This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

October 2003



The breakout of civil war between King and Parliament in England transformed traditional alliances in the Gaelic world, which in some cases had been operational for hundreds of years. MacCailean Mor Argyll, the chief of Clan Campbell, was the principle agent of the Stuart monarchy in its suppression of the power of Clan Donald and its allies in the Gaelic world. The MacDonnells of Antrim took another path. This clan split from Clan Iain Mor under Sorley Boy and his son Randall became an English subject and married the widow of one of the king’s favorites, The Duke of Buckingham. Randall MacDonnell the Earl of Antrim, rather than resist or undermine the authority of the Stuart monarchy, appeased it and competed at court with the Earl of Argyll for the favor of the King. He hoped to undermine the bond between Argyll and the King and challenge Campbell power to regain the lands of Clan Iain Mor under his own leadership. When rebellion broke out in Ulster, Antrim was forced to help quell it as an agent of the King. Yet the Scottish Army, Argyll and the Dublin government were also the King’s agents. In this atmosphere, Alasdair’s ambitions were swallowed up and Antrim was ultimately made prisoner.

With the dissolution of government in England, two players were now the wild cards in the deck: The Scottish covenanters, who controlled the Scottish government and its army, and the Irish Confederates who engineered the rebellion in the north. Both had challenged royal authority from opposite ends of the spectrum, yet neither were monolithic in their allegiances.

After escaping to England, Antrim was busy conspiring with other royalists to exploit the emerging conflict to regain his estates and challenge the Campbells. Encouraged by Queen Henrietta Maria, a Spanish Catholic betrothed to Charles I, he planned to combine civil conflict in England with civil conflict in Ireland and Scotland to achieve his ends. The Scottish army in Ireland was to be bribed or defeated, then arms and men sent to Scotland to neutralize opposition there. Ireland was thus to provide an endless supply of men sent to England to fight for Charles I. Upon completion of this, remnant opposition in Ireland and Scotland would be mopped up.

Most important of all, Alasdair and Ranald MacColla were to lead the invasion of Scotland. The new evolving realignments were to pull Alasdair MacColla back into a leadership role. Hope would return for Alasdair’s aspirations and he would regain his reputation. The fact was, nobody could better carry a body of men to Scotland and command them. He knew the terrain and could raise up sympathetic clans.

However, disaster struck again. In May 1643 Antrim was captured a second time by the Scottish army while landing at Newcastle in north County Down while on his was to negotiate with the Irish Confederates. While Antrim tried to prevaricate and mislead his captors, his servants, under threat of torture and death, spilled the beans. The Covenanters were horrified that the Earl of Antrim was conspiring to turn loose Gaelic Catholics against them, both in Scotland and Ireland. The result was the bringing together of Covenanters, Campbells and Parliament in a solid united front. Soon 21,000 Covenanting troops would enter England to oppose the King and his allies.

In October of 1643, Antrim escaped a second time from the Scottish army in Ireland. Soon he would be in alliance with the Irish Confederates and the Marquis of Ormand’s government in Dublin. The forces within Ireland which had put the brakes on The Irish Confederates and their rebellion were now in alliance with the Confederates. The Protestant plantation in Ulster was now a liability to the Stuart cause and the Gaels, the traditional enemies of the Stuart monarchy, were now a military resource ripe for the picking. The Gaels and the Stuarts would never be totally on the same page, but they now had a common cause.

With Antrim safely out of the clutches of the Scottish army, Alasdair and Ranald mounted an amphibious raid on the Hebrides in November of that year. The success of this raid is somewhat lost to history, but is appears to have been a probing action, like the Dieppe raid in World War II. The fact was, Alasdair never had adequate men or materiel in this action to have posed a real threat. But the wave of retaliation unleashed by the Campbells in its wake was to have dire consequences on Alasdair’s future incursion into Scotland.

At about the this time an uprising by George Gordon, the 2nd Marquis of Huntly, the leading Lowland Catholic in the northeast, and Antrim’s ally, was defeated. An ineffectual leader, Huntly skulked off to Strathnaver in the far north. But another ally, at the time something of a sleeper, entered the stage. Jaime Graham, the Marquis of Montrose, would mount his own raid in Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders. Driven back into England, he would later emerge as a powerful foil to Alasdair MacColla.

As negotiations between the various parties commenced it became clear the Irish Confederates were not interested in in being a bottomless source of manpower for the royal army in England. And while enthusiastic regarding the invasion of Scotland, the Marquis of Ormand was reticent with regard to handing over a port to forces that had so recently been rebels. Fearful to have said forces control a port in Ulster, they were marched to Portumna Co. Galway where they sat waiting for three months.

By royal decree, authority was over the Scottish campaign was to be divided between the Marquis of Montrose and Antrim. Charles I cleverly played the two parties off against each other and appeased pride and vanity by making Antrim general of the Highlands and Hebrides and Montrose the lieutenant general of all of Scotland. Thus Antrim had the superior rank, but Montrose the greater jurisdiction. Thus operationally they would be forced to negotiate and accommodated each other. Alasdair MacColla would be a lieutenant general under Antrim.

After waiting in Galway for three months in the Spring of 1644, the invasion force was running dangerously low on supplies and the future of the campaign was in peril. With this in mind, Ormand, Antrim and the Confederates stopped their bickering and began to put their plan into action. In June of 1644 the force was marched to Passage and Ballahack in Co. Waterford. There the Confederates provided three transport ships, two Flemish mercenary ships and one Irish transport. Additionally the force would be escorted by an Irish frigate, the Harp. After a false start precluded by a storm on 6-24-1644, the little convoy set off on 6-27-1644.

The number of men in this force was somewhere between 16,00 and 2,000 strong. Of the names recorded, two-thirds were surnames native to Counties Antrim and north Derry. The other third were variously Highland Scottish, Lowland Scottish and English surnames. While many Scottish Gael refugees made up this force, others, in spite of their surnames, had been settled in Ireland for generations. They would be divided into three regiments commanded by Alasdair MacColla, Manus O’Cahan and James MacDonnell, a son of Sorley Boy (Somhairle Buidhe) MacDonnell. Thus, though largely Ulster Irish, this force was largely made up of traditional Irish allies of Clan Donald and Irish MacDonnells augmented by Highland refugees seeking protection from Alasdair MacColla. In essence this was a force made up of descendants of the Irish dimension of the former Lordship of the Isles. Crossing the Irish sea and the sea of Moyle, they were an avenging force on a collision course with the power of the usurper, Siol a’Dhiaramaid, Clan Campbell.

Griogair Dubhghlas, Am Fear Cathrach Albannach
Greg Douglas, Scottish Chair of the Celtic League American Branch.

For more information on Scotland, see the Scotland Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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