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The History of the Clan MacDonald Part II


The vigour of Albany restored peace to the kingdom, and the remainder of his regency was not disturbed by any hostile attempt upon the part of Donald of the Isles. But when the revenge of James I. had consummated the ruin of the family of Albany, Alexander, the son of Donald, succeeded, without ant opposition, to the earldom of Ross, and thus realised one grand object of his father's ambition. At almost any other period the acquisition of such extensive territories would have given a decided and dangerous preponderance to the family of the Isles. The government of Scotland, however, was then in the hands of a man who, by his ability, energy, and courage, proved himself fully competent to control his turbulent nobles, and, if necessary, to destroy their power and influence. Distrustful, however, of his ability to reduce the northern barons to obedience by force of arms, he had recourse to stratagem; and having summoned them to attend a parliament at Inverness, whither he proceeded, attended by his principal nobility and a considerable body of troops, he there caused forty of them to be arrested as soon as they made their appearance. Alexander, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, his mother the Countess of Ross, and Alexander MacGodfrey, of Garmoran, were amongst the number of those arrested on this occasion. Along with several others, MacGodfrey was immediately executed, and his whole possessions forfeited to the crown, and the remainder were detained in captivity. By this bold stroke, James conceived that he had effectually subdued the Highland chiefs; and, under this impression, he soon afterwards liberated Alexander of the Isles. But he seems to have forgotten that "vows made in pain" or at least in durance, "are violent and void." The submission of the captive was merely feigned. As soon as he had recovered his liberty, the Lord of the Isles flew to arms, with what disastrous results to himself has already been told. So vigorously did the king's officers follow up the victory, that the insular chief, finding concealment or escape equally impossible, was compelled to throw himself upon the royal clemency. He went to Edinburgh, and, on the occasion of a solemn festival celebrated in the chapel of Holyrood, on Easter Sunday 1429, the unfortunate chief, whose ancestors had treated with the crown on the footing of independent princes, appeared before the assembled court in his shirt and drawers, and implored on his knees, with a naked sword held by the point in his hand, the forgiveness of his offended monarch. Satisfied with this extraordinary act of humiliation, James granted the suppliant his life, and directed him to be forthwith imprisoned in Tantallon castle.

The spirit of clanship could not brook such a mortal affront. The cry for vengeance was raised; the strength of the clan was mustered; and Alexander had scarcely been two years in captivity when the Isles once more broke out into open insurrection. Under the command of Donald Balloch, the cousin of Alexander and chief of clan Ranald, the Islanders burst into Lochaber, where, having encountered an army which had been stationed in that country for the purpose of overawing the Highlanders, they gained a complete victory. The king's troops were commanded by the Earls of Mar and Caithness, the latter of whom fell in the action, whilst the former saved with difficulty the remains of the discomfited force, Donald Balloch, however, did not follow up his victory, but having ravaged the adjacent districts, withdrew first to the Isles, and afterwards to Ireland. In this emergency James displayed his usual energy and activity. To repair the reverse sustained by his lieutenants, he proceeded in person to the North; his expedition was attended with complete success; and he soon received the submission of all the chiefs who had been engaged in the rebellion. Not long afterwards he was presented with what was believed to be the head of Donald Balloch; "but," says Mr Gregory, "as Donald Balloch certainly survived king James many years, it is obvious that the sending of the head to Edinburgh was a stratagem devised by the crafty islander, in order to check further pursuit." The king, being thus successful, listened to the voice of clemency. He restored to liberty the prisoner of Tantallon, granted him a free pardon for his various acts of rebellion, confirmed to him all his titles and possessions, and further conferred upon him the lordship of Lochaber, which, on its forfeiture, had been given to the Earl of Mar. The wisdom of this proceeding soon became apparent. Alexander could scarcely forgot the humiliation he had undergone, and the imprisonment he had endured; and, in point of fact, he appears to have joined the Earls of Crawford and Douglas, who at that time headed the opposition to the court; but during the remainder of his life the peace of the country was not again disturbed by any rebellious proceedings on his part, and thus far the king reaped the reward of his clemency. Alexander died about 1447, leaving three sons, John, Hugh, and Celestine.

The opposition of Crawford, Douglas and their associates had hitherto been chronic; but, on the death of Alexander, it broke out into active insurrection; and the new Lord of the Isles, as determined an opponent of the royal party as his father had been, seized the royal castles of Inverness, Urquhart, and Ruthven in Badenoch, at the same time declaring himself independent. In thus raising the standard of rebellion, John of the Isles was secretly supported by the Earl of Douglas, and openly by the barons, who were attached to his party. But a series of fatalities soon extinguished this insurrection. Douglas was murdered in Edinburgh castle; Crawford was entirely defeated by Huntly; and John, by the rebellion of his son Angus, was doomed to experience, in his own territories,the same opposition which he had himself offered to the general government. Submission was, therefore, inevitable. Having for several years maintained a species of independence, he was compelled to resign his lands into the hands of the king, and to consent to hold them as a vassal of the crown. This, however, was but a trifling matter compared with the rebellion of his son, which, fomented probably by the court, proved eventually the ruin of the principality of the Isles, after it had existed so long in a state of partial independence. Various circumstances are stated as having given rise to this extraordinary contest, although in none of these, probably, is the true cause to be found. It appears, however, that Angus Og3 , having been appointed his father's lieutenant and representative in all his possessions, took advantage of the station or office which was thus conferred on him, deprived his father of all authority, and got himself declared Lord of the Isles. How this was effected we know not; but scarcely had he attained the object of his ambition, when he resolved to take signal vengeance upon the Earl of Athole, an inveterate enemy of his house, and, at the same time, to declare himself altogether independent of the crown. With this view, having collected a numerous army, he suddenly appeared before the castle of Inverness, and having been admitted by the governor, who had no suspicion whatever of his design, immediately proclaimed himself king of the Isles. He then invaded the district of Athole; stormed and took Blair Castle; and having seized the Earl and Countess, carried them prisoners to Islay. The reason given by Mr Gregory for Angus's enmity against the Earl and Countess of Athole is, that the former having crossed over privately to Islay, carried of the infant son of Angus, called Donald Dubh, or the Black, and committed him to the care of Argyle, his maternal grandfather, who placed him in the Castle of Inchconnely, where he was detained for many years. Mr Gregory places this event after the Battle of Bloody Bay. On his return to the Isles with the booty he had obtained, the marauder was overtaken by a violent tempest, in which the greater part of his galleys founded. Heaven seemed to declare against the spoiler, who had added sacrilege to rapine by plundering and attempting to burn the chapel of St Bridget in Athole. Stricken with remorse for the crime he had committed, he released the earl and countess,and then sought to expiate his guilt by doing penance on the spot where it had been incurred.

As a proof of the sincerity of his repentance, this Angus Og next engaged in treason upon a larger scale. At the instigation of this hopeful son, his father, whom he had already deprived of all authority, now entered into a compact with the king of England and the Earl of Douglas, the object of which was nothing less than the entire subjugation of Scotland, and its partition amongst the contracting parties. By this treaty, which is dated the 18th of February 1462, the Lord of the Isles agreed, on the payment of a stipulated sum, to become the sworn ally of the king of England, and to assist that monarch, with the whole body of his retainers, in the wars in Ireland and elsewhere; and it was further provided, that in the event of the entire subjugation of Scotland, the whole of that kingdom, to the north of the Firth of Forth, should be equally divided between Douglas, the Lord of the Isles, and Donald Balloch of Islay; whilst, on the other hand, Douglas was to be reinstated in possession of those lands between the Forth and the English borders, from which he had , at this time, been excluded. Conquest, partition, and spoliation, were thus the objects contemplated in this extraordinary compact. Yet no proceeding appears to have been taken, in consequence of the treaty, until the year 1473, when we find the Lord of the Isles again in arms against the government. He continued several years in open rebellion; but having received little or no support from the other parties to the league, he was declared a traitor in a parliament held at Edinburgh in 1475, his estates were also confiscated, and the Earls of Crawford and Athole were directed to march against him at the head of a considerable force. The meditated blow was, however, averted by the timely interposition of his father, the Earl of Ross. By a seasonable grant of the lands of Knapdale, he secured the influence of the Earl of Argyll, and through the mediation of that nobleman, received a remission of his past offences, was reinstated in his hereditary possessions, which he has resigned into the hands of the crown, and created a peer parliament, by the title of the Lord of the Isles. The earldom of Ross, the lands of Knapdale, and the sheriffships of Inverness and Nairn were, however, retained by the crown, apparently as the price of the remission granted to this doubly unfortunate man.

But Angus Og was no party to this arrangement. He continued to defy the power of the government; and when the Earl of Athole was sent to the north to reinstate the Earl of Ross in his remaining possessions, he placed himself at the head of the clan, and prepared to give him battle. Athole was joined by the Mackenzies, Mackays, Frasers, and others; but being met by Angus at a place called Lagebread, he was defeated with great slaughter, and escaped with great difficulty from the field. The Earls of Crawford and Huntly were then sent against this desperate rebel, the one by sea and the other by land; but neither of them prevailed against the victorious insurgent. A third expedition, under the Earls of Argyll and Athole, accompanied by the father of the rebel and several families of the Isles, produced no result; and the two earls, who seem to have had little taste for an encounter with Angus, returned without effecting anything. John the father, however, proceeded onwards through the Sound of Mull, accompanied by the MacLeans, Macleods, MacNeills, and others, and having encountered Angus in a bay on the south side of the promontory of Ardnamurchan, a desperate combat ensued, in which Angus was again victorious, and his unfortunate parent overthrown. By the battle of the Bloody Bay, as it is called in the traditions of the country, Angus obtained possessions of the extensive territories of his clan, and, as "when treason prospers 'tis no longer treason," was recognised as its head. Angus, some time before 1490, when marching to attack Mackenzie of Kintail, was assassinated by an Irish harper.

The rank of heir to the lordship of the Isles devolved on the nephew of John, Alexander of Lochalsh, son of his brother, Celestine. Placing himself at the head of the vassals of the Isles, he endeavoured, it is said, with John's consent to recover possession of the earldom of Ross, and in 1491, at the head of a large body of western Highlanders, he advanced from Lochaber into Badenoch, where he was joined by the clan Chattan. They then marched to Inverness, where, after taking the royal castle, and placing a garrison on it, they proceeded to the north-east, and plundered the lands of Sir Alexander Urquhart, sheriff of Cromarty. They next hastened to Strathconnan, for the purpose of ravaging the lands of the Mackenzies. The latter, however, surprised and routed the invaders, and expelled them from Ross, their leader, Alexander of Lochalsh, being wounded, and as some say, taken prisoner. In consequence of this insurrection, at a meeting of the Estates in Edinburgh in May 1493, the title and possessions of the lord of the Isles were declared to be forfeited to the crown. In January following the aged John appeared in the presence of the king, and made a voluntary surrender of his lordship, after which he appears to have remained for some time in the king's household, in receipt of a pension. He finally retired to the monastery of Paisley, where he died about 1498; and was interred, at his own request, in the tomb of his royal ancestor, Robert II.


Clan MacDonald Index
Clan MacDonald History Part III