History | Culture | Ancestry
As a nation, Scotland projects a particular image of itself out into the world. It’s an image that tells of a nation steeped in history, of a ‘proud people’ who are intimately connected to their culture and heritage. Yet the irony is that although our nation defines itself with tartan, bagpipes and clans, we remain painfully ignorant of our Gaelic heritage and the people that actually gave Scotland these markers of national identity.
This ignorance has meant that we’ve come to believe a simplified, almost cartoonish, version of our own history. Scotland’s Gaelic history is complex, serious and fundamental to understanding Scotland itself, but we have replaced it with a series of caricatures and more often than not we are prone to dismissing it as the periphery, something kitsch, overly romanticised and ultimately not really worth taking seriously. We rarely have the privilege of viewing Scottish history from the perspective of the Gael, and they are instead relegated to a kind of ‘bit player’ in someone else’s story.
The idea that Scotland has a slightly awkward and uncomfortable relationship with it’s own history is one that really resonated with me after I recently finished Professor David Stevenson’s outstanding biography of Alasdair MacColla.
MacColla, a celebrated hero of Gaelic folklore, lived an eventful and adventurous life and he should be remembered as one of Scotland’s great military leaders. He is however a largely forgotten figure, even in most formal historiography.
To understand why this is the case we need to look at who Alasdair MacColla was and what he did in his short but eventful life.
Alasdair MacColla Ciotach MacDhòmhnaill
Alasdair MacColla was born on the island of Colonsay about 1610 to Coll Ciotach MacGillespie and Mary MacDonald. Confusion would reign throughout MacColla’s life about what his name actually was, particularly amongst lowland writers who were not familiar with the way in which Gaelic names were used. In the 1600’s, formal surnames were still a relatively new and fluid concept, particularly in the highlands and islands of Scotland. Gaels generally had a Christian name, an informal identifying name that described some characteristics of the person, a surname identifying the father and possibly a surname of the clan that the person belonged to. Therefore in MacColla’s father’s case, he was known as Coll ‘the left handed’ Son of Gillespie. The ‘left handed’ may not refer to literally being left handed, but to being tricky, deceitful or as showing a willingness to swap sides.
Confusing matters even more for those outside the Gaelic world was the fact that throughout MacColla’s life he was often erroneously referred to as his father’s name ‘Coll Ciotach’. There doesn’t seem to be any accepted way to present MacColla’s name as there are many possible variations, however his name is generally accepted to be Alasdair MacColla in Gaelic, and Alexander MacDonald in English.
MacColla’s MacDonald heritage on both sides of his family tree was very important in shaping the events of his life. In the early 1600s the southern branch of Clan Donald, Clan Iain Mor, held land in Antrim in Northern Ireland, Kintyre and arguably the most important part of Clan Donald’s territory – Islay. This ownership however had come under increasing pressure from the expanding territories of Clan Campbell of Argyll, who were now directly challenging the MacDonnell’s of Antrim of which MacColla was related. MacColla’s father, Coll Ciotach, played a significant role in the legal and military dispute that followed and the conflict eventually culminated in the loss of Islay and Kintyre to Clan Campbell.
In 1638 The 1st Marquess of Argyll, Archibald Campbell, imprisoned Coll Ciotach and most of his sons. MacColla managed to escape and went into exile with his relatives, the MacDonnells of Antrim. From 1639 a series of civil wars began across Scotland, England and Ireland that primarily saw the King and his supporters in the three kingdoms pitted against, initially at least, the English Parliament, Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates. The War of the Three Kingdoms created a complex patchwork of overlapping and conflicting interests as well as allegiances that shifted based on the circumstances of the day.
Clan Donald for instance had spent over 200 years resisting the encroaching royal power of the House of Stuart. Yet despite this, the MacDonalds of Clan Donald South sided with Charles I during the Civil War. Clan Campbell was a central player in the Scottish Covenanting rebellion against the king and the MacDonalds saw this as an opportunity to place a permanent wedge between the Campbells and the crown, as well as regaining Islay and ultimately destroying Clan Campbell as a regional power in the West of Scotland.
MacColla in Ireland and the Highland Charge
This was the context in which MacColla’s military career began. He initially cut his teeth not in Scotland, but as a Captain in a regiment raised to suppress the rebelling Irish Catholics on behalf of the King. In January 1642, just 4 months after MacColla enlisted with his regiment, he promptly defected to the rebelling Irish Catholics. It’s important to remember that as Clan Donald had lands in Scotland and Ireland, MacColla would have considered the Irish Catholics of Antrim as indistinguishable from the people of the Western Isles of Scotland. The Presbyterian lowlanders of Scotland on the other hand would have been considered completely foreign to MacColla. This was certainly something that was reflected in the Gaelic language as the word ‘Gall’ could mean both ‘lowlander’ and ‘foreigner’.
MacColla gained valuable military experience through his participation in the Irish Confederate Wars. Along with his cousin Manus O’Cahan, he would later be credited with inventing, or at the very least, helping to develop the strategy known as the ‘highland charge’. The Civil War period was the first major conflict in Britain and Ireland in which firearms were in widespread use. The battlefield strategies of those who didn’t have the ability to manufacture large quantities of firearms therefore were adapted to meet the new challenge that muskets created. Conventional European military doctrine of the time dictated that men stood in large solid formations in which clusters of musketmen were protected by solid groups of pikemen. Scottish and Irish soldiers instead used what came to be known as the highland charge.
The highland charge is often misrepresented as simply charging at the enemy, but it evolved from battlefield experience into something more complex than most people realise. The first step of the charge was for the men to form up in a line facing their enemy in an attempt to draw their fire from as long a range as possible. When the enemy did fire at range, the inaccurate muskets would not have a high hit rate, the enemy would then need to take a considerable period of time to reload the weapon in what was a laborious and time consuming process, particularly for inexperienced troops. While the enemy were reloading, MacColla’s forces would run as quickly as possible towards the enemy and fire their muskets at point blank range.
The next phase would see the men throw down their muskets, pull out their swords and charge the enemy. Instead of running against the enemy in a line, the advancing men would bunch up into tightly packed wedges of 10 or 20 men, a formation that would crash right through a thinly held line and break it up. The psychological impact of such an attack was immense and under the right circumstances could be very successful even against experienced and well drilled opposition. The strategy dominated Scottish battlefields right up until 1746 when the technological improvements to muskets, bayonets and grape shot made it increasingly impractical.
MacColla Sails to Scotland
By 1644 the Civil War continued across the three kingdoms and Scotland remained under the control of the Covenanters. It had long been an aim of Royalists to open a new front in Scotland, thereby forcing Scottish Presbyterian regiments in England to return to Scotland to face the new threat. In 1644 the Earl of Antrim decided that MacColla would lead a force to attack the west coast of Scotland. Legend states that it was proposed that the man with the strongest arm should be the leader, whereupon MacColla, with sword in hand, raised his right arm and stated that he had the strongest. When the question was raised about who in the realm had the second strongest arm, MacColla raised his left arm. This tradition is almost certainly a later embellishment based on the mistaken belief that Alasdair’s name was Coll Ciotach – the left handed.
None the less, in Mid-1644, MacColla led a force of about 2,000 men primarily composed of Irishmen, but also of refugees from the Western Isles eager to restore MacDonald control of Campbell dominated lands. MacColla initially landed a portion of his army at Kinlochaline Castle in Morvern, while he continued on with the bulk of his force to Mingary Castle in Ardnamurchan. It was said that MacColla’s return to Scotland was accompanied by visions of battles in the sky, and that upon his foot landing on Scottish soil, a great explosion was heard in the air all across the kingdom.
MacColla had hoped to gain a foothold in Scotland and to raise the clans most hostile to the Campbells, particularly the powerful Gordons, McLeans of Mull and MacDonalds of Sleat. However, volunteers were initially difficult to find as the clans hedged their bets on the ultimate outcome of the expedition. Elsewhere in Scotland, the Marquess of Montrose, James Graham, had also raised a small Royalist force and was having equal difficulties in creating a widespread uprising against the Covenanters. Leaving behind a small detachment on the coast, MacColla headed inland, and joined forces with Montrose in Atholl.
It had looked far from certain that either MacColla or Montrose would achieve success before their two forces combined in central Scotland. What would follow was one of the most extraordinary and successful partnerships in Scottish history. Each partner brought something to the relationship that the other needed, in MacColla’s case he gained the legitimacy of Montrose’s royal authority as the king’s deputy in Scotland, while Montrose gained MacColla’s military connections to the clans and his veteran Irish soldiers that now formed the nucleus of the new combined army.
They immediately advanced towards Perth, routing a significantly larger Covenanting force at Tippermuir before defeating another Presbyterian army at Aberdeen – a battle that resulted in the capture of the city. As another Covenanting army approached, the Royalists withdrew and MacColla managed to convince Montrose into a daring attack on the Campbells in Argyll.
The Ravaging of Argyll
It was a widely held belief in the 17th century that Argyll’s many mountains and narrow passes made it impossible for any army to advance against it. In December 1644 MacColla and Montrose shattered that illusion by penetrating Argyll’s mountain passes to move deep into Campbell territory. The Royalists had a measure of luck in this exercise, as the unusually warm weather left the passes more open than what was usually the case. MacColla’s primary reason in joining the Royalist cause was now about to be fulfilled – the long desired day of reckoning against Clan Campbell. In an early form of ‘total war’ MacColla ravaged the countryside and had hoped to permanently weaken the Campbells by destroying their property and physically killing as many of them as possible. To get a sense of the devastation wrought by MacColla as he swept through Argyll, the second most powerful Campbell lord, Campbell of Glenorchy, estimated that the financial damage to his estate alone amounted to 1.2 million merks – an enormous sum of money for the time.
After ravaging the countryside, the Royalists audaciously advanced towards the Campbell capital at Inveraray. The Marquess of Argyll narrowly avoided capture by ignominiously fleeing down Loch Fyne in his galley as MacColla’s men approached. In what must have seemed an incredible turn around in fortune, the previously powerful and unassailable Campbells were in complete disarray. Inveraray was torched to the ground, and although estimates vary, it was said that around 900 Campbells were massacred in the area.
It was at this time that MacColla began to enter Gaelic folklore and he came to be known in Argyll as ‘fear thollaidh nan tighean’, the destroyer of houses. This name is often translated into English simply as ‘the devastator’.
The Battle of Inverlochy
After his narrow escape at Inveraray, the Marquess of Argyll fled north and gathered a force of 3,000 Covenanters at Inverlochy, while another 5,000 Covenanters blocked the route North towards Inverness. In an extraordinary physical feat, Montrose and MacColla’s 1,500 men undertook a bold flanking march over the mountains between the two Covenanting armies in January 1645. The thirty mile march was achieved in 36 hours over extremely mountainous and snow covered terrain that was previously thought to be impassable at that time of year.
On the 1st of Feburary 1645 the Campbell-led army at Inverlochy went about its normal duty, confident that their enemy was more than thirty miles away. As they looked to Ben Nevis at dawn the next morning, they were dismayed to see MacColla and Montrose advancing down the side of the mountain towards them. The Campbells hastily formed up their men in front of Inverlochy Castle and what followed was the high point of MacColla’s career – the Campbell army, including veteran units of the war in England, was completely massacred. Of the 3,000 Covenanters, around half were killed, including their commander Campbell of Auchinbreck. A tradition that emerged from the battle was that Auchinbreck had been captured and brought before MacColla. Auchinbreck was a much despised figure amongst the Dòmhnallach as he had massacred the MacDonalds of Rathlin Island in 1642. During the massacre Auchinbreck’s soldiers had thrown men and women from the island’s cliffs and it’s thought that up to 3,000 people may have been killed. MacColla therefore offered his enemy a choice of death – hanging or beheading. Auchinbreck replied that he was being offered ‘two evils and no choice’ upon which MacColla swung his sword and cut off the top of Auchinbreck’s head above the ears.
The Battle of Inverlochy is not as well remembered as Bannockburn or Culloden, but its importance to the Gaelic world is reflected in the large amount of poetry that was written about it. What is particularly striking is the completeness of the victory in what must have been an achievement beyond MacColla’s wildest dreams. A long list of the most important figures of Clan Campbell were either killed or captured, and owing to the kin-based structure of Gaelic warfare, entire families were cut down together. For the bards of Clan Donald however, Inverlochy was the culmination of MacColla’s deserved retribution against their traditional enemies, a victory that propelled MacColla into mythological status – one of the greatest heroes of Clan Donald, and the most despised enemy of Clan Campbell.
Before the Battle of Inverlochy took place, the bard Iain Lom MacDonald of Keppoch left the main body of MacColla’s men and sat to get a good view of the battlefield. Tradition states that MacColla came up to him and asked, ‘Iain Lom wilt thou leave us?’ to which Iain Lom replied, “If I go with thee today and fall in battle, who will sing thy praises and prowess tomorrow?” Iain Lom MacDonald was a staunch Royalist and was feared by Clan Campbell because of his wit and poetic skill. When the Campbells placed a bounty on his head, Iain Lom appeared at Inveraray to personally collect the money for himself. The Campbells rewarded his audacity by entertaining him as their guest for a week. Iain Lom remained true to his word and wrote a poem about MacColla at Inverlochy that included the following stanzas-
Alasdair Mhic Cholla ghasda,
Làmh dheas a sgoltadh nan caisteal ;
Chuir thu ‘n ruaig air Ghallaibh glasa,
‘S ma dh’òl iad càil, gun chuir thu asd’ e.
‘M b’ aithne dhuibhse ‘n Goirtean Odhar?
‘S math a bha e air a thodhar,
Chan innear chaorach no ghobhar
Ach fuil Dhuibhneach an dèidh reothadh.
Alasdair, son of handsome Colla,
skilled hand at cleaving castles,
you put to flight the Lowland pale-face
what kale they had taken came out of them again.
Do you remember the place called the Tawny Field?
It got a fine dose of manure,
not the dung of sheeps or goats,
but Campbell blood well congealed.
Following the Battle of Inverlochy, the Royalist campaign in Scotland continued and the Montrose-MacColla alliance achieved three more significant victories at Auldearn, Alford and Kilsyth. Despite the success, the partnership between the two men was only ever one of mutual convenience. Having won six major battles against the Covenanters, Montrose now proposed that they travel south to England to aid Charles I in his battle against the English Parliament. MacColla’s tenuous loyalty to the Royalist cause was now revealed as he refused to move South and instead took his men back to Argyll to prevent a resurgence of Campbell power.
The Deaths of Montrose and Argyll
Montrose went on to capture Glasgow, but on his move South towards England he was intercepted by David Leslie, one of the many veteran Covenanters who had served with Sweden during the Thirty Years War. At the Battle of Philiphaugh, Montrose had only 700 men to face Leslie’s 7,000 strong force. Needless to say that without MacColla’s Irish veterans there was to be no miracle and the Royalist force was completely destroyed. Montrose fled to the highlands, then into exile in Norway in 1646. He returned to Scotland at the head of a small force in March 1650 to avenge the death of Charles I, but he was captured at the Battle of Carbisdale and taken to Edinburgh for trial.
Montrose was executed shortly afterwards at the Old Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. His head was put on a spike at the Tollbooth from 1650 until the restoration of Charles II in 1661. Montrose was then buried with full honours at St Giles Cathedral in recognition of his services to the Royalist cause. 16 days after the burial, Montrose and MacColla’s arch-enemy, the Marquess of Argyll, was executed on the same spot where Montrose had died 11 years earlier. Argyll’s severed head was then placed on the spike recently vacated by Montrose’s head – such are the ironies of Scottish history.
Second Ravaging of Argyll and Return to Ireland
MacColla returned to Argyll without Montrose in September 1645 and devastated it for a second time. However, MacColla lacked the time or means to capture castles, thereby undermining his ability to permanently suppress Campbell power in central Argyll. After dealing with Montrose, David Leslie’s army now advanced against MacColla’s army at Rhunahaorine Moss in Kintyre. Details of the battle are unclear and although MacColla is known to have lost, it appears that he was able to escape by sea with the bulk of his force. Shortly after MacColla’s retreat of May 1647, 300 MacDougalls who had volunteered to stay behind to defend Dunaverty Castle were executed by David Leslie at the request of the Marquess of Argyll.
MacColla eventually returned to the Irish Confederates where he hoped to raise more men and continue the campaign against the Covenanters in Scotland. However, his return to Ireland coincided with an intensification of the Civil War and a crushing series of defeats for the Confederate cause in their war against the English Parliament. Instead of immediately returning to Scotland, MacColla became a Lieutenant-General in the Confederate Army of Munster. He was present at the Battle of Knocknanuss in November 1647 where he commanded a wing of the Confederate Army of Theobold Taafe, the 1st Earl of Carlingford. Taafe positioned his army on either side of a hill, which meant that neither side of the Confederate army could see each other. MacColla led a charge that routed the English Parliamentary soldiers facing him and thinking that the battle was won, he advanced with his men to loot the enemy baggage train. Unbeknownst to MacColla, the other wing of the Confederate force had been driven from the field, meaning he was now surrounded on all sides. When MacColla realised the hopelessness of his situation he surrendered. What followed next remains unclear, but the most likely scenario was that MacColla, and his men, were executed despite having received assurances that no harm would come to them if they surrendered their weapons.
So despite MacColla’s heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to resurrect the fortunes of Clan Iain Mor during the Civil War, why does he remain relatively unknown, while Montrose is a widely celebrated figure of Scottish history?
The first problem for MacColla is that as a military leader in the Gaelic world he was dismissed by subsequent historians as simply a kind of brigand or bandit. MacColla was not trained in the conventional military doctrines of 17th century Europe, and as such many writers simply couldn’t understand how he could be considered a bona fide military leader in those circumstances. Far from respecting his achievements, later historians typically characterised him as a barbarian and leader of savages who had risen up amongst his tribe. In contemporary sources the people of the Gàidhealtachd were demonised as rebels and threatening outsiders but as political circumstances changed this position developed and Gaels were ultimately portrayed as benign, yet uncivilised ‘noble savages’. What has been lacking is an appreciation that the Gaels were simply different – they thought differently, their society was structured differently and they valued different concepts from their compatriots in other parts of the country. The idea that you could learn war from a text book would have been absurd to many Gaels and they attached much greater value to bonds of kinship and to proven feats of personal courage and martial skill.
Some readers will be aware that while Montrose has an elaborate tomb at the heart of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, MacColla is buried in an unknown plot at the small parish church of Clonmeen, near Cork in Ireland. As far as I’m aware there is no monument or plaque to commemorate MacColla in his native country. MacColla’s exclusion from history can best be understood in relation to his partnership with Montrose. MacColla received glowing recognition of his achievements – to the exclusion of Montrose – amongst Gaelic bards. However, the opposite occurred in the lowlands as Victorian historians developed an intense hero-worship of Montrose that meant no other figure, not least a Catholic islander, could be his equal. Clearly both sides were guilty of presenting a skewed version of history to give greater prominence to the man that represented their culture. The problem for MacColla therefore is that the voice that dominated Scotland for the next few hundred years was neither Catholic or Gaelic, but the voice of the Lowland English-speaking Presbyterian.
The dominance of one particular culture within Scotland meant that MacColla was not only ignored from history, his reputation has been repeatedly attacked by historians throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Professor David Stevenson successfully argues that no where is this more obvious than the traditional accounts given of the Battle of Auldearn. The traditional account of the battle states that Montrose lay a cunning trap for the Covenanters only for it to come undone by MacColla charging the enemy prematurely. This version of the battle was used to re-enforce the stereotype that while Montrose was the brains, MacColla was the brawn and that Gaelic warriors, although strong and brave, were archaic and ultimately a bit thick.
The truth however, as argued by Professor Stevenson was quite the opposite and MacColla actually saved Montrose from a disastrous defeat. Stevenson argues that Montrose failed to utilise proper reconnaissance and the Covenanter army surprised him before he had time to adequately prepare his force. MacColla took charge of the situation and through a stubborn and heroic rear guard action he delayed the Covenanters. MacColla’s presence of mind and tactically astute counter-attack gave Montrose sufficient time to organise the bulk of the army and win the battle. Auldearn therefore illustrates how MacColla became a convenient target for later historians as they could protect Montrose’s reputation by ascribing his faults and mistakes to MacColla.
It’s obvious to me at least that neither MacColla nor Montrose would have achieved the success they did without each other. Yet like Scotland’s Gaelic history more generally, MacColla is only ever spoken about as he relates to someone else, in this case, Montrose. The time therefore is long over due for MacColla’s celebrated place in Gaelic folklore to be more widely appreciated in Scotland. It won’t happen overnight, but maybe it’s time for MacColla to lead one last charge to restore Scotland’s forgotten Gaelic history.