Somerled – A Quick History

An Historical Perspective

The picture above depicts Castle Stalker on the Appin Coast with the Morvern Mountains in the background

For almost 400 years the MacDonalds ruled the seas and built an empire big enough to challenge Scotland’s kings. And their story starts with an extraordinary man – Somerled, the greatest of all Celtic warrior kings. Born, it’s thought, in Morvern around 1113, this half Norse, half Celtic warrior defeated the Vikings and rose to such power that Somerled and his descendants were known as the Lords of the Isles.

When the young Somerled challenged the Vikings, the had been the dominant force on Scotland’s west coast for more than 400 years and controlled the local population from their strongholds and settlements. Somerled had fewer men and almost no equipment and was forced to use guerrilla tactics. But by capturing Viking ships and equipment, he was able to challenge them at their own game. As his campaign became ever more successful, Somerled began to build ships of his own, eventually establishing a fleet that could out-manoeuvre the Viking longboats.

Somerled is credited with inventing the rudder, as important an innovation to sailors as the wheel was on land. His galleys had a rudder in the middle instead of the Viking ‘steer board’ on the right, which later became known the starboard side of the boat. And his boats were smaller than the Vikings longships and therefore more manoeuvrable, though they weren’t especially easy to sail.

With his ships and his clan, Somerled drove the Vikings from their position of power in the west. By 1160 he had built an island empire that stretched the length of the west coast. In Gaelic, he was known as Righ nan Eillean “The King of the Isles”.

The story of the MacDonald Clan and the Lords of the Isles, their origins and history, the story of Somerled’s death at the Battle of Renfrew, how the MacDonald Clan helped King Robert the Bruce win Scottish independence at the Battle of Bannockburn, the Battles of Harlaw and Bloody Bay and the story of the MacDonalds of Glencoe is told in the Galloglas DVD, “MacDonald.”

Here’s a link if you’re interested in purchasing the Galloglas DVD, MacDonald.

There are more than a half a million MacDonalds worldwide, and a recent scientifically researched survey suggests that one in four can trace their origins back to Somerled – Righ nan Eillean. Only one man has more living descendants. And that man is Genghis Khan.


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  2. P says:

    Nice article!

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