Genealogical Problems Relating to the Chiefs of Clan Donald in the Early 14th Century by the Editor

It has generally been assumed by historians that Angus Og succeeded his eldest brother, Alexander of Isla, as Chief of Clan Donald after the supposed forfeiture of the latter by King Robert I (Bruce), for his opposition, around 1308 based on the account given in the Knock MS. History of the MacDonalds, attributed to Hugh MacDonald, which states that Alexander of Isla fought against Edward Bruce in Galloway from whence he escaped and was besieged by King Robert at Castle Sween, in North Knapdale, which he was compelled to surrender and died soon after, a prisoner in Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire.

This account, however, is not supported by any other authority, or evidence and must be regarded with scepticism. Knapdale did not come into the possession of the House of Isla until the time of Angus Og’s son John, first Lord of the Isles.

The Annals of Ulster record that in the year 1299

“Alexander Mac Domnaill, the person who was the best for hospitality and excellence that was in Ireland and in Scotland was killed, together with a countless number of his own people that were slaughtered around him, by Alexander Mac Dubghaill.”

That this entry refers to Alexander of Isla and not to his uncle Alexander, the younger brother of Angus Mor, as stated by recent historians of the Clan, seems clear on account of the importance given in it to the deceased Alexander and his reputation both in Ireland and in Scotland, and by the fact that Alexander of Isla and Alexander MacDougall of Argyll had been at war with each other since at least 1297. Further, Alexander of Isla and his father, Angus Mor, are on record as having had much dealing with Ireland.

Assuming that it was Alexander of Isla who was killed in 1299 the question arises as to who succeeded him as Chief of Clan Donald. At the time of his death, Alexander of Isla, as Admiral of the Western Isles, was well in favour with Edward I of England, while his arch enemy Alexander MacDougall, on account of his family relationship with the Comyns who were in turn related to John Balliol, whom Edward had, in 1926, unceremoniously deposed, certainly was not. Robert Bruce did not begin his bid for the Scottish throne until 1306 after which the Comyns and their MacDougall kinsmen went over to Edward.

According to the poet John Barbour in The Bruce, Angus Og sheltered Bruce in 1306 in the castle of Dunaverty and it has been supposed, in the Isle of Rathlin, off the Antrim coast but curiously, the name of Angus Og does not appear among those who attended the Parliament held by Robert Bruce at St. Andrews in 1309. The representative of Clan Donald who presented himself on that occasion was Donald of Isla (Douenaldus de Yle) whom Professor Evan Barron, in The Scottish War of Independence, assumed was Angus Og. There are, however, on record, several references to a Donald of Isla prior and subsequent to 1309. Among the charters found in the tower of London, was one dated 29th December 1291, in which Donald of the Isles (Donaldum de Insulis) and Alexander his son were given custody of the isles, presumably the Hebrides, for conducting themselves faithfully towards Edward I, King of England (Ayloffe’s Calendars of Ancient Charters).

One of the witnesses to an undated charter by King Robert I was Donald of Isla (Douenaldus de Yle, in Melrose Liber II, no. 376) and in an entry in Rotuli Scotiae, dated 25th March 1313/14 and repeated under 12th March 1314/15, John (Bacach MacDougall) of Argyll was commissioned to take into Edward (II)’s peace Donald of the Isles (Dovenaldus de Insula) and Godfrey (Gotherus) his brother. An undated version in Norman French gives the names as Douenald de Yle and Gotheri his brother. It is clear, therefore, that a Donald of Isla did exist about this time and Professor Geoffrey Barrow in his book Robert Bruce has asserted that Angus Mor must have had a second son named Donald who was older than Angus Og, who has been overlooked by the clan seanachies and who must have succeeded Alexander of Isla as Chief of Clan Donald for a time.

While this reasoning seems to make sense, it is difficult to believe that such a prominent member of the House of Isla would be so completely ignored in all the surviving genealogical records of the Clan. The only Donald who appears in these genealogical records, at that period, is the son of Angus Mor’s brother Alexander, the reputed progenitor of the MacAlisters of Kintyre and it would seem natural for him to have named his eldest son Alexander. It seems to the present writer probable that the same Donald is the subject of all the foregoing entries and that his son Alexander was the recipient of the islands of Mull and Tiree and other lands not stipulated in one the lost charters of King Robert I’s reign and also that he was the Alexander MacDonald, “king, or lord of Argyll,” mentioned in the Irish Annals as having been killed with Edward Bruce (King of Ireland and brother of King Robert I of Scots) at the Battle of Dundalk, in Ireland, on 14th October, 1318.

Donald of Isla, whoever he was, seems likely to have succeeded Alexander of Isla as Chief of Clan Donald on the death of the latter in 1299, either by tanistry or because he was appointed by Edward I to succeed Alexander as the English Icing’s representative in the West Highlands. When Robert Bruce made his bid for the Scottish throne in 1306 and the Comyns and MacDougalls transferred their allegiance to the English cause, it would have been a natural political move for the MacDonalds to switch their support from Edward to Bruce in order to protect themselves from their enemies. Donald as well as Angus Og may therefore have sheltered Bruce in 1306 but by the time Barbour wrote The Bruce, Donald, having again gone over to the English and been forfeited, had been forgotten.

The next problem to be dealt with is that of three undated letters written, according to Joseph Bain, by the same scribe, on behalf of Hugh Bisset, Angus (Og) of Isla and John MacSween to “King Edward” clearly expressing their support for that monarch, first published in 1870 by Joseph Stevenson, who allotted them the date “1301 Oct?” which until recently, have been accepted without question as evidence that these three magnates were supporters of Edward I in 1301 and that sometime after that time but certainly by 1306, on the evidence of John Barbour, Angus Og changed sides and offered Bruce protection when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb. A recent writer (Andrew MacEwen) however, has endeavoured to show, most convincingly, that these letters were, in fact, written in 1310, to Edward II, not Edward I, who died at Burgh on Sand in 1306. If this assertion is correct, it could perhaps account for the fact that Angus Og did not attend Robert Bruce’s Parliament in 1309 and would also throw into question the accuracy of Barbour’s story regarding the position of Angus Og in 1306. One assumes that Barbour is correct in stating that Angus Og did lead the West Highland contingent at the Battle of Bannockburn on 24th June, 1314 when Bruce is supposed to have addressed him with the words “My hope is constant in thee” which certainly implies that the Chief of Clan Donald had already rendered valuable service to his sovereign and the fact that Angus Og benefitted to such a degree by the enormous grants of land bestowed upon him by the grateful monarch seem to prove this beyond doubt.

The present writer has dealt at length with the foregoing problems in his forthcoming history of the MacDonalds of Clanranald.


The annals of Ulster, vol. II, ed. and trans, by B. McCarthy (1893).
The Bruce, Book III, by John Barbour, ed. by W.M. Mackenzie (1909).
Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland, vol. IV, ed. by the Rev. Joseph Bain (1884).
Calendars of Ancient Charters, by Sir Joseph Ayloffe (1774).
The Clan Donald, vol. I, by the Revs. A. & A. MacDonald (1896).
Documents Illustrative of the History of Scotland, vol II, ed. by the Rev. Joseph Stevenson (1870)
The English Fleet in 1301, by Andrew B.W. MacEwen, in The Society of West Highland and Island Historical Research – Notes and Queries, no. XXIV (Aug., 1984).
The Knock MS. – History of the MacDonalds attributed to Hugh MacDonald, Gaelic MS CVII – Ref. ADV 73.1.12, in National Library of Scotland.
Melrose Liber, II, ed. by Cosmo Innes (1837).
Robert Bruce, by Professor G.W.S. Barrow (3rd ed. 1988).
Rotuli Scotiae, vol. I, ed. by D. MacPherson (1814).
The Scottish War of Independence, by Professor E.M. Barron, 2nd ed. (1934).