The most powerful of the semi-independent Gaelic lordships of the Highlands was the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles. The Lordship of the Isles was in a sense the successor to the Norse Kingdom of the Isles, which had been ruled from the Isle of Man in the eleventh century. The downfall of the kingdom was begun by Somerled, a chieftain of Argyll who was of mixed Gaelic and Norse descent. In a naval battle fought by moonlight on a winter’s night in 1156, Somerled defeated King Godred II of Man and won control of most of the Hebrides. Preferring a far-distant lord to a near one, Somerled acknowledged the ultimate sovereignty of the king of Norway over his island possessions, but this brought him into conflict with the Scots king Malcolm IV, who had been greedily eyeing the Hebrides himself. Somerled was killed while raiding in Scotland, in battle near Renfrew in 1164, but the Hebrides remained in the possession of his descendants. Long since converted to Christianity, the Norse settlers in the Hebrides soon became assimilated to Gaelic ways. When Norway finally ceded the Hebrides to Scotland in 1266, these semi-independent Gaelic lords simply transferred their allegiance to the king of Scots and carried on as before.
The Lordship of the Isles was founded by Angus Og MacDonald, a grandson of Somerled’s grandson Donald. Angus backed Robert Bruce in his struggle for the Scottish throne with the rival Comyn family and was rewarded by being made Lord of Islay in 1307. After he led the men of the Isles into battle at Bannockburn, Angus was further rewarded with the mainland districts ofMorvern, Ardnamurchan and Lochaber. Through advantageous marriages, Angus’s son and successor John of Islay added the rest of the Hebridean islands to his inheritance, as well as the mainland districts of Kintyre, Knapdale and Garmoran. In 1353 John formally adopted the title Dominus Insularum, ‘Lord of the Isles’: significantly, in Gaelic he used the title n, ‘king’. Sea power and some 30 stone castles held this vast lordship together. The castles of the lordship were almost all sited on the coast where they could control the sea-lanes by sending out fleets of galleys to intercept shipping. These Highland galleys, or ‘birlinns’, were swift and seaworthy descendants of the longships that had dominated the northern seas in Viking times. They remained popular with Scottish and Irish pirates well into the seventeenth century. The only important castle of the lordship to be sited inland was on an island in a loch at Finlaggan on Islay, and so confident were the lords in their control of the Hebridean seas that its fortifications were more symbolic than functional. Finlaggan was the official capital of the Lordship, where, on a second island linked to the castle by a causeway, the Council of the Isles met. The scant ruins that survive today give little impression of the former importance of the place. The lordship was a self-consciously Irish-orientated polity in a way the kingdom of Scotland had long ceased to be. The inauguration ceremony of the lords was reminiscent - deliberately so - of that of the ancient Scottish kings of Dal Riata as it involved the use of a square stone on which was carved the shape of a man’s footprint. The new lord was expected to place
Plate 23 Effigies of galloglasses on fifteenth-century gravestones from Kilmory Source: © Crown Copyright reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland
His foot in the print as a sign that he would walk in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors. Gaelic was the language of administration and high culture and, like Irish kings, the lords were surrounded by hereditary functionaries, such as the seanchaidhean or clan historians. Literary and artistic links with Gaelic Ireland were actively cultivated. So too were political links: the marriage of John Mor, a younger son of John I, to Margery Bisset, the heiress of Antrim, extended the influence of the MacDonalds to northern Ireland in the 1390s. Thousands of Irish galloglasses crossed the North Channel to serve in the armies of the lordship.
Royal authority had never been strong in the Highlands, but the Lords of the Isles were powerful enough to pursue an independent foreign policy, which often conflicted with the interests of the Scottish kingdom as a whole. The dangers of this became glaringly apparent to the Scottish crown when John I allied with Edward III of England in 1335 to place the compliant puppet Edward Balliol on the Scottish throne. King David II sentenced John to forfeiture of his lands for his treachery. Being justifiably confident that David could not enforce the sentence, John simply ignored it. Donald, the second lord, also allied with English kings, reaching defensive agreements with both Richard II and Henry IV. Donald also tried to take advantage of the minority of James I to win control of the Earldom of Ross, to which he had a claim through his wife. Donald was defeated in 1411 by a royal army under the earl of Mar at Harlaw, about 20 miles (32 kilometres) from Aberdeen, but his son Alexander, the third lord, finally acquired the disputed inheritance in 1424. The acquisition of Ross brought the lordship to its greatest territorial extent and made Alexander the greatest magnate in the Highlands. James I tried to cut Alexander down to size, capturing him by an act of bad faith and imprisoning him in Tantallon castle. James sent his army to invade the lordship but it was defeated at Inverlochy in 1431 by Alexander’s cousin Donald Balloch, who went on to ravage the lands of the Mackintoshes and Camerons who had allied with the crown. Outraged, James demanded Donald’s head as the price of peace. A severed head was duly delivered and Alexander was released, but the king had been duped; Donald was alive and safe in Ireland. The unfortunate former owner of the head is unknown.
The fortunes of all medieval principalities and kingdoms rested heavily on the abilities of their rulers. An internationally recognised kingdom could survive a weak or incompetent ruler but this could easily prove fatal to even the grandest and most independent lordships because they were essentially just collections of estates and rights, not sovereign entities. The run of able Lords of the Isles came to an end with the accession of John II in 1449. It was no help to him that he was still a boy, but even as an adult he lacked the forceful character necessary for successful rulership. A contemporary described John as a meek and scholarly man, better suited to be a churchman than a chieftain. John’s weakness allowed the martial figure of Donald Balloch to secure a controlling influence over the lordship’s foreign policy. Today, Donald would be described as a hawk and he pushed for an aggressive policy towards the crown. In 1451 John seized royal castles at Inverness and Urquhart; the following year Donald led the Lordship’s fleet of galleys into the Clyde to ravage James II’s crown lands.
Under Donald’s influence, John negotiated the Treaty of Ardtornish with Edward IV of England in 1462. In return for their support, Edward promised to share all of Scotland north of the Forth between John and Donald if he conquered the country. Such an ambitious alliance threatened not only the crown but all the Highland magnates too. After Edward reached a peace agreement in 1474, James III was free to deal with the Lordship of the Isles. In 1475 James declared Ross, Kintyre and Knapdale forfeit for treason, and a willing alliance of Highland magnates led by the earls of Huntly and Atholl invaded the Lordship and forced John to submit in 1476. John’s authority was badly damaged, and the different branches of Clan Donald and other leading clans, the MacNeills, MacLeods and MacLeans, began to struggle with one another for ‘headship of the Gael’ in what was left of the Lordship. John seems to have concluded that the best chance to preserve the Lordship was to keep a low profile, but he was frustrated by his warlike son Angus, who set out to recover the lost lands by force. Angus seemed to be on the brink of success when, at the instigation of the Mackenzies of Kintail, an Irish harpist cut his throat while he slept one night in 1488/9. John’s nephew Alexander of Lochalsh continued the fight, but his defeat by the Mackenzies near Strathpeffer in 1491 proved he was not a warrior of Angus’s stature. Meanwhile the Lordship descended into chaos as John ceased to take any active part in its government. James IV saw his opportunity and formally abolished the Lordship in 1493 and divided it among the local clan chiefs. John was grateful to retire to the royal court on a generous pension: he died in 1503. No clan would be allowed to build up such a powerful lordship again but, though the threat to the crown was ended, the abolition of the Lordship did little to increase the effectiveness of royal government in the Highlands. There were many rebellions aimed at restoring the Lordship of the Isles, the last in 1545, and clan rivalries, which had been suppressed by a common loyalty to the lords, re-emerged with a vengeance. The ‘danting of the isles’ - the subjugation of the Highlands - would be a major concern for Scottish governments for the next 200 years and the task would not be completed until after the Act of Union.