June 9


Clans and Battles

Hello my wonderful readers,

‘Clann’ comes from the Gaelic word meaning children. Clans were considered family, and its members claimed kinship through the name of the common ancestor they had. Even the poorest clansman considered himself nobler than any southerner. 

For centuries, the English held no authority over the Highland clans, which helped them escape punishment and bloody wars between those brawny Highlanders and the English (except for the battle of Culloden, a tragic moment in the History of the Highlands…). 

However, just because they didn’t fight with the English all the time, doesn’t mean that there weren't any battles between the clans. What were the bloodiest battles in the Highlands, and between which clans?

Let’s find out!

Massacre and Cathedral Cave of Eigg. Image source.

The Eigg Massacre

Scotland’s Massacre Cave, on the isle of Eigg, has a harrowing history that even the most hardened man would tremble when hearing it.

Noted for its
abnormally narrow entrance, the Cave of Francis or ‘Uamh Fhraing’ in Scots Gaelic as it was known back then, was at the forefront of one of Scotland’s bloodiest mass murders. Around 400 islanders from Clan MacDonald (almost all of the island’s population) were burned and suffocated alive by members of Clan MacLeod from Skye, a grim result of an ongoing clan rivalry.

This was a revenge plan. Before that, the MacLeods ended up on an island off Eigg, stealing cattle and taking the women of the MacDonald clan. As revenge, the MacDonalds shipped the MacLeods off to the sea, and broke the bones of the clan chief’s son, setting him off in a boat without oars, to perish. His dead body sailed back to Dunvecan. Thus, Laird MacLeod ordered his men to return of Eigg, and finish what was started.

The MacDonalds sought refuge in the Cave of Francis, where they hid for 3 days. Camouflaged in its surroundings, the cave’s slither of an entrance helped conceal their whereabouts. It also led to their demise.

Left outsmarted, the MacLeod men couldn’t see a soul in sight apart from one female elder, who refused to divulge any clues as to the whereabouts of the other islanders.

But then, the most tragic thing happened. A MacDonald lookout gave the game away and was spotted by the sea-bound MacLeods of Skye. Returning to Eigg, the MacLeod warriors stuffed the entrance of the cave with heather and other materials, and set it alight. 400 members of the MacDonald clan suffocated in that small cave that turned into their grave.

Bony remains kept surfacing in the Massacre Cave centuries after the genocide. Historian Camille Dressler told the BBC that Victorian tourists would take pieces as souvenirs, before islanders insisted that the bones be buried.

Battle of the Spoiling Dyke. Image source: wikipedia.

Battle of the Spoiling Dyke

The Battle of the Spoiling Dyke (also known as the Battle of the Spoiled Dyke, Blar Milleadh a’ Ghàraidh, Millegearaidh) was a Scottish clan battle that took place in 1578, fought between the MacDonalds of Uist and the Clan MacLeod.

But why did this battle start?

You see, the MacDonalds were seeking revenge for the massacre of several of their clan members, on the isle of Eigg, one year earlier. Early one morning on a Sunday, they slipped onto the bay of Ardmore in May 1578.

Finding people worshipping in Trumpan (aka Kinlonan) Church, they barred the doors of the church before setting fire to the thatched roof. No one escaped alive, except for one girl, who ran to raise the alarm.

On hearing the news, the chief of the clan immediately set sail, returning to the scene of the atrocity armed with the clan talisman, the
Fairy Flag of the MacLeods.

In the battle that followed the MacDonalds were slaughtered completely. Their bodies were then buried in a turf dyke, earning the encounter its name “the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke”.

Battle of Altimarlach. Image source.

The Battle of Altimarlach

A battle that was not between the MacLeods and MacDonalds, the battle of Altimarlach was the last significant battle between Scottish clans before they were taken over by the English.

On the 13th of July, 1680, the Sinclairs, under the command of George Sinclair of Keiss, took on the Campbells led by Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, fighting over the right to the Girnigoe Estates in Caithness.

In 1676, George Sinclair, the 6th Earl of Caithness died without an outright heir, and both Glenorchy and Keiss believed that they were entitled to inherit the estate.

The army, believed to be 800 strong, marched on on the 12th of July and reached the Hill of Yarrows, which was known for a long time as Torran nan Gael – the Highlanders Hill. From there Campbell and his men had a great view of the surrounding area. Whilst on the hill, a thick mist descended, and Campbell decided to take this opportunity to advance on Wick. However, the mist lifted as he was heading down, and the alarm was promptly raised by the Sinclair forces in the town.

The battle ended in a decisive
victory for Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, and it is generally viewed as a humiliating defeat for the Sinclairs. Legend claims that so many Sinclairs were killed or drowned in the river that the Campbells were able to cross without getting their feet wet.

It is estimated that Sinclair lost around 300 men in the battle, whilst Campbell saw few from his side killed, and those that did die were buried where a commemorative cross now stands.

It is awful to see our favorite Highlanders die against each other, but I guess that was life back then…

Which one do you think was the bloodiest? Do you know any other battles between clans?

Let me know in the comments!

Until next time…
Written by
Maddie MacKenna


Articles, Scottish Romance

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  • I’d love to know who the Clan Gordon had battles with if any. This was fun to read. Thank you for all your fun lessons on highland life.


  • That is crazy, but I’ve read a lot books about druids in some of the books I read, they could be brutal,if they ever were there, I’m not sure they were there, they would fight over anything, I don’t think it is better in certain area’s today.


  • Once again Maddie, thanks so .much for sharing such an interesting and informative article on the history of the Scottish Clans and their terrible battles that they fought against each other. I would call the Eigg massacre as one of the worst battles; but it sounds as if all of them were terrible. It is a shame that the people of Scotland didn’t have someone they could have trusted to help mediate their differences and helped them to find more peaceful solutions to their problems and grievances. I can’t help but notice the similarities between the clans of Scotland and the Native American people of North America. If they had all found a way to overcome their differences and unite together against their common enemy; history would have taken a very different direction, no doubt. Their infighting amongst themselves and inability to come together when it was critical, I believe led each group of people to their downfall. Your articles are always so interesting as well as informative; I really look forward each week to reading them. Please. keep them coming!


  • Such anger & intolerance by each of the clans was perhaps exhibited by the despicable massacres of the people in the Eigg massacre & the Battle of Spoiling Dyke which was premeditated killing of some members of one clan by another clan. The clans were separate entities & were not united before the Battle of Culloden, fighting each other over land, cattle & women. It was seen as honourable to take revenge for a wrong done unto them, a wrong perceived by the clan affected. It took much effort on the part of such leaders as William Wallace to unite the clans against the common enemy, England where they were fighting for their independence as a separate nation from England.


    • That is quite true, Irene! Unfortunately, clans remained separated until the very last moment, which resulted in their destruction 🙁


  • Thank you for your article. I always find Scottish and Irish history very interesting, due to my husband’s ancestry are from those areas. I have read many stories involving the many wars through the centuries. Now with the map above it is even more amazing more weren’t fought what with the stories told, true or false, of the clashes among the clans and the big battles to keep their country true to the Scots.


    • Thank you Barb! We are glad you liked it!
      That is quite true. Some clans had alliances, some others fought a lot. Those were the Highlands… 😉


  • I don’t know about the worse one but they do like to fight.First agains each others,than agains the British.After,they joined them and came to fight here in Quebec Canada again the French .I guess it’s in their blood.


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