Wednesday, April 15, 2009

John of Isla MacDonald

John of Isla was also known in Gaelic as Eoin na-h Ile, and the clergy called him "good John of the Isles", because of his generosity to the church. At the time he was assuming the lordship of Isla, Scotland also had a new king on the throne, David II. David was a child when he became king and in his minority, Scotland's politics were controlled by the regency of Randolph, Earl of Moray. When Randolph no longer controlled the country, chaos and anarchy ensued. Although Scotland was going through many changes, trying to maintain her independence from England, John of Isla did not gain his reputation in battle as had his forebears. He was motivated by the desire to maintain his house and the domains he had inherited. He may have been loyal to the Scottish crown, but most likely only when it was expedient to be so. With regard to maintaining his independence, it would have been appaent to him that the English influence in Scotland and a weak king on Scotland's throne could be used to his advantage. This was most likely what motivated him to support Balliol. In other words, John supported England's interests in order to maintain his own independence from Scotland. Randolph, Earl of Moray, while regent of Scotland, refused to confirm some of the lands John had inherited from his father, Angus Og. And when Randolph was replaced, they were still not confirmed to him. So, when Balliol took the throne, John of Isla figured he was the person most likely to give him this confirmation of his lands.

In 1335, John made a treaty with Edward Balliol, which put him into possession of his lands. He was put into possession of the Island of Ysla (Isla), Kentyre (Kintyre), Knappedoll (Knapdale), the Island of Githe (Gigha), half of the Island of Dure (Jura), the Island of Golwonche (Colonsay), the Island of Mulle, the Island of Skye, the Island of Lewethy (Lewis), Kenalbadon and Ardinton (Morvern and Ardnamurchan). These constitute a large amount of property. The process of having these lands which were rightfully his amounted to this: when a lord died, his lands temporarily reverted to his overlord or king and his successor was only allowed to inherit if his overlord or king said so. Sometimes, they took back parts of an inheritance, but frequently they would grant the possessions back to the successor if he swore loyalty to his overlord or king.
John was also granted the wardship of Lochaber, until Lord David of Strathbolgie reached his maturity, as Earl of Athol.

In return for this confirmation of lands, John swore to be loyal and faithful to the King of Scotland, Edward Balliol and his heirs. He was also bound to fight all enemies of the king and any rebels. He had to swear this oath on the holy eucharist, the cup of the altar, and the missal. He also agreed that if the king required a hostage to ensure that he honor the agreement, a cousin or cousins, a close relative who was underage would be delivered to the king. This was because John at that time had no legal heirs. The king also stipulated that when he should have an heir, John would be it's godfather.

Besides making John the godfather of his heir, John must have been important to the king, because he made sure that his subjects understood that John and those travelling with him were under his protection. It also indicates that he could have been in danger from those Scots as were not supporters of Edward Balliol.

Eventually, there was another change in rulers in Scotland, and David II assumed his throne. Due to John's support of Balliol, during David's minority he forfeited the lands of Gigha, Isla, Jura, and Cononsay, which wre granted to John's kinsman, Angus Maciau of Ardnamurchan. John resisted this decree to take his lands from him with the aid of Reginald MacRourie.

In 1346, David II decided to invade England, while Edward III was in France. He began preparing for this as early as 1343. He needed all of the military force he could muster, and with that in mind he pardoned John and Reginald MacRouri, so within a short period of time John forfeited his lands and then had them restored to them. Some of them had reverted back to their original owners and were not returned to them including: Kintyre, Knapdale,and Skye.

Reginald MacRourie answered the king's summons to bring his men to Perth where the army was being gathered in preparation for invading England, he and his men made their quarters in the monastery of Elcho. There had been a long standing disagreement between Reginald and the Earl of Ross over land. The Earl of Ross took advantage of Reginald's situation within the monastery and broke into the monastery and killed Reginald and seven of his men. Reginald's murder caused John to inherit some of his possessions.

John had married about 1337 to Euphemia MacRuari, who was the sister of Reginald. Upon Reginald's death, she inherited his lands, and thus by marriage, they became the possession of John of Isla. He being a close relative to Reginald, also gave him a secondary claim to these lands, including Garmoran and the Northern Isles. The Scottish crown refused to recognise his claim to these lands.

When Scotland invaded England, the expedition failed and the young king was taken hostage. Edward III of England was preoccupied with his war in France and made a temporary peace with Scotland, while keeping his hostage. So, for eleven years John was not only in possession of his own lands, but also of the lands of MacRuari, even though they had not been confirmed to him.

In 1354 the English were negotiating a treaty with Scotland and the ransom of their king which Edward III held hostage. The English were still at war with France and the French paid 40,000 moutous of gold to the Scots nobles to break the truce with England.

In 1356 there were Scottish troops in France to aid them in their war with England. The English had fought their way deep into France and the French king aided by the Scottish allies, tried to cut off their retreat, but was unsuccessful. In the battle of Poitiers in 1356, the Scottish suffered massive losses and John, Lord of the Isles was taken prisoner. He was held prisoner in England for about a year.

He was freed and given safe conduct by the King of England to return to his home. Two years later, the treaty and the ransom for David II were being negotiated and part of the stipulations of the treaty were that were that Edward Balliol and John of Isla were to be included in the truce. This was an indication of his importance to both the English and Scottish, as did his marriage to Margaret Stewart, daughter of the Steward, around the time of David II's return to Scotland.

In order to marry Margret, it was necessary for John to divorce his MacRuarie wife. He was urged to do this by the Steward and his own advisors. Archibald MacDonald says that Amy lived for a long time after her separation from John and during this time she built Castle Tirrim in Moidart and Borve Castle in Benbecula. She also built some places of worship.

Although John was connected in marriage to the Steward and his family, he seems to have maintained favor with King David II. In 1360, he was appointed Constable of Edinburgh Castle, which was a very high and prestigious military appointment. In 1364 he surpassed even this and was made Senescall, or High Steward of the King.

This came about because the Stewart family was next in line to the throne if the king did not produce an heir. In 1363, David II's queen Joanna died without having produced an heir. The king then began an affair with a woman of humble birth and because of his love for her, granted all of his lands to her, meaning that if she produced an heir, the Stewart's would not inherit the throne.
As a result of the Stewart's opposition, that the Steward and his son were imprisoned, and John of Isla was appointed as the replacement Steward.

Again as in his earlier life, John's allegiance fluctuated. Scotland was still having trouble raising the ransom money to be paid for David II's release. The taxation was particularly resented in the Highlands, and John sided with other northern barons in refusing to pay the tax or to attend a meeting of the Estates of the realm.

The king, unable to rectify the situation released John's father-in-law from prison in order to restore the king's authority over these barons. John of Isla was one of the most difficult to subdue, but at this time there was peace between England and Scotland and he was unable to use the enmity between the two kingdoms to his advantage as he had in the past. After several years of defiance, the Steward convinced John to meet with the King at Inverness in 1369.

John of Isla signed a document in which he more or less appologised for transgressing against the king and humbly asked for forgiveness and for the favor of the king. He also states that he would make reparations to any men of the kindom whom he or his sons had injured. And he was to remain faithful to the king. In order to ensure his compliance to this document he gave his son Donald, by Margaret Stewart and his grandson Angus, son of his son John and some others as hostages. David II died two years later, and since John was the son in law of the new king Robert II Stewart, he immediately began to benefit.

Robert II confirmed upon him the 300 merklands of Moidart, Arisaig, Morar, Knoydart in the lordship of Garmoran, the Islands of Uist, Barra, Rum, Eigg and Harris. This was given to him during a parliament in 1371-2. After 1372 he lived out the rest of his life in relative peace and prosperity.


He married as his second wife, Margaret Stewart, daughter of Robert II, the first Stewart king of Scotland. According to the historian of Sleat, Hugh McDonald, he had a son named Donald who succeeded him.

John of Isla was an ally of the English against his neighbors the Scotch despite the generosity his family had been shown the Scottish rulers and he himself had received from David II. At the instigation of the English he headed an army of his Highlanders and Islemen in order to attack the Scottish. A tentative peace was made, but having been shown just how vulnerable they were to danger from the English, through the MacDonald's island kingdom, they watched it very closely from that point on, always looking for an opportunity to destroy it. Even so, this policy of sidng with the English was continued by John's successors and eventually was the cause of its downfall.

John had sons by Anna MacRourie, daughter of Rorie, high chief of Lorn. These sons were Godfrey, Ranald and Angus. John supposedly did not marry Anna until later at the time of her death. His advisors opposed this marriage saying that he would not be able to make suitable matches for these sons if they were his legitimate heirs. He did however make provisions for them. His son Raald was given all the land extending from Fort-August in Abertarff to the river Sheil, and from the river Sheil to the Belleith in the north, Eig and Rum, and the two Uists. He then went to the mouth of the river of Glasgow, bringing with him threescore longships, and married Margaret, the daughter of Robert Stewart, the King of Scotland.

In an article in the Celtic magazine, edited by A. MacKensie and A. MacGregor, it is stated that there was a dispensation given toJohn and Amy/Ann in 1337. There is also a treaty between John of Islay and David II in 1369 which refers to hostages from his family, which indicates that their sons, John, Godfrey, and Ranald were legitimate. The article also states that Robert II persuaded John to make the sons of both of his marriages feudally independent of each other. In my opinion, these two facts should be proof that their marriage was a lawful one. But you could also add to these the fact that she was the daughter of the lord of her clan, and thus unlikely to have simply handfasted or lived without marriage with John of Isla. However, the papal dispensation was sought because they being third cousins were too closely related, and may have been the reason why the Scottish government did not recognise it as legitimate. In those times, kings had the right to decide who their subjects were allowed to marry. The legitimacy of John's sons by his first marriage is of importance to later descendants from this line, who consider themselves to be the rightful heirs. In my opinion, you cannot unspill milk, and it is rediculous to speculate over what might have been.

As previously stated, John's eldest son by the first marriage received lands from the lordship of Gamoran and other lands. John also set aside certain lands to be inherited by his son from the marriage to the King's daughter. This charter was confirmed by the King. These children of the second marriage were not John's feudal heirs, making it necessary to provide for them through this charter. Politically, it would have been a hard situation. On the one hand he had these sons by his first marriage who should have inherited. But the children from the second marriage were of royal blood and therefore, presumed superior to the half-siblings.

John and Margaret had several sons; Donald of Isla, his heir, and John Mor the Tanist; Alaster Carrach the third son; as well as another son named Marcus, whose descendants are the Clan Donald of Cnoic-an-chluith in Tirone, Ireland.

John lived a long life. He made donations to Iona and he also covered the chapel of Isle Eorsag and the Chapel of Isle Finlagan, and the Chapel of Isle Suibne, with all their appropriate instruments for order and mass and the service of God, for the better upholding of the monks and priests this lord kept in his company. He also erected the monastery of the Holy Cross.

He died in his castle of Ardtornish, with the monks and priests in attendance and having received last rights, his body was taken to Iona. As was the custom, his body was met by the abbot and the monks and vicars. A wake was held for eight days and nights and then he was placed in a grave with his father in the church of Oran in the year 1380.


My particular descent is through Donald of Isla, who was John MacDonald's heir.


An historical account of the Macdonnells of Antrim: including notices of ...
by George Hill - Antrim (Northern Ireland : County) - 1873

Reliquiæ celticæ: texts, papers and studies in Gaelic literature and ...‎ - Page 159
by Alexander Cameron - 1894

The Celtic magazine, conducted by A. Mackenzie and A. MacGregor‎ - Page 210
edited by Alexander Mackenzie - 1881

A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland clans and Highland regiments‎ - Page 146
by Thomas Maclauchlan, John Wilson, John Scott Keltie - Clans - 1875

History of the Macdonalds and Lords of the Isles: with genealogies of the ...‎ - Page 31
by Alexander Mackenzie - Clans - 1881

The clan Donald‎ - by Archibald Macdonald - 1896
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