Domhnall of Islay, Lord of the Isles

Domhnall of Islay, Lord of the Isles
18th century illustration of some of the tombs of Oronsay Priory, founded by Domhnall's father John of Islay sometime before 1358.

Donald, or properly, Dómhnall Íle (died 1423), was the son and successor of John of Islay, Lord of the Isles and chief of Clan Donald. The Lordship of the Isles was based in and around the Scottish west-coast island of Islay, but under Domhnall's father had come to include many of the other islands off the west coast of Scotland, as well as Morvern, Garmoran, Lochaber, Kintyre and Knapdale on the mainland.

Domhnall was the grandson of King Robert II of Scotland and first cousin of King Robert III; he took pride in his royal blood, even adopting the royal tressure to surround his coat of arms.

While it is customary to portray the Lords of the Isles as divorced from the mainstream of Scottish political life, and as representatives of a brand of lordship distinct from the rest of Scotland, this view obscures the fact that Domhnall was only one of many magnates who held large lordships with little interference from the crown in late 14th and early 15th century Scotland.[1] The Douglas kindred of southern Scotland and the Albany Stewarts had similar roles as Domhnall.


Early rule

Domhnall spent some of his first years as Lord of the Isles suppressing a revolt by his brother John Mór. John was Domhnall's younger brother, and resented his meagre inheritance. Although he was recognized as heir-apparent (tànaiste), he only received patches of land in Kintyre and Islay. The rebellion started in 1387 and went on into the 1390s, and John obtained the support of the MacLean kindred. However, John and the MacLeans were eventually forced to submit to Domhnall, and by 1395 John Mór had been forced into Ireland. There he entered the service of King Richard II of England and later established a MacDonald lordship in Antrim.

Conflict with the Stewarts

Suppression of the revolt enabled Domhnall to turn his attention northwards and eastwards. Most of the area to the north and east of the Lordship, that is Skye, Ross, Badenoch and Urquhart, was under the control of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, famously known as the "Wolf of Badenoch". The Stewarts had been building up their power in the central Highlands and north of Scotland since the death of John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray in 1346. Alexander had acquired control of the lordship of Badenoch, the earldom of Buchan and the Justiciarship of Scotia. He had been appointed "Lieutenant of the North", giving him the flexibility to exercise total control over most of Scotland north of the mounth. Alexander was at once the de facto ruler of northern Scotland as well as the means by which the crown itself exercised control.

However, there had been complaints over the activities of his caterans (war bands). More importantly, Alexander's position had become threatening not only to the crown, but also to the Euphemia I, Countess of Ross, her son Alexander and the titular Dunbar Earl of Moray. Late in 1388, soon after becoming Guardian of the Kingdom, Robert Stewart, Earl of Fife (created Duke of Albany in 1398) deprived Alexander of the Justiciarship. The assault of Alexander's position continued into the 1390s. Domhnall and his brother Alexander of Lochaber were in a perfect position to benefit. In 1394, the latter entered a 17-year agreement with the Earl of Moray, taking over Alexander Stewart's role as "protector" of the wealthy comital and episcopal lands in the Moray lowlands. The MacDonalds were in possession of Urquhart by the end of 1395, and had given control of the castle to the MacLean kindred of Duart.

The Guardian soon turned his hostility against Domhnall and his family. Alexander of Lochaber had been using his role as "protector" to further his own lordship, including granting episcopal lands to his military followers. In 1398, Robert Stewart (now Duke of Albany) was called upon to take action, but the well-prepared expedition in the end came to nothing. Lochaber continued his activities, and in a raid of 1402 burned the burgh of Elgin along with the manses of the canons belonging to Elgin Cathedral. For this he was excommunicated by William Spynie, bishop of Moray. Later in the year Alexander visited Spynie to seek forgiveness.

Ross claims

Domhnall himself was causing still further concern when in the same year, following the death of Alexander Leslie, Earl of Ross, Domhnall pressed the claims of Mariota, Alexander Leslie's sister and Domhnall's wife, to the possession of Ross. Domhnall attempted to gain control of the earldom. Sometime after 1405 but before 1411, Domhnall gained control of Dingwall Castle, the chief seat of the earldom. In the year after the death of the nominal king, Robert III, Domhnall sent emissaries England, to make contact with the heir of the Scottish throne, the captive James Stewart. King Henry IV of England sent his own emissaries to Domhnall in the following year to negotiate an alliance against Albany.

With control over the principal seat of the earldom of Ross and support of the exiled heir to the Scottish throne, in 1411 Domhnall felt strong enough to march against Albany's main northern ally, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar. At the Battle of Harlaw, Domhnall failed to inflict a decisive victory, and withdrew back to the western highlands. In the aftermath, Albany was able to retake Dingwall and seize control of Easter Ross. In 1415, the heir of Alexander Leslie, Euphemia II, resigned the earldom to Albany. Domhnall prepared for war and proclaimed himself "Lord of Ross". Although Albany appointed his own son John Stewart to the earldom, Domhnall's wife continued to regard herself as the rightful Countess.

Domhnall died in 1423 on Islay. He was succeeded by his son Alexander.


  1. ^ McNeill and MacQueen, Atlas, p. 206


  • Boardman, Stephen, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371-1406, (East Linton, 1996)
  • Brown, Michael, James I, (East Linton, 1994)
  • McNeill, Peter G. B.; MacQueen, Hector L.; Lyons, Anna May, eds. (2000), Atlas of Scottish History to 1707 (reprinted with corrections ed.), Edinburgh: The Scottish Medievalists and Department of Geography, University of Edinburgh, ISBN 0-9503904-1-0 
  • Oram, Richard, "The Lordship of the Isles, 1336-1545", in Donald Omand (ed.) The Argyll Book, (Edinburgh, 2005), pp. 123–39

External links

Preceded by
Lord of the Isles
Succeeded by

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