The battle of Traigh Ghruinneart (Battle of Gruinart Strand) in 1598 was the last big Clan battle to be fought in the Island of Islay, and it was between Sir Lachlan Mor MacLean, the 14th Chief of Duart and his nephew Sir James MacDonald of Islay.
They fought over possession of the Rhinns in Islay which Lachlan Mor claimed was the dowry given to his wife in 1566 by her brother Angus MacDonald, chief of Clan Donald South, and the most powerful branch of Clann Dhomhnuill. Later, MacDonald gave the land of the Rhinns to Brian Vicar MacKay, lieutenant to the MacDonalds, and for years MacLean had demanded the return of the Rhinns to his wife.
At long last MacLean decided that the only way to settle things was to invade Islay and do battle with Angus’ son James.
At that time no chief would go into battle without consulting a ban-fhaidh (wise woman) and this MacLean did. He was very annoyed when she told him not to go to Islay, and when he insisted that he was honour bound to go she closed her eyes, and raising her hands intoned this warning: “In spite of my plea you will set sail for Islay, do not arrive on a Thursday, do not fight on the shores of Loch Gruineard, do not drink from the well known as Tobar Niall Neonaich (the well of strange Niall) or else you will surely die.”
MacLean was uneasy at the warning but he was still determined to secure the Rhinns for his sons.
So on the first Wednesday in August, MacLean set sail for Islay. Unfortunately, a storm arose and he could not land in Islay until the Thursday.
Mustering his troops they camped overnight in the old keep on the islet in Loch Gorm, while MacDonald and his men camped on the grassy ground at what is now Craigens.
Early next morning, MacDonald rode over to Loch Gorm to talk to his uncle. He wanted peace and arbitration, but MacLean had discovered that he had almost twice as many men as Clan Donald and was in no mood to compromise.
The troops began to line up for battle, and MacLean must have had some thoughts when he saw that his men had raised his standard on the shores of Loch Ghruineard.
About this time there came to him an ugly, hunch-backed dwarf called Dubh Sith (black fairy) because of his dark skin and black hairy appearance. His father was a Shaw from Lagg in Jura and his mother was a fairy woman. Such people make very bad enemies and should always be treated with great care.
The Dubh Sith had to twist his ill shaped head to look up at MacLean who stood over 7 feet tall. “Who are you?” asked MacLean. “I am a Shaw from Jura, and I have come to offer my services as an archer” said the Duth Sith.
MacLean laughed out loud, and looking down in contempt at the dwarf he said, “Spawn of the devil, take yourself from my sight before I drown you in the loch,” and turning his back on the dwarf he strode away.
The Dubh Sith slunk away with black burning hatred in his heart and quickly made his way to MacDonald where he offered his services. This time he was received with open arms and MacDonald said to him “Yes, I will take you, and 100 more like you.”
“Good” said Dubh Sith, “you look after the rest and I’ll look after MacLean.”
So saying the Dubh Sith made off, and unseen by the busy men he approached the well Tobar Niall Neonaich, climbed up into the branches of a rowan tree and remained there, hidden from sight.
MacLean assembled his troops on top of a hill, the idea being to charge down on Clan Donald and force them to defend themselves up-hill, but MacDonald had learned other tactics in Edinburgh. He split his men into 3, the main body to fight up-hill while the other 2 were to creep round behind the hill, and at a signal to charge down on the Macleans. This was done, and as the battle raged a contingent of men from Arran arrived under their young Chief Angus — a close friend of MacDonald.
The hot August sun was blazing down on the fighting men, and during a lull in the battle MacLean wanted a drink, and, as his water carrier was empty he crossed over to the well. Removing his helmet he knelt to drink. This was the moment Dubh Sith had waited for, and like lightning he shot the bolt from his crossbow straight into the back of MacLean’s neck and at such an angle that the tip came out his eye.
The death of their chief so angered the MacLeans that they continued fighting more fiercely than before.
However, MacDonald’s tactics were paying off, and the MacLeans found themselves without a Chief and in danger of all being killed, when suddenly young Sir James fell on the ground wounded in the thigh and abdomen. His men thought he was dead, and turning on the now fleeing MacLeans went after them with murder in their hearts.
The MacLeans’ headlong flight towards their ships anchored at Ardnave Point was suddenly halted by the sight of their ships putting out to sea, the sailors having realised that the battle was lost.
In desperation 30 MacLeans sought sanctuary in Kilnave Chapel, a thatched building built for defence, and having only 2 narrow windows and a small entrance with a heavy wooden door. Rushing inside they bolted the door and waited fearfully, hoping that the MacDonalds would respect holy ground.
Alas, the men were half mad with grief and anger at the thought that their chief had been killed, and lusting for vengeance they set fire to the roof of the chapel.
The men inside were all killed with the exception of one man, a Mac Mhuirich (Currie) who managed to climb through a hole in the roof when the burning thatch collapsed. He was spotted by the MacDonalds who rescued him as he ran into the loch, hoping to swim to Nave Island. This proved impossible though he managed to pluck a reed before he headed out to submerge himself beside some rocks and clung to them under water, breathing through the reed.
Eventually the MacDonalds decided that he must have drowned, and left. Later the exhausted man staggered ashore and found refuge somewhere in Islay, and his descendants are still here today.
Sir James’ life was saved by the doctor who was tending the wounded; he would almost certainly be a Beaton from Ballinaby.
MacLean’s foster mother heard of his death, and with her son Duncan she came with a horse and sledge to collect MacLean’s body for burial. Being such a huge man MacLean was too big for the sledge so she made Duncan sit beside MacLean to hold him on it. The foster mother walked at the head of the horse leading the way towards Kilchoman Church. The ground was very rough and bumpy. Suddenly she heard laughter, and turning, she saw Duncan laughing at the sight of MacLean’s head nodding up and down at the end of the sledge. Enraged, the grief-stricken foster mother drew MacLean’s dagger from his belt and killed her own son who fell on the ground. She covered him with stones at the place now called Cam Dhonnachaidh (Duncan’s Cairn) and then walked on to Kilchoman. There she buried her foster son MacLean inside the church, and as there was no carved stone there for him she took the one made for the priest. When the new church was built on the old site, it was a smaller building, and today Sir Lachlan MacLean lies outside the church under the carved stone of a priest.
Among the dead was the fine young Arran chief who must have had a premonition of his death, as he had asked his men to bury him in sight of his beloved Arran.
And so after the battle his remaining men and some from Clan Donald carried the young warrior chief to the top of Beinn Bhan (Ben Van) and buried him under a cairn in sight of Arran. The cairn is still there today; it is called Carn-nan-Oighre (Cairn of the Young Heir).
It was said too that one of MacLean’s sons was killed at this battle, and that later his mother came from Mull and took his body home.
MacLean’s men would have lifted their dead chief from the muddy well and laid him on dry ground, and I believe that is why the stone Clach Mhic ‘illean (MacLean’s Stone) lies some way from the well.
Sir James had no heart for the battle of Traigh Ghruineard, and far from rewarding the Dubh Sith for killing MacLean, MacDonald turned from him in revulsion, and the dwarf was glad to slink back to Jura in fear of his life.
This is the story as my father told it to me. He had heard it from his father, and so on from father to son over the centuries, remembering too that my ancestors fought alongside Clan Donald.
The second picture was taken in may1982 to commemorate the return of the first chief of Clan Donald to FinnLaggan since the 16th century. Donald MacDonald of Glengarry on the left and Arra Fletcher, the Father of Arra Fletcher from the Persabus Pottery, on the right
Many thanks to Arra Fletcher and his mother for letting me use this interesting story about Islay’s History.