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Introduction to the Different Branches


Since the extinction of the direct line of the family of the Isles, in the middle of the 16th century, Macdonald of Sleat, now Lord Macdonald, has always been styled in Gaelic Mac Dhonuill nan Eilean, or Macdonald of the Isles.

As the claim of Lord Macdonald, however, to this distinction has been keenly disputed, we shall here lay before the reader, as clearly as possible, the pretensions of the different claimants to the honour of the chiefship of the clan Donald, as these have been very fairly stated by Mr. Skene.

That the family of Sleat are the undoubted representatives of John, Earl of Ross, and the last Lord of the isles, appears to be admitted on all sides; but, on the other hand, if the descendants of Donald, from whom the clan received its name, or even of John of the Isles, who flourished in the reign of David II., are to be held as constituting one clan, then, according to the Highland principles of clanship, the jus sanguinis, or right of blood to the chiefship, rested in the male representative of John, whose own right was undoubted. By Amy, daughter of Roderick of the Isles, John had three sons,- John, Godfrey and Ranald; but the last of these only left descendants; and it is from him that the Clan Ranald derive their origin. Again, by the daughter of Robert II. John had four sons - Donald, Lord of the Isles, the ancestor of the Macdonalds of Sleat; John Mor, from whom proceeded the Macconnells of Kintyre; Alister, the progenitor of Keppoch; and Angus, who does not appear to have left any descendants. That Amy, the daughter of Roderick was John's legitimate wife, is proved. first, by a dispensation which the supreme Pontiff granted to John in the year 1337; and secondly, by a treaty concluded between John and David II. in 1369, when the hostages given to the king were a son of the second marriage, a grandson of the first, and a natural son. Besides, it is certain that the children of the first marriage were considered as John's feudal heirs; a circumstance which clearly establishes their legitimacy. It is true that Robert II., in pursuance of the policy he had adopted, persuaded John to make the children of these respective marriages feudally independent of each other, and that the effect of this was to divide the possessions of his powerful vassals into two distinct and independent lordships. These were, first, the lordship of Garmoran and Lochaber, which was held by the eldest son of the first marriage, - and secondly, that of the Isles, which passed to the eldest son of the second marriage; and matters appear to have remained in this state until 1427, when, as formerly mentioned, the Lord of Garmoran was beheaded, and his estates were forfeited to the crown. James I., however, reversing the policy which had been pursued by his predecessor, concentrated the possessions of the Macdonalds in the person of the Lord of the Isles, and thus sought to restore to him all the power and consequence which had originally belonged to his house; " but this arbitrary proceeding," says Mr Skene, " could not deprive the descendants of the first marriage of the feudal representation of the chiefs of the clan Donald, which now, on the failure of the issue of Godfrey in the person of his son Alexander, devolved on the feudal representative of Reginald, the youngest son of that marriage."

The clan Ranald are believed to have derived their origin from this Reginald or Ranald, who was a son of John of the Isles, by Amy MacRory, and obtained from his father the lordship of Garmoran, which he has held as vassal of his brother Godfrey. That this lordship continued in possession of the clan appears evident from the Parliamentary Records, in which, under the date of 1587, mention is made of the clan Ranald of Knoydart, Moydart, and Glengarry. But considerable doubt has arisen, and there has been a good deal of controversy, as to the right of chiefship; whilst of the various families descended from Ranald each has put forward its claim to this distinction. On this knotty and ticklish point we shall content ourselves with stating the conclusions at which Mr Skene arrived 'after,' as he informs us, 'a rigid examination' of the whole subject in dispute. According to him, the present family of Clanranald have no valid title or pretension what ever, being descended from an illegitimate son of a second son of the old family of moydart, who, in 1531, assumed the title of Captain of Clanranald; and, consequently, as long as the descendants of the eldest son of that family remain, they can have no claim by fight of blood to the chiefship. He then proceeds to examine the question,- Who was the chief previous to this assumption of the captaincy of Clanranald? and, from a genealogical induction of particulars, he concludes that Donald, the progenitor of the family of Glengarry, was the eldest son of the Reginald or Ranald above-mentioned; that from John, the eldest son of Donald, proceeded the senior branch og this family, in which the chiefship was vested; that, in consequence of the grant of Garmoran to the Lord of the Isles, and other adverse circumstances, they became so much reduced that the oldest cadet obtained the actual chiefship, under the ordinary title of captain, and that, on the extinction of this branch in the beginning of the seventeenth century, the family of Glengarry descended from Alister, second son of Donald, became the legal representatives of Ranald, the common ancestor of the clan, and consequently possessed that jus sanguinis of which no usurpation could deprive them. Such are the results of Mr Skene's researches upon this subject. Latterly, the family of Glengarry have claimed not only the chiefship on clan Ranald, but likewise that of the whole clan Donald, as being the representative of Donald, the common ancestor of the clan; and it can scarcely be denied that the same evidence which makes good the one point must serve equally to establish the other. Nor does this appear to be any new pretension. When the services rendered by this family to the house of Stuart were rewarded by Charles II. with a peerage, the Glengarry of the time indicated his claim by assuming the title of Lord Macdonnell and Aros; and although, upon the failure of heirs male of his body, this title did not descend to this successors, yet his lands formed, in consequence, the barony of MacDonnell.

Donald Gorme, the claimant of the lordship of the Isles mentioned above as having been slain in 1539, left a grandson, a minor, known as Donald Macdonald Gormeson of Sleat. His title to the family estates was disputed by the Macleods of Harris. He ranged himself on the side of Queen Mary when the disputes about her marriage began in 1565. He died in 1585, and was succeeded by Donald Gorme Mor, fifth in descent from Hugh of Sleat. This Donald Gorme proved himself to be a man of superior abilities, and was favoured highly by James VI. to whom he did important service in maintaining the peace of the Isles. "From this period, it may be observed, the family were loyal to the crown, and firm supporters of the national constitution and laws; and it is also worthy of notice that nearly all the clans attached to the old Lord of the Isles, on the failure of the move direct line in the person of John, transferred their warmest affections to those royal Stuarts, whose throne they had before so often and so alarmingly shaken. This circumstance, as all men know, became strikingly apparent when misfortune fell heavily in turn on the Stuarts."

Donald Gorme Mor, soon after succeeding his father, found himself involved in a deadly feud with the MacLeans of Dowart, which raged to such an extent as to lead to the interference of government, and to the passing in 1587 of an act of parliament, commonly called "The general Bond" or Band for maintaining good order both on the borders and in the Highlands and Isles. By this act, it was made imperative on all landlords, bailies, and chiefs of clans, to find sureties for the peaceable behaviour of those under them. The contentions, however, between the Macdonalds and the Macleans continued, and in 1589, with the view of putting an end to them, the king and council adopted the following plan. After remissions under the privy seal had been granted to Donald Gorme of Sleat, his kinsman, Macdonald of Islay, the principal in the feud, and Maclean of Dowart, for all crimes committed by them, they were induced to proceed to Edinburgh, under pretence of consulting with the king and council for the good rule of the country, but immediately on their arrival they were seized and imprisoned in the castle. In the summer of 1591, they were set at liberty, on paying each a fine to the king, that imposed on Sleat being œ4,000, under the name of arrears of feu-duties and crown-rents in the Isles, and finding securities for their future obedience and the performance of certain prescribed conditions. They also bound themselves to return to their confinement in the castle of Edinburgh, whenever they should be summoned, on twenty days' warning. In consequence of their not fulfilling the conditions imposed upon them, and their continuing in opposition to the government, their pardons were recalled, and the three island chiefs were cited before the privy council on the 14th July 1593, when, failing to appear, summonses of treason were executed against them and certain of their associates.

In 1601, the chief of Sleat again brought upon himself and his clan the interference of government by a feud with Macleod of Dunvegan, which led to much bloodshed and great misery and distress among their followers and their families. He had married a sister of Macleod; but, from jealousy or some other cause, he put her away, and refused at her brother's request to take her back. Having procured a divorce, he soon after married a sister of Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail. Macleod immediately assembled his clan, and carried fire and sword through Macdonald's district of Trotternish. The latter, in revenge, invaded Harris, and laid waste that island, killing many of the inhabitants, and carrying off their cattle. "These spoliations and incursions were carried on with so much inveteracy, that both clans were brought to the brink of ruin; and many of the natives of the districts thus devastated were forced to sustain themselves by killing and eating their horses, dogs, and cats." The Macdonalds having invaded Macleod's lands in Skye, a battle took place on the mountain Benquillin between them and the Macleods, when the latter, under Alexander, the brother of their chief, were defeated with great loss, and their leader, with thirty of their clan, taken captive. A reconciliation was at length effected between them by the mediation of Macdonald of Islay, Maclean of Coll, and other friends; when the prisoners taken at Benquillin were released.

In 1608, we find Donald Gorme of Sleat one of the Island chiefs who attended the court of Lord Ochiltree, the king's lieutenant, at Aros in Mull, when he was sent there for the settlement of order in the Isles, and who afterwards accepted his invitation to dinner on board the king's ship, called the Moon. When dinner was ended, Ochiltree told the astonished chiefs that they were his prisoners by the king's order; and weighing anchor he sailed direct to Ayr, whence he proceeded with his prisoners to Edinburgh and presented them before the privy council, by whose order they were placed in the castles of Dumbarton, Blackness, and Stirling. Petitions were immediately presented by the imprisoned chiefs to the council submitting themselves to the king's pleasure, and making many offers in order to procure their liberation. In the following year the bishop of the Isles was deputed as sole commissioner to visit and survey the Isles, and all the chiefs in prison were set at liberty, on finding security to a large amount, not only for their return to Edinburgh by a certain fixed day, but for their active concurrence, in the meantime, with the bishop in making the proposed survey. Donald Gorme of Sleat was one of the twelve chiefs and gentlemen of the Isles, who met the bishop at Iona, in July 1609, and submitted themselves to him, as the king's representative. At a court then held by the bishop, the nine celebrated statutes called the "Statutes of Icolmkill," for the improvement and order of the Isles, were enacted, with the consent of the assembled chiefs, and their bonds and oaths given for the obedience thereto of their clansmen.

In 1616, after the suppression of the rebellion of the Clanranald in the South Isles, certain very stringent conditions were imposed by the privy council on the different Island chiefs. Among these were, that they were to take home- farms into their own hands, which they were to cultivate, " to the effect that they might be thereby exercised and eschew idleness," and that they were not to use in their houses more than a certain quantity of wine respectively. Donald Gorme of Sleat, having been prevented by sickness from attending the council with the other chiefs, ratified all their proceedings, and found the required sureties, by a bond dated in the month of August. He named Duntulm, a castle of his family in Trotternish, Skye, as his residence, when six household gentlemen, and an annual consumption of four tun of wine, were allowed to him; and he was once-a-year to exhibit to the council three of his principal kinsmen. He died the same year, without issue, and was succeeded by his nephew, Donald Gorme Macdonald of Sleat.

On July 14th 1625, after having concluded, in an amicable manner, all his disputes with the Macleods of Harris, and another controversy in which he was engaged with the captain of Clanranald, he was created a baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles I., with a special clause of precedency placing him second of that order in Scotland. He adhered to the cause of that monarch, but died in 1643. He had married Janet, commonly called "fair Janet," second daughter of Kenneth, first Lord Mackenzie of Kintail, by whom he had several children. His eldest son, Sir James Macdonald, second baronet of Sleat, joined the Marquis of Montrose in 1645, and when Charles II. marched into England in 1651, he sent a number of his clan to his assistance. He died 8th December 1678.

Sir James' eldest son, Sir Donald Macdonald, third baronet of Sleat, died in 1695. His son, also named Sir Donald, fourth baronet, was one of those summoned by the Lord Advocate, on the breaking out of rebellion of 1715, to appear at Edinburgh, under pain of a year's imprisonment and other penalties, to give bail for their allegiance to the government. Joining in the insurrection, his two brothers commanded the battalion of his clan, on the Pretender's side, at Sheriffmuir; and, being sent out with the Earl Marischal's horse to drive away a reconnoitring party, under the Duke of Argyll, from the heights, may be said to have commenced the battle. Sir Donald himself and joined the Earl of Seaforth at his camp at Alness with 700 Macdonalds. After the suppression of the rebellion, Sir Donald proceeded to the Isle of Skye with about 1000 men; but although he made no resistance, having no assurance of protection from the government in case of a surrender, he retired into one of the Uists, where he remained till he obtained a ship which carried him to France. He was forfeited for his share in the insurrection, but the forfeiture was soon removed. He died in 1718, leaving one son and four daughters.

His son, Sir Alexander Macdonald, seventh baronet, was one of the first persons asked by Prince Charles to join him, on his arrival off the Western Islands, in July 1745, but refused, as he had brought no foreign force with him. After the battle of Preston, the prince sent Mr Alexander Macleod, advocate, to the Isle of Skye, to endeavour to prevail upon Sir Alexander Macdonald and the laird of Macleod to join the insurgents; but instead of doing so, these and other well-affected chiefs enrolled each an independent company for the service of government, out of their respective clans. The Macdonalds of Skye served under Lord Loudon in Ross-shire.

After the battle of Culloden, when Prince Charles, in his wanderings, took refuge in Skye, with Flora Macdonald, they landed near Moydhstat, or Mugstot, the seat of Sir Alexander Macdonald, near the northern extremity of that island. Sir Alexander was at that time with the Duke of Cumberland at Fort Augustus, and as his wife, Lady Margaret Montgomerie, a daughter of the ninth Earl of Eglinton, was known to be a warm friend of the prince, Miss Macdonald proceeded to announce to her his arrival. Through Lady Margaret the prince was consigned to the care of Mr Macdonald of Kingsburgh, Sir Alexander's factor, at whose house he spent the night, and afterwards departed to the island of Rasay. Sir Alexander died in November 1746, leaving three sons.

His eldest son, Sir James, eighth baronet, styled "The Scottish Marcellus," was born in 1741. At his own earnest solicitation he was sent to Eton, on leaving which he set out on his travels, and was everywhere received by the learned with the distinction due to his unrivalled talents. At Rome, in particular, the most marked attention was paid to him by several of the cardinals. He died in that city on 26th July 1766,when only 25 years old. In extent of learning, and in genius, he resembled the admirable Crichton. On his death the title devolved on his next brother, Alexander, ninth baronet, who was created a peer of Ireland, July 17, 1776, as Baron Macdonald of Sleat, county Antrim. He married the eldest daughter of Godfrey Bosville, Esq. of Gunthwaite, Yorkshire, and had seven sons and three daughters. Diana, the eldest daughter, married in 1788 the Right Hon. Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster. His lordship died September 12, 1795.

His eldest son, Alexander Wentworth, second Lord Macdonald, died unmarried, June 9, 1824, when his brother, Godfrey, became third Lord Macdonald. He assumed the additional name of Bosville. He married Louise Maria, daughter of Farley Edsir, Esq.; issue, three sons and seven daughters. He died October 13, 1832.

The eldest son, Godfrey William Wentworth, fourth Lord Macdonald, born in 1809, married in 1845, daughter of G.T. Wyndham, Esq. of Cromer Hall, Norfolk; issue, Somerled James Brudenell, born in 1849, two other sons and four daughters.


Clan MacDonald Index