Alasdair Mac Colla

Alasdair Mac Colla Chiotaich MacDhòmhnaill (c. 1610 – 13 November 1647), also known by the English variant of his name Sir Alexander MacDonald, was a military officer best known for his participation in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, notably the Irish Confederate Wars and Montrose's Royalist campaign in Scotland during 1644-5. A member of the Gaelic gentry of the Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg, a branch of the Clan Donald active in the Hebrides and Ireland, Mac Colla is particularly notable for the very large number of oral traditions and legends which his life inspired in the Highlands.[1]


Alasdair Mac Colla Chiotaich MacDhòmhnaill
Other name(s)Alexander MacDonald
Nickname(s)Fear thollaidh nan tighean ("The destroyer of houses")
Colonsay, Hebrides, Scotland
Died1647 (aged 3637)
Battle of Knocknanuss, County Cork, Ireland
Clonmeen, County Cork, Ireland
Allegiance Kingdom of Ireland (1641-1642)
Confederate Ireland (1642-1647)
Scottish Royalists (1644-1646)
Years of service1641-1647
RankMajor general
Battles/warsWars of the Three Kingdoms
Spouse(s)Elizabeth MacAlister
RelationsColl Ciotach (father)

During Montrose's campaign of 1644-5, in which the Royalist army won a series of remarkable victories, Mac Colla was given a knighthood. He died in 1647 in Ireland at the Battle of Knocknanuss.


His full name can be translated from Scottish Gaelic as 'Alexander the son of Coll the Left-Handed MacDonald'. Gaelic speakers, preferring the patronymic system, generally referred to him as Alasdair MacColla; English and Scots language speakers generally used the form Alexander MacDonald or MacColl. Mac Colla himself would have used both English and Gaelic forms: the three surviving examples of his signature, all in English language documents, use "Allexander Macdonell".[2]

English-speaking writers of the past, not understanding the Gaelic patronymic and sloinneadh (genealogical descent) systems, often referred to him as "Collkitto",[3] an anglicised spelling of Coll Ciotach, a nickname properly belonging to his father, Coll Macdonald. Ciotach, "left-handed", can also mean "devious" in Gaelic.


Early life

Mac Colla was born on the Inner Hebridean Isle of Colonsay in the early seventeenth century. His early life encompassed both Gaelic Ireland and the Gaelic western Highlands of Scotland.

His father Coll, the Laird of Colonsay, was a descendant of the 5th chief of Clan Donald South, or MacDonald of Dunnyveg. This branch of the Clan Donald had historically claimed ownership of land both in the western Scottish islands and, following the 1399 marriage of Irish heiress Margery Byset into the family, in County Antrim, north-eastern Ireland. Alasdair's mother Mary, according to some traditions, was a daughter of Campbell of Auchinbreck, but has also been suggested to be one of the O'Cahans of Dunseverick, a daughter of Macdonald of Sanda, a daughter of Macneil of Barra, or a daughter of Ranald MacDonald of Smerby, the latter being the tradition favoured on Colonsay.[4]

Mac Colla was born into a period in which the Clan Donald's regional power and influence had waned. This was partly due to the incorporation of the Lordship of the Isles by the Scottish crown, but also due to the growing power of the chiefs of the rival Clan Campbell, and there was ongoing conflict between the two clans during the period.[5] Mac Colla's career would, despite the larger context of the Scottish and Irish wars, therefore become defined by an effort to counter Campbell expansionism, and particularly to recover Islay and other lost MacDonald possessions.[5] This enmity was deepened by religious factors. The Campbells were Presbyterians, whereas the MacDonalds, among whom a mission of the Order of Friars Minor had settled, were largely Catholics. Mac Colla's father Coll Chiotaich in particular is sometimes described as a recent convert from Protestantism and enthusiastic supporter of the Catholic Church, though he in fact appears to have embraced the faith long before the missionaries first appeared in 1623.[6]

Civil War in Ireland and Scotland

Mac Colla's military career was prompted by the onset of the long and interlinked series of conflicts known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. During the conflict most of the various branches of Clan Donald, spread over northwestern Scotland and northeastern Ireland, sided with the royalist Cavaliers and with Confederate Ireland. Their rivals for regional power, the Campbells under their chief Argyll, sided with the Scottish government, then controlled by the Presbyterian Covenanters.

At the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Mac Colla was in Ulster, where his kinsman the Marquess of Antrim still held large estates in the Glens of Antrim. Antrim had taken an interest in the growing crisis in Scottish politics, sensing an opportunity to assist the interests of King Charles I and potentially to recover his family's traditional lands in Scotland.[7] He initially remained broadly neutral in the Irish rebellion, raising a mixed Protestant and Catholic force to protect settlers against the rebels and engaging his relative Mac Colla to serve as an officer. As religious tensions grew, some Catholic officers claimed there was a Protestant plot to massacre them, and early in 1642 Mac Colla defected openly to the rebels along with a number of others.[8] He quickly became involved in fighting the Laggan Army of Sir Robert Stewart in east Ulster, as part of the army of Sir Felim O'Neill of Kinard, and was present at several actions including the Siege of Coleraine. Mac Colla was wounded at the Battle of Glenmaquin in June 1642, and late in the year he broke with the rebels, seeking terms with Scottish forces under Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven.[9] Although he subsequently rejoined the rebel side, Mac Colla appears not to have been given military command for around a year, until in late 1643 he returned to the Hebrides as part of an expeditionary force against the Covenanters, who were by this point in alliance with the English Parliamentarians.[9] It was reported that Mac Colla had landed with 300 men, and that his brother Ranald was following with reinforcements. The head of the Scottish government, the Marquess of Argyll, eventually dispatched a force of 600 under James Campbell of Ardkinglas, and Mac Colla's rebels were driven back to Ireland, with a small remaining garrison on Rathlin Island being defeated by June 1644.[10]

The campaign in Scotland, 1644-5

In 1644, Antrim recommended Mac Colla to the Supreme Council of Confederate Ireland to lead an expedition to the mainland of Scotland to aid the Royalist forces there against the Covenanters. He was given three regiments, comprising around 1600 largely Irish soldiers. Some appear to have been Ulstermen recruited from the Marquess of Antrim's estates,[11] though many of the Irish were (according to the chronicler John Spalding of Aberdeen) "expert soldiers"[12] who were recruited from Spanish service in West Flanders, and one company (Sgt-Major Ledwytch's) appears to have been a unit of English-descended Palesmen.[13] Alongside the Irish, three companies of Hebridean Scots were constituted as Mac Colla's personal lifeguard. Spalding noted that Mac Colla's men wore a coat and trews and wore a twist of oats pinned to their bonnets and caps as a badge.[14]

Mac Colla's force landed in the Ardnamurchan peninsula in July 1644,[15] attacking Mingarry Castle. It initially fought its way through Argyll, settling its commander's private scores with Clan Campbell, but by August Mac Colla, who was by then in danger of being surrounded by hostile forces, was finally able to link up with the King's Lieutenant, James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose. The support of Montrose raised the standing of Mac Colla amongst the Highland clans, who to some extent looked down on him both as an island outsider and as a landless member of the gentry rather than the ancient nobility they were accustomed to follow.[16] Mac Colla had been able to raise an additional 1500 soldiers from among his Clan Donald kinsmen, such as Clan MacDonald of Keppoch, Glengarry and Sleat: the Royal commission enabled him to raise additional recruits from other anti-Campbell Scottish clans including a group of men under Donald Robertson, the Tutor of Struan.

In the following campaign, Mac Colla and Montrose won a series of often dramatic victories at Tippermuir, Aberdeen, Inverlochy, Auldearn, Alford and Kilsyth,[17] in which the Royalist forces were generally outnumbered. While traditional historiography tended to emphasise Montrose's tactical genius, some more recent studies, notably the work of Prof. D. Stevenson, give Mac Colla a substantial share of the tactical credit for some of the victories. Oral history and Gaelic-language poetry also gave Mac Colla a central role in events, and preserved stories such as his supposed beheading of the opposing commander Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck at Inverlochy. After Kilsyth, Montrose, acting on the orders of King Charles, conferred knighthood on Mac Colla and raised him to the rank of Major-General.[18]

During the campaign Mac Colla took the opportunity to pillage the Campbell lands, ordering the burning of houses and barns and carrying off livestock. His troops' actions during the winter of 1644-5 earned him the byname fear thollaidh nan tighean, the "destroyer [lit: piercer] of houses" amongst the Argyll peasantry. An account of the campaign sent to Dublin, possibly written by Mac Colla himself or by one of his colonels James Macdonnell, stated that "throughout all Argyle, we left neither house nor hold unburned, nor corn nor cattle that belonged to the whole name of Campbell".[19] For a time much of Scotland was in fear of his progress, with one contemporary observer writing: "There is nothing heard now up and down the kingdom but alarms and rumores, randevouses of clans [...] Montross and MacKoll in every manes mouth, nay the very children frightened".[20] Whilst the military contribution of the Irish troops and Highlanders to the Royalist campaign was undeniable, it is arguable that the aftermath of several of their actions, particularly the three-day plunder of Aberdeen by the victorious troops, seriously harmed the Royalist cause, and it is likely that at least some accounts of Mac Colla's depredations were Parliamentarian propaganda.

In the Highlands, 1645-7

Mac Colla and Montrose ultimately parted company as Mac Colla's priorities, focused on regaining Macdonald possessions from the Campbells, lay in the western Highlands, whereas Montrose wanted to secure the Scottish Lowlands for the King. As a result, both were defeated separately by the Covenanters. Those of the Irish troops who had stayed with Montrose under Colonel Manus O'Cahan were massacred, after being promised quarter, subsequent to the Battle of Philiphaugh in September 1645, and after a brief guerrilla campaign Montrose was ordered to lay down his arms by King Charles.

Mac Colla, with the remaining Irish and clansmen, ignored Charles's orders and continued the conflict in the western Highlands, allegedly refusing cooperation with a remaining Royalist force under George Gordon, 2nd Marquess of Huntly, who still held out in the north.[21] He went on to win a further victory against the Campbells at Lagganmore, following which he was said to have burned down a building full of Campbell women and children that was henceforth known as Sabhal nan Cnamh, the "Barn of Bones". The campaign petered out in a series of sieges of castles in Kintyre, and Mac Colla was eventually defeated at the Battle of Rhunahaorine Moss in May 1647, escaping with most of his troops to the Isle of Gigha and then to Islay. Leaving small garrisons of Highlanders at Dunaverty and at Dunyvaig on Islay, the latter under his father Coll, he then returned to Antrim along with most of his men. His brother Archibald (Gilleasbuig) was killed at the Siege of Skipness Castle in August 1646.

Influence on military tactics

Mac Colla has been credited with inventing or refining the tactic of the Highland charge, which came to be a feature of several battles of the following century. In an attack, his men ran at enemy infantry, stopped to fire a coordinated volley from their muskets at close range, and then threw down their firearms and closed hand to hand at speed.[22] This proved remarkably successful in both Ireland and Scotland due to the musket's slow reloading time, the effectiveness of a single mass volley against the usual "rolling fire" of contemporary musket drill, and the poor discipline and training of many of the troops Mac Colla's men faced. Time and again the Covenanter infantry broke, ran, and were cut down when facing a coordinated charge by Montrose and Mac Colla's soldiers. Stevenson has suggested that Mac Colla first introduced the tactic from Ireland, refining it with the addition of a musket volley at a range of 25–55 metres, after which his men would advance obscured by the dense smoke from their own firearms.[23]

Past historiography often presented the charge as a direct descendant of an older Gaelic mode of warfare, which relied on shock attacks by an elite of heavily armed troops to break an enemy's line.[24] However, despite the popular image of Mac Colla's troops being equipped and fighting in a purely 'Highland' fashion, the majority of men in his Irish regiments, at least, were experienced veterans of the Spanish Army of Flanders and equipped conventionally with pike and musket.[25] It has even been suggested that rather than being a development of a traditional 'Gaelic' or Highland tactic, the charge could have been inspired by similar Swedish musket tactics of the Thirty Years War, a conflict some of Mac Colla's veterans would have known,[26] or could have simply been an energetic version of a standard 17th century practice of "falling-on" after discharging weapons.[27]

It appears that not all observers were impressed with Mac Colla's military skill: the Scottish professional soldier Sir James Turner, another veteran of the Thirty Years War, judged him to be "nae soljer, tho stout enough",[25] and accused him of being "excessivelie besotted with brandie and aquavitae".[28]

Defeat and death

Mac Colla's father Coll Ciotach, who was again taken prisoner at Dunyvaig, was killed in retaliation for his son's atrocities in the Campbell country. Mac Colla himself rejoined the Irish Confederates: he initially made plans to lead his veteran troops to Spain into the service of Philip IV,[29] though in the event nothing came of the proposal. He also made an attempt to join the Ulster army of Owen Roe O'Neill, but was forbidden from doing so by the Marquess of Antrim, who was by then on bad terms with O'Neill.[30]

Mac Colla's troops, (both Irish survivors of the 1644 expedition and "redshanks", or Scottish Highlanders) were split up and assigned to the Leinster and Munster armies: Mac Colla was attached to the latter with the rank of Lieutenant-General. He was initially appointed governor of Clonmel, mounting a successful defence of the town.[30] Mac Colla's men were, however, mostly killed in the Confederate defeats at the Battle of Dungan's Hill in County Meath and then at the battle of Cnoc na nOs (Knocknanuss, "Hill of the Deer") in County Cork. Alasdair Mac Colla himself, under the command of Viscount Taaffe, was killed by English Roundheads at Knocknanuss, while retreating or in some accounts after he had been taken prisoner. A ford on the River Awbeg in Rathmaher townland, still known in the 19th century as the "Chieftain's Ford", was said locally to be the place of his death: descendants of the man who killed him, an officer called "Samuells", were still supposed to live in the area at the time.[31] Another tradition stated that he was killed at the same spot by Major Nicholas Purdon of Ballyclough.[32]

Mac Colla was thought to have been buried in the now ruined church of Clonmeen, County Cork, near the village of Banteer, in one of the tombs of the O'Callaghan family, then of Clonmeen Castle and later of Clonmeen Lodge. The family's head Donough O'Callahan was at the time a member of the Council of the Irish Confederacy. The vault is supposed to be under the church's north wall, against which a monument was placed in 2011 by a local historical society. His famous long sword, which was said to be unusual in both size and design, was still to be seen at nearby Lohort Castle as late as the early 1800s, but has since disappeared.


He married Elizabeth MacAlister, daughter of Hector MacAlister and Margaret Campbell and they had three sons:

  • Coll, who married Anne Magee, died on 25 March 1719.
  • Gill'Easbuig Mór, who married Anne Steward, died in 1720.
  • A third son about whom little has been recorded.

After Alasdair's death the family settled at Kilmore House, Glenariffe, in Co. Antrim. Four generations later Alasdair's great-great-grandson Dr. James McDonnell (1763-1845), sometimes known as the "father of Belfast medicine", founded the Medical School now located in Queens University, as well as establishing a hospital that at a later stage became the Royal Victoria Hospital.[33] A later descendant of the family is the SDLP politician Alasdair McDonnell.|[34]


After his death, Mac Colla became a figure of minor folklore in Gaelic Ireland and Scotland, with songs and melodies written in his honour in both countries, and many stories entering the oral tradition of the western Highlands and Hebrides, particularly in districts inhabited by the MacDonalds. These stories depicted him as an immensely strong man, 7 feet tall, of conspicuous bravery and swordsmanship. Rather than as a historic source, the tales are best regarded as an Early Modern equivalent of the heroic cycles of earlier Gaelic tradition.[35] Of those stories that can be related to historical events, most appear to refer to events during the 1646 campaign in Kintyre.[36]

Even less dramatic contemporary descriptions give Mac Colla's height as over 6 feet, with a targe "as big as a door" (though this may be a misunderstanding of the bardic phrase "door of battle" meaning a shield or targe, a metaphor for their plied wood construction).

Mac Colla appears in And No Quarter, a 1937 novel by Irish author Maurice Walsh, which covers the Royalist campaign in Scotland of 1644-1645, told from the perspective of two members of O'Cahan's regiment.

He is commemorated in the Scottish Gaelic poetry of Iain Lom and Dorothy Brown (Diorbhail Nic a' Bhriuthainn). Ian Lom in particular, as a Macdonald of Keppoch, was concerned to frame Mac Colla's victories as part of a specifically Gaelic military effort against the traditional enemies of Clan Donald, ignoring the wider Civil War context and the contribution of Montrose.[37]

In Ireland he was remembered by a piece of traditional music from or near the period named “Marsial Alasdair” (aka “Alasdair's March" or ”MacAlasdrum's March" and several other names in various spellings), supposed variously to be the tune played by Alasdair's pipers en route to the battle, and / or as the march played to his grave afterwards. It appears to be related to the style of Gaelic art music now known as "piobaireachd" (piping) or more correctly as "ceol mor" (big music). There are a number of interesting variations, including a jig.

Another tune associated with him is "Bas Alasdair" (Death of Alasdair), a majestic and moving harp dirge of the ancient style of Gaelic "high art" harping that was soon to be lost.

This was recorded and annotated by at least the 18th century, and a version occurs in one of Captain Francis O'Neill's books ("Irish Folk Music, A Fascinating Hobby") Ann Heymann, the harpist and folklorist, has recorded a set consisting of the air “Bas Alasdair” and “Marsial Alasadair” that dates from the mid seventeenth century and is still performed.

Alasdair Mac Colla

Another song which praises the deeds of Alasdair and date from the period is a Scottish Gaelic waulking song "Alasdair Mhic Colla Ghasda" ("Alasdair, Son Of Gallant Coll).

This song may have originally been taken from a bardic "brosnachadh" (battle incitement) or praise poem, judging from certain bardic qualities seen in it, such as the "ceangal" (tying or binding) wherein the last line of the a verse becomes the first line of the next.

The song has been recorded numerous times, and appears on the following albums:

Gol na mBan san Ár

"Gol na mBan san Ár" ("Lament of the Women in the Massacre") was composed in memory of MacColla and his female followers. The song has been recorded under many names.


  1. See Matheson, Traditions of Alasdair Mac Colla in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, v5 (1958), 9
  2. Stevenson (1980) Alasdair MacColla and the Highland Problem in the Seventeenth Century, p.3
  3. "Alaster MacDonald (Alasdair Mac Colla, "Colkitto")..." in Scott, Sir Walter (1995). A Legend of the Wars of Montrose. Edinburgh University Press. p. 256. ISBN 074860572X.
  4. Byrne, Colkitto!, 1997, p.45
  5. Harris and Macdonald, Scotland: the making and unmaking of a nation, v2, 2007, pp.99-100
  6. Stevenson, Alasdair MacColla and the highland problem in the seventeenth century, 1980, p.43
  7. Stevenson, Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates, 2005, p.22
  8. Stevenson, Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates, 2005, p.100
  9. Bennett (ed) Historical Dictionary of the British and Irish Civil Wars 1637-1660 2016, p.181
  10. Stevenson, Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates, p.166
  11. Macinnes, "Scottish Gaeldom, 1638-1651: The Vernacular Response to the Covenanting Dynamic" in Dwyer (ed) New perspectives on the politics and culture of early modern Scotland, 1982, p.73
  12. Spalding, History of the Troubles And Memorable Transactions in Scotland, from the year 1624 to 1645, v2, p.215
  13. Manus O'Cahan's Regiment, Scotwars. 19-09-16
  14. Spalding, p.239. "This lieutenant was clad in coat and trews, as the Irishes were clad; ilk ane had in his cap or bonnet a rip of oats, whilk was his sign, our town's people began to wear the like in their bonnets, and to knit them to the knocks of our yetts, but it was little safeguard to us, albeit we used the same for a protection."
  15. Lenihan, Conquest and Resistance: War in Seventeenth-Century Ireland, 2000, p.65
  16. Manning, An Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army 1585-1702, p.252
  17. Young, D. "Invasions: Scotland and Ireland 1641-1691" in Lenihan (ed) Conquest and Resistance: War in Seventeenth-Century Ireland, 2000, p.67
  18. Buchan, John (1928). Montrose: A History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin: The Riverside Press. p. 247.
  19. Campbell of Airds, A. The History of Clan Campbell, 2000, p.220
  20. Stevenson, Alasdair MacColla and the Highland problem in the seventeenth century, 1980, p.166
  21. Stevenson, Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates, p.186
  22. Young, 2000, p.68
  23. Pittock, Culloden: Great Battles, OUP, p.5
  24. Hill, J. M. "Chapter 6 : Gaelic Warfare 1453-1815" in Black, . European Warfare, 1450-1815 London: Macmillan Press. pp. 201–224.
  25. Barratt, Cavalier Generals, 2004, p.194
  26. See Grosjean, "Scotland: Sweden’s closest ally?" in Murdoch (ed.) Scotland and the Thirty Years War 1618-1648,2001, p.158
  27. Atkin, M. Worcester 1651, 2004, p.41
  28. Turner, Memoirs, p.238
  29. Worthington, Scots in Habsburg Service: 1618 - 1648, p.129
  30. Stevenson ,Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates, p.188
  31. Ordnance Survey of Ireland, noted in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society v.XXII (1915), 225
  32. Byrne (1997), p.191
  33. "James McDonnell (1763 - 1845)". Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  34. Queen's University Belfast|Behind Alasdair McDonnell's tough political bruiser image is family man whose wife and children fervently believe he can overcome SDLP leadership challenge, Belfast Telegraph, 10-11-2015
  35. MacAonghuis (ed). Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, 2006, p.60
  36. Stevenson, 1980, p.220
  37. Young, Conquest and resistance: war in seventeenth century Ireland, 2000, p.74
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