Cuimhnich co’ Leis a Tha Thu – Thosaigh sé le Somhairlidh

Remember Those from Whence You Came – It Began with Somhairlidh


The Gall Gael (Gaelic Ghall Gaoidheal) that remained in Ireland and the isles in the 12th century were described as “more Irish than the Irish”.  They had Celtic customs, were Christian, and the ancestors of many major Highland clans of Scotland including Clan Donald.  Like the Vikings the 12th century Gall Gael were seafarers.  However their cattle raids and warrior based society cannot be totally blamed on Viking influence. According to the 17th century Gaelic “Black & Red Books of Clanranald”, found in the Reliquiæ Celticæ our ancestor Giolla bhrighde (Gillebride) was both a seaman and a caoraigheacht (Gaelic for nomadic people who followed wild cattle).  These Celtic cattlemen had chiefs & clans that were known as fierce warriors. Clan Donald preserved that part of Celtic culture along with their Celtic form of government, Celtic music, and Celtic social values well into the 18th century when all around them had changed.  Ancient Clan Donald manuscripts prefer the term Finghal(Gaelic = fair Gael or Gàighlig rather than Gall Gael or foreign Gael.

The Sassenach Come to Britain

According to the “Venerable Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” the 5th century British suffered from the constant cattle raids of their Celtic neighbors to the North.   By the 6th century the British king actually invited Angle and Saxon armies to come to Britain and protect them from the Celtic raids.   Some have characterized this as a whole scale Saxon invasion of Britain, but it was more likely a political/cultural overthrow of their ruling bloodlines rather than a change in the bloodlines of the common people.   Thus began the cultural conflict in the British Isles between Celtic and Saxon (or in Gaelic  Sassenach, spoken as if a swear word).  The anti-Saxon sentiment in the North was reciprocated with anti-Celtic propaganda from Britain.  Even today the British Broadcasting Corporation “History of the Peoples of Great Britain” asserts that the original inhabitants of Britain were not Celtic“However, there is one thing that the Romans, modern archaeologists and the Iron Age islanders themselves would all agree on: they were not Celts. The BBC then asks the question “Did the Celts ever exist?” Our answer to the BBC’s question is, “Yes we still exist, and we will preserve our heritage despite the orchestrated attempts to suppress or deny our existence!    Another very interesting, more recent 8 part BBC series actually identifies Britain’s iron age warriors as being Celtic!  Depending on which BBC documentary you prefer you get very opposing conclusions.  I obviously prefer the more recent, 2011 series which concluded the Celts were more of an ancient culture than a “race”.


Whatever culture these post Roman British were, by the 6th century they had an Anglo/Saxon king sitting on the British throne and it became known as “Angland”.  In 1066 AD a failed Viking invasion left “Angland” too weak to resist the invasion of William of Normandy.  The Anglo/Saxon heirs to the throne fled “Angland” for their native Hungary, but became shipwrecked on the Scottish shore where they were cordially met by Malcolm III (Canmore)King of Scotland.  It was not long before Princess Margaret married King Malcolm III and became Scotland’s Queen.  Queen Margaret, who was raised in Hungary, is credited (or accused of) changing Scotland to conform to her Anglo/Saxon concept of civilization (as had already occurred in ancient Britain).   Scotland became more Anglo/Saxon as  Britain,  now known as “Angland” was ruled by Normans who began incurring into Ireland.   Albain Dalriada (the west coast of Scotland)was constantly being raided by Vikings and their Righ were forced to turn to their kindred Celts in Ireland for help.  According to 17th century “Black & Red Books of Clanranald”, found in the Reliquiæ Celticæ Gillebride (Gaelic meaning servant of Brigit) turned to his kindred in Fermanagh (anciently Airgialla) Ireland to help restore him to his “rightful lands” as ruler of Morvern and Ardgore (ancient Albain Dalriada).  Into this world was born Somhairlidh (Somerled) about 1100 AD in what is now County Down, Ireland to the wife of Gillebride Na H’Uaimh (of the cave).  Gillebride‘s designation in Gaelic is an indication of at least part of his life forced into hiding from Viking raiders.


We do not know Somhairlidh’s mother’s ancestry (some have conjectured she was Norse), but p. 153 of Johnstone’s Antiquitates Celto-Scandicæ (History of the Celic Norse)containing the Orkney sagas,  mentions Thorfinn preferred Dubhgallson of Sumerledus (Latin) to be the next ruler (Jarl) of what they called the Suðreyjar (Jar of the Southern Isles). Gaelic records called them the Na h-Eileanan a-straigh(inner Hebridean isles) and record they were ruled by Somhairlidh. Niether the Orkney sagas, Chronicles of Mann, nor any of the Gaelic records indicate Somhairlidh was born of a Celtic father and Norwegian mother.  The Chronicles of Mann also indicate Thorfinn preferred Dubhgall rather than Dubhgall‘s uncle  be the next king of the Sundrey Isles when Amhlaibh, King of Man(n) and the Sundreys was killed by his nephew.

A Gaelic, Norse, or Latin Name?

Amhlaibh is the Gaelic spelling of the Norse name Olav, who was king of Sundrey isles.   The Manx Chronicles are written in Latin, but include many Norse names with Gaelic spellings which probably contributed to the 19th century mistranslation of the Gaelic name Somhairlidh into Somerled.   The difference is Amhlaibh is pronounced “Olav” in Gaelic, Somhairlidh is pronounced “Sorley”, not Somerled. This concept of assonance (the sound of a word) has often been abused by many etymologists who assume that words or names in different languages have a similar meaning or common origin based solely on their sounding alike.   But in the case of Somhairlidh & Somerled they don’t even sound alike (to anyone with even an rudimentary knowledge of Gaelic). The Chronicles of the Isle of Man (in Latin)mention “Sumerledo”as an outsider who conquered & ruined the Norse style Manx Kingdom of the Isles.  “Thus was the kingdom of the Isles ruined from the time the sons of Sumerledo got possession of it.” Both the actions of Thorfinn and the history of Somhairlidh’s adversariessupport Clan Donald tradition that Somhairlidh re-established the Celtic Kingdom of the Isles replacing the Norse style Kingdom of Man.  W.F. Skene’s introduction on p.xxxi of the The Dean of Lismore’s book concludes  “The history of Somarled, the founder of the family…is quite incompatible with his representing a Norwegian house”. Somerled: Hammer of the Norse is a well documented compilation of the various 18th & 19th century contradictory explanations of who Somerled was, and from whom he came.   Going to the original Gaelic sources reveals that this confusion did not exist prior to the“Abolition Act” of 1746The Highlanders’ defeat at Culloden brought an end to many traditional Celtic cultural values including one of the most important, “Remember those from whence you have come”Cuimhnich co’ leis a tha thu“. So we must pass through these 15th -19th century Latin & English rewrites of Scottish history to find the original Gaelic records of “from whence we have come”.

Back to the Originals

According to the ancient original Gaelic Black & Red Books of ClanranaldSomhairlidh‘s father was of Gaelic name and Albain Dalriadic nobility.  The accounts of Gillebride turning to his kindred in Celtic Ireland to obtain a Celtic Irish army, and then the account of Somhairlidh being asked to lead the Celtic clans to repel the Viking raiders both substantiate the Clan Donald tradition they were of Clan Colla and Siol Cuinn(Celtic nobility) rather than Viking ancestry as asserted by some.

No “Pure” Bloodlines

Another paradigm shift required if we are to understand our ancestors is to not think of the various ancient European cultures as different races.  There was considerable intermingling of Norse, Danish, Gaul (French), Saxon (Hungary), and  Celtic bloodlines long before any national boundaries existed.  There is definitely Viking blood in all Clan Donald veins and it may well be that Somhairlidh had a Norse Viking ancestor.  Some have conjectured it may have been Godfrey mac Fergus. It could just as well have been Eochach Dubhlein who lived centuries before.  Not even Prof. Sykes attempts to declare a specific Norse ancestor. Eochach or Eochaidh (Gaelic meaning “of the horseman”) may have been from Dublin which became a major Norse outpost in Ireland.  He married Aileach, a princess from Alba (ancient Scotland) and fathered the three Collas.  Another possible source of a Viking gene is found in the Milesian myth of the the origins of the Irish people 2,500 years ago.    The first settlers of Ireland included a ancient tribe called the Formorians. Formoria was an ancient name of Norway.    William F. Skene noted these Formorians (Gaelic word mhuir literally “under the sea”) as pre-Milesian settlers of Ireland in his commentary on the 15th century Gaelic Dean of Lismore’s book p. 135.  A Gaelic call to arms in this work reminds the Celtic Highlanders to think of how their ancestors had overcame the Formorians just as they would overcome the Sassenach invaders.

Our Heritage is Celtic Culture

Long before the infamous 18th century “Daunting of the Isles” Scottish people set sail for distant lands. Genetic evidence of similar markers in Norway & Scotland does not justify the fore-drawn conclusion that Somerled had paternal Norse ancestors. Even if you accept Prof. Sykes’ interpretation of the common genetic markers it doesn’t change Clan Donald’s recorded history.   No genetic discovery, or conclusions drawn from it, can change the millennia of our ancestors’ Celtic culture.  There are several plausible explanations of shared markers among our Celtic genes and modern Norse genes that do not require we rewrite our genealogy, our clan’s history, or discard the traditional Celtic Royal heritage of our ancestors. (Continue by clicking on Somerled King of Argyll & the Isles  part 4

This web site is based upon Donald J. Macdonald’s 1978 compilation of the history of Clan Donald. He followed the practice of the 1896 three volume work entitled The Clan Donald  which substituted Anglicized names for the original Gaelic manuscripts. This article returned to the original Gaelic in order to better understand our heritage.