Origins (12th Century)

1100s: In the early 12th century, “long-term changes . . . taking place on the western seaboard . . . cal[l] imperatively for the intervention of Scottish kings. . . . Norse political power in the western isles and Man weaken[s] steadily from the earlier decades of [this] century. . . . Instead of the earls exercising strong rule in the name of the king of Norway, a turbulence verging on anarchy prevail[s] in the Hebrides and affect[s] the adjacent mainland. A warrior aristocracy quarrel[s] for ascendency not simply over the islands but also over broad tracts of territory that even the 1098 treaty would have allowed to be Scottish” [Barrow, pp. 130-1]. At this time, too, evidence indicates “a resurgence of Gaelic culture and an intensification of the old links with Ireland, a process contrasting sharply with what was happening in the east and in lowland Scotland” [ibid., p. 131]. Closely linked to both trends is the rise to prominence of Gillebride’s son Somerled.

1. Somerled“The history of the west from the mid twelfth century to the first war of independence is largely the history of the House of Somerled. . . . His ancestors had somehow acquired, then lost and then, in his grandfather’s generation, regained a far-flung lordship of islands and mountainous mainland. . . . It is by no means certainly, however, that Somerled held all this wide territory unconditionally, as an unfettered vassal of the king of Norway for whatever was insular and of the king of Scots for the rest.” Evidence of this can be seen in the occasional attempts by Scottish kings to wrest some of the land from Somerled’s family by force. “In the isles, Somerled profit[s] from Norwegian weakness but f[inds] himself at loggerheads with the rival royal line of Man” [Barrow, p. 133]. 

  • “Somerled steps on to the stage . . . in the first half of the twelfth century . . . already a ruler of note in Argyll and the Isles. His early life, and rise to power, remain shrouded in mystery. . . .” [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 39].  Indeed, “[i]t is from tradition alone . . . that any particulars of the early life of Somerled can be gathered; and it is obvious, that information derived from a source so liable to error, must be received with very great caution” [Gregory, pp. 9-11]. Woolf suggests however that “[t]he evidence of [King] David’s charters suggest that he . . . lost control of mainland Argyll at some point in the period between 1141 and 1152. It is quite likely that this loss of territory marks the beginning of Somerled’s rise to power” [Woolf, p. 103].
  • Although many claim he was of Scoto-Irish descent, others “have asserted that he was undoubtedly a Scandinavian by descent in the male line. His name is certainly a Norse one; but on the other hand, the names of his father and grandfather are purely Celtic. . . . Somerled is mentioned more than once in the Norse Sagas, but never in such a way as to enable us to affirm, with certainty, what the opinion of the Scandinavian writers was as to his origin. . . . [T]he impression produced by the passages in which he is mentioned, is rather against his being considered a Norseman. It is possible, however” [Gregory, pp. 10-11].  Many historians have concluded that the pedigree that traces his descent back nine generations to Godfrey, son of Fergus, “a chief of a tribe in Northern Ireland who came to Scotland to rein- force Kenneth mac Alpin” has been “proved to be substantially correct” [Grant & Cheape, p. 60; Gregory, p. 11; Thomson, Feud, p. 270]. David Caldwell argues that DNA testing of the current chiefs of the Clan Donald, Clan Alasdair, and Clan Dougall, all direct descendants of Somerled, has turned up a paternal genetic marker that is almost certainly Norse [p. 34].  But DNA testing has also traced Somerled’s ancestry to Colla Uais, a high king of Ireland historically tied to Dál Riada.[1]“[E]vidently he belonged to the Gall-Ghaidheal, the mixed population of the Hebrides” [Grant & Cheape, p. 60]. Indeed, “Somerled’s Celtic-Norse extraction . . . is now widely accepted” [MacDonald, “Rebels . . .”, p. 174; Sellar, p. 189]. John Marsden goes farther, saying “virtually everything that is known of or has been claimed for Somerled, even the most obviously apocryphal anecdotes found in the most doubtful sources, reflects some aspect of the characteristic fusion of Norse and Celt which binds the cultural roots of Gaeldom” [p. x].
  • Whatever his ancestry, Somerled is credited with “dr[iving] out [the Norse] from Kintyre and other parts of Argyllshire” [McKerral, p. 4; Sykes, p. 213]: By 1130 he has retaken much of the western Highlands, and eventually he establishes a kingdom larger than that lost by his father [McAlister, “Somerled”; McKerral, p. 4]. Somerled is therefore at least partly responsible for the resurgence of Gaelic, which, having long before “superseded Pictish . . . [now] replace[s] Norse as the language of . . . the greater part of the Western Isles and a considerable portion of the Mainland”[Grant & Cheape, p. 11; Barrow, p. 131].

2. Development of the Highland clans

  • “[B]y the twelfth century, the nuclei were forming in the Highlands of a wide type of organisation that was to develop gradually into what we now recognise as the Highland clan. The subject of the clans and their origins abounds with acute controversy. . . . However, . . . there comes a point about this time or during the succeeding two centuries, when the ancestor, a man of some position who can often be identified, was able to found a family which had the power to survive. As the family grew over time, the degree of kinship to succeeding chiefs lessened and ties of adherence or dependence tended to take its place” [Grant & Cheape, p. 59].
  • “The system was aristocratic in many respects. Certain family lines were highly esteemed, and there was a royal class. But it was not feudal. A clan claimed common ancestry and kinship with the chief. Land belonged to no individual – certainly not to the chief – but to the whole clan. . . . All enmities, as well as all friendships, were collective” [MacLeod, pp. 43-4].

1140s: At some point in this decade Somerled marries Ragnhilde, daughter of Olaf, King of Man [ChM, anno 1102]; 1140 is the date usually cited, though there is no firm contemporary evidence for it [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 45; Barrow, p. 134]. Gregory suggests that Somerled’s rising power, and perhaps his interest in securing for himself at least some of the Hebrides, concerned Olaf, who may have hoped that the marriage would neutralise this threat. R. A. MacDonald argues instead that Somerled’s choice of wife reveals an intentional alliance on his part with other dynasties along the Irish Sea instead of with the house of Canmore or any of the Anglo-Norman families [MacDonald, “Rebels . . .”, p. 176]. It is possible, too, that an ebbing of Somerled’s family’s power had left Somerled “an exile from the Gall-gaedel territories living at Olaf’s court in the early part of his career” and this close association led to the marriage alliance [Woolf, p. 103]. In any case, this marriage is the first event in the life of Somerled for which we have authentic evidence [Gregory, p. 12]. From this union come the progenitors of several important western clans, including the Clan Donald (and thence the MacAlasdairs).[2]

1143: Birth of Ranald mac Somhairle [i.e., son of Somerled], according to some MacDonald genealogies. Ranald, or Reginald, is the second son of Somerled by Ragnhilde; at his father’s death he inherits Islay and Kintyre [Grant & Cheape, p. 61]. He is the only one of Somerled’s descendants known to have styled himself rex insularum. (Although it is possible Somerled himself used the title, none of his charters survives) [Sellar, p. 198]. Ranald’s descendants base themselves on Islay and are called the Lords of Islay [McKerral, p. 3].[3]

1156–8:  Somerled ousts the King of Man [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 41; Keay, p. 890; Gregory, p. 14]. “The allegiance of all the Isles to Norway seems still to have been preserved”  [Gregory, ibid.]. However, R. Andrew MacDonald reminds us that all of Somerled’s behaviour “must be placed firmly within an Irish Sea context, emphasising fundamental dichotomies between the world in which [he] moved and the ‘new world order’ being introduced by the kings of Scots in the twelfth century.” Like Fergus of Galloway, he had “close connexions with the dynasty of Man and the Isles” and seems “to have followed a deliberate policy of forging links outside the Scottish kingdom with little or no regard for the kings of Scots”, who at this time are “aligning themselves with European cultural models, which, among other things, emphasised a hierarchy with room for only one king at its head” [MacDonald, “Rebels . . .”, pp. 170, 174, 184-5]. But “Argyll and the Hebrides consistently refuse[e] to be governed by the kings of Scotland” [Sykes, p. 183]. 

1164:   1. Death of Somerled and one of his sons (Gillebrigte) at the Battle of Renfrew: Somerled invades mainland Scotland [McKerral, p. 3; Sellar, p. 189]. He takes with him “a numerous army from Argyle, Ireland, and the Isles” and sails up the Clyde with 160 galleys [Gregory, p. 15; Bower, book VIII, chap. 6., pp. 263-5; MacDonald, “Rebels . . .”, p. 169]. Somerled and his followers are, it is usually held, easily defeated. (The tradition that Somerled was assassinated before the battle, though now widely accepted, dates to the seventeenth century and may have no basis in fact [MacDonald, ibid., p. 169; Marsden, pp. 107, 110-1].) Though modern scholars have tended to see this as a grab for power on Somerled’s part, R. Andrew MacDonald demonstrates that all of the peripheral regions of Scotland were slowly being encroached upon by the feudal lordships erected by the Scottish kings; Fergus of Galloway had been defeated and, although not imprisoned, required to live out his life in Edinburgh where the king could keep an eye on him. In this context, Somerled’s move might well have been defensive in nature. (The writers of Scottish chronicles, from whom we take much of what we know about this period, were under the patronage of the Scottish king and church; the fact that they considered Somerled et al. to be rebelling against their rightful loyalties to the Scottish king [e.g., Bower, book VIII, p. 263] does not necessarily mean that this was the truth of the situation.) [MacDonald, “Rebels . . .”, pp. 181-2]. Keith Stringer argues that most of these ‘rebellions’ against the Scottish king were “a defensive reaction to centralizing pressures” [Stringer, p. 51] Somerled’s descendants “still ke[ep] the possession [of the Isles and Kintyre], exercis[e] the power, and often assum[e] the title of kings” [Stat. Acct.: Campbelton, p. 529; NSA: Saddell & Skipness, p. 442].

2. On the death of Somerled “his four surviving sons divid[e] the estate between them” [Barrow, p. 133]. “Precise evidence is lacking as to who got what, and there is no reason to think that the initial division remained static as the brothers fought among themselves” for the territories left by their father [Caldwell, p. 35; Sellar, p. 195].

late 1100s: Two land grants to Saddell Abbey are made by “Rognvald, son of Somerled, called ‘king of the Isles’, lord of Argyll and Kintyre, founder of Saddell Abbey” [Beam et al., ‘Reginald (Rognvald), Lord of Argyll‘]. He grants to the Abbey lands in Saddell Glen and 12 merklands of Ballevain, both in Kintyre, and 20 merklands of the lands of Shiskine in the isle of Arran. (Shiskine later has Macalister associations – see late 1490s, 1563, 1930s.)

c. 1190:  Birth of Dòmhnall [Donald] mac Ranald may have occurred in this year. Donald and his heirs h[o]ld the lordship of Islay [Barrow, p. 134]. About him little is actually known; some of the detail given in Hugh MacDonald’s history is “evidently wrong. . . . Of the rest . . . there is nothing in early accounts to offer support” [Caldwell, p. 40]. Barrow calls him “an obscure individual” but one who “must hold an undisputed place in Scottish hearts and in the story of Scots the world over” because of his role as founder of the Clan Donald, one of the two oldest Highland clans [p. 134; Grant & Cheape, p. 37] and certainly one of the most important.[4]

1192: “T]he Chronicle of Man mentions a battle between Reginald [Ranald] and Angus, in which the latter obtain[s] victory” [Gregory, p. 17; ChM, anno 1192; Caldwell, p. 37; Sellar, p. 195].

late 1190s: Ranald mac Somhairle, with his wife, Fonia, grants a charter to the religious house at Paisley. Each pledges a specific donation, in perpetuity, as well as guarantees of peace from themselves, their servants and their heirs. In this charter Ranald styles himself ‘son of Somerled, lord of Innse Gall’ rather than ‘King of the Isles’ as in earlier charters. Duncan and Brown suggest this might be due to his defeat in 1192 [Duncan & Brown, p. 198; Beam et al., ‘Reginald (Rognvald), Lord of Argyll‘].


[1]MacDonald Genetic Project (www.electricscotland.com/webclans/m/macdonald_genetic.htm), accessed 7 June 2009.
[2]While researching the origins of today’s British people, Oxford genetics professor Bryan Sykes & his research assistant “found a rare Y-chromosome profile in our Skye samples . . . almost exclusively among men with the surnames Macdonald, McDougall and Macalister. . . . [A]ll three names were said to be descended . . . from Somerled. . . . Jayne set about writing to men with these three names asking for DNA samples, while I contacted the five living clan chiefs whose genealogies traced back to Somerled. . . . [A]ll five had inherited the same Y-chromosome that we had seen in the men with the three surnames.” Further research indicated that “[r]oughly a quarter of MacDonalds, a third of McDougalls and 40 per cent of Macalisters are direct paternal descendants of Somerled. This is true not just in Scotland but throughout the world” (Sykes, pp. 213-4).
[3]In an undated charter to Saddell Abbey, Ranald calls himself King of the Isles and Lord of Argyll and Kintyre (Caldwell, p. 36).
[4]“Nearly all the surviving Irish chiefs descend from provincial and regional kings with pedigrees beginning in Late Antiquity, the Scottish chiefly lines being half as old and arising well after the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland . . . with the exception of . . . Clan Donald and Clan MacDougall, the two of royal origins” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_nobility, accessed 8 April 2010; emphasis mine].

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

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