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Alasdair Mac Colla

Alasdair Mac Colla (c. 1610–1647) was a Scottish soldier. His full name in Scottish Gaelic was Alasdair Mac Colla Chiotaich Mac Domhnuill (English: Alasdair the son of Colla the Left-handed MacDonald). He is sometimes mistakenly referred to in English as "Collkitto",[1] a nickname that properly belongs to his father. He fought in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, most notably in Scotland, where he became a knight. He died at the Battle of Knocknanauss in 1647.


  • Biography 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Civil War in Ireland and Scotland 1.2
    • Defeat and death 1.3
  • Family 2
  • Commemoration 3
    • Alasdair Mac Colla 3.1
    • Gol na mBan san Ár 3.2
  • Notes 4
  • External links 5


Early life

Mac Colla was born on the Inner Hebridean Isle of Colonsay in the early seventeenth century into Clan Donald. His early life encompassed both Gaelic Ireland and the Gaelic western Highlands of Scotland - as the MacDonalds had a presence in both countries. Like his father, Colla, Alasdair made his name as a soldier, being particularly noted for his use of a Scots broadsword called the claymore. In his young days, he saw fighting against the Campbell clan, with whom the MacDonalds had a long running feud over territory and power. This enmity was deepened by religious factors. The Campbells were Presbyterians, whereas the MacDonalds, among whom a Franciscan mission had settled, were Catholics.

Civil War in Ireland and Scotland

However, Mac Colla really came to prominence with the onset of the conflict known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The MacDonald clan, which was spread over northwestern Scotland and northeastern Ireland, sided with the Royalists and Irish Confederates. Their deadly enemies, the Clan Campbell, sided with the Scottish Covenanters. Early in the war, Mac Colla was forced to flee the Western Isles, which were attacked by a Covenanter/Campbell force. Colla, his father was taken prisoner by the Campbells. On the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Mac Colla found himself in Antrim, under the command of Randal MacDonald, the chief of the Irish MacDonalds. Mac Colla, who was a Catholic, quickly became involved in fighting the Protestant settlers in east Ulster such as the 1642 Siege of Coleraine. He was implicated in some massacres of Protestant civilians, but also scored some notable military victories. However he was defeated and wounded in an attack on Lurgan. He was rescued by Dónall Geimhleach Ó Catháin. The Scottish Covenanters landed an army in Ulster and initially drove the Irish Catholic forces out of the eastern part of the province. Leaving East Antrim intending to march to Kilkenny they engaged the Irish Catholic forces in Ulster and were routed with the survivors fleeing back to East Antrim where they remained, taking no further part in the Confederate Wars.

In 1644, he was selected by the Supreme Council of Confederate Ireland to lead an expedition to Scotland to aid the Royalists there against the Covenanters. He was given a command of 1500-2000 men, mostly from Ulster. When in Scotland, Mac Colla linked up with the Royalist James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose. He was also able to raise men among his MacDonald clansmen and other anti-Campbell Scottish clans. In the subsequent Scottish Civil War, Mac Colla and Montrose won a series of victories at the battles of Tippermuir, Aberdeen, Inverlochy, Auldearn, Alford and Kilsyth. After Kilsyth, Montrose conferred knighthood on Mac Colla.[2] Mac Colla also took the opportunity to pillage the Campbell lands, killing all the men he could find there. In an alleged incident in Argyllshire, Mac Colla is said to have burned down a building full of Campbell women and children becoming known as the "Barn of Bones". However, Alasdir and Montrose parted company because Mac Colla's priorities lay in the western Highlands, whereas Montrose wanted to secure the Lowlands and ultimately England for the Royalist cause. As a result, both of them were defeated separately by the Covenanters in 1646.

Mac Colla has been credited with inventing the tactic of the Highland charge in the Civil Wars, although at this stage it was known as the Irish charge - where his men ran at enemy infantry, fired a volley at close range and then closed hand to hand. This proved remarkably effective in both Ireland and Scotland, due to the musket's slow reloading time and the poor discipline and training of many of the troops Mac Colla's men faced.

Defeat and death

Mac Colla's father, who was a prisoner of the Campbells, was killed in retaliation for his son's atrocities in the Campbell country. Mac Colla himself retreated to Kintyre and then to Ireland with his family, where he re-joined the Irish Confederates in 1647. His troops, (both Irish survivors of the 1644 expedition and Scottish Highlanders) were split up and assigned to the Leinster and Munster armies, with Mac Colla attached to the latter. Mac Colla's men were mostly killed in the Confederate defeats at the Battle of Dungan's Hill in County Meath and then at the Battle of Knocknanauss in County Cork. Alasdair Mac Colla himself was killed by English Parliamentarian soldiers at Knocknanauss after he had been taken prisoner.


He married Elizabeth MacAlister, daughter of Hector MacAlister and Margaret Campbell and they had three sons:

  • Coll, who married Anne Magee, died on 25 March 1719.
  • Gill'Easbuig Mór, who married Anne Steward, died in 1720.
  • A third son about whom little has been recorded.

After Alasdair's death the family settled at Kilmore House "Ballenluig" Glenariffe in Co. Antrim. Four generations later Alasdair's great great grandson Dr. James McDonnell rose to fame as the "Father" of BELFAST Medicine founding the Medical School now located in Queens University as well as establishing a Hospital that at a later stage became "The Royal Victoria Hospital"


After his death, Mac Colla became a figure of minor folklore in Gaelic Ireland and Scotland, with songs and melodies written in his honour in both countries. He is commemorated in the Scottish Gaelic poetry of Iain Lom MacDonald and in Ireland by a piece of traditional music named Mac Colla's March or Alasdair Mac Colla that dates from the mid seventeenth century and is still performed.

Alasdair Mac Colla

Sometimes known as 'Alasdair Mhic Colla Ghasda', this Scots Gaelic waulking song has been recorded numerous times. It appears on the following notable albums:

Gol na mBan san Ár

Gol na mBan san Ár (English: Lament of the Women in the Massacre) was composed in memory of MacColla and his female followers. The song has been recorded under many names.


  1. ^ "Alaster MacDonald (Alasdair Mac Colla, "Colkitto")..." in Scott, Sir Walter (1995). A Legend of the Wars of Montrose. Edinburgh University Press. p. 256.  
  2. ^ Buchan, John (1928). Montrose: A History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin: The Riverside Press. p. 247. 

External links

  • Alasdair Mac Colla - song lyrics with translation
  • Gol na mBan san Ár - sheet music
  • "Alasdair Mhic Colla Ghasda " on YouTube
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