Ancient Celtic Warriors: Lords of the Isles



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Conclusion: Part Fifteen of Fifteen Part Series


Lords of the Isles & the Normans in Scotland


The cause of the Celts as an independent nation was not helped by the transformation of some Vikngs into the mighty Normans. By the 11th century, those Vikings who had settled in northern France in the region of Normandy (land of the Normani, or 'north men') had become known as the Normans, a mixture of French and Scandinavian cultures. In those early days they were almost completely Scandinavian, but they adopted French as their language, and took French cavalry tactics to a new level. In 1066, they invaded England and destoyed the ruling Saxon dynasty after a fierce battle at Hastings. An aggressive warrior nation, they proceeded to assault the Celtic fringes of Britain that had so far withstood the advance of the Saxons. They settled southern Wales, the coasts and seaports of Ireland and occupied much of Lowland Scotland through a combination of marriage and land grants. Their domain in Ireland would last for almost 800 years.

One of the last Celtic regions to not be absorbed by the onslaught of the Norman-English was the Kingdom of the Isles. This included the northern and western Isles of Scotland, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man and the Irish Sea. One of the reasons was that many Islanders married into the Viking culture before the Normans ever arrived. It was a culture blending of the remains of the ancient Celtic kingdom of Dalriada with a more recent layer of Norse setlement. In defiance of the mainland Scots, who were becoming increasingly a Lowland culture dominated by Norman landowners, they continued to speak Gaelic (English became the language of the Lowlands) and ruled in the Celtic traditions - the Norse inheritance willingly bending to those of the Gael. This division of Scottish culture led to much power play, and could fill a book, with ambitious warlords calling on the warriors of the Isles to help them in their own pursuit of domination of the mainland.

The most famous Scottish warlord of the 11th century was MacBeth, later immortalized (incorrectly) by Shakespeare as an archetype of naked ambition. In reality, he was no worse than the warlords he fought. Indeed evidence suggests he was better than some. MacBeth was a Gaelic speaking warlord from Moray in the north of Scotland and he employed the northmen of the Northern Isles to assist him. Indeed he may have had an alliance with the mighty Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, who held most of the lands of the old Vikings. Later historians have even described his success on seizing the Scots throne in 1040 as a Gaelic reaction to the excessive English influence supported by Duncan, his opponent. He ruled for 17 years, until Malcolm, the son of Duncan, led a revived English-backed army that cornered MacBethin his homeland of Moray and slaughtered him, thus paving the way for a reumption of Norman-English influence and the retreat of Gaelic culture to the Kingdom of the Isles. The Lord of the Isles could afford to survice in isolation from the mainland as they were great sailors and traders. They thrived on a network of trade based on the Irish Sea linking Ireland with Britain and Scandinavia. Political independence survived until 1263, when Alexander III of Scotland defeated Hakon of Norway in a long extended sea battle called "Largs", and the kingdom of the isles became part of Scotland - at least offically. Its culture remained proudly Gaelic (or Gael) for centuries afterwards, however, and the Lord of the Isles still held considerable sway in his own realm. Many historians curiously blame the Lords of the Isles for the fall of Gaelic Scotland to the Scottish crown. To their thinking, the Lords of the Isles vainly resisted the will of the king and in the end brought about their demise. I think this view is short-sighted. The Lords of the Isles were trying, in their own way, to remain the remnant of the inheritance of the Dalriada Scots. They may have been short-sighted in their ultimate goal -- to be independent of Scottish kings -- but their reasons seem obvious. Lowland Scotland, from where the Scots kings ruled, were strongly influenced by the English, and even Gaelic became extinct there. The Islemen wanted to remain a Celtic nation, as so they resisted.

One thing that has been a hot-button issue over the centuries is the Campbell versus MacDonald aspect of this. Modern Scots all too often side with the Campbell's because in the end they won out. The Campbell's decided, somewhere in the 15th century, to be the eyes and ears for the Scots kings in the Highlands. The Campbells were canny. They weren't part of the Lords of the Isles 'power elite' of the MacDonalds, so instead of playing second fiddle to them, they allied themselves with the Lowland kings, who were largely Anglicized. It depends on your point of view whether or not this was a good thing for Scotland in general. An argument can be made either way. Certainly, at least, this decision by the Campbell's to 'police' the Highlands for the Lowland government, made them one of the most unpopular clans in the Highlands of Scotland for many centuries. The Campbell's were almost entirely on the side of the government versus the highlanders in coming wars, with exceptions during the English Civil War, which, of course, spread to Scotland in the mid 17th century.

This support of the King over the Celtic-Norse Highlander's autonomous rule, was the origin of the Campbell/MacDonald divide - a divide that would end in trajedy at Culloden.

But at this time, the Lords of the Isles were too much of a power for anyone. The distinctive stone tombstones and grave slabs of the Western Isles reveal a particular Norse Celtic influence, which was reflected by the weapons used by the Islesmen. The pattern welded swords of the Vikings were widely admired and imitated. A multi-lobed pommel is most typical of these weapons. In one form, this sword developed into the great two-handed sword unique to the Highlands and Isles and known as the Claymore, or great sword. Armor was similar in what has been found common in Viking Ireland and a cross-mixture of Scots, Irish and Vikings produced a hearty race of warriors known as the Gallowglass who took part in many Scottish battles and would later play an important part in the later history of Northern Ireland.

The Lords of the Isles continued to cause trouble for Scots kings (even sailing to the capital and sacking it) right up until the 16th century. It is from an Englismen chronicle that we have some description of these warriors. "From the mid-leg to the foot, they go uncovered. Their dress, for an over-garment, is a loose plaid and shirt dyed with saffron. They are armed with bows and arrows, a broadsword, and a small halberd [possibly the Lochaber Axe]. They always carry in their belt a stout dagger [evovled into the dirk], single-edged, but of the sharpest. In time of war they cover the entire body with a coat of mail [like the Vikings], made of iron rings, and in it they fight. The common folk among the wild Scots go out to battle with the whole body clad in a linen garment sewed together in patchwork [the early tartan?], well daubed with wax or pitch and with an overcoat of deerskin."

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