Ar Prìomh-athair Dhomhnaill Íle

He, for Whom We are Named: Donald of Islay c. 1185 to 1269

Dhomhnaill is most commonly rendered Donald, but there are. Macdonald or McDonald have both come to mean “son of Donald”.  Dhomhnaill was born about 1185 to Raghnaill mac Somhairlidhpronounced “Ranal mac Sorley” and his wife.  All we know of Dhomhnaill‘s mother is that she was the daughter of MacRandel of Murray.  The 14th century Paisley Abbey Manuscript (MMS) lists their names in Latin as “Douenaldus fillius Reginaldi fillius Sumerledi” which was translated into English “Donald son of Reginald son of Somerled”  (the “d” endings came from the Latin).   A beautiful way of hearing Dhomhnaill said in Gaelic is to listen to Julie Fowlis sing Mo Dhomhnallan Fhein.  Her Hebridean Gàidhlig pronunciation almost sounds like “mo Gunn’l een” meaning literally “my Donald own” or “My Own Donald”. We will use the original Gaelic names to better respect and understand the culture of our ancestors.

Kingdom by Celtic Inheritance & Conquest

Raghnaill (pronounced Rannal) inherited Somhairlidh‘s (Sorley’s) lands in Kintyre, Islay, and half of Arran.  The other half of Arran and the Isle of Butewent to his younger brother Aonghas (Angus). Dhomhnaill then inherited his father’s lands (islands). Dhomhnaill and his uncle Dubhgaill (Dougal) then sailed their nyvaigs (Celtic galleys) together to Norway to affirm their rights to rule their Isles from King Håkon himself.  These Hebridean Kings, including Dubhgaill and Dhomhnaill Íle were precariously balanced between the larger kingdoms of Norway’s King Håkon, England’s King Henry III, and Scotland’s Alexander.

According to historian Hugh Macdonald, Dhomhnaill eventually slew his uncle Dubhgaill. Scotland’s King Alexander then  sent Sir William Rollock as envoy demanding Dhomhnaill submit to the Scottish King’s authority. Dhomhnaill responded with the account of his obtaining from King Håkon the right to rule the lands that his grandfather Somhairlidh had acquired by force.  Apparently Dhomhnaill lost all confidence that the King’s envoy would faithfully present his case to the King of Scotland so he killed him and sent the body to the king as his reply!  We should bear in mind this was centuries before Shakespeare coined the phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger”.  The first step toward understanding our ancestors is to view them in the context they lived and not condemn them as Scottish historians did.  Buchannan referred to our Highland ancestors as fures et Latrones(Latin for fugitives and robbers) to justify the government exterminating them.  Our ancestors lived in an extremely violent world in which their leaders retained power by prevailing in armed conflict. From these few contemporary references still in existence we know Dhomhnaillwas a warrior king.

The Chronicles of the Isle of Man tell us that in 1192 Raghnaill mac Somhairlidh and his sons were defeated in battle against his brother Aonghas. But in 1210 Aonghas and all 3 of his sons were killed at Morvern in battle against the Norsemen from the Isle of Skye.  Raghnaill took over Arran and Bute after this brother’s line was extinguished.  Those islands then became part of Dhomhnaill‘s domain .  The Annals of Ulster Senaitstate that in 1210 Raghnall mac Somhairlidh fought a battle with and slaughtered the men of Sciadh (Skye). Dhomhnaill would have been 25 at that time.  Dhomhnaill‘s life was in constant strife with his Mhic Dubhgaill (MacDougal) cousins in Argyll and Lorne and his Olafson cousins who ruled the Isle of Man, Skye, and the Outer Hebrides.   Several Irish legends remain of battles fought when Raghnaill mac Somhairlidh and his sons raided Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man.   Nyvaigs transported Dubhgaill’s and Raghnaill’s troops to Ireland,  through the Northern isles and as far as Norway just as  Somhairlidh‘s armies traveled Per Mare Per Terras (By Sea and By Land) to establish this sea kingdom from Islay to Skye that became the Triath nan Eilean or Kingdom of the Isles.

Dhomhnaill Seeks the Pope’s Absolution

Dhomhnaill’s nyvaigs even transported him to Rome with his entire entourage, including seven priests, seeking the Pope’s absolution for past transgressions of God’s law.  Dhomhnaill presented himself before Pope Innocent IV to submit to the will of the God and the Church. When the Pope asked Dhomhnaill if he would submit to whatever punishment the Church saw fit, he said he would agree to be to be burned in a cauldron of molten lead  if necessary.    The Pope saw him as truly penitent and may have comforted Dhomhnaill by telling him the Legend of St. Julian, another man who had taken many lives, but through penitence had become the patron Saint of warriors & even murderers (who knew murderers had a patron Saint?).  Pope Innocent IV  sent him back to rule his island kingdom with a full Papal absolution.  For the rest of his life (at least 20 years) Domhnailldemonstrated a resolve to serve his fellow men and the Church (following the example of St. Julian).  He built the monastery of Sadell on Kintyre dedicated to the Virgin Mary and donated large land grants to the monastery as well as an island to the Nuns of Iona.  He also had erected standing crosses on several isles of his kingdom.  The Kildalton cross may predate Donald, but it stood on his home island and  prominently displays engraved scenes of Cain slaying Abel, Abraham preparing to slay his son as a sacrifice, and David slaying a lion (the Hebrew word for lion אַרְיֵה is only one letter different than Uriah אוּרִיָּה , Bathsheba’s husband whom David had slain).  David’s slaying of Uriah led to his downfall and the loss of his kingdom. The man who commissioned this cross (possibly Còllum Cille?) had obvious concerns about the standing of someone who has taken a life. The Kildalton cross wasn’t commissioned by Donald, but it certainly was a prominent feature of the island Donald called home.  Living to such an advanced age was not typical of the warrior kings of his day.   Few lived to their 50’s, let alone Dhomhnaill‘s 80+ years, and few had an opportunity to “make peace with his Maker”.  The last fourth of his life was in sharp contrast to the reputation he had earned over a half century.  It is obvious  that it was important to Donald that he be remembered as more than a warrior king.  Though absolved by the Pope, he was not as easily forgiven by his enemies.

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 independance with The Bruce at Bannockburn.   Angus Og accepted The Bruce’s offer to  grant him the lands held by Dubhgaillchiefs 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 learning 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