Hugh MacDonald of Sleat and the O’Beolans of Old Applecross Abbey

Hugh MacDonald of Sleat and the O’Beolans of Old Applecross Abbey:

The following narrative is my attempt to trace Hugh MacDonald’s matrilineal heritage. It is not my intention to re-write history nor should the reader accept any data quoted as absolute truth. Of at least two dozen histories written about the O’Beolans, I have quoted from five of them as they pertain to Hugh of Sleat, none of which agree with each other.

What is certain, it that Hugh’s father, Alexander MacDonald, although legitimately married to Elizabeth Seaton, met and fell in love with a beautiful, vibrant red-head, known only to us as the daughter of Patrick Roy (the Red) who was the last lay abbot of Applecross Abbey. This passage from a book called ‘The History of the MacKenzies’ clearly stated that:  “Patrick’s daughter bore a son to Alexander, Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross, who was called Austin (Ùisdean or Hugh) or as others say, Augustine. She was twice before the King, as MacDonald could not be induced to part with her, on occasion of her great beauty. The King said “that it was no wonder that such a fair damsel had enticed MacDonald.” 

Another certainty is that Alexander MacDonald and the daughter of Patrick Roy O’Beolan (the Red) had many children together.  Hugh of Sleat had other full brothers and sisters. Which surname they adopted is unknown, but it may be possible that they used the surname “Ross” as opposed to “MacDonald”.

The Applecross Peninsula (Scottish Gaelic: A’ Chomraich – The Sanctuary) is a peninsula in Wester Ross, on the west coast of Scotland, amongst the northern Isles.  The northern Isles consist of the vast areas of Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Orkney and the Hebrides.  Applecross’s name is an Anglicization of the Pictish name Aporcrosan, ‘confluence of the [river] Crossan’.  From early in the 1200’s Applecross was part of the Earldom of Ross.

The name Applecross is about 1350 years old and is not used locally to refer to the 19th century village with the pub and post office, which lies on small Applecross Bay.  The existing row of houses on the bay is called Shore Street; the locals simply call it “The Street”; some maps call it “Applecross”.  Rather the name Applecross broadly applies to all the settlements around the peninsula, including Toscaig, Culduie, Camusterrach, Milltown, Sand, ‘The Street’, Lonbain and many others. Applecross is also the name of the local estate and the civil parish, which includes Shieldaig and Torridon. The small River Applecross flows into the bay at Applecross. In 1850, nearly 3000 people lived on the peninsula; today less than 300.

The isolated area around Applecross is believed to be one of the earliest settled parts of Scotland.  Only accessible by boat until the early 20th century, the area known as Applecross is now connected by a winding coastal road, but still remains remote.

Applecross Abbey was a Christian Celtic Tribal Abbey continuously active throughout the Viking period. The kirk stood at the head of Applecross Bay as late as 1788. In its hey-day the monastery was described as a “fair hieland kirk”.  Nothing remains of the ancient monastery.

St. Máelrubai (Old Irish form) or Maelrubha (born circa 642) came to Scotland in 671 from the Irish monastery of Bangor, County Down.  He founded Aporcrosan in 673 in what was then Pictish territory, and was the monastery’s first abbot, dying on the 21st April 722 in his eightieth year. It was this abbot who converted the pagan Picts to Christianity and who evangelized the entire western district of the highlands. The abbey became the center of a Celtic tribal abbey dedicated to St. Andrew and administered after the Viking period by a patrilineal or agnatic kinship with a family who used the Irish-style surname “0 Beolain.”  Some historians suggest that perhaps the O’Beolans came to possess the abbacy during the transitional 12th century through a female descendent. The early monastery was located around the site of the later parish church (erected in 1817). For the next 450 years, descending from St. Máelrubai, there were many Pictish abbots, who probably shared an agnatic kinship with the founder, St. Máelrubai.

The O’Beolans were an ecclesiastical Gaelic tribal dynasty who can trace its roots to Gilleon na h’ Airde (Collin of Aird) of the tenth century.

Beolaon or Beolan was not a typical Celtic name.  Rather the name was derived from “Helgi Bjolan, the son of Ketill Flatnefr who was the ninth century Norse ruler of the Hebrides, who was known by the Gaelic nickname of “Bjolan (Beolain)”. Since his father was ruler of the Hebrides and later his nephew was styled “King of Ross”, Helgi Bjolan is probably the namesake of the O’Beolans.  Nick-names were commonly used in Norse culture as a second element in Norse personal names. The name “O’Beolain” is more Irish-Gaelic in style. Surnames beginning with the letter ‘O’ came into use in Ireland in the ninth century and were used by the Irish catholic where-as Bjolan was styled more after the protestant Norse.  Helgi Bjolan’s kin brought Christianity to Iceland in the ninth century.

The O’Beolans of Ross were the Hereditary Lay Abbots of the Abbey of Applecross and possessed a king-like authority over the vast lands connected with the abbey.  Those lands stretched across the coast of Ross from Gleneg to Lochbroom, and gradually extended inland.  A “lay abbot” was a term used to define a layman upon whom someone in authority bestowed an abbey in return for services rendered. The O’Beolans received the abbey of Applecross and then willed it to their heirs for generations.

Over time these ecclesiastic rulers became aristocratic and did not represent the local tribes at the grass-roots level. (Source # 4).

The O’Beolans were also known by the Gaelic “Mac Giolla Aindreis”, meaning son of the servant of St. Andrew. “Mac Giolla Aindreis” was anglicised to “Gillanders”. The tribe that inhabited the abbey lands in western Ross were called in their native Gaelic – Clan Aindreis or “Giolla Aindreis” – the “race of Andrew” or Gillanders.  The O’Beolans were the only Gaelic tribe to be called thusly. The influence of the Celtic church from the 1200’s and onward, is reflected in the use of the cross of St. Andrew on the Royal seal.  The cross of St. Andrew is symbolic as St. Andrew’s position as the Patron Saint of Scotland.  Tradition tells us that the relics of St. Andrew had first been brought to pagan Scotland from Greece in the 4thcentury.

Malcolm MacBeth, born circa 1130, was one of six powerful Celtic Lords in control of the lands of the Isles, and he was the first Celtic Earl of Ross. There is a record in “Celtic Scotland”, Volume I, and page 483 that begins:

“The young king had barely reigned a year when he encountered the old enemies of the Crown, the families of Mac William and Mac Eth [MacBeth] who now combined their forces under Donald Ban, the son of that Mac William who had been slain at Mamgarvie in 1187, and Kenneth Mac Eth, a son or grandson of Malcolm Mac Eth, with the son of one of the Irish provincial kings, and burst into the Province of Moray at the head of a large band of malcontents. A very important auxiliary, however, now joined the party of the king. This was Ferquhard or Fearchar Macintagart, the son of the ‘Sagart’ or priest who was the lay possessor of the extensive possessions of the old monastery founded by the Irish Saint Maelrubba at Applecross in the seventh century. Its possessions lay between the district of Ross and the Western Sea and extended from Lochcarron to Loch Ewe and Loch Maree; Ferquhard was thus in reality a powerful Highland chief commanding the population of an extensive western region. The insurgents were assailed by him with great vigour, entirely crushed, and their leaders taken, who be at once beheaded and presented their heads to the new king as a welcome gift on the 15th of June, when he was knighted by the king as a reward for his prompt assistance.”

Reputedly, Malcolm MacBeth was born at Dingwall Castle, the same place where in 1436, Hugh of Sleat was said to have been born.

Following is a lineage of the O’Beolans, which, in terms of dates, is loosely defined:

The Clan Ross Society states that MacBeth bound his family to O’Beolan of the great Irish royal house of Tara by the marriage of his daughter to an O’Beolan Priest:

~Daughter of Malcolm MacBeth married Priest O’Beolan circa 1158 and had a known child:

~~Fearchar (Farquhar) Mac an tSagairt (O’Beolan) which translates to “the son of the priest” became the Celtic II Earl of Ross circa 1234 and he was the first O’Beolan to become a secular ruler. Farquhar O’Beolan was made a Norman knight in 1215 for “beheading the enemies of the king and presenting their heads to” King Alexander II.  Farquhar was also awarded lands in Galloway by the King.  In 1230, he built Fearn Abbey and was buried there in 1251.  Farquhar married Margaret MacGillivray and had by her four known children:

1. ~~~Uilleam, his successor who became the third Celtic Earl of Ross; Uilleam and his successors named many of their male children “Hugh”;

2. ~~~Christina who married Olaf the Black and became the progenitor of the Gunns of Caithness;

3. ~~~Malcolm O’Beolan, Abbot of Applecross who was the G-G-G-Grandfather to Hugh MacDonald of Sleat. It needs to be noted here that I found 3 sources for Malcolm: one source states that nothing is known about him; the Clan Ross Society shows Malcolm drowning at a young age; however, “Applecross Chronology”shows him as the next Abbot of Applecross and to produce a son who was called:

 ~~~~~“Green Abbot” O’Beolan, the next Hereditary Celtic Abbot of Applecross who had a son;

~~~~~~~Ruaridh (Roderick) O’Beolan, the next Hereditary Celtic Abbot of Applecross had a son;

~~~~~~~~~Patrick the Red (Gillepatrick Roy) the last Hereditary Celtic Abbot of Applecross who died on the front lines on the 24thJuly, 1411 at the Battle of Harlaw, had three known children:

a.~~~~~~~~~~Daughter of Patrick the Red who married (probably of the hand-fast type) Alexander MacDonald, 3rd  Lord of the Isles and had several children by him, one of them being an illegitimate son;

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Hugh MacDonald of Sleat (1436).

b.~~~~~~~~~~Norman O’Beolan (Ross);*

c.~~~~~~~~~~Austin Mor (Hugh) O’Beolan (Ross).*

4. ~~~Euphemia O’Beolan who married Walter Moravia.

*Sometime around 1400, the O’Beolan family began using the surname of “Ross”. “Robert Gordon (‘Earldom of Scotland,’ page 36) shows that the Rosses were originally designated O’Beolan and Gillanders indiscriminately, according to the writer’s or speaker’s fancy”.

The given name, Hugh, first appears within the O’Beolan family in 1275.  Some sources suggest that the given name Hugh arrived in Scotland with the Norman Invaders. It is noteworthy to mention here that Austin, Uisdean, Augustine, or Hugh (which is all the same name) was a common name among the Applecross and old Earl of Ross Celtic tribes.  Hugh MacDonald of Sleat, on his maternal side, was a direct descendant of the Clan O‘Beolan or Gilleoin na h’Airde; the ancestor of the Earls of Ross.

The given name Hugh was never used in the MacDonald family.  Hugh of Sleat was the first of the MacDonalds to be named in this fashion.

Hugh’s elder brother, Celestine of Lochalsh was called by his father “Filius naturalis” in a charter dated 1447 and Earl John MacDonald called his brother Austin or “Hugh” “Frater carnalis” in 2 charters dated 1463 and 1470 respectively.  The terms “naturalis and carnalis” were terms used to designate children who were products of Hand-fast or left-handed marriages. This was corroborated by the Sleat Historian, Hugh MacDonald, who was least likely to introduce illegitimacy into the MacDonald clan unless he absolutely had to. Celestine inherited all of the lands of the monastery of Applecross. The lay abbots of Applecross Abbey also held, under the Earls of Ross, the Sleat district of the Isle of Skye, which Hugh inherited through his mother circa 1462.

Hence he became “Hugh of Sleat” the founder of “Clan Ùisdean” or Clan Donald North; progenitor of the surname MacCutcheon. Son of Hugh.

SOURCE # 1:         Wikipedia.

SOURCE # 2:        Clan Ross Society;

SOURCE # 3:        Applecross Chronology states;

  1. 801 Mac Oigi of Aporcrossan, Abbot of Bangor died.
  2. ?9th century ?Irish O’Beolan family, related to Maelrubha, became ‘herenachs’ of Applecross – hereditary lay farmers of abbey lands (according to speculation by Skene/Reeves).
  3. Circa 930 Helgi son of Ottar, an Icelandic Viking, raided in Scotland and seized Nidbiorg, daughter of King Biolan (O’Beolan??) and Kadlin. (Landnamabok Chronicle).

SOURCE # 4:        Clan Families of Ireland and Scotland:

SOURCE # 5:        History of the MacKenzies:

Author: Angela Andrew


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