Whether Donald Dubh "Black Donald" MacDonald (1490?-1545) was a hero depends on which side you were on. For more than fifty years, he led or inspired rebellions by the branches of the MacDonald clan and their former vassals against the Scottish crown with the aim of resurrecting the Lordship of the Isles.
The Lords of Isles traced their ancestry to Irish and Norse royalty, and they controlled the Western Isles and parts of the mainland of the Scottish Highlands for more than a hundred and fifty years. The Lord of the Isles was leader of all of the MacDonalds, and his vassals included the MacLeods, Mackenzies, MacNeils, and Macleans. Although the Lordship of the Isles was nominally subject to the Scottish King, the crown's attempts to reign in the Lordship's power were repeatedly met with violence and limited success.
Finally, in 1493, the fourth and last Lord of the Isles submitted to James IV, the Lordship was dissolved, and its vast lands forfeited to the Crown.
For the next fifty years, Donald Dubh MacDonald, the grandson and heir of the last Lord of the Isles, and other rebels showed remarkable perseverance and dedication to the goal of resurrecting the Lordship of the Isles.
Rebellion was in Donald Dubh's blood. His father, Angus Òg, fought against the Crown and also challenged his own father for leadership of the Lordship. Angus achieved victories against both before he was assassinated by his Irish harper in 1490. Three years later, his father submitted to the king and spent his last years as a pensioner of the crown.
Donald Dubh was born around the time of his father's death. For years, he was held by his mother’s family, the Campbells, who were supporters of the Crown--and had their own ambitions.
While Donald Dubh was in the "care" of his Campbell relatives, his MacDonald kin rebelled on his behalf. In 1501, he escaped from Innis Chonnel Castle, where he was held by his uncle Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyll. He was taken to the island of Lewis and kept under the protection of his uncle Torquil MacLeod. Interestingly, Torquil's wife was another sister of the Campbell chieftain.
In 1503, around the time his MacDonald grandfather died in a boarding house in Dundee, Donald Dubh was proclaimed Lord of the Isles and led an insurrection. He had strong support among the MacDonalds and the clans who were their former vassals. Suppression of this rebellion took an all-out effort by the crown, but Donald Dubh was finally captured around 1506.
Donald Dubh was held in Edinburgh Castle for thirty-seven years.
During Donald Dubh's long imprisonment, his close kin periodically led rebellions in his name. After the last one, James V sailed around the Western Highlands with twelve ships armed with canon and collected chieftains as prisoners. Although he eventually allowed some chieftains to substitute other hostages to guarantee their good behavior, he kept the worst offenders in Edinburgh Castle.
All this might have brought an end to the rebellions had James V not died after the Battle of Solway in 1542. A year later, Donald Dubh escaped after being held prisoner for thirty-seven years. The Regent, persuaded it would harm the opposing faction at court, then released the captive Highland chieftains. After a couple of years in prison, the chieftains were in a mood for rebellion.
Donald Dubh was welcomed home with open arms, hailed as the Lord of the Isles, and another rebellion was born. He re-created the Council of the Isles in the old tradition. Fifty years after the Lordship was dissolved, nearly all the clans which had once been under the Lordship were represented on the Council.
Donald Dubh now had a formidable force of 8000 men at his command. He made an alliance with Henry VIII, which made him an even greater threat to the Scottish crown. While sailing to Ireland in 1545, however, Donald Dubh died of a fever. He was buried with great pomp, and the cost charged to Henry VIII.
No other leader could engender the unified support of all the branch clans of the MacDonalds and their former vassals, and this final MacDonald rebellion of the 16th century ended in failure.
* Photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
** Photos by me or my daughter
Margaret Mallory, named by Booklist as one of "the new stars of historical romance," is the award-winning author of the medieval series, "All the King's Men." Her latest book, KNIGHT OF PASSION, is an RT Book Reviews Reviewers' Choice Award Nominee. Watch for her new series, "Return of the Highlanders," starting with THE GUARDIAN in May 2011.