From Alexander John Haddow’s The History and Structure of Ceol Mor: a guide to piobaireachd the classical music of the great highland bagpipe, this story exemplifies why I got into Medieval Studies in the first place.
The next I wish to speak of, Black Donald’s March, is certainly unlikely to have been composed in the extended and elaborate form in which we now know it. The history is as follows: James I, determined to subdue the north, marched with a powerful army in 1427 and there called a Parliament to which the Highland nobles and chiefs were summoned. Even Alexander, 3rd Lord of the Isles
and Earl of Ross, thought it prudent to attend. James now carried out one of those acts of treachery and bad faith which so detract from the good name of almost every Stewart King. The chiefs were seized as they arrived and some were executed on the spot, others being dispersed to various fortresses where most of them eventually met their deaths, many without the formality of a trial.
The Lord of the Isles was confined either at Edinburgh or at Perth but was released after some time and immediately sought revenge by invading and laying waste the Crown lands in Inverness and by sacking and burning the town itself. This occurred in 1429. His forces then retreated to Lochaber, pursued by a powerful force led by the King in person. The King’s army surprised and defeated Alexander’s force (originally about 10,000 men) at the Battle of Lochaber, the Camerons and Clan Chattan having deserted the Lord of the Isles and joined the King just before the battle. His forces scattered and retreating, Alexander fled and thereafter led the life of a hunted man till finally he decided to throw himself on the King’s mercy and on Easter Sunday, appeared before him in the church of Holyrood, clad only in his shirt and holding his sword by the point. The Queen and some nobles spoke on his behalf and the King pardoned him but confined him in the Douglas Earl of Angus’ virtually impregnable fortress of Tantallon.
Jon Mor Tanaistear, Alexander’s uncle, had been murdered in 1427 by James Campbell, who claimed he had Royal authority for the Act, but could produce no written evidence and was hanged, with his accomplice, John MacArthur, on the King’s orders, at the Inverness Parliament — in all probability to stop their mouths. Thus with the Lord of the Isles in Tantallon and the relative who could have taken over the reins under the Celtic law of Tanistry murdered, the power of the MacDonalds was at a low ebb. The king was not slow to take advantage of this situation and form him Alexander, Earl of Mar, obtained a grant of the lands of Lochaber, whither he made his way with a considerable army, including the followers of Huntly, Alan, Lord of Caithness, Fraser of Lovat, Macintosh, Mackay of Strathnaver, the Grants and the Camerons. That Cameron chief, Domhnuill Duibh from whom the Lochiel family derive their patronymic MacDhomhnuill Duibh, induced some of Macdonald’s vassals to join them by promising that the rights they formerly held off Macdonald would be confirmed to them if held from the King. This army encamped near Inverlochy and from there Fraser was sent to harry Sunart and Ardnamurchan, with 3,000 men, to secure provisions.
Meanwhile, the Lord of the Isles, in Tantallon, had got wind of what was going on and managed to send out a message imploring those whom he trusted to face the enemy, though they might never see him again. The challenge was taken up by his young cousin, Black Donald Balloch, a youth of 18, son of the murdered Iain Mor. He brought a hastily mustered force to the island of Cara in Loch Sunart where he met Alan, son of Alan of Moidart and his brother Ranald Ban. He decided on a small picked force and chose 600 gentlemen and freeholders. They made their way in a fleet of galleys to Inverskipnish, two miles south of Inverlochy.
While this was going on, Alaister Carrach, MacDonald’s younger uncle, who held lands in Lochaber, had raised a force of 220 bowmen. Not strong enough to attack Mar’s army, he held the slopes above them and was there when Donald landed his men and immediately led them to the attack. At this point, Huntley entered Mar’s tent, where he was playing cards with Mackintosh and warned that a small but apparently determined enemy force was close at hand. Macintosh anticipated (but with less luck) Drake’s later reply by saying that they would finish the game and deal with them afterward. Huntly returned to the tent a second time saying “Gentlemen, fight stoutly or render yourselves”. Macintosh replied that they would finish the game and do as they pleased with those “big bellied carles of the Isles”. Huntly warned them that the Islanders would fight like men that day and Mackintosh retorted that even if Huntly helped them, his force would defeat them both. enraged, Huntly withdrew himself and his men and remained a spectator during the battle.
Donald Balloch drew up his men as follows: the Front was commanded by Macian of Ardnamurchan and John MacLean of Coll, the main battle by Ranald Ban, son o the murdered Iain Mor, and a natural brother of Donald Balloch (from him the house of Largy in Kintyre), Alan MacAlan of Moidart (from whom the Knoydart family) MacDuffie of Colonsay, MacQuarrie of Ulva and McGee of the Rhinns of Islay.
Alastair Carrach, seeing the two forces confronting each other, now led his men part-way down the hill and poured an intense dropping shower of arrows into Mar’s army who were forced to give way and were attacked from the other side by Donald Balloch. A rout ensued in which Caithness and a son of Lovat fell, Hugh Mackay was captured and about 100 of the Royal forces were killed. Donald Balloch left with a death roll of under 30. The Earl of Mar, wounded by an arrow, escaped. The interesting and desperate tale of his subsequent travels and tribulations is to be found in Mackenzie who quotes much of the circumstantial account of the battle from the manuscript of Hugh Macdonald, written in the time of Charles II and reprinted in the “Collecteana de Rebus Albanicis”
Donald Balloch now wasted the lands of the Camerons and Clan Chattan as a reprisal for their desertion of the Lord of the Isles in the Lochaber Battle and retreated to Ulster, where he had inherited the district of the Glens of Antrim, through his mother, Marjory Bissett. James advanced as far as Dunstaffnage, where he proceeded to execute a considerable number of Highland chiefs. He also asked O’Neill, with whom he had a treaty of mutual assistance against England, to send back Donald, dead or alive. O’Neill obliged by sending a head in salt, which was received with delight. It was not, however, Donald Balloch’s head. He was at the time courting O’Neill’s daughter, whom he subsequently married. He long outlived James I and through the influence of the O’Neills was eventually restored to his lands in Scotland, where he took part in other feudings and frays though none so celebrated as that at Inverlochy — “the Macintoshes ran, the Macintoshes fled and Clan Donald remained”.
Alexander John Haddow, the History and Structure of Ceol Mor: a guide to piobaireachd the classical music of the great highland bagpipe (Glasgow: M.R.S. Haddow, 1982).