Somerled and the Battle of Renfrew

On this day in 1164, with a large army from Argyll, Ireland, and the Western Isles, Somerled invaded mainland Scotland and met the Scottish army at Renfrew.   

Somerled, a powerful West Highland and Hebridean warlord, first appears in the historical record in the early 12th century. The Gaels of western Scotland had by Somerled’s time intermingled with the invading Norse of earlier centuries, creating a population that was ethnically mixed. Although historians still debate to which group Somerled’s family belonged, John Marsden concludes that “virtually everything that is known of or has been claimed for Somerled, even the most obviously apocryphal anecdotes found in the most doubtful sources, reflects some aspect of the characteristic fusion of Norse and Celt which binds the cultural roots of Gaeldom”.[1] Whatever his ancestry, Somerled is credited with finally driving the Norse from the western Highlands, and in his lifetime the Gaelic language and culture experienced a resurgence.

Somerled’s 20 October invasion has usually been seen as a grab for power by a chieftain who got too big for his breeches, but recent scholars have pointed out that the mediaeval chroniclers, from whom we get much of our information about this period, were under the patronage of the Scottish king and the church. The chroniclers present the military actions of Somerled and other warlord chieftains as rebellion against their rightful loyalties, but that was not necessarily the case. For one thing, a good part of Somerled’s lands were held of the Norwegian king, not the Scottish one, and Scotland’s kings had occasionally tried to take these lands from his family by force. Furthermore, feudal lordships established by followers of the Scottish kings had been slowly encroaching on all of the semi-independent peripheral regions, and Fergus of Galloway had already been defeated. Seen in this light, Somerled’s ‘invasion’ might well have been defensive in nature.

Whatever the reason for the invasion, Somerled was killed and his army defeated. Tradition holds that he was betrayed and assassinated before the battle, but this story does not seem to have appeared before the 17th century. It is more likely that he fell in battle, along with his son Gillebrigte and many of his followers. Despite this defeat, Somerled’s descendants maintained possession of the Isles and Kintyre and continued to rule the west for centuries. DNA evidence suggests that roughly a quarter of today’s Macdonalds, a third of today’s Macdougalls, and about 40% of today’s Macalisters, both in Scotland and elsewhere, are direct descendants of Somerled.[2]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011

[1]Marsden, Somerled and the Emergence of Gaelic Scotland (Edinburgh, 2005), p. x.
[2]Bryan Sykes, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland (New York, 2006), p. 214.