Somerled, King of the Isles

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Prior to the 1266 Treaty of Perth, the Western Isles of Scotland were controlled by various Norse and Gaelic rulers who owed their allegiance to the Kings of Norway rather than the kings of Scotland.

So removed from Scottish control were these islands that they referred to themselves as ‘King of the Isles’ (‘Ri Innse Gall’).

And it was from the origins of these island kingdoms the ‘Lords of the Isles’ would emerge.

One of the major figures in the history of the Western Isles, Somerled was born in 1117 and with a mixed Norse and Gaelic pedigree. He would challenge the might of both Norway and Scotland in attempting to make the islands an entirely separate kingdom that answered to no-one but him.

Somerled’s grandfather, Gilledomman of the Isles, had been defeated by the Norse and exiled to Ireland.

When he was a child, Somerled’s more immediate family was also expelled from their home and sent to Ireland. His father Gillebride raised an army of 500 and returned to Morvern to regain their lands; but was beaten off and killed.

Much of Somerled’s youth was spent on the margins of life in his native land. But some time around 1135 he became the leader of a rebellion against the Norse control. He successfully cleared Morvern, Lochaber and the northern part of Argyll from Norse influence and became known as Thane of Argyll: possibly with the formal endorsement of David I of Scotland who would have been grateful to see the Norse tide turned back in at least one part of Scotland.

In 1140, Somerled ettended his area of influence by marrying Ragnhild, daughter of Olaf the Red (Olaf I The Red Godredson), the Norse King of Man, whose territory included the Hebrides. They had three sons, Dughall, Ragnald, and Aonghus. Somerled also had one son by a previous marriage: Gillecallum. Shortly afterwards Somerled helped suppress an uprising against Olaf the Red.

In 1143 Olaf was murdered by the sons of his brother Harold but was succeeded as King of Man by his son (and Somerled’s brother in law) Ochraidh Godred II the Black Olafson, or Godfrey the Black. Godfrey ruled with a heavy hand, and was deeply unpopular. In 1155 there was an uprising against Godfrey, and this time Somerled backed it

Somerled’s involvement proved decisive. Using a fleet of galleys fitted with rudders, the latest in naval technology, a fierce battle ensued and he defeated God-frey at the Battle of Epiphany (probably off Islay) on January 5 or 6, 1156 and declared himself Ri Innse Gall or King of the Isles.

His next ambition was to expand his territories and influence on the west coast of the Scottish mainland.

This desire for a foothold on the mainland was to be a characteristic of the future Lords of the Isles. This desire was to lead to his violent death. The newly powerful Somerled was seen as a serious threat by King Malcolm IV of Scotland, and in 1160 the two met in indecisive battle in Argyll. After an uneasy peace, conflict was resumed in early 1164. So-merled landed an army of 15,000 men from 164 galleys at Greenock.

He decided to push on further and attack Renfew. The Scots King, Malcolm IV moved to resist the invasion but while he was preparing for the battle to come Somerled was betrayed and murdered by his own nephew.

Accounts differ as to whether Somerled was buried on Iona or at Saddell Abbey in Argyll.Upon his death, Somerled’s kingdom was divided between three sons – each of which would form their own clans.

The most notable of which to emerge from this period was clan Donald.

Angus Mor MacDonald, grandson of Somerled, was present at a key event that would be a turning point in the history of the islands.

The Battle of Largs in 1263 saw the effective end of Norse influence in Scottish affairs. Angus fought for King Haakon of Norway against Alexander III, King of Scots. Defeat in the battle saw Angus change alligiance. Angus kept his lands but now they held their titles under the overlord of the King of Scots.

For people who saw themselves as direct de-scendents of the great So-merled – an independent king in his own right – this was always going to be an uneasy alliance. The Scottish king wanted to tighten his grip on the islands while the MacDonalds wanted to strengthen their land claims on the mainland.

For supporting Robert the Bruce in the Wars of Independence, the MacDonald’s were granted more territory on the mainland including Lochaber and Glencoe. Further territories such as Skye and Lewis were granted when John of Islay supported Edward Balliol (son of John Balliol) in his attempts to seize the throne of Scotland in the 1330s.

These further grants saw the appearance of an important new title used. John of Islay wrote to the King of England, Edward III to seek confirmation of his right to the newly granted territories. He signed his letter ‘Dominus Insularum’ – the ‘Lord of the Isles’.

The headquarters for the Lordship was unusual but highly symbolic – an island within an island. A small is-land in Loch Finlaggan on the island of Islay was cho-sen as the administrative centre for the disparate islands and clans that owed allegiance to the mighty MacDonalds.

From this base policies were formed, legal matters settled and the proud history of Somerled and his descendents praised and celebrated. The Lords of the Isles were a power unto themselves – a state within a state. All this was about to change, though.

A change of royal dynas-ty in 1371 saw the Stewarts come to power. The ambi-tious Stewarts would find a worthy adversary in the Lords of the Isles. For the MacDonalds, the seeds of their downfall lay in their battle against the royal family for power, influence and independence.

The last high point in MacDonald power came in 1431 when, after contesting who controlled the lands of Ross, the MacDonald clan defeated a royal army at the battle of Inverlochy. This was only a temporary victory as John MacDonald, the fourth and final Lord of the Isles, was to overplay his hand in a dangerous plot with the powerful Douglas clan to aid the King of England in invading Scotland.

Under the terms of the secret agreement, key territories of Scotland would be divided between the MacDonalds and the Douglases.

The problem was the secret pact did not stay secret. John was held to account and humiliatingly stripped of land and influence. Far more embarrassing was he decision by King James III that the venerated title of

Lord of the Isles was to be no longer a hereditary right – it was to be confirmed by the King alone.Widespread DNA studies suggest that as many as 500,000 people living today are descended from Somerled: this is a number only bettered by Genghis Khan where it’s thought that 1 in 200 men are direct descendants.

This article features in the latest issue of our sister title Back in the Day (on sale now).

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