BRIEF HISTORY OF CLAN DONALD OF SLEAT
“Here’s Tae Us. Wha’s like us? Damn few and they rrrrrr’ a’ Deed.”
It is not my intention here to teach British History but to simplify it for interested readers only in the context of how it relates to our McCutcheon ancestors. There are massive volumes written about Clan Donald by British historians and almost all of the history tells the story of the Aristocracy; very little mention of the common man to which class the McCutcheons belonged.
Before proceeding, a brief explanation of the name “MacDonald”. MacDonald is the harsh Anglicization of the Gaelic name “Mhic Dhòmhnaill”; the Gaelic soft pronunciation of the name more closely resembles MacDonnell. When reading through the massive volumes of history on Clan Donald, some historians fluidly interchange the name MacDonnell with MacDonald.
Clan DONALD of Sleat is a direct descendant of John MacDonald who was married to Princess Margaret Stuart, one of the daughters of King Robert Stuart the 2nd, King of Scotland. John and Margaret were Ùisdean’s (Hugh’s) great grand-parents. Her older brother became King Robert 3rd, King of Scotland. Margaret Stuart’s mother was Marjory Bruce, daughter of ROBERT THE BRUCE, King Robert 1st of Scotland and liberator of Scotland from the English Crown. Robert The BRUCE was not a STEWART. His grandson, Robert 2nd, was the first STEWART.
“Lord of the Isles, whose lofty name
A thousand bards have given to fame,
The Mate of Monarchs, and allied,
On equal terms with England’s pride.”
From Chieftain’s tower to bondsman’s cot,
Who hears the tale, and triumph’s not?
The damsel dons her best attire,
The shepherd lights his Beltane fire,
Joy, Joy! Each warder’s horn hath sung,
Joy, Joy! Each matin bell hath rung;
The holy priest says grateful mass,
Loud shouts each hardy galla-glass….
The islands known as Skye, Uist, Eigg, Rum, Coll, Iona, Lewis, was a large Sea-faring Kingdom that was home to a race made up of Celtic-Viking blood, led by Clan Donald, along with Clan Ùisdean, the MacDonalds of Sleat. Clan Donald at one time ruled almost 1/3 of north-western Scotland. They were the Lord of the Isles and they considered themselves the true rulers of northern Scotland – King James did not. The Gaels called the Isle of Skye “Eilean a Sgiathach”; winged isle.
The Clan members of Clan Donald had a very unique characteristic – They lived to fight. About 1250, out of this fighting mentality arose the very first of the “gallóglach” highland clans such as theMacSweeney’s, the MacDowell’s and many MacDonnell’s. The first record of “gallóglach” was in 1259 when the MacRory “gallóglaigh” served in Ireland. The entire 16th century (all 100 years of it) was a giant battlefield, more so in County Antrim than County Down, so much so, that fallen warriors were hastily buried where they fell. In later years, as battles raged, there became no place to bury the new dead, so they dug up the old bones and piled them high alongside the outer walls of the churches; then used the same site to bury the newly dead.
The British Aristocracy regarded the Scottish Highlanders and their Gael Irish near relatives as a mentally and culturally lower form of life.
DunScaith Castle is the place where the name McCutcheon originated and it was from here that the battle cry of the clans went out to raise troops to support Robert the Bruce in the Battle of Bannockburn.
The castle sits on an off-shore rock, 40 feet above sea level, with a natural moat as part of its topography. There is 20 feet between the rock and the mainland that used to be spanned by a walled bridge. Inside the castle walls the remains of a stairway still exist that led to a tower.
Pictured are the ruins of DunScaith Castle. Photograph © Peter Trant. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dunscaith_Castle.jpeg
The History of DunScaith castle was a long and bloody one with many owners until it finally fell into ruins. Some of the history of the castle follows in the story as it pertains to the MacDonnells. Some of their early history predominately took place in and around this very old castle.
T’was then that warlike signals wake
DunScaith’s dark towers and Eisord’s lake,
And soon from Cavilgarrigh’s head
Thick wreaths of eddying smoke were spread;
A summons these of war and wrath
To the brave clans of Sleat and Stath,
And, ready at the sight
Each warrior to his weapons sprung,
And targe upon his shoulders flung,
Impatient for the fight.
Much of the history of the MacDonalds of Sleat comes from traditional family histories, and it is often difficult to tell fact from fiction. The clan histories relevant to the MacDonalds of Sleat were composed by the Shenachies; MacVuirich – the Clanranald shenachie; and Hugh MacDonald – the Sleat shenachie.
The MacDonalds of Sleat descend from Ùisdean, bastard son of Alasdair (Alexander) of Islay and the daughter of O’Beolan, Abbot of Applecross. They were a seafaring branch of Clan Donald and utterly barbaric.
Angus “Og” (1270-1326) – young Angus who was son of Angus Mor MacDonald (Aonghas mac Dhòmhnaill) was a loyal supporter and ally to Robert The Bruce. In 1306 when Bruce and his surviving men sought refuge in the west, Angus Og along with Christina of the Isles sheltered Bruce after the Battle of Methven and the capture of Bruce’s wife and family. Angus Og gave Bruce friendship and protection in one of Bruce’s darkest hours.
“Secret and safe my Liege must lie,
In the far bounds of friendly Skye,
Torquil thy pilot and thy guide.–
“Not so, brave Chieftain,” Ranald cried;
“Myself will on my Sovereign wait.”
And raise in arms the men of Sleat.”
At the Battle of Bannockburn, Angus Og brought 10,000 of his Hebridean men from the highlands to fight alongside Bruce. As the legend was told, upon seeing him, Bruce greeted Angus Og warmly saying “My hope is constant in thee”. This became the motto for Clan Ranald.
1625: Ireland: “No man’s property was safe in Ireland, for the tenure was depending on the royal will; and the caprices of the Tudors were supplemented by the necessities of the Stuarts.” Clan Donald were firm supporters of the Stuarts, inter-married with them, and this became problematic for them throughout their turbulent history, contributing to their mass losses of life and their ultimate downfall as rulers of the Celtic north-west.
Ùisdean (Hugh)’s father, John, made Hugh of Sleat’s ownership of DunScaith Castle “legal” by way of grant in 1469. Generations of Sleat used DunScaith Castle as their home base until approximately 1616. The seat of the MacDonalds of Skye moved to the Trotternish Peninsula on Upper Skye, building Caisteal Ùisdean circa 1601, which then became the new home of Clan Ùisdean. DunScaith Castle descended into ruins, with its proximity to the sea, possibly bombarded by King James. Near the Castle Ùisdean there exists a small village called “MhicCuithein”. (The Gaelic form of MacCutcheon).
The first record of Ùisdean occurred in the traditional histories of the Shenachies. In about 1455, according to the Sleat shenachie, Ùisdean, along with an entourage of his “gallóglach” clansmen from the Western Isles went on a piracy expedition to the Orkney Islands in the North Sea. The Orkneys are an archipelago, bound by the North Sea on the east, the Norwegian Sea on the North, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. They are situated 10 miles north of the coast of Scotland, the Caithness region.
“Around their prows the ocean roars, And chafes beneath their thousand oars”.
“Hath Erin seen your parting sails? Or come ye on Norweyan gales?”
The Orkney Islands were under Norwegian rule until 1468, when James III of Scotland wed Margaret, daughter of King Christian I of Norway. Orkney was pledged against the promised dowry which was never paid, so the archipelago passed into Scotland’s hands.
In 1455, when Ùisdean and his “gallóglach” clansmen pirated the Orkney Islands committing acts of rapine against its natives, he did so against another country. The Earl of Orkney was slain.
After ravaging Orkney, the raiding party, laden with spoils, stopped in Caithness which was home to Clan Gunn. The “spoils” they loaded onto their galleys were animals such as sheep, cattle, possibly horses and food, such as grain or corn. Sometimes, whiskey was a bonus.
They were entertained for several weeks, possibly stretching to months, by a local government official by the name of GUNN. Ùisdean had an illegitimate child by Gunn’s daughter, Elizabeth, whom they named Donald Gallach. Caithness is called Gallaibh in Gaelic; this being the origin of this son’s name. Since Ùisdean was already married to Fynvola MacIan, this marriage was probably of the “hand fest” type, for after a few months, he left her and the child. The child was raised by Elizabeth and possibly a sister, Mary. Some say that Elizabeth was ashamed and became reclusive for the rest of her life.
This piracy expedition was typical “gallóglach” behaviour of ‘coyne and livery’; Hugh and his “gallóglach” Island warriors staying for extended periods of time, helping themselves to the free food and lodging their hosts offered, including their women, then once their host’s household became depleted, departed for next the battle. For a young Highlander, if you weren’t the “Laird”, prospects were few.
By a daughter of the great McLeod of Harris, Ùisdean had another illegitimate son called “Donald Hearach” aka Donald Harris. This son was raised by the Harris family.
Ùisdean, after being victorious in Orkney, from 1460 to 1476, played not a small part in securing the surrender of the Earl of Ross, and procured many other lands, including the earliest Seat of Clann Ùisdein, DunScaith Castle on the Island of Skye. In short, he held title to no properties in 1460 and by the end of 1493, Clan MacDonald of Sleat became one of the largest branches of Clan Donald.
Ùisdean (HUGH) was as aggressive in his personal life as he was in his seafaring and fighting adventures. During his life, Ùisdean had several wives and several known children by other women. Some of Ùisdean’s sons would go on to play a large part in the history of the clan in the early 16th century. His eldest son, Eoin succeeded him.
Gilleasbaig Dubh, better known as Black Archie, was by far the worst of the sons of Ùisdean. He conspired with two of his half-brothers, Angus Dubh and Angus Collach, to murder the two Donalds so that he could inherit the lands of their father, Ùisdean. Here is the story as told by the Sleat shenachie:
“Black Archie”, with his two bastard brothers, Angus Collach and Angus Dubh went to the Isle of Skye where, hearing that their brother Donald Gallach was at Kishorn building two galleys, one for himself, the other for Donald Hearach. They went there in the night time and coming to the place where Donald lodged early in the morning, they went in where he was, and after discoursing on different subjects, Donald Gallach came out with a plaid wrapped round him and his nightcap on where the galleys were building on the stocks. Archibald bowed over under the quarter of one of the galleys and said that the carpenter had placed a plank there in a very crude manner. Donald Gallach, stooping over to see the plank was stabbed by Archibald with his long skean or knife. Donald Gallach leaning over a little rivulet near the place, turning about, said he was sure his brother, Donald Hearach, was not in life. Archibald, leaping over the same rivulet, said he was not, neither would he be any longer, and stabbed him a second time. Ordering his brothers to lie on that they might be equally guilty, which they obeyed and came back to Strath the very same day. McKinnon being informed of the murder of Donald Gallach brought his corpse from Kishorn and buried it in Kilchrist.” (Highland Papers, Vol. 1, pp. 66/67.)
Black Archibald had already murdered Donald Harris.
Shortly after the murders of his two half-brothers, (Gilleasbaig Dubh), Black Archibald was forced to flee Uist. He embarked upon a career in piracy in the southern Hebrides for about 3 years.
Clann Ùisdein was in chaos. During this period in its history, the clan’s story was one of violence and lawlessness. According to the Sleat shenachie, one of the murderous brothers, Angus Collach, travelling to North Uist, stayed at the home of one of his relatives, Donald of Balranald. He was not home and Angus Collach tried to rape his wife. She escaped and alerted her family. A body of about 60 men marched north and surprised Angus Collach at Kirkibost. About 18 of Angus’ men were slain and he was taken prisoner. He was tied up into a sack and thrown into the sea.
The other murderous Angus, Angus Dubh, was also made prisoner by the same group of men and long held captive. One day he was permitted to run, to see if he could run as well as before his imprisonment. Angus Dubh attempted to flee his captors and he was shot in the leg by an arrow. The wound was considered incurable and Angus Dubh was put to death.
Black Archie was not to be outdone. Soon after his return, he took revenge on the slayers of his two brothers and put many of them to death. It is important to note here, that our ancestor Mac Ùisdein (James Houchonson – 1455) was half-brother to all of the above.
The Sleat shenachie tells the tale of the last standing murderer, Black Archibald. Two of his nephews – Donald Gruamach, Donald Gallachs’ son, and Donald Gruamach’s half-brother, Raghnall – went to North Uist to visit Black Archibald, who had murdered their father. One day, the two half-brothers, Black Archie, and their henchmen, went hunting south of Lochmaddy. While the attendants were forging up the hill the three men sat and waited for the game to appear. In time, Black Archie fell asleep and Raghnall killed his uncle. The date of his murder was between 1515 and 1520.
Black Archie lived by the sword, he died by the sword.
Now that our ancestor’s half-brothers were all dead, the McCutcheon’s would have next aligned themselves with Donald Gruamach and his brother, Alasdair Gallach. It was possibly this brother Alexander, who took the McÙisdeans to Ireland sometime around 1565.
Donald Gruamach, aka “Donald the Grim” after avenging his father’s murder, became the next Chief of Sleat. Donald’s son, Donald Gorm (meaning Donald Blue, probably because he had blue eyes) succeeded his father as chief. One day Donald Gorm took an arrow to the calf of his leg in a battle to defend the castle. He pulled the arrow out, expanding his wound which led to his death. His uncle Alexander was with him that day. It was shortly after this Donald’s death, that the clan was greatly reduced, so Alexander took his sons along with his “gallóglach” clansmen to Ireland to support his first cousin, Sorley Boy MacDonnell.
I hope that this is an understandable version of the life and times of Hugh, the founding father of the McCutcheon branch of Clan Donald.
NOTE: The poetic insertions were taken from Sir Walter Scott`s Poem: “Lord of the Isles”.