This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

February 2003


2 February 1645:   Battle of Inverlochy, Scotland. Montrose-MacColla victory.

On the evening of February 1, 1645 a large body of armed men were camped at the strategic site of Inverlochy, situated at the southwest extremity of the Great Glen, which bisects the Highlands of Scotland. Here the swift River Lochy flows from Loch Lochy into the elbow where the two great sea lochs, Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil meet their confluence. Here 3,000 men under the MacCailein Mor, Earl of Argyle and the Chief of Clan Campbell, were encamped in the belief that they had closed a trap on a rebel army half their size in the Great Glen. At Inverness at the northwest aperture to this great fault in the earth, another Covenanter army sealed the only other assumed escape route.

Yet unbeknownst to this body of pro-Covenant fighters, their quarry was not trapped in the Great Glen, but far up on the Braes of Ben Nevis they waited, watching their campfires glow. In the morning a combined army of Scottish and Irish Gaels would sweep down the slopes and for one instance in history, offer the promise of a pan-Gaelic victory over the forces which had so long been eroding the hegemony of the Gaeltachd.

The month of February is an important month in the history of Gaeldom. The story begins on January 5-6, 1158 when Somerled, or more correctly, Somhairle in Gaelic (or Sorley in transliterated English) drove the Norse from the southern Hebrides in the Battle of the Epiphany. In this naval battle, the lighter, more nimble Gaelic birlinn, a ship specifically designed for Somerled's fleet, proved its superiority over the larger and more ponderous Viking long boat. Fought off the northwest coast of the Isle of Islay, the jewel of the Hebrides, this battle removed the Norse hegemony from this area, allowing the Gaels of Ireland and the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland unimpeded intercourse.

For Somerled was the progenitor of the great Gaelic clan MacDonald. The Siol a' Shomhairle, his descendants, would build a vast sea empire which would unite the clans of the West Highlands and Hebrides with their Gaelic brethern in Ulster. This incorporation united the ancient lands of Dal Riada, the Irish sub-kingdom from which came Scottish Dal Riada, the proto-state which gave birth to Scotland. Nearly 400 years later, in the month of February, Somhairle's descendant, Alasdair MacColla, in one last effort to turn the tide against a foreign sovereign and the quisling Clan Campbell, united Scottish and Irish Gaels in a common cause which culminated in the historic victory of the second Battle of Inverlochy.

The glories and high drama of this campaign have in the past been largely attributed to Jaime Graham, the Marquis of Montrose. A Protestant and a signer of the National Covenant (a movement to secure religious and cultural autonomy within Scotland, particularly the Scottish Lowlands) Montrose became disenchanted with the hypocrisy of the lords who manipulated this movement for their own personal ambitions. Most particularly he was appalled at the unbridled ambition of the MacCailein Mor and his clan followers who referred to him as "King Campbell." Though a fine commander, Montrose's role was primarily political. He held the royal charter that lent legal legitimacy to this military campaign. But the raising and training of this powerful pan-Gaelic army belonged to another, Alasdair MacColla.

In a time of total warfare, when the distinction between combatant and noncombatant was often blurred and scorched earth policies were common, Alasdair MacColla was a terrible spectre. Well over six feet tall, he brandished a two-handed claymore which had a rail running down one side of it. On this rail rode an iron ball that slid to the tip of the blade when this great sword was swung. Thus at the vanguard of his inner circle of warriors, both Irish and Scottish, he could mow down the enemy two and three at a time. The terror he struck into the lands of the Campbells earned him the title of Fear Thollaidh nan Tighean, the destroyer of houses.

Yet it was not only the Campbells and their allies that he struck terror into, but those who have written the histories of the British Civil Wars and the official histories of Scotland. A Scottish Catholic, he united the Irish and Scottish Gaels in a common cause and formed an alliance with a powerful Lowland Protestant. He campaigned in Ireland with those who sought Irish self-determination. After more than thirty years of low-intensity warfare in Britain and Ireland, it can easily be seen why the historical example set by Alasdair MacColla could arouse dread. One of the most neglected figures of his historical era, in the last twenty or so years Alasdair MacColla has begun to emerge from the mists of history. In the coming months we shall explore the myths and realities of this great Celtic warrior and the historians who have helped resurrect him and his importance in the history of the Gael.

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

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 2003 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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