Highlands & Islands

Ruling in the isles: When islanders sought to control Scotland

Ruins at Finlaggan
Image caption Ruins at Finlaggan on Islay, a power base of the Lord of the Isles

Scotland's three island councils are seeking greater powers. But for hundreds of years the isles were not only autonomous, but striving for control of large parts of Scotland.

Representatives from Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles councils are campaigning for islanders to be given greater control over their resources.

These include fishing rights and the development of marine renewable energy schemes.

Autonomy is being sought through discussions with government, political leaders and highlighted in talks and conferences.

But for hundreds of years, islanders fought bloody battles over territory. Their ventures to gain control of land led island warriors to clash with royal armies as far afield as Aberdeenshire and Renfrew.

This power struggle began when the Vikings colonised Shetland, Orkney and the Inner and Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.

In the 12th Century, a leader of mixed Norse and Gaelic descent commanded islands from the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly point on the Isle of Lewis, to the Isle of Man off England's north west coast.

Somerled had secured the territories by leading a fleet of 50 ships into a battle against Godfrey the Black, a Norse king who ruled many of the islands.

But while attempting to push the boundaries of his empire further Somerled met his demise.

He had been preparing to attack Renfrew, near Glasgow - a move opposed by forces loyal to Scots king Malcolm IV - when he was murdered by his nephew.

Somerled's kingdom was divided between three sons and they went on to form clans, including Clan Donald.

The chiefs of Clan Donald became known as the Lords of the Isles and Finlaggan on Islay in the Inner Hebrides was their power base.

Backed by an army of fierce warriors, the lords ran the islands and large parts of the west mainland coast as if it was an independent state separate from the rest of the country.

They raided far inland, attacking places such as Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, and challenged the Stewarts, including King James I, for control of Scotland.

In 1411, Domhnall MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, commanded an army of up to 10,000 men on a raid against Aberdeen, a royalist stronghold.

It is said that Domhnall intended to burn the town to the ground, but his advance was halted by an army of about 2,000 at the Battle of Harlaw near Inverurie in Aberdeenshire.

Both sides claimed victory after a clash fought with axes and spears that left hundreds dead.

There were further battles between the men of the isles and royalists.

Image caption Urquhart Castle was targeted by warriors from the isles

But eventually, the kingdom of the Lords of the Isles was torn apart not by their arch enemy but by a violent family feud.

In a move calculated to protect his lands, John MacDonald, the fourth Lord of the Isles, made a pact with England's Edward IV while Scotland was at war with the English.

The move backfired when Edward later told Scotland's James III of the deal. The Scottish monarch stripped John of his title and also islanders' right to decide who could hold it in his stead.

Furious, John's son Angus Og banished him from his home and demanded that he sleep under a rotting boat.

Clan Donald descended into civil war and in the 1480s the rival forces of father and son fought a naval battle at Bloody Bay on Mull.

The clan lost half its fleet in the conflict.

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