14th Century

1300s: Emergence of Clan Alasdair

  • “This important family [i]s one of the earliest branches to assert its independence from the great Clan Donald” [Way & Squire, p. 204]; the clan appears in the mid-14th century: a little clan, senior cadets of Clan Donald who acquire a separate identity [DMM; Stevenson, Highland Warrior, p. 220]. By 1366, this branch of the Clan Donald is already known to chroniclers as ‘Clan Alexander’ [AFM, iv, 635 (1366.9)]. Castleton calls the Clan Alasdair “the oldest of all the families that sprang from the main stem” of the Clan Donald [Castleton, p. 163; Keay, p. 643; Grant, p. 148; Way & Squire, p. 204].
  • “[T]he MacDonalds . . . established several branches that took on much of the individuality of clans, and during the period before the Lordship of the Isles, the MacAlisters, the MacIans and the MacDonalds of Glencoe [are] established” [Grant & Cheape, p. 70]. However, “[t]he fortunes of the McAlestor’s [sic] are closely linked to the ebb and flow of Clan Donald’s reign up to the loss of the Lordship of the Isles” in 1493 [CMS, intro.].
  • “The possessions of this tribe appear to have been, from the first, in Kintyre, and were never very extensive” [Gregory, p. 68]; indeed, “it seems impossible to associate Clan Alasdair as a Highland family with any other region” [Castleton, pp. 163, 165; CMS, p. 27]. Later many settle in Bute and Arran [CMS, p. 27; Grant, p. 41; DMM; Keay, p. 643]. Strategic location makes the MacAlasdairs influential, but they are “by no means a numerous clan, and therefore s[eek] to secure their position by alliances with other houses” [Way & Squire, p. 204].
  • Many of this clan serve in Ulster as galloglasses; see 1260; 1360; 1493ff., #3; 1500s, #2.

1301: (October) In this month, ‘Angus of Islay’ is in western Argyll with Hugo Bissett and military forces of Edward, king of England.[1] Bissett and Angus Og both write to Edward asking for his instructions on what to do next to help defeat his enemies in Bute and Kintyre [Stevenson, Documents, pp. 435-7]. This does not demonstrate opposition to Robert Bruce but rather opposition to John Balliol (Bruce’s rival), whom Edward had put on the throne of Scotland instead of Bruce but who had then fallen into disfavour. It is also indicative of the pragmatism of the men of the Isles, whose loyalty was to their own people and lands rather than to a faraway king of any sort. Most of the ‘great men’ in Scotland during this period switched allegiances, often repeatedly, depending on the changing political situation.

1306: Robert Bruce crowned King of Scotland at Scone in a secret ceremony attended by only a handful of people. Pursued by Edward’s forces, he escapes first to Dunaverty Castle, then to Rathlin Island (Ireland): Angus Og gives Bruce ”refuge and hospitality in his Castle of Dunaverty”. Some MacDonald accounts  hold that he was sheltered by Donald of Islay, son of Alasdair Mòr, during his flight [personal correspondence with Vance McAlister, CMS historian, and Kathan McCallister of Texas, July 2001]; certainly the available evidence suggests that, contrary to the traditional view of Clan Donald historians, Donald supported Robert Bruce (see 1307; 1309; 1314, #2; 1318). “In the series of struggles for Scottish independence, which mar[k] the close of the thirteenth and the opening of the fourteenth centuries, the [MacDougall] Lords of Lorn, who [a]re closely connected by marriage with the Comyn and Balliol party, naturally arra[y] themselves in opposition to the claims of Bruce. On the other hand, the houses of Isla and the North Isles suppor[t], with all their power, the apparently desperate fortunes of King Robert I” [Gregory, p. 24].

1307:  Donald mac Alasdair supports Edward Bruce (brother of Robert) in his Galloway campaign. According to Barbour, Fordun, Bower[2], and the Lanercost Chronicle, “Edward Bruce was supported by Donald of Islay (who may have been a cousin of Angus Og)” [McNamee, p. 44 (emphasis mine); Bower, book XII, p. 345], which Donald mac Alasdair certainly was. Donald of Islay is one of only three Highland supporters of Bruce to be named in the chronicles [Grant & Cheape, p. 62].

1308:  1. “At the end of the first War of Independence, Bruce ma[kes] grants and confiscations that materially chang[e] the pattern of land-holding in the Highlands” [Grant & Cheape, p. 65]. However, “he [i]s too sensible of the weakness of Scotland on the side of the Isles, not to take precautionary measures against the possible defection of any of the great families on that coast, who might with ease admit an English force into the heart of the kingdom.” As a result, he require[s] Angus to resign to the Crown his lands in Kintyre [Gregory, p. 25; McKerral, p. 4].

2. According to Hugh Macdonald, the Sleat seannachie, in this year Alasdair Og, the son of Angus Mòr, who had (the story goes) opposed the Bruce, was beseiged in Castle Sween and died there. This has been widely accepted, and yet, Macdonald is the only source for this information and he was writing 400 years after the fact. A look at contemporary records reveals a similar story, but not about Alasdair Og at all. According to the Scotichronicon:

In the same year in the week following the feast of the Assumption of our Lady King Robert defeated the men of Argyll in mid-Argyll and made the whole land subject to him. When their leader, whose name was Alexander de Argyll, fled to the castle of Dunstaffnage, he was besieged for some time there. Alexander handed over the castle to the same king, but refused to pay him homage. He took refuge in England under a safe-conduct. [Bower, Book XII, p. 344, emphasis mine]

Alexander de Argyll was in fact the Lord of Lorne, Alexander Macdougall, who did indeed flee to England and live the rest of his life there. Throughout the 1200s and into the 1300s, records show again and again the Macdougall chiefs called ‘of Argyll’ (or de Ergadia) while the Macdonalds are ‘of the Isles’ or ‘of Islay’; furthermore, Dunstaffnage was a Macdougall stronghold. It is possible that the Sleat seannachie made a mistake and genuinely assumed this story was told about Alasdair Og.  Alexander Mackenzie notes, however, that Hugh Macdonald “was such an out-and-out partisan, that he scrupled not to write anything calculated to glorify his own immediate chief and name, apparently caring little whether it was true or not” [History of the MacDonalds, p. 44] – a warning echoed in Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis [p. 325].  In fact it appears that Alasdair Og – Alexander Macdonald – had land grants from Robert I after Bannockburn, and he might have been one of those killed in 1318 at Dundalk, supporting Robert’s brother, Edward Bruce (see c. 1315-18, 1318). This change in the traditional story of Alasdair Og raises questions for which I have no answers (such as, if Alexander was not forfeited, why did leadership of Clan Donald pass to his younger brother on his death? did he have no surviving sons?). But the limited contemporary evidence that still exists leads me to believe that it was not, in fact, Alasdair Og, who opposed Robert I and died in this year.

1309:  Donald of the Isles attends Robert I’s first Parliament.[3] This parliament, held in March at St. Andrews, [i]s a small gathering of supporters who ha[ve] proven themselves loyal to Bruce; see 1307; 1314; 1315; 1318. Later the same year Donald witnesses a charter to Melrose Abbey, again with Edward Bruce. [Bower, vol. 6, editorial note p. 444

1314: 1. 25 March entry in the Rotuli Scotiae records the commissioning of John of Argyll to take Douenaldus de Insula and Gotheris (Godfrey – or possibly Rory – another of Alasdair Mòr’s sons) ‘into the peace of’ Edward II of England. Part of Edward’s plan for defeating Bruce was an “attempt to recruit men there [in the Isles] to fight . . . the lord of the Isles, to keep the Bruce from melting away into the protection of the Islesmen” [Aryeh Nusbacher, The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314 (Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2000), p. 52]. Attempts to take the Western lairds into his peace appear to be part of this strategy, but there is no evidence that these men cooperated at this point; not only does the clan support Bruce at Bannockburn, but Donald ultimately dies fighting with Edward Bruce (see 1318).

2. (24 June) Battle of Bannockburn 

  • The Clan Alasdair supports Robert Bruce in this conflict and is later rewarded by him [MacKinnon, p. 256[4]]. 
  • Angus Og of the Clan Donald is one of Bruce’s most important allies, commanding a body of cavalry at Bannockburn [Tytler, p. 65; Thomson, Feud, p. x]; his loyalty to Bruce is rewarded with large grants of land in Western Scotland [Ian MacDonald correspondence]; these include lands previously held by the MacDougalls of Lorn [McKerral, p. 4].

1315: 12 March entry in the Rotuli Scotiae records a second commissioning of John of Argyll to win Donald and Godfrey (or Rory) mac Alasdair to “the peace of” Edward II; at the time, Edward is planning an “expedition against the Scots” [McNamee, p. 169], which suggests that the first attempt was unsuccessful and Edward is again trying to win over those likely to shelter Bruce; again, there is no record of Argyll’s success.

c. 1315-8: Registrum magni sigilli regum Scotorum notes a charter from Robert I “To Alexander younger lord of the Isles, of the lands of Ulks et Tyringis, with the isle of Mule and other lands” [vol. 1 (1306-1424), app 2, no. 653]. Dr Duffy suggests, logically, that ‘Alexander younger’ is Alasdair Og (‘Og’ in this case meaning ‘younger’) [Duffy, ‘Continuation’, p. 312]. This is yet another piece of evidence that Alasdair Og had neither opposed the Bruce nor died in 1308. It also argues against the claim still made by some that Alasdair Og was the Alexander Macdonald who died in 1299.

1318: (14 October) Battle of Dundalk (or Faughart). According to the Annals of the Four Masters,

Edward Bruce, the destroyer of the people of Ireland in general, both English and Irish, was slain by the English, through dint of battle and bravery, at Dundalk, where also Mac Rory, Lord of Inse-Gall, Mac Donnell, Lord of Argyle, and many others of the chiefs of Scotland, were slain. [AFM, iii, 521 (1318.5)]

Although MacRuari and Macdonald are mentioned, the Macdougalls are conspicuously missing. This is consistent with the opposition of Alexander Macdougall and his son, John, to the Bruce cause. That Macdonald is now ‘lord of Argyll’ is consistent with contemporary reports that it is Macdougall, rather than Alasdair Og Macdonald, who fell from power in 1308. Alasdair Og’s father, Angus Mòr, is dead at this point, and his brother, Angus Og, who succeeded him, lived until 1330. Furthermore, the Annals of Inisfallen specify that it was “Alexander Mac Domnaill” [AIp. 419 (1318,4)]. Even were he still alive, Alasdair Mòr was never lord of Argyll, and although it has been suggested, there is no evidence elsewhere to suggest that Angus Og had a son of this name (who in any case would not have preceded his father as chief of Clan Donald) [Duffy, ‘Continuation’, p. 312]. Who else, then, could this Macdonald have been?

Also among those killed at this battle was ‘Domaldus de ylle’, or Donald of Islay [Duffy, ‘Continuation’, p. 311].

1320: Oliver Thomson gives this as the year of Angus Og’s death, but it was more likely 1330, qv.

1325: 1. In this year, “Bruce commence[s] the building of Tarbert Castle” [Mitchell, p. 16; McKerral, p. 4]. The Exchequer Roll, “which details the expenses connected with Bruce’s castle, also mentions the repairing of houses, ‘placing a new vat in the brew-house, making a new kitchen, lime-kiln,’ &c., points in the direction of former ones having existed” [Mitchell, p. 17], perhaps indicating that some sort of strong hold was already standing at this location. “It is reasonable, at any rate, to suppose that a position that was really the key to Kintyre (the cradle of the Scottish Monarchy) would not be left unprotected” [ibid.] In fact, Gregory says that Bruce about this time “greatly enlarged and strengthened” the “fortifications of the Castle of Tarbert” [p. 25], which certainly suggests that such a fortress was already standing. See mid–1200s. Of the castle “[i]t is said that it was supplied with water by a submarine passage in pipes across the harbour; a circumstance which, if true, shews that our ancestors were better acquainted than we suppose with the laws of hydrostatics” [Stat. Acct.: Kilcolmonnell & Kilberry, pp. 55–6].

2. Roderick MacAlan, to whom Bruce had given the estates of Lorn, is forfeited and “it is probable that Angus Oig, whose loyalty never wavered, receive[s] further additions to his already extensive possessions” [Gregory, pp. 25-6]. 

1326: (20th July) Exchequer Roll accounts rendered by the Constable of Tarbert; it would seem that although “the castle, as at first designed, appears never to have been quite completed”, by this time “almost all that was then purposed being done was finished” [Mitchell, p. 20].

1329:  Death of King Robert I; by now “the house of Isla [i]s already the most powerful in Argyle and the Isles” [Gregory, p. 26]. 

1330:  1. Establishment of the Alexanders in Stirlingshire : Gilbert ‘filii Donaldi’ is given the lands of Glorat in the parish of Campsie, Stirlingshire; this is believed to be a son of Donald of Islay, and the fact that he was later called ‘de Insula’ seems to support this [MacDonald & MacDonald, vol. II,  p. 34 & 34n]. The Alexanders of Menstrie are believed to be among his descendants (see 1500s, #1), though the line of descent is unclear.  Some authors place Gilbert among a group of dispossessed clansmen—“the Disinherited”—who petition for restoration of their land rights after forfeitures stemming from Bannockburn [Way & Squire, p. 209; Castleton, p. 173], but there is no mention of Gilbert in documents related to the Bruce struggle and his family by and large supported Bruce. In any case, “the Alexanders of Menstrie . . . clai[m] relationship with the MacAlastairs in Kintyre” [Donaldson/Morpeth, p. 5; Montcreiffe, p. 63], although Lowland Alexanders in general have other origins. Gilbert’s son is on record as John MacAlexander[5], and his immediate descendants appear to have used that name if they regularly used a surname at all; the “mac” was dropped in later generations.           

2. Death of Angus Og, chief of Clan Donald and younger brother of the late Alasdair Og, occurs about now [Ian MacDonald correspondence; Thomson (Feud, p. 15) puts it at 1320, but Gregory has Angus still alive in 1325, qv.]. Angus’s son John succeeds him and manages to lose most of his father’s lands by siding with Balliol [Gregory, pp. 26-7].

1336:  (12 September) Indenture concluded at Perth between Edward Balliol and John [Macdonald], Lord of Islay; Balliol grants Kintyre, Knapdale and the Isle of Skye to John in addition to his ancestral lands [Nicholson, p. 143].

1343:  (12 June) John of Islay comes to terms with the now-victorious David II, who is anxious to bring the kingdom together [Gregory, pp. 26-7; Nicholson, p. 143]. The king confirms John in most of his ancestral possessions but “Kintyre, Knapdale and Skye [are] conspicuously missing” from the grant [Nicholson, ibid.].

1346:  Amie Macruairi, wife of John mac Angus Og, inherits lands held by her brother from the Earl of Ross; John adds these lands to his own possessions. “Thus [i]s formed the modern Lordship of the Isles, comprehending the territories of the Macdonalds of Isla, and the Macruaries of the North Isles, and a great part of those of the Macdugalls of Lorn” [Gregory, pp. 27-8; Barrow, p. 134].

1354:  John MacDonald assumes the title of Lord of the Isles (the title is not actually granted to this family until his grandson is in power). “There [a]re four Lords of the Isles, whose rule span[s] 150 years. . . . Their possessions includ[e] all the islands to the north and west of the peninsula of Kintyre, excepting Skye and Lewis which they later obtai[n] as part of the Earldom of Ross. Their mainland possessions includ[e] Kintyre and Knapdale, Morvern, Ardnamurchan, Lochaber, Garmoran, and other lands to the north of Loch Ness. . . . [A]ll four Lords, when circumstances [a]re in their favour, adop[t] the position of semi-independent rulers. They [a]re in fact in frequent collision with central authority and seldom . . . on cordial terms with it. They establis[h] contacts with England and in acting in this way [a]re obviously well aware that they came of royal stock” [Grant & Cheape, p. 72]. The Lords of the Isles “maintai[n] large and powerful fleets and navies, and ha[ve] their own judges and judicial system. . . . All the Stewart kings, from James I down to James IV, endeavou[r] to curb their power” [McKerral, p. 4]. However, “[i]t is of the greatest importance to realise that all up the eastern side of the Highlands, clans [a]re building up who [a]re unaffected by the culture of the Lordship of the Isles”, and that even “[w]ithin the Lordship itself, there [a]re rivalries between the great branches founded by members of the family and such favoured supporters as the MacLeans” [Grant & Cheape, pp. 68-9]. Note: Thomson [Feud, p. x] says that John became Lord of the Isles in 1336, but this is anachronistic, as his father, whom he succeeded in that year, did not use this title.

1366:  Son of Ranald, 4th Macalister chief, is killed in Ireland fighting for The O’Neill.[6] Irish annalists report that Ranald came from the Hebrides to fight for the O’Neill and one of his sons was killed [AFM, iv, 635 (1366.9); Castleton, p. 165; “Fortiter”, Dec. 1981, p. 6; Jan. 1982, p. 2].[7] Note: The Annals of the Four Masters calls Ranald “heir to Clan-Alexander”. This suggests that his father, the 3rd chief, is still alive at this time [AFM, ibid.].

1384:  By this year, according to Fordun, “the manners and customs of the Scots vary with the diversity of their speech. For two languages are spoken amongst them, the Scottish and the Teutonic; the latter of which is the language of those who occupy the seaboard and plains, while the race of Scottish speech inhabits the highlands and outlying islands. . . . The highlanders and people of the islands . . . are a savage and untamed nation, rude and independent, given to rapine, ease-loving, of a docile and warm disposition, comely in person but unsightly in dress, hostile to the English people and language, and, owing to the diversity of speech, even to their own nation, and exceedingly cruel. They are, however, faithful and obedient to their king and country and easily made to submit to law if properly governed” [quoted in Grant & Cheape, p. 34].

1399:  Eoin (John) MacDomhnaill of Islay, younger brother to Donald, the second Lord of the Isles, marries Marjory Bisset, heiress to the Glens of Antrim. By this marriage the future Macdonald of Dunyvaig family acquires its first lands in Ireland. “The establishment of a branch of Clann Domhnaill in Ireland ensured continued migration between Ireland and the west of Scotland, and also provided a refuge for discontented Scots” [Alison Cathcart, ‘James V, king of Scotland – and Ireland?’ in Duffy, ed., The World of the Galloglass, pp. 127-8].

[1]The whereabouts of his brother Alasdair Og are unclear. The use of the title ‘of Islay’ might seem to indicate that Angus was at this point head of the kindred, but that designation was also used (during Angus’s lifetime) by their cousin, Donald, son of Alasdair Mòr, and the fact that Alasdair Og is still alive is attested to by later documents. He might have been, as Donald was, with one or the other of the Bruce brothers.

[2]Walter Bower’s 15th-century Scotichronicon is held by some to be “the most important source book of Scottish medieval history” (Keay, p. 388); John Fordun was a 14th-century chronicler whose work formed the basis of Bower’s book; Barbour’s The Brus is “of some value to the historian”, although it is primarily a ‘romance’ poem glorifying Bruce (ibid., p. 64) and therefore should not be relied upon in the absence of other sources.
[3]Several historians and sources identify “Dovenald de Yle” as the son of Alasdair Mòr [Munro, p. 282; Bower, book 6, p. 444).

[4]Based on the Rotuli Scotiae entries of 1314 and 1315, it has been held until recently that “the [MacAlasdairs] were on the losing side in the struggle that led to Bannockburn and suffered the consequences of their hostility to Bruce by the forfeiture of their possessions and banishment from the country” (Castleton, p. 165). McNamee, however, repeatedly describes Donald as an ally of Edward Bruce, who fought for his brother (mostly in Ireland) (pp. 44, 169, 185) and with whom Donald attended the Parliament of 1309 (p. 68, #37); and MacKinnon lists the Clan Alasdair among those fighting for Bruce at Bannockburn (p. 256). Furthermore, the Clan Alasdair continues to be associated primarily not with Ireland but with Kintyre—which might not be the case had their position in Scotland been forfeited.
[5]The name MacAlexander “is now virtually unknown”, but was once common in the west [David Dorward, Collins Pocket Reference: Scottish Surnames (Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, p. 4)].
[6]The chief or head of a clan/family group is known as THE Whatever—hence Robert Bruce is often called “The Bruce”; in this case, the O’Neill was the leader of an Irish sept by that name. 
[7]Some of my sources claim that this son was Alexander, but that seems unlikely as he succeeded Ranald as chief and is on record in the year 1400. It could be a mix-up: “a son of Randal [Ranald] was slain by Torlough in the thick of the fight, and Alexander, a son of Torlough, was taken prisoner by Randal’s party” [Castleton, p. 165, emphasis mine].

Compilation/Commentary © 2009-2015 by Lynn McAlister, MA, FSA (Scot)

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