Ar Prìomh-athair Dhomhnaill Íle

Dhomhnaill’s ADvanceD Years

Most historians quote the Chronicles of Loch Cé p.377 to conclude Dhomhnaill Íle died in 1247 at the battle of Ballyshannon. But it is more likely this reference to the slaying of “mac Somhairle” refers to Dhomhnaill’s cousin Ruaidhri (Rory). If the 62 year old Dhomhnaill even took part in a losing battle in which his cousin died, that may well have provided the inspiration for his well documented pilgrimage to Rome (and the Pope was not in Rome until after 1247 due to a dispute with the Roman Emperor Frederick II). The best evidence that historians misinterpreted the date of Donald’s death is the reference in the Chronicles of the Isle of Man that in 1249 Haralder Gudredarson (the black) imprisoned an elderly Dhomhnaill, “one of Olaf’s favorite vassals” and his young son. It is recorded in the Isle of Man chronicles that Dhomhnaill and his son escaped and gave thanks to St. Mary at the Abby of St. Mary in Rushen, Isle of Man.

Precariously BalanceD IslanD Kingdom, Triath nan Eilean

In 1263 the Norse King Håkon Håkonsson (son of the Norse king who had affirmed Dhomhnaill’s right to rule) personally brought a fleet to halt the Scottish encroachment upon his vassal Hebridean Isle Kingdoms. The resulting horrendous Battle of Largs was devastating to both Norway and Scotland. The death of Håkon Håkonsson upset the balance of power that had allowed the existence of the Hebridean Isle Kingdoms. They were now left to King Alexander’s unfettered designs on the Isles. In fact most Scottish histories ignore Somhairlidh’s driving the Norse from Argyll and the Isles and his establishment of the Triath nan Eilean over a century before Largs. They point to Largs as when Scotland’s King Alexander drove the Norse from the Scottish Hebrides.

Prior to Largs Scotland faced its own continual skirmishes along the border with England. With Scotland otherwise occupied the Hebridean Kings were content to be vassal kings to England and/or Norway rather than being absorbed into the Kingdom of Scotland. The Hebridean Kingdoms remained Celtic style vassal kingdoms while Scotland moved toward a European style feudal system with one monarch served by Lords instead of vassal kings. Rather than committing his sizable forces to either side in the battle of Largs there is a conspicuous absence of the aged Dhomhnaill Íle. Some have claimed Donald’s son Angus sided with King Håkon, but immediately changed allegiance after Scotland’s “victory”. Others question that Largs represented a clear victory for either Scotland’s Alexander III or Norway’s King Håkon. If the victor at Largs was not clear, the Hebridean Isle Kingdoms clearly lost the autonomy they had enjoyed under Håkon. They stubbornly continued to govern themselves as they had for centuries, but other than Robert the Bruce, most of the Scottish kings considered them “rebellious subjects” rather than vassal kings.

The Death of Dhomhnaill Íle

The Sleat historian Hugh Macdonald claimed that Icolumkill ( Church of Columba at Iona) recorded Dhomhnaill Íle died at Shippinage (Skipness, Argyll, Scotland) in 1289. That would have made him 104! Most Clan Donald historians agree that 1269 is more likely and supported by the lack of documentation mentioning his activities after 1269. But his last years were devoid of conflict and in service to man and Church which didn’t “make the news” in the 13th century any more than it does today. The 1269 date would have made Dhomhnaill 84 when he died which is still remarkable considering his lifestyle and the average lifespan being 35 in the Middle Ages (due to high infant mortality rate and violent deaths of young men). With his ancestor Conn cued cathach, Dhomhnaill could well claim the title “of a hundred battles”.

In classic Celtic manner each of Dhomhnaill Íle‘s three sons, Angus Mhòir, Alexander, and Somhairlidh inherited portions of the island kingdom now referred to as branches of Clan Donald. Angus Mhòir was elected the next Triath nan Eilean (King of the Isles) and tried to continue his father’s policy to ally with England (as did the Balliol house of Scotland) in order to maintain the island kingdom’s independence. The departure from this position only came after Angus Mhòir’s younger son, Angus Og maintained a close, personal friendship with Robert the Bruce. Under the leadership of Angus Og the Islesmen fought and won Scotland’s independence with The Bruce at Bannockburn. Angus Og accepted The Bruce’s offer to grant him the lands held by Dubhgaill chiefs under King Balliol. The Bruce’s condition was that the lands granted would be to the Lord of the Isles (rather than King). In this manner Dhomhnaill Íle‘s Triath nan Eilean (Kingdom of the Isles) voluntarily became the Lordship of the Isles and part of King Robert the Bruce’s feudal Scotland. Ironically the Lordship continued for 224 years after the death of Dhomhnaill Íle before James IV demanded forfeiture after he learned that a previous Lord of the Isles had entered into treaties with England. The Lordship of the Isles was forfeited to the Royal Family where it remains today. After the forfeiture there arose the Gaelic saying in the Highlands and Islands “Chan eil aoibhneas gun Chlann Dhomhnaill” which means “There is no joy without Clan Donald.”

Mo Dhomhnallan Fhein by Julie Fowlis