Clan Donald is one of the largest Scottish clans, once controlling lands and waterways in the west highlands and the Hebrides. Its ancient chiefs were known as ‘Lord of the Isles’.
The chiefs of Clan Donald, or Clan Macdonald, were for centuries the largest landowners and most powerful lords in the whole British Isles after the Kings of England and Scotland. The chief of the Donald clan was known as the ‘Lord of the Isles’ (Scottish Gaelic: Triath nan Eilean or Rìgh Innse Gall) an ancient title with roots that stretch back beyond the Kingdom of Scotland.
The realm of the Lord of Isles was made up of the lands of the Scotland’s west coast, the islands and the waterways between them, and geography made these a kingdom separate from the rest of Scotland: from here the interior of the mainland was hard to reach, being mountainous and thickly forested. But the seaboard realm was easy to access for Gaelic and Viking tribes with their skilled sailors and fleets of galleys (birlinns). And so the coastal land and islands became a kingdom ruled by a series of hybrid Viking/Gaelic rulers. In theory they were, at various times, vassals of the Kings of Norway, Ireland, or Scotland, but the island chiefs essential were independent for many centuries. Their territory included the Hebrides, (Skye and Ross from 1438), Knoydart, Ardnamurchan, and the Kintyre peninsula.
In 1263 Alexander III of Scotland defeated Haakon IV of Norway at the Battle of Largs.The Clan Donald chief, Aonghas Mor and his clan had technically been vassals of Haakon and so the king of Scots became their new overlord, as confirmed in the Treaty of Perth.
As you might expect from such a large clan, they have played a major role in battles and political manoeuvres throughout the centuries. During the Wars of Scottish Independence, clan chief Aonghus Óg of Islay supported Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. King Robert the Bruce was so pleased with Clan Donald’s loyalty that he swore they would always occupy the honoured position on the right wing of the Scottish army.
In 1493, John MacDonald forfeited his estates and titles to King James IV of Scotland. Thereafter, the title ‘Lord of the Isles’ has been held by the Duke of Rothesay, the eldest son and heir apparent of the King of Scotland, and later Great Britain. Prince Charles is therefore the current Lord of the Isles. The MacDonalds sole remaining possession from their once vast realm is the tiny island of Cara off Kintyre, which is owned by the MacDonalds of Largie.
Every year Clan Donald organises a High Chiefs Clan Tour. This often goes to Edinburgh and The Royal Highland Show, as well as Bannockburn, Skye and Glencoe. You can find details of the tour in many Clan magazines throughout the world, although numbers are limited.
Clan Donald sights to visit
Islay, the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’ is a wonderful place to visit if you’re exploring your Scottish heritage. The island is wild and beautiful, and is also home to eight whisky distilleries! Here too was the ancient seat of Clan Donald - Finlaggan Castle, which stood on the isle of Eilean Mór on Loch Finlaggan on Islay. It was once the powerful clan stronghold of the Lord of the Isles. Today it is a ruin of crumbling walls and scattered stones, but a very atmospheric one that soon casts a mythic spell.
Armadale Castle on Skye is a partly ruined, but still very impressive, Clan Donald castle with elegant gardens. As well as experiencing the romantic castle ruins you can explore 1500 years of Clan history in the award-winning Museum of the Isles, and browse the library/archive. (If making a special visit to the archive please contact us in advance to ensure the librarian is available to help you.)
For Clan Donald this is the saddest place in Scotland. Here in 1692, 38 clan members were betrayed and killed by government troops they had been hosting. More happily, the beauty of the glen’s stunning mountains, waterfalls and lochs far outshines these tragic events. Stroll along the glen floor and gaze around you in wonder, then stop off at the enlightening visitor centre at nearby Inverigan for a memorable audio-visual experience.
Clan Donald fought on the site of the Jacobites during the 1745/46 uprisings, and a stone bearing the Clan Donald name can be found amongst those on this – one of the most atmospheric and historic sites in Scotland.