Battle of Renfrew

Battle of Renfrew

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Renfrew

partof=Scottish internal conflicts
date=around 1164
place=Renfrew, Scotland
result=Royal Victory
combatant1=Supporters of King Malcolm IV of Scotland
combatant2=Norse-Gaelic Islesmen
commander1=possibly Walter FitzAlan
casualties2= ?|
The Battle of Renfrew in 1164 was a significant engagement between the Scottish crown and Somerled, the Gaelic king of the Hebrides, which saw the death and defeat of the latter. The sources give no explanation for Somerled's actions, but his offensive is best seen against the background of his own role in a conservative Gaelic world and the steady western expansion of the Scottish feudal state.

omerled's Offensive

In growing to manhood Malcolm IV, Scotland's young king, was proving to be an aggressive and capable monarch. He was ready, like Somerled himself, to seize any opportunity to consolidate his power. Galloway was taken in 1161. Two years later Moray came under attack. This represented a steady expansion of royal power outwards towards the semi-independent Norse-Gaelic fringes of the kingdom. Worst of all, from Somerled's point of view, the Norman-French family of FitzAlan, now the High Stewards of Scotland, were starting to push feudal power to the shores of the Firth of Clyde, with their headquarters at Renfrew, dangerously close to his own domains in Argyll and the Western Isles. Not wishing to share the fate of Galloway or Moray it would appear that Somerled launched his own pre-emptive attack.

Battle at Renfrew

Somerled's army came from all parts of the west, including Kintyre, the Hebrides, Argyll and even a party of Vikings from Dublin. It was carried to the shores of Renfrewshire, according to the sources, in an armada of 160 ships. We have no information on the opposition the Islemen met, or who was in command; it is possible that it was a body of feudal knights under the command of Walter FitzAlan, the High Steward himself. In the battle that followed Somerled, one of his sons by the name of Gillabrigte, and many others were slain, before the survivors escaped back to the ships. They contest is dramatically described in the hostile "Carmen de Morte Sumerlidi";

"Hear a marvel! To the terrible, the battle was terrible. Heather and furze-bushes moving their heads; burning thyme and branches; brambles and ferns, caused panic, appearing to the enemy as soldiers. Never in this life had such miracles been heard. Shadows of tyme and smoke were bulwarks of defence. And in the first cleft of battle the baleful leader fell. Wounded by a javelin, slain by a sword, Somerled died. And the raging wave swallowed his son, and the wounded of many thousand fugitives; because when this fierce leader was struck down, the wicked took to flight; and very many were slaughtered, both on sea and on land."

We might obtain clues to the actual course of the Battle of Renfrew if we project forward to King Haakon's campaign in the Clyde estuary a hundred years later. This showed the limits of a seaborne infantry force when faced with knights prepared to attack from good defensive positions. Somerled's men were simply not used to this style of warfare, and appear to have been overwhelmed in a relatively short space of time. It is clearly a tribute to the power of the armoured warrior that Ranald, Somerled's son, later had a seal made with a galley on one side and a knight on the other.

Later Macdonald tradition insists that Somerled was not killed in battle, but was assassinated by his nephew or page-it is not clear which-whereupon his army, in dismay, fled back to their ships. This requires us to reject all contemporary or near contemporary sources, Manx, Scots and Irish, some of them hostile but not all. Moreover, it is difficult to see what advantage these annalists hoped to gain by hiding the true facts. The assassination theory emerged considerably later, at a time when the historians of Clan Donald were anxious to present a slightly different picture of their great ancestor. Soon after the execution of the Marquess of Argyll for treason in May 1661 his son, Lord Lorne wrote a letter defending the record of Clan Campbell as champions of the crown back to the days of Somerled. In possible response to this Somerled is given a makeover in the "Book of Clanranald" as a man of peace out to subdue the king's enemies, as much a parody of the truth as the Campbell letter. Acceptance of the accounts given in the "Book of Clanranald" and Hugh MacDonald's "History of the Macdonalds", also involves acceptance of the corollary: that the Islemen were so cowardly or panic stricken that they ran away, abandoning the body of their greatest leader.

Where Somerled is buried is also a matter of debate. The authors of "Clan Donald", a late nineteenth century history of the family, maintain that it was always clan tradition that he was buried at Saddell abbey in Kintyre, in clear contradiction to Hugh MacDonald, who says that he was buried on Iona. The connection between Somerled and Saddell is extremely tenuous, resting on no firmer foundation than a reference in a thirteenth-century list of Cistercian houses to a 'Sconedale', seemingly in existence in 1160. But all documentary references to Saddell confirm that it was founded by Ranald MacSorley, Somerled's eldest son and successor. Moreover, it appears not to have been completed until the early years of the thirteenth century-suggesting 1190 as the date of foundation rather than 1160-forty years after Somerled's death. There is, however, a deeper point to be considered here: Somerled was the leading representative of a conservative Celtic tradition, who had tried, unsuccessfully, to restore the full dignity of the Columbian church. It would seem more fitting that he was buried among his ancestors, Norse and Gael, on Iona, rather than with the French Cistercians.

Westward Ho

The defeat of the Islemen at the Battle of Renfrew might have formed a prelude to a more sustained offensive by the Scots, but Malcolm probably lacked the necessary naval power; he also risked antagonising the kingdom of Norway, still the nominal ruling power in the Hebrides. At the very least Walter FitzAlan must have been rewarded for his services-or those of his vassals-by some kind of territorial grant, possibly the island of Bute. In any case Somerled's attempt to stop the westward expansion of the Stewarts was a failure. By 1200 the family were firmly established on Bute, beginning the construction of Rothesay Castle not long after. Their further expansion was to embrace the Isle of Arran and eventually Kintyre itself.


Documentary and Narrative

* Anderson, A. O. ed., "Early Sources of Scottish History", 1922.
* "Argyll Family Letters," Maitland Club, 1839.
* "The Book of Clanranald", in Reliquae Celticae, vol. 2, ed. A. MacBain and J. Kennedy, 1894.
* "The Chronicles of Mann and the Sudries," ed. and trans. P. A. Munch, 1874.
* MacDonald, Hugh, "History of the Macdonalds", in Highland papers vol. 1, 1914.


* Brown A. L. "The Cistercian Abbey of Saddell, Kintyre", in the Innes Review, vol. 20 1969.
* Duncan, A. A. M. and Brown, A. L., "Argyll and the Isles in the earlier Middle Ages," in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 90 1956-7.
* MacDonald, A & A, "Clan Donald", 1896-1904.
* McDonald, R. A., "The Death and Burial of Somerled of Argyll," in West Highland Notes and Queries, 1991.
* McDonald, R. A., "The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland's Western Seaboard, 1100-c1336", 1997.

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