Angus Og of the Isles


Angus Og of the Isles

Died circa 1490

The power of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, which was firmly established when Bruce gave vast possessions to Angus Og of Islay (not to be confused with Angus Og of the Isles), had extended itself considerably in the interim. John of Islay was, by 1254, styling himself “Dominum Insularum”, and his lands included Mull, Coll, Tiree, Morvern, Ardnamurchan, Duror, Glencoe, Lochaber, Islay, Jura, Gigha, Colonsay, Lewis (which was disputed with the MacLeods), Kintyre and Knapdale. His son Donald, who led the Highlanders in battle at Harlaw in 1411, claimed the earldom of Ross, and Donald’s son, Alexander, was successful in adding this earldom to his possessions. John, the tenth Lord, maintained a princely state with his own parliament, he granted charters and was virtually independent ruler of a substantial kingdom. The most turbulent member of this turbulent family, however, was Angus Og, son of John the tenth Lord, whose rebellion against his father and its consequences paved the way for the downfall of his dynasty and the eventual forfeiture of the Lordship (of the Isles) in 1493.

The cause of the rebellion is not clear, but whatever the reason Angus, having been appointed his father’s representative and lieutenant, contrived to deprive his father of all authority and had himself declared Lord of the Isles. Then he declared war on his hereditary enemy the Earl of Atholl, denounced his allegiance to the Crown (of Scotland), and adopted the title “King of the Isles.” He invaded Atholl and took Blair Castle, carrying off the Earl and Countess to Islay as his prisoners.

Fortunately he was a superstitious man. While harrying Atholl he had burned the Chapel of Saint Bridget (St. Brigid). During his return to the Isles with his captives a tempest caused the loss of most of his galleys. He took this as a sign of divine disapproval, released the Earl and his countess, and did penance on the spot.

Angus next turned to overt treason. He persuaded his father to enter into a compact with the Earl of Douglas and the King of England. For a stipulated sum of money the Lord of the Isles undertook to be the sworn ally of the English king in his wars. (Something the Campbell’s did do later on). Furthermore, in the event of Scotland being entirely subjugated, the country was to be divided between the Douglas and the Lord of the Isles. This remarkable piece of treason was set out, somewhat more fully, in a treaty dated 18th February, 1462. Nothing appears to have resulted from it, however, and no action was taken against Angus. He remained in an open state of rebellion for several years before being declared a traitor in 1475.

There were reasons, too long to go into here, for these rebellions. At around the same time, the kings of Scotland were attempting, and largely failing to some degree, to take control over the Highlands and especially the Islands of what they felt was their kingdom. The Islanders under the leadership of men like Angus Og, felt differently about who should control them, and this led to the rebellions. What Angus Og was apparently trying to do was create a separate kingdom – a Celtic one – separate from the Lowland king’s power. This was in essence, a Highland and Island rebellion against the power of the kings of Scotland, who routinely executed Highland leaders in an attempt to gain control over their ‘wild countries’. Though most history books will not tell you these reasons, this is why Angus Og and other MacDonald leaders were at a virtual state of war with the southern part of Scotland. Sadly, it has become unfashionable to be sympathetic to the Lords of the Isles and indeed many recent historians and writers of Scottish nationality, have taken to smearing the Lordship’s name in what appears to be a revisionist attempt to make the forfeiture look so deserved, that no one would question why it fell or should have ever been. Also sadly, most of the rival clans turned against the Lords of the Isles when pressured by the king, as we shall see.

Og’s father intervened on his behalf (during the rebellions), and by ceding Knapdale to the Earl of Argyll (Campbell) he not only had Angus reinstated, but created a peer of parliament. None of this made any difference to Angus who continued to defy the government of Scotland, and thus the king of Scotland. Various expeditions were then sent against him (see Lowland Adventurers expedition for some details). Then the Highlanders turned: Og defeated the Earl of Atholl, together with the MacKenzies, MacKays, Frasers and others, at Lagebread. He then defeated the Earls of Crawford and Huntly. A third expedition under the Earls of Argyll and Atholl (again), and including his father, failed again to subdue the wild Angus Og. He was getting a reputation for winning. But John, the father, did not give up easily and, gathering MacLeans, MacLeods, MacNeils and others, met Angus at Ardnamurchan. There followed a sanguinary conflict known as the Battle of Bloody Bay, in which Angus again won and his father was killed, thus ending a decidedly odd father-son relationship.

There was now only one course left to the government – for they had failed to defeat him. They instead, in what can only be thought of as a face saving gesture, recognized him. He was fully reinstated in the vast possessions of his Lordship.

Angus died as he had lived, on an armed expedition. It is related that about 1490 he marched to attack MacKenzie of Kintail, and was assassinated by an Irish harper, whose loyalties might be questionable. So, at the hands of a deadly minstrel, perished a firebrand against whose treasons, rebellions and invasions the Scottish government was impotent.

But there was never to be another leader like Angus Og again. The Lords of the Isles, once the great and most powerful clan-related families of all time, had ruffed it for the last time. In May 1493 the Estates met in Edinburgh and declared the troublesome Lordship of the Isles forfeit to the Crown. The power of the great clan Donald (MacDonald) tumbled down and on its ruins rose of the next great power in Scotland, that of the Campbells.

What or how one views the Campbells, how they rose to power and held that power depends largely on your politics, your view of Highland history, and who taught you the history. Whether or not you see the Campbells as heroic, or traitorous, they were never as popular as the MacDonald, Lords of the Isles.

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