But the history of Scotland boasts other heroes who have never stepped out of the shadows. Somerled mac Gillebride, 12th-century Lord of Argyll and the Isles; descendant of the Royal House of Dalriada; ancestor to the MacSorleys and to clans MacDonald, MacDougal, and McRuairi; and inheritor of a fierce, independent Norse-Gael tradition, is one such hero.
This fall I set out on a windy morning from Carlingford Lough in County Down in Northern Ireland in search of the enigmatic Somerled, following in the wake of the great warrior sea-king who had single-handedly broken the Norse Viking hold on the Scottish West and spearheaded the Gaelic revival in the Highlands and Islands. On this quest, I’d learn that the Celtic past and resurgence of Gaelic language and culture, so significant a part of Scottish character, were a consequence of Somerled’s 12th-century conquests and interventions – his enduring legacy.
The search-for-Somerled odyssey, that began at the head of Carlingford Lough, led from Somerled’s birthplace along the coast of County Down; to his patrimony in Ardnamurchan and Morvern in the Central West Highlands; to his island strongholds of Islay and Mull; and to the confluence of Cart and Clyde Waters near Paisley, where he met his end. The journey itself finished in the silence of the sacred Glen of Saddell Abbey in Kintyre and a Cistercian burial ground, where, according to legend, the feared and revered Lord of the Isles was interred.
Unlike the intrepid Wallace Clark, whose crews sailed the sixteen-oar galley Aileach from Westport in Ireland to the Hebrides in the ‘90s, I’d opted for a conventional trains-planes-and-automobile pilgimage, with connecting CalMac ferry crossings to the isles. The journey led me along “The Route,” that medieval water-highway of Norse and Gael that links Irish Sea and North Atlantic and reaches deep into the loughs where the fortresses of the 12th-century Norse-Gael seafarers were nestled.
I’d read the histories. I’d devoured Marsden’s scholarly study of Somerled, but I needed the validation of “being there” to appreciate the mind and soul of Scotland’s greatest warrior sea-king. Looking north from Ballycastle pier to Islay, standing in the breach of the twin peaks of Dunadd, retracing the young Somerled’s steps through the forests and mountains of Ardnamurchan and Morvern, brought the panorama of this 12th-century Norse-Gael saga into focus. Suddenly Somerled mac Gillebride -- clever, passionate, uncompromising Lord of the Isles -- stood with Wallace and the Bruce in the hall of Scottish heroes.
Not by chance had Somerled’s fame and fortune been built on maritime exploits. He was, after all, intrepid sailor and tactician; inspired ship designer and boatwright; and, for a time, undisputed king and ruler of the western seaboard. And, because he rose to become the greatest hero of the Gall-Gaedhil -- those vigorous, tempestuous Norse-Gael descendants of mixed Irish-Viking blood – he needed to be seen and remembered in that context.
A CELTIC CONNECTION
Early in Scotland’s evolution, waves of Irish Celts from Antrim, called Scotti by the Romans, emigrated and secured Dal Riada, which is “Riada’s portion,” and settled in the Scottish West. From the 5th century or before, they ruled their wide sea kingdom from Dunadd, an impenetrable hillfort standing atop a rocky outcrop high above the Kilmartin Glen in Argyll. Over the centuries, challenged and occasionally vanquished by the Picts of the North, these Scotti held their own. It was Kenneth MacAlpin who finally merged the Picto-Scots into a single nation in 843, and it was MacAlpin who, in the face of Viking assaults on the region through the 9th century, eventually shifted his seat of power to Tayside near Perth.
It was Sunday when I reached Kilmartin Village. Since there was no public transport on a Sunday, the obliging local postman Johnnie Stewart, a well-read history buff with a natural antipathy toward all Campbells, drove me out to Dunadd. “Its meaning is ‘fort at the River Add,’” he explained.
En route he told me about the one Campbell that I should get to know – Marion Campbell of Kilberry, writer, archaeologist, and historian, whose inspiring Argyll: the Enduring Heartland had been reissued after nearly twenty years. Her library, he said, was in Kilmartin House next to the Museum of Antiquities, and he was certain that, if I asked, I’d gain entry. The Campbell library was a rare find. And, later that day, the postman-historian put his own copy of Marion Campbell’s book at my door.
Once at Dunadd I climbed to the sacred summit and looked up Kilmartin Glen across the serpentine River Add to the wide heathery expanse of Argyll. I couldn’t resist inserting my right shoe into the footprint sculpted into the “inauguration stone,” while scanning the horizon for a sight of Ben Cruachan. I studied the ogham inscription and the outline of the Pictish boar carved into the rockface. I knew something about the Celtic rite of kingship, but nothing of the ancient mysteries of Dunadd.
At the lonely summit, I came on Julie Watson, a Scots-Australian writing a trilogy based on an early Celtic legend. Not only did Julie know the elusive Somerled, she agreed that he would, in his day, have mounted steep Dunadd and that he would have been heir to a kingship ritual like that practiced here. There was something ironic in exchanging email addresses in an ancient Iron Age fort overlooking a 6,000-year-old linear cemetery.
This Kilmartin Glen of Ghosts with its impressive Neolithic and Bronze-Age stone circles and burial cairns was, in fact, a sacred site long before Dunadd. And, though his lost patrimony lay to the northwest beyond high Cruachan, Somerled assuredly trod this glen and understood its significance to his Dalriadic ancestors.
In an aristocratic warrior-herding society, like that of Celts, where bloodlines were critical to dynastic survival, Somerled had bragging rights going back to the legendary 2nd-century Irish warrior king Conn of the Hundred Battles and the 9th-century Godred mac Fergus mac Erc and the quasi-mythic Dalriadic kings of antiquity. More recently his grandfather Gilladomnan and father Gillebride, who’d both married Norse nobility, ruled as hereditary chieftains in Argyll and the Isles. Somerled was on his Irish side, well born and well connected.
Life was good among the self-sufficient Norse-Gaels of the Highlands and Islands until 1098, when the incorrigible Magnus Bareleg of Norway came west-over-sea with his fleet of 160 galleys to lay waste coast and Isles and exact heavy tribute from the chieftains there. Magnus knew the Isles; he’d been reared in the Hebrides and donned traditional Gaelic dress (hence, “Bareleg”). But he was young and ambitious and merciless.
Though Gilladomnan and Gillebride escaped fire and steel, they lost their ancestral holdings to Magnus’s Norse marauders and scurried from hearth and home carrying what they could. They sought refuge among Irish kin in Ulster who obligingly took them in. They bore exile patiently but, in their hearts, they vowed bloody retribution.
Somerled was thus born in exile in Rostrevor, a coastal settlement in County Down. His father Gillebride, Gaelic aristocracy; his mother a Dublin woman of royal Norse blood. His Norse name “Sumarlidi,” not uncommon in that day, meant simply “summer Viking.” He was Christian, though Norse-Gael Christianity tended to be unorthodox, tinged as it was with belief in signs and omens and lingering devotion to Thor and Oden and other gods of old. He grew to manhood under the protection of the powerful Macmahons and Maguires of Fermanagh and Monaghan. By them and by his Norse-Gael kin, he was well schooled in the arts of combat and naval warfare.
FROM THE SCOURGE OF THE NORSEMEN
Viking aggression in the Highlands and Islands began with a series of lightning hit-and-run attacks on the insular monastic communities – first Lindesfarne in 793, then Iona in 795 -- and followed with frequent assaults on other coastal and island communities. Clearly the pagan Norse found such rich pickings in the monastic centers that they revisited them time and again in quest of silver, gold, livestock, grain, implements, hostages, and slaves.
But the early Norse sea raiders in the Hebrides were men for all seasons. They were practiced sailors who had perfected the craft of ship building; they had designed and constructed fleets of single-sail, clinker-built wooden longboats that could skim the surface of the ocean and venture up shallow rivers in quest of pillage and plunder. Gaelic ships made, as they were, of hides and skins were no match for the sleek, multi-oared galleys of the Ostmen of the North. The raids were devastating and catastrophic.
More than merciless sea raiders, however, the Norse were also a versatile farming and fishing people, but a people without sufficiency to sustain a growing and warring population at home in Norway. They were, by late-8th and 9th centuries, bent on extending their sea kingdom to Orkney, Shetland, and more inviting climes and annexing more arable and pasture lands to the south. They went “a-viking” during late spring and autumn to supplement their living. but, in time, they came to settle and colonize the coastal areas of the Highlands and Islands.
In fact, by mid-9th century, they had already begun to intermarry with the native Gaels, and by 10th century, they were fairly well assimilated. They had converted to Christianity and spoke Gaelic, as well as their native Norse.
Somerled, coming as he did, from this mixed Norse-Gael tradition of warriors and sea kings understood that his mission and vision were defined by that tradition. He resolved to defend Norse-Gaeldom against destructive incursions from the east, where Scottish kings, together with their Anglo-Norman and Flemish minions, had embraced feudalism and crept ever closer to his borders; and from surrounding seas, where the Norse of Norway and Man cast longing eyes on his inheritance.
True, Magnus Bareleg had dealt the Norse-Gael chieftains a near deathblow in his sweeps of 1098 and 1102, but Magnus perished in an ambush in Ireland in 1103. The chieftains would in time regroup and, under their Great Sea-lord Somerled, sever the Viking grip on the Highlands and Islands once and for all.
THE EMERGENCE OF SOMERLED
During the early 1120s, Gillebride and his Irish allies returned to Argyll and fought unsuccessfully to regain the lost territories in Ardnamurchan and Morvern. But eventually, those Irish who survived returned to Ulster empty handed, and the dispirited Gillebride and young Somerled retired to caves on Loch Linnhe in Morvern to rethink their future.
The tide turned suddenly when clan MacInnes on Morvern lost its chieftain and sought Somerled to serve in his place. And, serve he did, proving himself a brilliant strategist and valiant sea warrior. By the 1130s he had not only driven the Norse usurpers out of Argyll and captured their galleys, he’d sailed on Lorn, Knapdale, and Kintyre bringing more of coastal Scotland into his realm. Gillebride, called now “Gillebride of the Cave,” had sired a son in whom he was well pleased.
Retracing Somerled’s undocumented 12th-century movements in Argyll proved a challenge. I ferried first from Oban to Craignure on the Isle of Mull, and from Mull I ferried across from Fishnish to Lochaline. Nearly nine centuries after the luckless Gillebride’s day, would I locate the fabled caves on Loch Linnhe? Would I find the sites or the shadows of Somerled’s early skirmishes?
I used Strontian on Loch Sunart as a base, and met there the devoted archivist and antiquarian George Fox. George was quick off the mark and, with a score of maps and a handful of Gaelic guidebooks, he associated Acharacle, Ardgour, Ardtornish, Glenborrodale, Kinlochaline, Lochaline, and Salen, as well as the surrounding navigable waterways -- Loch Linnhe, Loch Shiel, Loch Sunart, and the Sound of Mull -- with the exploits of the legendary Sea-king. This was, after all, Somerled country, and George Fox was a believer.
The wild, roadless, sparsely-populated glens and rugged mountains of Ardnamurchan and Morvern give way to lochs and rivers where, in the Great Sea-lord’s time, heavily laden galleys plied the waters unhurried and unmenaced. Surely the fortified inlets of these lochs provided safehaven for man and beast, as well as fleets of beached birlinns and nyvaigs. And the history of Somerled’s battle sites is astoundingly memorialized in the ancient placenames – “Ath Tharacaill” (Acharacle), “the ford of Torquil,” the place where the Viking warrior fell under Somerled’s avenging sword; “Glenborrodale,” commemorating the Viking Borodil’s slaughter and another savage killing field. As for Gillebride’s Cave at Loch Linnhe, that had to be left for another day.
LORD OF THE ISLES
By the time of Somerled’s marriage to Ragnhild, daughter of Olaf the Red, King of Man, in 1140, there had been other women in his life. Norse-Gael chieftains, like the Irish, married young and often; still, it was important to marry well. Olaf had reigned nearly fifty years on Man and built enormous good will among Irish kings and Island chieftains, and he had developed an invincible warfleet. Of Somerled he would demand rightful recognition for his daughter. The marriage of Somerled and Ragnhild was, in the world of the Norse-Gael, “terribly significant.”
In fact, there is evidence that Somerled had other children by other women. Gillecolm, his eldest son, was likely born to an Irish woman of the Bissetts in County Down. But Ragnhild bore Somerled three sons – Dugall, Ranald, and Angus -- from whom clans McDonald, McDougall, and McRuairi trace their origins. Her daughter Bethoc became Abbess of the Black Nuns on Iona.
So it was that, from 1140 to 1153, Somerled established a family, built military alliances, extended his influence in the Isles, and steered a cautious middle ground in the convoluted big world of Norse-Scots politics. These were long years of careful preparation – redesigning and building faster, more maneuverable galleys; and training fierce Norse-Gael warbands for inevitable conflict. The question was “Would that conflict come from the Scots on the east or the Norse sea-kings of Norway and Man?”
In 1153 all hell broke loose. David I of Scotland died, and Olaf the Red of Man was assassinated. With the accession of Malcolm IV, 12-year-old grandson of David, called “the Maiden,” there was instability on the Scots mainland. Young Malcolm was not only reared in an English court, he was heavily influenced by land-hungry Norman earls with a healthy antipathy toward things Gaelic. Prospects were not propitious.
Olaf’s beheading on Man that same year at the hands of his three opportunistic Dublin nephews brought violent vengeance on the perpetrators. His son and heir Godred Du (“Godred the Black), returned from Norway via Orkney soon after to seize the moment and the crown. He hanged one Dublin cousin and blinded the others. Then, capitalizing on his father’s name and reputation, he secured Dublin and won a series of successes in Ireland against the Irish kings. But power had gone to his head, and overconfidence would be his undoing.
Over the next several years, Somerled’s brother-in-law Godred so alienated the chieftains of the Isles -- disinheriting some, disgracing others -- that they sought Somerled’s eldest son Dougall to unseat his tyrannical uncle and rule in his stead. The scheme was plausible; after all, Dugall had right of succession through his mother, and his father was not averse to him seizing opportunity when it came his way.
From 1153 Somerled was, however, distracted by events in Scotland and on Man. On both fronts, he’d fanned the flames of rebellion -- first lending support to his nephew Donald mac Heth in a thwarted attempt to topple young Malcolm; then abetting Thorfinn Ottarson, the disgruntled Hebridean claimant to the Dublin kingship and principal mover of Dugall mac Somerled’s cause for lordship of the Isles.
On learning of Thorfinn’s plot and Somerled’s ambition, Godred Du decided to meet the challenge head on. In early January of 1156, he launched an armada of 20 longships and knarrs from Man to an effort to seek and destroy Somerled’s mixed fleet of 80 birlinns and nyvaigs in what was to be a Pyrrhic battle. It took place at Caol Ila in the Sound of Islay on the Feast of the Epiphany.
The epic sea battle raged on through the night with Somerled’s quicker, more maneuverable nyvaigs winning advantage by speed and cunning; and Godred’s larger galleys grappling smaller ships to them and overwhelming the Hebridean warriors aboard by force of numbers. Longbow, war-axe, sword, and spear took a bloody toll on land and sea that fateful day, and the slaughter, that ended in a classic Norse-Gael draw at dawn, had taken the lives of thousands. Though no victory was claimed, it was noted that Godred surrendered suzerainty over the Isles south of Ardnamuchan Point to Somerled and that it was a badly depleted Manx fleet that limped back to the island stronghold of Man.
That was not to be the end of it. Two years after the Battle of the Epiphany, Somerled, bent on breaking Godred’s power once and for all and adding the plunder of Man to his own coffers, mounted a raid on the Island with fleet of 53 ships. Godred’s galleys were hammered off Ramsey, and the devastation that followed was complete. Without prospects, Godred fled now to Norway to seek aid from King Inge in raising an army and building the fleet to regain his lost kingdom.
By 1158 Somerled’s was Rex Insularum, King of the Islands. His dominions covered 25,000 square miles and more then 500 islands. North to south it reached 200 miles from the Butt of Lewis to the Calf of Man. And, though divided by impassable mountains, it was providentially unified by the broad roads of the sea. Somerled would, following the example of his Norse-Gael ancestors, establish fortifications deep in the loughs, where his galleys could be beached and warbands protected.
Getting to Islay, the hub of Somerled’s sea kingdom and the scene of the epic Battle of the Epiphany, took planning. From Kennacraig in Kintyre, I ferried to Port Ellen and settled near the center of the island at Bridgend.
From Port Ellen I could see the Antrim coast and Rathlin, and, for the first time, I understood the significance of these sea lanes and seaways of the West. Somerled moved between Islay and Antrim in two hours’ time, but, using the fastest modern public transport, that same journey took me the best part of two days.
It was in Islay that Somerled came suddenly alive. Michelle Macleod, recently-appointed Director of the New College, “Ionad Chalium Chille Ile,” near Bowmore, is a native-Gaelic-speaking scholar from Lewis who helped explain 12th-century Gaelic and the Norse influences on it. Mick Stewart in Port Ellen offered a local history with intriguing insights into the early Islay stronghold at Dunyvaig and the Christian settlements at Kildalton and Kilbride. And, David MacFadyen, Member of Finlaggan Trust and self-styled semi-retired farmer from Port Charlotte with a passion for archaeology, shared interpretations of ancient Finlaggan and the medieval exploits of the Lords of Isles.
The formidable Somerled was growing by cubits. I learned that he was, because of his station and his access to the monastic seats of learning, reasonably well educated. He would have had some Latin, as well as a rudimentary knowledge of more practical subjects like maths. He would have spoken a Middle Ulster Irish with distinct Norse inflections and very likely used Norse to good effect.
I learned, too, that Dunyvaig, which is “the fort of the nyvaigs,” at the southern point of the Sound of Islay with its snug, sheltered harbor and impressive 14th-century ruin, could not have been ignored by the strategically-minded Lord. And, the 9th-century Kildalton cross, standing sentry on a once-thriving coastal Christian community, as well as nearby insular monastic settlements, like that of Texa, offered testimony to the strength of Christianity and Christian belief well into the Great Sealord’s time.
But Finlaggan, the place of the Council Island and the residence of the Lords of the Isles from the 13th century, was a puzzle. Why would seafaring warriors so dependent on their galleys use an inland loch with an island and a connecting causeway to a crannog as their base of operations for nearly four centuries? Had it something to do with the Dunadd-like footprint on an inauguration stone or the configuration of the monoliths pointing eerily up-valley to the Paps of Jura? Would Somerled, like his descendants, have beached birlinns and nyvaigs at Black Rock on Lock Indaal and marched the short route north into Finlaggan with his retinue to be recognized as lord and chieftain? David MacFadyen thought that a distinct possibility.
Finlaggan was too important and too proximate to the Sound of Islay in the 12th century, to be ignored by the Norse-Gael and their warrior-chief. There “the gatherings” with great feasting and gaming, where skalds and filid rendered sagas and praise poems and musicians entertained, where the spoils of sea raids and tributes were meted out among chieftains over bowls of ale and good wine, were conducted. And, in addition to occasions of revelry and celebration, the more serious business of the Council of Chieftains and the brehons was decided.
Even before 1158, Islay was central to the defense of the Lords of the Isles. Aboard the Feolin ferry from Port Askaig to Jura, I imagined the string of fortifications lining the Sound of Islay north to south -- Caol Ila, “The Narrows,” where Godred lost a kingdom; to Am Fraoch Eilean, “The Heather Isles,” and maybe the source of the famous clan battle cry.
Somerled’s duns predated the medieval stone Hebridean castles – at Mingary, Aros, Ardtornish, Duart, and Dunollie on the Sound Mull; at Sween and Tarbert and Skipness on Knapdale and Kintyre; and at scores of other strategic mustering points strung through Colonsay, Coll, Tiree, and the Isles. Islay and Mull raised 600 to 800 defenders with valiant spears and shields and maybe as many henchmen. The territory was well armed and well fortified.
INCHINNAN AND AFTER
The charismatic Somerled had, by 1160, won full support from the Hebridean chieftains and consolidated the centers of power in his vast sea kingdom, but Argyll, Lorn, Knapdale, Kintyre, and islands of the Lower Clyde were at risk. In the 1130s he had supported his brother-in-law Malcolm mac Heth against David I and later mac Heth’s son Donald against young Malcolm in their bids for the Scottish throne, but by 1156 both mac Heths were languishing in custody in far-off Roxburgh.
The Scottish King Malcolm’s grandfather David respected Somerled; indeed, he had called upon the men of Lorn and the Isles to support him against English Stephen at the Battle of the Standard in 1138. But David, a Canmore offspring, became too preoccupied with managing “Scotland proper” to involve himself in the affairs of Argyll and the Isles. He had introduced Norman and Flemish interests in an effort to Europeanize the realm; and in return for their military service, he bestowed the confiscated estates of less-favored vassals, many of them Gaels, on these newcomers with new ideas. Feudalism had arrived.
Malcolm, at 17 years of age in 1158, was politically astute, and given the history of the mac Heths in Moray, the subterfuges of the wily Fergus of Galloway, and rebelliousness of Somerled in the Isles, he was distrustful of the Gaels. By 1160 he had succeeded in marginalizing the mac Heths and negotiating a separate peace with Fergus and Somerled. Now, he would, by a policy of repression and encroachment, contrive to push the Highlanders and Islesmen into the sea.
What Somerled observed in 1160 was not only a gradual erosion of Gaeldom but a deliberate threat from Norman-Flemish incursions on his borders. By 1161 Fergus was dead in a monastery, and Walter fitz Alan, Lord High Steward of Scotland and progenitor of the House of Stewart, had raised a tower and established a fortified feudal town near Inchinnan at the confluence of the Cart and Clyde. The dye was cast.
Only a decisive, well-planned, preemptive strike against the armies of Malcolm and fitz Alan could reverse the tide. From 1161 Somerled negotiated long and hard with allies and adventurers. Some appreciated the necessity of a show-down with the duplicitous Malcolm and the agents of creeping feudalism; others merely sought fame and fortune in battle honor and plunder.
By 1164, Somerled had amassed a mighty armada of 160 galleys with a complement of more than 4,000 warriors from Argyll, Kintyre, Dublin, and the Hebrides in the Lower Clyde. The fleet sailed confidently round Greenock toward Renfrew and Inchinnan, where, after maneuvering through hidden shoals and sandbanks, it discharged an army of heavily-armed, aketon-clad Norse-Gael warriors.
Advancing on fitz Alan’s tower, they slew thousands and laid waste fields, orchards, and gardens. Then, crossing the Cart Water near the shallows, they began a slow ascent to the knock and the high wooden tower.
Defending Norman archers unleashed a blizzard of arrows to slow the charge, and fitz Alan sent his horsed knights in armor against the struggling but determined Norse-Gael force. Glaswegians, setting a smokescreen of burning heather and furze to mask their small number, appeared on the far-side of the Clyde. And finally Malcolm’s cavalry, arriving at the eleventh hour, charged through the veil of smoke from Clydeside to reinforce fitz Alan.
Somerled, in the first line of attack, was felled by a Lowland spear and slain by a swordsman. There was havoc on the field and in nearby Tuchen Woods as the Gael force retreated now toward the Firth. But fitz Alan’s men cut off their retreat to the shallows and hundreds, including Somerled’s son Gillecolm, drowned as they sought the safety of the galleys. At the end of the day in Inchinnan, Somerled was dead, his coastal lands lost, his dream of a Gaelic resistance in tatters.
The final battle was fought at the meeting of the Clyde and Cart, where the rivers are deep and fast-flowing. Ian Smith, Senior Librarian at Renfrew, directed me first to J.A. Dunn’s History of Renfrew, containing an account of the battle; and then, to Inchinnan and a fenced enclosure protecting a stone associated in lore with the Somerled’s last stand. The embankment near the river crossing where he fell is steep enough to impede even a committed assault; the Norman knights had the advantage. I had journeyed from Islay to Inchinnan to get the lay of the land and to better appreciate the final hour of the Great Sea-lord. I was not disappointed.
REQUIESCAT IN PACE
The remaining question is one that brings in a hung jury. Surely the noble Somerled is buried with the Norse and Irish and Scots kings at Iona. After all, in life he was generous benefactor and defender of Colum Cille’s Holy Isle, and his daughter was Abbess of the Black Nuns’ convent there. Why would he buried elsewhere?
In 1163 Somerled broke faith with the Columban Church, when, after he had approached Bishop O’Brochan of Derry to reestablish the monastery under his rule, the good Bishop declined. Somerled was not pleased. He had an abiding loyalty to the Cistercians who had influenced him in his boyhood and who had, in 1148, accepted his invitation to found a house at Saddle Abbey in Kintyre. Somerled not only fostered the Kintyre monastery over the years and brought grey-robed monks from Mellifont to strengthen its foundation, he passed its care and benefaction to his son Ranald.
Mary Paterson, who has lived all of her 84 years in Campbeltown, told me with the certainty of an octogenarian steeped in local lore, that Lord Somerled of Argyll was indeed buried at Saddell Abbey. She remembered her grandfather telling her how his broken body was borne down the Trail of Death through Skipness in regal torch-light procession accompanied by the mournful wail of the pipes. As a chieftain of chieftains, his wake and funeral had lasted eight days and eight nights.
In fact, there is good reason to believe Mary Paterson’s recollection that Somerled is interred among Mellifont abbots in the sanctuary of Saddell rather than with the mix of kings at Iona. Saddell was his and it was more to his liking. In its tranquility, it preserves the aura of ancient Gaelic respectability.
If Somerled paid tribute to kings of Scotland and Norway and occasionally acknowledged their suzerainty over his divided kingdom, he never groveled and he never lost faith. He ruled with impunity, resolving even before that last day at Inchinnan, to win all or lose all. In the end, he was the resilient and indomitable Sea-king and warrior who brought the Viking Age to a close and who led the Gaelic revival in the Highlands and the Islands.
The wake of Somerled ebbs at Saddell Abbey. I sit now in the shadows of Campbeltown harbour, watching the small fishing fleet closing in on the pier. It has been nearly eight and half centuries since Lord Somerled’s galleys plied these waters and, safe to say, his like will not come again. It remains now only to cross back to Carlingford Lough, where it all began, but to cross back the richer for the experience in living history.
Squib: Dan Casey (BA, MS, MA, PhD) has taught Irish Studies in Britain, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, and the U.S. He has published more than 150 books, monographs, articles, and reviews, in addition to fiction and poetry, and is currently writing a filmscript based on the life and exploits of the Great Sea-Lord.
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