Somerled and his father Gillebride set out from Donegal Bay around 1120A.D. with a company of Fermanagh fighting men, to re-conquer the lands in Scotland from which they had been driven by the Norsemen. They would have carried pokes of barley, kegs of butter as rations, spears, swords, leather shields for fighting and great woolen war (cloaks to keep out the rain). They weighed anchor and rowed swiftly out to sea. As they did a full turn to starboard round a rocky headland the great tanned mainsail was hoisted and a course heading north towards the bloody foreland was plotted.
In the 12th century the Norse hold on the Hebrides began to weaken, their sway had lasted 400 years. This was comparable to the British, Roman and Ottoman empires which had lasted for similar periods.
The collapse of the Vikings (Norse) was accelerated by the rise of Somerled, an Ulster - Scots warrior with the ability of a Genghis Khan. After minor victories over the Norse on land, Somerled managed to crush a fleet of 80 long ships at Epihpany in 1156.
Not much detail has survived regarding Somerled himself. Whether it was personal skill as a commander or technical superiority at sea, he was always victorious. Within two years of the Epiphany fight he was strong enough to assume the title ‘King of the Isles’. The year 1158 might be said to be the start of the Gaelic kingdom of the isles which was also to last 400 years.
Although varied in extent the claim generally spanned some 25,000 square miles and 500 islands. It stretched over 200 miles south from Cape Wrath and for a brief time included the Isle of Man. The population was, like now, around 40,000 and the kingdom was guarded by some 50 castles perched on the rocks overlooking its waterways. It is perhaps through these sentinels that the ancient empire is remembered. They tell the visitor of the age and power of the lost dominion. The castle’s strength enables us to see the lordship and modern islemen as part of a continuous story. It was not until 1990 that another part of the story was re-created in an example of Somerled’s personal invention, the Highland Galley.
As Somerled prepared to fight king Malcolm of Scotland in 1164 he was assassinated on the field of battle.
Ranald, Somerled’s successor as king, was a relatively peaceful man who ruled the isles from Islay for 43 years. Ranald led galley fleets often to Ireland, founded the Benedictine nunnery on Iona and endowed the monastery at Saddel. The strong religious streak was apparent in even the wildest of the chiefs and none was wilder than the next.
Donald, Somerled’s grandson, and from whom the Clan Donald takes its name, was a sailor and warrior of note. Two years after accession he laid waste to Inishowen in Donegal with 87 ships. Back home he killed Sir William Rollock, the then King of Scotland’s emissary. Donald preferred to align his lands with the King of Norway. He found the Norse court easier of access by galley oversea than the mainland Scottish, accessible only by horse across the mountains. This allegiance combined the temporal with the spiritual, for at this time the Isles were still in the diocese of Trondheim. It took several generations after Somerled for the Norse element in the isles to become less prominent than the Gaelic.
Donald took a fleet to Ireland again and challenged the Norman colony so successfully that he was offered the high kingship of the Gaels, however this he refused. Instead Donald made his peace with the increasingly powerful Norman element in the Scottish court by marrying a daughter of Walter III, high steward of Scotland. She lived on Islay and became the mother of the MacDonalds. Donald took holy orders in his latter days and added handsomely to the endowments of Saddel.
Angus Mor, Donald’s son, continued to support Norway but found this alliance shaken when in 1263 King Haakon was defeated and his fleet wrecked by the skilled maneuvers of King Alexander III at Largs on the Clyde. Three years later the Norwegians ceded the isles to the Scottish crown. Angus then made his peace with Alexander and ruled for a further 51 years.
Clanranald Past, Present and Future
Carved on a broken cross shaft found on the island of Texa off Islay is probably the oldest surviving likeness of a MacDonald. It depicts a typical 14th Century prince, wearing a quilted coat with chain mail and a conical helmet, armed with a great sword and battle axe. This cross shaft is the Cross of Ranald, son of John of Islay and Lord of the Isles.
John of Islay inherited lands between the Great Glen and the Outer Hebrides through his marriage to Amy MacRuari, the heiress to the great Lordship of Garmoran.
There now seems little doubt that Ranald, heir to the chiefship of Clan Donald, was the second and the eldest surviving son of John and Amy. The succession however did not pass to him, but to his younger half brother whose mother was a daughter of Robert II and a Stuart princess.
Confirmed by Robert II in 1373, Ranald received a charter from his father, accounting for the greater part of the MacRuari inheritance and including land in the districts of Moydart, Arisaig and Lochhaber.
Ranald had five sons, including the eldest Allan who succeeded as Chief of Clanranald and Donald, and who founded the line of Glengarry. Allan MacRanald died at his castle of Tioram in 1419 and was succeeded by his son Roderick, who was a staunch supporter of the Lord of the Isles. Roderick was believed to have died in 1481 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Allan.
Allan was a capable and war-like chief, he led a raid into Lochaber and Badenoch in 1491, which culminated in the capture of Inverness Castle. Clanranald appears to have adjusted to the realities of royal power, and on the first visit of James IV to the highlands Allan MacRuari was one of the few chiefs to render him homage.