by the Late Noman H. MacDonald, F. R. S.A., F.S.A.Scot.
(Historian to the High Council of Chiefs of Clan Donald)

“Ceannas Ghaidheal do Chlann. Cholla, ‘s còir fhogradh” – (The sovereignty of the Gael to Clan Colla, it is right to proclaim it); so wrote the bard, O’Henna in his poem on John of lsla, last Lord of the Isles.

Clan DonaId was indisputably the largest and most renowned of all the Highland clans of Scotland controlling, at one time, virtually the whole western seaboard from the Butt of Lewis in the north to the MuIl of Kintyre in the south, almost a third of the Kingdom, with possessions in Northern Ireland as weIl.

Map: Clan Donald & Lordship of the Isles (Click to zoom)
Archival prints are available from McMillen Design

The Clan claims descent from Conn of the Hundred Battles, Ard-Righ or High-King of Ireland in the 1st century A.D., through Colla Uais, the first of the family to settle in what is now the Hebrides, and from whom the Clan took its earlier designation of “Clann Cholla” i. e. the Children of Coll, down to Somerled, Lord of Argyll, in the 12th century who, after defeating the Norsemen, was proclaimed King of the Isles, Righ Innsegall, or Rex Insularum. Somerled’s grandson, Donald of Isla(y) is the progenitor of CLAN DONALD, in Gaelic rendered Clann Dhomhnaill, i.e. the Children of Donald.

Donald had, among other children, two sons, Angus Mór and Alasdair or Alexander. Mór means in Gaelic, Big or Great. From Alasdair are descended the CLAN ALISTER or MACALISTERS OF LOUP in Kintyre. Angus Mór had three sons, Alasdair Òg, Angus Òg and John Sprangach. Òg means young and Sprangach means Bold.

Alasdair Òg chose to serve the English after the deposition of John Balliol, King of Scots, by Edward I of England and was killed in 1299 in a battle with his distant cousin, Alexander MacDougall of Argyll and Lorn, with whom he had been at feud. Angus Òg joined forces with Robert the Bruce, whom he is said to have sheltered in the Castle of Dunaverty in Kintyre and later played a vital part with his followers in Bruce’s signal victory over the mighty army of Edward II of England at Bannockburn, on Midsummers’s Day, 1314 – Scotland’s finest hour! For his loyal services to his King and Country, Angus received from the grateful monarch many of the vast territories in the Western Highlands and Isles formerly held by the Comyns and MacDougalls, who were forfeited for their opposition to The Bruce.  By the addition of these lands to those already in his possession, Angus became the most important and powerful magnate in Argyll and the Isles south of Ardnamurchan Point.

From John, or Iain Sprangach are descended the CLAN IAIN (MacDONALDS or MacIAINS) OF ARDNAMURCHAN.

Angus Òg had two sons, both named John or Iain, one legitimate, the other natural. From the natural son, known as lain Fraoch, i.e. John of the Heather, or Iain Abrach, from his having been fostered in Lochaber, are descended the CLAN IAIN ABRACH or MacDONALDS of GLENCOE, whose Chief was known by the patronymic MacIAIN.

Angus Òg’s elder, legitimate son, also named John, added greatly to the already vast possessions of the family, largely through his marriage to his distant cousin Euphemia (Amie) MacRuairi, whose only brother Ranald was murdered by the Earl of Ross at Elcho Nunnery in 1346: and left no heirs.

John of Isla, as the family were now designated, was the first of his line to assume the title of LORD OF THE ISLES which although not at that time recognised by the Scottish Crown, almost accurately reflected his position in the Gaelic-speaking Western Highland and Isles.  John held court, appointed his own heralds, ran the government of his domains through the Council of the lsles, built monasteries and generally acted in the manner of an independent prince, whose authority was absolute.

He patronised the Gaelic bards and thereby preserved the culture of the Gael. For his benevolence to the Church, John earned the soubriquet of “Good John”. It is probable that John ‘s first wife, Amie MacRuairi, whom he had married in 1337, died, perhaps in childbirth, sometime prior to his second marriage in 1350 to Margaret, daughter of Robert, the High Steward of Scotland, who succeeded his uncle, David II as King of Scots in 1371 by the title of Robert II and adopted the surname of Stewart, derived from his former “office”. One of the first acts of the new king was to grant to his son-in-law, John of Isla, a charter of the former MacRuairi lands, which comprised the Lordship of Garmoran in western Inverness-shire, the Isle of Eigg and the Outer Hebrides. The following year, 1372, John granted to Ranald, the eldest surviving son of his first marriage to Amie MacRuairi, a charter of most of the former MacRuairi lands to be held of the eldest son of John’s second royal marriage with the Princess Margaret Stewart.

Ranald, whose principal seat was Castle Tioram in Loch Moidart, became the progenitor of the MacDONALDS of CLANRANALD, descended from his eldest son, Allan and the MacDONELLS of GLENGARRY, descended from his second son, Donald.

By his second wife, John had several sons. The eldest son, Donald, succeeded him as Lord of the Isles and fought the Battle of Harlaw, in Aberdeenshire, against the Government forces, under the Earl of Mar, in 1411; the second son, Iain Mòr Tanaistear, i.e. Big John the Heir, founded the CLAN IAIN MHOIR or MacDONALDS of DUNYVAIG, with lands in Isla, Kintyre and Antrim, sometimes known as the CLAN DONALD SOUTH to distinguish them from the MacDonalds of Sleat who were also known as the CLAN DONALD NORTH; the third surviving son, Alexander was granted the Lordship of Lochaber and it is from his natural son, Alasdair Carrach (Mangy) that the MacDONALDS or MacDONELLS of KEPPOCH, also known as the CLAN RANALD of LOCHABER, from Ranald Mór, the 7th Chief of that branch, descend.

Donald of Harlaw was succeeded as Lord of the Isles and High Chief of Clan Donald by his eldest son, Alexander, who inherited, through his mother, the Earldom of Ross – the reason why the Battle of Harlaw was fought by his father. Alexander had three sons. The eldest, John, by his wife Elizabeth Seton, succeeded him as Lord of the Isles and Earl of’ Ross.

The second, Celestine, by a daughter of MacPhee of Glen Spean, became the progenitor of the MacDONALD of LOCHALSH, the larger part of whose lands passed, in the sixteenth century to Glengarry.

The third son, Uisdean, or Hugh, by a daughter of Gilpatrick, grandson of the Green Abbot of Applecross, became the progenitor of the CLAN UISDEAN or MacDONALDS of SLEAT.

The weakness of John, the fourth Lord of the Isles and his reliance on the advice of persons out with his own family on how to govern his vast territories, which led to his defeat by his son Angus Òg, in the naval engagement off MuIl, known as the Battle of Bloody Bay, his intrigues with the English Government and his failure to match the duplicity of the Campbells, resulted in his final forfeiture by the Crown in 1493.

The title of Lord of the Isles was annexed to the Crown as had been the Earldom of Ross in 1475, due to John, the last Lord’s intrigues with England, and bestowed on the Dukes of Rothesay, heirs to the Kings of Scots and has ever since been retained among their principal titles by the British Crown Princes.

With the fall of the MacDonald dynasty in the Western Highlands and Isles, Gaelic culture fell into rapid decline. The Scottish monarchs and their Lowland-dominated Governments had no sympathy for what they regarded as an alien and barbaric way of life. A political vacuum was created which the Government agents, the Campbell Earls of Argyll, largely due to their policy of self-aggrandisement and intrigue, were unable to fill.

Several vigorous attempts were made by various Clan Donald leaders to re-establish the old order and were supported by most of the old vassals of the Isles e.g. the MacLeans, MacLeods and MacPhees, who all despised the Campbells but they were eventually forced to yield to the stronger forces sent against them and when the 17th century dawned, the various branches of Clan Donald, e.g. Sleat, Clanranald, Glengarry, Keppoch and Glencoe, had become independent clans, each with its own Chief, none of whom could claim to be MAC DHOMHNAILL. This situation pertained through the troublesome times of the 17th century and the Jacobite risings of the 18th century till after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and the end of the Clan System.

Not until 1947, was Clan Donald again to have a High Chief, when the Rt. Hon. Alexander Godfrey Macdonald, 7th Lord Macdonald, was granted by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, the undifferenced ARMS of MACDONALD of MACDONALD. His elder son, the Rt. Hon. Godfrey James Macdonald of Macdonald, 8th Lord MacDonald, is the present High Chief of the Clan.

The principal branches of the Clan are represented at the present time by Sir Ian Godfrey Macdonald, 17th Baronet and 24th Chief of Sleat; Ranald Alexander Macdonald, Captain and 24th Chief of Clanranald; Aeneas Ranald Euan MacDonell, 23rd Chief of Glengarry; The Rt. Hon. Alexander Randal Mark McDonnell, 14th Earl of Antrim, and William St. John Somerville McAlester, 25th Chief of Loup.