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Issue 99 - The Clan Ranald

Scotland Magazine Issue 99
June 2018


Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

The Clan Ranald

James Irvine Robertson explores the past of this famous family


Knoydart, Morar, Arisaig, Moidart and the islands of Canna, Rùm, Eigg, Muck. As well as having arguably the most romantic names in Scotland, the country of the Macdonalds of Clanranald (itself a branch of Clan Donald) are still among the most remote and inaccessible regions of the Highlands. Until the arrival of the redcoats after Culloden, Lowland armies could not penetrate their heartland. Even today, it's still a two-day walk from the nearest road through the mountains to the inn at Inverie on Knoydart. Back in the day, however, if you were a member of Clan Donald it was just across the water in your birlinn - a type of wooden sailing boat.

The Ranald who founded the clan was the eldest son of John, the 1st Lord of the Isles and descendant of Somerled. He was granted his lands in 1371. The clan's early history is that of the Lordship, its chief one of the four 'great men' on the Council of 18 that advised the Lord at his administrative headquarters on an island in Loch Finlaggan on Islay. But, aside from the staunch support of the kindred led by Angus Og for King Robert Bruce, particularly at Bannockburn, the monarchy and the Lordship were often at odds. The Lords of the Isles were the third largest landowners in Britain after the crowns of England and Scotland. As a result, they looked on the King of Scots as an equal rather than their superior.

In 1462 the Lord overstepped himself. He signed the Treaty of Westminster with Edward IV of England and the Earl of Douglas to conquer Scotland. Douglas would rule the country south of the Forth, the Lord of the Isles the north, both as subjects of the English king. Nothing came of this byproduct of the Wars of the Roses but it gave James IV the excuse to forfeit the Lordship. It was broken into its constituent clans: MacLeans, MacLeods, McKinnons, McNeils, MacIans, MacQuarries and of course, Clan Donald. And for the next couple of centuries they were often at each other's throats and in rebellion against the crown.

The chiefs of Clanranald lived in regal style in Castle Tioram on its tidal island. Their hereditary bards, the MacVourichs, ensured that their glory was widely proclaimed. The chiefs received charters from the king for their lands over the years but the reality was that the clan held its lands by the sword. What’s more, it was the clansmen who decided who would be their chief and not the feudal system, which demanded that estates be passed to the eldest son. Dougall, the 6th chief, was assassinated for his cruelty and his sons excluded from the succession. The clan appointed his uncle as chief and his illegitimate son, John Moidertach, his successor.

But John had a legitimate cousin, Ranald Gallda (Foreigner) who had been brought up by his mother's family, the Frasers of Lovat. When James V imprisoned John in 1540, hoovering up chiefs that had not answered summons for treason during his tour of the Western Isles, the charters he held were revoked and granted to Ronald. With the Frasers supporting, he marched to Moidart and took over Castle Tioram.

But the clan still preferred John and when he was released the clan expelled Ronald. The Frasers prepared to march back to set him in place once more but the clan did not wait. Allied with the Keppoch Macdonalds and the Camerons, it launched a massive raid on Fraser and Grant country. The king's man in the northeast, the Earl of Huntly, gathered an army including Ronald, the Frasers and the Grants, before marching west. Clanranald retired to its mountains; Huntly re-installed Ronald and went home. The Frasers, escorted by Ronald, followed later.

John and his clan warriors shadowed them and swooped down from the hills at the head of Loch Lochy in the Great Glen. The Battle of Blarleine was fought on a hot July day in 1544. The battlefield was the boggy flat land on the water's edge. The combatants stripped to their shirts and, after an exchange of arrows, set to with their swords. Of the estimated 300 Frasers - including Lovat, his heir and Ronald Gallda, who all fought with great distinction - only five men survived. Their opponents were not much better off. John was wounded and no more than eight warriors from his 500-strong force were left alive.

In the following couple of centuries, Clanranald was one of the most turbulent clans but their loyalty to the Stuarts was unsurpassed. They fought for Montrose and the 14-year-old Allan, 13th of Clanranald, took 500 clansmen to fight at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. He was fatally wounded at Sheriffmuir in 1715, as he was the only Highlander on horseback and therefore made an obvious target.

Clanranald was the first clan to rally to Prince Charles in 1745. The chief refused to join him but did nothing to discourage his son Ranald, 17th chief, who was educated in France and had met the Prince, from doing so. He led the Clan regiment, some 500 strong, and fought throughout the campaign. The family fortune was seriously dented when he guaranteed the debts of the Jacobite army during its march south from Edinburgh. After Culloden, the clan regiment disbanded. Many were captured and transported but those who found their way back to their mountain fastness escaped the redcoats, although their farms were looted and burned.

Castle Tioram was already a ruin after the chief had torched it in 1715 to deny it to government soldiers. The young Chief of Clanranald hid amongst his people and eventually made his way to Sutherland, where he married his fiancée before they sailed to France. Thanks to a technical error, he kept his estates - and, unfortunately, its debts - and returned home in 1754.

The laws enacted after the Rising broke the bonds between Highlanders and their chiefs. Clanranald lands were sold and the Clearances led to emigration to the Lowlands and overseas. The old line of chiefs died out in 1944. Today's chief descends from the 17th of Clanranald. He is Ranald Alexander Macdonald of Clanranald, 24th Chief and Captain of Clanranald.