Who Where the Lords of the Isles?

An Historical Perspective

The “Lordship of the Isles”harks back over five hundred years to, when the place we now call Scotland, was only slowly established its northern and western boundaries. At the start of this period much of the north and west of the mainland, and the northern and western isles and the Isle of Man, were all in the hands of the Norse.

Prior to the 1266 Treaty of Perth, the Western Isles of Scotland were controlled by various Norse and Gaelic rulers who owed their allegiance to the Kings of Norway, rather than the kings of Scotland. The result was a ragged, diffuse and constantly varying boundary between the areas under the effective influence of Scottish Monarchs on the one hand, and the areas under effective influence of the Norse on the other.

Somerled, a man of mixed Norse and Gaelic parentage in arrived on the scene 1117. In 1140, Somerled married Ragnhild, the daughter of Olaf the Red (Olaf I The Red Godredson), the Norse King of Man, whose territory included the Hebrides, and whose titles also included Ri Innse Gall, or “King of the Isles”.

Olaf was murdered by a nephew in 1143 and succeeded by his son, Ochraidh Godred II the Black Olafson, or Godfrey the Black. Godfrey was a heavy handed and deeply unpopular ruler, and in 1158 Somerled backed a successful uprising against him.

Somerled’s use of naval power based on the Highland galley, a Viking longboat evolved specifically for use in Hebridean waters, proved decisive and he was able to declare himself King of Man and King of the Isles.

Somerled’s next ambition was to expand his territories and influence on the west coast of the Scottish mainland. This desire for a foothold on the mainland was to be a characteristic of the future Lords of the Isles. This desire also led to a violent death for Somerled.

In 1164 Somerled had been campaigning in Argyll in a bid to expand his territory. He decided to push on further and attack Renfew. The Scots King, Malcolm IV, moved to resist the invasion, but while he was preparing for the battle to come, Somerled was betrayed and murdered by his own nephew.

Upon his death, Somerled’s kingdom was divided between three sons – each of which would form their own clans. The most notable of which to emerge from this period was clan Donald.

The Battle of Largs, in 1263, ended the Norse influence in Scottish affairs.

Angus Mor MacDonald, grandson of Somerled, was present at a key event that would be a turning point in the history of the islands. The Battle of Largs, in 1263, saw the effective end of Norse influence in Scottish affairs. Angus fought for King Haakon of Norway against Alexander III, King of Scots. After his defeat, Angus changed his allegiance. Angus kept his lands, but now they held their titles under the overlord of the King of Scots.

For people who saw themselves as direct descendants of the great Somerled – an independent king in his own right – this was always going to be an uneasy alliance. The Scottish king wanted to tighten his grip on the islands while the MacDonalds wanted to strengthen their land claims on the mainland.

For supporting Robert the Bruce in the Wars of Independence, the MacDonald’s were granted more territory on the mainland including Lochaber and Glencoe. Further territories such as Skye and Lewis were granted when John of Islay supported Edward Balliol (son of John Balliol) in his attempts to seize the throne of Scotland in the 1330s.

These further grants saw the appearance of an important new title used. John of Islay wrote to the King of England, Edward III to seek confirmation of his right to the newly granted territories. He signed his letter ‘Dominus Insularum’ – the ‘Lord of the Isles’.

Because of their support of Robert the Bruce in the Wars of Independence, the MacDonald’s were granted territory.

The headquarters for the Lordship was unusual but highly symbolic – an island within an island. A small island in Loch Finlaggan on the island of Islay was chosen as the administrative centre for the disparate islands and clans that owed allegiance to the mighty MacDonalds.

From this base, Loch Finlaggan, policies were formed, legal matters settled and the proud history of Somerled and his descendants praised and celebrated. The Lords of the Isles were a power unto themselves – a state within a state. All this was about to change, though.

A change of royal dynasty in 1371 gave the “Stewarts” the next powerhold. The ambitious Stewarts would find a worthy adversary in the Lords of the Isles. For the MacDonalds, the seeds of their downfall lay in their battle against the royal family for power, influence and independence.

The last high point in MacDonald power came in 1431 when, after contesting who controlled the lands of Ross, the MacDonald clan defeated a royal army at the battle of Inverlochy. This was only a temporary victory as John MacDonald, the fourth and final Lord of the Isles, was to overplay his hand in a dangerous plot with the powerful Douglas clan to aid the King of England in invading Scotland. Under the terms of the secret agreement, key territories of Scotland would be divided between the MacDonalds and the Douglases. The problem was the secret pact did not stay secret.

Unfortunately for the MacDonald sovereigns, the civil war in England, known as the War of the Roses, prevented the completion of the alliance between Edward IV and MacDonald II. Upon the discovery of his alliance with Edward IV in 1493, MacDonald II had his ancestral lands, estates, and titles taken from him. Far more embarrassing was the decision by King James III that the venerated title of Lord of the Isles was to be no longer a hereditary right – it was to be confirmed by the King alone.

Although the Lordship was taken away from the MacDonald family in the 15th century, waves of successive MacDonald leaders have contested this and fought for its revival ever since.

Since this time, the eldest male child of the reigning Scottish (and later, British) monarch has been styled “Lord of the Isles”, essentially merging the crowns of Dal Riada with the Pictish East of Scotland. The office itself has been extinct since the 15th century and the style since then has no other meaning, except to recall the Scottish seizure of the ancient Norse-Gaelic lordship and crown.

References: http://www.bbc.co.uk/; www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/

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