The Heraldry of the Macdonald Arms by Sir Iain Moncreiffe of That Ilk

Sir Iain Moncreiffe of That Ilk, Albany Herald, gave this address at the 1956 Annual Gathering of the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh.

The Kingdom of the Isles was a mixed Scandinavian-Celtic realm. I think the Clan Donald probably descended in the male line from King Echmarcach of Dublin (who died on pilgrimage to Rome in 1065), that King Echmarcach descended in the male line from King Ranald “Higher than the Hills” (in whose honour Thiodolf wrote the Ynglingatal in the 9th century) and that they were all thus descended from the Frey-born pagan sacral Ynglingar “Peace Kings of Upsala,” who claimed descent from the male manifestation of the goddess Freya or Nerthus, whose emblem was the Galley – the Boat of Isis. Incidentally King Echmarcach’s coins bore a Hand, the Gaelic svmbol for the “true family” or derbfine.

Whether or not Somerled descended from King Echmarcach (Imergi or Iehmarc), he owed his kingship in the South Isles to his marriage with King Olaf Morsel’s daughter.

All the families who had some inheritance in the Isles through descent (male or more often female) from King Olaf quarter, or quartered, the Galley, but the only one that bears the Galley alone and unquartered is Lord Macdonald’s House, the longest branch to reign in the Isles. I think that Olaf descended in the male line from King Harald of Limerick (killed 960), whose father was elder brother of the same King Echmarcach’s ancestor and who was therefore also an Yngling of the line of the “Peace Kings of Uppsala” and whose ancestral emblem was thus also the Galley of Nerthus.

Families who quartered or quarter the Galley because of descent from the Norse Royal House of the Isles include the Macdonalds, the MacLeods, the MacAlisters, the MacDougalls, the Stewarts of Appin, the Campbells of Argyll and Breadalbane, the Hamiltons of Arran, the Macleans of Duart (descended from a Macdonald girl), the MacNeils of Bana (which I suspect they got from a MacRuairi girl), and many other West Coast families. This Galley is always black.

Another group of Galley coats, but always a golden galley, is derived from the Old Norse Jarls of Orkney, who were also Ynglings. To this group belong the Sinclairs.

The third group of galley coats, of many colours, but now settled by the Lord Lyon to  be blue for the future, is derived from Clan Chattan descent. The origin of this galley has not been established, although I suspect it comes off the black galley of the Isles; for Macdonald was for long the superior of the Chiefs of Clan Chattan, and there was doubtless much blood-relation between them.

The early use by the Macdonald Chiefs of the Galley is to be seen from their seals, on which it appears by the time of Angus of the Isles, who died C. 1292. Indeed they always used it. For Angus was the first Macdonald, son of that Donald from whom the family gets its name.

After they became Earls of Ross they added the Eagle which the Earls of Ross had long been using as a supporter behind the shield; but the Macdonalds instead hung the Eagle on the Galley’s mast.

Macdonald cadets quartered other devices of which the history is not yet certain. In particular:

(1) The Salmon appears to me to have been a very ancient emblem of sacral royalty among the Gaels, especially in Ireland (note the custom whereby West coast chiefs still wear salmon or other fish buttons).

(2) The Hand holding a cross is the coat of O’Donnel of Tirconnel, secular head of the kindred of St Columba, with whom the Clan Donald are connected in some way, presumably through the female line (note Somerled’s actions at Iona, and a later grant of an office at Iona to Maclean).

(3) The Lion, emblem of royalty almost everywhere and borne by many families claiming descent from the old royal House of the Dalriadic Scots, as did the Clan Donald (though probably in the female line).

While Macdonald was independent, or semi-independent, he had his own officers of arms. The MacLaverties were his hereditary heralds or “speakers.” and it seems obvious that by the 15th century be had at least four proper officers: Islay Herald, Ross Herald, Kintyre Pursuivant and Dingwall Pursuivant. These officers appear (otherwise inexplicably) on the Scottish Royal establishment immediately after the downfall of the Lordship of the Isles. We can be pretty sure that his cadets, and other leading families within the Isles, would not have got away with the indiscriminate use of each other’s rightful emblems, let alone the plain black Galley on Gold of Macdonald himself; the local Royal Arms. So all the West-coast families that were allowed to quarter the Galley must have had a descent from the Hebridean royal family.

A Herald, or Pursuivant, is named after one of his master’s attributes, and where he is called after a place it does not mean that he has duties in that place, but simply that his master is lord of it. The King of Scots never assumed the styles of Earl of Ross or Lord of the Isles, so be never would have invented officers called Islay, Ross, Kintyre or Dingwall. But, when a local prince whose officers bore such names was forfeited, his officials were often taken on to the Royal establishment (e.g. Albany Herald). So Islay, Ross, etc. could only have come into existence as officers of Macdonald himself.

In the Kingdom of Scotland the Sovereign’s Minister in matters armorial was the Lord Lyon King of Arms, at once Herald and Judge. Each Lyon kept his own books, and often they were lost after his death. As with land charters, great uncertainty arose about who owned what. In the 17th century therefore two important statutes were passed to remove uncertainty. One set up a General Register of Sasines, and said that all landowning should be registered in it, and that an entry in the Sasine Register would give prescriptive right after so many years. This removed all uncertainty about land. The other setup the Lyon Register (1672) and said that no arms were to be borne in Scotland that were not validly entered in Lyon Register. This removed uncertainty about armorial rights. Before arms can be borne, therefore, they must first be recorded in Lyon Register. Only a lawfully recognised chief can record the chief arms of his Name in this Register.

Arms of Clan Donald – The original coat of first Macdonald and his successors as Chiefs (no doubt worn at Poitiers in 1356) was “Gold a Galley Sable.” To this was added the red eagle hung on the mast, for Ross; and the whole came to be surrounded by a royal tressure, either for descent from Robert II’s daughter, or as a claim to local sovereignty. This coat was forfeited when the Lordship fell in 1493, and was thus thereafter in the grant of the Crown. In 1542 however Lord Lyon Lindsay of the Mount recorded its memory under a heading “The Lord of ye Ilis,” and shows a golden shield charged with a black galley and a red eagle behind the mast. This then is an authoritative record of the coat appropriate to whomever the Crown might recognise once again as the High Chief of Clan Donald.

At the Restoration, the Crown was inclined to recognise Glengarry, female heir of line of the Lords of the Isles bearing the name of Macdonald as High Chief. It was proposed to create him Earl of Ross, but a statute did not allow the earldom to any save sons of the Sovereign. So he was created Lord Macdonell and Aros. He died childless, however, without having recorded the High Chief’s arms. In 1797 a later Glengarry did record arms, but only as Glengarry; they were not the High Chief’s arms but were differenced by a hand and a cross.

Meanwhile the Crown appears to have recognised Sleat, who was not only the nearest heir male of the last Lord of the Isles, but also a nephew of Lord and Lady Macdonell and Aros, as High Chief; as the Government in 1689 refers to Sleat as “Sir Donald Macdonald of that Ilk” and as the “Laird of Macdonald”, and to his lands as the “Barony of Macdonald.” The Privy Council’s recognition of chief was no mere courtesy since the chiefs were held responsible for the misdeeds of anyone of their name. In 1715 Sleat was forfeited, and when the fief was restored to his successor in 1727 it was styled by the Crown as the “Barony of Macdonald” and he was styled “Alexander Macdonald of Macdonald.’ This could be nothing but a recognition of the High Chiefship.

Throughout the 18th Century, then, the family were styled “Macdonald of Macdonald” until this surname was disguised behind their Irish Peerage. In the 19th century a family arrangement within the Sleat branch, confirmed by Act of Parliament, settled the lands with this High Chiefly barony or the Lords Macdonald.

The Arms of Sleat have been borne by the Sleat Chiefs since before 1689. A version of these arms was registered in Ulster’s office and emblazoned on the letters patent creating the Irish Peerage in 1776. In the 1910 Sleat matriculation the most important (because it is the original and basic) quartering has the black galley on a silver instead of a gold field. Meanwhile, in 1810 the Chief and Captain of Clanranald matriculated arms; again not the High Chief’s coat but a differenced version.

The state of affairs after 1910, therefore, was:

(1) Since at least 1689 the Crown had recognised a “Macdonald of Macdonald,” i.e. a High Chief of Clan Donald, but he had never recorded his right to the forfeited chief’s arms (the black galley on a golden field), and indeed these arms were in the hands of the Crown because of the 15th Century forfeiture.

(2) During the high-chiefless period between the 15th and 17th Centuries three (or four) local chiefs had become established: Clanranald, who matriculated arms in 1810, but whose bearings were known long before from seals and armorial MSS: Glengarry who matriculated arms in 1797, but whose bearings were also known long before: Sleat who matriculated in 1910, but whose arms are again known from long before (and then Macdonald of Islay, now perhaps represented in the female line by the Earl of Antrim, but long settled across the Irish Channel). While the Lord Macdonald of the time was incapable, these three Scottish local chiefs (none of whom had any right to be High Chief, great chiefs though they were), made a treaty together according precedence among themselves by the spin of a coin. This was the period when the Clan Societies took an active interest and mislearnt the details of the situation.

(3) As soon as the present Lord Macdonald succeeded he took steps to matriculate his insignia as Macdonald of Macdonald; and as such was accorded by the Lord Lyon a special scutcheon over the old Sleat quarterings, to which escutcheon he only is entitled, for it is the ancient coat of the High Chiefs of Clan Donald: The black galley and red eagle on a golden field. This was recorded in his name in 1947.

Briefly then, Clan Donald have borne arms ever since the time of the first Macdonald – Angus Mor, a son of Donald, who died in the late 13th Century. The original chiefly coat was “Or a Galley Sable”, to which was added later a red eagle for Ross. This was forfeited on the downfall of the last Lord of the Isles in 1493, constructively restored by the recognition of Sir Donald Macdonald, 3rd Baronet of Sleat, as Macdonald of Macdonald in 1689, and by the restoration of the Sleat lands as the Barony of Macdonald in 1727, and effectively restored on the matriculation of the present Macdonald of Macdonald in 1947.

Footnote to the Online Edition.

See also A Closer Look at West Highland Heraldry by Alastair Campbell of Airds, Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms. For representations of the arms of the current chiefs, see The High Council of the Chiefs of Clan Donald. – R.K.W.M.