The Clan Donald, often described as the most powerful of the clans, hold as their eponymous ancestor Donald of Islay, who succeeded his father Reginald or Ranald, son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles in 1207. Somerled’s campaigns spanned over forty years, during which time he gained a kingdom and the hand of Ragnhild, daughter of King Olav the Red, Norse King of Man and the Isles. The story of this match is part of the origin legends of Clan Macintyre. The new empire stretched from Bute to Ardnamurchan, including Lorne, Argyll and Kintyre on the mainland. On Somerled’s death his realm was partitioned between his heirs, each of whom was to establish the fortunes of a great clan. Dugall received Lorne, Mull and Jura, and from him sprang the Macdougalls. Angus had Bute, Arran and Garmoran (Moydart, Morar and Knoydart), which passed through his heiress, Jane, to the Stewarts. Reginald fell heir to Islay and Kintyre, which passed in due course to his son, Donald. Unlike his father, who seems to have tempered personal valour with a love of peace and culture, Donald was an iron warrior. He perpetrated so many black deeds in defence of his possessions that he feared for his salvation, and went on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution for his sins from the pope. He died, probably in 1269, when he was succeeded by Angus Mor.
When Alexander III determined to oppose the nominal suzerainty of Norway over the Hebrides, he provoked the launching of King Haakon’s Norwegian fleet, which anchored off Largs in 1263. Angus Mor and his uncle, Ruari, were technically vassals of Haakon, and after his defeat at the Battle of Largs, confirmed in the Treaty of Perth in 1266, the king of Scots became their overlord. An uneasy truce existed for a time, and Angus’s son, Angus Og, came to the aid of Robert the Bruce, leading his fierce clansmen against Edward II of England at Bannockburn in 1314. When Angus Og died in 1330, he left two sons. John, later Lord of the Isles, and Iain, from whom descended the Macdonalds (Maciains) of Glencoe. John’s son, Donald, inherited the lordship in 1386. He unsuccessfully laid claim to the great earldom of Ross through his wife, Margaret, which led to the bloody Battle of Harlaw in 1411. After his defeat at Harlaw, Donald returned to his island fastness, and it was left to his son, Alexander, to reassert, this time successfully, their right to the earldom.
The power of the lordship reached its peak under Alexander’s son, John, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles. Not since the time of Somerled had the isles enjoyed such independence, but his ambitions were to be John’s undoing. He entered into the Treaty of Ardtornish with Henry VII of England in 1462, agreeing to accept the English king as overlord once James IV had been defeated. James, with customary decisiveness, acted swiftly, invading the isles and ultimately stripping John of all his titles in May 1493. Attempts were made over the next two generations to revive the lordship, but by 1545 it had become a forlorn hope. The various branches of the descendants of Donald gradually accepted Crown charters and recognition of their separate holdings. This was part of the successful royal policy to keep Clan Donald divided, and thereby less of a threat to central authority.
Various claims were made to the chiefship of the whole Clan Donald, but by the late seventeenth century, Hugh Macdonald of Sleat on Skye was recognised by the Privy Council as Laird of Macdonald. The lairds were first created baronets and then, in 1776, Lords Macdonald in the Irish peerage. The third Lord Macdonald sought to split the paramount chiefship with the peerage, from the house an baronetcy of Sleat, and an Act of Parliament was procured in 1847 to effect this. (The process is explained in the chapter on the Macdonalds of Sleat.) The dispute was resolved in 1947, when the present chief’s father was recognised by the Lord Lyon as Lord Macdonald, high chief of Clan Donald, under whom are recognised the chiefs of Sleat, Clanranald and Glengarry. A recent petition to the Lord Lyon in favour of a claimant to be recognised as chief of the Macdonalds of Keppoch was unsuccessful, but may be resubmitted. A highly active Clan Donald Society now exists, with its centre at Armadale Castle on Skye. Lord Macdonald still lives on the island and is vice-convenor of the Council of Chiefs.