Battle of Lochaber

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Battle of Lochaber
Part of the Scottish clan wars
Lochaber (district).PNG
Historic district of Lochaber
Date23? June 1429
Lochaber area of western Scotland
grid reference NM97Coordinates: 57°N 5°W / 57°N 5°W / 57; -5
Result Royalist victory
Scotland Clan MacDonald
Clan Cameron
Clan Mackintosh
Commanders and leaders
James I of Scotland[1] Alexander of Islay, Earl of Ross
Donald Dubh Cameron
Unknown Unknown
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown

The Battle of Lochaber was a battle fought in 1429, in the Scottish Highlands, between the forces of Alexander of Islay, Earl of Ross, 3rd Lord of the Isles and chief of Clan Donald against the Royalist army of King James I of Scotland.

It is known as the Battle of Split Allegiances among the Camerons. This is explained either by the fact that they deserted when faced with the prospect of supporting their feudal lord against their king, or that different factions in the clan lined up on both sides.


Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany took effective control of the north of Scotland towards the end of the reign of his father Robert II, and his power increased during the reign (1390–1406) of his ineffective elder brother Robert III. He then became regent whilst James I was held captive in England. After Albany's death in 1420, the Scots paid a ransom to release James. James returned in 1424 determined to bring his kingdom to heel; one of his first acts was to execute most of Albany's heirs. Albany's grandson James Mór rebelled, attacking Dumbarton and killing the King's uncle John Stewart of Dundonald, but was driven into exile in Ireland[2] and died in 1429.[3]

Throughout the 15th century the Lords of the Isles attempted to increase their influence over the mainland of Scotland at the expense of the Scottish kings in Edinburgh. In particular, the second Lord, Donald claimed the Earldom of Ross through his marriage to Mariota (Margaret), Countess of Ross. He tried to seize this vast territory by force in 1411, but this fizzled out at the Battle of Harlaw near Inverurie. Margaret's niece Euphemia inherited the title in 1402 but was persuaded in 1415 to resign it in favour of Albany's son John Stewart, Earl of Buchan.

Margaret ignored the transfer and claimed that she had inherited the title on Euphemia's death in 1424, whilst Buchan's death the same year gave his first cousin King James a "highly dubious claim"[3] to the title. However, in 1424 James confirmed Margaret as Countess of Ross.[1] In 1429 Margaret died and her son Alexander, 3rd Lord of the Isles claimed the title by inheritance from his mother.

James called a Parliament at Inverness Castle in late August 1428,[4] at which Alexander, Margaret and 'nearly all the notable men of the north' were arrested.[5] One theory is that James wanted to replace Alexander with his uncle John Mór as Lord of the Isles, but he was forced to release Alexander either as a result of John's death in 1429[6] or as a precondition set by John before he would negotiate. Some sources say Alexander was imprisoned for a few weeks,[2] others say for a year; three other chiefs were executed.[7]


This leads to the suggestion that John's son Donald Balloch stirred up rebellion in 1429 to avenge his father's death.[3] However Alexander will have wanted to make a show of force in Ross following his wife's death, and his imprisonment in Inverness gave him a particular reason to take revenge on that town. His great-nephew's Raid on Ross in 1491 provides a possible template – capture the garrison at Inverness, then head north to ravage the lands of royalist sympathisers in Ross.

Tradition has it that Alexander led an army of "upwards of 10,000 men".[8] While this may well be an exaggeration by the chroniclers, the events at the Inverness Parliament appear to have forged an unusual coalition between clans such as the Camerons and the Chattan Confederation (Clan Mackintosh), who had been feuding for over a century. However, the islanders failed to secure help from England, which would have made the revolt much more serious for James.[3]

It seems that Alexander marched up the Great Glen to Inverness, where he burnt the city and besieged the castle,[7] but failed to capture it.[2] Without the logistics to support such a great army for long in the field, he seems to have started heading back for home in the west. The King gathered an army and set off in pursuit.[2]


The Royalists appear to have caught the clansmen by surprise on a moor[8] or "marshy ground"[9] somewhere in Lochaber, the district around Fort William at the western end of the Great Glen. The exact location is not known, and there is also some uncertainty about the date of the battle. Traditionally it was on 23 June 1429, the "vigil" (i.e. day before) of the feast day of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist[8] but some modern sources say 26 June.[9]

Faced by the Royalist forces, the Camerons under Donald Dubh defected from their feudal overlord to the Crown.[9] Another theory is that the MacMartin Camerons went over to the King but not the Camerons of Lochiel, hence the Camerons know this battle as the "Battle of Split Allegiances".[10] The Mackintoshes also switched sides.[9] History does not record whether these changes of mind required inducements from James. However, soon afterwards the King gave the Mackintoshes lands in Lochaber belonging to Alexander's uncle, Alexander of Lochalsh.[1]

After this loss of manpower, Alexander was either defeated in battle[2] or fled without a fight.


Tantallon Castle, home to Alexander's second captivity.

Alexander escaped to the islands[2] and his first attempt to sue for peace was refused.[11] So he went secretly to Edinburgh and dressed only in his shirt and drawers,[11] he handed over his sword to James in the royal church of Holyrood Abbey on 28 August[12] (or in early 1430[2]). The Queen was impressed by his humility and pleaded for his life so Alexander was imprisoned again, this time in Tantallon Castle.[2]

He was released in November 1431, after the collapse of Donald Balloch's rebellion in that year.[13] After the death of the Earl of Mar in 1435, James accepted Alexander's position in Ross and allowed him control of Inverness.[3]

One theory holds that the battle of Lochaber was a defining moment in the early history of the Clan Cameron, at that time it was more a confederation than a homogenous clan and the MacMartins' defection reflected this. In this view of history, the MacMartins were punished for their treachery by the Camerons of Lochiel, such that the MacMartin chiefs were driven into exile and the Lochiel faction took control of the clan. Donald Dubh appears to have supported James in his defeat at the Battle of Inverlochy in 1431[14] and the Cameron lands were ravaged afterwards. When Alexander was released, he took further vengeance on the clan he viewed as traitors, driving Donald Dubh into exile and giving the Cameron lands in Lochiel to John Garve Maclean of Coll.[14]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Adam, Frank (1934), The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, p. 68, ISBN 978-1-4179-8076-5 republished in 2004 by Kessinger Publishing (ISBN 9781417980765) with a foreword by Thomas Innes
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Henry, Robert; Laing, Malcolm (1814), The history of Great Britain: from the first invasion by the Romans under Julius Caesar. Written on a new plan (5 ed.), Cadell and Davies, pp. 312–6
  3. ^ a b c d e Barrell, Andrew D. M. (2000), Medieval Scotland, Cambridge University Press, p. 217, ISBN 978-0-521-58602-3
  4. ^ Some sources (based on the Scotichronicon?) say 1427, but they may be confused with the Perth Parliament of 1427, the RPS would appear definitive on this point.
  5. ^ Brown, K.M.; et al., eds. (2007–2009), The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 A1428/8/1, University of St Andrews, retrieved 19 April 2009
  6. ^ Brown, M. (1994), James I, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 97–101 – cited by Barrell (2000), who notes that the traditional timeline has John Mor dead by 1427.
  7. ^ a b Anderson, John; Fraser Lovat, Simon (1825), Historical account of the family of Frisel or Fraser, particularly Fraser of Lovat: embracing various notices, illustrative of national customs and manners, with original correspondence of Simon, lord Lovat, &c, Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, p. 59
  8. ^ a b c Fraser-Mackintosh, Charles (1875), Invernessiana, contributions towards a history of the town and parish of Inverness from 1150 to 1699, p. 106
  9. ^ a b c d Jaques, Tony (2007), Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: F-O, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 593, ISBN 978-0-313-33536-5
  10. ^ "The Battle of Split Allegiances". Clan Cameron Association. Archived from the original on 2 May 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2009.
  11. ^ a b Clarke, Benjamin (1852), The British gazetteer, political, commercial, ecclesiastical, and historical: showing the distances of each place from London and Derby—gentlemen's seats—populations ... &c. : illustrated by a full set of county maps, with all the railways accurately laid down v2, H.G. Collins, p. 315
  12. ^ Sadler, John (2005), Border fury: England and Scotland at war, 1296–1568, Pearson Education, p. 324, ISBN 978-0-582-77293-9
  13. ^ Arnold-Baker, Charles (2001), The companion to British history, Routledge, p. 718, ISBN 978-0-415-18583-7
  14. ^ a b Gregory, Donald (1836), History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland, from A.D. 1493 to A.D. 1625: With a Brief Introductory Sketch, from A.D. 80 to A.D. 1493, W. Tait, pp. 75–6