This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

April 2003



The world that Alasdair MacColla was born into was one of decline and fragmentation for his ancient patrimony. The Scottish monarchy and Clan Campbell teamed up, each for their own reasons, to undermine the once mighty Lordship of the Isles. Clan Iain Mor, once the bearers of the this mighty legacy, were fragmented by the ambitions of the Earl of Antrim and were forced from Kintyre and Islay by the duplicity of the Stuart Monarchy and the Earl of Argyll. Social disorder and cupidity replaced what had once been a powerful pan-Gaelic polity. Yet the hounds of hell continued to hunt down and persecute the Siol a’Shormhaile.

Alasdair MacColla’s father, Coll Ciotach, was one of a long line of powerful Gaels in Clan Donald. A Hiberno-Scot MacDonnell on his father’s side and an O’Cahan on his mother's side, he was forced into exile to the Isle of Colonsay as an infant, by the political machinations of the MacDonnells of Dunluce. Like most Gaels of the time, his second name was not a surname, but a description of lineage or some outstanding feature of appearance or character. The Gaelic word ciotach (pronounced keetoch) in this application denoted ambidextrousness. A feature Alasdair shared with his father (particularly relating to swordsmanship). MacColla simply means son of Coll.

It is said that the winners write the history. Coll Ciotach, like his son, is either ignored or misrepresented by most of the official histories of Scotland. He was a man of classic valor who came up in an age in which Byzantine duplicity was rewarded over traditional notions of honor. Though not the chief of his Clan, by strength of character he played a central role in promoting its interests, in a time of chaos and a vacuum of authority.

One of his greatest roles was as a leader of the Counter-Reformation in Gaelic Scotland. In Vatican texts he was known as Coll Donaldus. At this time there were almost no Catholic clergy in the Scottish Gaeltachd. The intemperate violence of extreme Calvinist iconoclasm had precluded the maintenance of abiding church structures. A spiritual vacuum in the Gaeltachd was the result. Many of the features of the new Protestant radicalism were bewildering to the Gaels of the Highlands and Hebrides: the proscription of feast days; the ban on music, dancing and other merry making; the devaluation of the Virgin Mary and banning the bowing of the head to Christ as well as an over-emphasis on Old Testament values.

The Church was keenly aware of the need for Gaelic-speaking evangelists in the Scottish Gaeltachd. Under the protection of the Earl of Antrim, the College of Louvain provided Irish Franciscans to train missionaries at the Friary at Bunamargy in the heart of the Glens of Antrim. Coll Ciotach was a vital link between Bunamargy and many of the strongly Catholic branches of Clan Donald, such as Clan Ranald, Keppoch, Glengarry, his own Clan Iain Mor and of course Clan Iain Abrach. Indeed, many of the inhabitants of predominantly Catholic areas of the Highlands and Islands such as Moidart, Morar, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra owe a debt of gratitude to “Coll Ciotach MacGillesbuig MacDonald.”

The ties to Ulster thus were an abiding feature of what remained of Clan Iain Mor in the time of Alasdair MacColla and would become increasingly important as Clan Campbell and the Stuart Monarchy whittled away at what remained of their power. The Stuart Monarchy promoted a conflict between Clan Donald and Clan MacLean when the King granted a concession of the Rhinns of Islay under lease to the MacLeans. As a result of ongoing conflict, the MacDonald clan chief Angus was imprisoned under a surety of 20,000 pounds, a truly astronomical sum by contemporary standards. Campbell of Cawdor lent this sum to Angus, only to use this debt to take Islay away from Clan Ian Mor.

Additionally, the Campbells and the Crown promoted a conflict between Angus and his son James, therefore complicating the inheritance of the island of Islay. In 1615, Coll Ciotach joined a final attempt to regain Islay, in concert with James and the chiefs of Keppoch and Clan Ranald, by right of swordpoint. Unable to regain Islay by force of arms, Coll Ciotach retired to Colonsay. Islay, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles, the duthus of all Clan Donald, was now in the hands of their ancient enemies.

In mid-1639 came the coup de grace. Lured either to Inveraray or Dunstaffnage castle to negotiate rent, the Earl of Argyll took Coll Ciotach hostage with his two sons Angus and Gillespie (Gaelic: Gillesbuig) and imprisoned them at Dunstaffnage. Colonsay was subsequently attacked and laid waste. Argyll may well have thought he had belled the cat. However Coll’s other two sons, Alasdair and Ranald, were with their Kinsmen in the Glens of Antrim. The cubs were still in the bush and in the next installment we shall see that the Earl of Antrim’s problems had just begun. For a new extraordinary Celtic warrior was about to rock King Campbell on his heels.

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 2004 Celtic Calendar, available soon from the Celtic League American Branch.

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