Clan Donald in the 16th Century, An Assessment by an Outsider by Dr I.F. Grant LLD MBE

Dr. Grant is the author of The Lordship of the Isles, Angus Og, Highland Folkways etc., etc.

Members of the Clan Donald, in their interest and pride in the surviving of the story of their remote past and in the emotional appeal of the heroism, the tragedy, the sense of contact with the individual characters. Of the protagonists in the later period, do not, in the writer’s humble opinion, sufficiently appreciate the significance of events in the 16th century upon the evolution of their Clan. Allowing for an extra decade or two on either side, the 16th Century is one of the most formative periods in Highland history. But it was not a propitious one for Clan Donald.

The Lordship of the Isles, a hauntingly beautiful conception as glimpsed from the pages of a faithful clan historian, had come to an end. Sufficient data probably do not exist to prove how far internal weaknesses of structure and inefficiency and how far externally the great power of the Lowlands and the hostility of a considerable proportion of Highlanders were most responsible. Repeated efforts to restore the Lordship or to regain the possession of the Earldom of Ross ended in failure The Clan had split into about nine branches, not always in full accord, and of these the powerful branch of Lochalsh had lost its patrimony, and the conditions that were to eliminate the Macdonalds of Islay and the MacIains of Ardnamurchan were already in operation. The fortunes of Clan Donald’s most formidable rival, Clan Campbell, and those of the rather less inimical MacKenzies, were in the ascendant.

Highland clans follow a fairly uniform pattern in that they originate from a founder, whose origin might be extremely diverse and who assumed the leadership of an existing population. By the 16th century individual clan histories were changing from a record of the immediate family of this founder to that of the clan as a whole. A unique conception of democratic paternalism had been evolved. Of these founders of clans the two sons and the grandsons of Somerled are, of course, the most ancient, but even in the clans that were to bear their names cohesion had early extended beyond direct descent. Only a fraction of the followers led by Donald to Red Harlaw could have qualified by direct descent to be the sons of Conn whom MacMhuirrich adjured to show hardihood in time of battle. In many other clans the rate of increase of followers claiming to be the clansmen of the founder was even more striking. In the chaotic state of the Highlands the need to find some form of organisation for self-defence was desperate. By about the middle of the 16th century the activity of Chiefs and Captains of Clans was officially recognised. There cannot be many Highlanders who do not treasure a clan tale or two, but of them all by far the most outstanding is that of the successful support of John Moidartach by the men of Clan Ranald.

At the same time a great deal of adjustment and consolidation went on in the lands claimed by the chiefs and occupied by their clansmen. In fact in many parts of the Highlands the general pattern showed little change from the end of the 16th century until the second half of the eighteenth. But in the case of Clan Donald the territorial changes are noteworthy. During the preceding centuries when Norway and Scotland had competed for the suzerainty and Somerled’s descendants made claim to partly independent status, followed by the great reversions of fortune brought about by the Wars of Independence, lands had been gained, lost and regained. Added pressures of the 16th century followed and hardly any of the land most closely associated with Somerled remained in the possession of Clan Cholla. Among the exceptions were the territories of Clan Ruairi incorporated by marriage into the patrimony of Clan Donald and most notably containing the lands held by Clan Ranald. More important was the consolidation of the lands that became the patrimony of Clan Uistein. During a long period, Skye, as part of the Earldom of Ross, had been an inconvenient break in the long chain of the Lord of the Isles’ island possessions and superiorities. Alexander, Lord of the Isles, regained the superiority of it when he succeeded to the Earldom of Ross, and his younger brother, Hugh, obtained a grant of land there. It was by a hard struggle that during the 16th century Hugh’s successors obtained undisputed title and possession of Sleat and Trotternish. The lands held by Lord Macdonald (recognised in 1947 as bearing the undifferenced arms of Clan Donald have now been saved by the devoted efforts of the clansmen of Clan Donald as a heritage for the Clan. This acquisition is an outstanding achievement.

Allusion has been made to the traditional poetic incitement to battle of the Gael. With the consolidation of the clans the Highland bagpipe begins to be recorded. More mellifluent bagpipes had long been current in Europe and had their patrons. The Lord of the Isles is said to have had his pipers. The war-pipes with their loud emotionally vibrant notes had called forth their own form of music – the highly complex piobaireachd. To another clan belongs the honour of encouraging the MacCrimmons; but the Macdonalds of Sleat were quick to follow with their own family of hereditary pipers, the MacArthurs, with their own school of piping.

In literature the services of Clan Donald within this period of adversity are outstanding. The Lordship of the Isles had been a focus for the patronage of the poets of Gaeldom with their traditional forms of verse – highly stylised and complex – somewhat limited in its themes. In the unbeautiful record of successful Campbell aggrandisement it is an added shame that, unlike their forebears, members of the House of Argyll took a minimal part in fostering the poetry of the Gael. It was Clan Ranald, much of the time fighting for bare existence, who continued to support the family of MacMhuirrich and thus transmitted their precious heritage. So innate was the spirit of poetry to the Gael that within this period of transition and upheaval new forms of verse arose – freer, more singable, more generally acceptable and suitable for a wider range of themes. The movement seems to have been spontaneous and widespread but one of the two known poets who first used the new forms of verse was Iain Lom MacDonald of Keppoch. The other, Mary MacLeod, was traditional in her outlook. The sometimes ferocious verse of Iain Lom expressed his immediate reaction to the events of his time. He was in the van of the great era of Gaelic poets in which a member of Clan Donald bears one of the greatest, if not the greatest, name. Achievement in face of adversity is surely a finer thing than facile success in time of prosperity. The writer of this individual appraisal of Clan Donald in the 16th century ventures to end with her own favourite quotation “Celui qui voit son rêve mort doit mourir tout de suite ou se dresser plus fort.