The ancient story of early Scotland will not be fully told until much more study has been completed, The face of the land literally is pockmarked with the remains of settlements and dwellings—many unexcavated—raised in an age so remote from our own, we scarcely know the names of the races that inhabited them. Riddles there are in abundance; answers to these riddles may not be discovered until future archaeologists supply them. Perhaps some of the ancient enigmas never will be satisfactorily explained. Into this seemingly unfruitful field ventures Ronald Williams; and the result, The Lords of the Isles, proves to be a work of unusual interest and insight.
Williams begins his study with the founding in A.D. 500 of the Celtic kingdom of Dalriada (an area of land corresponding roughly to the western parts of present-day Argyllshire) by a force of Irish Scotti. It was from the leader of this host which established itself in Dalriada, one Fergus Mac Ere, that the chiefs of the Clan Donald claimed their descent. For nearly a thousand years the Lords of the Isles (as they liked to style themselves) held sway over a great sweep of territory in the far northwest of Scotland, ruling for the most part as potentates quite independent of the Scottish crown. Not until late in the 15th century was the power of the Lordship broken and its vast and scattered island patrimony forfeited to the crown. It is the story of the vicissitudes of the ancient Lordship that Ronald Williams tells with much spirit in his book.
A good portion of the early chapters is devoted to the activities of St. Columba, who arrived in Dalriada in 561 to begin his mission of preaching the gospels to the Picts. In this endeavor he seems to have enjoyed a fair measure of success, since Pictish attacks against Dalriada appear to have ceased shortly thereafter. From the island of Iona—perhaps the most hallowed spot on Scottish soil and reputedly the burial place of not fewer than 48 Scottish kings—Columba established the Celtic Christian Church in Scotland. It was from here that his missionaries set forth upon their work of evangelizing.
In later chapters, Williams details the bloody events surrounding the arrival in the Hebrides—about A.D. 790—of the Vikings in their sleek longships. From that time until the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin in 1014, when the Irish hero Brian Boru effectively diminished the might of the Hebridean Norse, the Vikings established a reign of terror along the western seaboard of Scotland. Amid the general confusion of the Viking ascendancy, the direct line of descent among the chiefs of Clan Donald became very uncertain, though later genealogists claimed to have traced it. At all events, about the year 1140, under the leadership of Somerled, the great progenitor of Clan Donald, the Celtic Gaels reemerged as a formidable power in the west. But, looking at events in a much broader context, the sands of time clearly were running out for the Celtic peoples. By Somerled’s time a far more vigorous race—the Normans—were fast consolidating their power in the land; and even though the old Lordship continued to survive late into the 15th century, enjoying some periodic successes, its strength inexorably waned.
For those of Scots descent—and they are a numerous body in these United States—Ronald Williams’ book provides a highly readable account of the early history of that interesting land. The interpretations Williams draws are sound ones based on a thorough apprehension of his subject.
[The Lords of the Isles: The Clan Donald and the Early Kingdom of the Scots, by Ronald Williams (London; Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press) $19.95]