This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

September 2003



While Alasdair MacColla recuperated in hiding, under the care of Father O’Crilly, he watched helplessly as the Irish rebellion fell apart in Ulster. All his dreams of liberating his father from captivity were dashed. Not only had the Earl of Antrim failed to reclaim the lands of Clan Iain Mor from the Campbells, the Campbells now occupied the lands of Antrim and Antrim himself was a prisoner. The future looked bleak and Alasdair despaired.

In August of 1642 Owen Roe O’Neil, a veteran mercenary with years of service with the Spanish armies, landed in Ulster to take command of the Irish forces. This raised morale and precluded complete collapse of the rebel forces. But any positive outcome, if there was to be a positive outcome, would be long in coming. In the meantime the Scottish army in Ulster had come to full force of 10,000 men and was now under the command of the earl of Leven, Alexander Leslie.

Alasdair had not been on the best of terms with Phelim O’Neil and Alasdair’s cousin Randall MacDonnell, The Earl of Antrim, was not on hand to advance the MacDonald/MacDonnell cause. In this climate Leven reached out to Alasdair. He promised to Alasdair that if he switched sides, bringing in his men and his brother Ranald to the Scottish army, he would have his father, brother and other kinsmen released. Additionally, the Colonsay lands would be returned. While Islay and Kintyre would not be gained, Alasdair’s family would return to square one. Under the circumstances, this seemed the best prospect on hand.

There was a hitch however; Alasdair and Ranald were to lead their men on a raid against the Irish while their forces were crossing the River Bann to defect to the British. They were to shed the blood of the Irish and lift their livestock and goods as a sign of allegiance. Alasdair arrived at Coleraine with cattle, sheep and goods, but there is no evidence of his having shed Irish blood. It appears he drew the line at this.

This arrangement did not last long, however. The Campbells did not live up to their end of the bargain. They would not release his father, Coll Ciotach, or his brothers and refused to return confiscated land. Furthermore Alasdair balked at shedding the blood of his O’Cahan relatives. By the time Leven returned to Scotland on November 30, 1642, the agreement had collapsed and Alasdair along with Ranald and their men had defected back to the Irish.

One of the greatest difficulties of this arrangement was that Alasdair was to be put under the command of Sir Duncan Campbell, Lord Auchinbreck. This may have seemed ominous to Alasdair for it was under the promise of Campbell hospitality that Auchenbreck’s kinsman, Argyll, had seized Alasdair’s father. According to tradition, Alasdair had been invited by Auchibreck to a banquet at Dunluce. A messenger, mistaking Alasdair for Auchinbreck, delivered a note to Alasdair intended for Auchinbreck. The note instructed Auchinbreck, on Argyll’s order, to kill Alasdair while he was unarmed and feasting. Knowing this, Alasdair appeared at the feast with his men armed. Confronting Auchinbreck, Alasdair refused to surrender his sword (as was customary under the Gaelic law of hospitality). Auchinbreck asked him why he would not surrender his sword. Alasdair replied, because it is the strongest hand in Ireland. Auchinbreck then asked what the next strongest hand was. Demonstrating his family’s reputation for ambidextrousness, he transferred the sword to his left hand. He then revealed his knowledge of the plot against his life and fled with his men. Little is known of Alasdair’s reception when he and his men crossed the Bann to rejoin the Irish rebels. But the Irish did not employ him for a full year.

It would not be unrealistic to speculate that Alasdair now bore a stigma of shame. However, although he had betrayed his allies, he was still kith and kin to both MacDonnells and O’Cahans. The pressures of loyalty to his family of origin and their desperate plight, a plight of life and death, in relation to his loyalty to Clan and his extended kinship may or may not have been understandable to his Irish kin and allies. But that he was allowed to return to the Irish controlled area of Ulster without apparent penalty speaks for itself. Nonetheless, it would not be an understatement to say that his stature as a heroic Gael was severely compromised. But larger political forces were to soon so profoundly reorient the overall picture in Ireland and Britain, that Alasdair would have the opportunity to redeem himself.

By the time Alasdair had defected back to the Irish, England had drifted into civil war between King and Parliament. Additionally, Randall MacDonnell, the Earl of Antrim, had escaped captivity from Carrickfergus Castle and had returned to England. All bets were now off. Massive realignments would now take place. We don’t have the time or space to analyze English politics of the time here, but the King and the Scottish covenanters and their Scottish army in Ireland, were never easy bedfellows. Likewise, since the death of the 7th Earl of Argyll and the ascendancy of his son Gillesbuig Grumach as the 8th Earl of Argyll and later 1st Marquis of Argyll, the status of the Campbells as the primary agents of the Stuart monarchy in the Scottish Gaeltachd would now undergo realignment.

In the emerging era a new alignment would assert itself. One which would lead to the Jacobite myths that so inform the sentiments of Scottish Highlanders and their descendants all over the world. This era would reach its zenith on Drummossie Moor on April 16, 1746. Aladair MacColla, the son of a charismatic and legendary Highland leader, Coll Ciotach, would eclipse his father and emerge from the mists of history as one of the sources of the emerging Jacobite epoch.

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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