The Battle at the Red Ford
History's fascination is how tiny events, insignificant in themselves,
can change a nation's destiny. The Battle at the Red Ford, for
example, was at first sight just a minor clan skirmish in a remote Argyllshire
glen. Yet the end result has lasted to this present day.
It began in the late 13th century when the MacDougalls were the rising
force on Scotland's western seaboard. Their huge fleet of galleys
commanded the seas while their castles of Dunollie and Dunstaffnage
controlled the mainland. Their name mhic Dhugaill came from Dubh-Gall -
Black Strangers, or Norsemen, for their progenitor was Somerled the mighty,
son of Gilliebride, sub-king of Argyll, who claimed descent from both
Harold Harddrada, King of Norway, and Fergus mor mhic, King of Dalriada.
Somerled led an uprising against the Norsemen who ruled the West Coast
in the mid-12th century, and removed them from Lochaber, Morvern
and north Argyll. But he knew he could not hold his conquest
against the might of Viking sea power, and proposed marriage to Ragnhilda,
daughter of olaf the Red, Norwegian King of the Isles and of Man. Her
father refused, seeking a more suitable suitor.
Somerled had his shipwright swim unseen to Olaf's moored galley, bore
holes in the hull underwater, and fill them with tallow. When Olaf's
galley put to sea the tallow gave way as it rounded Ardnamurchan Point, and
the boat began to sink. Somerled's galley was carefully positioned
nearby but he refused assistance until Olaf agreed his marriage to
Ragnhilda. Thus Somerled gained control of all the western seaboard.
Somerled had two sons, Dugall and Reginald. His younger son
Reginald inherited Islay, Kintyre and part of Arran, and founded clan
Donald. The eldest son Dugall was granted the islands of Mull, Coll, Tiree,
Jura and part of Lorn and was the founder of the clan Dougall. He was
of mixed Celtic-Norse royal blood and thus the MacDougall coat of arms
portrays both the Dalriadic royal lion and the Hebridean royal galley.
The third MacDougall chief was Eoghan or Ewen of Argyll, King of the
Hebrides and Lord of Lorn (the patronymic Mhic Dhughaill only came into use at a
lated date), whom King Alexander III described as "a very comely
knight". Ewen was in a difficult position, being a vassal of the
King of Scots for his mainland possessions and a vassal of the King of
Norway for the Islands. Indeed, his possessions in the Western
Isles were still part of Norwegian Archbishopric of Trondheim.
He tried to remain loyal both to the decaying Norwegian empire and the
expanding Kingdom of mainland Scotland. Ewen refused to join him
and Hakon, grudgingly admiring his loyalty to two masters, allowed him
to stay. But shortly afterwards, Ewen did make his decision and
attacked part of the Viking fleet off mull when it was setting sail south.
The Vikings were defeated at the Battle of Largs in Ayrshire in 1263
and this setback signalled the end of Norse domination.
MacDougall power was now at its peak for their huge fleet of swift
birlinns or galleys, each holding 40 men, effectively controlled the west coast
of Scotland. Ewen died in 1265 and was succeeded by Alexander who
was "the greatest of the twelve lords" appointed to rule Argyll when it
became a shire in292. In the year 1294 this all-powerful clan was
challenged in its overlordship of Lorn by the irresistible rise of the
small clan Duibhne or Diarmid, based around Loch Awe, whose
headquarters was a square stone fortification on the islet of Innis Chonnell.
They were led by ambitious Caileaan Mor - Big Colin - whose father
Gillespic had been nicknamed Cam-beul, from his twisted or wry mouth.
Gillespic was perhaps of norman descent, or some say of the Brittonic royal
house, and had married Eva O'Duine, heiress of Pol an Sporain O'Duine, the
King's Purse Bearer, who held the lands around Loch Awe. Pol O'Duine
claimed descent from the Hero Diarmid O'Duine, slayer of the great Boar of
Caledon, who was of the royal Houses of Darriada and Pictland.
Cailean Mor had been gradually pushing the boundaries of his lands
farther west until the exasperated MacDougalls decided enough was enough.
Eoin Bacach, Lame John, the strong-willed son of the MacDougall chief,
led the clan to war to settle matters once and for all with this
upstart young clan. The MacDougalls clad in the raven winged helmets,
chain mail, and short swords of their Viking ancestors, carried with them a
crystal ball brought back from the Holy Land and renowned for its magical
MacDougall of Rarey the Captain of the Clan, halted at the west end of
Loch Scammadale and passed the charm around to his men to ascertain who
was likely to die. There was considerable muttering and a sort
of pass-the-parcel began with each warrior trying to pass the stone on
quickly to the next. Eventually, the charm appeared to select three times
a certain man who was thereupon sent back to Dunollie with instructions
to follow to the coast, and avoid the enemy. He arrived safely,
but one cannot escape one's geas for he ran into the Cam-beuls, or
Campbells, on his return and was killed.
The MacDougalls continued but as they were passing Loch Scaammadale the
charm leapt from the sporran of the bearer into the loch. This
was taken as such a bad omen that MacDougall of Rarey refused to go any
farther and returned home with his men. The probable explanation for this
supernatural event was the reluctance of the bearer, who probably flung
the charm into the waters himself to avoid the inevitable fight.
The depleted MacDougalls in their Viking armour met the
Campbells, probably clad in saffron tunics rendered iron hard with fulmars'
grease, and armed with bull hide targets and long cross-hilted swords, at the
Streing (Pass) of Lorn between Lochs Avich and Scammadale at the
allt-a-chomhlachaidh - the Burn of Meeting.
The matter of boundaries, and who had the overlordship over the lands
of the Cam-beuls, began initially as a discussion between Big Colin and
Lame John which degenerated into verbal abuse, and thereafter to
war. There was dreadful slaughter on both sides until the burn ran red with
the blood which had been shed and the place became known as Ath Dearg,
the Red Ford, because one could cross the swollen stream on the bodies
of the dead.
The outnumbered MacDougalls seemed likely to be cut down to a man until
a MacDougall archer crept up beside a large boulder and fired an arrow
which killed Cailean Mor. This stopped the battle and Colin's
followers sorrowfully bore his body away. The place where Colin fell is
still marked by a pile of stones called Carn Cailean, Colin's cairn.
Nearby is the burial ground where the dead of both sides were buried but this
is now covered by the remains of ancient shielings.
Nearby, too, is Tom-a-phiobair - The Piper's Hillock - where a Campbell
piper played throughout the battle. He was saddened to see the
MacDougall piper fall, and composed a pipe tune in memory of a renowned fellow
musician, for amongst pipers there are no boundaries.
Mo dhiath! mo dhiath! gun tri lamhan
My loss! My loss! that I have not three hands
Da laim's a'phiob is lamh's a chlaidheamh.
Two engaged with the pipe and one with the sword.
Mo dhiath! mo dhiath! gun tri lamhan
My loss! My loss! that I have not three hands,
Da laim's a'phiob is lamh's a chlaidheamh
Two engaged with the pipe and one with the sword.
Mo dhiath! mo dhiath! n a shineadh thall ud
My loss! my loss! low lies yonder
Macdughaill's a'phiob's bu mhin leam sgal orr.
MacDougall with his pipe, whose sound was soft and sweet to me.
Alas, this so greatly
angered the departing Campbell clansmen, who realized it was not one of
their own tunes, that they chopped off his chanter-playing fingers with
The body of Cailean Mor was carried to the church of St. Peter the
Deacon at Kilchrenan on the Loch Awe side and buried there. The exact
burial place is unknown but in 1866 the then Duke of Argyll had a 14th century
gravestone slab inserted in the gable of the present church of 1771,
with a plaque below.
The fledgling Clan Campbell came off worst that day in 1294. The
MacDougalls confirmed their overlordship over Campbell
lands. But the twists of fate are peculiar. The chieftainship of the
Campbells passed to Colin's 24 year old son Neil who became the first Mhic
Cailean Mhor the son of the great Colin, which became henceforth
the patronymic of the Chiefs of the Clan Campbell. He had been
educated at the High School of Dundee, where one of his classmates had been a
young man from Renfrewshire called William Wallace.
In 1297 Wallace came to him seeking assistance. He had joined an
uprising against English domination and led an army of common
people. Would Neil join him? A deal was struck that Wallace would first
of all help Neil recover his lands and then Neil would assist him.
The MacDougalls were pushed back and the Campbells joined Wallace for the
decisive battle of Stirling Bridge. But then came Fallkirk and Wallace's
defeat and the English regained domination. Neil Campbell was forced
into hiding, and his small clan was scattered.
Eight years later, Robert the Bruce killed the Red Comyn in Dumfries'
Greyfriars Monastery and thus began the final chapter in the long War of
Independence. It so happened the Red Comyn was the nephew of Alexander of Argyll,
Lord of Lorn, the 4th MacDougall chief, who had no option but to join a
blood feud, and threw the entire might of the MacDougalls against Bruce,
almost capturing him at Dalrigh near Tyndrum. In Scotland kith and kin
always ranked higher than politics.
Neil Campbell promptly called out his clan to support the cause of
Robert the Bruce. It must be said the Campbells would probably
have chosen whoever was on the opposite side to the MacDougalls.
Clan Campbell and Bruce's army fell upon the MacDougalls at the Pass of
Brander near Taynuilt in the autumn of 1308, and annihilated
them. The burial cairns of the dead can be seen across the River Awe
hydroelectric barrage. Sir Alexander of Lorn reluctantly gave allegiance to
Bruce although his Comyn wife glared her hatred. They were exiled to
Gylen Castle on the island of Kerrera. Their son, Lame John, escaped
and renewed his allegiance to Edward II, and in 1311 was created English
Admiral of the Western Seas.
After the Battle of Bannochburn the MacDougalls forfeited most of their
mainland possessions which were granted to Sir Neil Campbell, although
it was not until 1318 that Lame John MacDougall and his galleys were
finally destroyed by combined fleets of King Robert and Angus Og MacDonald of
Neil Campbell married Marjory Bruce, the king's sister, setting aside his first wife
to do so, and so began Clan Campbell's inexorable and irrresistible
rise to overlordship of Argyll and the western seaboard and at one point of
But as I have already said, the twists of history are peculiar.
Supposing instead the MacDougalls had sided with Wallace and Bruce as did their
kin clan the MacDonalds, and the small clan Campbell, nurturing its hatred
against them, had thrown in its lot with the Comyns and the
English, and thereby had been extinguished to become simply a mention in some
Today, tourists might flock to visit magnificent Dunollie Castle in
Oban, instead of Inverary, and be greeted by mhic Dhughaill, the Duke of
Lorn. The MacDougalls and the MacDonalds might have formed a Celtic
power bloc on the West Coast, stretching from Mull of Kintyre to the tip of
Harris, so powerful as to alter history. We can only guess. Perhaps
no Flodden; perhaps no bigoted religious civil wars of the 17th
century; perhaps no Massacre of Glencoe; perhaps no Culloden.
That's why I believe the Battle at the Red Ford at the Streing of Lorn,
insignificant as it was at the time, probably altered Scotland's
destiny, and the history of the United Kingdom.
The Scots Magazine
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