I have researched my descent from the MacDonald Clan and chose to begin with Somerled, who was an ancient King of the Isles, meaning the islands off the Scottish mainland.
I have referred to several sources for this information, but when you go back as far as the 12th century, mistakes are inevitable, so please keep in mind, the possibility of human error.
Somerled was a ruler of the Scottish Isles durint the 12th century called variously, ri Innse Gall (King of the Hebrides in Gaelic) Sumarlioi (in Old Norse) Somhairle (Scottish Gaelic) and in English, Sorley. He was also the King of Kintyre(Cinn Tire)
The following account of the life of Somerled is taken from The clan Donald by Archibald McDonald and gives us insight into the times in which Somerled was born and lived.
"In the 11th century the Irish and Highland Seanachies throw faint rays of light upon the position and prospects of the Clan Cholla. During the first half of than century it appears that Gilledomnan, the grandfather of Somerled, was a person of consequence, and held sway over a considerable portion of Argyll. That he was a leader of some note may be inferred from the circumstance of his daughter having been the wife of Harold, one of the Kings of Norway. In his time the fortunes of the family were probably at the lowest ebb. Able hitherto to hold their own against the Scandinavian assaults, the latter seemed destined to obtain a permanent supremacy, and Gilledomnan was finally driven from his territories and took refuge in Ireland, where, after devoting the latter part of his life to pious duties, he very probably lived till his death.
Gillebride, the son of Gilledomnan,who had fled with his father to Ireland, now made a vigorous effort to recover the inheritance of his sires. Being among his Irish kindred of the Clan Cholla, in the County of Fermanagh, it was determined to placea force of 400 or 500 men at his disposal to aid him in vindicating his rights. Accompanied by this warrior band, Gillebride landed in Argyll, and made a gallant attempt to dislodge the ivader; yet the Norseman had by this time obtained such a firm hold of the country, that Gillebride and his followers were obliged ultimately to retire into the woods and caves of Morvern. From his compulsory seclusion in a cave on the shores of Loch Linnhe,this Gaelic leader came to be known as Gillebride na h-uaimh. Gregory, without any authority, save one dark hint from the historian of Sleat, attributes Gillebride's defeat and consequent seculusion to his alleged action after the death of Malcolm Canmore, in supporting the claims of Donald Bane to the throne against the Anglo-Saxon party. This statement does not possess much historical probability. It was the aim of Gillebride's life to regain possession of his ancestral domains from the hands of the usurping Norseman; it was against them that all his efforts were directed, and his intervention at any time in the internal quarrels of the Scottish State is in the highest degree unlikely.
From this time Gillebride seems to have made no further effort to regain the territory of his fathers in the region of Oirthirghael. It is therefore clear that a crisis has arrived in the history of the Western Gael, as well as in the fortunes of the Clan Cholla. The Norseman is on the eve, not only of expelling him from the Isles, but of crushing his prestige and authority on the mainland as well. It was at this critical moment, when Teutonic ascendancy in the West seemed on the eve of asserting itself finally and triumphantly, that Somerled arose. Gillebride and his cave vanish into the unknown, and his warlike son steps upon the scene of history, to become the terror of the Norseman and the Achilles of his race.
The events of Somerled's life are, like his genealogy, shrouded in the mists of unverifiable tradition. They belong to that borderland of history and legend on which the chronicler can with difficulty find a secure resting-place for the sole of his foot. Yet amid the shifting debris of old-world history, there are certain main outlines and facts which have crystallised themselves as genuine and authentic, and afford indications of an impressive and commanding personality issuing out of the dim past, possessing immense force of character, high military talents, great energy and ambition, combined with a large measure of that political sagacity and prudence which constitute a ruler and leader of men.
All we know of the early history of this renowned Gaelic hero is derived exclusively from tradition. Hugh MacDonald, the Sleat historian, who flourished in the latter half of the seventeenth century, embodied that tradition in a MS. history,written in the year 1680, and is responsible for almost every word that has been written since his time upon Somerled's early career. Save when he is tempted to exalt his own branch at the expense of others, he is, though not strictly accurate, still a fairly reliable exponent of the history and traditions of his Clan. (The Sleat historian says that Somerled was "a well-tempered man, in body shapely, of a fair piercing eye, of middle stature and of quick discernment." But in Highland tradition he is called Somhairle Mor MacGillebhride. The word Mor, may have meant that he was a great man in deed rather than a great man in size.)
When Somerled first comes upon the scene, he is living with his father in his cave amid the wilds of Movern, an unambitious young man, devoted to fishing and hunting, and as yet apparently without any intention of thrusting himself forward as a leader of men. But the exigencies of the time soon transformed this Celtic Nimrod into a hero. Amid his devotion to the chase, he must have had many hours of reflection upon the fallen fortunes of his family, and unsuspected depths in his nature were stirred up by the tale of their misfortunes. The faded glory of the once kingly house, with all the humiliating conditions that accompanied its downfall, seized with irresistible force upon his imagination, and the resolve to build up again its ruined state became the passion of his life. Often must he have wished that the day might come when he could strike a blow for freedom and the right. That day at length came, and it found Somerled ready."
The writer goes on to say that at this time the natives of Argyll had tried to free themselves from the suppression of the Norse Vikings. The Vikings prepared their forces to once and for all establish rule over them. The Norse had galley ships all along the western sea, and they used them to attack the shores of Oirthirfghael. The result of the fighting was defeat for the native tribes, all except a tribe called the MacInneses. They had lost their leader but had found a new leader, who was tall and a valiant fighter who had fought well. His name was Somhairle Mor Mac Ghillebhride, more commonly known as Somerled.
At a later time, led by Somhairle Mor Mac Ghillebhride, they made another effort to gain their independence. They held a council to decide how they would proceed. The Crann tara was sent through the land, and all of the men of Argyll, came to the rendezvous to the east of Benmore. Instead of being united in their cause, the leaders of the different tribes fought amongst themselves over who would be the chief leader. They at one point began to draw their weapons against each other, but an old chief rose up and demanded that they listen to him. He pointed out to them how dangerous it was for them to be divided amongst themselves. He suggested that they elect from their gathered tribes someone they all had confidence in and recommended to them Somerled, reminding them of how he had proven his prowess in the recent conflict with the Vikings. They all saw the wisdom of the old man's words and agreed to be led by Somerled.
Apparently, Somerled was not present at the meeting of these tribes, because they all sent dispatches to him offering him the position as their leader. He hesitated to accept, but in the end, despite the strength of his enemy, he accepted.
He had a plan. He ordered every man to kill his cow and skin it. The Gaels then waited for the approaching Vikings. Somerled ordered his army to march around their encampment. Then he ordered them to put on the cow hides to disguise themselves and repeat the process. Then he ordered them to remove the cow hides and march around a third time. His purpose was to make his army appear to be three different divisions, and therefore much larger than it really was. His strategy worked and them enemy fell into a great confusion and while they were in a panic, he ordered his army to attack. They slaughtered them and thus routed, he followed them as they ran to the north bank of the Sheill where their ships were anchored. With this great victory, Somerled began his career in triumph.
He did not stop there, though. He followed the enemy into the territory they held, while his army was still full of great moral, due to their recent success in battle. He drove the Vikings out of Oirthirghael tp Innse-Gall. These battles represented the first success against the Vikings that had occurred for hundreds of years.
Having won back the mainland territory that had belonged to his forebears, Somerled either assumed or was given the title of Thane or Regulus of Argyll.
He next set his eyes upon the Kingdom of Man and the Isles. Olav the Red, King of Man and the Isles, not sure that he could keep possession of his kingdom, offered Somerled his daughter in marriage. This seemed to have worked, for Somerled was said to have been truly in love with Ragnhildis. The historian of Sleat told the story of how Somerled won his bride.
King Olav was encamped in Storna Bay and Somerled was also in that area. Somerled met with Olav, without disclosing who he really was. He told him that he had been sent by the Thane of Argyll, who would accompany him on his expedition, in exchange for his daughter in marriage. Olav recognised him and refused to give him his daughter, but welcomed his aid in battle. Olav had a foster-brother named Maurice MacNeill, who was Somerled's friend who offered to help Somerled to gain Ragnhildis as his bride.
Maurice bored holes in the bottom of King Olav's ship, saving the plugs so that the could be used to stop up the holes when needed. For the present time, he filled the holes with butter. When they set sail the next day, all appeared well. When they reach the point of Ardnamurchan, they encountered rough waters and the waves began to wash away the butter in the holes of Olav's ship and it began to leak water. This put the king and everyone on board in danger of drowning.
Olav called to Somerled and his men, who were following in their ship, for help.
Somerled refused to help, unless Olav agreed to give him his daughter in marriage. Olav swore an oath and was then helped on board Somerled's galley. Maurice MacNeill fixed Olav's ship, and he was able to go on his way in his repaired ship. Legend says that from that time on the descendants of Maurice called themselves by the name MacIntyres, which means the sons of the wright.
Whether or not the story is true, it seems more likely that Olav would have been happy to have made an alliance with Somerled, given his army's superior strength. He would not have wanted him to be an enemy. By whatever means the marriage was agreed upon, it did take place in 1140 according to the Chronicles of Man, who records it as being the point that began the downfall of the Kingdom of the Isles.
In about 1153, Olav, King of Man and the Isles was murdered by his nephews, the sons of Harold. They had been raised in Dublin, but now asserted their claim to half of the Kingdom of Man. Olav had a son named Godred (also known as Goraidh mac Amhlaibh, Amhlaibh being another form of Olav), who was in Norway at the time his father was assassinated. He set sail for his kingdom and was welcomed by the people as their new king. He executed his cousins for the murder of his father. Sometime early in his reign, Godred was asked to come to the Kingdom of Dublin, which was at that time a Norwegian kingdom. The people of Dublin asked him to stop some uprisings, restore peace, and assume the throne of Dublin. He allowed his successes at home and in Dublin to go to his head and became a tyrant. The men of the Isles joined together against him. These people of the Isles were of mainly Celtic heritage. They were not happy with the Norwegian ruling family of which Godred was the latest. They were in favor of Somerled and the claim he had to the throne, by his marriage to Godred's sister.
One of these nobles of the Isles suggested to Somerled that his son Dugall should be the new King of the Isles. Somerled gladly accepted the invitation by the Islesmen, and Somerled's son was proclaimed king. Dughall was a boy at the time, but he was carried through the Isles,being declared King of the Isles all the way. Hostages were taken from the Islesmen in order to ensure their loyalty to their new king, Dughall.
One of these Islemen, defected and went to the Isle of Man and told Godred what was occurring in the Isles. Godred gathered a fleet and sailed to the Isles intending to crush this rebellion, and maintain his rule over the Isles. Somerled, gathered a fleet of about 80 ships and met Godred's forces. A long and bloody battle took place. At the end, Godred was forced to seek peace with Somerled, the Thane of Argyll. A treaty was made in which the Isles was given into the possession of Somerled. But within two years, war broke out again. This time Somerled invaded the Isle of Man and defeated Godred and Godred thus defeated fled to Norway to seek help from his overlord against his brother in law, Somerled. For six, years, the kingdom of Man and the Isles was ruled over by Somerled.
The next conflict that Somerled became involved in was over the Earldom of Moray. A young man calling himself Wymund who was a Cistercian monk in a monastery in Furness was placed in charge of a new monastery established by Olav, King of Man, in Russin. He was well liked by the Norsemen and they made him their Bishop. While in this new position, Wymund announced himself to be the son of Angus, Earl of Moray. Angus had been killed in 1130. This announcement of his true parentage, also declared Wymund to be the rightful heir to the earldom of Moray, which had been taken by the king of Scotland. The King of Man and Somerled, both accepted the Wymund's claim as valid. Wymund assumed the name of Malcolm Macheth. And began to take steps to regain his earldom. At about this time, he married Somerled's sister. He assembled a fleet in the Isle of Man and sailed to the Western Isles receiving a friendly welcome from Somerled. He then he invaded the Scottish mainland. The Norwegian Earl of Orkney also gave him his support, securing the alliance by marrying Wymund's sister.
This marriage and his own marriage to Somerled's sister,gave him ties to two powerful kingdoms. and the alliance helped him to proceed in his quest to regain the earldom of Moray, from David I of Scotland. He was eventually taken prisoner while crossing the river Cree in Galloway. Davin ordered his eyes to be put out and imprisoned him in the castle of Roxburgh. Ancient tradition decreed a man unfit to rule if he was not whole and fit in body, so a man who had been blinded, would in effect no longer be a threat. When he was later released from Roxburgh, he again took up the life of a monk and retired to the monastery of Biland in Yorkshire.
The sons of Malcolm, formerly known as Weymund, took refuge with their uncle, Somerled. The Thane of Argyll, was however, occupied with his own troubles with the Norsemen. In 1153 Malcolm IV was the new king of Scotland and Somerled's nephews, the sons of Malcolm Macheath were renewing their rebellion with the aid of Somerled. He was not only supporting his nephews interests, but also his own. King Malcolm's advisers were plotting against his own kingdom. Somerled and his nephews were at war for three years with the King of Scotland. They took the king's son Donald prisoner and sent him to Roxburgh Castle.
Malcolm IV made the decision to seek peace and a treaty was made stipulating that Donald be released and Malcolm Macheath declared the Earl of Ross. This peace, made in 1157 between Somerled and the King of Scotland lasted about seven years, but hostilities broke out again in 1164. The Chroniclers of Man and the Scottish historians say that Somerland had decided to try and conquer the whole country of Scotland. The king of Scotland, likewise, desired to conquer those parts of Scotland that he did not already control including Somerled's Argyll, as before stated, urged on by his advisers.
Malcolm IV invaded Galloway and Moray in 1160 and removed the native population giving the land to his people to populate and occupy. Somerled invaded Scotland's mainland in 1164, with a force of 15,0000 men from Ireland, Argyllshire and the Isles. He had a fleet of 164 ships which sailed up the Clyde to Greenock and landed at the bay of St. Lawrence.
From there they marched to Renfrew to meet the king's army. The chronicler's of the time indicate that Malcolm IV's army was outnumbered, but in spite of this Somerled was killed and his army was disbanded. According to the historical tradition, Malcolm IV's advisers seeing that they were outnumbered and thus likely to lose, decided to assassinate Somerled. They bribed a man who was a relative of Somerled, named Maurice Macneill. He entered the tent of Somerled, who had no reason to fear a relative. Maurice stabbed him in the heart. When the army learned of their leader's death dispersed and returned to their ships.
The Scottish account says that they defeated Somerled's army, nearly annihilating them. The author of The Clan Donald, asked a very good question, If that is so, why did they not then proceed to take control of the Isles? Somerled's sons Reginald, Dugall and Angus maintained possession of their father's kingdom. Somerled's body was taken to Saddel where he had established a monastery, which was later completed by his son Reginald.
Upon his death there were several lords who contested right to his kingdom. There were two main families, comprising one was the sons of Somerled and comprising the other were the descendants of Goraidh MacAmhlaibh who was Somerled's brother in law through his wife Regnhilde. Somerled's enemy King Malcolm IV of Scotland died during the year following Somerled's death, he was succeeded by his brother William the Lion. This seems to be as good a place to end the tale of Somerled.
The Clan Donald by Archibald Macdonald - 1896
The Foundations of Society and the Land: A Review of the Social Systems of the Middle Ages in Great Britain .... by John Wynne Jeudwine -1918
The History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland from A.D. 1493... by Archibald Gregory
An Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man, from the Earliest... Joseph Train 1845