Alasdair Mac Colla

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Alasdair Mac Colla
Born 1610
Colonsay, Hebrides, Scotland
Died 16 November 1647(1647-11-16) (aged 37)
Battle of Knocknanuss, County Cork, Ireland
Cause of death summary execution
Resting place Clonmeen, County Cork, Ireland
Nationality Gael (Scottish & Irish)
Other names Fear thollaidh nan tighean ("The Devastator of Houses")
Occupation clansman of MacDonald of Dunnyveg, soldier, knight
Known for Scottish Civil War
Irish Confederate War
MacDonald-Campbell feud
Title Sir
Political party Irish Confederate
Scottish Royalist
Spouse(s) Elizabeth MacAlister
Children Coll & Gillespie Mór
Parent(s) Coll Ciotach

Alasdair Mac Colla Chiotaich MacDhòmhnaill (c. 1610 – 13 November 1647) was a Gaelic warrior from the Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg who were a branch of the Clan Donald active in the Hebrides and Ireland. He is best known for his participation in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. His name was Scottish Gaelic and meant 'Alexander the son of Coll the Left-handed MacDonald'. Older texts sometimes refer to him as "Collkitto",[1] an anglicised spelling of Coll Chiotaich, a nickname properly belonging to his father, Coll Macdonald.

Mac Colla fought in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, being involved in the Irish Confederate Wars and most notably in Montrose's campaign in Scotland. In the latter campaign he was given a knighthood; as a result his name is often given as Sir Alexander Macdonald. He died in 1647 at the Battle of Knocknanuss. Mac Colla is particularly notable for the very large number of oral traditions and legends which his life inspired in the Highlands.[2]


Early life[edit]

Mac Colla was born on the Inner Hebridean Isle of Colonsay in the early seventeenth century into Clan Donald. His early life encompassed both Gaelic Ireland and the Gaelic western Highlands of Scotland, as in this period the MacDonalds had a presence in both countries.

His father Coll was a prominent figure in the Clan Donald South (Macdonald of Dunnyveg), a branch of the Clan Donald with interests both in the western Scottish islands and County Antrim, north-eastern Ireland. His mother Mary, according to some traditions, was a daughter of Campbell of Auchinbreck, but has also been suggested to be one of the O'Cahans of Dunseverick, a daughter of Macdonald of Sanda, a daughter of Macneil of Barra, or a daughter of Ranald MacDonald of Smerby, the latter being the tradition favoured on Colonsay.[3] Mac Colla was born into a period in which the Clan Donald's regional power and influence had waned, largely due to the expansion of the rival Clan Campbell, although there was ongoing conflict between the two clans.[4] Mac Colla's career would, despite the larger context of the Scottish and Irish wars, therefore become defined by an effort to counter Campbell expansionism, and particularly to recover Islay and other lost Macdonald possessions.[4] This enmity was deepened by religious factors. The Campbells were Presbyterians, whereas the MacDonalds, among whom a mission of the Order of Friars Minor had settled, were largely Catholics. Mac Colla's father Coll Chiotaich in particular is sometimes described as a recent "convert" from Protestantism and enthusiastic supporter of the Catholic Church, though he in fact appears to have embraced the faith long before the missionaries first appeared in 1623.[5]

Civil War in Ireland and Scotland[edit]

Randal Macdonnell, 1st Marquess of Antrim. Antrim was a kinsman of the Macdonalds of Dunnyveg and a close associate of Mac Colla.

Mac Colla came to greater prominence with the onset of the conflict known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The various branches of Clan Donald, spread over northwestern Scotland and northeastern Ireland, sided with the royalist Cavaliers and Confederate Ireland. Their rivals for regional power, the Campbells under their chief Argyll, sided with the Presbyterian Covenanters of Scotland. Early in the war, Mac Colla was forced to flee the Outer Hebrides, which were attacked by a Covenanter-Campbell force, and made his way to Ulster, where his kinsman the Marquess of Antrim still had large estates. His father Coll and two brothers were taken prisoner by the Campbells, though they were to be released in 1644.

Mac Colla was in County Antrim at the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. He was initially engaged as an officer in a mixed Protestant and Catholic force raised by the Marquess of Antrim to protect settlers against the rebels. As religious tensions grew, some Catholic officers claimed there was a Protestant plot to massacre them, and early in 1642 Mac Colla defected to the rebels along with a number of others.[6] He quickly became involved in fighting settlers in east Ulster such as the 1642 Siege of Coleraine: he was implicated in massacres of civilians, but also was lauded for scoring significant military victories. Mac Colla was ultimately wounded and defeated in an attack on Lurgan, although he was rescued by Dónall Geimhleach Ó Catháin.

The Covenanters landed an army in Ulster and initially drove the Confederate forces out of the eastern part of the province. Leaving East Antrim and intending to march to Kilkenny, they engaged the Confederate forces in Ulster and were routed, with the survivors fleeing back to East Antrim where they remained, taking no further part in the Confederate Wars.

The campaign in Scotland, 1644-5[edit]

In 1644, Mac Colla was selected by the Supreme Council of Confederate Ireland to lead an expedition to Scotland to aid the Royalist forces there against the Covenanters. He was given a regiment of 1500-2000 largely Irish soldiers. Many appear to have been Ulstermen recruited from the Marquess of Antrim's estates,[7] though many of the Irish were also (in the words of the chronicler John Spalding of Aberdeen) "expert soldiers"[8] who were recruited from service in West Flanders, and one company (Sgt-Major Ledwytch's) appears to have been a unit of English-descended Palesmen.[9] Spalding confirmed that Mac Colla's men wore a coat and trews and wore a twist of oats pinned to their bonnets and caps as a badge.[10]

For several months Mac Colla's unit fought and burned its way through Argyll, settling its commander's private scores with Clan Campbell, but was in danger of being surrounded by hostile forces when it was able to link up with the King's Lieutenant, James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose. The support of Montrose raised the standing of Mac Colla amongst the Highland clans, who to some extent looked down on him both as an island outsider and as a member of the gentry rather than the ancient nobility they were accustomed to follow.[11] With the Royal commission, Mac Colla was subsequently also able to raise men among his Clan Donald kinsmen, such as Clan MacDonald of Keppoch, and other anti-Campbell Scottish clans including clansmen under Donald Robertson, the Tutor of Struan.

In the following campaign, Mac Colla and Montrose won a series of often dramatic victories at Tippermuir, Aberdeen, Inverlochy, Auldearn, Alford and Kilsyth (in these contests they were always outnumbered). Mac Colla was closely involved in most battles, with some modern historiography, notably the work of Prof. D. Stevenson, giving him a substantial share of the tactical credit for the victories previously given to Montrose: oral history also gave him a central role, such as his supposed beheading of Campbell of Auchinbreck at Inverlochy. After Kilsyth, Montrose conferred knighthood on Mac Colla.[12]

During the campaign Mac Colla also took the opportunity to pillage the Campbell lands, ordering the killing of all the men of military age he could find there. In an alleged incident in Argyll, Mac Colla is said to have burned down a building full of Campbell women and children that was henceforth known as the "Barn of Bones". For a time much of Scotland was in fear of his progress, with one contemporary observer writing: "There is nothing heard now up and down the kingdom but alarms and rumores, randevouses of clans [...] Montross and MacKoll in every manes mouth, nay the very children frightened".[13] Whilst Mac Colla's military contribution to the Royalist campaign was undeniable, it is arguable that the aftermath of several of his actions, particularly the three-day plunder of Aberdeen by the victorious troops, seriously harmed the Royalist cause.

Mac Colla and Montrose ultimately parted company as Mac Colla's priorities, focused on regaining Macdonald possessions, lay in the western Highlands, whereas Montrose wanted to secure the Scottish Lowlands and ultimately England for the Cavaliers. As a result, both were defeated separately by the Covenanters in 1646. Those of the Irish troops who had stayed with Montrose under Manus O'Cahan were massacred, after being promised quarter, subsequent to the Battle of Philiphaugh. Mac Colla, with the remaining Irish and clansmen, went on to win a further victory against the Campbells at Lagganmore, but his campaign petered out in a series of sieges of castles in Kintyre, and he was eventually defeated at the Battle of Rhunahaorine Moss and the siege of Dunaverty. Leaving small garrisons of Highlanders at Dunaverty and at Dunyvaig on Islay, the latter under his father Coll, he returned to Antrim with the majority of his troops. His brother Archibald (Gilleasbuig) was killed at the Siege of Skipness Castle in August 1646.

Influence on military tactics[edit]

Mac Colla has been credited with inventing or refining the tactic of the Highland charge in the Civil Wars: his men ran at enemy infantry, stopped to fire a coordinated volley from their muskets at close range, and then threw down their firearms and closed hand to hand at speed. This proved remarkably successful in both Ireland and Scotland due to the musket's slow reloading time, the effectiveness of a single mass volley against the usual "rolling fire" of contemporary musket drill, and the poor discipline and training of many of the troops Mac Colla's men faced. Time and again the Covenanter infantry broke, ran, and were cut down when facing a coordinated charge by Montrose and Mac Colla's soldiers.

However, despite the popular image of Mac Colla's troops being equipped and fighting in a purely 'Highland' fashion, the majority of men in his Irish regiments, at least, were experienced veterans of the Spanish Army of Flanders and equipped conventionally with pike and musket.[14] It has even been suggested that rather than being a traditional 'Highland' or 'Gaelic' development, the charge could have been inspired by similar Swedish musket tactics of the Thirty Years War, a conflict some of Mac Colla's veterans would have known.[15] It appears that not all observers were impressed with Mac Colla's military skill: the Scottish professional soldier Sir James Turner, another veteran of the Thirty Years War, judged him to be "nae soljer, tho stout enough",[14] and accused him of being "excessivelie besotted with brandie and aquavitae".[16]

Defeat and death[edit]

Mac Colla's father Coll Ciotach, who was again taken prisoner at Dunyvaig, was killed in retaliation for his son's atrocities in the Campbell country. Mac Colla himself retreated to Ireland with his family, where he re-joined the Irish Confederates in 1647. He initially made plans to lead his veteran troops to Spain into the service of Philip IV,[17] though in the event nothing came of the proposal.

His troops, (both Irish survivors of the 1644 expedition and "redshanks", or Scottish Highlanders) were split up and assigned to the Leinster and Munster armies, with Mac Colla attached to the latter. Mac Colla's men were mostly killed in the Confederate defeats at the Battle of Dungan's Hill in County Meath and then at the battle of Knocknanuss in County Cork. Alasdair Mac Colla himself, under the command of Viscount Taaffe, was killed by English Roundheads at Knocknanuss after he had been taken prisoner.

He was said to have been buried in the now ruined church of Clonmeen, County Cork, near the village of Banteer, in one of the tombs of the O'Callaghan family, then of Clonmeen Castle and later of Clonmeen Lodge. The family's head Donough O'Callahan was at the time a member of the Council of the Irish Confederacy. The vault is supposed to be under the church's north wall, against which a monument was placed in 2011 by a local historical society.


He married Elizabeth MacAlister, daughter of Hector MacAlister and Margaret Campbell and they had three sons:

  • Coll, who married Anne Magee, died on 25 March 1719.
  • Gill'Easbuig Mór, who married Anne Steward, died in 1720.
  • A third son about whom little has been recorded.

After Alasdair's death the family settled at Kilmore House "Ballenluig" Glenariffe in Co. Antrim. Four generations later Alasdair's great great grandson Dr. James McDonnell rose to fame as the "Father" of BELFAST Medicine founding the Medical School now located in Queens University as well as establishing a Hospital that at a later stage became "The Royal Victoria Hospital"


After his death, Mac Colla became a figure of minor folklore in Gaelic Ireland and Scotland, with songs and melodies written in his honour in both countries, and many stories entering the oral tradition of the western Highlands and Hebrides. These stories depicted him as an immensely strong man, 7 feet tall, of conspicuous bravery and swordsmanship.

He is commemorated in the Scottish Gaelic poetry of Iain Lom and Dorothy Brown (Diorbhail Nic a' Bhriuthainn). Ian Lom in particular, as a Macdonald of Keppoch, was concerned to frame Mac Colla's victories as part of a specifically Gaelic military effort against the traditional enemies of Clan Donald, ignoring the wider Civil War context and the contribution of Montrose.[18]

In Ireland he was remembered by a piece of traditional music named "Mac Colla's March" or "Alasdair Mac Colla" that dates from the mid seventeenth century and is still performed.

Alasdair Mac Colla[edit]

Sometimes known as "Alasdair Mhic Colla Ghasda", this Scottish Gaelic waulking song has been recorded numerous times. It appears on the following notable albums:

Gol na mBan san Ár[edit]

"Gol na mBan san Ár" ("Lament of the Women in the Massacre") was composed in memory of MacColla and his female followers. The song has been recorded under many names.


  1. ^ "Alaster MacDonald (Alasdair Mac Colla, "Colkitto")..." in Scott, Sir Walter (1995). A Legend of the Wars of Montrose. Edinburgh University Press. p. 256. ISBN 074860572X. 
  2. ^ See Matheson, Traditions of Alasdair Mac Colla in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, v5 (1958), 9
  3. ^ Byrne, Colkitto!, 1997, p.45
  4. ^ a b Harris and Macdonald, Scotland: the making and unmaking of a nation, v2, 2007, pp.99-100
  5. ^ Stevenson, Alasdair MacColla and the highland problem in the seventeenth century, 1980, p.43
  6. ^ Stevenson, Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates, 2005, p.100
  7. ^ Macinnes, "Scottish Gaeldom, 1638-1651: The Vernacular Response to the Covenanting Dynamic" in Dwyer (ed) New perspectives on the politics and culture of early modern Scotland, 1982, p.73
  8. ^ Spalding, History of the Troubles And Memorable Transactions in Scotland, from the year 1624 to 1645, v2, p.215
  9. ^ Manus O'Cahan's Regiment, Scotwars. 19-09-16
  10. ^ Spalding, p.239. "This lieutenant was clad in coat and trews, as the Irishes were clad; ilk ane had in his cap or bonnet a rip of oats, whilk was his sign, our town's people began to wear the like in their bonnets, and to knit them to the knocks of our yetts, but it was little safeguard to us, albeit we used the same for a protection."
  11. ^ Manning, An Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army 1585-1702, p.252
  12. ^ Buchan, John (1928). Montrose: A History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin: The Riverside Press. p. 247. 
  13. ^ Stevenson, Alasdair MacColla and the Highland problem in the seventeenth century, 1980, p.166
  14. ^ a b Barratt, Cavalier Generals, 2004, p.194
  15. ^ See Grosjean, "Scotland: Sweden’s closest ally?" in Murdoch (ed.) Scotland and the Thirty Years War 1618-1648,2001, p.158
  16. ^ Turner, Memoirs, p.238
  17. ^ Worthington, Scots in Habsburg Service: 1618 - 1648, p.129
  18. ^ Young, Conquest and resistance: war in seventeenth century Ireland, 2000, p.74

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