SomhairliDh sa stair

Sorley (SomerleD) in History

All of the original chroniclers of Scottish history barely mentioned Sumerledus (Latin) and none of them recognized him as the Celtic Leader who drove the Vikings out of Argyle and the Isles. The old histories of Scotland (John of Fordun 1360, the 12th century Chronicles of Mann, Hector Boece 1527,George Buchanan 1579) were all written in Latin. These histories were written for the instruction of royalty and usually twisted history to justify the politics of their royal ancestors and malign their opponents. Although these historians were themselves Scottish, they ignored the oral & written histories of the Highlands and only briefly mention Sumerledus because he invaded Scotland in 1164. It was the very failure to include Clan Donald and the Western Isles’ story in existing Scottish histories that demanded Clan Donald publish our ancestors’ history so it could be preserved for their posterity.

Historical Bias

One clear exception to this historical bias is William F. Skene. In his wonderful 1837 “The Highlanders of Scotland” Skene observed the bias of British historians. He wrote in his preface, “The cause of this somewhat remarkable fact may, perhaps, be traced to the influence of that extraordinary prejudice against the Celtic race in general, and against Scottish and Irish branches of that race in particular, which certainly biased the better judgement of our best historians…”

Then the 1896 history by Rev. Angus Macdonald & Rev. Archibald Macdonald entitled “The Clan Donald” begins on page 50, “We confess to attaching very little value to the opinion of Scottish historians regarding the history of the Highlands. Ignorance of the language, customs, and traditions of the people has so tainted their utterances; racial hatred has likewise so blinded them to facts, that their deliverances on the difficult problems of Highland history are in the main quite unreliable.”

Even back in 1680 Hugh Macdonald compared his “History of the MacDonalds” to the classic Scottish histories as follows, “The History of the Macdonalds is the report of twenty writers in Icollumkill (monks of Iona) before Hector Boetius and Buchanan were born. These pickers of Scottish chronology (Boece, Fordun, & Buchanan) never spoke a favorable word of the Highlanders, much less of the Islanders and Macdonalds, whose great power and fortune the rest of nobility envied, because they judged best to comply with the humors of those who ruled the helm of the state, and men who knew nothing of their own descent, and care less to know that of others…”

Historians did not take Hugh Macdonald’s criticism well. They have branded his work mostly fable because it was based upon Highland oral legends rather than a rewrite of the earlier Chronicles written in Latin by scholars totally unfamiliar with the history of the Highlands & Islands that made up the Kingdom of the Isles.

Back to the Original Gaelic Histories

William F. Skene FSA Scot was a pioneer in restoring traditional Highland history. His 1837 work, The Highlanders of Scotland filled in many of the gaps that had been created by earlier historians over the five previous centuries. Skene used the writings of the Highlanders themselves rather than rewriting the Latin histories of Scotland. He restored the Leabher Dearg (Gaelic Red Book of Clanranald) which is still preserved in the Reliquiæ Celticæ. Skene expressed the opinion that the Red Book of Clanranald was definitely one of the Ossianic manuscripts referred to by James MacPherson. Skene then reported to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland that the Leabher Dearg identified Clan Donald as Finghal and of Clan Cholla. “Mr. Skene then read a translation of a part of the manuscript giving a curious account of the expulsion of the Danes from the West coast of Scotland.” The reason that the Society for the Antiquities of Scotland greeted Skene’s information with such skepticism was due precisely to what Hugh Macdonald stated so forcefully, “These pickers of Scottish chronology and history never spoke a favorable word of the Highlanders, much less of the Islanders and Macdonalds.”

Donald J. Macdonald compiled his history of Clan Donald from same sources used in the 1896 history of the clan entitled The Clan Donald Vol.I, Vol. II , and Vol. III by A & A MacDonald. Their work was compiled mainly from the Reliquiæ Celticæ and Gregory’s 1835 rendition of Hugh Macdonald’s “History of the Macdonalds”. These are the most authoritative histories of Clan Donald and are on the Recommended Reading List by the Clan Donald High Council of Chiefs. But even these works, which contain far more Clan Donald history in each chapter than all the ancient Latin histories combined, fell into the common 19th century practice of using Somerled or Sommerlid instead of the original Somhairlidh or the correct English spelling of Sorley. The Clan Donald authors, A & A Macdonald, speculated about why he had what they accepted as the Norse name (Somerled) as follows, “He may have received that name through some ancestress, perhaps some “fair-haired” Norwegian mother.” Based upon this one speculation in The Clan Donald many authors have leaped to the conclusion his mother was Norse. That his mother was “fair-haired” was a logical conclusion as Finn Gaidheal or Finghal (Gaelic = fair Gael) was a term used to designate Clan Donald in their own histories (the Leabher Dearg or The Red Book of Clanranald). When read in context it is obvious A & A Macdonald only offered the Norse mother theory as a possible explanation of why our ancestor had what they erroneously believed was a Norse name. The 19th century belief was that Somhairlidh was only a way of writing the Norse name Sumarliði in Gaelic. We have now found information the two names may have no etymological connection.

Somhairle Becomes SomerleD

Page 40 of volume I “The Clan Donald” begins with our ancestor’s name in the Gaelic as Somhairle Mor Mac Gillebhride. Then throughout the rest of their three volume work they refer to him as Somerled unless quoting from Gaelic manuscript sources such as the Annals of the Four Masters which consistently used Somairle. The authors then reverted to Somerled in the next sentence. On page 464 the authors record the Gaelic inscription on the monument slab at Iona, “Behag Nyn Shorle Ilvrid Priorissa“. This inscription clearly reads “S(h)orle”. Sh in Gaelic is an “S” sound. Yet the “translation” offered is “Beatrice daughter of Somerled Prioress.” It should be noted Beatrice is a Latin name meaning “blessed voyager”. It was the name of a 4th century Latin Saint as well as the name of the last child of the reigning monarch of Great Britain at the time “The Clan Donald” went to press. Somhairlidh‘s daughter was named Behag or Beathag which in Gaelic means “life” and is pronounced BAY og. Behag was mistranslated Beatrice just as Shorle was mistranslated Somerled. Perhaps Hugh Macdonald’s sharp criticism of his fellow British historians was just as valid almost 200 years later. “They judged best to comply with the humors of those who ruled the helm of the state, and men who knew nothing of their own descent, and care less to know that of others…” We only have one transcript of Hugh Macdonald’s 17th century work in the form of Donald Gregory’s 1835 “History of the MacDonalds” which used “Sommerlid” instead of the original Gaelic Somhairlidh or Sorley. Both Hugh Macdonald’s manuscripts (as contained in Donald Gregory’s work) and the three volume “The Clan Donald” were, and still are, monumental to Clan Donald history, but the names of our ancestors were changed, for whatever reason, from their original Gaelic. To learn how the transition (mistranslation) ocured click on “How Somhairlidh became Somerled“.

This web site is based upon Donald J. Macdonald’s history Clan Donald, but we have gone back to the original Gaelic names of our ancestors rather than use the common mistranslations including Somerled. Many of the original sources such as the Reliquiæ Celticæ, the Book of the Dean of Lismore, 1476 MS, Clan Donald Vol.I, Vol. II , and Vol. III (shown above on the shelf of the Clan Donald Centre library at Armadale Castle ruins), and the same authors’ collection of ancient Gaelic poetry of Clan Donald are available on line and may be downloaded onto your computer or stored on CD so you may see the original Gaelic names.