The MacIains of ArDnamurchan

The crest of the MacIains of Ardnamurchan is the Rising Eagle with its head erect and its wings spread as if to take flight. This is referred to as “rising” in Scottish heraldry. The current residents of Ardnamurchan tell us the great sea eagle is again a frequent sight in the skies above Ardnamurchan and the Western Isles. Only reintroduced to the British Isles in 1975 after almost a century of being relegated to Celtic mythology. The elongated neck and huge wingspan (up to 8 feet) are what distinguish this as a sea eagle on the Ardnamurchan crest. The Ardnamurchan peninsula is well known for a wide variety of wildlife and birds. Sea eagles are once again feeding on the salmon which are plentiful in the seas surrounding Ireland & Scotland. The motto of this branch of Clan Donald is “In Hope I Byde”, perhaps a reference to the Ardnamurchan chiefs’ repeated attempts to restore the Lordship of the Isles after it was forfeited. Perhaps the sea eagle is a “not so subtle” symbol of the once dominant power that was centered in the Western Isles and peninsulas. Like the Lords of the Isles the sea eagle was once the largest and unrivaled predator of the seas and western isles of Scotland. A fitting symbol of this branch of Clan Donald.

Ardnamurchan is Gaelic meaning “point, or high place, of the sea hounds (otters)” and is the most westerly point of the Scottish mainland. It spans from Ardgour (Gaelic = high place of goats) to Morvern (Gaelic = sea gap) on the south and Kilchoan originally Cill Chomhghain (Gaelic = church of St.Comgan) to the North. Kilchoan is the most Westerly village on Great Britain’s mainland. The ancient manuscripts and legends all refer to the lands from which Sòmhairlidh (Somerled) first expelled the Norse as Ardgour & Morvern. These are the lands of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. The earliest reference to Ardnamurchan is in the account of the missionary journeys of Colum Cille (St. Columba). Ardnamurchan is described as a very rough, wild area referred to as Garmoran (Gaelic = rough bounds).

The ruins of Mingary castle (Gaelic mhionn ghairaidh = oath of a fertile field or Mioghairigh = smiling king) was built in the same design as castle Tiram in Clanranald country. Its origins are not recorded, but it was occupied by the MacIains of Ardnamurchan until seized by the Scottish King upon the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493.

The MacIains of Ardnamurchan (alternate spelling MacKean) are descended from Iain Sprangoch, Gaelic meaning John the Bold, who was the son of Angus Mhór, the 4th Lord of the Isles. Angus Mhór was awarded the lands of Ardnamurchan in 1284 for his participation in the assembly that declared the Maid of Norway heiress to the crown of Scotland. Like many Clan Donald chiefs Iain Sprangoch gave allegiance to whatever crown acknowledged his right to govern the people living on the lands their ancestors held for centuries. This often put Iain Sprangoch at odds with neighboring clans and even the other branches of Clan Donald.

The English King Edward I granted Iain Sprangoch “the dignity of Baron of the Exchequer of England” during the same period his brother, Angus Og and most of Clan Donald supported Robert the Bruce against King Edward I (Old Longshanks). The Ardnamurchan branch were also one of the few branches of Clan Donald to embrace the Reformation and the “The Covenant” (which led to a religious civil war in Scotland & Great Britain) when most of Clan Donald remained Episcopalian or Catholic. There were many marriages between Clan Campbell and several branches of Clan Donald, but most frequently with the MacIains of Ardnamurchan because of shared religious views. Although the Ardnamurchan leadership embraced many changes that occurred in Scotland the one change they could not accept was the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles. It was John II of Islay’s 1462 treaty with the English King Edward IV (that the Lords of the Isles would rule the Highlands as an English vassal when England conquered the Lowlands) that lead the Scottish Parliament to require the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493. When the attempt to restore the Lordship of the Isles in 1540 failed, King James V proclaimed the Lordship of the Isles would forever be the inherent right of the eldest son of the reigning Scottish monarch. Ironically, with the 1603 unification of the English & Scottish crowns under his son, James VI the result was very similar to what the earlier Scottish Parliament had deemed evidence of treason that required the forfeiture of the Lordship!

A MacIain of Ardnamurchan chief was blamed for the killing of the father of Sir. Donald MacDonald of Lochalsh which brought a siege of Mingary and fire & sword upon the surrounding Ardnamurchan branch by the Lochalsh MacDonalds in 1515 and again in 1517. In 1519 King James V gave the Ardnamurchan lands including Mingary to Colin, Earl of Argyll. In 1588 the MacIains of Ardnamurchan allied with their Dunnyveg cousins fighting in Ulster, Ireland, on Colonsay, and finally at home on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. These continued skirmishes abroad and finally at home with their MacLean of Duart neighbors severely weakened their ranks and their ability to maintain their lands. In 1622 the MacIains of Ardnamurchan attempted to retake Mingary castle from Donald Campbell, son of Colin Campbell of Calder. The slaughter of the MacIains was so devastating to this branch of Clan Donald that they never recovered.

The Ardnamurchan chief’s persistent aspirations to bring back the Lordship of The Isles failed to unite Clan Donald and eventually the Ardnamurchan chief sold his remaining estates to the British crown and retired to London. Many of the surviving Ardnamurchan clansmen left the Ardnamurchan peninsula hoping for better prospects as part of the plantation experiments in Northern Ireland beginning in 1605. Like the sea eagle on the MacIain of Ardnamurchan’s crest, this branch of Clan Donald does not play the prominent role it once did in Ardnamurchan’s rough country.

Ardnamurchan Events

There is a blog with beautiful photos of the Arnamurchan wildlife for which it is famous. It is found at Jon, a current resident informs me the most common bird of prey in this part of the British Isles is referred to as the “common buzzard”. He has had many tourists excitedly declare sighting eagles that he identified as actually being buzzards. The common buzzard is a far cry from what those in North & South America call a buzzard. The common buzzard of Great Britain resembles an eagle although the average wingspan is less than 4 feet. Jon informs me there are a few Golden Eagles native to this area. Sea Eagles were re-introduced on the Isle of Rhum and then to Mull a few years ago and have done well. He says they are huge, sometimes described as “a flying barn door”and very exciting to see. If you are able to walk this beautiful land of our ancestors it will be worth your time. If you are far distant you can enjoy the scenes shared by a current resident by going to his blog.

Restoration of Mingary Castle ruins have been completed. Click on the link in blue to learn more of Mingary and its award-winning restaurant. A new web site for MacIains of Ardnamurchan all over the world has been completed at “Go on… be a part of it”!