Somhairlidh Ri Airer Gaidheal agus nan Eileán

Somerled King of Argyll & the Isles

Somhairlidh was first mentioned in the Black and Red Books of Clanranald as a recluse fisherman whose people were cattlemen, but he underwent a mighty change to become the head of a Gaelic army that drove the Vikings from Morvern and then Innesgall. This change has puzzled most British historians who thought the Scots had always been illiterate, primitive people.  But Gaelic histories of Clan Donald paint a clear picture of a flourishing Celtic culture of seafaring people who both fished the high seas and followed wild Highland cattle across Morvern.Historians’ ignorance of Gaelic culture caused them to assume Highlanders learned seamanship from their Norse enemies.   It is flattering they credit Scots with the ability to imitate seafaring so well they could defeat the greatest seafaring people of the time, the Vikings.  But that is not what the Gaelic histories say.   After soundly defeating a large Viking raiding army on land and sinking their longboats,  Somhairlidh established a fleet of warships that could outmaneuver the Viking longboats.   Somhairlidh‘s fleet were not improvised copies of Viking longboats.  They were Celtic style galleys (Gaelic naibhig or nyvaigthat were half the length of Viking longboats and had a rudder in the center aft instead of the Viking “steer board” on the right (starboard) side of the boat. Somhairlidh (Somerled) is credited with inventing the central fixed rudder which was a major innovation to sea travel.  Celtic seafaring was part of their culture long before Viking incursions.

In some respects the nyvaig were similar to the Viking longboats with a high fore and aft and a shallow, open hull for oarsmen.  These galleys had from two to three men on each oar so even a small galley could transport 40 to 50 warriors quickly and the larger galleys could hold more than 100 warriors.   The Celts called their design birlinn (Gaelic = little ships) or naibhig (also spelled nyvaig Gaelic = galleys).  Most of what we know about these nyvaigs comes from Wallace Clark’s account of the reconstruction of a birlinn he called Aileach after the wife of our ancestor Eochach DubhleinAileach is pronounced ail-ee-ach.  Do not pronounce it “I Leak” as I did the first time I read it. That is not a good name for a boat.  The story of the research, construction, and voyages of the Aileach (Gaelic meaning beautiful) is recorded inThe Lord of the Isles Voyage” by Wallace Clark (Out of print).  The Aileach is an example of a small nyvaig. Until recently it was docked at Dunstaffnage Marina, Oban when not on educational tours through the Highlands & Islands of Scotland. The current Chief of Clanranald has participated in many of those voyages.  Support of theAileach project has come from the Lord of the Isles Trust. The Aileach is currently undergoing restoration at Dunollie castle.

Triath nan Eileán, the Kingdom of the Isles

Somhairlidh‘s descendants retained and expanded the territory taken back from the Viking raiders. This became a traditional Celtic kingdom they called Triath nan Eileán, the Kingdom of the Isles. The Celtic concept of an independent kingdom was not well received by the Anglo/Saxon influenced Scottish Kings.  Somhairlidh, his sons Dubhgall & Raghnall, and his grandson Domhnaill (Donald)  all rejected Scottish demands for tribute and allegiance to the Scottish crown.  They supported Máel Coluim MacHeth’s unsuccessful bid for the Scottish throne which put them out of the good graces of Máel Coluim mac Eanraig (Malcolm IV) King of Scots.  They enjoyed greater independence giving allegiance to the Norwegian or English crown than to Malcolm IV.   Somhairlidh‘s galleys defeated two Scottish attempts to invade his kingdom and finally retaliated with an invasion of Scotland in 1164 AD.  A Celtic army made up of 15,000 IrishManx, and Hebrideans filled 163 nyvaigs and sailed up the Clyde river. How different British history would read if Somhairlidh had not been assassinated in his sleep the night before the great battle. Suddenly, without the unifying leadership of their Celtic King of Argyll & the Isles, this eclectic army returned to their various homes after they had encroached deep into Scotland.

Somhairlidh‘s Death

This is another Clan Donald tradition summarily dismissed by modern historians. They site a Scottish chronicle written at least two hundred years after the fact.  A Monk of Glasgow claimed that after this huge army murdered hundreds and plundered Glasgow Somhairlidh was immediately killed in battle and the army of the Isles slaughtered by a much smaller Scottish army.  The 13th century Annals of the Four Masters, state, “Somhairlidh Mac Gilla-Adhamhnain and his son were killed and slaughter of the Men of Airthir-Gaedhel and of Cenn-tire and of the men of Insi-Gall and of the Foreigners of Ath-cliath [took place] around him.”   The early histories of Scotland only briefly mention this battle as the defeat of a rebellious subject of the rightful King of Scotland.

Clan Donald tradition is that Somhairlidh was assassinated and his army withdrew in disarray. Modern historians disregard Clan Donald tradition and believe the monk’s account of a great battle. They say Clan Donald tradition is a Celtic fantasy devised to explain away an embarrassing, total defeat.  If Somharlidh’s army was so completely slaughtered why didn’t the Scottish army invade the Isles as they had attempted to do twice before? The reasonable answer is the Clan Donald account that the Isles-men returned to the Western Isles disheartened at the loss of their warlord.  After heavy losses on both sides, they had accomplished their goal of discouraging another invasion by Walter Stewart of Scotland for the boy king Malcolm IV.

The Kingdom Continues.

Somhailidh’s eldest son (Gillecolum) from his first wife died with him, but under Celtic law his other sons, Dubhgall (Anglicized Dougal), Raghnall(Anglicized Ranald or Reginald), and Amhlaibh(or Olav, named after his grandfather) each received parts of the sea kingdom to rule. Amhlaibh’sline ended without surviving issue. Dubhgall’s descendants became the MacDougal clan who maintained a powerful influence in Argyll and Lorne through their fleets of nyvaigs. The MacDougals only lost their influence when, as a clan, they favored the Baliol family in their unsuccessful bid to rule Scotland.  Clan Donald & Clan Campbell backed Robert the Bruce and obtained the lands previously held by the MacDougal clan. Raghnall’s son, Domhnaill of Islay, ruled Argyll and the Isles next from Finlaggen (Gaelic meaning fair little hollow) on the island of Islay(pronounced Eye’-la) which lies less than 20 miles north of Ireland. It is from Domhnaill (Donald of Islay that Clan Donald gets their name.  The Triath nan Eileán or Kingdom of the Isles continued as a Celtic style kingdom until 1478 when centuries of sparing between the Triath nan Eileán and the Kingdom of Scotland finally resulted in the humiliation of the Clan Donald chief being forced to accept the title “Lord of the Isles” (a title of nobility which is significantly subservient to royalty).  The final blow was the forfeiture 15 years later (1493) of the title “Lordship of the Isles”.  The title since 1493 has been awarded the eldest male child of the ruling house of Great Britain at birth.   The title “Lord of the Isles” was actually only relevant to Clan Donald for 15 years!For over 300 years Clan Donald were the royal family of the Triath nan Eileán or Ri Airer Gaidheal agus nan Eileán meaning “King of Argyle and the Isles”. Continue by clicking Somerled in history .

Note:  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 & titles for the Gaelic originals. This article returned to the original Gaelic in order to better understand our heritage.