The Scottish Medieval Lordship of the Isles: an Introduction

Posted by on Jun 8, 2015 in Blog |

The Kingdom and Lordship of the Isles lasted roughly four hundred years, yet this intriguing period of medieval Scottish Highland history is frequently glossed over in general histories of Scotland, given at most a page or two. Emerging out of the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada and the later Norse occupation of many areas in Western Scotland, the Lordship of the Isles stands in stark contrast to the more feudal, Norman influenced court of the Scottish monarchs in Edinburgh. This era in Highland history deserves to be better known.

Finlaggan from the air

Finlaggan from the air

The Kingdom of the Isles emerged from the Norse occupation with the rise of Somerled in the 1100s.  In 1098 a treaty between the Scottish King Edgar and Magnus Barelegs of Norway formally passed control of the Hebrides to the Norse but, after that agreement, no Norwegian king visited the Isles for over 150 years until the defeat of King Haakon at Largs in 1263. This vacuum allowed Somerled’s dynasty to flourish and led to the rise of the Kingdom and Lordship of the Isles, a powerful political force in Western Scotland that lasted until the early 1500s.

Somerled was the son of Gillebride Na H’Uaimh  (Gillebride of the Cave) a scion of Clan Colla and a reputed descendant of the ancient royal house of Dalriada. Somerled’s mother may have been Norse; the name Somerled is Norse and translates to “Summer Sailor”.

In the late 1130s Somerled set about reconquering his ancestral lands in Argyll and in 1140 he married Ragnhilda, daughter of King Olaf of Mann. King Olaf did not initially agree to the match but the story goes that Somerled’s close friend, Maurice Mac Neill, a ship builder and Olaf’s foster-brother, swam under the king’s ship and bored holes in the hull, sealing them with tallow and butter. The next day when the ship moved into open water waves washed away the tallow. Somerled refused to come to King Olaf’s aid until the king agreed to the marriage.

Horse Harness with the Royal Arms of France

Horse harness with the royal arms of France, 1300s

From two galleys in 1140 Somerled’s sea power increased vastly, so that by 1164 he could raise a fleet of 164 galleys. His political power increased also, and sea power proved intrinsic to his success. When he died in 1164, Somerled held all the islands of the Inner Hebrides, as well as the lands of Kintyre, Knapdale, Lorne and Argyll. He called himself “Rex Insularum”, the King of the Isles.

Upon his death his son, Ranald, succeeded Somerled and for five generations the Kingdom of the Isles held sway in the Hebrides.  During the Scottish Wars of Independence the family divided their support between Bruce and the Balliol claimants, but Angus Og supported Robert the Bruce, and the Bruce rewarded Angus Og in 1315 with the ancient Clan Donald lands in the inner Hebrides as well as lands in Lochaber and Glencoe. Angus Og was succeeded by his son, John of Islay, in 1329.

In 1353 John signed an agreement as “Dominus Insularum”, the Lord of the Isles, and for four more generations and another 150 years the Lords the Isles controlled the Western Isles and portions of the Highlands, until the final forfeiture of the Lordship to James IV of Scotland in 1493 by the second John of the Isles.

Pilgrim's Badge

A pilgrim’s badge from Rome

The Lordship had its headquarters in Finlaggan, in Islay. The main buildings were located on two islands in the loch, Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle (the Council Island). In recent years archaeological excavations there have turned up items of interest, pilgrim badges from Rome, gaming pieces and harp pegs, a harness pendant with French insignia from the 14th century. The lands of the Lordship at its widest extent included Lochaber, Garmoran, Knapdale, Kintyre, Glencoe and all the isles of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and the Earldom of Ross. The intricately carved grave slabs and crosses that remain in the West Highlands and the Hebrides provide mute testimony to the Gaelic culture of this period.

The Lord of the Isles held council at Finlaggan “to the number of sixteen”.  MacDuffie (or MacPhee) of Colonsay kept the records of the Isles.  Other hereditary appointments included the Beatons, renowned physicians. When the Beaton traveled by sea his medical texts were sent separately overland to avoid their loss in the event of a shipwreck. The hereditary poets of the Lordship, the MacMhuirichs, claimed descent from the Irish poet Muireadhach Albanach.

The Book of the Dean of Lismore, a collection of Gaelic poetry from the early 1500s gives fascinating glimpses of life in this vanished era. “Not good is a camp without gaming; not good is a maidservant over-indolent . . . not good is a woman without modesty: not good a harp without strings; not good is war without courage . . . not good a castle without merriment; not good to neglect the household dogs . . . not good is a reader without understanding; not good is a man without a friend; not good is a poet lacking a subject; not good is lime-built castle lacking a hall.” (From XXXIII “The Author of this is Felim MacDugall”).

Harp Pin

A harp pin

My medieval mysteries attempt to recreate this vanished era. The stories I heard as a child of the MacDuffies, record keepers for the Lords of the Isles, sparked a life-long fascination with Scotland and Scottish history, which eventually led me to Muirteach MacPhee, Mariota Beaton, and the other characters in my Muirteach MacPhee historical mystery series. I hope you will enjoy entering their world.

A Few Resources:


THE LORDS OF THE ISLES by Ronald Williams, The Hogarth Press, London, 1984.

SCOTTISH VERSE FROM THE BOOK OF THE DEAN OF LISMORE, edited by William J. Watson, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, Edinburgh, 1934.

THE KINGDOM OF THE ISLES, R. Andrew McDonald, Tuckwell Press, 1997.

PERIODS IN HIGHLAND HISTORY, I. F. Grant & Hugh Cheape, Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 1997.

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