The Battle of Gruinart Strand

On this day in 1598, the Battle of Traigh Ghruinneart (Gruinart Strand) took place between the forces of Sir Lachlan Maclean and those of his nephew, Sir James Macdonald of the Dunyvaig family. Among Macdonald’s forces, inevitably, were Macalisters from Kintyre (possibly including their chief, Godfrey of Loup); they had been allies of the Dunyvaig family for a century and fought with them in many of their conflicts. But the Macdonald force also included some of the Clann Alasdair Bheag, whose ties to the Dunyvaig family are perhaps less well known. Although these Macalisters were followers of the Hamilton family at this point (quite sensibly, considering their location), James Macdonald’s brother Archibald had been fostered among them.[1]

This battle was the climactic episode of a feud between the Macleans of Duart and the Dunyvaig Macdonalds that had been running since before James Macdonald was even born. At issue was ownership of the Rhinns of Islay, which had been in Macdonald hands for centuries but to which the Macleans laid claim after the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles. Nearly all of the southwestern clans had taken sides and joined in the fighting[2], causing so much chaos in the Western Isles and Kintyre that the king (James VI) got involved. At various times the Maclean and Macdonald chiefs were arrested, fined, forced to leave hostages (including James Macdonald) at court, and threatened with forfeiture.    

The marriage of Lachlan’s sister to Angus of Dunyvaig in 1579 brought a lull in the conflict (and produced James Macdonald), but it all started up again about 1586, when Angus attempted to mediate another of Maclean’s quarrels.[3] By 1596 King James was fed up with it and assembled a force to impose a military solution. At that point, most of the other warring chiefs surrendered, but Dunyvaig and some of his vassals remained in rebellion. The king thought perhaps James Macdonald, who had won favour during his time as a hostage at court, might be able to talk some sense into his father. Instead, James simply took over leadership of theDunyvaig Macdonalds – and the feud with Maclean.  

Though certainly not averse to violence, by all accounts James did his best to make peace in this situation. He offered his uncle occupation of the Rhinns, to be held as a vassal of Dunyvaig for the rest of his life. But Maclean had decided he now wanted the whole of Islay, and so, on the 5th of August, Macdonald, Maclean, and the clans that supported them faced off at Gruinart. The ensuing battle is described by almost everyone as ‘bloody’. The Macdonald force was outnumbered but perhaps better trained, and in the end they prevailed. James Macdonald was badly wounded, but he survived; Lachlan Maclean was killed along with many of his followers. The rest of the Maclean force fled to their boats.[4] 

The Macdonald victory proved to be short-lived. Within fifteen years, all the Dunyvaig lands had been granted by the crown, or sold by Angus Macdonald, to various branches of the Campbell clan and James himself was in exile in Spain. He was to be the last chief of the Clann Iain Mhòr.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]Fraser-Mackintosh, p. 35 
McKerral, p. 15.
[3]Ibid., p. 232
[4]There is a story that some of the Macleans took refuge in a church, which was then set afire with only one survivor. This is certainly not implausible, considering James had not long ago done the very same thing at his own father’s house (with the help of Godfrey of Loup). But earlier accounts of the battle do not include this story, which one would expect to merit notice, and it is not mentioned in records of Sir James’s 1609 trial, which focused on the Askomil incident. Furthermore, if all the ‘burned down a church with enemies inside’ stories, told about nearly every clan in existence, were true, there would be no churches left in the Highlands. Although the story can’t be discounted without more evidence, it should be taken with some skepticism.


A Bond of Fosterage

On this day in 1674, Coll McAlester, brother of Godfrey (Goraidh) laird of Loup, signed a contract with John and Mary McPhale, and their son Neill, for the fostering of his second son, James. The bond is witnessed by Gorry McAlester of Loup and John McAlester, who might have been their brother.

This Macalister example of a bond of fosterage shows the continued importance, at a relatively late date, of an ancient institution. Fosterage, “the bringing up of the chief’s children by favoured members of the leading clan gentry and in turn, their children by other favoured members of the clan”,[1] existed in most of the societies that made up the world our tribal ancestors knew. The custom was legally formalised and regulated in Ireland, referred to repeatedly in Norse sagas, mentioned in Welsh law, and said to exist among the Anglo-Saxons as well. Like other aspects of tribal society, however, the practice seems to have lasted longer in Gaelic Scotland than elsewhere.

In all of these societies, fosterage appears to have worked in a similar manner: “A Laird, a man of wealth and eminence, sends his child, either male or female, to a tacksman, or tenant, to be fostered. It is not always his own tenant, but some distant friend that obtains this honour; for an honour such a trust is very reasonably thought.”[2] The foster parents were always of lower rank than the child’s own parents. In most cases the child went to live with his or her foster parents at the age of 7 or 8 and lived with them for a set period — usually (as in the Macalister bond) about seven years. Provision was made by the foster parents for the child upon his or her reaching adulthood, or in the case of the foster parents’ death; this generally took the form of an agreed upon number of livestock. In return for caring for the child, the foster parents obtained the protection of the child’s father — an important assurance in a society where such protection might mean the difference between survival and destruction. 

Fosterage appears to have died out in Ireland in the early 17th century. Although it continued for almost another century in Scotland, the contracts that survive reflect a changing society. By the time Coll McAlester was arranging his son’s fosterage, bonds include a stipulation — not mentioned in earlier contracts — that an annual payment be made for the child’s board. About the same time, the obligation of the child’s father to protect the foster parents disappears. It’s possible that this payment replaced the earlier obligation, perhaps because life and property were a bit more secure.[3]

Even with such changes, the institution of fosterage was one of the “most important forms of social bonding in the clans”, and in the Highlands and Isles it survived well into the modern era.[4] The bonds established between the foster family and the child were so intense that both legend and actual history contain examples of foster brothers giving up their lives for one another. When he signed a bond of fosterage on this day in 1674, Coll McAlester was therefore following a custom that, by tying the lower orders to the clan gentry (in this case the chief’s family), help to hold the clan together.[5]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] Way & Squire, p. 13
[2] Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (London: 1791), pp. 313-4
[3]A. O. Curle, “Notice of Four Contracts or Bonds of Fosterage: with Notes on the Former Prevalence of the Custom of Fosterage in the Scottish Highlands”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 30 (Dec. 9, 1895): 15.
[4] Way & Squire, ibid. Johnson wrote in 1773 that the custom “still remains in the Islands, though it is passing fast away” (p. 313).
[5] Way & Squire, ibid.