Alasdair MacColla, d.1647

Gaelic clansman who energized the Marquis of Montrose's campaign in Scotland through his efforts to recover MacDonald lands from the Campbells

The third son of Col MacGillespie and Mary MacDonald, his father claimed the chieftaincy of the southern branch of the fragmented MacDonald clan, whose lands in western Scotland were taken over by the Campbells during the early years of the 17th century. MacColla went into exile among his relatives the MacDonnels of Antrim in Ireland after the Earl of Argyll, chief of the Campbells, imprisoned his father and brothers in 1638.

On the outbreak of the Irish Uprising in October 1641, MacColla enlisted as a captain in a regiment raised in Antrim against the rebellion, but in January 1642 he defected to the Catholic rebels. The MacDonnel territories in Antrim were occupied by Covenanter forces from Scotland and in June 1642, MacColla was badly wounded at the battle of Glenmaquin in County Donegal. He attempted to negotiate with the Scottish commander Lord Leven in the hope of regaining MacDonald lands in Scotland but the negotiations came to nothing.

In 1644, Randall MacDonnel, Earl of Antrim, appointed MacColla commander of a force of Irish Confederates sent to fight the Covenanters in Scotland on behalf of King Charles. MacColla landed in western Scotland with 1,600 men of the Irish Brigade in July 1644. He marched through the Highlands terrorising the Campbell clan and joined forces with the King's deputy the Marquis of Montrose at Blair Atholl at the end of August. Montrose built an army of Highlanders around the nucleus of MacColla's veteran Confederates and won a string of spectacular victories against the Covenanters during 1644 and '45.

MacColla played a major role in Montrose's campaigns, but his priority was the recovery of former MacDonald lands from the Campbells rather than the defeat of the King's enemies. After the victory at Inverlochy in February 1645, which broke the power of the Campbells in the Highlands, MacColla refused to march south towards England with Montrose, preferring to remain in the north to guard against any resurgence of Campbell power.

MacColla did not rejoin Montrose after his defeat at Philiphaugh in September 1645 and remained in arms after the King had ordered all Royalist forces in Scotland to disband. He refused to surrender the lands he had seized in Argyllshire and continued to terrorise the Campbells, being responsible for an infamous massacre known as the "Barn of Bones" when he ordered the burning of a barn holding a number of Campbell prisoners, including women and children. MacColla remained in the Highlands until May 1647 when the Marquis of Argyll mounted a determined campaign that succeeded in driving him out.

MacColla returned to Ireland where his plans to raise further forces to continue his campaign in Scotland were thwarted by the intensification of the Confederate War. He joined the Confederate army of Munster as lieutenant-general to Viscount Taaffe but was taken prisoner and shot after the disastrous battle of Knocknanuss on 13 November 1647. MacColla became a folk hero of Gaelic legend, celebrated for his great strength and prowess in battle.


David Stevenson, Alasdair MacColla, Oxford DNB, 2004