An Introductory History by Noman H.
MacDonald FRSA FSA Scot.
(Historian to the High Council)
"Ceannas Ghaidheal do Chlann Cholla,
's còir fhogradh" - The sovereignty of the Gael to Clan Colla,
it is right to proclaim it; so wrote the bard, O'Henna in his poem
on John of lsla, last Lord of the Isles.
Clan Donald was indisputably the
largest and most renowned of all the Highland clans of Scotland
controlling, at one time, virtually the whole western seaboard from
the Butt of Lewis in the north to the Mull of Kintyre in the south,
almost a third of the Kingdom, with possessions in Northern Ireland
The Clan claims descent from Conn of
the Hundred Battles, Ard-Righ or High-King of Ireland in the
1st century AD, through Colla Uais, the first of the family to
settle in what is now the Hebrides, and from whom the Clan took its
earlier designation of "Clann Cholla" i.e. the Children of Coll,
down to Somerled, Lord of Argyll, in the 12th century who, after
defeating the Norsemen, was proclaimed King of the Isles, Righ
Innsegall, or Rex Insularum. Somerled's grandson, Donald of Islay is
the progenitor of Clan Donald, in Gaelic rendered Clann
Dhomhnaill, i.e. the Children of Donald.
Donald had, among other children, two sons, Angus Mór and Alasdair
or Alexander. Mór means in Gaelic, Big or Great. From Alasdair are
descended the Clan Alasdair or Macalisters of Loup in
Angus Mór had three sons, Alasdair Òg, Angus Òg and John Sprangach.
Òg means young and Sprangach means Bold.
Alasdair Òg chose to serve the English
after the deposition of John Balliol, King of Scots, by Edward I of
England and was killed in 1299 in a battle with his distant cousin,
Alexander MacDougall of Argyll and Lorn, with whom he had been at
feud. Angus Òg joined forces with Robert the Bruce, whom he is said
to have sheltered in the Castle of Dunaverty in Kintyre and later
played a vital part with his followers in Bruce's signal victory
over the mighty army of Edward II of England at Bannockburn, on
Midsummers's Day, 1314 - Scotland's finest hour! For his loyal
services to his King and Country, Angus received from the grateful
monarch many of the vast territories in the Western Highlands and
Isles formerly held by the Comyns and MacDougalls, who were
forfeited for their opposition to The Bruce.
By the addition of these lands to
those already in his possession, Angus became the most important and
powerful magnate in Argyll and the Isles south of Ardnamurchan
Point. From John, or Iain Sprangach are descended the Clan Iain
(MacDonalds of MacIains) of Ardnamuchan.
Angus Òg had two sons, both named John or Iain, one legitimate, the
other natural. From the natural son, known as Iain Fraoch,
i.e. John of the Heather, or Iain Abrach, from his having
been fostered in Lochaber, are descended the Clan Iain Abrach
or MacDonalds or MacIains of Glencoe, whose Chief was known by the
Angus Òg's elder, legitimate son, also
named John, added greatly to the already vast possessions of the
family, largely through his marriage to his distant cousin Euphemia
(Amie) MacRuairi, whose only brother Ranald was murdered by the Earl
of Ross at Elcho Nunnery in 1346: and left no heirs.
John of Isla, as the family were now
designated, was the first of his line to assume the title of Lord of
the Isles which although not at that time recognised by the Scottish
Crown, almost accurately reflected his position in the
Gaelic-speaking Western Highland and Isles.
John held court, appointed his own
heralds, ran the government of his domains through the Council of
the Isles, built monasteries and generally acted in the manner of an
independent prince, whose authority was absolute.
He patronised the Gaelic bards and
thereby preserved the culture of the Gael. For his benevolence to
the Church, John earned the soubriquet of "Good John". It is
probable that John's first wife, Amie MacRuairi, whom he had married
in 1337, died, perhaps in childbirth, sometime prior to his second
marriage in 1350 to Margaret, daughter of Robert, the High Steward
of Scotland, who succeeded his uncle, David II as King of Scots in
1371 by the title of Robert II and adopted the surname of Stewart,
derived from his former "office". One of the first acts of the new
king was to grant to his son-in-law, John of Isla, a charter of the
former MacRuairi lands, which comprised the Lordship of Garmoran in
western Inverness-shire, the Isle of Eigg and the Outer Hebrides.
The following year, 1372, John granted to Ranald, the eldest
surviving son of his first marriage to Amie MacRuairi, a charter of
most of the former MacRuairi lands to be held of the eldest son of
John's second royal marriage with the Princess Margaret Stewart.
Ranald, whose principal seat was
Castle Tioram in Loch Moidart, became the progenitor of the
MacDonalds of Clanranald, descended from his eldest son, Allan and
the MacDonells of Glengarry, descended from his second son, Donald.
By his second wife, John had several
sons. The eldest son, Donald, succeeded him as Lord of the Isles and
fought the Battle of Harlaw, in Aberdeenshire, against the
Government forces, under the Earl of Mar, in 1411. The second son,
Iain Mòr Tanaistear, i.e. Big John the Heir, founded the
Clan Iain Mhor or MacDonalds of Dunivaig, with lands in Isla,
Kintyre and Antrim, sometimes known as the Clan Donald South to
distinguish them from the MacDonalds of Sleat who were also known as
the Clan Donald North. The third surviving son, Alexander was
granted the Lordship of Lochaber and it is from his natural son,
Alasdair Carrach (Mangy) that the MacDonalds or MacDonells of
Keppoch, also known as the Clan Ranald of Lochaber, from Ranald Mór,
the 7th Chief of that branch, descend.
Donald of Harlaw was succeeded as Lord
of the Isles and High Chief of Clan Donald by his eldest son,
Alexander, who inherited, through his mother, the Earldom of Ross -
the reason why the Battle of Harlaw was fought by his father.
Alexander had three sons. The eldest, John, by his wife Elizabeth
Seton, succeeded him as Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross.
The second, Celestine, by a daughter
of MacPhee of Glen Spean, became the progenitor of the MacDonalds of
Lochalsh, the larger part of whose lands passed, in the sixteenth
century to Glengarry.
The third son, Uisdean, or
Hugh, by a daughter of Gilpatrick, grandson of the Green Abbot of
Applecross, became the progenitor of the Clan Uisdean or
MacDonalds of Sleat.
The weakness of John, the fourth Lord
of the Isles and his reliance on the advice of persons outwith his
own family on how to govern his vast territories, which led to his
defeat by his son Angus Òg, in the naval engagement off Mull, known
as the Battle of Bloody Bay, his intrigues with the English
Government and his failure to match the duplicity of the Campbells,
resulted in his final forfeiture by the Crown in 1493.
The title of Lord of the Isles was
annexed to the Crown as had been the Earldom of Ross in 1475, due to
John, the last Lord's intrigues with England, and bestowed on the
Dukes of Rothesay, heirs to the Kings of Scots and has ever since
been retained among their principal titles by the British Crown
With the fall of the MacDonald dynasty
in the Western Highlands and Isles, Gaelic culture fell into rapid
decline. The Scottish monarchs and their Lowland dominated
Governments had no sympathy for what they regarded as an alien and
barbaric way of life. A political vacuum was created which the
Government agents, the Campbell Earls of Argyll, largely due to
their policy of self-aggrandisement and intrigue, were unable to
Several vigorous attempts were made by
various Clan Donald leaders to re-establish the old order and were
supported by most of the old vassals of the Isles e.g. the MacLeans,
MacLeods and MacPhees, who all despised the Campbells but they were
eventually forced to yield to the stronger forces sent against them
and when the 17th century dawned, the various branches of Clan
Donald, e.g. Sleat, Clanranald, Glengarry, Keppoch and Glencoe, had
become independent clans, each with its own Chief, none of whom
could claim to be Mac Dhomhnaill. This situation pertained
through the troublesome times of the 17th century and the Jacobite
risings of the 18th century till after the Battle of Culloden in
1746 and the end of the Clan System.
Not until 1947, was Clan Donald again
to have a High Chief, when the Rt. Hon. Alexander Godfrey Macdonald,
7th Lord Macdonald, was granted by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, the
undifferenced Arms of Macdonald of Macdonald. His elder son, the Rt.
Hon. Godfrey James Macdonald of Macdonald, 8th Lord MacDonald, who
resides at Kinloch Lodge, Sleat, Isle of Skye, is the present High
Chief of the Clan.
The principal branches of the Clan are represented at the present
time by Sir Ian Godfrey Macdonald, 17th Baronet and 24th Chief of
Sleat; Ranald Alexander Macdonald, Captain and 24th Chief of
Clanranald; Aeneas Ranald Euan MacDonell, 23rd Chief of Glengarry;
The Rt. Hon. Alexander Randal Mark McDonnell, 14th Earl of Antrim,
and William St. John Somerville McAlester, 25th Chief of Loup.