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The History of the Clan MacDonald Part I

The Clan Donald derive their origin from a son of Reginald, who appears to have inherited South Kintyre, and the island of Islay; but little is known of their history until the annexation of the Isles to the Crown in the year 1266. According to Highland tradition, Donald made a pilgrimage to Rome to do penance, and obtain absolution for the various enormities of his former life; and, on his return, evinced his gratitude and piety by making grants of land to the monastery of Saddel, and other religious houses in Scotland. He was succeeded by his son, Angus Mor, who, on the arrival of Haco with his fleet, immediately joined the Norwegian king, and assisted him during the whole of the expedition; yet, when a treaty of peace was afterwards concluded between the kings of Norway and Scotland, he does not appear to have suffered in consequence of the part which he took in that enterprise. In the year 1284 he appeared at the convention, by which the Maid of Norway was declared heiress of the crown, and obtained as the price of his support on that occasion a grant of Ardnamurchan, a part of the earldom of Garmoran1, and the confirmation of his father's and grandfather's grants to the monastery of Saddel. Angus left two sons, Alexander and Angus Og (ie, the younger). Alexander, by a marriage with one of the daughters of Ewen of Ergadia, acquired a considerable addition to his possessions; but having joined the Lord of Lorn in his opposition to the claims of Robert Bruce, he became involved in the ruin of that chief; and being obliged to surrender to the king, he was imprisoned in Dundonald Castle, where he died. His whole possessions were forfeited, and given to his brother, Angus Og, who, having attached himself to the party of Bruce, and remained faithful in the hour of adversity, now received the reward of his fidelity and devotion. Angus assisted in the attack upon Carrick, when the king recovered "his father's hall;" and he was present at Bannockburn, where, at the head of his clan, he formed the reserve, and did battle "stalwart and stout," on that never-to- be-forgotten day. Bruce, having at length reaped the reward of all his toils and dangers, and secured the independence of Scotland, was not unmindful of those who had participated in the struggle thus victoriously consummated. Accordingly, he bestowed upon Angus the lordship of Lochaber, which had belonged to the Comyns, together with the lands of Durrour and Glencoe, and the islands of Mull, Tyree, &c., which had formed part of the possessions of the family of Lorn. Prudence might have restrained the royal bounty. The family of the Isles were already too powerful for subjects; but the king, secure of the attachment and fidelity of Angus, contented himself with making the permission to erect a castle or fort at Tarbat in Kintyre, a condition of the grants which he had made. This distinguished chief died early in the fourteenth century, leaving two sons, John his successor, and John Og, the ancestor of the Macdonalds of Glencoe.

Angus, as we have already seen, had all his life been a steady friend to the crown, and had profited by his fidelity. But his son John does not seem to have inherited the loyalty along with the power, dignities, and possessions of his father. Having had some dispute with the Regent concerning certain lands which had been granted by Bruce, he joined the party of Edward Baliol and the English king; and, by a formal treaty concluded on the 12th of December 1335, and confirmed by Edward III on the 5th October 1336, engaged to support the pretensions of the former, in consideration of a grant of the lands and islands claimed by the Earl of Moray, besides certain other advantages. But all the intrigues of Edward were baffled; Scotland was entirely freed from the dominion of the English; and, in the year 1341, David II was recalled from France to assume the undisputed sovereignty of his native country. Upon his accession to the throne, David, anxious to attach to his party the most powerful of the Scottish barons, concluded a treaty with John of the Isles, who, in consequence, pledged himself to support his government. But a circumstance soon afterwards occurred which threw him once more into the interest of Baliol and the English party. In 1346, Ranald of the Isles having been slain at Perth by the Earl of Ross, as already mentioned, John who had married his sister Amy, immediately laid claim to the succession. The government, however, unwilling to aggrandise a chief already too powerful, determined to oppose indirectly his pretensions, and evade the recognition of his claim. It is unnecessary to detail the pretexts employed, or the obstacles which were raised by the government. Their effect was to restore to the party of Baliol one of its most powerful adherents, and to enable John in the meanwhile to concentrate in his own person nearly all the possessions of his ancestor Somerled.

Lochaber, with Fort William, Ben Nevis, & the Caledonian Canal.  (52039 bytes)
Lochaber, with Fort William, Ben Nevis, & the Caledonian Canal.
Lands where Clan MacDonald roamed.

But ere long a most remarkable change took place in the character and position of the different parties or factions, which at that time divided Scotland. The king of Scotland now appeared in the extraordinary and unnatural character of a mere tool or partisan of Edward, and even seconded covertly the endeavours of the English king to overturn the independence of Scotland. Its effect was to throw into active opposition the party which had hitherto supported the throne and the cause of independence; and, on the other hand, to secure to the enemies of both favour and countenance of the king. But as soon as by this interchange the English party became identified with the royal faction, John of the Isles abandoned it, and formed a connection with that party to which he had for many years been openly opposed. At the head of the national party was the Steward of Scotland, who, being desirous of strengthening himself by alliances with the more powerful barons, hailed the accession of John to his interests as an extraordinary piece of good fortune, and cemented their union by giving to the Lord of the Isles his own daughter un marriage. The real aim of this policy was not for a moment misunderstood; but any open manifestation of force was at first cautiously avoided. At length, in 1366, when the heavy burdens imposed upon the people to raise the ransom of the king had produced general discontent, and David's jealousy of the Steward had displayed itself by throwing into prison the acknowledged successor to the throne, the northern barons broke out into open rebellion, and refused either to pay the tax imposed, or to obey the king's summons to attend the parliament.

In this state matters remained for some time, when David applied to the Steward, as the only person capable of restoring peace to the country, and, at the same time, commissioned him to put down the rebellion. The latter, satisfied that his objects would be more effectually forwarded by steady opposition to the court than by avowedly taking part with the insurgents, accepted the commission, and employed every means in his power to reduce the refractory barons to obedience. His efforts, however, were only partially successful. The Earls of Mar and Ross, and other northern barons, whose object was now attained, at once laid down their arms; John of Lorn and Gillespie Campbell likewise gave in their submission; but the Lord of the Isles, secure in the distance and inaccessible nature of his territories, refused to yield, and , in fact, set the royal power at defiance. The course of events, however, soon enabled David to bring this refractory subject to terms. Edward, finding that France required his undivided attention, was not in a condition to prosecute his ambitious projects against Scotland; a peace was accordingly concluded between the rival countries; and David thus found himself at the liberty to turn his whole force against the Isles. With this view be commanded the attendance of the Steward and other barons of the realm, and resolved to proceed in person against the rebels. But the Steward, perceiving that the continuance of the rebellion might prove fatal to his party, prevailed with his son-in-law to meet the king at Inverness, where an agreement was entered into, by which the Lord of the Isles not only engaged to submit to the royal authority, and pay his share of all public burdens, but further promised to put down all others who should attempt to resist either; and, besides his own oath, he gave hostages to the king for the fulfilment of this obligation. The accession of Robert Steward or Stewart to the throne of Scotland, which took place in 1371, shortly after this act of submission, brought the Lord of the Isles into close connection with the court; and during the whole of this reign he remained in as perfect tranquillity, and gave as loyal support to the government as his father Angus had done under that of King Robert Bruce. In those barbarous and unsettled times, the government was not always in a condition to reduce its refractory vassals by force; and, from the frequent changes and revolutions to which it was exposed, joined to its general weakness, the penalty of forfeiture was but little dreaded. Its true policy, therefore, was to endeavour to bind to its interests, by the ties of friendship and alliance, those turbulent chiefs whom it was always difficult and often impossible to reduce to obedience by the means commonly employed for that purpose.

The advice which King Robert Bruce had left for the guidance of his successors, in regard to the Lord of the Isles, was certainly dictated by sound political wisdom. He foresaw the danger which would result to the crown were the extensive territories and consequent influences of these insular chiefs ever again to be concentrated in the person of one individual; and he earnestly recommended to those who should come after him never, under any circumstances, to permit or to sanction such aggrandisement. But, in the present instance, the claims of John were too great to be overlooked; and though Robert Stewart could scarcely have been insensible of the eventual danger which might result from disregarding the admonition of Bruce, yet he had not been more than a year on the throne when he granted to his son-in-law a feudal title to all those lands which had formerly belonged to Ranald the son of Roderick, and thus conferred on him a boon which had often been demanded in vain by his predecessors. King Robert, however, since he could not with propriety obstruct the accumulation of so much property in one house, attempted to sow the seeds of future discord by bringing about a division of the property amongst the different branches of the family. With this view he persuaded John, who had been twice married, not only to gavel the lands amongst his offspring, which was the usual practice of his family, but also render the children of both marriages feudally independent of one another. Accordingly King Robert, in the third year of his reign, confirmed a charter granted by John to Reginald, the second son of the first marriage, by which the lands of Garmoran, forming the dowry of Reginald's mother, were to be held of John's heirs; that is, of the descendants of the eldest son of the first marriage, who would, of course, succeed to all his possessions that had not been feudally destined or devised to other parties. Nor was this all. A short time afterwards John resigned into the king's hands nearly the whole of the western portion of his territories, and received from Robert charters of these lands in favour of himself and the issue of his marriage with the king's daughter; so that the children of the second marriage were rendered feudally independent of those of the first, and the seeds of future discord and contention effectually sown between them. After this period little is known of the history of John, who is supposed to have died about the year 1380.

During the remainder of this king's reign, and the greater part of that of his successor, Robert III., no collision seems to have taken place between the insular chiefs and the general government; and hence little or nothing is known of their proceedings. But when the dissensions of the Scottish barons, occasioned by the marriage of the Duke of Rothesay, and the subsequent departure of the Earl of March to the English court, led to a renewal of the wars between the two countries, and the invasion of Scotland by an English army, the insular chiefs appear to have renewed their intercourse with England; being more swayed by considerations of interest or policy, than by the ties of relationship to the royal family of Scotland. At this time the clan was divided into two branches, the heads of which seemed to have possessed co- ordinate rank and authority. Godfrey, the eldest surviving son of the first marriage, ruled on the mainland, as lord of Garmoran and Lochaber; Donald, the eldest son of the second marriage, held a considerable territory of the crown, then known as the feudal lordship of the Isles; whilst the younger brothers, having received the provisions usually allotted by the law of gavel, held these as vassals either of Godfrey or of Donald. This temporary equipoise was, however, soon disturbed by the marriage of Donald with Mary, the sister of Alexander Earl of Ross, in consequence of which alliance he ultimately succeeded in obtaining possession of the earldom. Euphemia, only child of Alexander, Earl of Ross, entered a convent and became a nun, having previously committed the charge of the earldom to her grandfather, Albany. Donald, however, lost no time in preferring his claim to the succession in right of his wife, the consequences of which have already been narrated in detail. Donald, with a considerable force, invaded Ross, and met with little or no resistance from the people till he reached Dingwall, where he was encountered by Angus Dhu Mackay, at the head of a considerable body of men from Sutherland, whom, after a fierce conflict, he completely defeated and made their leader prisoner. Leaving the district of Ross, which now acknowledged his authority, he advanced at the head of his army, through Moray, and penetrated into Aberdeenshire. Here, however, a decisive check awaited him. On the 24th of July, 1411, he was met at the village of Harlaw by the Earl of Mar, at the head of an army inferior in numbers, but composed of better materials; and a battle ensued, upon the event of which seemed to depend the decision of the question, whether the Celtic or the Sassenach part of the population of Scotland were in future to possess the supremacy. The immediate issue of the conflict was doubtful, and, as is usual in such cases, both parties claimed the victory. But the superior numbers and irregular valour of the Highland followers of Donald had received a severe check from the steady discipline and more effective arms of the Lowland gentry; they had been too roughly handled to think of renewing the combat, for which their opponents seem to have been quite prepared; and, as in such circumstances a drawn battle was equivalent to a defeat, Donald was compelled, as the Americans say, "to advance backwards." The Duke of Albany, having obtained reinforcements, marched in person to Dingwall; but Donald, having no desire to try again the fate of arms, retired with his followers to the Isles, leaving Albany in possession of the whole of Ross, where he remained during the winter. Next summer the war was renewed, and carried on with various success, until at length the insular chief found it necessary to come to terms with the duke, and a treaty was concluded by which Donald agreed to abandon his claim to the earldom of Ross, and to become a vassal of the crown of Scotland.

Clan MacDonald Index
Clan MacDonald History Part II


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