We are unsure about the culture and language (or languages) of the west coast and islands of Scotland before the 5th century when they were settled by Gaels from Ireland. Invasion by Norwegian Vikings from the 8th century added another cultural layer and the name Innse Gall – ‘Islands of the Foreigners’ – came into Gaelic speech. In 1156, Somerled seized large areas of the west coast and islands from Viking rule and began a dynasty that in time became the Gaelic ‘Lordship of the Isles’.
Following the Scottish Wars of Independence, Angus Og MacDonald’s close allegiance to Bruce led to his family receiving extensive west coast lands and islands. His son, John, become the first of the Lords of the Isles – Dominus Insularum – a title that sought to establish his status, essentially as his forebear Somerled had been, as Rí Innse Gall – an island king.
These regal aspirations led to tensions between succeeding generations of Lords of the Isles and Kings of Scotland. In 1411 John’s son, Donald, seized Inverness Castle with a force of 6,000 men, as part of a campaign to secure more land (this ended at the battle of Harlaw, in Aberdeenshire). This was thought to be a prelude to placing himself on the throne instead of James I, at that point a long-term captive of the English king.
Alexander, Donald’s son, was Lord at the time of James’ release from custody and there ensued a series of battles, imprisonments, and subsequent releases between the two men. This included James’ seizing Alexander at Inverness Castle, and Alexander’s later return to burn the royal burgh of Inverness and lay siege to the castle. These exchanges led to an eventual strengthening of the Lordship as it gained the lands of Ross.
The Lordship of the Isles can be viewed as a confident expression of Highland political uniqueness, a semi-independent, wide-ranging body that existed and operated independently of the Scottish or English states until it was annexed in 1493. Gaelic language and culture remained central in the region for centuries after the Lordship ended, but commercial and social change was convulsive throughout the period from then until the battle of Culloden two and a half centuries later.