Let us start with a very famous quote. This appears in the excellent Fordun chronicles, probably in the 1380s. Fordun is describing all the inhabitants of Scotland.
The manners and customs of the Scots vary with the diversity of their speech. For two languages are spoken amongst them, the Scottish and the Teutonic; the latter of which is spoken by those who occupy the seaboard and the plains, while the race of Scottish speech inhabits the highlands and outlying islands. The people of the coast are of domestic and civilised habits, trusty, patient, and urbane, decent in their attire, affable, and peaceful, devout in Divine worship, yet always ready to resist a wrong at the hands of their enemies. The highlanders and people of the islands, on the other hand, are a savage and untamed nation, rude and independent, given to rapine, ease-loving, clever and quick to learn, comely in person, but unsightly in dress, hostile to the English people and language, and, owing to the diversity of speech, even to their own nation, and exceedingly cruel. They are however faithful and obedient to their king and country, and easily made to submit to law, if properly governed
Bear in mind, then, that this is quite early – as I say, 1380s, and already the signs are there of a distinct division between the lowland and highland. It was most certainly not always thus. Cast your minds back to the days of Alexanders II and III, the last Canmore kings, as we keep doing actually in a sort of golden age kind of way, to a kingdom that had quite happily integrated a variety of different traditions – Pictish, Gallic, French, English. It had done this by its structure and attitude; in a traditional model of European Feudalism, power and authority was delegated to the king’s great men. These regional lords managed that interface between the centre and the culture of their own region. In law as we have seen, local traditions were maintained and law administered, but royal justice was available to all who wished to appeal to it, though increasingly arrogating to itself, the most serious crimes. The position of the Canmore kings as ultimate arbiter in disputes of their magnates, manager of royal land, and provider of a common justice and law had made them essential to all in the political community, and recognised as such. When the Norse and Gaels of the western Isles became part of the Scottish kingdom in 1266, the process of integration started; the descendants of Somerled, the MacDougalls, the Macruaris and Macdonalds, for example, began to marry into the Scottish magnate class, and the way was clear for yet more cultures to be added onto the whole. If you also cast you mind back to the discussions we had in the mists of time, back to MacBeth for example, the basic division has not been highland and lowland, it’s been north and south of the Mounth. It had been Moray that was the centre of opposition to the crown, not the isles.
The civil wars of Balliol vs Bruce messed all that up; because there were clear winners and losers. Highlanders and lowlanders had divided themselves up reasonably equally between the two, but in the western Isles the losers were the MacDougals, who relentlessly opposed Bruce, and were exterminated or thrown out as a result. The Macruaris died out, the Comyns of course were exterminated. Bruce had established a sort of tripartitie power structure in the north to maintain order – earls of Ross, the Murrays along the shores of Moray and Ross, and the Randolphs holding all the regalities.
In the western Isles, this vacuum was filled by two families. The lesser of the two was clan Campbell, established by Bruce, and sort of taking over from the MacDougalls. Sadly, their pedigree could not compete with the Macdougalls, they were nasty parvenus rather than descendants of the great Norse Warrior Somerled, and I hope some outraged clansman will not shout at me if I say that the Campbells have never been terribly popular in west coast tradition. The MacDonalds on the other hand were the surviving branch of Somerled’s lines, and land and power stuck to them as does lint to the belly button. They had supported Bruce and so were given their share of the gains; David II continued the tradition. When the last Macrurie died in 1346 it was John MacDonald who picked up their lands, and by so doing they had pretty much recreated Somerled’s original kingdom, minus Skye. Even so, the MacDonalds and the Western Isles, important though they were remained essentially peripheral and would constantly press for more – specifically, control or influence over the great Earldom of Ross and then into Moray is where their ambitions would inevitably lead. More of that later; but the point for here is that the success of the MacDonalds in itself created division, created a monolith rather than a network of relationships in the Isles dealing with the Scottish kings. It gave the Scottish kings two choices basically; they could either shrug their shoulders and mutter that distributed authority was anyway the model of European feudal idiom, and try to stay on good terms with the MacDonalds; or they could try to subdue them with fire and sword. The second option was a good deal less restful, obviously, and a good deal less risky.
We’ll pursue the political differences that emerge in the late 14th and 15th centuries in a moment, but first it’s worth thinking also about other differences Fordun noted in his description; language, geography and the way of life.
The clue to the geographical difference is sort of in the name – highland and lowland, so no prizes. But there are other differences as we noted in the introductory episodes, in the soil, which tended in the highlands to be thin and acidic, and therefore less well suited to arable farming. I’ve always wanted to known as thin and acidic. Lucky highlands. And so in the highlands farming tended towards pastoral, and towards cattle rather than sheep. The differences though, were of degree rather than of kind – there’s less arable, not no arable, this is still largely subsistence farming. Also, we have got used to the idea that the highlands are sparsely populated after the clearances of the 19th century; here again there was much less of a marked difference in the early 14th century, and the highlands were not dramatically differently populated than the lowlands. Here though, the population collapse of the Black Death in the 1350’s may have accentuated small differences into larger ones. The reduced population meant that there was less settlement of marginal, higher land. Depopulation of the lowlands it meant that there was less need for people from south and East to travel into and settle the higher lands, and integrate, which is a movement that had been going on for centuries. The BD accentuated small differences and made them significant.
Another clear difference between highland and lowland was language. Fordun described gaelic as the Scottish speech, but Gaelic had been in decline since the 11th century, as Scots and English took over in south and East. For much of medieval years, both English and Gaelic were considered inferior languages to courtly French and to Latin, but it’s probably around the early 15th century as the Stewart kings use English as their mother tongue that Gaelic may have begun to seem second rate to the lowland Scots. This sounds rather doom laden, but such would be only half the story. The Black death, as well as slowing down the old migrations and movements from low to high lands, therefore stopped the growth of English; for the next 400 years, the areas where Gaelic was spoken would remain stable. It was therefore still spoken by possibly something like half of the population, and James IV for example in 1490 would make sure he learned the language. As we’ll describe, the 15th century is a golden age for Gaelic culture – Gaelic was categorically not a dying language and culture far from it. However, these things also have the consequence of accentuating the differences between high and low land.
The line that really stays with you from Fordun’s description though, the bit where you can feel the swish of the headmaster’s cane, where he calls them ‘savage and untamed’’given to rapine’ ‘and exceedingly cruel’. Though slightly incongruously they are also ‘obedient to their king and country, and easily made to submit to law, if properly governed’. Which is suggestive – suggestive that these accusations of lawlessness and violence have at their heart poor governance as well as culture. The council and Parliaments of Scotland certainly seemed to think that this was the problem. In 1369, Parliament required landholders to swear to maintain the peace for ‘the pacification and rule of the higher regions’. And we spent the last episode looking specifically at a glowing example of poor governance – the Wolf of Badenoch is pretty much the classic case of those supposed to be maintaining law and order, instead contributing to lawlessness and violence. One consequence, then, of the Wolf’s violence was to add another note to the slowly growing song of the association of highlander with violence.
Much is made, however, of the cultural differences. On the one hand the highlands are painted as the home of a clannish, kin based society of the traditional Gaelic world; while the lowlands are painted with the brush of the Anglo French feudal world. In fact even here the differences are less marked than you might think. One historian wrote
Highland society was based on kinship modified by feudalism, lowland society on feudalism tempered by kinship
For example; female landownership was not recognised in gaelic society; and yet the MacDonalds acquired the Macrurie lands by marriage, marrying heiresses by feudal rules. Succession to lordship went by primogeniture, inheritance therefore, even when different successors had been identified before the death of the current incumbent according to Gaelic culture, as taniste. The Lords of the Isles were not keen to see their lands and authority split up. The use of charters was widespread, implying a feudal attitude to land.
Much of this, however, was behind the scenes, in the engine room as it were, done by sleight of hand – because the Lordship that the MacDonalds built up was distinctively, purposefully and even aggressively gaelic. It was John MacDonald in the mid14th century who first styled himself lord of the Isles, and together with his sons and successors into the 15th century, and their lordship brought peace and stability to the western Isles – in increasing contrast to the central and northern highlands. The lords of the isles based themselves on the island of islay, with their palace on islands on Loch Finlaggen. By the standards of the day, the buildings at Finlaggen would have reflected the power of their lords, though if you look at pictures, for I have not been, they are just lumps and bits of stone now, but then you know, sic transit Gloria mundi and all of that. One day even the shed will be reduced no more than a rusty microphone blown by radioactive winds. The halls would have echoed with the comings and goings of the MacDonalds’ men, servants, lords and slaves, news travelling between the islands and with the mainland; celebrations and feasts, the songs of the bard, all the normal stuff. It’s a period where Gaelic sculpture, music and poetry flourished. Bards would have sung in the halls bigging up the glory of the MacDonalds and their achievements, the Wolf of the Gaels as one poem refers to them. Or, rather retrospectively, the Gaelic lament by the Mac-Mhuirich Bard in the Book of the Dean of Lismore might give a flavour
It is no joy without Clan Donald;
it is no strength to be without them;
the best race in the round world,
To them belongs every goodly man.
The noblest race of all created,
in whom dwelt prowess and terribleness;
a race to whom tyrants bowed,
In whom dwelt wisdom and piety.
Obviously this is where my lack of Gaelic and indeed a Scottish accent gives me a problem, contributions most welcome.
The lords of the Isles maintained that traditional Gaelic link with Iona, they used inauguration at the ancient rock of Dunadd. But maybe the most significant sign of the strength of their veritable western empire is that Finlaggen had no walls. It’s walls were the Macdonalds’ reputation and power.
It’s walls also were the men the lords of the isles could bring together in one place. If the MacDonalds called all their clans they could amass an army of 10,000 clansmen. If a fleet was required they could call on more than 100 Birlinns. A Birlinn was not a Scottish berlini or even a small Scotch pancake – though I have no idea why it should be a smallk Scotch pancake, it’s just that I like small Scotch pancakes, no a Berlinn was a state of the art, sea going galley, longships essentially descended from the Viking model. All that sea between the islands was not a hindrance to communication – quite the opposite, it was far faster than travelling by land. So, on sea and on land, the MacDonalds were without doubt a force to be reckoned with.
Given that I’d just reviewed Braveheart on History in Technicolor when I wrote this episode, I thought I should also dig around in highland dress and all that, since I am given to understand that when Mel strode around in a kilt he was not only making a mockery of the dress of the medieval borders where Wallace came from, which would have been staunchly of the Anglo French tradition, he wasn’t even getting highland dress right. I am told therefore than the earliest credible evidence we have of a kilt is in the late 1500’s, so getting on for 1600. There most certainly is plaid, though the idea of every clan and sept having their own specific tartan will have to wait for the Victorians. The basic items of clothing would be the leine, a shirt basically – full length for women, shorter for men; and the brat, which was a sort of mantle, worn like a cape, which could have been plaid, since apparently the rumour that real men don’t wear plaid is just that – a rumour. They frequently do. The brat might well be the forerunner of the kilt. Men might also wear trews, long length or just like shorts. That, gentle listeners, is all you are going to get, since anything remotely connected with fashion and by implication with shopping, makes me hyperventilate. I even managed to avoid making a weak joke about brats. Go me.
So, have I made the point? The lordship the Macdonalds built was strongly and consciously Gaelic in character; all the Norse heritage had disappeared. The Northern Isles, by the way in case you are wondering, are very much distinct from all of this; they are still in the lordship of Norway, nominally at least, and Norse culture remains strong. But in the western Isles Norse language and culture has been squished by its Gaelic competitor by this stage. The lordship the MacDonalds had built had brought peace and stability to the western isles, and culture flourished.
That’s kind of the good news. The downside of course was that again, to the rest of Scotland all this emphasised difference. Which might just not have mattered a jot; the Scottish political community was very used to lords taking over various lordships very remote from their home land, and running it in tune with local culture. But it did make a difference when political and cultural differences resulted in violence.
A major principle of kin based highland culture was that when a ruling family became weakened, they were open to a takeover, and competing families competed to take over their lands, tenants and rights. Now, lords in the lowlands were no shrinking violets either, but like in England they tended to be sneakier about it – and resort to law, launching legal challenges to ownership. The approach in the highlands was at once more honest, and more violent. What you did is simply move into the area with your heavies and put up ‘under new management’ signs, and demand that rents come to you rather than their previous landlords. Or, maybe even more directly, you just launched plundering raids until they came and submitted to you. Survival of the fittest basically – if they can protect their tenants, well fair enough, if they can’t then the tenants will vote with their feet as it were. No need for any fancy lawyers or their hefty bills. This essentially, then, was what the Wolf of Badenoch was doing last time in the central highlands – it’s a glorified protection racket. Well, not that glorified.
Now with the arrival of the Lords of the Isle and all that good governance, peace and stability all these sorts of thing had to come to an end within the Isles themselves – but the ambitions of the clans found expression elsewhere. Famously, some of them exported their talents, becoming Gallowglasses in Ireland. We used to have an Irish family called MacSweeney down our lane, very keen on Pink Floyd as I remember, friendly, much cooler than me at school. Though honestly that doesn’t narrow it down very much. I’d have been a bit more worried if I’d known that the MacSweeney’s were descended from Scottish mercenary warriors called Gallowglasses. There was little call for that in Swithland. Many Gallowglasses fought for hire in Ireland, but they sold their talents in Lowland Scotland too. Cadets septs of the MacDonald clan, unlikely to inherit due to their secondary position, would have been particularly active in seeking their fortunes elsewhere. More significantly, some began to take advantage of the disorder caused in Moray to seek new lands there. In the 1390s Alexander MacDonald of Lochaber moved up the Great Glen and asserted lordship in the central highlands; in 1394 the Earl of Moray was forced to pay him protection money; in 1402 he sacked and burned Elgin. I mean, who would have lived in Elgin? What is it about Elgin, go and burn and pillage MacDuff why don’t you, just for once!? On another occasion Alexander MacDonald just granted out land that belonged to the Bishop of Moray. How outrageous is that? But there was nothing the bish could do. So effectively yup, that was Alexander MacDonald’s land now. Wotcha gonna do about it then? This is a warrior culture, and an aristocratic, warrior culture, lordship was all.
So, I hope I have built a picture; by the 1350s there were some differences about highland and lowland culture; but not so dramatic that there was anything inevitable about a distrust being built between the two. But from there on in, many things served to accentuate and build the differences; the very success of Gaelic culture and the Lordship of the Isles played its part. The violence and disruption and methods of Alexander Stuart the Wolf until his death also re-inforced the Lowlanders’ fear of violence. Now all of this could still have been dealt with after the Wolf’s death. And indeed as we have seen, the wider Scottish community had already moved by the 1390s to remove the Wolf’s claws, and were continuing to deal with it; the judicial contest of the battle of the clans we heard about last week was part of it. The Raid of Athol by the cubs of the Wolf was initially successful, but in fact the sons who ran it ended up behind bars in Stirling castle. The parliament passed a law requiring Caterans to be killed on sight at one stage. But to be successful and contain this problem, there needed to be unity among the political community, and specifically between the Scottish kings and the Lords of the Isles. But this began to prove elusive. In the 1380s Parliament intervened when a spat with the Lord John MacDonald’s widow and his successor Donald led to hostility; in the 1390’s the raids by Alexander of Lochaber did nothing to help of course.
The biggest bone of contention was the Earldom of Ross. As we have seen, the earl’s family died out, passing the lands to Euphemia who married and then divorced Alexander Stewart. Meanwhile as far as the Lords of the Isles were concerned, they had a claim to Ross, and to gain its lordship was the logical extension of their power and authority. During Robert III’s incapacity, though, it was pretty clear that the Guardian, the Duke of Albany was having none of this – he was related to Euphemia’s family, and was more interested in extending the influence of his own lot. The result, then was the growing disaffection of the Lords of the Isles. The absence of a king does not help; however good a Guardian Albany was, he was a player rather than being, regally set above the game. In 1398 this seemed settled in favour of the Guardian; Albany led an expedition to the west and forced the submission of Donald, the lord of the Isles, and Donald even agreed to imprison Alexander of Lochaber. He did that. Though honestly, as imprisonment goes…well…not so much. He kind of held the door shut for five minutes until no one was looking and then let him out again.
By 1411, the struggle for the control of Ross came to a head. Donald had married Euphemia’s Aunt, Mariota, and decided that enough was enough, he was fed up to the back teeth with Albany and the expansion of the Stewart lot into Ross, time to let the Stewarts feel the edge of good Island steel. Donald called to his clansmen, and the clansmen gathered. Together they swept into Moray and out towards the coast and the town of Aberdeen, from whence the sound of the knocking of Lowland knees. All in their way was swept away, included a force of the Mackays on the way which were soundly thrashed Donald MacDonald ended up on a hill 20 miles outside Aberdeen near Inverurie. Facing his 10,000 clansmen was a hastily assembled force of up to 2,000 men under command of the Earl of Mar, all that stood between the Lord of the Isles and triumph. The Earl of Mar, as it happens was the son of our Alexander Stewart Wolf guy; he had become Earl of Mar by right of his wife Isabel Douglas, and managed to do the job his father failed to do and maintained order with his Caterans rather than inflicting violence and extortion on his lands. The Earl of Mar was a Good Thing, Capital G capital T – according to Walter Bower, he ‘ruled with acceptance of nearly all of the north of the country beyond the Mounth’. Keeping order and protecting the north was what he was about on that day, 24th July 1411, facing 10,000 reasonably hirsute clansmen.
The forces facing each other probably emphasised the clash of cultures – or at least that is what chroniclers represented the struggle as, lowland vs Highland. The Highlanders would have been wearing mainly padded jackets, and wielding axes, knives and large shields. Mar’s army had its own clansmen, as the Irvings, Maules, Moray, Straitons, Lesleys, Stirlings and Lovels came with their tenants, but he would also have had a large component of armoured knights. The Highlanders attacked wave after wave, with extraordinary ferocity and courage – this was their pride and function afterall, the code of the warrior. But each wave was beaten back, time after time, and the bodies of the dead lay in the grass. As highland casualties mounted, so the Earl of Mar ordered his own assault, but the result was just the same – vicious defence, screaming horses and dead lying in the grass. Most medieval battles when you get into it are remarkably short – somebody breaks, runs aways and gets a spear between the shoulder blades; this was not one of those. So long and hard was the battle that it became known as Red Harlaw, so long that dark finally separated the armies. That was an uncomfortable night, the Earl of Mar camped on the battlefield, for the killing to start over in the morning.
When the grey light of early dawn crept over the fields, the Mar looked towards the Law – the Highlanders were gone. The MacDonald bid to control Ross had failed. Over 600 dead were gathered and buried in the local church of Kinkell.
Red Harlaw meant that Albany and the Stewarts maintained control of Ross. The Macdonals had not forgotten their claim; indeed in 1415 Donald MacDonald declared himself to be Earl of Ross, but his claim was not recognised and he had no possession of Ross when he died in 1423. His son Alexander carried on the good work, styling himself Lord of the Isles and master of the Earldom of Ross. He also made sure his family was harbouring one of James’s enemies, one James the Fat. Sheltering James the Fat was quite clearly provoking, designed to tweak the royal nipple.
By 1424, that royal nipple belonged to a new king. The owner of the nipple was James I, who had succeeded in 1406 but been in English captivity, which is a story and a half for next episode. Now he was back, James I was keen to assert royal control over the highlands. James I was keen to assert royal control over pretty much everything actually, hold on to any buns you might be carrying if Jimmy was around. The years 1428 and 1431 were marked by ferocious assaults on the Lordship of the Isles by the Scottish king. In common with most ferocious political attacks, they might work out OK if you succeed. But if you fail, well, you know, you’ve kind of doubled your problem. He started by trying to make some alliances with Macdonald’s neighbours, to weaken the mortar in the wall if you like, but really didn’t get very far with that one. So he tried a new approach.
So, to all; public appearance, by 1428, James I had decided that this problem needed to be talked through with the Lord of the Isles and his clans, in a reasonable, full and frank exchange of views between two colleagues. So James I summoned Alexander and over 40 highland chiefs to the fair town of Inverness for something that looks like a sort of mini parliament. The chiefs responded to the call of their king. And given that they could expect some free time living it up in the fair streets of Inverness, and let me tell you there is a lot of living up to be done in the streets of Inverness, many brought their families with them. Alexander, Lord of the Isles certainly asked Mum to come along, as you do when you are out on the lash, and brought Mariota of Ross along. Though it must be said that since it was through Mariota that came his claims to Ross, you have to think he might have had an ulterior motive. I imagine everyone siting solemnly in the hall, with Alexander catching James’s eye, shoving Mum forward and pointing furiously at her – look there she is, that’s who should have Ross.
Anyway that all turned out to be a bit irrelevant. Because when they arrived, they were not treated to tea and cinnamon rolls, one of the rare occasions incidentally where the use of Cinnamon is acceptable since there are no apples involved. Instead they were met with hard faced soldiers and pushed into nasty small locked rooms with guards worth at least £50 each outside the door; Mariota was treated with a distinct lack of deference, bundled in a way the dignity of the Lord of the Isles would not care to forget as long as he lived.
Which actually didn’t look as though it was going to be long. In a display of quite toweringly bad faith, James I took many of the chiefs who has answered their king’s call, and he had them executed, not even a rigged trial in sight. Angus Dubh McKay, Kenneth Mor, John Ross, William Leslie, Angus de Moray. As the men were put in chains it is reported that James I, who fancied himself as a bit of a poet, composed a couplet in Latin, the big show off
Add turrim forte duacamus caute cohort,
Per Christi sortem meruerunt hii quia mortem
Obviously that means
Let us take the chance to conduct this company to the tower with care
For by Christ’s death, these men deserve death.
Now that he’d killed some of the greatest chiefs and had the lord of the Isles in custody, James hesitated from topping the big one, the Lord of the Isles. I understand that the Campbell clan have something of a reputation for being teacher’s pet, sneaky royal agents is that right? Looking to any Scottish listeners for affirmation? If so here seems to be an example, for one James Campbell was sent to arrest the Tanaiste John Mor MacDonald – the next in line to the Lordship essentially. James sort of did the job, except he kind of overstepped the mark and killed the man instead.
James now effectively bottled it. He held up his hands, said ‘nuffink to do with me guv’ and executed James Campbell. Naughty boy. Naughty. He came to a solemn agreement with Alexander that the Lord of the Isles behave himself from her on it, and released him into the wild.
Right. Well…that agreement was worth less than the air into which it had been spoken. In 1429, Alexander Lord of the Isles brought James the Fat from Ireland, apparently ‘to be king’, though disappointingly James croaked on the way which was disappointing. Nonetheless, Alexander Lord of the Isles called the clans and came to revenge the insult and assault on his authority the whole sorry affair of Inverness represented. He came to the scene of his humiliation and burned Inverness. Northwards came the king with his own army, and once again battle was joined. Not quite sure where; on the western borders of Badenoch or Lochaber which is really quite a lot further west. Anyway, long and short – Alexander lost. Partly that had to do with mixed loyalties; it’s one thing to fight with your lord against the Earl of Mar, it’s quite another to raise your banner against the annointed king. Two clans, Cameron and the network of clans in Chattan deserted to the royal side. Alexander was taken in chains to Edinburgh, to Holyrood Palace. And there he wasn’t hung drawn and quartered, but he was forced to reveal his draws. There’s got to be a better gag there somewhere. Anyway, a bit like John Balliol and Edward I, he was stripped to his underclothes, forced to drop to his knees, hand over the symbols of his power to his king, and was led away to be imprisoned in Tantallon Castle. Things were looking black for the Lordship of the Isles.
What happened next would be critical to the highland lowland divide. James I did not come north to finish the job, if that was ever his intention. But he did delegate as much power as possible to the Earl of Mar – giving him the rights in Ross, the earldom of Buchan, marriage to a Highland chief’s daughter, rights in the heart of the Lordship of the isles in Lochaber. He also have the Earldom of Caithness given to a Stewart. It feels like encirclement and assault, and leaderless, you might expect the lordship to crumble, you thought it’d lay down and die. In pursuit of his claims in Lochaber, Mar came into the highlands. But at the Great Glen, at Inverlochy, the Isles Clansmen, lead by Alexander’s kinsmen Donald Balloch and Alisdair Carrach, had gathered to defend the lordship, sailing up the glen on their Birlinns. Mar was not expecting this, and even when warned apparently stayed in his tent playing cards, which is exactly what I think I’d have done, added to drawing up a duvet around my ears. With a hail of arrows launched, the highland army charged, 900 of Mar’s army lay dead, and all that could be seen of Mar himself was his backside heading up into the hills.
I mentioned that the Kings of Scotland had two basic strategies as regards the lordship of the Isles – nicey nicey or nasty nasty. The battle of Inverlochy saw the end and failure of nasty nasty. Alexander was released, and however you dress it up, his prestige was restored and the attempt to force the Lordship into submission had both crashed and burned. The lordship had proved its internal strength and coherence – without it’s leader it had been capable of staying together, of resisting, and bringing it down would be a massive undertaking. There was no point being half arsed about this. So James went for being no arsed about it. In 1435 when the Earl of Mar died, James gave in and granted the earldom of Ross to Alexander. It was an enormous addition to the power, ambition and status of the Lords of the Isles. Furthermore, early in the next reign, Alexander was made Justiciar in the North.
The 1420s and 1430s, then, transformed the politics of the highlands. Alexander until 1449 played the part of a loyal magnate, but the opportunity to integrate the highlands into the rest of the kingdom was gone. The Lordship was a state within a state. It presented a unified, threatening, gaelic front to the rest of the kingdom. Different, distinct.
In 1449, Alexander’s son John succeeded, at an inauguration ceremony at Dunadd, placing his foot on the step marked by the ancient kings of Dal Riata
True my praising of the MacDonald, hero I’m bound to, hero of every conflict
Sun of the Gaels, face of Colla’s descendant, around the Bann’s borders swift galleys
Meath’s confusion, wolf of Islay, root of bounty, each land’s defender
None grew up around him but kings and queens, true these judgements, true my praising
As the poem went.
John continued to look to extend MacDonald power and glory. It’s a complicated time; internecine political struggles in the north of Scotland, threeway infighting in alliance with powerful lords such as the Livingstons and Douglases, opposed by the earls of Huntly, with the throne intervening to assert the power of James II. At first, John MacDonald did a good job of picking the right side. In 1451 he rebelled against the king, and managed to do so pretty much scot free as it were, holding onto land and castles he captured at Urguhart and Inverness, while the throne tried to deal with their greater problem of the Douglas. John attacked Orkney and Caithness. And he carried out the traditional protection rackets, leaning on the underpowered earl of Moray – between 1460 and 1464 he carried off nearly £1,500 and a huge amount of grain and cattle from crown territory. This is good traditional gaelic stuff. It can hardly have endeared them to the inhabitants of Moray.
In the 1460s brought the prospect of even greater power, or at least at playing on a wider stage. We are in the time of the Wars of the Roses in England. Henry VI had fled to Scotland, and James III had decided to shelter him and help keep the chaos going, south of the border – silly not to. But then Edward IV meddled in return, and he was able to entice John MacDonalds into a secret alliance. This was treason good and proper, though actually it had antecedents – England had before made truces with the Scottish kings and included lords from the western isles as their allies. Now John’s only son Angus began to demand of the lordship that taxes levied by the Stewart kings should no longer be paid to the king – but to the lords of the isles instead. This really is state within a state time then – foreign alliances, state taxes.
But when England and Scotland made peace in 1474, it was a bit like the tide going out om the Norfolk marches. You might wonder what I am talking about. Well, when the tide goes out on the Norfolk marshes, the birds descend in their thousands because revealed in all their slimy glory are the mudflats, squirming with lovely worms and stuff. In the 1460sm the war in England and Edward’s need for friends hid the worms from view. After 1474, he was gone – and the worms that emerged from the mud were the worms of the Lord of the Isles’s treachery with a foreign power. John MacDonald was commanded to come to Edinburgh to submit to the king, and receive judgment at his hands.
John had a reasonably serious decision to make. Inverness in 1428 would have been in his mind; his father’s submission would have come to mind. OK; he was alone; Edward IV had his separate peace with James. Should he stay or should he go? Could the magnificent lordship of the Isles and Earldom of Ross defy the king of Scots?
The trouble was that the knitting was not quite as perfectly executed as it should have been. The tendency of Gaelic lordship, as we have said, was towards open and violent conflict; justice was dominated by the tradition of vendetta. What held and controlled this was the power of the Lordship of the Isles to arbitrate and manage. And the evidence seems to be that John had not been as effective at this as his father had been. In the 1460s a feud had raged among the Macdougalls of Dunollie; Campbells had got involved after a bit of stirring by the Scottish parliament. The ground under John’s feet felt uncertain – would all his clans come when he called? Maybe this affected John’s decision – because when the King called – he answered and he went. For a second time a Lord of the Isles was forced to kneel. And this time he was stripped of land – of the earldom of Ross and of Kintyre; he lost the sheriffdoms of Inverness and Nairn. This was a mighty blow not just to his prestige, as father Alexander had suffered – but also to his material power. Would he be able to make a come back as his father had done?
It’s several years later then, in 1481. We are in the halls of John Lord of the Isles at Finlaggen. Into the hall marched Angus Og, John’s only son and heir to the Isles. A furious argument between father and son ensued. And against every tradition of family and lordship, the father was ejected from the hall into the mercy of the elements. John, Lord of the Isles found himself under an upturned boat and crouching for shelter from the elements. It is hard to imagine greater humiliation for a man so used to power and adulation.
It’s the kind of body blow it’s difficult to recover from. The lava of a full scale civil war erupted over the lordships, and clans took side, until the competing sides met in the sound of Mull in their fleets in what became known as the battle of Bloody Bay. What emerged is a bit confused; some say it was a victory for Angus, some that he and Dad kissed and made up. In fact Angus dies before his father, dying in 1490 after causing some trouble trying to recaptured Inverness, and therefore it seems that his father John remained as lord of the isles. Although Angus left an heir, Donald, the easy succession of primogeniture would be broken, and the chaos of tanaistry reasserting itself. As we move into the reign of James IV in 1488, everything has changed form the glory days. Internally, the authority of lord of the Isles is desperately damaged by internal division and a loss of prestige. Externally, his lordship is much reduced, and the sight of a lord of the Isles humbled by his king is fresh in the memory. These were dangerous times.