The 1993 Great Galley Voyage by Edwin H. “Ned” Henry, FSA Scot

Although this article deals with just the sailing portion of our “great galley adventure,” our wives and other Clan Donald couples / members became an integral part of our unique ancestral experience as well. Enjoying all the amenities offered a land tour, they still went the “extra mile” to rendezvous with us every two to three days. The timing by land and by sea was crucial, taking hours of decisive planning by Doug and Maj-Britt Murdock and Marion and Rob McDonald Parker.

The morning of 9th June 1993 we had our first real glimpse of the galley. The past eight months of planning and rowing machine workouts were over and we were finally dockside with “her.” After stowing all gear, some basic rowing instructions from our head oarsman, Cameron MacDonald (NY) and a few practice strokes with the oars we were eager to begin our journey. However our Captain, Wallace Clark, had different ideas since only a few crewmembers had any sailing experience at all and clearly not with this type of vessel. Our inexperience was of great concern to him and since he already had two major voyages on the “Aileach” under his belt, we found ourselves in the Sound of Sleat practising once again. With him on the two previous voyages were our first mate, Andrew Rodgers and second mate and cook, Kevin O’Leary and they, too, shared the Captain’s concern for our ability and their safety.

Since balance between length, weight and bodies was key in the handling of the oars, we first tried five oars per side, then four, then three. Settling on three oars we found we would have enough speed to manoeuvre in and out of harbours and narrow channels. The cramped conditions on the 40 foot by 10 foot replica galley limited any social movement and meant that we would have to stay at our assigned stations. The oar stations were six to a side with a leg well and a hard board seat to sit on, facing aft. Under the seat we had just enough room to store our individual foul weather gear which was donned often. The small deck at the bow provided a lookout station and storage for the ship’s gear, the cook’s utensils and our food. During wet weather canvas tarps were strung up at the bow to provide a protected tent-like cooking area. The stern deck was just large enough to provide a storage area for the small air-tight /waterproof barrels (one barrel per two men) which held our extra clothing, bare essentials and our sleeping bags. The steering station was directly at the stern post with a wide seat big enough for two men in case extra strength was needed on the tiller (a wish bone shaped steering mechanism) during rough weather. One could certainly understand that with the cramped conditions, it was extremely difficult to pass around the 12-14 foot oars without knocking someone in the head during the process!

Finally Capt. Clark yelled, “Galley Ho,” and with our hearts pounding and filled with excitement, we put our backs into the oars, trying hard to keep the rhythm of our head oarsman.

We hardly noticed the waving crowd on the dock or leaving Armadale for that matter. Captain Ranald of Clan Ranald, who had spent many hours with Captain Clark plotting the voyage, had sailed on his yacht and was part of our entourage as we left Skye and headed for the Isle of Eigg… the “Aileach,” the RIB (ridged / rubber inflatable boat, which was our support throughout the whole journey) and Capt. Ranald’s yacht.

Acclimating to the weather, the oar strokes and the discomfort of cramped quarters, we began the realization of where we were and what we were accomplishing. It was an overwhelming feeling to be sailing the Inner Hebrides, just as our ancestors had done with Somerled and the other Lords of the Isles over 500 years ago … retracing the seaway roads of one of the most notable sea kingdoms in history.

Laird Keith Schellenberg, met us at the quay on Eigg in his vintage Rolls Royce Estate Wagon while the interesting house guests, gathered at his mansion, provided spirited conversation during a “welcoming” party for us and later, a beach cookout that was held in Cathedral Cave, the cave where nearly 400 MacDonalds had been slaughtered by the MacLeods. The hospitality shown us, particularly on the islands was remarkable. The local people did not know us personally but it did not matter, we were Clan Donald and they treated us like family.

Sailing past Ardnamurchan and west of Mull we hit gusty winds. Being without the RIB , which had gone into Mull for refuelling and supplies, caused some concern and so the “Aileach” took refuge, rowing swiftly into Cairnburgh. This small island was once a galley fort for the Lords of the Isles dating back to the twelfth century and offered the crew shelter from the winds and fast tide. Making an unscheduled stop on this abandoned island was exciting but very eerie as well.

As we approach the Isle of Staffa it was decided to try our hand at rowing the “Aileach” into Fingal’s Cave. Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture echoed off the walls, coming from Doug Murdock’s tape player, as we passed through the 80 foot columns along the narrow entrance of the cave, while we mastered the surging waves 5 to 10 feet high … it was our first real test of “togetherness!”

The Chapel bell was ringing, announcing Evensong, as we made our way to the pier on lona. It was twilight and the wind had died, the water was calm and it was very quiet. The stroke of the oars kept beat with Andrew Rodger’s pipe tune as he played standing in the bow. Driving the RIB, I backed its twin 40’s down to just above an idle not wanting to take away from this magical setting… a mist in the air, the “Aileach” with a slow piper’s beat to the oars, all within sight of the ancient cathedral on the hillside gave me a strange feeling, like I had been here hundreds of years ago. No mistakes this time, our seamanship was beginning to show. The crowd of local residents and tourists watched in disbelief as our galley longboat tied up in the harbor. Some of the crew found a Bed ‘n Breakfast for the night while the rest “camped-out” on the beach. Leaving Iona the next day with the afternoon tide we headed for Islay and again, we hit bad weather and had to hole-up at Colonsay for the night with more Clan Donald hospitality.

Our course, sailing past the Paps of Jura and south along the eastern coast of Islay, brought us to the harbor at Port Askaig and the hotel. We were treated to an outdoor bar-b-que and introduced forthe first time to the midges. Bunnahabhain Distillery provided lodging and a tour of their distillery, not to mention making us famous with several photo sessions.

The wind and tide were against us as we prepared to leave Islay but by putting gusto into our rowing (and a towrope from the RIB) we cleared the harbor and caught the wind south heading toward Fraoch Eilean, the ancient home of Somerled. As we passed the ruins two lookouts were posted to spot dangerous rocks and we slowed to an easy drift as the water became very shallow. The quiet was ever so apparent when the RIB cut her engines and the same stillness came over us that we had experienced on lona and our imaginations were on springboards. We could invision the Viking/pirate long boats coming around the point and we certainly could “feel” them … where was Somerled when we needed him? We pushed eastward hoping to reach West Loch Tarbert before the tide went out. An occasional eye scanned the waters behind us, watching for that Viking fleet! As we were passing the west side of the Isle of Gigha, one of our crew members spotted a strange form on the horizon and out came the binoculars for a better look. We were startled to see that the strange form was a submarine with its crew topside, looking at us. We wonder what they were thinking as they viewed our ancient looking vessel. At any rate, it gave us a slightly uneasy feeling and brought us back to reality ever so quickly.

We all knew of the ancient legend of 1098 AD, and of Magnus Barelegs, King of Norway, who had his galley portaged overland, crossing the Isthmus of Kintyre, so that he could claim the land as his own. The crew of the “Aileach” made ready to re-enact that same overland portage. With the help of twenty Royal Scots Army Guards, two tractors and several local volunteers, we tugged, pulled and even broke a line but finally hauled the galley out of the water and onto a trailer. This tractor-pulled trailer then paraded the “Aileach” through town with Captain Clark at the helm, just like Magnus Barelegs. Bunnahabhain was there with their “sample” table, making the midges almost bearable. Later that day we travelled by coach to Glenbarr Abbey where Laird and Lady Glenbarr, Angus and Jean MacAlister, graciously welcomed us to the Clan MacAlister Centre. We also visited Saddell Abbey, and then travelled to Finlaggan where the Finlaggan Trust and Bunnahabhain hosted us for a wonderful luncheon. The Finlaggan Trust had arranged a ceremony in Gaelic on Eilean Mor that was very moving as we stood in the misty rain listening. We sailed out of East Loch Tarbert the next day heading for Bute.

The Isle of Bute and Rothesay harbor were bustling with boats and tourists as the Galley stroked its way through the narrow opening in the harbor basin. Many willing hands on the dock waited anxiously to be asked to help tie up our ancient looking ship. The excitement of the harbor carried on through the evening as we were treated to a marvellous and elegant banquet in the upper hall of Rothesay Castle. It was the first time a banquet had been served there since the 16th century.

Leaving Rothesay we sailed toward Port Glasgow. A good current and a light breeze kept us on course and, again, the misty rain set the stage for us all to reflect-on the past two weeks. We tied up for the last time in a quiet slip at Renfrew. With tired bodies, we quietly gathered our gear, climbed the iron ladder at the pier, gave “her” one last look and then headed for the waiting taxis that would take us to our hotel for the night.

The next morning found all crew members of the “Aileach” holding the oars like banners, marching in step with the Pipe band to our assigned positions on the Glasgow dock for the Galley ceremony. Speeches were plentiful (Lord Provost’s staff, Capt. Clark, Doug Murdock, and Capt. Ranald) and … Bunnahabhain was there for the last time to help with the “toasting.” Capt. Ranald summed it up this way … “by being here to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles, we are not only strengthening our ties with Clan Donald, but we arc making a spiritual bond with the past.”

Sailing the Inner Hebrides, in a replica galley for two weeks, my shipmates and I understood what Capt. Ranald meant! It was an incredible adventure bringing together twelve men of various ages and vocations but all of a common thread … Macdonald blood. Within this short period of time we had gotten to know the best in each other, but more importantly, we had experienced an astounding appreciation for the life and style of our ancestors and the Lords of the Isles. We had made a tangible re-enactment of our past and in so doing we made our own history as well.

The Clan Donald USA 1993 Great Galley Voyage crew members were: Douglas Murdock (CA), Donald MacDonald (CA), Alan MacDonald (CA), Mark MacDonald (TX), Donald Macdonald (CO), Edwin “Ned” Henry (MN), Robert McWilliam (WI), Clark McSparren (PA), Terry Jones (PA), Tom Ruddy (PA), Cameron MacDonald (NY), and Douglas K. Macdonald (NH).


Link to The Lord of the Isles Galley Trust with photos of the Ailech.