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Clan Warfare


MacLeod crest

MacDonald crest

The Isle of Skye was dominated by two great clans, the MacDonalds and the MacLeods, and the rivalry between the two led to bloodshed and violence across the island during several centuries.

Leod, the founder of Clan MacLeod (clan simply means children), was one of the sons of King Olav the Black, the last of the King of Man and the Western Isles who was defeated by Somerled. The MacLeod seat was at Dunvegan from a very early date, though important branches of the MacLeods were based on the Isles of Harris, Lewis and Raasay. Leod died on 1280 and is buried on Iona and his son Tormod became the first MacLeod (or son of Leod).

The MacDonalds trace their ancestry to Somerled himself. Somerled's second son was called Ranald and Ranald’s son Donald became the founder of what would become the main Clan Donald, perhaps the oldest and one of the largest of all the Scottish clans, and the original Lords of the Isles. For many years, the Clan seat was at Duntulm Castle in Trotternish, but later was at Armadale Castle (walk) in Sleat. The clan also held the castles of Dunscaith (walk) and Knock, also in Sleat.

In 1480, John MacDonald was challenged for the chieftainship of Clan Donald by his bastard son, Angus Og MacDonald. At the Battle of Bloody Bay, William Dubh MacLeod was taken prisoner by Angus Og while supporting John MacDonald but he was severely wounded and died on en route to Dunvegan. After the battle, the MacDonalds (now led by Angus Og) raided northern Skye in revenge for MacLeods part in supporting John. This began years of skirmishes and unrest.

At one stage the MacLeods succesfully captured Dunscaith and went on to seige Knock Castle before withdrawing back north. At another battle in Harta Corrie (off Glen Sligachan) hundreds were slaughtered and the bodies stacked up around what is known known as the Bloody Stone.

The most notorious of all incidents between the two clans led to the Battle of the Spoiling of the Dyke in 1578. The MacLeods had raided the MacDonald-held Isle of Eigg a couple of years previously, and massacred hundreds of MacDonalds in the cave that was used as the place of worship. In revenge, the MacDonalds or Uist landed on Skye and barred the doors of Trumpan Church (walk) in Waternish, when it was full of worshippers. They set it alight, and no-one escaped – except one girl who though fatally wounded managed to sound the alarm. The MacLeod chief then set off for Ardmore Bay and almost every MacDonald was killed in the ensuing battle. The corpses were dragged into a turf dyke, giving the battle its name.

Later that century it seemed the rivalry could be mended when Margaret, son of Rory Mor MacLeod wed to Donald Gorm Mor MacDonald. At that time, it was the custom in the Highlands for a marriage to have a trial period of one year, a tradition known as ‘hand-fasting’. If the partnership worked the marriage would become formal, but if not it could be terminated. History doesn’t record how it happened, but Margaret lost an eye during the year at Duntulm. She also bore no children, and when the year was up, Donald cast her out on a one-eyed horse, led by a one-eyed man and accompanied by a one-eyed dog. Not surprisingly, Rory Mor MacLeod was outraged, and a new war began between the clans – The War of the One-Eyed woman. This culminated in 1601 in a battle in Coire na Creiche (the corrie of the spoils), when both clans suffered heavy losses. It was the last battle fought between the two clans.

Skye remained a violent place, however. Another tale tells of Hugh MacDonald, a rival to his uncle Chief Donald Gorm, and lived at Caisteal Uisdean (walk) a few miles south of Duntulm. He hatched a plot to kill Donald, but mixed up the letter inviting Donald to Caisteal Uisdean with another which was intended for his hired assassin. Donald got word of the plot and had Hugh imprisoned at Duntulm. He fed him only salt beef through a hole in the roof, and did not allow him any water.


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