Letter sent by Iain Muideartach, 12th Chief of Clanranald, to Pope Urban VIII in 1626 by Iain Thornber

Among the many papers to be found in the Vatican Archives and in the Congregation of Propaganda Fide relating to the Western Highlands of Scotland there is one which is of particular interest to Clan Donald. It is a letter sent by Iain Muideartach, 12th Chief of Clanranald, to Pope Urban VIII, in 1626, seeking assistance with a Holy War to spread Catholicism throughout Scotland.

The letter, which was written in South Uist on 5 February, was sent to Rome by way of Father Cornelius Ward, a Franciscan missionary, whom Clanranald encouraged to travel about his estates which at that time contained a population of several thousand. Written in Latin this letter was printed by the Rev. Brendan Jennings OFM in Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. XII (1946), p. l17. The following is a translation made by Dom. Denys Rutledge OSB [1]

Iain Muideartach mac Raghnaill to the Pope, 1626.

Holy Father,

I, Iain Muideartach, son of Donald, son of Allan, lord and heir of the ancient noble renowned family called of the son of Ranald and principal chief of the same clan, recognised by the Council in Ordinary of Scotland as lord of the country called Moidart and Arisaig, of the glen called Fionguine (Glenfinnan), of the islands named Uist, Eriskay and Canna and others adjoining them, together with me my brothers, [2] my son, [3] Ranald the eldest son of my paternal uncle, [4] Iain Ruairi [5] and Donald Gorm son of Angus, [6] a blood relation, my uncle John the Black son of John (viz. Iain Dubh mac Iain [7]) rulers of lands, men of ancient nobility, and the people subject to the same clan, all of us unanimously ascribe blessing, light, wisdom, beneficence, thanksgiving, honour, fortitude, to the one three-fold omnipotent God, from our whole hearts and minds, for all the ineffable benefits which he has always granted freely to all the sons of Adam and now, last of all, to us though undeserving. For His greatness and kindness has deigned to regard us with the eyes of His mercy, redeeming and enlightening our people who for this long time have sat in darkness; the darkness I mean of error, which the turbulent detested followers of the accursed faithless Calvin had introduced through the violence and tyranny of the Council of Scotland, through lying pseudo-bishops and fraudulent ministers of their error and false religion, exterminating among our predecessors the holy Catholic faith, the one apostolic Catholic Roman faith, outside of which there is no salvation, razing our churches, profaning our cemeteries, tearing down, treading underfoot, breaking up, burning our altars and sacred images, as indeed the memory of aged surviving witnesses bears testimony.

Wherefore, blessed be God alone, and the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has deigned to bestow on us so great consolation through your Holiness and through his servants and true sons. We give every thanks also to Your Holiness for your diligence and great fatherly solicitude for the salvation of all the sons of Adam, and especially for ourselves, which has been made manifest by Your Holiness in accordance with the holy will of God by the sending of three brothers of the order of St. Francis [8] to preach to us the holy gospel of Jesus Christ and to enlighten us who were sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to direct our feet into the way of peace and light, for the enlightenment of our race, for the glory of our people, to lead back the lost sheep from the byway of error to the true faith, to the bosom of the Church which is ‘pillar and ground of the truth’ (cf. 1 Tim. 3.15), the holy spouse of Christ on earth, of which your are the head and chief pastor. From which we perceive them that the best gift and every perfect gift is from the Father of Lights, from whom they descend abundantly on Your Holiness, from whom, as streams from their sources, they flow into every living true member of the church, and now especially to us.

Two of the Brothers already mentioned came to me, the aforesaid chief of the Clan of Ranald, in the year of the Lord, 1624, I having always wished to meet some of their order. I myself received the faith, and my wife and brother, with the greater part of our family. [9] Then, having first sincerely confessed our sins, we communicated, receiving the Eucharist of the Body of Christ. All this one of the Brothers mentioned ministered to us, one named Brother Paul O’Neill. In the following year 1625, they returned to visit us and to spread the faith to the inhabitants of our country, which was most agreeable to them and to me. To this ministry succeeded Father Cornelius Ward, preaching with my permission anywhere he liked throughout my country although I would very much have desired his presence and assistance for myself. His ministry was successful and fruitful, for in the space of not more than eight months he, by his preaching, convened to the true apostolic Roman faith in my country, the islands, and the adjoining districts, 2,373, and baptised 383, nearly all aged and many among them very old and infirm. Moreover, he would have found more to be gathered into the flock of Christ our Saviour had not more urgent business interrupted his progress and compelled him to leave us, through need of things that could not be supplied by us and without which he could not attain his end. [10] Both we and others who became acquainted with him were wonderfully pleased by his intercourse, especially because of his gentleness and outstanding virtues, his exceptional kindness, and the ready eloquence by which he turned the hearts of all of us to the knowledge of the truth, and because of the great labours which he did not spare day and night for the salvation of our souls. We have no doubt that he could not have made such great progress in so very short a time in preaching the faith among our rough people if he had not been strengthened by the special grace of the Holy Spirit, as was shown by miracles and clear signs from Heaven as we believe shown at that time to very many of our countrymen. Accordingly we find nothing so displeasing as his absence, were it not for the hope that he may in a short time return to us having been granted what he seeks from Your Holiness. I, moreover, with the rest of the nobles and other classes, pledge and promise to him after his return every help for the greater spread and preservation of the faith among us as we shall prove beyond doubt by deeds, by a perilous war, by the shedding of blood and, should it be necessary, by our own death for the defence of the faith. [11] We are confident, with the grace of God, and it is more certain … [MS. torn] … from recollections of our early and ancient warfare, that we, the aforementioned clan, together with that numerous and distinguished clan than which there is none more noble in the whole kingdom, from whose bosom we the younger are descended, shall with the help of our kinsfolk and friends subdue the greater part of Scotland, without the assistance of anyone else; though we could not keep it long against the power of the King unless aided by your Holiness or by the power of Catholic kings.

Wherefore we humbly beseech Your Holiness that if matters should ever reach this state as we think they undoubtedly will your patronage and assistance will not be wanting to us, or at least you will deign to obtain for us the help of a Catholic king for the spread and preservation of the Catholic faith among us which we have embraced at the exhortation of those sent by Your Holiness. If we receive help of this kind we shall easily reduce the whole of Scotland to obedience to the faith of Christ and of your Holiness, nor do we expect any other reward for this, God is our witness, than His glory, the salvation of our souls and freedom from the miserable yoke and intolerable slavery of diabolical heresy. It is certain and evident, since it is already known in the Council of Scotland that we have received the true faith that we shall be compelled to the renunciation of it or to the loss of temporal goods and life, or both, as has frequently happened, not only to Scots but also to many Irish. [12]

The greatest hope of success is in the fact that this part of Scotland, always accustomed to arms, has become warlike, strong in battle, favoured by victory and at one time fierce and obstinate against the Romans themselves, in the fact that often smaller in number but superior in strength, we have beaten the Britons, from the fact also that many centuries ago our ancestors crossed from Ireland and drove out the Picts, the first inhabitants of the land, and after that we have never been driven out by anyone, nor have any of us to this day been subject to any external prince or power. Our country and islands are in themselves difficult for an enemy approach bound as by impregnable walls into a fortification, the sea flowing among them and received into their bosom, with safe harbours and anchorages for ships of every kind, small and large, and they are far removed from the Incursions and outrages of the English to whom we have never at all given obedience.

All the Gaelic-speaking Scots and the greater part of the Irish chieftains joined to us by ties of friendship, from whom we once received the faith, in which we still glory, from whose stock we first sprang, will begin war each in his own district to the glory of God … [MS. torn] … we who after the example of our forefathers have always been expert in arms when necessity arose, so that freed from the power of slavery and our enemies we may be faithful to one God in holiness and justice constantly, for ever. We take hope, therefore, from the truth and holiness of our blessed religion and faith, to the defence of which we do not hesitate to come, and from the prayers of Your Holiness, and of Holy Church whose government you hold. We are confident too, from the fact that these districts are by nature defended and inaccessible and in the power of our nobles and brothers and friends, that it is not necessary to assist us with great expenditure, nor is there desired from Your Holiness or from anyone else anything more than a very slight assistance, namely four ships well fitted for war and sufficient arms for us to equip 7,000 or so of our subjects. If this is granted you may expect the issue of this present matter to be according to your wish.

However, whatever happens, whether the above mentioned help is given or denied, I, the nobles and the above mentioned people, are prepared one and all to endure by the grace of God, readily and joyfully, every temporal loss and discomfort for the faith we have received, which has come to us from Your Holiness, professing and offering obedience to Your Holiness, to the apostolic Roman see, and promising through these present letters the same obedience and subjection to you for ever. We kiss, therefore, your sacred feet as those of the one true successor to Peter, head of the church, and vicar of Christ our Lord, offering ourselves as unworthy servants to the same apostolic see … [MS. torn] … should it happen that assistance in warfare, the lawful defence of our faith, our lives, and our goods, should be lacking, we humbly beg of Your Holiness that in the absence of any other means of redeeming our lives or goods, it may be permitted to us and to the other Catholic nobles by favour of the Holy Apostolic See to be present at the preaching of the heretics, but only when we shall be summoned before the supreme Council of the Kingdom or before the pseudo-bishops on this condition, however, that we shall then publicly protest that we are Catholics according to the faith and religion of the Roman Church, asserting, at the same time, that we go to their churches not willingly nor from conviction but from compulsion and obliged by an unjust law of the kingdom, in order not to lose life and goods, not willingly nor from motives of religion. [13]

Wherefore, would Your Holiness deign to transmit through the bearer of these letters the reply we most earnestly desire and await.

Given in the great island called Uist the 5th February, 1626,

Your Holiness’ humble sons.

endorsed: On behalf of the Kingdom of Scotland.


[1] This translation first appeared in The Innes Review, Vol. IV, No. 2 (1953). pp. 110-116 and was the subject of a paper contributed by Dr John Lore Campbell. I am grateful to Dr. Campbell and to the editor of The Innes Review for permission to reproduce the translation here.

[2] Brothers: Alexander (Alasdair), Donald and Ranald, all of whom died without issue.

[3] Son: Donald. 13th Chief of Clanranald from the death of his father in 1670 until his own death sixteen years later on the island of Canna.

[4] Ranald oldest son of paternal uncle: Probably Ranald, oldest lawful son of Iain Muideartach’s uncle Ranald of Benbecula, known as Raghnall Mac Ailein ‘ic Iain. (J.L. Campbell, The Innes Review, Vol. IV. No 2 (l953) p.112.) In a report of his labours on the mission in Scotland from l625 to 1626 Fr. Ward states that he, Fr. Paul O’Neill and Fr. Patrick Brady met at MacDonald’s residence on 1 November 1625 where “they stayed for a few days discussing the affairs of the mission; many won over to the faith including the eldest son of MacDonald and his household; MacDonald and his wife became Catholics too, but they were married within forbidden degrees of kindred (their mothers were sisters) and the missionaries had no power to dispense which greatly grieved the couple (They were however received into the Church by Fr. Hegarty five years later) (C.Giblin OFM. Irish Franciscan Mission to Scotland 1619-1646 (Dublin 1964) p.72).

[5] Iain Ruairi: probably Iain Muideartach’s cousin and younger brother of Raghnall Mac Ailein ‘ic Iain.

[6] Donald Gorm son of Angus; First cousin of Iain Muidcartach. His father was in fact 10th of Clanranald but as he died before his father and without issue he was passed over for Iain Muideartach’s father in the succession. According to MacVurrich he died in Uist in 1636 but in Clan Donald he is said to have been drowned at sea.

[7] Iain Dubh MacIain: Probably a son of the famous Iain Muideartach, 8th Chief of Clanranald (1530-1584) and grandfather of the writer of the letter. (J.L. Campbell, The Innes Review, Vol. 4. No.2.1953, p.113, and Alexander Mackenzie, The MacDonalds of Clanranald, Inverness, 1881).

[8] The three priests were probably Frs. Ward, O’Neill and Hegarty.

[9] Fr. Ward in one of his reports to Propaganda describes how, having journeyed from Mull where he had converted MacLaine of Lochbiue on the 20th August (1625) we came to one of the principal gentry of Innse Gall. This man who was brought back to the bosom of Mother Church on the previous year by Paul O’Neill to the great joy of the faithful, for he was a powerful man and of outstaning integrity received us with extraordinary kindness. The name of this laird is John Muideartach of Clanranald who sent letters with me to His Holiness. I remained with him for some days, in the meantime giving to his wife, to his brother and to 15 of his household the Sacraments of penance and Eucharist. It was not possible to give this to the laird himself because he was taken up with very many affairs of his office.’ (J.L. Campbell. The Innes Review, Vol.4, No.2.1953, and C. Giblin OFM. Irish Franciscan Mission to Scotland, 1619-1646 (Dublin, 1964), pp.62 and 66).

[10] The hosts. In one of his reports, Fr. Ward records of having to send two attendants 150 miles for the hosts and that they were gone for six weeks.

[11] In a letter to the Archbishop of Armagh dated 1st July 1626, Father Ward states: “I am carrying with me a letter from the ruler of the whole clan of Ranald in which by common consent they profess obedience to the Holy See, asking apostolic benediction and favour for the spread of the faith in the whole of Scotland. Other important men also who were converted profess and ask the same thing, although for now not by letter, as McLeod of Harries, the Laird of Calder, the Laird of Barbreck, Coll Ciotach MacDonald, the laird of Lochbuy, the family of the MacDonalds of Kintyre and Islay with all their subjects, and with the inhabitants of the islands of the Hebrides, Jura, Arran. Uist, Canna and Barra, etc.” (Rev B. Jennings OFM, Archivium Hibernicum, XII, p115, translation by Dom. Denys Rutledge for J.L. Campbell).

[12] The Privy Council of Scotland did indeed suspect Iain Muideartach of being a Catholic. He appeared before them a year after writing to Pope Urban and was ordered to apprehend “preistis and Jesuitis hanting his bondis, and for suppressing Poprie within the same” (Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 2nd Series, II, p28).

[13] Again in 1627 he appeared before the Privy Council and this time before being allowed to return home he was made to promise that “he sall in all tyme comeing behave himself as ane peceable and goode subject of his Majestie; that he sall use his best cair and endevoiris within his boundis to see God honnoured and his Majestie and his lawis obeyit, the resoirtt and resett of Jesuitis and preistis restreaned, and the ministeris cherished and intertayned that he saIl not heir messe nor suffer it to be said in his boundis under the pane of xm merkis incaise he failyie in ony point of the premissis. In respect wherof the Lords grantis libertie to the capitane (of Clanranald) to pas home at his plesour.” (Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 2nd Series, IV. p7).