This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

March 2003


Alasdair MacColla’s ancestry was a confluence of Scottish and Irish roots which intersected like the sette of a tartan. His most recent ancestors had been Ulster Gaels of Scottish descent who had been driven into exile, back to the Scottish Hebrides by the byzantine machinations of intra-clan conflict. His grandfather was a MacDonnell of Antrim whose ancesters had settled in the Glens of Antrim and the districts surrounding the town of Ballycastle. The official name of his clan was the MacDonnells of Dunyveg and the Glens. These were Hebridean Scots who settled in Ulster after the marriage of Margarette Bissette, the heiress of these lands, to John of Islay, tannister and the leader of the MacDonalds of Islay, that is younger brother of Donald, second Lord of the Isles.

His clan both fought with and intermarried with O’Cahans and MacQuillans,eventually building lasting bonds of kinship and allegiance. They also brought in settlers from other Scottish clans that were relatives and allies. Their names MacAllister, MacAuley, MacKillop and of course MacDonnell continue to predominate in the area. They give evidence to a Hiberno-Scottish reintegration of the Gaeltachd that had history taken a different course could have redrawn the ethnic and political maps of the area. But cupidity and selfish greed and ambition precluded what might have been....

Part of the dynamics of the rise of the MacDonald-led Lordship of the Isles and its looking towards Ireland for further lands, influence and allies was the Anglo-Norman usurpation of the Scottish Crown and the subsequent rise of Lowland Scottish culture (which reflected the values of the new rulers). This new order was profoundly anti-Celtic and thus created barriers cultural, political and geographical to expansion of this emergent Gaelic polity. When the forces of the Lordship of the Isles were defeated at the Battle of Harlaw, a military limit was added.

Towards the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century, the now Anglo-Norman Stuart monarchy abolished the Lordship of the Isles due to the Lord of the Isles' conspiracies with the English Crown and the Douglases (the principle power in the south-west Lowlands and Borders of Scotland). At this point, the vast sea empire of the MacDonalds began to fray and come apart. The Siol a’Dhiarmaid, Clan Campbell, stepped into the vacuum to exploit this situation and gain the headship of the Gael as servants of Scottish - and after the union of the crowns - British Crown.

The various branches of the MacDonalds\MacDonnells now competed with each other to lead a new crusade to ressurect the Lordship of the Isles or take out of it what they could. The subclans such as Macleod or Maclean which had also lent allegiance to the lordship tried to grab their piece of the pie. The destruction of the MacDonald-led Lordship of the Isles, rather than extending and securing the Scottish monarchy’s authority in the Scottish Gaeltachd, threw it into anarchy and violent turmoil.

The most powerful remnant of the MacDonald confederation was Clan Iain Mor, also known as The MacDonalds/MacDonnells of Dunyveg and the Glens and as the MacDonalds/MacDonnells of Islay and Antrim. They were established by Iain or John of Islay, younger brother of the Lord of the Isle and leader of the Islay MacDonalds. Through his marriage to Margarette Bissette he extended MacDonald influence to Ireland. Indeed, Finlaggan on the Isle of Islay (An t-Eilean Ile in Gaelic) was the capital of the Lordship of the Isles and Dunyveg the ancient seat of the clan.

Against this background, a younger brother of James MacDonald of Dunyveg and the Glens, Somhairle Buidhe (blonde Sorley) known in English as Sorley Boy, seized the clan lands in Antrim and established the clan MacDonnells of Antrim also known as the MacDonnells of Glenluce. However, Sorley Boy had an older brother Colla nan Capul (Coll of the horses). This must have caused great insecurity for Sorley Boy, for tradition has it that he poisoned Colla nan Capul’s son Gillespie in fear that he would prove a potent rival. Gillespie’s widow, out of fear retreated to Glasineerin Island on Lough Lynch, where she gave birth to Gillespie’s child. This child, Coll MacGillespie, later known as Coll Ciotach, was the father of Alasdair MacColla. For his own protection, the child was brought to the Scottish Island of Colonsay, just north of Islay, to be reared by his Uncle Ranald. Under the tutelage of his uncle he was given the typical Highland training as a warrior.

Meanwhile, upon Sorley’s death, leadership of the MacDonnells of Antrim fell upon his son, another Ranald. In order to strengthen his position, Ranald became an English subject and married prestigious English Catholic, Catherine Manners. He also cooperated in the planting of English and Lowland Scots Protestant settlers in his lands, a move deeply resented by the Catholic and Gaelic-speaking native and Hiberno-Scottish Irish. In coming installments we shall see how looming civil conflict would precipitate the return of a prodigal son, Alasdair MacColla, in an attempt to liberate his people - and extract bloody revenge.

Griogair Dubhghlas, Am Fear Cathrach Albannach
Greg Douglas, 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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