Stories By the Fireside

The Coming of Somerled,
King of the Isles

The legendary progenitor of Clan Donald was Somerled, but his story begins with his grandfather Gille Adamnan and the raids of the Norse Vikings throughout the north and west of Scotland. With their fast dragon-prowed ships, each capable of holding up to sixty armed warriors, the Vikings were a force to be feared.

After years of constant raids and plundering, the Norsemen turned their attention to settling in the lands they had conquered. They quickly took possession of Orkney, the Shetlands and the Hebrides, then Caithness and Sutherland. Soon they moved into the territory of Argyll where Gille Adamnan had his lands.

But Somerled's grandfather was no match for the Vikings. After a single failed attempt to drive the Norsemen out, Gille Adamnan with his son Gillebrighde fled to northern Ireland where Gille Adamnan died.

As time passed Gillebrighde longed to see his native land again and so, with his son Somerled, he returned to Argyll. After a time of homeless wandering they took refuge in a cave along Loch Linnhe, living in poverty. Gillebrighde was past the age to fight and young Somerled brooded on the misery of his misfortune and the fall of his house. An ancient chronicle described the future leader as "A well-tempered man, in body shapely, of a fair and piercing eye, of middle stature and quick discernment." While in this poor and wild state, "his looking glass was the stream; his drinking cup the heel of his shoe; he would rather spear a salmon than spear a foe; he cared more to caress the skins of seals and otters than the shining hair of women."

Then one day everything changed and the depressed dreamer became the masterful leader of warriors.

It had happened that a party of Islemen had come from Morven to forage in Argyll, but had unexpectedly been attacked by a party of Danes. Their leader had been killed in this skirmish and the men, now leaderless and in sight of the enemy's ships, despaired of what to do next. Not one of them felt qualified to step into their dead leader's place. In council they decided on a bold and reckless plan. They would ask the first man they met to be their leader against the Danes.

As they passed along the shore hills they came to the rocky banks of a little fishing stream and there was Somerled casting his line for his next meal. This was perhaps not the leader they had in mind and they started to laugh. With his melancholy manner and ragged clothes, Somerled looked more like the village half-wit than a fearsome war leader. Somerled asked the reason for their laughter, and since it was an awkward question to answer, the men said only that they were greatly joyed at seeing him. They had made a solemn vow and now sobered their manner to fulfill it. They asked Somerled if he would lead them in battle.

Somerled did not answer, but for a time stood in thought. "There is a newly run salmon in the black pool yonder. If I catch him, I will go with you as your Chief; if I catch him not, I shall remain where I am." The Islesmen were wont to believe in portents and omens, knew that the salmon was part of the magic of the ancient pagan realm of their ancestors and so they were content with Somerled's plan. The fish, however, was in no way cooperative and put up a tremendous fight, so that the men watched a mighty battle between man and fish up and down the river. But Somerled, despite his woeful appearance, was a man of many talents and one of them was fishing. Soon the shining fish lay quivering on the bank and Somerled said, "My help is yours, but you of your own free-will have asked me to lead you and now you must swear to obey my commands." The men were so delighted with the stranger's authoritative bearing that they gave their oaths of allegience then and there.

In the morning a vast Danish force landed from their ships. They clearly outnumbered Somerled's men, so he devised a ruse to deceive the enemy as to his true numbers. First he had his men slaughtered a nearby herd of cattle and skin the animals. Then, in plain sight of the enemy who had formed up their ranks, Somerled ordered his men to march around a small hill several times. The enemy thought their were seeing a sizeable battalion.

Then Somerled had his men wrap themselves in the cow hides with the smooth side out and march around the little hill a few more times. The Danes now became really concerned at the sight of this second, equally formidable (and totally different) battalion.

When Somerled's "third battalion" showed up, wild-looking men wrapped in cow hides with the rough side out, the Danes panicked at the size of the opposing army and fled in all directions. Somerled's small band of warriors chased down and slaughtered the advance party, while the remaining Danes ran to their ships and rowed away as fast as they could. Somerled ripped the heart from the body of the first man he killed, ordering the rest of his men to do the same since the Danes were not Christians (ah, the saving love of Jesus Christ).

Somerled followed this victory with many others and succeeded in driving the Norsemen from northern Argyll, from Morven and Lochaber. King David the Second was, at the same time, taking back the Isle of Man, Bute and Arran. For Somerled's assistence, the King granted him title to those islands. But the Western Islands remained fast in the hands of the invaders, and Somerled could not take them by force.

Olaf the Red was the King of Man, an island that Somerled wanted. Olaf had a daughter named Ragnhildis, whom Somerled also wanted. Olaf was understandably concerned by Somerled's progress and arrived with a fleet in Storna Bay. Somerled in disguise sailed to meet Olaf and said, "I come from Somerled, Thane of Argyll, who promises to assist you in your expedition, provided you bestow upon him the hand of your daughter, Ragnhildis." But Olaf recognised the great Somerled and declined his offer. Somerled would have to find another way to obtain the woman he loved.

Olaf's foster brother, Maurice MacNeill, was also a close friend of Somerled's. To aid his friend, MacNeill bored several holes in the hull of the King's galley and also made some pins to fill the holes when the time came, but first plugged the holes with tallow and butter. Olaf put to sea the next day, but before he had sailed far the sea water broke through the tallow and butter, and poured into the galley. Olaf called upon Somerled for rescue and Somerled obliged -- provided, of course, that he received Olaf's daughter as his bride. The promise was given and Olaf was taken aboard Somerled's galley. Maurice MacNeill quietly fitted the pins into the holes and Olaf's own galley again floated without danger of sinking. Somerled married Ragnhildis in 1140. Whatever her feelings about being abducted by the famous warrier, she did marry him and bore him three sons -- Dugall, Reginald and Angus.

In 1154, Olaf was murdered by his nephews who seized half of the Kingdom of the Isles. His son Godred returned to the Isles from Norway, but proved such a tyrant that the people revolted and Somerled joined forces with them. Thus, with the defeat of Godred, Somerled seized one half the Kingdom and later, with the successful invasion of the Isle of Man, he seized the other half.

All this success was bound to make the King Malcolm IV of Scotland nervous. Although Malcolm had established a peace with the King of the Isles (Righ Innesegall), he kept little of his word and continue to provoke Somerled. In 1164, Somerled gathered 15,000 men and a fleet of 164 galleys and moved to meet the Scottish King's army at Renfrew. Malcolm's advisors panicked and chose a speedier means of defeating their enemy. They bribed Somerled's young nephew, another Maurice MacNeill, to murder his uncle while on the pretext of a friendly visit.

MacNeill gained easy admittance to Somerled's presence and took him off-guard, stabbing the great man to the heart. Somerled's vast army, learning of their leader's death, lost all heart to fight and fled back to their galleys. When King Malcolm and his nobles arrived to see the corpse of their dead enemy, one of the nobles kicked the fallen warrior with his foot. Maurice MacNeill, filled with remorse and shame for his foul treachery, cried aloud that he had "sinned most villainously and against his own conscience." He stabbed to death the man who had insulted the body of mighty Somerled, then fled from the tent, never to be seen again.

Somerled's body was taken up and buried with regal honours at the Monastery of Saddel. The mighty king left behind a race of kings -- his grandson Donald, progenitor to Clan Donald, who long held the title and the power for which Somerled had fought so hard.

Return to Celtic Culture Page   Return to Celtic Culture Page

Return to Eilidh Bheag's Highland Homepage   Return to Eilidh Bheag's Highland Homepage

Questions and comments to Webmouse Cyberspace Publications
Copyright 2002 Ellen Wilds, all rights reserved. Redistribution and/or reuse terms of license.