A figure of Gaelic folklore, Alasdair the son of Colla the Left-handed MacDonald was born into Clan Donald around 1610 on the island of Colonsay in the Outer Hebrides. As Clan Donald was spread across them, Mac Colla had experience of both the Scottish Highlands and Islands and the Gaeltacht of Ireland. A soldier like his father, and being particularly renowned for his expertise with the claymore, his youth was taken up with the perpetual conflict between the Presbyterian Covenanter Campbells and the Catholic MacDonalds. He came to prominence in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms during which Clan Donald sided with the Royalists and Irish Confederates.
Attacked by a Covenanter/Campbell force, Mac Colla was forced to flee the Western Isles early in the war. Colla, his father (“Collkitto”), was taken prisoner by the Campbells. Upon 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 quickly became involved in fighting the Protestant settlers in east Ulster. He was implicated in several massacres of Protestant civilians, but he also scored some notable military victories. He was defeated and wounded in an attack on Lurgan and was rescued by Dónall Geimhleach Ó Catháin. The Scottish Covenanters landed an army in Ulster and drove the Irish Catholic forces out of the greater part of the province.
In 1644, he was selected by the Supreme Council of Confederate Ireland to lead an expedition to Scotland to aid the Royalists against the Covenanters there. He was charged with an army of perhaps two thousand Ulstermen. Arriving in Scotland, Mac Colla joined forces with the Royalist James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, and he also raised more men from among his MacDonald clansmen and other anti-Campbell 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. Perhaps the most notable of these battles was the Battle of Inverlochy, during which the Marquess of Argyll left the command of his army to his General, Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck, and retired to his galley anchored on Loch Linnhe to watch the battle. In many respects, the Battle of Inverlochy was as much part of the clan war between the deadly enemies Clan Donald and Clan Campbell and their allies as it was part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and that is how it was portrayed in Gaelic folklore.
During his Highland campaign, Mac Colla also freely pillaged Campbell lands, killing all the men he could find there. On January 14, 1645, Mac Colla sacked Inveraray, the seat of the Campbells of Argyll. In an incident in Argyllshire after the Royalists were ordered to lay down arms, Mac Colla burned down a building full of Campbell women and children becoming known as the “Barn of Bones.”
Mac Colla has been credited with inventing the tactic of the Highland Charge in the Civil Wars– a tactic whereby his men ran toward the enemy infantry, fired a single volley at close range, and then closed in hand-to-hand combat. This tactic 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.
Mac Colla’s father was killed by the Campbells 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.
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