for the words possessed almost magical power and the contempt of such a man was expected to bring misfortune in its train’.

A national tragedy is that so little record of this survives. English-speaking academia in Edinburgh neither understood nor respected the cultural achievements of the Gael.

By the time they did, at the end of the 18th century, the parchments, papers and vellums had long been consigned to the cooking fires of the black houses of the islands.