Scotland's History Articles The Lords of the Isles

The Lords of the Isles

Eilean Donan castle

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.

So removed from Scottish control were these islands that the Norse/Gaelic rulers referred to themselves as 'King of the Isles' (in Gaelic, 'Ri Innse Gall'). From the origins of these semi-autonomous island kingdoms the 'Lords of the Isles' would emerge.

One of the major figures in the history of the Western Isles is Somerled. Born around 1117 and with a mixed Norse and Gaelic pedigree, Somerled was challenge the might of both Norway and Scotland in attempting to make the islands an entirely separate kingdom that answered to no-one but him.

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In 1143 Godfrey the Black succeeded his father as the Norse 'King of the Isles'. A ruthless and unpopular ruler, in 1156 Somerled organised a coup. After a fierce naval battle Godfrey was defeated and Somerled took control of the lands and the title – King of the Isles, King of Man.

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 was to lead 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.

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. Defeat in the battle saw Angus change 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 descendents 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'.

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.

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From this base policies were formed, legal matters settled and the proud history of Somerled and his descendents 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 saw the Stewarts come to power. 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.

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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.

John was held to account and humiliatingly stripped of land and influence. Far more embarrassing was he 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.

For the MacDonald clan – descended from kings – this was a slight that was impossible to bear. John's own son, Angus Og, led a rebellion against his father for control of the clan. Matters came to a head in bitter civil war amongst the clan culminating in the 1480s at the Battle of Bloody Bay off the coast of Mull.

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John was defeated and Angus seized control of a divided clan. The power of the Lordship was over and a major force in Scottish political affairs had permanently waned.

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