The Rising Eagle Symbol of Clan Donald

This symbol of Clan Donald has always been more than just an eagle. Not an eagle perched in its nest, or an eagle gliding overhead.  It is “a rising eagle” or an eagle taking off.  The rising eagle, with its wings fully outstretched, ready to propel into the heavens, not only demonstrates its full size, but its full potential to rise above its surroundings.  Another Heraldic term is “an eagle armed” meaning wings outstretched and claws bared.  A & A Macdonald’s 1896 “The Clan Donald” Vol.I p 153 referred to Donald of Harlaw, Lord of the Isles as the “Hebridean eagle“.

The Hebridean Eagle

The eagle that was native to the 15th century Hebridean islands was the mighty sea eagle with nearly twice the wing span of modern golden eagles.  It was native to Ireland, the West coast and Western Isles of Scotland and a frequent flyer through most Celtic legends.  It isn’t known why the sea eagle ceased to fly over the Hebrides, but theories range from human competition for their diet of salmon to hunting them to extinction in retaliation for avian kidnappings! Folklore of eagles abducting children are common throughout Britain.  Several pubs called“The Eagle and Child” each have their own story. One “Eagle and Child” pub in Oxford was where J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis met regularly.  Such folklore likely inspired J.R.R. Tolkein’s account of huge eagles in the“Lord of the Rings” or C. S. Lewis’ flying Griffins in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. The last sea eagles nesting anywhere in Great Britain were observed on the Isle of Skye in 1916, but a related species of giant eagle has recently been reintroduced to the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland.  They are becoming quite a modern tourist attraction with frequent sightings from Ardnamurchan to the Isle of Skye, the same expanse as the ancient Lordship of the Isles.

The Origins of the Rising Eagle as a Symbol of Clan Donald

When explaining the arms they selected for the cover of “The Clan Donald” 1896, the authors, Rev. Angus Macdonald of Kilearnan & Rev. Archibald Macdonald of Kiltarlity said they chose the armorial bearings of the Lords of the Isles.  This is a curious statement since the oldest authority on Scottish Heraldry, Sir David Lindsay, Lyon King of Arms compiled the first catalog of Scottish Heraldry in 1542, long after the forfeiture of the Lordship.   His verbal description of arms of the Lords of the Isles was “galley or longafhada, with an eagle displayed, and a fiery cross.” In heraldic terms “a bird rousant (rising) faces dexter (left) with its head upturned and wings raised, as if about to take flight.” This description has been the basis for all of the so called “Clan Donald Coats of Arms”  displayed on “Clan Maps” and several books about the Highland clans including the 1897 three volume history of “The Clan Donald” and the Donald J. MacDonald’s 1978 history of “Clan Donald ” which this web site is based upon.

Seal of the Lords of the Isles

The Clan Donald volume I (p 548) refers to the eagle being displayed with the galley in the Lords of the Isles “Armorial Bearings”.  The oldest existing examples we have of “Armorial Bearings” are the wax seals that accompanied the Lord’s signatures on documents.  The earliest Lords of the Isles, beginning with Somhairlidh‘s sons, Dubhgaill & Raghnaill and Domhnail‘s son Anghus of Islay displayed only the galley on their seals.  Aonghas Mór mac Dhomhnaill mhic Raghnaill mhic Somhairlidh‘s seal affixed to a document signed in 1292 has four bearded men possibly representing his status as the 4th generation Lord of the Isles.  His grandfather, Raghnaill mac Somhairlidh‘s seal also had four bearded men which in his case was more likely representing the four sons of Somhairlidh (Somerled).

Donald of Harlaw

The first armorial bearing to include the rising eagle wasn’t until Donald of Harlaw born about 1363.  He claimed the right to the Earldom (lands) of Ross through his marriage to Mariota Leslie. To enforce that right in 1411 Donald of Harlaw gathered more than 10,000 Highlanders & Islanders and marched across Ross gathering (or conscripting) supporters until he reached Aberdeen.  The Battle of Harlaw occurred there between the Highland army under Donald of Harlaw and the forces of Robert Stewart, Earl of Mar, Duke of Albany and Regent of Scotland.   After a lengthy, horrendous battle both sides left the battlefield declaring a costly victory. The Lord of the Isles had secured Ross and the Regent of Scotland had prevented the Highland takeover of Aberdeen.  Donald of Harlaw’s son Alexander also had the “eagle surmounted upon a galley” in one quarter of his Armorial Bearings.  The last Lord of the Isles to include the eagle in his armorial bearings was Alexander’s son, “Good” John of Islay.  The cover of Donald J. Macdonald’s history of Clan Donald is an artist’s rendition of “Good” John of Islay’s arms.  He was also the last Lord of the Isles who was recognized as the Earl of Ross.  Most historians have concluded that the eagle represented the Lord of the Isles claim to the Earldom of Ross, but it has since become the seal representing all the Lords of the Isles.   “Good” John’s arms are certainly unique in that he employed one large Rising Eagle as the “supporter” of the shield where all the other arms have an animal or human supporter on each side.  The use of the rising eagle as both a primary symbol on his shield and another rising eagle supporting the shield has really caused “Good” John’s arms to stand out in the Heraldic crowd.  It is obvious why Donald J. Macdonald selected it for his cover and why the Rising Eagle has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Clan Donald.  The current Rt. Honorable Lord Macdonald of Macdonald and several other Clan Donald chiefs have incorporated the rising eagle into their matriculatedarmorial bearings indicating their literal descent from the Lords of the Isles.

An Alternate Explanation of the Rising Eagle Symbol

The authors of “The Clan Donald” suggest  another possible (p 439) explanation for the addition of the rising eagle in the arms of the Lords of the Isles.  They point out that the galley was incorporated into the coats of arms of many unrelated clan chiefs who were governed by the Lordship of the Isles.   They concluded that adding the eagle to  the Lords of the Isles arms represented the leadership role of the Lords of the Isles governing these other isles clans.   This explanation does coincide with the dates that the Lords of the Isles ruled their island kingdom.  The 1411 brosnachadh(Gaelic= inciting to battle) at Harlaw was an address to the Highland warriors that  proclaimed Donald of Harlaw, The Hebridean Eagle‘s inherent right to lead the Highlanders.  The poem declares, “Ceannas Ghaidheal do Chlann Cholla ‘s còir frògradh” literally meaning The head of the Gael it is Clan Colla’s right to proclaim!

Scottish Heraldry Almost Silent

Yet Scottish Heraldry has been curiously quiet upon the heraldic symbol of the rising eagle.  Scottish Heraldry Society authority Alexander Maxwell Findlater’s wonderful article on West Highland Heraldry only brieflymentions the rising eagle in contrast to his detailed discussion of other Clan Donald symbols.  This is understandable because the rising eagle does appear to be almost unique to the Lords of the Isles where the other symbols of Clan Donald are found in several other clan chief’s armorial bearings.  And the Lords of the Isles ruled prior to the establishment of Scottish feudal heraldry. With the key exception of Angus Og Macdonald”s support of Robert the Bruce, the Lords of the Isles were generally rivals to the Scottish crown.  So it is understandable that we must look to records predating 15th century Scottish Heraldry to find the symbols our ancestors associated with the Lordship of the Isles.  The Rising Eagle, along with the galley were pre-Heraldic symbols of the kingdom established by Somhairlidh in the 12th century, forfeited to the Scottish crown in the 15th century, and eventually outlawed by the British government in the 18th century.