Alisdair Mor

The Most Distinguished of his Name

Dunstaffnage Castle, Alexander MacDougalls's main seat.

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Angus Mór — the older brother

By now, Alisdair would have probably been in his twenties or thirties, and should have been actively involved in the great events of the day. But other than the rather uneventful role as witness to a grant of land from his brother to the Monastery of Paisley, we have no record of his activities. It was in the 1260s that the final showdown over the Isles occurred between the Norse and Scottish Kings. Angus Mór's involvement is well documented. He reluctantly supported Halcon of Norway, who was defeated by Alexander III at the Battle of Largs, yet he was later confirmed in his existing possessions by the Scottish King. But what of Alisdair? Any active involvement by the bother of the "Rex Insularum" would, most likely, have been documented. Alisdair, however, is conspicuous by his absence.

"Of Antrim"

Where was Alisdair? The solution may not be difficult to find. The Irish Annalist refers to him as "of Antrim". The Glens of Antrim are located along the extreme northeast coast of Ireland, in Ulster, just a few miles from the Mull of Kintyre. The annalist also discusses his reputation in both Ireland and Scotland. Donald J. MacDonald, in his Clan Donald, states that this "suggests that Alisdair Mór had a territorial interest in that region ..." This would also explain why there is no record of Alisdair receiving an inheritance of land in the Isles. But why would Alisdair be in Ireland?

The Celtic Societies of the Western Isles and Northern Ireland had remained closely connected through intermarriage and common language, customs and interests. These remaining outposts of Gaeldom were holding out against the "sassenach" powers. Just as the Scottish Kings sought to gain control over the Western Isles, the English Kings were attempting to subjugate Ireland. The Irish, however warlike, were no match for the invading English. As one contemporary wrote, the Irish were "clad in fine linen garments, the foreigners in one mass of iron." After a devastating defeat in 1260, at the Battle of Downpatrick, the Irish sought aid from their northern cousins. These mercenary forces, called Galloglach, or galloglass, revolutionized the Irish military structure. As one writer describes it: "from the Western Isles of Scotland were invited the heavy-armed, mail-clad, battle-axe-bearing gallo-glach to aid in the cause. These stalwarts were the descendants of the Ulster Gaels who had migrated there and intermarried with the Norse. Like their forbears they, too, were great scorners of death." The effect was dramatic and the English expansion was halted.

The evidence that Alisdair was a leader of galloglass forces is persuasive. In addition to the reference to Alisdair in the Irish Annals, it seems that Alisdair's older brother was leading troops into Ireland. Henry III of England passed a decree that Angus Mór should not be allowed to enter Ireland.

It is very possible that, as Angus became more involved in the Isles, his younger brother took over the family affairs in Ireland. If the family had land holdings in Antrim, it would not have purely been mercenary, either. It is hardly conceivable that Alisdair would have received no land inheritance, yet there is no mention of any such land being provided in the Isles. A provision of land in Antrim would explain a great deal.

Another piece of evidence is that the Chief of Clan Alisdair is found leading galloglass forces for the O'Niell in Ulster in 1360. Lastly, the MacAlisters were recognized as one of the leading galloglass clans during the 16th century, which implies some continued connection. It would not be unreasonable to assert, then, that during much of his adult life, Alisdair was leading galloglass troops in Ulster.

Galloglass Warrior

So, the image of Alisdair develops. As a Galloglass commander, he would have worn knee-length chain mail over a quilted tunic, with a conical helmet, as is seen in many West Highland effigies of the time. His weapon would have been the massive claymore and a long-handled battle axe. He would have crossed and recrossed the short distance between Antrim and Kintyre or Islay in galleys with a markedly Viking influence.

Unlike most other Gaelic lands, the region of Antrim may have included one or more stone castles. The Norman Earl of Ulster, had occupied Antrim for some time before being driven out. He, undoubtedly, would have fortified his foothold with castles in the Anglo-Norman manner. Unfortunately for the prior Irish landowners, when the Anglo-Norman invaders were forced to retreat, the conquering Galloglass force usually claimed the entire area. Thus, Alisdair's conquests would have remained his own. While possibly owing allegiance either to his brother or his nominal Irish overlord, he would have governed his own lands as a virtually autonomous ruler.

Affairs in the Isles — The Bruce, MacDougall and the Wars of Independence

Even if he had an Irish "career", Alisdair would have remained somewhat involved in affairs in the Isles. This probably increased as things became complicated in the 1280s and 1290s. With Alexander III dead and the succession in dispute, the entire family became drawn in. In 1284, just prior to Alexander's death, Angus Mór and Alexander MacDougall represented the Western Isles at the Parliament which met at Scone to regulate the succession. In 1291, Alisdair 's eldest son, Donald, and his grandson, Alexander, (along with Angus Mór) sworn an oath to Edward I when that English King had been asked to determine the succession.

While there is no space to chronicle the complicated political maneuverings leading up to the Wars of Independence, suffice it to say that the MacDougalls, being closely tied to the Comyns, became bitter enemies of the Bruce. (Note: There is a handy geneology chart which was attached to prior articles, we will try to have this on the site soon) Angus Mór and his eldest son, Alisdair Og, had supported the Bruce family, but Alisdair Og married Julianna MacDougall, sister of Alexander MacDougall of Lorne, and switched his allegiance. His younger bother, Angus Og, while as equivocal as Bruce himself for a few years, ended by becoming one of the Bruce's most important supports. Meanwhile, he was continuing to feud with Alexander MacDougall of Lorne over the Island of Mull. The violent clashes between the families, therefore, served a dual purpose. It was during one of these clashes, that Alisdair Mór, now an old man, was slain by Alexander MacDougall, "along with many of his people".

How and where this confrontation occurred is unknown. The fact that he was killed along with "his people" suggests two things. First, that this may have been a clash of arms, most likely part of the raid and counter-raid typical of the time. yet Alisdair would have been an old man, in his 70s or 80s. The fact that he would still be the victim of such a violent death is telling of his character. Second, it shows that he had his own "people". While these may have simply been followers of the family of the Isles, it is also possible that these were retainers from his lands in Antrim, providing support for the family cause in the Isles.

While his death at the hands of Bruce's most ardent enemy does not conclusively prove Alisdair was actively involved in the Patriotic cause, it at least indicates he was not in the opposition. The role of his son Donald, however, is another puzzle to be unravelled in another article.

Alisdair Mór Remembered

Despite our best efforts, the image of the man will remain obscured by the mists of time. Much of his life and character will continue to be a mystery. Yet through a careful review of the evidence at hand and some cautious "educated" speculation, some conclusions may be reached. The Irish Annalist left us a glowing epitaph which, while these are often exaggerated, cannot be ignored. He had some reputation, obviously, as a warrior and for that quality most important in Celtic cultures: hospitality. He could not have received these accolades if he was not greatly respected in his own time. Since he spent much of his time in Antrim, out of the direct path of "Great Events", however, we have little more than his reputation to remember him by.

There is one more tribute to his character we must recognize. The existence of the Clan Alisdair. His descendants were identified by his name and not simply as members of the great Clan Donald. This carried enough weight to eventually form a distinct clan. All of us, therefore, who bear his name, or some variation of it, continue to be a reminder of the progenitor of Clan Alisdair.