Home History Somerled Brings Disaster to the Kingdom of the Isles

Somerled Brings Disaster to the Kingdom of the Isles

by Bernadette Weyde

The constitutional framework of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles set up by Godred Crovan in 1079 was seriously impaired by his grand-daughter’s husband Somerled, less than a century later.

Soon after the accession of Olaf I, son of Godred Crovan (1113-1153) we hear of this military figure called Somerled who dwelt on the mainland of Argyllshire. Olaf had a daughter named Ragnhild, who married Somerled, which event, according to the Chronicle (the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles), ‘proved the total ruin of the Kingdom of the Isles…For she bore four sons, Dugald, Reginald, Angus and Olaf.’

A deal of fanciful romance has been woven by Scottish storytellers about Somerled, his supposed ancestry and descendants; but probably the first authentic event known about his life was his fateful marriage. He was ambitious and had a strong personality, and, by his persistence, he became ruler of Argyll. To judge from his name he was of Norse descent from ‘sumardlidi’; ‘summer sailors,’ a name applied to Vikings who marauded in the summertime.

The fact that Somerled had, in 1140, married Ragnhild, would appear to have encouraged him in his predatory design on capturing a portion of his father-in-law’s kingdom; and, after some treacherous actions, he eventually succeeded in securing Mull and Islay, and eventually usurping the throne of Man for the space of six years – from 1158 to 1164.

Following a peaceful reign of forty years, our King Olaf I was murdered at Ramsey by his nephews, the sons of Harald his brother, who had been brought up in Dublin. The story of the murder is graphically told by the Chronicle. It appeared the youths demanded from Olaf no less than half the kingdom of the Isles. They were encouraged and helped too by several disaffected Manx chieftans. Olaf, wished to appease them, said he would consider their claim, and agreed to meet them with his advisers.

On the day appointed both parties met at the port called Ramsa (Ramsey) and sat down one by one, the King with his followers on one side, and they with their accomplices on the other. Reginald, who was to give the fatal blow, stood in the middle, talking to one of the chiefs of the land. When called to come to the King, he turned as if to salute him, and lifting high his gleaming battle axe, with one stroke cut off the King’s head.

The murderers had sufficient military force with them to hold their own for a time. Whilst this tragic incident occurred at Ramsey, Prince Godred, the eldest son and heir of Olaf, was at Oslo in Norway, doing homage on behalf of his father to King Ingi. He returned home without delay and being received with joy by the Manxmen as their rightful King, he promptly apprehended and executed his own cousins.

These events occurred in 1152 when Godred began to reign. The Chronicler makes the rather irritating remark, ‘We could narrate many worthy things of him which brevity compels us to omit,’ and then goes on to say that in the third year of his reign ‘the people of Dublin invited him to become their King.’ He was thus led into wars in Ireland in which he was very successful. He was so proud of his military exploits that when he returned to Man he dismissed all the chiefs of the Isles who had accompanies him in the expedition.

Seeing himself now secure in his Kingdom,’ says the Chronicle, ‘and none able to oppose him, he began to be tyrannical to his army and to his chiefs.’

Among the most powerful of these was Thorfin, the son of Otter, and he secretly set about creating a plot with Somerled which ultimately altered the future of Manx history. Thorfin proposed to Somerled that he should place his eldest son Dugald, whose mother was Ragnhild, King Godred’s sister, on the throne of the Isles.

Somerled gladly embraced the treacherous proposal and delivered up Dugald to Thorfin’s care. Thorfin accordingly took the young prince and conducting him through certain of the Isles, induced the people to acknowledge him for their sovereign, and to give hostages for their allegiance. A powerful chieftain named Paul, hurried to Godred and acquainted him with the intended revolution. Godred instantly got ready his ships and sailed to meet the enemy.

In the meantime Somerled was not idle. He collected a fleet of eighty galleys and prepared for combat. A sea battle was fought between Godred and Somerled during the night of Epiphany, 1156, with great slaughter on both sides. Next morning, however, they came to a compromise and Somerled was given the two groups of the isles of Islay and Mull, those that were nearest to Argyll, Somerled’s headquarters.

Not conent with this amicable arrangement, Somerled, two years later, invaded the Isle of Man – presumably at Ramsey – with a large fleet of fifty-three ships, gave battle to Godred and defeated him. After saying that Godred passed over to Norway for help, the Chronicle tells that he ‘also besought assistance against Somerled from Saint Maughold.’

(source: Island Heritage by William Cubbon (1952); photograph/artwork from Thor News http://bit.ly/2K2hQhT)

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