The Islay Rebellions 1614-15 By David McDonald

By 1614 the superiority of both Islay and Kintyre had passed out of the hands of Clan Donald, or more specifically the MacDonalds of Dunnyveg. The family’s main seat Dunnyveg Castle on Islay had for three years been in the hands of the Bishop of the Isles, who had placed a small garrison in it. Towards the end of March 1614, for reasons which have never become fully clear, Ranald Og, an illegitimate son of Angus MacDonald of Dunnyveg, with four followers, Malcolm MacMillan, Donald Mcilveny, his brother and one Maclachlan, surprised and captured the castle.

Angus Og, another son of Angus of Dunnyveg, though legitimate, was then living within six miles of the castle. Knowing that his family would be blamed for Ranald Og’s actions Angus Og decided to retake the castle. He left the siege to his cousin Coll MacGillespick who was aided by Ranald MacJames MacDonald, Angus Og’s uncle; his sons Donald Gorm, Coll and Archibald; John MacDonald; Ranald MacSorley; Sorley MacBrume; Malcolm Macleod; Alastair Macian and Angus MacEachan MacAlister. The siege commenced on about the 6th or 7th April.

After six days Ranald Og and his followers escaped by sea and the castle was occupied by Coll MacGillespick. Angus succeeded in capturing the escapees after twenty days, and with the exception of Ranald Og, put them to death. Ranald Og on being pressed to say what had prompted him to capture Dunnyveg laid the blame on Donald Gorm, an illegitimate son of Sir James MacDonald, elder son of Angus of Dunnyveg. Sir James was at this time a prisoner in Edinburgh Castle, under sentence of death for rebelling against his father.

Dunnyveg remained in the hands of Angus Og for some time,although he made it clear that on receipt of a remission for himself and his supporters for their actions, he would restore it to the Bishop.

Sir James, who had been in prison for some twelve years, on hearing of the goings on in Islay, presented a petition to the Privy Council asking to be released and be allowed to reside anywhere the King might appoint, and promising not to go to Kintyre or Islay without licence. He offered surety for his appearance before the Council whenever summoned to do so. The Council took no action other than to refer the petition to the King.

In the meantime the Bishop went to Islay to recover the castle, but had to report that Angus Og not only refused to surrender Dunnyveg, but had prepared himself for a siege. The Council became suspicious that Sir James had been behind the enterprise and a warrant was obtained to seize all his papers. However the papers showed the opposite to be the case, and that Sir James had been advising his brother to give the castle up. One of the papers was a letter to the Council from Angus Og, which Sir James had not had time to forward. This offered to restore the castle to the Bishop if he received approval for his actions in retaking it and apprehending Ranald Og.

At the beginning of August, Donald Gorm, the man said to be behind the whole affair, arrived at Dunnyveg with seven or eight of the Clan Alister and offered his service to Angus Og. On the 11th August a remission was granted to Angus Og, Coll MacGillespick, Coll MacRanald, Gillespick MacRanald, Donald Gorm MacRanald and Sorley MacAlister. The Bishop again set out to take possession of Dunnyveg carrying the pardon with him. From Arran the Bishop sent a messenger to Angus Og with the pardon, but Angus Og refused to surrender the castle except to the Bishop personally. The messenger also delivered a letter from the Bishop to Donald Gorm asking that he visit him on Arran, which he duly did.

The Bishop with a small force arrived at Islay on the 19th September. Not only did the garrison refuse to surrender but they managed to seize the Bishop’s boats and destroy them, thereby preventing him from leaving the island. The Bishop was therefore (breed to enter into a contract on the 22nd September promising to help Angus Og obtain a seven year lease of the Crown lands of Islay, for a rent of eight thousand merks, also to have Dunnyveg Castle transferred to him, and to obtain a pardon for all crimes committed P nor to the contract. The parties were Angus Og; Ranald MacJames, his uncle; Coll MacGillespick and Ranald MacSorley, on the one part, and the Bishop of the Isles on the other part. The witnesses were Alexander MacDonald of Largie; Donald MacAlister, tutor of 1 .oup; Donald Og MacRanald Buy; Master John Vas servant to the Bishop; Master Patrick MacLachlan, minister of Kilchoman and Hector MacKawiss of Kenobus.

In order to prevent the Bishop breaking the contract, he was required to leave as hostages his son Thomas Knox, and his nephew, John Knox of Ranfurlie. On the 23rd September the Bishop wrote to the Council complaining of his treatment and stating that the Clan Donald had “built a new fort in a loch, which they have manned and victualled. Angus Oig, their captain, affirms, in the hearing of many witnesses, that he got directions from the Earl of Argyle not to surrender the castle, and that he should procure for Angus the whole lands of Isla, and the house of Dunyveg.”

The Privy Council not surprisingly took a dim view of this and despite the hostages prepared to reduce the rebels by force. John Campbell of Calder, Sir James’ brother-in-law, who himself had designs on the crown lands of Islay, was given a commission against Angus Og and his followers. Calder agreed to bear the expense of the military action provided that artillery and ammunition were provided at the public cost. Even the Bishop questioned the wisdom of making “the name of Campbell greater in the Isles than they are already; nor yet to root out one pestiferous clan, and plant in another little better.”

Angus MacDonald of Dunnyveg died, a bitter old man, at Rothesay on the 21st October and was succeeded in the title by his elder son Sir James. Sir James learning that he was now head of the family and of the impending military campaign again wrote to the Council making proposals. He offered a rent of eight thousand merks for the crown lands of Islay; or if this was not acceptable he would transport himself, his brother, and his clan to Ireland or anywhere else the King should direct. He made other offers concerning the recovery of Dunnyveg Castle, and the apprehension of those who had taken it. He said he would deliver up Ranald Og “who first took the house and Ranald mcdonald vallich to suffer for their fault, and Coll mcgillaspie to be keipt in irnes during his Maties pleasr.” Finally, if all his other offers were rejected, Sir James asked to be allowed to remove himself, his brother, and his clan out of the King’s dominions, asking no lands or money, only a free pardon, and a letter of recommendation to the States of Holland.

Sir James’ offers were ignored and preparations hastened to despatch Calder to Islay. At the end of October arrangements were made to bring two hundred soldiers and six cannon across from Ireland to assist him. At the same time Angus Og was again offered a pardon provided he gave up the castle, his hostages and two of his leading followers.

In the meantime the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Dunfermline, without consulting the Privy Council, began an intrigue to obtain the release of the hostages. His agent, George Graham of Eryne, arrived on Islay in November. Graham met Angus Og, and showing him his instructions and promising in the Chancellor’s name that Calder’s expedition would be stopped, he persuaded him to deliver up both the castle and hostages. Having gained his object of freeing the hostages Graham returned the castle to Angus Og to await further instructions from the Chancellor. Angus Og, on asking what he should do if called upon to surrender by Calder, was told to hold out until he heard from the Chancellor.

The Royal herald, Robert Winrahame, sent by Calder to demand the surrender of the castle was intercepted by Graham who failed to persuade him to turn back. Graham therefore hastily returned to the castle where he was able to convince Angus Og that he should disobey the royal summons. Not only that but when the herald arrived accompanied by Angus Og’s father-in-law, Duncan Campbell of Danna, he was treated in a violent and abusive manner by Coll MacGillespick, at Graham’s instigation. Graham having succeeded in considerably worsening Angus Og’s position then departed with the hostages leaving the rebels to their fate. It seems clear that the Chancellor had succeeded in both his aims, to free the hostages and to deprive Angus Og and his followers of the pardon promised to them. It has been suggested that he too had designs on Islay.

On the 21st November Calder received a charter of the crown lands of Islay, and by the end of the month had arrived at Dunnyveg with his forces. He waited for fourteen days for the Irish troops and cannon, but with his provisions running out he was forced to return to Duntroon on the mainland. Two days later the Irish under the command of Sir Oliver Lambert arrived on Islay. Having sent word to Calder of his arrival Lambert summoned the garrison in Dunnyveg to surrender. Angus Og replied that had he not received a warrant from the Lord Chancellor to keep the castle for him, he would have obeyed the summons. He offered to show his warrant, and when this was accepted, sent to Lambert a copy of Graham’s instructions. Although Lambert accepted that this authorised the retention of the castle, he was not satisfied that Graham had any authority to give such instructions. He therefore decided to proceed with the siege on Calder’s arrival.

Calder, with two hundred men, landed on Islay on the 6th January, 1615. A further one hundred and forty men arrived the next day. During the next few days several of the rebels deserted the castle, and were pardoned on condition they did service against their former colleagues. Among these were Ranald MacSorley VicDonald Baillie, John MacDonald Baillie and Sorley MacAlister VicDonald Baillie.

On the 24th January, Ranald MacJames, in command at Lochgorm, entered into a bond with Calder that he and his son Donald Gorm would surrender the fort before the 28th of the month. This they duly did and were granted a remission on the 31st.

By the following day the cannon had all been landed at Dunnyveg and the battery was ready to open fire. The garrison however fired first and one of Calder’s men was killed and Captain Crawford, one of Lambert’s officers was wounded in the leg and subsequently died. After a day of constant bombardment Angus Og had a meeting with Calder at which it was explained that Graham had deceived him. Angus Og was persuaded to agree to surrender with as many men as would follow him. However on his return to the castle he changed his mind under pressure from Coll MacGillespick. The battery again opened fire and some time later not being able to obtain terms Angus Og and some of his principal followers surrendered unconditionally. Coll MacGillespick refused to surrender and with a number of others escaped by night in a boat which turning leaky forced them to land elsewhere on Islay.

Calder on the 3rd February held a justice court at which fourteen of the defenders of Dunnyveg and six from Lochgorm were tried and executed. Angus Og and several of his principal men were sent for examination by the Privy Council. On the 6th, six of those who had escaped with Coll MacGillespick were apprehended and executed. This, according to Archibald Campbell of Glencarradale, left “fowre of the name of Clandonald as yet not aprehendit” and “nyne or tenn of wther clannis wha war yair associats as yet not aprehendit.”

Angus Og together with Alastair MacAlister, son of Charles MacAlister, the former Tutor of Loup; Angus MacEachan MacAlister; Alastair MacArliche; John MacCondochie and John Gair MacMillan of the Knap family, were brought before the Privy Council. On examination they declared that they had taken the castle at the instigation of the Earl of Argyll. They further blamed the Lord Chancellor for their continued occupation of it. The Chancellor however denied having given Graham any instructions other than to procure the release of the hostages. He also denied having authorised him to offer any conditions to the rebels. The evidence of Graham himself was so contradictory and at variance with other witnesses including Calder that no regard was paid to it.

On the 2nd March there was a proclamation against harbouring the remaining rebels, the principal of whom were Coll MacGillespick; Coll, Archibald and Donald Gorm MacDonald, the sons of Ranald MacJames; Malcolm MacRory Og MacLeod; Ranald Og MacAngus; Angus MacRaichan VicDonachie Dubh VicAlastair and MacRanald VicAngus VicAlastair. It was said that Coll MacGillespick “with four score broken hieland men assisted with a bark and some birlings had taken the seas and lay betweene the coastes of Scotland and Yreland awaiting the opportunitie and meanes to robbe his Maiesties subiectes.”

While the Privy Council were taking measures for the apprehension of the pirates they were shocked to discover that on the 23rd May Sir James had succeeded in escaping from Edinburgh Castle. In this he was assisted by Alexander MacRanald of Keppoch; his eldest son Ranald Og, who had obtained the key to open the prison door; and John MacDonald, younger of Clanranald. Sir James gave as his reason for escaping the fact that Calder had obtained a warrant to have him executed. They crossed the Firth of Forth in a small boat from Newhaven to Burntisland and then into Perthshire. On the 24th May a commission was given to the Marquis of Huntly and the Earl of Tullibardine for their apprehension. A reward of two thousand pounds was offered for Sir James, dead or alive. Archibald Campbell, Bailie of Kintyre was instructed to pursue them, which he did through Atholl, almost intercepting them at the east end of Loch Rannoch. Huntly and Tullibardine approaching from the other direction were only prevented from capturing them by a warning which allowed them to escape on foot into the woods, abandoning their horses. Some of Keppoch’s servants were captured, but were later released by Tullibardine. Also left behind was Sir James’ collection of books, the loss of which he greatly regretted, and in a letter to the Earl of Crawford, he asked the Earl to try and recover them for him.

At Rannoch Sir James and his party were met by some of Keppoch’s men who escorted them through Lochaber to Glengarry. They visited Donald MacAngus of Glengarry at Invergarry Castle in an effort to obtain his support, but were unsuccessful.

On their way to Knoydart they captured and took away with them Donald Gorm, a son of Glengarry, as hostage for his father’s behaviour. An enraged Glengarry sent his eldest son Alastair Dearg in pursuit, but he only succeeded in capturing two of Keppoch’s principal men, John Dow MacDonald VicAngus and Duncan MacGorrie, who were later exhibited before the Privy Council.

From Knoydart they sailed to Skye where they met with Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat, who though not openly joining them himself, allowed a number of his men to do so. Donald Gorm of Sleat also supplied them with a large boat in which they sailed for liigg. Here they met Coll MacGillespick and his followers who now i ncluded Sir James’ son Donald Gorm and Sorley MacJames, a son of the late Sir James MacSorley of Dunluce in Antrim. Sir James was given an enthusiastic reception, Coll MacGillespick and his men inarching round him for half an hour firing volleys of small arms. Afterwards each one came forward to shake his hand.

Now some three hundred strong. Sir James and his followers sailed to Ardnamurchan, where according to Tullibardine they were joined by Alexander Maclain of Ardnamurchan himself “with all his company with him, at the least, there is a great part of them.” They then travelled in the direction of Islay.

The Privy Council, still ignorant of Sir James’ whereabouts, were ai this time taking measures to place the whole of the Western Isles and adjacent mainland from Skye down to Kintyre in military readiness, in order to deter any landing. A reward of five thousand pounds was offered for the apprehension of Sir James; five thousand merks each for Coll MacGillespick, Keppoch and his son; and three thousand merks each for Ranald Og MacAngus and Malcolm MacLeod.

On or about the 18th June, Sir James with several hundred men landed on Colonsay where they spent the next few days building a fort. After four or five days they left for Islay landing in the neighbourhood of Dunnyveg. An ambush was planned, and the constable, Alexander MacDougall, brother to Raray, with twelve of the garrison was lured out of the castle. Sir James’ men attacked too soon however and the constable and his men tried to regain the Castle. About half reached the inner gate and closed it. The constable and the remainder were overtaken and killed. Sir James having taken the outer court and the castle’s water supply, the garrison surrendered on the following morning. Sir James in the attack had lost a soldier and a boy killed and two men slightly wounded. Hector MacNeill of Taynish however reported that three of Sir James’ men had been killed including his illegitimate brother Ranald Og. This proved to be incorrect. Having taken the castle Sir James committed no excesses merely ejecting Calder’s men from the island.

During this time Sir James wrote letters to a number of prominent men notifying them of his capture of Dunnyveg. All these letters had an anti Campbell theme. To the Earl of Crawford he wrote “I trest in God that all the Campbelles in Scotland, without his Maties powar, shall nor recouer it, so long as they live.” To the Bishop of the Isles he said “And now if your lo. may get me fauourable conditions be his Matie, ze may assuir zour self I will give yow the Hous, provyding it be in your handis, and nane of the Campbellis to gett it.”

On receiving notice of the capture of Dunnyveg, the Privy Council wrote to the King urging that he send the Earl of Argyll back to Scotland as soon as possible to take command of operations against the rebels. In the meantime Campbell of Auchinbreck received a commission as Lieutenant until the arrival of Argyll.

Among further letters written by Sir James was one on the 1 st July to Lord Binning “If his Maiestie be not willing that I sail be his heighness tennent in Ila, for Goddis cause let his Matie hauld it in his awin hand; for that is certane, I will die befoir I sie a Campbell possess it.” This and all his other letters were sent to the Earl of Tullibardine to be forwarded. They however never reached their intended recipients being sent instead to the Privy Council.

On the 3rd July Sir James’ brother Angus Og and his fellow prisoners were tried for high treason and condemned to death, being executed on the 8th of the same month. Sir James’ force on Islay was gaining strength and now included Malcolm MacDuffie of Colonsay and Donald Gigach Maclain, the principal man in Jura, who between them brought sixty-four men. While Sir James strengthened the fortifications on Lochgorm he began to make plans to add Kintyre to his conquests. Hector MacNeill of Taynish wrote “Donald Gorme, Sir James bastardis son came into Kintyre the number of tuentie four souldiours and finding the Kingis houss in Keanloch woid without any in it hes taine thesame …”

Having garrisoned Kinloch Castle Donald Gorm returned to Islay and was installed as keeper of Dunnyveg while Sir James with four hundred men crossed over to Kintyre where they soon made themselves masters. They were soon joined by many of Sir James’ father’s former tenants. By the end of July the rebels had taken up position near Tarbert and there was a great fear that they would attempt to break out of Kintyre into Knapdale. Campbell of Auchinbreck with difficulty collected three hundred men whom he positioned in Knapdale to counter any attempt by Sir James to leave Kintyre. At the same time Auchinbreck wrote to the Council seeking help and received in reply a renewal of his commission and a promise that he would be joined by the Campbell lairds of Ardkinlass and Lochnell with the men of Cowal and Lorn. So successful was he that Sir James was contained in Kintyre throughout August although his numbers continued to rise.

Argyll arrived in Edinburgh during August to consult with the Privy Council. He was allowed four hundred hired soldiers who were to muster at Castle Sween in Knapdale on the 2nd September. Argyll then proceeded to Cowal and collected all his forces at Dunoon. His spies informed him that Sir James with a force of nearly one thousand was camped on the west coast of Kintyre opposite the island of Cara which belonged to Alexander MacDonald of Largie. Having established the whereabouts of the rebels Argyll split his force of between fifteen and sixteen hundred in two. Calder with two companies of the hired soldiers and the men of Campbell of Lochnell and MacDougall of Dunollie were sent by sea down the west coast of Kintyre to surprise Sir James by night and capture his boats. Argyll himself, with the other two companies of soldiers and the lairds of Kilmichael, Ardkinlass, Lamont and MacLachlan landed at Tarbert where they were joined by Auchinbreck and his men.

Coll MacGillespick with sixty men in three boats was sent north by Sir James in order to spy out the land. He succeeded in capturing Colin Campbell of Kilberry and three or four of his followers who had been scouting for Argyll. On his return to Cara he passed close to Gigha which unknown to him was now occupied by Calder’s force. Calder pursued him and Coll was forced to run his boats aground on Kintyre and only just was able to escape with the loss of fifteen or sixteen men. Another party of Calder’s men proceeded to Cara where the rebel fleet was moored under the protection of Keppoch and Sorley MacJames. They however were warned by some of Largie’s men who lit beacons and so were able to escape.

Keppoch and his men fled to the very south of Kintyre and was able to make his escape despite the loss of some of his followers. Sorley MacJames was pursued to Islay where he took refuge in Dunnyveg Castle. Sir James, who with the majority of his force, was facing Argyll’s advance from the north-east having realised that he was outnumbered and had been outflanked, also took to flight.

Argyll directed Ardkinlass with four hundred men to assist Calder’s force in the pursuit of the rebels in Kintrye while he crossed to Jura. At Ardnel in the south of Jura Donald Campbell of Barrichbeyan with forty men came upon Coll MacGillespick who was skulking there with some sixty of his followers. A short engagement followed which left Barrichbeyan and about half his men killed. Coll then fled to Islay. Shortly afterwards Argyll received information that Sir James had arrived in Islay and was camped in the Rhinns with a force of about five hundred men. Argyll therefore arranged for his force and that of Calder to be transported to Islay.

Sir James, greatly outnumbered, knowing he had little prospect of success and unable to escape to the North Isles as he had hoped because of the contrary winds, sent a messenger to Argyll requesting a truce for four days, at the end of which he promised to surrender unconditionally. Argyll agreed on condition that Dunnyveg Castle and the fort on Loch Gorm were surrendered within twenty-four hours, otherwise he would consider the proposal to be nothing more than a delaying tactic to allow him to escape if the wind changed. Coll MacGillespick however now had the command of both strongholds and refused to give them up, hoping to negotiate his own terms.

Argyll on being notified by Sir James that he could not surrender the forts sent Calder with one thousand men by sea in order to surprise the rebels. Sir James received warning of the attack and with Keppoch, Sorley MacJames and some forty others fled by boat to Ireland. Another boat containing some of his Kintyre followers who had fled with him to Islay also succeeded in escaping, but in their case back to Kintyre. The remainder, mainly Islay men, were left to their fate.

On the following day Coll MacGillespick surrendered the forts and his Campbell prisoners on condition of a pardon for himself and some of his followers. Having obtained his release Coll treacherously delivered nineteen rebels to Argyll including MacDuffie of Colonsay. Coll no doubt had designs on MacDuffie’s land on Colonsay the island where he was born and where his family lived.

Shortly afterwards Argyll apprehended ten of the principal men of Islay who have been with Sir James. They were immediately tried and executed. At the end of October Argyll left for Kintyre having executed a further nine of the principal rebels in Islay. In Kintyre there was still a number of rebels in arms and these were dealt with very severely, many being imprisoned and others executed. Among those executed was “Gilespuig Dhu son to Eneas McDonald of Kintyre.” This can only be Archibald MacDonald of Gigha, natural son of Angus of Dunnyveg. By the end of November Argyll was able to report to the Privy Council that the rebellion had been crushed.

Many of the leaders of the rebellion had escaped and the Privy Council were displeased. Lord Binning wrote “Since Sir James and his son, with MacRanald and his son, and Glengarry’s son, and MacSorley are all escaped, and Coll pardoned, I know not what ringleaders these are whom ye write ye are to bring in … So long as the heads are all to the fore, the rebellion will never be thought quenched.”

At this time Sir James, his son Donald Gorm, and two others were being sheltered in Galway by Jesuits, while Sorley MacJames and a number of others including Malcolm MacLeod and Ranald Og MacAngus were in the Route, Antrim with Sorley’s relatives. Keppoch and his sons were back in Scotland having returned with a number of Macalisters and Mackays from Kintyre who had fled with Sir James from Islay to Ireland.

Sir James with the aid of the Jesuits was able to make his escape to Spain, where he was later joined by Keppoch and his second son Donald Glas. There they remained until 1620 when they were recalled to London by the King, who granted pardons to all three. Sir James was awarded an annual pension of one thousand gold merks. Keppoch and his son were eventually permitted to return to Scotland but the Privy Council raised objections in the case of Sir James and he remained in London until his death in 1626. He is said to have been buried in St. Martin’s church. With Sir James’ death the direct line of the MacDonalds of Dunnyveg came to an end and the Clan Donald ceased to be a force in Argyll, the Campbells having almost total domination.


Highland Papers Volume Three : J.R.N. MacPhail
History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland : Gregory
Kintyre in the Seventeenth Century : Andrew McKerral
Miscellany of the Scottish History Society Volume Four
The Clan Donald : Rev. A. MacDonald & Rev. A. MacDonald
The Clan Ranald of Knoydart & Glengarry : Norman H. MacDonald
The Clan Ranald of Lochaber : Norman H. MacDonald
The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland
The Last MacDonalds of Isla : Charles Fraser-MacKintosh
The MacMillans and their Septs : Somerled MacMillan
The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland
The Register of the Privy Seal of Scotland