This is a beautiful story of family, power and death and as so many Scottish clan stories, it does not come with a happy ending.
the young pretender
There was once a young man, the youngest son of Allan MacDonald, 4th Chief of Clanranald, who died in 1505. His name was Ranald and he was the rightful heir to his fathers position and influence, the one to follow his half-brother, the 7th chief of Clanranald, a man who had been married three times and had raised a large family. When he died in 1530, the fight began over who should be chief. It was to be John of Moidart, Alexander’s son and not Ranald Galla, Alexander’s brother.
Nobody wanted him. They called him Ranald Gallada, Ranald the stranger, because he had not been living on the land of his clan but with his mother, who was a Fraser and Lod Lovat’s daughter. Ranald held the support of king and government in 1540, when he took what he believed was his while John of Moidart was imprisoned. When he was released two years later, he took back the chieftainship with the support of his clan. Ranald had to look elsewhere for support. The Fraser chief (and with him the Grants) supported the claim of Ranald to the chieftainship of Clanranald. The Macdonalds (and with them the Camerons) did not. They claimed it for themselves and for John of Moidart, the chief of Clanranald.
This power struggle should explode into action on a hot summer’s day in 1544, when the parties clashed in The Battle of the Bloody Shirts on the muddy north end of Loch Lochy.
Battle of the Shirts
The Blar na Léine took place on 15 July 1544 between a group of Frasers and Macintoshes under Lord Lovat and Ranald Gallda (pretender to the chiefdom of Clanranald) and a group of MacDonalds and Camerons under John Moidartach of Moidart, chief of Clan MacDonald of Clanranald. Lovat and Ranald Gallda were returning home along the Great Glen, having assisted the Earl of Huntly and his armies to penetrate MacDonald territory as far as Inverlochy, when they were ambushed and defeated by the MacDonalds. John of Moidart was supported by the Camerons, led by Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, together with the MacDonalds of Keppoch. The battle settled the issue of the leadership of Clanranald in favour of the MacDonalds.
Historic Scotland – The Inventory of Historic Battlefields – Battle of Blar na Leine (2012)
killed by his own clan
Many were killed. Young Ranald, stranger to his own clan and raised by his mother’s family, died in the attempt to become chief. But how did he die? Some say, we was killed not during but after the battle by a surgeon who was supposed to tend his woods. Others, that he was killed by a strong warrior of his very own clan, Mac Dhonuill Ruaidh Bhig, who cleft his head with a Lochaber ax or a sword. Ranald’s body was taken to Eilean Fhionnan, a small burial island in Loch Shiel. But he did not get much rest on the peaceful island.
skull and sword
During the years to come, his skeletal remains were moved and temporarily stored under the altar of the small chapel on this island, also known as the Green Isle. Soon his skull was discovered, bearing a decisive mark, where a sharp weapon had met the skull in a deadly blow. This, the locals believed, was the skull of Ranald Gallada, the man who had wanted to be their chief. They took the skull and passed it round the villages of Moidart and Arnamurchan. Everybody wanted to touch the skull and hear the story of Ranald Gallada and big Mac Dhonuill Ruaidh.
There are no bones under the altar of the ruined chapel today, no trace of the young man who had failed to follow in his fathers footsteps. His skull might still be somewhere close, amongst the people who did not want him to be their chief.
Apparently 80 of the Frasers that died with him, had fathered posthumous sons, who turned into 80 warriors, fighting once more for their clan and for power.
Like what you read here?
There are many more clan stories in Nellie Merthe Erkenbach’s inspirational Scotland for Quiet Moments.