On a broken cross shaft found on the island of Texa off Islay is carved what is probably the oldest surviving likeness of a Macdonald. It depicts a typical fourteenth-century Celtic prince, wearing a quilted coat with chain-mail and a conical helmet, and armed with a great sword and a battle-axe. This is the Cross of Ranald, son of John of Islay, Lord of the Isles, by his marriage to Amy Macruari, the heiress to the great Lordship of Garmoran, a vast inheritance of lands between the Great Glen and the Outer Hebrides. There seems now little doubt that Ranald was the second and the eldest surviving son of John and Amy, and heir to the chiefship of Clan Donald. The succession did not, however, pass to him, but to Donald, his younger half-brother, whose mother was a daughter of Robert II and a Stewart princess. Ranald had received a charter from his father, confirmed by Robert II in 1373, of the greater part of the Macruari inheritance, including Moydart, Arisaig and Lochaber. Clan historians believe this was part of an arrangement whereby Ranald accepted being passed over as high chief. Ranald actively participated in Donald’s installation at Eigg.
Ranald had five sons, including Alan, the eldest, who was to succeed as chief of Clanranald, and Donald, who founded the line of Glengarry. Alan Macranald died at his Castle of Tioram in 1419, succeeded by his son, Roderick, who was a staunch supporter of the Lord of the Isles. Roderick, believed to have died in 1481, was succeeded by his eldest son, Alan. A capable and war-like chief, he led a raid into Lochaber and Badenoch in 1491, which culminated in the capture of Inverness Castle. Clanranald appears to have adjusted to the realities of royal power, and on the first visit of James IV to the Highlands, Alan Macruari was one of the few chiefs to render him homage.
Alexander, the seventh chief, led a comparatively peaceful life, marrying three times and raising a large family. He had an illegitimate son, John Moidartach, who was to succeed him in the chiefship. Why all of his other sons were passed over is a mystery, but it may have been that John was the fittest person to lead the clan to war, an ability which at that time was still an essential element of chiefship. He was expressly legitimated by an Act of the Privy Council on 15 January 1531. His rule commenced in the midst of turmoil: James V had annulled all charters given to the chiefs while he was still a minor, and the chiefs had rebelled. James led an expedition to the isles and Clanranald was arrested. In his absence, Ranald Gallda, another descendant of Alan Macruari, occupied Castle Tioram. When the king died in 1542 the Earl of Arran became regent to the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. He promptly released the imprisoned island chiefs to use them as a counterbalance to the powerful Argyll. Ranald Gallda fled to his kinsman, Lord Lovat, while John gathered his forces to oppose Ranald. They met to the north of Loch Lochy in 1544 in a battle called Blar-na-leine, where Ranald was killed. John was acknowledged as chief of Clanranald in 1584 by James V’s widow, Mary of Guise, the Queen Regent.
The chiefs of Clanranald were staunch supporters of Charles I, and played a distinguished part in Montrose’s great victory at Inverlochy in 1645. The chief’s son, Donald, followed Montrose in his other great victory at Kilsyth, where he led the charge which shattered General Baillie’s Lowland infantry. John of Moidartach and Donald lived to see the Restoration in 1660. Alan, the fourteenth chief, succeeded Donald when he was only thirteen. Three years later, in 1689, he led his clan to join Viscount Dundee to fight for James VII. He was forced to flee to France, and for a time served in the French army. When the Stuart royal standard was unfurled on the Braes of Mar on 6 September 1715, Alan hurried to be first to rally to the Jacobite cause. His grateful monarch created him Lord Clanranald. He was killed at the head of his clan at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in November 1715. His brother, Ranald, assumed the chiefship, but spent the rest of his life in exile in France. Succession passed to Donald of Benbecula, who had also fought at Killie-crankie. It was his son, Ranald, who became famous during the rising of 1745 as Old Clanranald, to distinguish him from his dashing son, Ranald, Younger of Clanranald, who led the clan out for Bonnie Prince Charlie, the ‘Young Pretender’. After Culloden, young Clanranald escaped to France but was allowed to return to Scotland in 1754.
The descendants of ‘Young Clanranald of the Forty-five’ died out in 1944, and the chiefship, or captaincy, passed to the heirs of Alexander Macdonald of Boisdale, a younger brother of the seventeenth chief. Ranald Alexander Macdonald, captain of Clanranald, the present chief, was recognised by the Lord Lyon in 1956.