This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

June 2003



Alasdair MacColla’s purpose in Ulster was not to precipitate nor participate in conflict in the province, but once settled there historical forces impelled him as a MacDonald/MacDonnell, a Catholic and a Gael to assume a role congruent with his identity and ancestry. Alasdair MacColla dodged imprisonment by Campbell the former Earl of, and now Marquis of Argyll. His obsession, obligation and principal duty was to free his father and two brothers from the clutches of the MacCailean Mor.

In 1640 he led a raid on the Isle of Islay with 80 men. It is lost to history whether it was to seize his own hostages to bargain with Argyll or as a fishing expedition to gauge his support among those loyal to the MacDonalds. However, his initiative and daring established his reputation as a military leader. Alasdair now assumed the role as leader of Clan Iain Mor, a role his father had previously held.

As a Clan in disarray, leadership depended on those able to lead rather than those entitled to lead. This would create on odd alliance with Alasdair’s cousin the Earl of Antrim, an individual who felt entitled to assume said leadership. Though relatives, their goals were very different. Alasdair’s motivations lay within the polity and culture of Gaelic Scotland. Randall MacDonnell, the Earl of Antrim’s ambitions were personal and lay within the sphere of British politics. Though a Gael, his primary ambitions were political and not cultural. He was constantly performing a balancing act between the British Crown, the Catholic religion, his native Irish tenants and relations, his Scottish MacDonald kin and the Protestant settlers whose safety was entrusted to him. Through this obstacle course of alliances and obligations he hoped to challenge Clan Campbell for the former lands of Clan Iain Mor, the MacDonalds of Dunyveg and the Glens. Already in possession of the Glens, he hoped Alasdair would be a useful tool to further his ambitions. Likewise, Alasdair needed his cousin to provide the manpower and financing to facilitate his own ambitions.

In the late 1630s an arms race had been precipitated between Antrim and Argyll as Argyll became aware of Antrim’s plans and ambitions to use Ireland as a base to challenge Campbell hegemony. Furthermore, the old Earl of Argyll died in 1638 and his heir Lord Lorne assumed the Earldom. A product of the old Earl’s first marriage, he was raised in the Lowlands by a branch of the Douglases. Known as Gillesbuig grumach, Archibald the Grim, he was a dour Calvinist who would inject religion into the Campbell vs. MacDonald conflict. He would manipulate the Covenant to his own ends. The end of the First Bishops War would see the King elevating him to the title of Marquis of Argyll in an attempt to placate the Campbells and the Covenanters in the wake of Charles I’s defeat. Against this background of conflict, Alasdair maneuvered to seek his own measure of justice.

The crucible of history for Alasdair came with the Irish uprising of 1641. Initially aimed at seizing Dublin, this had been thwarted by early detection by the Dublin government. In turn, this evolved into a war to liberate the Ulster plantation, led by the O’Neils. Starting Oct. 22 1641, almost the entire Ulster plantation was swept away. But under the leadership of the Earl of Antrim, northern Co. Antrim remained under a fragile peace.

The Earl of Antrim (who was in England at this time), in order keep the peace, ordered the formation of a home defense regiment. This consisted of seven companies, five made up largely of Protestant Lowland Scots settlers with some English and a few Irish Protestants and two companies of native Irish and Highland Scot Catholics. As well as the religious divide within this force there was a linguistic divide. Most of the Catholic companies were made up of Gaelic speakers, whereas, amongst the Protestant companies, English or Scots dialect predominated. We see here the evolution of the emerging British identity between the English and Lowland Scots settlers and the Gaelic identity of the Irish and Highland Scots.

The overall Command of the regiment was given to Stewart of Ballintoy, a Protestant but a trusted relative to both Antrim and Alasdair. The two Catholic companies were put under the command of Alasdair MacColla and his cousin Turloch Og O’Cahan. We see here a firm alliance between the O’Cahans and the MacDonnells. The five Protestant companies were commanded by Glover, Peebles, Robert Stewart, Kennedy and Fergus MacDougall. The names here are also interesting in relation to the emerging ethnic identity of Co. Antrim. They are all Scottish names. Glover and Peebles are clearly Lowland. Stewart can be either Lowland or Highland. While most people identify Kennedy as an Irish name, it is an equally common Scottish name and can also be either Lowland or Highland. MacDougall is an obvious Highland name. But here we see that in the Scottish experience, Gaelic does not necessarily equal Catholic. Over time, however, Protestant Gaels in this vicinity would be forced to conform to an English-Broad Scots dialect conjunction. And likewise there would be a blending of Irish and Scottish Gaelic dialects amongst Catholics in this region.

In the emerging conflict in Co. Antrim, we see a mirroring of the cultural polarization that had already occurred in Scotland: conflict between a Celtic/Gaelic-aligned culture and one that was partly Celtic and partly Anglo-Norman. Much like the conflict between Meztiso and Indio in South America.

For now these elements remained in an uneasy alliance under the Earl of Antrim with a goal of maintaining public order and peace. But as we shall see in the next installment, no matter how much some of the local players may have worked to compromise for peace, wider historical forces would sweep these transactions away. And Alasdair MacColla would be the agent to act decisively and strike the definitive blow.

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, soon available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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