The MacDonalds of Sleat

Clann Dòmhnaill Na Dòmhnallaich | Clan MacDonalds of Sleat

Per Mare Per Terras — by land by sea — is the motto of arguably one of the oldest, largest and most powerful Scottish families in history.

Arms of Macdonald

Although the story of Clan Donald began long before the immemorial timeline, their history can be traced from the 12th century BC through a warlord named Somhairle MacGillebride MacGilladamnan (Somerled): head of the ancient Race of Conn and lineal heir of the Dál Riata, the Kingdom of the Scots. Half Viking and half Celtic Irish, Somerled held the unique position as overlord of the Kingdoms of Scotland and Norway which later emerged into the Regulus, or Lordship, of the Isles. Through marriage to the King of Man (Olaf the Red)’s, daughter, cunning and belligerence, Somerled seized the Kingdom of the Isles from his brother-in-law in 1156 and expelled the Norsemen from the Western Isles.

A simple rudder was one of the main reasons for Somerled’s successful command of Scotland’s north-western seaboard. He favoured the Hebridean Galley, a clinker-built vessel based on the Viking longboat, powered by oars and sails. What made this galley different from the longboat was the addition of a stern rudder which rendered the craft fast and manoeuvrable, perfect for raiding and transporting goods and men. These boats were instrumental in the MacDonalds command of the Hebrides until the coming of the mounted gun in the late 16th century.

Now Rìgh Innse Gall, King of the Isles, Somerled directed his maritime power from his base at Finlaggan on Islay. From there he kept the sea lanes clear between the Irish Sea and Europe and protected his warbands by setting up a chain of supply harbours guarded by forts across his 25,000-mile kingdom of islands and lochs.

Armadale Castle | Isle of Skye

Armadale Castle | Isle of Skye

Duntulm Castle | Isle of Skye

Sons of Somerled

After his fall in the Battle of Renfrew in 1164 against King Malcolm IV’s forces, the great sea-lord Somerled was succeeded by an unknown number of sons and a daughter, and what was left of his vast kingdom was divided between the three sons of his marriage to Ragnhildis, Olaf the Red’s daughter: Ruaidhrí Mac Raghnaill (MacRuari, now part of Clanranald and Glengarry), Dughall (MacDoughall) and Raghnuill, of Clan Donald. Somerled’s daughter, Bethoc, became prioress of Iona Nunnery.

Raghnuill, or Ranald, inherited his father’s title as King of the Isles and it is his son, Dòmhnaill Mac Raghnuill (Donald, Son of Ranald), who is the eponymous progenitor of Clan Donald.

Aonghus Mór Mac Dòmhnaill, son of Raghnuill, was born circa 1248 and is generally regarded as the first of the MacDonalds. Under his watch, the Norwegian sovereignty of the Isles fell to the successful and violent invasion by the Scottish king, Alexander III, to bring the Hebrides into the realm of Scotland. Aonghas was forced to swear fealty to him or forfeit his Clan Somhairle inheritance.

Aonghas was succeeded by his son, Alasdair Óg Mac Domhnaill (born circa 1260). By this time, the three Somhairle families (Clan Dubhghaill, Clan Ruairhri and Clan Domhnaill) were in bitter dispute. When King Alexander III died, aged 44, from a fall from his horse in 1286, Scotland was plunged into crisis and family blood ties were severed.

Alexander III left no successors and Scotland’s powerful houses sought to take advantage of the empty throne. In the following years, two interregnums were presided over by the Guardians of Scotland while House Balliol and House Bruce, along with 12 other hopefuls, joined the race for the crown in what came to be known as The Great Cause. While Clan Dubhghaill were sympathetic to Balliol’s claim, Clan Domnhaill were strong supporters of the Bruce cause. When Alasdair was killed by the MacDougalls, he was succeeded by younger brother, Aonghus Óg of Islay (born 1314), who helped the newly crowned King Robert 1, The Bruce, fight and win Scottish independence in the Battle of Bannockburn. In return Aonghus was not only granted the honorary position on the right wing of the king’s army but was also given the lands held by his cousins the Dubhgaills under the condition that the Kingdom of the Isles would bend its knees to Robert’s feudal Scotland to become the Lordship of the Isles. That title continued for 224 years until it was declared forfeit by James IV.

Aonghus’ son Eòin Mac Dòmhnuill (John of Islay) was born circa 1380. Known as the “Good King of Islay”, John’s alliance to Robert II of Scotland secured his title as Lord of the Isles and expanded the MacDonalds’ lands to Morvern, Garmoran, Lochaber, Kintyre and Knapdale. His son, Dòmhnall of Islay  (born circa 1422 and grandson of Robert II), fought for the Earldom of Ross against the Earl of Mar at the Battle of Harlaw (Cath Gairbheach) in 1411, one of the hardest-fought battles to have ever taken place in Scotland.

Alexander of Islay, Earl of Ross, was Dòmhnall’s second son and his successor was his illegitimate son Hugh of Sleat (1436), the first of the Macdonalds of Sleat branch.

The MacDonalds of Sleat

The story of Clan Donald of Sleat began with Ùisdean, or Hugh, the third son of Alexander of Islay and Somerled’s sixth great grandson. Ùisdean’s successors sculpted their history with murder, war and infighting as well as violent feuds with neighbouring families, namely the MacLeods of Dunvegan and the MacLeans of Duart.

Over the centuries, the MacDonalds established themselves as a strong and highly revered fighting force throughout the British isles and their presence helped to tip the balance in favour of their allies in many battles during the Jacobite Uprisings, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Wars, the Great War and World War II.

But not all MacDonalds over the centuries spoiled for a fight. Many favoured a civilian lifestyle and took to the aesthetic arts to become poets and musicians. Some became important statesmen, learned scholars, churchmen and humanitarians. Like their first forefather Somerled, poverty, famine, the Clearances, courage and intrepidness forced many to take to the waves and spread the family line across the globe to become one of the largest Scottish clans in the world.

Genealogy

  • Donald Gallach MacDonald (b c 1430) 3rd Baron MacDonald of Sleat, 4th clan chief.
  • Donald Grumach (Donald the Grim) (b c 1450) 4th Baron MacDonald, 5th clan chief.
  • Donald Gorm MacDonald (b c 1500), 5th Baron MacDonald, 6th clan chief.
  • Donald Gormson Sassunach MacDonald (b c 1522) 6th Baron MacDonald, 7th clan chief.
  • Donald Gorm Mor MacDonald (b c 1565), 7th Baron MacDonald, 8th clan chief.
  • Donald Gorm Og MacDonald (Sir Donald MacDonald) (b c 1546) 1st Baronet of Sleat.
  • Sir James Mor MacDonald (b c 1605) 10th Chief and 2nd Baronet.
  • Sir Donald MacDonald 11th chief Sleat MacDonald and 3rd Baronet.
  • Sir Donald MacDonald, 12th Chief of Sleat MacDonalds, 4th Baronet.
  • Sir Donald MacDonald 13th Chief of Sleat MacDonalds, 5th Baronet.
  • Sir James MacDonald of Oransay 14th Chief of Sleat MacDonalds and 6th Baronet.
  • Sir Alexander MacDonald 15th Chief of Sleat MacDonalds, 7th Baronet.
  • Sir James MacDonald, 16th Chief of Sleat MacDonalds, 8th Baronet.
  • Sir Alexander MacDonald (1745), 17th chief, 9th Baronet and 1st Baron MacDonald.
  • Sir Alexander Wentworth MacDonald (1773), 18th chief, 2nd Baron MacDonald.
  • Sir Godfrey Macdonald, 3rd Baron MacDonald of Sleat (1775), 19th chief, 3rd Baron MacDonald.
  • Godfrey William Wentworth Bosville-Macdonald (1809), 20th chief, 4th Baron MacDonald.
  • Hon. Somerled (Samuel) James Brudenell MacDonald (1849), 21st chief 5th Baron MacDonald.
  • Sir Ronald Archibald MacDonald (1853), 22nd chief of Sleat Macdonalds 6th Baron MacDonald.
  • Sir Alexander Somerled MacDonald (1917), 23rd chief of Sleat Macdonalds, 7th Baron MacDonald.
  • Sir Godfrey James MacDonald (1947), 8th Lord MacDonald, Chief of the Name and Arms of Macdonald, High Chief of Clan Donald and 24th hereditary chief of Clan Donald.
  • Sir Ian Godfrey Bosville MacDonald (1947) 25th Chief of Sleat Macdonalds.

Moments in History

Land in Hand

According to ancient legend, Somerled’s grandson Donald won the lands on Skye in a very unusual way. Sailing towards the Trotternish peninsula in his galley, Donald engaged in a contest with rival clans to win the enemy’s land. Whoever’s hand touched the shore first would own the land in perpetuity. The canny Donald, eager to win the coveted prize, is said to have taken out his dirk, sliced off his own hand and hurled it onto the shore near Bornesketaig, securing the land for his descendants.

Bitter Rivalry

The blood of the fallen MacDonalds of Sleat and MacLeods of Dunvegan has painted centuries of Skye’s history red.

During the late 16th century, as an offering of peace to end the long feud between the two clans, MacLeod chieftain, Rory Mòr, offered his sister’s hand in marriage to Donald Gorm.

This was a “handfast” arrangement meaning that, should the intended betrothed not bear a male heir in the first year and a day of living together, then the contract would no longer be valid. A year and a day came and went with no heir in sight and poor Margaret appears to have lost an eye during that time. Donald Gorm sent her back to her brother at Dunvegan Castle tied backwards to a one-eyed horse, with a one-eyed servant and even managed to find a one-eyed dog to add to the entourage. So incensed by the brazen insult, Rory took up arms once again against the MacDonalds and the ensuing battles came to be known as the Wars of the One-Eyed woman.

During these wars, Donald Gorm invaded Trotternish, at that time held by the MacLeods, in an effort to extend his lands in the north. The Battle of Trouternes is aptly named the Battle of Achadh na Fala (field of blood). The fight took place on the banks of the Snizort River at Skeabost, which bordered the territories of the two rival clans. It was said the victorious Donald Gorm cut off the heads of the fallen MacLeods and threw them into the water. As they bobbed out to sea, the heads got caught in the yair at the river’s mouth and to this day that place is known as Coirre-nan-Ceann, “the Yair of the Heads".

After his success over Trotternish, MacDonald took up home in Duntulm Castle but could not rest until he had a decisive victory.

The Battle of Coire Na Creiche took place in 1601 on the slopes of the Black Cuillin ridge, the site of Skye’s famous Fairy Pools. This would be the last Scottish clan battle ever to be fought on the Island. MacDonald defeated and captured Alasdair MacLeod and 30 of his clansmen but his success came at a high price. The fighting raged throughout the day and night and it is said the river, Allt Coir a ‘Mhadaidh, ran red with the blood of both kinsmen.

In fact, the battle had been so violent that the Privy Council decided to step in between the rivals and forced them to negotiate terms of peace. The two families never took up arms against each other again and it was also ruled that Margaret MacLeod was to take “such civil action against Donald Gorme as she might be advised to do".

High spirits at Duntulm

For centuries, Duntulm Castle, “the once dwelling of a king”, served as the seat of Clan Donald. This imposing fortress, now a ruin, lies to the north of Staffin perched on a cliff between a sheer drop into the Sound of Sleat on one side and a deep chasm on the landward side. It was home to The Clan since the days of Donald Gorm but was abandoned in 1732, when Sir Alexander MacDonald built a new house at Monkstadt. The family allegedly fled their ancestral home because of a ghost.

Duntulm, with its history of violence, is said to be haunted by many restless souls.

Donald Gorm: The ghost of this belligerent chief can sometimes be heard challenging his invisible enemies to fight.

Hugh MacDonald: Hugh was cousin to Donald Gorm and his ambition to appropriate Donald’s lands through murder came to an abrupt and terrible end when his letter to an assassin fell into the intended victim’s hands. The plot thwarted, Hugh fled to Dun an Sticir in North Uist but was captured and thrown into Duntulm dungeon. Donald Gorm exacted his revenge by leaving Hugh to die in his black prison, tormented with only a plate of salty beef and an empty water pitcher to keep him company. The thirsty Hugh went mad before he died and his ghostly piercing wails can still surprise visitors to the ruins.

The nursemaid: The seannachies tell the sad tale of the nursemaid who was charged with looking after the son of Donald Gorm. On her watch, the child allegedly fell from the window onto the rocks far below. The laird, in his fury and grief, ordered the nursemaid to be cast adrift on the Atlantic in a boat full of holes.  Shortly after the deed was done, one of the castle’s staff saw a white cloth hanging from the rocks and inside it, the baby was found safe and well.

One-eyed Margaret: Another regular ghostly apparition to stalk the castle ruins is that of the hapless one-eyed Margaret MacLeod.

Over the Sea to Skye

Not all MacDonald’s were staunch supporters of the Jacobite cause. During the ’45 Rising, the exiled prince Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, landed on Eriskay in 1745, raised the Stewart standard at Glenfinnan and called the Jacobites to arms. His aim: to reclaim the Scottish throne. Many of the MacDonald septs rallied to his call, but not Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat, who was a staunch supporter of King George II. Unbeknown to Alexander, his wife Margaret’s loyalties were to the opposing side. It was Margaret’s niece and many other Sleat MacDonalds and Scottish clansmen who would eventually become famous for saving the life of Bonnie Prince Charlie and enabling his safe passage back to France.

When Bonnie Prince Charlie fled from his defeat at Culloden in April 1746, the Government put a bounty on his head at £30,000. Fleeing across the Scottish moors and mountains, with Government troops in close pursuit, the young prince eventually came to the western shores where he boarded a boat to Skye disguised as Flora MacDonald’s handmaiden, Betty Burke. Thanks to the help of loyal supporters, the defeated prince eventually managed to sail to France from Loch nan Uamh in Lochaber.

The Clan Today

War, the wrong alliances, poverty, lavish lifestyles, emigration and forfeiture gradually narrowed the borders of Somerled’s mighty sea kingdom and, in 1971, the last lands of The Clan chiefs were put on the market.

The ruined shell of Armadale Castle represents the last stronghold of the MacDonalds of Sleat and the mansion house, together with its 20,000 acres of land were bought by the Clan Donald Lands Trust as a heritage site for MacDonalds across the globe.

The diaspora of MacDonalds over the years led to many emigrant communities being set up in the New World and, in the early 1700s, whole communities are said to have boarded ships bound for Auistralia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. North Carolina was one of the favoured destinations for Skye settlers, as well as Georgia and New York. Thriving Gaelic communities also began in Canada, in particular the Glendale Settlement on Prince Edward Island and the Cape North Area of Cape Breton, and today still maintain their strong ties to the homeland.

In 2002, the Museum of the Isles was opened at Armadale and holds a wealth of information on the family name that lies at the very heart of Gaeldom.

Heraldry

Clann Dòmhnaill, Na Dòmhnallaich

Motto
Per Mare per Terras (Air muir's tir, Gaelic) (By Land by Sea, English)

Crest
Quarterly, 1st, argent, a lion rampant gules, armed and langued azure; 2nd; Or, a hand in armour fessways holding a cross-crosslet fitchee gules; 3rd, Or, a lymphad sails furled and oars in action sable, Flagged gules; 4th, vert, a salmon naiant in fess proper, over all on an escutcheon en surtout, Or, an eagle displayed gules surmounted of a lymphad sails furled, oars in action sable (as Chief of the Name and Arms of Macdonald).

Translation
1st quarter, silver, a lion rearing red, tongue, claws and teeth bright blue; 2nd quarter, gold, a hand in armour horizontal holding a small burning cross red; 3rd quarter, Gold a one-masted galley sails furled and oars in action black, flag red; 4th quarter, green a salmon swimming horizontal in its natural state; placed over all quarters on a shield, Gold an eagle with wings spread red overlaid by a one-masted galley sails furled, oars in action black (as Chief of the Name and Arms MacDonald).

Badge
Fraoch Gorm or Common Heath.

Tartans
MacDonald of the Isles, MacDonald of Sleat.

Chief
Godfrey James Macdonald, 8th Baron Macdonald, Chief of the Name and Arms of Macdonald, High Chief of Clan Donald and 24th hereditary Chief of Clan Donald.