For centuries after the inroad from Ireland the history of Scotland is one of constant warfare between the various tribes, until the year 843, when a kind of general sovereignty was established under the Dalriad king, Kenneth MacAlpin.
Carved Stones of Islay Chapters
Vikings in Islay
But there was to be little peace for the inhabitants of the west. The keen eye of the Viking had discovered a new land of fjords like to his own, up which his long ships could sail in smooth water, and where much spoil was to be gained. A series of raids which began in the ninth century developed at last into a Norwegian kingdom in the western isles; a kingdom which only came to an end when Hacon IV of Norway was defeated at Largs in the year 1263.
In attempting to trace the history of the western sculptures it is necessary to bear in mind these two invasions, the Irish and the Norwegian. The Irish monks brought with them a knowledge of books, of design and of illumination, and if they had been allowed to live on from generation to generation in peace, the art of the west would have had a very different development. This much at least is certain, that the carvings with which we have to do, showed marked traces of Irish influence.
The raids of the Vikings brought further changes. The churches of the western missionaries were destroyed, their lands pillaged and their archives and manuscripts burnt. Iona itself fell a prey to the Northmen. There was an undoing of much laborious work. Still it may be assumed that as time went on the peculiar characteristics and fashions of the Norwegians would find their expression in the island life of western Scotland, that their seafaring lore would be learnt by the men of the west, that castles would be built far superior to the older places of strength, and that the patterns of their shields, brooches and ornaments, and the devices of their dragon-shaped prows, would become incorporated into the art of the country. Norwegian names abound in the territory of the isles, where we may still see people whose fair skins, blue eyes and golden hair, suggest a Scandinavian ancestry. It is from a Norse parentage that the powerful clan which ruled Islay for so long, is said to have sprung.
In the year 1095 there died in Islay a certain Godred Crovan, or Godred of the White Hand. He was king of Dublin, of Man and of the Hebrides, but was conquered and deposed by Sigurd, heir to the throne of Norway. Sigurd, on the death of Magnus Barefoot his father, returned to Norway, leaving to Lagman the son of Crovan, the sovereignty of the Isles. After a short reign Lagman abdicted and went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he died. His brother Olof succeeded him, reigned for forty years, and about the year 1140 married his daughter Ragnhild to Somerled, one of the most powerful of the wester chiefs, and it was from this marriage that the rulers of the Isles traced their descent.
The peaceful reign of Olof was followed by the hard rule of his son Godred the Black, whose unbearable tyranny led to the proclamation of Somerled’s son Dugall, then a boy, as king of the Isles. War between Godred the Black and Somerled naturally followed:a great sea-fight took place in which Godred was defeated. After this the Isles came under control of Somerled, and on his death they were divided among his three sons.
Reginald Lord of Islay
Dugall, the eldest, took the more northern islands; Angus, the youngest, had for his share the islands of Bute and Arran; while Reginald, the second son, became Lord of Islay and also of Kintyre, where he founded the Abbey of Saddell at the place where his father Somerled appears to have been buried.
Reginald and his wife Fonie became members of the Confraternity of Paisley, and an ancient charter shows the princely way in which they both endowed it; for Reginald enriched it with the proceeds of a tax which he levied on every house whence smoke issued, and his wife gave to it one-tenth of all her worldly goods.
Reginald was succeeded by his son Donald, who, towards the close of a turbulent life, full of disputes as to his allegiance to the rival kingdoms of Scotland and Norway, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, to obtain absolution for his many violent deeds. He died at Skipness in Kintyre about 1250, and was buried at Iona. Donald was succeeded by his son Angus, known as Angus Mor, and at the time of Hacon’s invasion he was in possession of Islay and part of Kintyre.
Alexander the Second had died at Kerrera on an expedition against his northern feudatories, but his son after a time renewed the campaign, and thus the unfortunate islanders were constantly between to fires. Angus Mor seems to have been loyal to Norway until he was reduced to extremities by Alexander the Third who drove him from his possessions; be reinstated his son as a hostage.
It was in the year 1263 that the appeals of the island chiefs brought Hacon with the whole power of Norway into the west. The Norwegian fleet consisted of one hundred and sixty ships, and these carried a force of twenty thousand men. Divisions were sent in advance to pillage Kintyre and Bute, while Hacon with the greater part of the ships lay in reserve under shelter of the island of Gigha.
As he lay there word was brought to him that Angus was prepared to submit himself once more to Norway, of his lands might thus be saved from being plundered. -The King answered that he should stop plundering till next day at noon; but that in the meantime they (that is Angus and a certain Murchard of Kintyre) must present themselves in person. They came the following morning, surrendered their lands, swore fealty, gave hostages, whereupon he promised them that they should be included in a treaty of peace, if one such could come into existence with the Scottish king; this circumstance also was the cause that they remained to the last, before they took any step to subject themselves to King Hacon.-
Twelve hundred cattle were delivered to the invaders, and Angus Mor joined the King of Norway. For a time it seemed as if a peaceful arrangement would be arrived at between Scotland and Norway, but at last negotiations ceased, and Angus was one of many chiefs who were sent with a fleet to Loch Loag, whence they carried war into the country of Lennox.
Hacon’s reverses at the battle of Largs, which followed immediately on the outbreak of war, put an end for ever to the Norwegian power in the southern Hebrides. For two wild October nights his retreating Armada lay in the Sound of Islay. Then the great -Christsuden,- shorn of her golden dragon, bore the king northward with the Norwegian galleys in her wake, to return no more. In 1266 there was a formal cession of all the islands to Scotland, wo which country the chiefs transferred their allegiance.
In 1314 we find Angus Oig, the son of Angus Mor, fighting for Robert Bruce at Bannockburn. He was greatly enriched by the gratitude of the king. To his former possessions were added Mull and other adjacent islands, besides territories on the mainland. He appears under the name of Ronald in Sir Walter Scott’s -Lord of the Isles.-
Angus Oig, the date of whose death is uncertain, was succeeded by his son John. John espoused the cause of Edward Balliol, probably in fear of losing the rich possessions which his father had received from Bruce, and so when David II ascended the throne in 1341 he found himself in the very strait he had tried to avoid, and was in imminent danger of forfeiture. But David, who was anxious to strengthen himself for his intended war with England, pardoned both John and also his brother-in-law, Ranald Mcruari, another of Balliol’s supporters, and confirmed to them the following lands:
To John: Islay, Gigha, Jura, Scarba, Colonsay, Mull, Coll, Tiree, the Lewes, Morven, Lochaber, Duror and Glencoe.
To Ranald: Uist, Barra, Egg, Rum, and the Lordship of Garmoran, a district which comprehended Moydart, Arisaig, Morar, and Knoydart.
This happened in 1344. Two years later Ranald MacRuari was killed in quarrel with the Earl of Ross, from whom he held the lands of Kintal, and as he left no issue, his sister Amie, who was the wife of John of Islay, became his heir, and her husband uniting the enormous possessions of the two families, assumed the title, Dominus Insularum, or Lord of the Isles. By this marriage John had three sons, of whom the two younger, Godfrey and Ranald, lived to take their share in the history of the time.
In 1337 John procured a divorce, and married Margaret, the daughter of the High Steward of Scotland, who afterwards ascended the throne as Robert II. By this marriage, there were also three sons, Donald, John and Alexander.
John of Islay, after the accession of his father-in-law to the Scottish throne, diverted the succession of the Isles from the children of the first to those of the second marriage, a proceeding which Godfrey resisted; but Ranald seems to have been satisfied with a grant of lands to be held under the Lords of the Isles.
John died in 1380. The following reference to him is from the Macvurich MS., of which a translation is to be found in the Appendix to the Lord of the Isles, Note C.
-This John lived long, and made donations to Icolumkill; he covered the chapel of Eorsay-Elan, the chapel of Finlagam, and the chapel of the Isle of Tsuibhne, and gave the proper furniture for the service of God, upholding the vlergy and monks; he built or repaired the church of the Holy Cross immediately before his death. He died at his own castle of Ardtorinish, many priests and monks took the sacrament at hus funeral, and they embalmed the body of this dear man, and brought it to Icolumkill; the abbot, monks, and vicar, came as the ought to meet the King of Fiongal, and out of great respect to his memory mourned eight days and eight nights over it, and laid it in the same grave with his father in the church of Oran.-
When the good John of Isla (as he was named by the monks) died, Donald the eldest son by the second marriage succeeded; but as he was not of age, his half brother Ranald, whom the Macvurich account mentions as being -old in the government of the Isles at his father’s death,- acted as his guardian until he attained his majority. Donald’s claims to the Lordship of the Isles seem to have been acknowledged by the first family, since the whoel Macdonald clan supported him at the battle of Harlaw, in which he vainly supported his claim to the Earldom of Ross, a claim which, in right of his wife Mary Leslie, was afterwards admitted by James I.
Donald gave the lands of Kintyre and Islay in vassalage to his next brother John, hence called the Tanister of Thane. He died about 1420 and was succeeded by his son Alexander.
After the accession of James I., Alexander appears to have found favour at court. His name appears as one the jurors in the trial of the regent Murdoch Duke of Albany and his sons, and the earldom of Ross, for which his father had contended, had been restored to his mother. Before long however, he became involved in clan feuds in the west which became serious enough to call for intervention on the part of the crown.
The possession of the northern isles and of Garmoran had been claimed agains Alexander by the descendants of Godfrey and Ranald, through whose mother, Amie MacRuari, these lands had originally passed to the first Lord of the Isles, while a chief of the Campbells advanced an old claim to the lands of Moydart.
Such a state of affairs naturally threw the western Highlands into confusion, which was greatly increased by the murder of John of Islay, uncle to the Lord of the Isles. The apprehention of this chief is said to have been ordered by the king, but the agent to whom the arrest was entrusted exceeded his instructions by putting him to death, an incident not calculated to improve the relationship between the kind and the western leader.
In 1427 James summoned before a parliament at Inverness the principal Highland chiefs, who, to the number of forty, were then and there arrested. Of these the most notorious were executed, and among them the murderer of John of Islay; but the greater the number, including the Lord of the Isles, escaped after undergoing various terms of imprisonment.
Two years later Alexander, now by his mother’s death Earl of Ross, appeared again before Inverness with a great army. He burnt the town and devastated the surrounding crown lands, but was soon forced to retire. He was eventually reduced to such extremities that he surrendered himself at Edinburgh, where in the Church of Holyrood he made a full submission to the king. His life was spared, but for two years he was kept a prisoner in Tantallon Castle, on the estuary of the Forth. Subsequently restored to favour, he became one of the most powerful of the Scottish nobles.
Events did not stand still in the Highlands during the imprisonment of the Earl of Ross, for the king, in order more completely to subdue the western clans, had despatched against them an army under the Earls of Caithness and Mar. The royal troops were defeated with great slaughter at Inverlochy by and Islay chief, who played an important part in the history of his time.
He was the son of that John of Islay who was murdered in 1427, and is known as Donald Balloch of Dunyveg and the Glens. James, on learning of the defeat, started himself for the west and took up his residence in the castle of Dunstaffnage. His appearance overawed many of the rebels, who forthwith gave themselves up, laying all the blame of the insurrection on Donald Balloch, who had made good his retreat to Ireland. This expedition of the king had the effect of quieting the Highlands for a time.
Alexander, third Lord of the Isles, died at his castle of Dingwall in 1449, twelve years after the murder of James I. He left three sons ‘John, his heir; Celestine, Earl of Lochalsh; and Hugh, Lord of Sleat.
When John succeeded to the Lordship of the Isles, James II. Was engaged in weakening the power of the Earl of Douglas, and was so far successful that the latter saw fit to retire from the country for a season, but not without leaving behind him zealous supporters, among whom was the new Earl of Ross. Disturbances at home caused the return of Douglas in 1451, in which year Ross broke into open rebellion, and seized the royal castles in Inverness, Urquhart and Ruthven in Badenoch.
James appears to have been too busily engaged in the south to proceed at once against the northern rebels, but he made every effort to persuade Douglas to abandon the league into which he had entered with the Earls of Crawford and Ross, and it was in a fit of rage, caused by his failure to bring this about, that with his own dagger he assassinated Douglas in Stirling Castle.
James, the ninth Earl of Douglas, and brother to the murdered man, continued the feud until he received a final defeat at Arkinholme in Annandale in the year 1455. Previous to this, Ross had been defeated in the north, but had succeeded in making good his escape to the wester Highlands, where Douglas joined him in 1455.
The Lord of the Isles at once raised another expedition, this time by sea, and under the command of Donald Balloch of Dunyveg. The fleet consisted of a hundred galleys, containing an average complement of fifty men. Doanld Balloch began hostilities at Inverkip on the Clyde, but being unsuccessful there, he proceeded to attach the islands of Cumbrea, Bute and Arran. The Castle of Rothesay was attacked, and Brodick Castle was destroyed. There was little loss of life, and the expedition ended with a savage attack upon Lauder, Bishop of Lismore, who had made himself obnoxious to the Douglas faction.
After the failure of this attempt, Ross, finding himself alone in rebellion, succeeded in making his peace with the king, and remained faithful to the crown until the death of James II. at the siege of Roxburgh in 1640.
No sooner was the king dead than Ross again renewed his confederacy with the vanquished Douglases, who had now turned for assistance to Edward IV., and in 1462 a secret treaty was concluded between these chiefs and the English king. The object in view was the complete conquest of Scotland by the Earl of Ross, supported by English auxiliaries and by such help as the Earl of Douglas could furnish.
In this conspiracy Donald Balloch again took a prominent part; indeed one of the arrangements was that, in the event of success, he and his osn should have equal shares of the country north of the Forth with the Lord of the Isles. Before this treaty had been signed, Ross had assembled as army under the command of his natural son Angus and of Balloch, who again took Inverness, and issued proclamations in Ross’s name as if he were already king of the north.
How this rebellion was put to a stop to is uncertain, but for fifteen years, indeed until the secret treaty was discovered, the Earl of Ross continued in possession of his estates; but in 1475 the treaty did come to light, and then strong measures were adopted. The Earl of Argyle was entrused with a decree of forfeiture against him, while sea and land forces were being prepared under the Earls of Athole and Crawford for an attack upon the Isles.
Once more did the Earl of Ross submit himself to the king, and once more he was pardoned and restored to his forfeited estates. He then resigned to the Crown the Earldom of Ross, the land of Knapdale and Kintyre and all the castles belonging to them, and in return for this concession was created a Peer of Parliament by the title of Lord of the Isles, with succession to his sons Angus and John.
This resignation of so large a portion of his territories met with great resistance from many of the Highland chiefs, and before the long vassals of the Lordship of the Isles were divided into two factions ‘one composed of Macleans, Macleaods, Macneills, and others, who adhered to the old lord, another consisting of the carious branches of the Clandonald, who placed themselves under the leadership of his son Angus.
Angus with his party seems to have made a formidable attempt to regain the Earldom of Ross, but he was drive back to the Isles by the royal troops. After this the Earls of Argyle and Athole tried to bring about a reconciliation between him and his father, but in this they were unsuccessful; indeed, not long afterwards the two parties came to open hostilities at the battle of the Bloody Bay, which was fought a little to the north of Tobermory in Mull.
A dramatic incident of this time may here be recorded. Soon after the battle of the Bloody Bay, the Earl of Athole crossed secretly to Islay and carried off from thence Donald Dhu, the infant son of Angus. Angus had married a daughter of Colin, first Earl of Argyle. The child was transferred to this chief, and was immured in the castle of Inchconnell in Loch Awe, where he remained for thirty years.
Although Angus failed to recover his child, he made a sudden raid into the Athole country, burning and devastating as he went.
The sanctuary of St. Bride, where the Earl and Countess had taken refuge, was plundered, and they themselves were taken prisoners and carried off to the Isles.
Bishop Lesley gives a quaint description of the end of this expedition: -The saide Lord of the Ylis, and the principalles of his company, were suddenly striken be the hand of God with frenessic and wodness, sua that thay loste all thair shippis and pray in the see in thair retorning; and than throuch of thair awn will causit restore the Erle of Athole and his ladie agane, and come thame selfes to Saint Birdis kirk in Athole for recovering of thaire health, bot they wer na thing the better.-
Angus died, assassinated by an Irish harper, sometime between 1480 and 1490.
The old Lord of the Isles now resumed the undisputed control of his territories, and the seccession passed to Alexander of Lochalsh, the son of his brother Celestine.
Once again came the ever-recurring struggle for the Earldom of Ross. Alexander led an army into the north, probably with the connivance of his uncle, and Inverness was again taken by the Highlanders. Once more these were driven back, but this last attempt showed the necessity of crushing the power of the Macdonald; consequently in 1493, John, the fourth and last Lord of the Isles, forfeited for ever title and lands. The remainder of his life was spent in the Monastry of Paisley, where he died in 1498.
In carrying down this abstract of history to the death of the last Lord of the Isles, we have directed the reader’s attention to a few of the main incidents connected with Islay and its chiefs during the period when most of the beautiful sculptures of the island were executed.
The history in the western Highlands in those early days is tantalising, so little is known about the principal characters, while many of the accounts are unreliable.
The Last Lord of the Isles
Still no one can fail to be struck by the story of the last Lord of the Isles. He outlived three kings of Scotland, and his own period of dominion over the Isles (one may almost call it a reign) lasted for forty-nine years. His indomitable energy, his never resting ambition, and his delight in warfare stand out clearly before us. Wonderful, even ludicrous, are his constant submissions to the crown, ever followed as they were by fresh conspiracies and rebellions; and strange and dramatic is the latter part of his life, when his chief foes were the men of the house he had ruled so long.
In writing about the Lords of the Isles one feels that their field of action lay more in the mainland of Scotland than in the island of Islay; still, to a great extent, the latter at Finlaggan was their home.
The good John of Islay repaired the churches there. Donald, the second lord, grants lands in Oa for a yearly tribute of cows -fit to slaughter at Macdomhnaill’s house- ‘probably Dunyveg ‘and Alexander, the third lord, signs charters at Finlaggan.
It is not easy to picture the Islay of four hundred years ago. Everything is changed save the absolute outline of the country, and even the aspect of the land must have been different. Probably there was much more wood, more cultivation, and many more homesteads and dwellings.
The oar strokes of war vessels were borne in from loch and bay, to mingle with the never easing sound of the ship-builder’s hammer and the ring of the anvil, where sharper instruments than ploughshares were forged. Dunyveg and Finlaggan had their stirring garrisons. Churches that we see roofless and neglected were then watched and tended by zealous hands. Strange pageants of armed chiefs and long robed ecclesiastics passed along roads which are silent and deserted now.
One can fancy oneself on the summer afternoon of one of those old days, standing below the great Cross of Kildalton. A faint breath of incense floats from the open door of the church, the stillness is only broken by one who, chisel in hand, bends over a long grey stone, and a device of tendrils, leaves and buds, winding round a central sword of cross, grows to his touch.
Beside the carver stands a group of men, who watch the progress of the work. Sea captains are there who know every rock and current of the chartless coast, soldiers whose knowledge of the trackless Highland glens is no less sure, priests too, whose career has also been one of travel and experience. One, now attached to an Islay church, may have studied in foreign lands, or passing from monastery to monastery, through sunny plains and over snowy ranges, may also have seen Rome.
Some such group we might call up before us, the ruined church we might restore, but we shall never know what the carving on the grey stone was like, when the sculptor gave his last touch and his last look at the completed work. Alas! That the tracery is disappearing so fast from these dying memorials of the dead.