Battle of Drumnacoub

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Battle of Drumnacoub
Part of Clan Mackay succession dispute
Ben Loyal and Ben Hope, from above Tongue. - - 946340.jpg
Looking south across Carn Fada towards Ben Loyal (left) and Ben Hope (right)
Datec. 1427 to 1433[1]
Southern end of Kyle of Tongue, Sutherland

grid reference NC569519 [1]
Coordinates: 58°26′N 4°27′W / 58.433°N 4.450°W / 58.433; -4.450
Result Pyrrhic victory for John Mackay who was loyal to chief Angus Du Mackay of Strathnaver
Clan Mackay
loyal to Angus Du Mackay, 7th of Strathnaver
Clan Sutherland
Commanders and leaders
John Mackay, I of Aberach Morgan Nielson Macaky
Niel Nielson Mackay
Angus Murray (of Aberscross)
Unknown 1500 men[2]
Casualties and losses
Angus Mackay
"very few alive"
Morgan & Niel both killed
"very few alive"

The Battle of Drumnacoub (Battle of Druim na coub, Drum-ne-coub) was a Scottish clan battle involving factions of the Clan Mackay fought in the far northwest of Scotland, some time between 1427 and 1433. It took place on a hill called Carn Fada at the southern end of the Kyle of Tongue, between Ben Loyal and the village of Tongue. It was fought between members of the Clan Mackay and men of the Clan Sutherland.

On one side was the old chief, Angus Du (Dow) Mackay and his second son John Aberach Mackay. On the other side were Angus's cousins Morgan Neilson Mackay and Niel Neilson Mackay who were backed by troops from the Clan Sutherland, led by Angus Murray. Niel Nielson Mackay and Morgan Nielson Mackay were attempting to take the Mackay lands from their cousin, chief Angus Du Mackay.


Niel Vasse Mackay, the eldest son of chief Angus Du Mackay had been imprisoned at the Bass Rock by King James I of Scotland in 1427, after the Battle of Harpsdale.[3]

Thomas Neilson Mackay, brother of Neil Neilson Mackay and Morgan Neilson Mackay had killed the Laird of Freswick by the name of Mowat. He had pursued and killed Mowat with all his company, near the town of Tain in Ross, within the chapel of St Duffus, which he also burnt to the ground. Mowat had retired himself to the chapel to find sanctuary. The King soon after denounced Thomas Neilson Mackay to be a rebel and promised his lands and possessions for a reward to any that would kill or apprehend him. Thomas was captured by Angus Murray of the Clan Sutherland with the help of Thomas's own brothers Morgan Neilson Mackay and Niel Neilson Mackay. After being handed over to the king, Thomas was executed at Inverness.[3][4]

After these events the Mackays were divided; the elderly chief Angus-Du Mackay and his loyal second son John Mackay were at odds with Angus's cousins Morgan Neilson Mackay and Niel Neilson Mackay, who had betrayed their own brother Thomas, and the Earl of Sutherland and Angus Murray offered Niel and Morgan Mackay rewards for their services, including their daughters in marriage.[5]

In order to complete his "design"; the Earl of Sutherland ordered all his forces to support Niel Nielson Mackay and Morgan Nielson Mackay in obtaining Angus Mackay's lands. Angus Mackay, by that time, was elderly and was at a loss as to how to act, but was advised by his second son John Mackay not to yield to any of their demands and that he would defend their country or die doing so. This affair was terminated by the decisive Battle of Drumnacoub, which has been described by the historians George Buchanan, Sir Robert Gordon and John Pinkerton.[5]

The battle[edit]

The forces of Angus Du Mackay, led by his loyal second son John Aberach Mackay won the battle, although Angus Du Mackay was killed. Niel Nielson Mackay and Morgan Nielson Mackay whose forces were defeated were both also killed, as was their father in-law Angus Murray. Sir Robert Gordon (1580–1656) wrote an account of this battle in his book A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland.:

Angus Murray, for the performance of his engaged promise made to Niel and Morgan, gave them his two daughters in marriage; then gathering a company of Sutherland-men, with Earl Robert his attollerance, he went on with these two brethren into Strathnver, to invade the same. Angus-Dow MacKay hearing of their approach, convened his countrymen, and because he was unable himself in person to resist his enemies, he made his son John Aberach Mackay, commander of his host. When they were ready to encounter, some two miles from Tongue, at a place called Drum-ne-coub, Angus-Dow MacKay sent message unto his cousin-germans [sic], Niel and Morgan, offering them all his lands and possessions, except what is called Kintail in Strathnaver; which offer they did refuse, whereupon there ensued a cruel and sharp conflict, valiantly fought a long time with great slaughter on either side; Niel and Morgan trusting to their forces, John Aberach reposing his confidence in the equity of his cause, encouraged his men to assault their enemies afresh, who, with the like manhood, made stout resistance; by reason whereof there ensued such a cruel fight between them, that there remained, in the end very few alive on either side. John Aberach seemed to have victory, because he escaped with his life, yet very sore wounded, and mutilate by the loss of one of his arms. His father, Angus Dow MacKay, being carried thither to view the place of the conflict, and searching for the corpse of his unkind cousins, was there slain with an arrow, after the conflict by a Sutherland-man that was lurking in a bush hard by. Niel and Morgan, with their father-in-law Angus Murray, were slain; and as they had undertaken this enterprise upon an evil ground, so they perished therein accordingly.[6]


Upon the return of Niel Vasse Mackay, who had been imprisoned on the Bass Rock and who took over his deceased father's lands, he gave his younger brother John some lands of his own. Sir Robert Gordon also writes of the events after the Battle of Drumnacoub:

The Earl of Sutherland being advertised how all passed at Drum-na-coub, and being informed of Angus Murray his death, he pursued John Abeerach so hotly, that he constrained him, for safety of his life, to fly into the isles. But John returning from thence the night ensuing Christmas, he came to Strathully (Helmsdale), and there killed three of the Sutherlands at Dinaboll, having invaded them at unawares; whereupon Earl Robert pursued John Aberach the second time, so eagerly that he was constrained to submit himself, and crave him pardon for his offence, which he obtained upon his submission. Then again John Aberach settled himself into the country of Strathnaver, where he continued until the death of King James the First, that his brother, Neil-Wass MacKay was relieved out of the Bass (in 1437), by the means of the lady of that place, who was his near kinswoman. And at Niel his return into Strathnaver John Aberach willingly surrendered unto him all his lands within the country. Yet Niel gave unto his brother John the lands about Lochnaver, as a possession to dwell in during his days; which lands his posterity, the Sleaght-ean Aberach (descendants of John) 'do possess and inhabit at this day'.[7]

The 19th-century historian, Robert Mackay, disputes the account given by Sir Robert Gordon of the aftermath of the battle above, noting that Gordon was of the Earl of Sutherland's family (kindred).[8] Robert Mackay says that it is absurd to think that John Mackay would have immediately fled to the isles in fear of the Earl of Sutherland, whose power he had just broken,[8] and that if John Mackay did go to the isles then it would have been to visit his cousin, Alexander.[8] Robert Mackay says it is more probably that John Mackay pursued the Sutherlanders,[8] rather than having fled returning to kill three Sutherlanders as stated by Gordon.[8]

The son of Niel Nielson Mackay who had rebelled against Angus Dow Mackay was John Bain Mackay who dropped the surname of Mackay and was progenitor of the Bain family.[9]


  1. ^ a b "Site Record for Carn Fada". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland
  2. ^ Mackay, Angus. (1906). The Book of Mackay. (St Andrews University). Printed by William Rae, Wick. pp. 58 - 61.
  3. ^ a b Mackay 1829, pp. 58,59: quoting the "Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland". p.63 - 64, by Sir Robert Gordon (1580 -1656). (See Mackay 1829, p. 24 for details on Gordon's book)
  4. ^ Mackay 1829, p. 58 quoting "Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. pp. 64,65, by Sir Robert Gordon (1580-1656).
  5. ^ a b Mackay 1829, p. 66
  6. ^ Mackay 1829, pp. 66,67 quoting the "Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland" pp. 65,66 by Sir Robert Gordon (1580-1656)
  7. ^ Mackay 1829, p. 67 quoting "Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. pp. 66,67, by Sir Robert Gordon (1580-1656).
  8. ^ a b c d e Mackay 1829, p. 68
  9. ^ Mackay, Angus. (1906). The Book of Mackay. (St Andrews University). Printed by William Rae, Wick. p. 50.


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