Emergence (13th Century)

1200s: During the thirteenth century, the lands of the Hebridean sea-kings are marked by “persistent political instability, and the survival of a piratical warrior-pillage economy” that has already been abandoned elsewhere in Western Europe [Stringer, p. 69].

1203:  Benedictine monastery founded on Iona, reputedly by Ranald mac Somhairle; an Augustinian nunnery was established about the same time, its first prioress being Bethag nic Shomhairle, Ranald’s sister [Bridgland, p. 89].

1207:  Death of Ranald mac Somhairle, according to MacDonald genealogies; in fact, however, he seems to have outlived his brother Angus (see 1210), whose lands were divided between Ranald and Dugall [Grant & Cheape, p. 61; Gregory, p. 17; Caldwell, p. 38]. It appears that 1207 may be a misreading of 1200& (i.e., some years after 1200), though “MacEwen’s suggested date of c. 1227 seems too late” [Sellar, p. 196].

1209:  Annals of Ulster report that “A battle [i]s fought by the sons of Ragnall, son of Somerlech, against the men of Sciadh [Skye], wherein slaughter [i]s inflicted on them” [AU, ii, 250 (1209.2)]. Sellar interprets the defeated ‘them’ to be Ranald’s sons [p. 200]; Caldwell thinks they are the men of Skye [p. 39].

1210:  Angus mac Somhairle and some of his sons are killed “in unknown circumstances” [Grant & Cheape, p. 61; ChM, anno 1210; Gregory, p. 17; Caldwell, p. 39; Sellar, p. 195], possibly by Norse raiders who “pillaged the Isles in that year” [Duncan & Brown, p. 197].

1212:  Irish annals report a “great naval assault” on Derry and Inishowen by Thomas of Galloway, in which unnamed sons of Ranald are involved [AU, ii, 254 (1212.4); LC, p. 247 (1211.7); Sellar, p. 200].

1214:  Derry is plundered in another naval assault by Thomas of Galloway; in this case Ruairi, son of Ranald, is named as one of Thomas’s associates. (Donald, the other known son of Ranald, also may have taken part.) [AU, ii, 257 (1214.2); AFM, p. 178 (1213.3); LC, p. 249 (1213.6); Sellar, p. 200]

1222:  Dòmhnall mac Ranald, progenitor of the Clan Donald, acquires Islay and Kintyre [Thomson, Feud, p. x]. His son, Angus Mòr, is the first of Somerled’s descendants to acknowledge the superiority of the Scottish king [McKerral, p. 5]. He is also the first chief of the Clan Donald, although the MacDonald surname “was not adopted by any of the main branches of the family until the sixteenth century” [Caldwell, p. 41]. Sellar tells us that “Alexander II is known to have mounted an expedition against Argyll in 1221 or 1222, or both, resulting in some reallocation of territory. Duncan and Brown suggest that land in Kintyre may have changed hands, as does Cowan, who conjectures that Donald son of Ranald may have replaced his brother Ruairi there”, though Sellar himself holds that Donald could have been the loser [Sellar, p. 201; Bower, book IX, pp. 105-7].

1228:  “Norwegian sources record a punitive expedition launched against kings of Somerled’s race, who are said to have been unfaithful to King Hakon”, though these kings were probably of the MacDougall line, which is most prominent at this point [Sellar, p. 202].

1230:  expedition of King Hakon IV to the Hebrides, apparently “intended to bring the MacSorleys to heel” [Caldwell, p. 40].[1] Note: this could be the same expedition as above.

1247:  Ruairi mac Ranald “is, I would suggest, the descendant of Somerled, styled simply Mac Somurli, who me[ets] his death at the battle of Ballyshannon in the west of Ireland” [Sellar, pp. 200-1; AU, ii, 309 (1247.1)]. The Annals of Loch Cé and Annála Connacht call him “King of Argyll” [LC, pp. 377-9 (1247.6-7); AC, p. 91 (1247.7)], which at this point would more likely be Duncan Macdougall [J. Lydon, in Duffy, Irish Wars, p. 99], although Duffy thinks it could have been Donald [Duffy, Irish Wars, p. 56].

1249: 1. (8 July) Alasdair Mòr, progenitor of the future Clan Alasdair, “appears as a witness to a charter[2] granted by his brother Angus, Lord of the Isles” for the church of Kilkerran in Kintyre to the Abbey of Paisley, “ ‘for the salvation of the soul of my lord Alexander, illustrious king of Scots’ ” [Way & Squire, p. 204, but editors give date as 1253; People of Medieval Scotland, H3/31/2 (accessed 14 March 2014); MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 109; McKerral, p. 5].

2. Death of Dòmhnall mac Ranald may have occurred in this year; some sources put it at 1269; Caldwell says he was most likely dead by 1248 [p. 41, but he may be assuming that the Mac Sumarli killed at Ballyshannon in 1247 was Donald].

mid-13th C:

1. The Clan Alasdair originates as a branch of the mighty Clan Donald

There has long been debate about the progenitor of this clan, “chiefly because of the existence of two Alexanders, uncle and nephew, to whom its posterity has variously been ascribed”, but examination of all the available evidence has led historians to conclude that “there is no reason to doubt that the Clan Allister are the descendants of Alastair Mòr[3], son of Donald de Ile, the younger brother of Angus Mòr” [Castleton, p. 163; Way & Squire, p. 204; Keay, p. 643]. In 1886 Dugald Mitchell wrote “According to Mackenzie’s History of the MacDonalds, the M’Alisters claim their descent from Alexander, eldest son of Angus Mor, Lord of the Isles, but their real descent seems to have been from Alexander, the second son of Donald of the Isles, and younger brother of Angus Mor” [p. 72]. Alasdair Og succeeded his father as lord of Islay, and contrary to what has long been believed, he seems to have supported Robert Bruce just as his brother did (see 1308, 1315-8, 1318; Dr. Seán Duffy states that “only the Mac Dubgaill wing of the descendants of Somerled supported Balliol in the struggle for the succession to the throne” (Irish Wars, pp. 60-61)] , but the fact that the Clan Alasdair is a cadet branch of the Clan Donald indicates that we descend from a younger brother, which Alasdair r was, rather than the eldest, which Alasdair Og was.[4]

2. Tarbert Castle built

However, “[m]ost of the early references to the keepership [see 1511, 1526] contain the words ‘when it is built’ as though there were still additions being made to Tarbert Castle at the time of James IV” (late 1400s) [CMS, p. 19; DMM; Mitchell, p. 20]. Note: probably repairs, not additions—see 1499–1500, #1. Mitchell puts the castle’s construction at 1325, qv., but notes that some believe an earlier structure existed. Barrow suggests it was “possibly built by Alexander II”, who died in 1249 [p. 137].

1253: “Brian O Neill, King of Cenel nEogain, wage[s] a great war on the Galls [English settlers in Ireland] and destroy[s] many castles, burn[s] townships and devastate[s] the plain-land of Ulster” [ACp. 110 (1253.10)]. Contemporary sources suggest that Angus Mòr is probably involved with O Neill’s uprising in this year [Caldwell, p. 41].

1255: “Angus, the son of Donald and Lord of Isla, [i]s closely pursued by [Alexander III of Scotland], because he w[ill] not consent to become a vassal of Scotland for the lands he h[olds] of Norway” [Gregory, p. 20].

1260:  Clan Alasdair in Ulster:

1. “After a devastating defeat . . . at the Battle of Downpatrick[5], the Irish s[eek] aid from their northern cousins. These mercenary forces, called Galloglach, or galloglass, revolution[ise] the Irish military structure. . . .” [“News”, no. 35, pp.1–2].  They are “not common foot soldiers, but minor knights for hire, who, unlike the Irish, w[ear] distinctive light armor, chain-mail jerkins, and pointed metal helmets that can still be easily spotted in medieval tombstone carvings” [MacCullough, p. xxiii]. “[T]he importation by the Irish of a constant stream of these Scots, many of whom were to remain as settlers, was to have a crucial effect on Irish warfare. . . . To them we may attribute much of the resurgence of Gaelic Ireland in the next three centuries” [Wood, ed., p. 9]. Many—perhaps most—Irish MacAlasdairs descend from galloglass families [MacLysacht, Surnames, p. 4; Irish Families, p. 23].

2. “The evidence that Alisdair [Mòr] was a leader of galloglass forces is persuasive. Other than the rather uneventful role as witness to a grant of land from his brother to the Monastery of Paisley, we have no record of his activities. . . . The Irish Annalist refers to him as ‘of Antrim’. . . . It is very possible that, as Angus became [more] involved in the Isles, his younger brother took over the family affairs in [I]reland. . . .” [“News”, no. 35, pp. 1–2]. Certainly later Clan Alasdair chiefs led galloglass forces in Northern Ireland (see 1360; 1493ff., #3; 1500s, #2).

1263/4: 1. (30 Sept./1 Oct.) Battle of Largs : King Haakon of Norway invades Scotland; Clan Donald Supports him. According to R. Andrew MacDonald, Angus Mòr submits to Haakon reluctantly, possibly because of blackmail, and his allegiance of choice seems to be Scotland [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 130; Sellar, p. 207]. Caldwell agrees, saying that Angus and his brother Murchaid only join Haakon when that king sends a force of fifty ships to “ravage their lands in Kintyre” [p. 42], and Barrow says Angus’s loyalty to Haakon is so “doubtful” that even though he joins the Norse, they require him to surrender hostages [p. 142]. Tytler conversely has Angus withstanding considerable pressure from the Scots king to renounce his allegiance to Haakon [Tytler, pp. 7-8], and Gregory reports that Haakon’s invasion to begin with is a direct response to complaints brought to him by his subjects in the Isles that the Scottish king is becoming too aggressive in pressing them to acknowledge him as their sole overlord [p. 20]. In fact, “most, if not all of the descendants of Somerled, ha[ve], for a century after his death, a divided allegiance, holding part of their lands, those in the Isles, from the King of Norway; their mainland domains being, at the same time, held of the King of Scotland” [Gregory, pp. 18-19; Caldwell, p. 38]. In addition to reclaiming the Isles, however, the Norsemen also ravage the adjacent parts of Scotland, leading to their defeat at Largs as they attempt a landing in Ayrshire. They then find themselves trapped by storms, and Haakon himself dies in Orkney on the way home [Gregory, p. 20; Caldwell, p. 40; Sellar, p. 205].

2. Campbells first appear in Argyll [Thomson, Feud, p. x]

1266: (2 July) Treaty of Perth: Alexander III takes advantage of his victory over the Norse “and resume[s] his projects against the Isles with such success that, on the death of Magnus, King of Man . . . Magnus of Norway, the successor of Haco [Haakon], [i]s induced to cede all the Western Isles to Scotland” [Gregory, pp. 20- 21]; the Northern Isles remain Norse. The treaty includes a condition to protect the Islesmen from retribution for “misdeeds or injuries and damage which they have committed hitherto while they adhered to” the king of Norway [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 120; Gregory, ibid.]; the Scottish Crown, thus forbidden to forfeit[5] the western chiefs, begins a policy of using “their most prominent number as agents of royal authority” [MacDonald, Kingdom, p. 132]. “Angus of Isla . . . bec[omes], according to the treaty, a vassal of Scotland for his lands there, and [i]s allowed to retain, under a single king, all that he . . . formerly held under two” [Gregory, p. 22]; however, hostages, including Alasdair Og, son of Angus Mòr mac Dòmhnall (MacDonald), are sent to Edinburgh to insure the good behaviour of the western chiefs[7] [personal correspondence with Capt. Ian MacDonald; Thomson, Feud, p. 12; Gregory, p. 22]. Caldwell in fact claims that “Angus Mor is known to have been in trouble, threatened with military action by the rest of the barons of Argyll if he did not enter into Alexander III’s goodwill” [p. 43]. Although three of Somerled’s descendants, including Angus Mòr, are now major landholders in the Isles under Alexander III, the wording of the treaty makes clear that none of them “at this time, . . . bore the title of Lord of the Isles, or could have been properly so considered” [Gregory, p. 23].

“[T]he years following the acquisition of the Isles by Scotland from Norway are dominated by the jockeying for power between the three main kindreds descended of Somerled: The MacDougalls, the MacRuaris and the MacDonalds” [Campbell of Airds, History, vol. I, pp. 42-3].

1269:  see 1249

1284: (5 February) Angus Mòr of Islay is one of those barons who pledge their support for Margaret, the Norwegian granddaughter of Alexander III, as his heir [Munro, p. 280; Bain, II, p. 73 (item 248)].

1286:  Alexander III dies, leaving as his only direct heir his infant granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway. A dozen or so men in the kingdom believe that they have legitimate claims to the throne, but most of them are among “the majority of magnates, laymen and churchmen alike, [who] rall[y] in loyalty to the female child they ha[ve] never seen” [Barrow, p. 184]. However, Gregory says that by this year, Angus Mòr is already a supporter of Robert Bruce [p. 24], one of the claimants to the throne.[8] 

late 1200s: “Contemporary with the House of Somerled there [a]re in Argyll and the Isles a number of lesser families greedy for powers and lands in a fiercely competitive environment. . . . Of these, the Macsweens who h[o]ld the lordship of Knapdale and (it seems) Arran also [a]re the most powerful. . . . [T]he foundations of Campbell power [a]re already being laid . . . before the end of the thirteenth century. . . . [But] the most remarkable development of [the] period [i]s the spread of Stewart power and possessions across the water from their original lordship of Renfrew” [Barrow, p. 136]. Keith Stringer asserts that as early as 1200 the Stewarts are in control of Bute, and by 1260 they have already mastered Arran, Knapdale and Cowal [Stringer, p. 56].

1290:  1. Irish annals mention the “MacDonnells of Scotland, and many other galloglasses” [AFM, iii, 451 (1290.4); AC, p. 185 (1290.7); LC, p. 502 (1290.6)]; this is one of the earliest appearances of this term on record [Sellar, p. 200].

2. (September) Margaret, Maid of Norway, dies en route to Scotland to take her grandfather’s throne. This sparks two decades of conflict caused by competition for the throne and interference by the king of England, who sees an opportunity to add the northern kingdom to his own.

1291: Alasdair Mòr’s son Donald and grandson Alexander, like most men of significance in Scotland, swear loyalty to King Edward I of England as part of an arbitration agreement[9] [“News”, no. 35, p. 2; “Fortiter”, Dec. 1981, p. 6; Castleton, p. 163].

1292: 1. (7 July) ‘Angus fitz Dovenald des Isles’ and his eldest son Alexander (Alasdair Og) promise Edward I of England (currently their overlord) that they will keep the peace in the Isles [Bain, II, p. 145 (item 622)]; four days later they are granted permission for their men and merchants to trade in Ireland [Ibid., II, p. 148 (item 635)] After this Angus disappears from the record. He is probably dead by 1296 [Munro, p. 280; Keay, p. 548; Caldwell, p. 43].

2. (17 November) John Balliol is chosen by Edward I to be king of Scotland.[10] Edward intends for Balliol to be his puppet (Balliol is “warned to govern justly so that no one should have cause to complain, lest the lord superior of Scotland should be obliged to apply a guiding hand” [Nicholson, p. 43]), but the Scottish king has ideas of his own and conflict soon ensues. Because they are supporters of Robert Bruce’s claim to the throne, the Macdonalds side with Edward I against Balliol. 

1296: 1. (March) The Scots attack England.

2. (April) Battle of Dunbar

3. (July) King John surrenders to Edward I and is driven into exile.

1297:  Rising of William Wallace; the western clans are not involved in this revolt.

1298: Scots are defeated by Edward I’s forces at the Battle of Falkirk.

1299: Death of Alasdair Mòr : According to the Annals of the Four Masters, “Alexander MacDonnell (of Antrim) [i.e., Alasdair Mòr], the best man of his tribe in Ireland and Scotland for hospitality and prowess, was slain by Alexander MacDowell [i.e., MacDugall], together with a countless number of his people who were slaughtered” [AFM, III, 471 (1299.3); LC, p. 522 1299.1); AC, p. 200 (1299.2); Castleton, p. 163; Montcrieffe, p. 63; Duffy, “Continuation”, p. 312, note 52; Caldwell, p. 44]. The reason was probably a long-running feud over the Isle of Mull. (See Kingdom of the Isles for details of the MacDonald/MacDougall feud.) “It [i]s during one of these clashes that Alisdair Mòr, now an old man, [i]s slain by Alexander. . . . How and where this confrontation occur[s] is unknown” [“News”, no. 35, pp. 2–3], though it was probably in Ireland [obituary of Angus Macalister, the Scotsman, 17 April 2007].  Alasdair Og, who is sometimes said to be the Alexander who died in this year, appears to have lived until 1318, q.v.[11]


[1] Somerled’s immediate descendants are sometimes referred to by historians as the mac Sorleys (from Somerled’s Gaelic name, Somhairle), but the branches of the MacSorley group had established separate clans long before surnames came into general use, and they eventually adopted their own names; modern MacSorleys have different origins.

[2] Charter: document by which legal rights to a portion of land were transferred from king (or landowner) to the recipient of the charter. The land still ultimately belonged to the original owner, so he could take it back if the grantee didn’t behave himself. The need to have charters for one’s land caused problems later for many Highland lairds, who had no such documentation for lands their clans had, in some cases, occupied for centuries; see 1605.
[3] Mòr: Gaelic word for “big” or “great”; its opposite in this case is og, “young” (the word for “small” is beag). When these terms follow a name, they serve the same purpose as our Jr. and Sr. Thus Alasdair Mòr is the older of two closely related Alasdairs, and Alasdair Og is his “junior”.
[4] Those who deny that Alasdair Mòr existed at all are ignoring both contemporary evidence and the early genealogies. Disagreement might exist about details of his death, but no professional modern historian questions his existence.
[5] This battle was fought by Ulster Gaels to repel an invasion (1177) by John de Courcy, a knight from Somerset who, victorious, established the first toehold of the Anglo-Normans in the northeast of Ireland. [Bardon, p. 34]
[6] Forfeiture was the confiscation of one’s lands and landrights as a legal penalty for some crime, usually rebellion against the Crown. It was imposed on Highland lairds fairly regularly in the ongoing attempts by Scottish monarchs to establish some control over the area, and again after the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6, when most of the Jacobite lairds—and even a few who had supported the Hanoverians—lost their lands, in some cases permanently.
[7] The taking of hostages— usually close relatives of a signator—to ensure that the terms of an agreement would be met was common in mediaeval Britain; these “hostages” were generally treated as guests rather than prisoners and were provided with whatever care and comforts befitted their social rank (including an education if they were children and, in some cases, titles and land grants), though depending on the nature of the agreement, their ‘hosts’ might very well kill them should its terms not be met.
[8] This is Robert Bruce the elder, not his more-famous grandson the future Robert I.
[9] At the time, the Scottish throne was up for grabs, with numerous claimants battling one another, and Edward had been asked to decide whose claim was strongest. This he agreed to do, on condition that Scotland’s landholders acknowledge him as their overlord. This would not have been considered treason or disloyalty to Scotland. Feudal loyalties were to a person, not a nation, and many of these men already acknowledged Edward as overlord for the lands they held in England. The vast majority of Scottish magnates therefore agreed to Edward’s terms—including Robert Bruce, although he later penalised others for doing so. One who refused all along was William Wallace.
[10] When Balliol began to show signs of thinking for himself, Edward deposed him, and Balliol fought (ultimately in vain) to regain Scotland’s crown. It was in Balliol’s name that William Wallace fought; Bruce, on the other hand, wished to replace him.
[11] Alasdair Og is named in numerous contemporary sources among those who fell with Edward Bruce at Dundalk. Irish mediaevalist Seán Duffy goes into some detail to defend this identification of the Alasdairs in his article, “The ‘Continuation’ of Nicholas Trevet.” David Caldwell says, “The Alexander MacDonald killed, according to Irish sources, in 1299 was probably not [Alasdair Og], but a brother of Angus Mor” (p. 44).
Compilation/Commentary © 2009-2015 by Lynn McAlister, MA, FSA (Scot)

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