Lord of the Isles

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MacDonald, Lord of the Isles – a Victorian illustrator's impression

The designation Lord of the Isles (Scottish Gaelic: Triath nan Eilean or Rìgh Innse Gall) is today a title of Scottish nobility with historical roots that go back beyond the Kingdom of Scotland. It emerged from a series of hybrid Viking/Gaelic rulers of the west coast and islands of Scotland in the Middle Ages, who wielded sea-power with fleets of galleys. Although they were, at times, nominal vassals of the King of Norway, High King of Ireland, or the King of Scotland, the island chiefs remained functionally independent for many centuries. Their territory included the Hebrides, (Skye and Ross from 1438), Knoydart, Ardnamurchan, and the Kintyre peninsula. At their height they were the greatest landowners and most powerful Lords in Britain and its Isles (excluding Ireland) following the Kings of England and Scotland.[1]

The end of the Lordship came in 1493 when John Macdonald II forfeited his estates and titles to James IV of Scotland. Since that time, the eldest male child of the reigning Scottish (and later, British) monarch has been styled "Lord of the Isles", though the office itself has been extinct since the 15th century. Today Charles, Prince of Wales is styled Lord of the Isles, as a subsidiary Scottish title to the Dukedom of Rothesay. The only island still in the possession of direct descendants of the Lords of the Isles is tiny Cara off Kintyre, which is owned by the MacDonalds of Largie, a small remnant of a once vast family inheritance.

Background[edit]

The west coast and islands of present-day Scotland were those of a people or peoples of uncertain cultural affiliation until the 5th century. They were invaded by Gaels from Ireland starting perhaps in the 4th century or earlier, whose language eventually predominated. In the 7th and 8th centuries this area, like others, suffered raids and invasions by Vikings from Norway, and the islands became known to the Gaels as Innse-Gall, the Islands of the Foreigners. Around 875, Norwegian jarls, or princes, came to these islands to avoid losing their independence in the course of King Harald Fairhair's unification of Norway, but Harald pursued them and conquered the Hebrides as well as Man, and the Shetland and Orkney Islands. The following year, the people of the Isles, both Gael and Norse, rebelled. Harald sent his cousin Ketill Flatnose to regain control, Ketil then became King of the Isles. Scotland and Norway would continue to dispute overlordship of the area, with the jarls of Orkney at times seeing themselves as independent rulers.

In 973, Maccus mac Arailt, King of the Isles, Kenneth III, King of the Scots, and Máel Coluim I of Strathclyde formed a defensive alliance, but subsequently the Scandinavians defeated Gilledomman of the Isles and expelled him to Ireland.[citation needed] The Norse nobleman Godred Crovan became ruler of Man and the Isles, but he was deposed in 1095 by the new King of Norway, Magnus Bareleg. In 1098, Magnus entered into a treaty with King Edgar of Scotland, intended as a demarcation of their respective areas of authority. Magnus was confirmed in control of the Isles and Edgar of the mainland. Lavery cites a tale from the Orkneyinga saga, according to which King Malcolm III of Scotland offered Earl Magnus of Orkney all the islands off the west coast navigable with the rudder set. Magnus then allegedly had a skiff hauled across the neck of land at Tarbert, Loch Fyne with himself at the helm, thus including the Kintyre peninsula in the Isles' sphere of influence. (The date given falls after the end of Malcolm's reign in 1093).

Founding of the dynasties[edit]

Somerled, Gilledomman's grandson, seized the Isles from the King of Man in 1156 and founded a dynasty that in time became the Lords of the Isles. He had Celtic blood on his father's side and Norse on his mother's: his contemporaries knew him as Somerled Macgilbred, Somhairle or in Norse Sumarlidi Höld ('Somerled' means "summer wanderer", the name given to the Vikings). He took the title Innse Gall (King of the Hebrides) as well as King of Man.

After Somerled's death in 1164 three of his sons divided his kingdom between them:

  • Aonghus (ancestor of the McRuari or McRory)
  • Dughall (ancestor of Clan MacDougall)
  • Ragnald, whose son Donald Mor McRanald would give his name to the Clan Donald which would contest territory with the MacDougalls.

King Haakon IV of Norway (reigned 1217–1263) confirmed Donald's son Angus Mor (the Elder) Mac Donald (the first Macdonald) as Lord of Islay, and the two participated jointly in the Battle of Largs (1263). When that ended with an effective victory for Scotland, Angus Mor accepted King Alexander III of Scotland as his (nominal) overlord and retained his own territory.

Council of the Isles[edit]

The ruins of Finlaggan Castle on Eilean Mòr, Loch Finlaggan, on the island of Islay, where the Council of the Isles met.

The Lord was advised (at least on an occasional basis) by a Council. Dean Monro of the Isles, who wrote a description of the Western Isles in 1549, described the membership as consisting of four ranks:

In practice, membership and attendance must have varied with the times and the occasion. A commission granted in July 1545 by Domhnall Dubh, claimant to the Lordship, identified the following members:

Lords of the Isles[edit]

Angus Òg (Angus the Young), Angus Mòr's (Angus the Great) younger son (or grandson), gave assistance to Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and in reward kept control of the Isles and gained most of the land confiscated from the McDougalls for backing the defeated side. Angus Og's son Good John of Islay first formally assumed the title Dominus Insularum – Lord of the Isles – in 1336.

In their maritime domain the Lords of the Isles used galleys for both warfare and transport. These ships had developed from the Viking longships and knarrs, clinker-built with a square sail and rows of oars. From the 14th century they changed from using a steering oar to a stern rudder. These ships took part in sea battles and attacked castles or forts built close to the sea. The Lordship specified the feudal dues of its subjects in terms of numbers and sizes of the galleys each area had to provide in service to their Lord.

Cara from the air

Successive Lords of the Isles fiercely asserted their independence, culminating in 1462 with John MacDonald II of the Isles making a treaty with Edward IV of England to conquer Scotland with him and the Earl of Douglas. The civil war in England, known famously as the Wars of the Roses, prevented the activation of this alliance and on the discovery of his treason in 1493 John Macdonald II forfeited his estates and titles to James IV of Scotland. Since then, the eldest male child of the reigning Scottish (and later, British) monarch has been styled "Lord of the Isles". The office itself has been extinct since the 15th century and the style since then has no other meaning but to recall the Scottish destruction of the ancient Norse-Gaelic lordship (and indeed the self-destruction of the MacDonalds).

Currently Charles, Prince of Wales is styled Lord of the Isles. Tiny Cara off Kintyre, which is owned by the MacDonalds of Largie, is reputedly the only island still in the possession of direct descendants of the Lords of the Isles.[4]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ At their height the Lords of the Isles were thus of comparable power to the Geraldines or perhaps even the O'Neill dynasty of Late Medieval Ireland.
  2. ^ R.W.Munro (ed), Monro's Western Islands of Scotland & Genealogies of the Clans (Edinburgh 1961)
  3. ^ Donald Gregory, History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland from AD 1493 to AD 1625 (William Tait, Edinburgh, 1836), at page 170
  4. ^ "The Island of Cara". Kintyre on Record. Retrieved 3 May 2011.

References[edit]

  • Bannerman, J., The Lordship of the Isles, in Scottish Society in the Fifteenth Century, ed. J. M. Brown, 1977.
  • Brown M, James I, 1994.
  • Dunbar, J., The Lordship of the Isles, in The Middle Ages in the Highlands, Inverness Field Club, 1981 ISBN 978-0-9502612-1-8.
  • Gregory, D., History of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, 1975 reprint.
  • MacDonald, C. M., The History of Argyll, 1950.
  • McDonald, R. A., The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland's Western Seaboard, 1100–c1336, 1997.
  • Munro. J., The Earldom of Ross and the Lordship of the Isles, in Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland, ed. J. R. Baldwin, 1986.

External links[edit]