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Lord of the Isles

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Creation date
c. 875

Heir apparent

Present holder

Lord of the Isles

The Lord of the Isles (Scottish Gaelic: Triath nan Eilean or Rìgh Innse Gall) is a title of Scottish nobility with historical roots that go back beyond the Kingdom of Scotland. It emerged from a series of hybrid Viking/Gaelic rulers of the west coast and islands of Scotland in the Middle Ages, who wielded sea-power with fleets of galleys (birlinns). Although they were, at times, nominal vassals of the Kings of Norway, Ireland, or Scotland, the island chiefs remained functionally independent for many centuries. Their territory included the Hebrides, (Skye and Ross from 1438), Knoydart, Ardnamurchan, and the Kintyre peninsula. At their height they were the greatest landowners and most powerful lords in the British Isles after the Kings of England and Scotland.


The end of the MacDonald Lords came in 1493 when John MacDonald forfeited his estates and titles to King James IV of Scotland. Since that time, the title has been held by the Duke of Rothesay, the eldest son and heir apparent of the King of Scotland, which, since the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain, is now borne by the Prince of Wales. Thus Prince Charles is the current Lord of the Isles. The only island still in the possession of the MacDonalds is tiny Cara off Kintyre, which is owned by the MacDonalds of Largie, a small remnant of a once vast family inheritance.


The arms adopted by the Lord of the Isles varied over time, but the blazon given and illustrated in the "Armorial of Sir David Lindsay of the Mount" (1542) is: Or, an eagle displayed gules beaked and armed sable overall a lymphad sable.


The west coast and islands of present-day Scotland were those of a people or peoples of uncertain cultural affiliation until the 5th century. They were invaded by Gaels from Ireland starting perhaps in the 4th century or earlier, whose language eventually predominated. In the 8th and 9th centuries this area, like others, suffered raids and invasions by Vikings from Norway, and the islands became known to the Gaels as Innse-Gall, the Islands of the Foreigners. Around 875, Norwegian jarls, or princes, came to these islands to avoid losing their independence in the course of King Harald Fairhair's unification of Norway, but Harald pursued them and conquered the Hebrides as well as Man, and the Shetland and Orkney Islands. The following year, the people of the Isles, both Gael and Norse, rebelled. Harald sent his cousin Ketill Flatnose to regain control, and Ketil then became King of the Isles. Scotland and Norway would continue to dispute overlordship of the area, with the jarls of Orkney at times seeing themselves as independent rulers.

In 973, Maccus mac Arailt, King of the Isles, Kenneth III, King of the Scots, and Máel Coluim I of Strathclyde formed a defensive alliance, but subsequently the Scandinavians defeated Gilla Adomnáin of the Isles and expelled him to Ireland. The Norse nobleman Godred Crovan became ruler of Man and the Isles, but he was deposed in 1095 by the new King of Norway, Magnus Bareleg. In 1098, Magnus entered into a treaty with King Edgar of Scotland, intended as a demarcation of their respective areas of authority. Magnus was confirmed in control of the Isles and Edgar of the mainland. Lavery cites a tale from the Orkneyinga saga, according to which King Malcolm III of Scotland offered Earl Magnus of Orkney all the islands off the west coast navigable with the rudder set. Magnus then allegedly had a skiff hauled across the neck of land at Tarbert, Loch Fyne with himself at the helm, thus including the Kintyre peninsula in the Isles' sphere of influence. (The date given falls after the end of Malcolm's reign in 1093.)

Founding of the dynasties

Somerled, Gilledomman's grandson, seized the Isles from the King of Man in 1156 and founded a dynasty that in time became the Lords of the Isles. He had Celtic blood on his father's side and Norse on his mother's: his contemporaries knew him as Somerled Macgilbred, Somhairle or in Norse Sumarlidi Höld ('Somerled' means "summer wanderer", the name given to the Vikings). He took the title Rí Innse Gall (King of the Hebrides) as well as King of Man.

After Somerled's death in 1164 three of his sons divided his kingdom between them:

  • Aonghus (ancestor of Clan Macruari)
  • Dughall (ancestor of Clan MacDougall)
  • Ragnald, whose son Donald Mor McRanald would give his name to the Clan Donald which would contest territory with the MacDougalls.
  • King Haakon IV of Norway (reigned 1217–1263) confirmed Donald's son Angus Mor (the Elder) Mac Donald (the first Macdonald) as Lord of Islay, and the two participated jointly in the Battle of Largs (1263). When that ended with an effective victory for Scotland, Angus Mor accepted King Alexander III of Scotland as his (nominal) overlord and retained his own territory.

    Council of the Isles

    The Lord was advised (at least on an occasional basis) by a Council. Dean Monro of the Isles, who wrote a description of the Western Isles in 1549, described the membership as consisting of four ranks:

  • Four "great men of the royal blood of Clan Donald lineally descended" (Macdonald of Clanranald, Macdonald of Dunnyvaig, MacIain of Ardnamurchan and Macdonald of Keppoch)
  • Four "greatest of the nobles, called lords" (Maclean of Duart, Maclaine of Lochbuie, Macleod of Dunvegan and Macleod of the Lewes)
  • Four "thanes of less living and estate" (Mackinnon of Strath, MacNeil of Barra, MacNeill of Gigha and Macquarrie of Ulva)
  • "Freeholders or men that had their lands in factory" (Mackay of the Rhinns, MacNicol of Scorrybreac, MacEacharn of Kilellan, Mackay of Ugadale, Macgillivray in Mull and Macmillan of Knapdale).
  • In practice, membership and attendance must have varied with the times and the occasion. A commission granted in July 1545 by Domhnall Dubh, claimant to the Lordship, identified the following members:

  • Hector Maclean of Duart
  • John Macdonald of Clanranald
  • Ruari Macleod of the Lewes
  • Alexander Macleod of Dunvegan
  • Murdoch Maclaine of Lochbuie
  • Allan Maclean of Torloisk
  • Archibald Macdonald, Captain of Clann Uisdein
  • Alexander MacIan of Ardnamurchan
  • John Maclean of Coll
  • Gilleonan MacNeil of Barra
  • Ewen Mackinnon of Strath
  • John MacQuarrie of Ulva
  • John Maclean of Ardgour
  • Alexander Macdonell of Glengarry
  • Angus Macdonald of Knoydart
  • Donald Maclean of Kingairloch
  • Angus Macdonald, brother of James Macdonald of Dunnyveg.
  • Lords of the Isles

    Angus Òg (Angus the Young), Angus Mòr's (Angus the Great) younger son (or grandson), gave assistance to Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and in reward kept control of the Isles and gained most of the land confiscated from the MacDougalls for backing the defeated side. Angus Og's son Good John of Islay first formally assumed the title Dominus Insularum – Lord of the Isles – in 1336.

    In their maritime domain the Lords of the Isles used galleys (birlinns) for both warfare and transport. These ships had developed from the Viking longships and knarrs, clinker-built with a square sail and rows of oars. From the 14th century they changed from using a steering oar to a stern rudder. These ships took part in sea battles and attacked castles or forts built close to the sea. The Lordship specified the feudal dues of its subjects in terms of numbers and sizes of the galleys (birlinns) each area had to provide in service to their Lord.

    Successive Lords of the Isles fiercely asserted their independence, culminating in 1462 with John MacDonald II of the Isles making a treaty with Edward IV of England to conquer Scotland with him and the Earl of Douglas. The civil war in England, known famously as the Wars of the Roses, prevented the activation of this alliance and on the discovery of his treason in 1493 John Macdonald II forfeited his estates and titles to James IV of Scotland. Since then, the eldest male child of the reigning Scottish (and later, British) monarch has been styled "Lord of the Isles". The office itself has been extinct since the 15th century and the style since then has no other meaning but to recall the Scottish destruction of the ancient Norse-Gaelic lordship (and indeed the self-destruction of the MacDonalds).

    Currently Prince Charles is Lord of the Isles, as well as Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew and High Steward of Scotland. Tiny Cara off Kintyre, which is owned by the MacDonalds of Largie, is reputedly the only island still in the possession of direct descendants of the Lords of the Isles.

    List of Lords of the Isles

  • John of Islay I, Lord of the Isles
  • Domhnall of Islay, Lord of the Isles
  • Alexander of Islay, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles
  • John of Islay II, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles
  • Angus Óg
  • Charles, Prince of Wales
  • References

    Lord of the Isles Wikipedia

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