Lords of the Isles

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Lords of the Isles

They were proud, warlike and fiercely independent - and they kept their own firm grip on a large chunk of present day Scotland for hundreds of years.

The Lords of the Isles were so powerful that they managed to maintain control of much of the highlands and islands as a separate kingdom right up until the year 1493.

They built a tough but civilised and largely democratic society where people used sailing ships much as we use cars today.

The hardy islanders traded not only with each other, but also with places as far away as the continent - teaching the Europeans, for instance, about the delights of smoked salmon by selling it to them.

In return, they received fine French wines. The notion that the kingdom of the isles is the place where whisky first became popular is largely a myth - because most folk enjoyed swilling this claret instead!

The Lordship of the isles is often perceived today by many lowlanders and non-Scots as being something which was remote, empty, heathen and practically barbarian.

Certainly the people could - and would - fight if they had to. But by and large built a fair and just society where the king of the Isles was answerable to his nobles and where the population was probably actually larger than it is today.

There is considerable debate about when the lordship of the isles actually began, though it is generally reckoned by historians to have been around 1330. In the centuries before then, the islands and much of the western fringe of Scotland had been ruled by the Vikings.

The isles were reclaimed for the Gaels in the 12th century by a strong but probably relatively low status warrior from Argyll called Somerled - the name means summer traveller - who mounted an assault on the Norse kingdom. In 1156, his fleet, which was said to number 80 galleys, won a great victory off Islay and captured the nearby islands, including Mull and Jura.

When Somerled died in 1165 - he became too ambitious and was killed while mounting an unsuccessful raid on Glasgow - his lands were split between his three sons Donald, Dougal and Rauri. Interestingly, these men and their followers each became responsible for the formation of three of Scotland's greatest clans - McDonald, McDougal and McRory.

Over the next 200 years or so, the McDonalds gradually grew in strength through battle and inter-marriage while the McDougal lands became reduced to an area round Oban. The McRorys ruled the small isles such as Rhum, Muck and Eigg and a slice of the mainland in what is present day Knoydart and Moydart.

The start of the Lordship of the Isles is generally dated to the period around 1330 when the so-called Good King John of Islay - a McDonald - started to use the title of Lord and later married his distant cousin Amie McRauri. With this marriage, he reclaimed the lands which had originally belonged to the Rauri side of the Somerled family.

By then, the lordship extended to the southern Hebrides, the current Lochaber area around Fort William and Lewis as well as islands of Jura, Islay, Mull, Coll and Tiree - though not Skye, which was part of the earldom of Ross and didn't become part of the kingdom until 1450.

John based his kingdom or lordship - the two terms are really interchangeable - around Finlaggan on Islay where his parliament met on an island in the middle of a loch. It was a sophisticated gathering, passing its own laws and acts, and by the standards of the time, was about as democratic as you were likely to get.

The parliament, or council, was made up of 16 men representing the different classes of society at that time - four lords, four sub-lords, four squires and four freemen. Appeals of decisions made by judges in the different territories of the lordship could also be made to this body.

Alex Woolf, a lecturer in Celtic and early Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh, explains how it would have worked. "People would have gathered at Finlaggan from all parts of the kingdom. The parliament would have been democratic in that it would have operated by consensus.

"The king's vote would obviously have counted more than any other individual, but if everyone else was against him, he'd have backed down. If had hadn't have done, he'd simply have been murdered, which was the usual way of solving political disputes in those days."

Although the population of the area then was almost certainly greater than it is today - there were perhaps as many as 150,000 people living there at the time - there would be no towns or urban settlements. No single centre of population would have been bigger than about 200 people.

Some of the bigger communities would have been gathered around the walls of castles owned by the richest men in the region. Many of these structures, such as Tobermory on Mull and Dunstaffnage in Argyll, can still be seen today.

The kingdom was almost completely independent of the rest of Scotland. The two sides clashed with some regularity in battle - the most famous of which was a score draw at Harlaw near Inverurie in 1411 - but generally they left each other to govern themselves.

Alex Woolf says: "The lords of the isles would have had a large degree of autonomy from Scotland. They'd have looked after their own defence and foreign affairs, for instance. Technically, the lord would have been a vassal of the king of Scots and there was a vague recognition of Scotland's overlordship, but the royal officials of Scotland such as sheriffs wouldn't go into the territory, and it was very much self governing.

"The kings of Scots probably thought it was their territory but basically left the lords to get on with it. Soldiers from the kingdom would occasionally turn up alongside the Scots to bash the English. The Scots kings would have seen this as a submission to their authority, but in reality it was probably just an opportunity to get hold of some booty."

The poor, scrubby land of most of the kingdom held by the lords of the isles made it difficult for its inhabitants to support themselves off the land, so they had to turn to some of their other natural advantages in order to trade and survive.

What were these? Well, for a start, they were consummate sailors, and a spot of piracy now and then would doubtless have helped keep the coffers topped up. They also made a reasonable living selling mercenaries to Irish chiefs who were constantly fighting each other and the English at the time.

And then, of course, there was international trade. "They'd smoke salmon, which was plentiful in Scottish waters at the time, and sell it in the Mediterranean", says Woolf. "It was a luxury even then. They'd bring back wine in return. Whisky was really the drink of the lowlander. Claret, however, became associated with the islands because of this trade and was even sold under the name Gaelic wine in England as late as the 18th century."

The kingdom finally came to an end in 1493 with its forced absorption into mainland Scotland. The heir to the Lordship Angus the Young - Angus Og - was murdered in 1490 while trying to gain control of the Ross lands nearby, which had been historically linked to the Lordship and which were once again being claimed by it. His nephew Alexander of Lochalsh then took over the campaign but was also killed.

The Scots king, James IV, had become tired of the constant struggles which had taken place, especially in Ross, He felt this was too close to Inverness - which he controlled - for comfort, and decided to settle the matter once and for all.

James moved in, took advantage much greater political and military power, and declared that the lands of the lordship had to be forfeited to him. He got his way. John died in 1503 without ever getting his kingdom back, which by then had passed to Scotland forever.

Various sporadic rebellions took place to try and re-establish the kingdom, and hopes that it would rise again persisted as long as the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. It never happened. But the end of the lordship did mark the beginning of another uniquely Scottish institution - the system of the clans.

Meanwhile...

  • 1266 Italian painter, Giotto, is born
  • 1269 Toll roads are introduced into England
  • 1332 Bubonic plague appears in India
  • 1352 Ibn Battuta, an Arab geographer, explores the Sahara desert
  • 1450 University of Glasgow is founded

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