John of Moidart (Iain Muideartach) 7th Chief of Clan Ranald by Donald J. Macdonald of Castleton.

Without doubt the most colourful and successful chief of Clan Ranald, and there were several such, was John of Moidart whose accession in the late 1520s began in rebellion, a condition which persisted until the last few years of his long life.

Starting with the stigma of illegitimacy, continually in trouble with the Crown, and surrounded by powerful enemies eager to dislodge him from his patrimony; he maintained his position and even improved it by sheer ability and strength of character. These qualities, combined with the inaccessibility of his territory and the impregnability of Castle Tirrim (Tioram), enabled him to remain independent in spite of all the forces arrayed against him for half a century.

In his lifetime Scotland was in one of the most troubled periods of its long history during which three sovereigns, three regents and the Commonwealth ruled the land. A weaker man would have been deposed or murdered by one or other of these rulers – not so John.

MacVurich, Bard of Clan Ranald writes in the Black Book of Clan Ranald, page 172:

“John Moydartach was a fortunate man in war and in peace, in so much that he often spread terror over the territories, through fear of him, upon lowlanders and upon Gaels … This John enjoyed a long life, and there was a troubled time in his period, for the kingdom of Scotland was divided into factions amongst themselves and the writers find it easy to speak heavily of every person who was not of the same faction with themselves: and I hear they are so treating of John Moydartach, and particularly Buchanan: but ask Sir George how he likes to speak of the Princess to whom John Moydartach should be loyal; but whoever dispraises the head it is not usual for him to praise the members. But concerning John he spent the end of his life godly and mercifully. He erected a church at Kilmarie in Arasaig, and a church at Kildonan in Eig: and he left funds to erect a chapel at Howmore in Uist, where his body was buried in the year of the age of Christ 1574.”

This is a pretty fair assessment of John’s character even allowing that it was written by the family bard and historian. One could have forgiven him if he had been more fulsome in praise of John.

As we have said above, John succeeded to the chiefship of a clan already in a rebellion, which was one of several efforts to maintain the lands of the Lordship of the Isles against royal encroachment. Clan Ranald was, with others, embroiled with Alexander of Dunnyveg in this rising, and when in 1530 it proved fruitless, nine of the “rebels” offered to submit to the Crown. “These were, Hector Maclean of Dowart, John Maclean of Lochbuy, John Moydertach, Captain of Clan Ranald; Alexander MacIan of Ardnamurchan; Alexander Macleod of Harris (or Dunvegan); Maclean of Coll; John Macleod of Lewis; and Donald Gruamach of Dunskaich.” (Gregory’s History).

The cause of this revolt is to be traced to an Act passed by the Privy Council in 1528 which declared null and void all the new titles to lands within the Lordship given during the King’s minority. These chiefs were given till the 20th June to appear personally under assurance of safe conduct, guaranteed by Argyll offering four Campbell hostages as surety. In spite of this the chiefs were in no hurry to appear; and the King (James V) resolved to proceed in person to the West and made preparations to that end. After several more summons they gave in their submission and were pardoned.

John was particularly well treated in this respect and received a charter to most of his lands on the 11th February 1532. A facsimile of this document is in “Clan Donald” Vol. 2, p. 256. More charters followed about this time, but none of them made any difference to the de facto status of the chiefs. However this warfare by sheepskins ended abruptly with the revolt in favour of the old Lordship by Donald Gorm of Sleat, a revolt which itself ended suddenly at Eilean Donan with the death of the leader. This incident, however, confirmed the King’s opinion that something must be done and the royal fleet set sail for the Western Isles from Leith in May 1540.

This demonstration of royal power temporarily overawed the chiefs and; all unsuspecting, most of them, including John, joined the royal party, only to be thrown into prison on their arrival in Edinburgh. John never forgot this abuse of royal assurances, and he might have remained in prison much longer had not the King died in 1542 and Regent Arran released the prisoners.

In the meantime, while John was thus out of the way, the friends of the Government, Lovat and Huntly, seized the opportunity of installing as chief a nominee who would be more susceptible to the rule of the Crown. They chose Ranald Gallda, John’s uncle, whose mother was a daughter of Lovat. This was in direct breach of the law of succession as understood by the clansmen. Not only had the clan adopted John as their chief; but he was in the direct line from his grandfather Alexander, 7th chief: and, although illegitimate at birth, had been expressly legitimated by the Council under the Great Seal in 1531.

As soon as Arran released him, John came back to Tirrim and the brief reign of Ranald Gallda ended abruptly. Accusations of meanness and undignified behaviour have been levelled at Ranald, but whatever the contributory causes, the fact was that the clan did not accept him, and welcomed John back to his rightful position with loyal affection. Ranald fled to his mother’s people, the Frasefs of Lovat. Huntly and Lovat were furious, and began to gather their forces for a punitive expedition; but John did not wait to be attacked. Keppoch, Glencoe and the Camerons joined him in a very profitable raid on the Lovat and Grant lands in the East. This was so serious that Lovat and Grant appealed for aid to Huntly, as feudal superior of that area.

John and his friends did not await the attack of superior forces, but retired to the West with their booty. They had not long to wait. Bishop Lesley’s account of the operation is brief but very revealing. He wrote:

“The Erle merching forduart with his companie maid thame (the rebels) sone to dislodge and to flie in thair awin landis apoun the west seis quhair Lawland men cuid haif no acces unto thame, and so placed the lorde Lovat and the Laird of Grant in thair awin landis… Sua haiffing done for the most part that thing he come for, returnit.”

In a word the Rough Bounds and Castle Tioram were too distant and the terrain too difficult for Huntly’s army to penetrate, forcing him to retreat, having done “for the most part” what he had set out to do. In fact he had only been able to wreak some vengeance upon some of John’s friends, the Camerons and Keppoch Macdonalds, who reacted strenuously by a raid on the lands of Glenmoriston and Glenurquhart.

The retreat of Lovat and Huntly from their abortive attempt to bring John to justice was the direct cause of the famous Blar Leine (15th July 1544) for the energetic Chief of Clan Ranald turned at once with his allies and followed the enemy who seem to have been oblivious to their danger. When they arrived at the parting of the ways at High Bridge and Glen Spean, Huntly took the road home through Badenoch with most of his levies, leaving Lovat to traverse the Great Glen by the shortest route to Castle Downie.

As he approached Laggan between Loch Lochy and Loch Oich, John and his men appeared above them on the slopes of Ben Tee. It must have been difficult for Lovat to assess the strength of the opposing party. John had gained the advantage of the brae (cothrom a’ bhraigh) and many of his men in the hollows of the mountain must have been invisible from below. Lovat knew he would be outnumbered but, true to the martial reputation of his race and clan, he decided to fight rather than flee. It was a desperate situation.

A full description of the ensuing battle in July 1544 would take too long to recount within the scope of this article. Enough to say that both sides fought with the utmost ferocity, stripped to the waist, for the day was hot. It is said the battle got its name from this circumstance [Battle of the Shirts – R.K.W.M]; but the site of the encounter is now mostly under water at the head of Loch Lochy and was known as Leny long before the battle took place.

Lord Lovat, with the brave Master of Lovat, who had joined his father in spite of orders to stay at home in case of trouble, and Ranald Gallda together with some fourteen gentlemen of the Frasers all fell fighting bravely against heavy odds.

In addition to the family of Lovat, his son and gentry, some 230 clansmen fell. Tradition states that the wives of many of the fallen restored the position of their families by giving birth to male children in the months following the battle, a merciful dispensation of Providence! The losses on the side of Clan Ranald cannot have been much less for it is said that only a few on each side were left unwounded.

The Regent and Council were aghast at this fresh outburst of the recalcitrant John who thus added to the number of “monstrous pranks” played by him and his clan; but there was little they could do. Huntly had proved once more incapable of bringing John to book; and before much could be done a new insurrection disturbed the peace of the realm. Donald Dubh, direct heir of the Lords of the Isles, who had been languishing in prison on the isle of Inchconnel in Loch Awe under the malicious eye of Argyll, made his first escape in 1503 with the help of what today would be called a commando raid by the Clan Iain of Glencoe. This exploit has been described as a raid worthy of the Fianna of old. Thereafter Donald was once more caught and thrown into prison in Edinburgh Castle which, although a much stronger place well out of the reach of his clansmen, was unable to hold the unfortunate Donald Dubh. He once more escaped and “owed his liberty more to the grace of God than to the good will of the government”.

Donald went at once to the Isles and was joined by his clansfolk, John of Moidart amongst them. So he was once more in “rebellion”. Unfortunately Donald Dubh, while still trying to restore the Lordship, died of a fever at Drogheda in August 1545.

John of Moidart with the other chiefs retired and, in spite of being declared rebel, lived happily at home. Not for long did he keep out of trouble. The nation’s forces were called out in 1547 to meet at Fala Moor for the Pinkie campaign, and the western clans were summoned to rally to the Royal standard. John and most of the others did not see fit to enter a campaign which was of little interest to them. They still regarded the realm of the King of Scots as an adjacent kingdom, inconvenient and hostile to their way of life.

As Arran’s regency did not seem to have been very effective in controlling the clans, the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise, now took a hand, and forced Arran to summon the rebellious chiefs to a meeting at Aberdeen on 17th June 1551, and again later at Inverness. All except John of Moidart and Lochiel responded. John had had enough of royal parties! Huntly and Argyll were at once sent to bring them in to answer for their “crimes” – Huntly failed to catch Locheil and Argyle was commissioned to proceed against John with the “utmost rigour of the law”. One historian says that Argyle tried duplicity, but whether he did or not, he failed to bring John to a meeting with the “management”.

In 1553 we find John coming to an understanding with Huntly at Ruthven. By this agreement, John was to bring in all the chiefs of the Northern Isles; and, perhaps to gain time, he agreed. This effort of Huntly’s failed. Neither he nor John could have imagined for one moment that this enterprise could have succeeded. Both sides seem to have had one idea – to temporise until things settled down of their own accord, which frequently happened when letters of fire and sword lapsed by default!

Mary of Guise, however, who now took a hand, was a very strong-minded woman, and organised an expedition to reduce John’s fortress and bring him to the bar of justice. Donald Gormeson of Sleat and MacLeod of Lewis were included in the programme of punishment. A large force of Highlanders (Clan Chattan and others) and Lowland horse were assembled under Huntly: but got no farther than Abertarff at the north end of the Corrieyairick. The Lowland horse refused to go on into such difficult country. Probably they had heard that what they had traversed already over the Corryairick was plain sailing compared with what they would meet in the Rough Bounds. Clan Chattan were very dissatisfied too, mainly because they detested Huntly who had treacherously compassed the murder of the Chief of Mackintosh in 1550. So the land forces never got beyond the Great Glen, and Huntly retired.

Meantime Argyle, with his own galleys reinforced by a ship and cannon supplied by the Regent, approached Tirrim from the seaward side. John provisioned his castle and awaited the onset with equanimity. Argyle landed his cannon at two points on Dorlin Bay and bombarded the castle: but Amie MacRuairi’s work was too solid, and defied all attempts to breach it. At last Argyle gave up and retired.

The Queen Mother was very angry and ordered Atholl to do what Huntly had failed to do. Huntly was thrown into prison for failing. Atholl did not get any farther than Huntly and gave up at Abertarff. Instead of military operations he suggested to the Regent that John be invited to a meeting under assurance of safe-conduct at Perth. John went rather suspiciously, but the talks had hardly begun before he detected bad faith on the Regent’s part in her arrangements for his accommodation and that of his retinue (relatives and gentry). Some were housed in Perth and some at Methven, and all were treated as if they were under ward, which indeed they were. John was too wise to await developments, and took the first opportunity of escaping. Castle Tiriim once more received him into safekeeping. One Scots annalist observes quaintly that she should have “held the fox better by the ear while she had him in her hands”.

This roused the Queen Regent to greater exertions, and in 1556 she arrived in Inverness with an imposing train of Privy Councillors – the Earls of Huntly, Argyle, Athole, and Marischall, and the Bishops of Ross and Orkney. The chiefs were summoned and offenders punished. As John’s name does not appear in these proceedings one can only assume he held aloof, not trusting the royal promises any more than he had at Perth. If he had been caught and dealt with at this meeting the records would surely have mentioned the punishment of such an arch-offender as John who had defied the Regent’s authority for so long.

Baffled once more Mary of Guise might have tried sterner measures: but the Reformation was now well under way and that occupied her attention until her death in 1560. Queen Mary, who followed, had trouble enough with her lowland subjects who supported the Reformation so strongly, and was understandably more sympathetic to the clans in the West who adhered to the old religion. Between 1560 and 1567 there seems to have been peace in the West except for local incidents. No major rebellion or reprisals troubled John and the Clan Ranald. Indeed in 1566 John was given a remission for his conduct in not answering the summons to attend the royal army at Pinkie in 1547!

In 1563 when Queen Mary entered Inverness and was denied admission to the Castle, John was amongst the foremost to come to her aid, protected her from her enemies, and accompanied her part of the way south when she left. He continued loyal to her for the rest of her reign.

We come now to near the end of the history of this able and resourceful chief. One more alarm and excursion brought him into the public eye.

John, who was gifted with a “strong frame capable of any exertion” and enterprising nature, was not one to sit idle while his lands were threatened by enemies in the East; but, esteeming attack to be the best form of defence, he with others kept the eastern clans in constant dread of their forays. The young King James in March 1567 ordered the Clan Chattan and Clan Mackenzie to “to assist, fortifie, manteine and defend John Grant of Freuchie” against “divers wikkit personis” of the Clan Ranald. It is not clear if the clans mentioned under Grant did any more than the previous expeditions, if indeed they even tried to invade the western lands. Probably they contented themselves by combining to keep the “wikkit personis” out of their territory.

From this time till his end, John remained in peace at home as far as we know. The fact that he did not bring himself to the notice of the Government bears this out: and, as we said earlier, he achieved the almost impossible feat of dying in his bed in or about 1580. More than that, he had time to become “Godly and merciful”, bringing forth “fruits meet for repentance” as Holy Scripture puts it.

All in all, he must be counted as one of the most colourful and successful Highland chiefs in all the turbulent history not only of Clan Ranald, but of any Highland clan.