Somerled – the heroic grandfather of Clan Donald
“A well tempered man, in body shapely, of a fair piercing eye, of middle stature and of quick discernment.”
Somerled is the first known historic figure of the medeival Hebrides. He was celebrated as a purely Celtic hero, but like all good heroes, his story is a gloss of myth and legend.
His name in Norse means summer hunter – but his father had a Gaelic name – Gillebride.
Tradition accounts of Sommerled’s genealogy take him back to the Irish king, Conn of 100 battles.
This was typical of the middle ages when who your ancestors were was as important as who you were. What is probable is that he was of the kindred of the Ui Maic Uias of Oriel. On his mother’s side he may have been Norse. He was a fusion of the Gaelic and Norse worlds.
For all that he is such a major figure in Hebridean history, we know relatively little about him. We know that he fought the Norse in two battles in 1156 and 1158 and drove them from Argyll and then from the islands. We know that he married the daughter of Olaf, the King of Man. We also know that he died in 1164 at Renfrew. Even his death is shrouded in mystery. Some say that he died in battle, others that he died treacherously by the assassin’s hand.
His legacy was two fold – the kingdom he established and the dynasty he founded. His kingdom held a unique position between the overlordship of the King of Scots and the King of Norway. Poised between the two, it grew into one of the greatest examples of medieval Celtic culture – the Lordship of the Isles.
His dynasty came to befocused in the descendants of his grandson Donald, who gave his name to Clan Donald. They ruled the Lordship for three and a half centuries.
Somerled left three sons – Dugall, Ranald and Angus. His kingdom was divided between them. On the death of Angus, his lands of Bute and Arran were taken over by Ranald, who already held Kintyre and Islay. Gradually through marriage, take over, and judicious politics, it was Clan Donald, the descendants of Donald son of Ranald, who became overlords of Somerled’s kingdom.Tagged