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Founding of the Clans and the Kings of the Isles


You might want to read Explanation of Clanship first if you came here direct.

The clans that come first in Mr Skene's classification are those whose progenitor is said by the genealogists to have been the fabulous Irish King Conn "of the hundred battles". They are mostly all located in the Western Islands and Highlands, and are said by Mr Skene to have been descended from the Gallgael, or Gaelic pirates or rovers, who are said to have been so called to distinguish them from the Norwegian and Danish Fingall and Dugall, or white and black strangers or rovers. Mr Skene advocates strongly the unmixed Gaelic descent of these clans, as indeed he does of almost all the other clans. He endeavours to maintain that the whole of these western clans are of purely Pictish descent, not being mixed with even that of the Dalriadic Scots. We are inclined, however, to agree with Mr Smibert in thinking that the founders of these clans were to a large extent of Irish extraction, though clearly distinguishable from the primitive or Dalriadic Scots, and that from the time of the Scottish conquest they formed intimate relationships with the Northern Picts. "From whatever race", to quote the judicious remarks of Mr Gregory, "whether Pictish or Scottish, the inhabitants of the Isles, in the reign of Kenneth MacAlpine, were derived, it is clear that the settlements and wars of the Scandinavians in the Hebrides, from the time of Olave the Red, a period of upwards of two centuries, must have produced a very considerable change in the population. As in all cases of conquest, this change must have been most preceptible in the higher ranks, owing to the natural tendency of invaders to secure their new possessions, where practicable, by matrimonial alliances with the natives. That in the Hebrides a mixture of the Celtic and Scandinavian blood was thus effected at an early period seems highly probable, and by no means inconsistent with the ultimate prevalence of the Celtic language in the mixed race, as all history sufficiently demonstrates. These remarks regarding the population of the Isles apply equally to that of the adjacent mainland districts, which, being so accessible by numerous arms of the sea, could hardly be expected to preserve the blood of their inhabitants unmixed. The extent to which this mixture was carried is a more difficult question, and one which must be left in a great measure to conjecture; but, on the whole, the Celtic race appears to have predominated.

It is of more importance to know which of the Scandinavian tribes it was that infused the greatest portion of northern blood into the population of the Isles. The Irish annalists divide the piratical bands, which, in the ninth and following centuries infested Ireland, into two great tribes, styled by these writers Fiongall, or white foreigners, and Dubhgall, or black foreigners. These are believed to represent, the former the Norwegians, the latter the Danes; and the distinction in the names is supposed to have arisen from a diversity, either in their clothing or in the sails of their vessels. These tribes had generally seperate leaders; but they were occasionally united under one king; and although both bent first on ravaging the Irish shores, and afterwards on seizing portions of the Irish territories, they frequently turned their arms against each other. The Gaelic title of Righ Fhiongall, or King of the Fiongall, so frequently applied to the Lords of the Isles, seem to prove that Olave the Red, from whom they were descended in the female line, was so styled, and that, consequently, his subjects in the Isles, in so far as they were not Celtic, were Fiongall or Norwegians. It has been remarked by one writer, whose opinion is entitled to weight, that the names of places in the exterior Hebrides, or the Long Island, derived from the Scandinavian tongue, resemble the names of places in Orkney, Shetland, and Caithness. On the other hand, the corresponding names in the interior Hebrides are in a different dialect, resembling that of which the traces are to be found in the topography of Sutherland; and appear to have been imposed at a later period than the first mentioned names. The probability is, however, that the difference alluded to is not greater than might be expected in the language of two branches of the same race, after a certain interval; and that the Scandinavian population of the Hebrides was, therefore, derived from two successive Norwegian colonies. This view is further confirmed by the fact that the Hebrides, although long subject to Norway, do not appear to have ever formed part of the possessions of the Danes.

As by far the most important, and at one time most extensive and poweful, of these western clans, is that of the Macdonalds, and as this, as well as many other clans, according to some authorities, can clearly trace their ancestry back to Somerled, the progenitor of the once powerful Lords of the Isles, it may not be out of place to give here a short summary of the history of these magnates.

The origin of Somerled, the undoubted founder of the noble race of the Island Lords, is, according to Mr Gregory, involved in considerable obscurity. Assuming that the clan governed by Somerled formed part of the great tribe of Gallgael, it follows that the independant kings of the latter must in all probability have been his ancestors, and should therefore be found in the old genealogies of his family. But this scarcely appears to be the case. The last king of the Gallgael, was Suibne, the son of Kenneth, who died in the year 1034; and according to the manuscript of 1450, an ancestor of Somerled, contemporary with this petty monarch, bore the same name, from which it may be presumed that the person referred to in the genealogy and the manuscript is one and the same individual. The latter, however, calls Suibne's father Nialgusa; and in the genealogy there is no mention whatever of a Kenneth. But from the old Scottish writers we learn that at this time there was a Kenneth, whom they called Thane of the Isles, and that one of the northern mormaors also bore the same name, although it is not very easy to say what precise claim either had to be considered as the father of Suibne. There is also a further discrepancy observable in the earlier part of the Macdonald genealogies, as compared with the manuscript; and besides, the latter, without making any mention of these supposed kings, deviates into the misty region of Irish heroic fable and romance. At this point, indeed, there is a complete divergance, if not contrariety, between the history as contained in the Irish Annals, and the genealogy developed in the manuscript; for, whilst the latter mentions the Gallgael under their leaders as far back as the year 856, the former connect Suibne, by a different genealogy, with the kings of Ireland. The fables of the Highland and Irish Sennachies now become connected with the genuine history. The real descent of the chiefs was obscured or perplexed by the Irish Genealogies, and previously to the eleventh century neither these genealogies nor even that of the manuscript of 1450 can be considered as of any authority whatsoever. It seems somewhat rash, however, to conclude, as Mr Skene has done, that the Siol-Cuinn, or descendants of Conn, were of native origin. This exceeds the warrant of the premises, which merely carry the difficulty a few removes backwards into the obscurity of time, and there leave the question in greater darkness than ever.

From the death of Suibne till the accession of Gillebride Mac Gille Adomnan, the father of Somerled, nothing whatever is known of the history of the clan. The latter, having been expelled from his possessions by the Lochlans and the Fingalls, took refuge in Ireland, where he persuaded the descendants of Colla to espouse his quarrel and assist him in an attempt to recover his possessions. Accordingly, four or five hundred persons put themselves under his command, and at their head he returned to Alban, where he effected a landing; but the expedition, it would seem, proved unsuccessful. Somerled, the son of Gillebride, was, however, a man of a very different stamp. At first he lived retired, musing in solitude upon the ruined fortunes of his house. But when the time came for action arrived, he boldly put himself at the head of the inhabitants of Morven; attacked the Norwegians, whom, after considerable struggle, he expelled; made himself master of the whole of Morven, Lochaber, and northern Argyle; and not long afterwards added to his other possessions the southern districts of that country. In the year 1135, when David I expelled the Norwegians from Man, Arran, and Bute, Somerled appears to have obtained a grant of those Islands from the king. But finding himself still unable to contend with the Norwegians of the Isles, whose power remained unbroken, he resolved to recover by policy what he despaired of acquiring by force of arms; and, with this view, he succeeded in obtaining (about 1140) the hand of Ragnhildis, the daughter of Olaf, surnamed the Red, who was then the Norwegian king of the Isles. This lady brought him three sons, namely Dugall, Reginald, and Angus; and by a previous marriage, he had one named Gillecallum.

The prosperous fortunes of Somerled at length inflamed his ambition. He had already attained to great power in the Highlands, and success inspired him with the desire of extending it. His grandsons having formerly claimed the earldom of Moray, their pretensions were now renewed, and this was followed by an attempt to put them in actual possession of their alleged inheritance. The attempt, however, failed. It had brought the regulus of Argyll into open rebellion against the king, and the war appears to have excited great alarm amongst the inhabitants of Scotland; but Somerled, having encountered a more vigorous opposition than he had anticipated, found it necessary to return to the Isles, where the tyrannical conduct of his brother-in-law, Godred, had irritated his vassals and thrown everything into confusion. His prescence gave confidence to the party opposed to the tyrant, and Thorfinn, one of the most powerful of the Norwegian nobles, resolved to depose Godred, and place another prince on the throne of the Isles. Somerled readily entered into the views of Thorfinn, and it was arranged that Dugall, the eldest son of the former, should occupy the throne from which his maternal uncle was to be displaced. But the result of the projected deposition did not answer the expectations of either party. Dugall was committed to the care of Thorfinn, who undertook to conduct him through the Isles, and compel the chiefs not only to acknowledge him as their sovereign, but also to give hostages for their fidelity and allegiance. The Lord of Skye, however, refused to comply with this demand, and, having fled to the Isle of Man, apprised Godred of the intended revolution. Somerled followed with eight galleys; and Godred having commanded his ships to be got ready, a bloody but indecisive battle ensued. It was fought on the night of the Epiphany; and as neither party prevailed, the rival chiefs next morning entered into a sort of compromise or convention, by which the sovereignty of the Isles was divided, and two distinct principalities established. By this treaty Somerled acquired all the islands lying to the southward of the promotory of Ardnamurchan, whilst those to the northward remained in the possession of Godred.

But no sooner had he made this acquisition than he bacame involved in hostilities with the government. Having joined the powerful party in Scotland, which had resolved to depose Malcolm IV and place the boy of Egremont on the throne, he bagan to infest various parts of the coast, and for some time carried on a vexatious predatory warfare. The project, however, failed; and Malcolm, convinced that the existence of an independent chief was incompatible with the interests of his government and the maintenance of public tranquility, required Somerled to resign his lands into the hands of the sovereign, and to hold them in future as a vassal of the crown. Somerled, however, was little disposed to comply with this demand, although the king was now preparing to enforce it by means of a powerful army. Emboldened by his previous successes, he resolved to anticipate the attack, and having appeared in the Clyde with a considerable force, he landed at Renfrew, where being met by the royal army under the command of the High Steward of Scotland, a battle ensued which ended in his defeat and death (1164). This celebrated chief has been traditionally described as "a well-tempered man, in body shapely, of a fair piercing eye, of middle stature, and of quick discernment". He appears, indeed, to have been equally brave and sagacious, tempering couage with prudence, and, excepting in the last act of his life, distinguished for the happy talent, rare at any period, of profiting by circumstances, and making the most of success. In the battle of Renfrew his son Gillecallum perished by his side. Tradition says that Gillecallum left a son Somerled, who succeeded to his grandfather's possessions in the mainland, which he held for upwards of half a century after the latter's death. The existance of this second Somerled, however, seems very doubtful although Mr Gregory believes that, besides the three sons of his marriage with Olave the Red, Somerled had other sons, who seem to have shared with their brothers, according to the then prevalent custom of gavelkind, the mainland possessions held by the Lord of Argyl; whilst the sons descended of the House of Moray divided amongst them the South Isles ceded by Godred in 1156. Dugall, the eldest of these, got for his share, Mull, Coll, Tiree, and Jura; Reginald, the second son, obtained Isla and Kintyre; and Angus, the third son, Bute. Arran is supposed to have been divided between the two latter. The Chronicle of Man mentions a battle, in 1192, between Reginald and Angus, in which the latter obtained the victory. He was killed, in 1210, with his three sons, by the men of Skye, leaving no male issue. One of his sons, James, left a daughter and heiress, Jane, afterwards married to Alexander, son and heir of Walter, High Steward of Scotland, who, in her right, claimed the isle of Bute.

Dugall, the eldest son of his father by the second marriage, seems to have possessed not only a share of the Isles, but also the district of Lorn, which had been alloted as his share of the territories belonging to his ancestors. On his death, however, the Isles, instead of descending immediately to his children, were acquired by his brother Reginald, who in consequence assumed the title King of the Isles; but, by the same law of succession, the death of Reginald restored to his nephews the inheritance of their father. Dugall left two sons, Dugall Scrag and Duncan, who appear in the northern Sagas, under the title of the Sudereyan Kings. They appear to have acknowledged, at least nominally, the authority of the Norwegian king of the Hebrides; but actually they maintained an almost entire independence. Haco, the king of Norway, therefore came to the determination of reducing them to obedience and subjection, a design in which he proved completely successful. In a night attack the Norwegians defeated the Sudereyans and took Dugall prisoner.

Duncan was now the only member of his family who retained any power in the Sudereys; but nothing is known of his subsequent history except that he founded the priory of Archattan, in Lorn. He was succeeded by his son Ewan, who appears to have remained more faithful to the Norwegian kings than his predecessors had shown themselves; for, when solicited by Alexander II to join him in an attempt he meditated to obtain possession of the Western Isles, Ewan resisted all the promises and entreaties of the king, and on this occasion preserved inviolate his allegiance to Haco. Alexander, it is well known, died in Kerreray (1249), when about to commence an attack upon the Isles, and was succeeded by his son Alexander III. When the latter had attained majority, he resolved to renew the attempt which his father had begun, and with this view excited the Earl of Ross, whose possessions extended along the mainland opposite to the Northern Isles, to commence hostilities against them. The earl willingly engaged in the enterprise, and having landed in Skye, ravaged the country, burned chuches and villages, and put to death numbers of the inhabitants without distinction of age or sex. Haco soon appeared with a Norwegian force, and was joined by most of the Highland chiefs. But Ewen having altered his views, excused himself from taking any part against the force sent by the Scottish king; and the unfortunate termination of Haco's expedition justified the prudence of this timely change. In the year 1263 the Norwegians were completely defeated by the Scots at the battle of Largs; and the Isles were, in consequence of this event, finally ceded to the kings of Scotland. This event, however, rather increased than diminished the power of Ewan, who profited by his seasonable defection from the Norwegians, and was favoured by the goverment to which that defection had been useful. But he died without any male issue to succeed him, leaving only two daughters, one of whom married the Norwegian king of Man, and the other, Alexander of the Isles, a descendant of Reginald.

The conquest and partition of Argyle by Alexander II and the subsequent annexation of the Western Isles to the kingdom of Scotland, under the reign of his successor, annihilated the power of the race of Conn as an independent tribe; and, from the failure of the male descendants of Dugall in the person of Ewen, had the effect of dividing the clan into three distinct branches, the heads of which held their lands of the crown. These were the clan Ruaru or Rory, the clan Donald, and the clan Dugall, so called from three sons of Ranald or Reginald, the son of Somerled by Ragnhildis, daughter of Olave.

Of this Ranald or Reginald, but little comparatively is know. According to the Highland custom of gavel, Somerled's property was divided amongst all his sons; and in this division the portion which fell to the share of Reginald appears to have consisted of the island of Islay, with Kintyre, and part of Lorn on the mainland. Contemporary with Reginald there was a Norwegian king of Man and the Isles, who, being called by the same name, is liable to be confounded with the head of the Siol Conn. Reginald, after the death of his brother Dugall, was designated as Lord, and sometimes even as King, of the Isles; and he had likewise the title of Lord of Argyle and Kintyre, in which last capacity he granted certain lands to an abbey that had been founded by himself at Saddel in Kintyre. But these titles did not descend to his children. He was succeeded by his eldest son Roderick, who, on conquest of Argyle, agreed to hold his lands of Rory, or the crown, and afterward was commonly styled Lord of Kintyre. In this Roderick the blood of the Norwegian rovers seems to have revived in all its pristine purity. Preferring "the good old way, the simple plan" to more peaceful and honest pursuits, he became one of the most noted pirates of his day, and the annals of the period are filled with accounts of his predatory expeditions. But his sons, Dugall and Allan, had the grace not to follow the vocation of their father, for which they do not seem to have evinced any predilection. Dugall having given important aid to Haco, in his expedition against the Western Isles, obtained in consequence a considerable increase of territory, and died without descendants. Allan succeeded to the possessions of this branch of the race of Conn, and, upon the annexation of the Isles to the crown of Scotland, transferred his allegiance to Alexander III, along with the other chiefs of the Hebrides.

Allan left one son, Roderick, of whom almost nothing is known, except that he was not considered as legitimate by the feudal law, and in consequence was succeeded in his lorship of Garmoran by his daughter Christina. Yet the custom or law of the Highlands, according to which his legitimacy could 'moult no feather', had still sufficient force amongst the people to induce the daughter to legalise her father's possession of the lands by a formal resignation and reconveyance; a circumstance which shows how deeply it had taken root in the habits and the opinions of the people. Roderick, however, incurred the penatly of forfeiture during the reign of Robert Bruce, "probably", as Mr Skene thinks, "from some connection with the Soulis conspiracy of 1320"; but his lands were restored to his son Ranald by David II. Ranald, however, did not long enjoy his extensive possessions. Holding of the Earl of Ross some lands in North Argyle, he unhappily became embroiled with that powerful chief, and a bitter feud, engendered by proximity, arose between them. In that age the spirit of hostility seldom remained long inactive. In 1346, David II having summoned the barons of Scotland to meet him in Perth, Ranald, like the others, obeyed the call, and having made his appearance, attended by a considerable body of men, took up his quarters at the monastery of Elcho, a few miles distant from the Fair City. To the Earl of Ross, who was also with the army, this seemed a favourable opportunity for revenging himself on his enemy; and accordingly having surprised and entered the monastry in the middle of the night, he slew Ranald and seven of his followers. By the death of Ranald, the male descendants of Roderick became extinct; and John of the Isles, the chief of the Clan Donald, who had married Amy, the only sister of Ranald, now claimed the succession to that principality.


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