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The Battle Of Waternish


The Battle of Waternish had two parts. The first stage was an assault by MacDonald of Clanranald that resulted in the burning of Trumpan Church and its congregation and the subsequent MacLeod counterattack on the MacDonalds later that same day in a battle sometimes called “The Battle of the Spoilt Dyke”. Trumpan Church is on the Waternish Peninsula at the mouth of Loch Dunvegan across the water from Galtrigil and Borreraig.


The second part of Battle of Waternish followed some time later, whether months or a year or two is not clear. The MacDonalds came at night through the hills to Waternish hoping to surprise the MacLeods and to avenge the earlier loss. Finding the MacLeods prepared, they changed their plans and gathered up all the sheep and cattle they could find and moved away with them. The MacLeods caught up with the MacDonalds at day break and a bloody battle followed. The MacDonalds suffered severely, but some of the leaders of the MacLeods also fell.This nasty affair was but one of many during the intermittent, long feud between the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan on the one hand and the MacDonalds of Sleat and Clanranald on the other.


The burning of Trumpan church was an attempt by Clanranald to avenge MacLeod's cruel massacre by suffocation of the helpless people of the Isle of Eigg. The date of the first battle that followed the burning of the church was 1578. Some put the date of the battle at least 40 years earlier but the weight of evidence rests with 1578. Sheriff Nicolson, a 19th century authority on Skye history, dated the affair 1578, a year after the massacre of the Clanranald population of the Isle of Eigg by MacLeod. Nicolson relied on an account of the Islands written for King James VI that reported the Eigg massacre as occuring in 1577.


The battle that followed immediately after the burning of Trumpan Church by raiding MacDonalds saw MacLeod's ‘Fairy Flag” unfurled for the second time. MacLeod tradition has it that this unfurling changed the flow of the battle and led to the slaughter of the invading MacDonalds except for a handful who escaped in one boat. A storm that wrecked their boat put finish to the escapees.The piobaireachd composed on this event is attributed by many to Donald Mor MacCrimmon. It is a wild, vaunting tune filled with boasting, scorn and triumph. It is one of at least seven surviving MacCrimmon tunes that were inspired by the MacLeod/MacDonald feud and its conclusion.


Trumpan Church Ruins
Trumpan Church Ruins
Trumpan Church and Surrounds
Trumpan Church and Surrounding Area


MacLeod oral history, passed on by Dame Flora, XXVIIIth Chieftain, has it that it was Finlay Mor MacCrimmon of the White Plaid, a man renowned on Skye and throughout the western Highlands for his strength, who first saw the galleys of Clanranald approaching when he was at sea fishing. As soon as Finlay was able to identify the Clanranald fleet, he and his crew of four cut their nets and made for shore, landing near Galtrigil with the MacDonalds in hot pursuit under sail and oar. The crewmen took refuge in a cave where they were discovered and killed. Finlay escaped and made his way to a point five miles along where he couild shout across the water to alert the watch at Dunvegan Castle. The Fiery Cross was immediately sent out to call the clansmen to the Chieftain. It was on the following day, a Sunday, that MacLeod set upon the MacDonalds who had earlier in the morning burnt the Trumpan Church and congregation.


Given the role of Fionnlagh na Plaide Bhan (Finlay of the White Plaid) in this affair, it raises the possibility that either he, Iain Odhar, or Iain's son Padruig Donn composed the tune or, perhaps, a theme on which Donald Mor later expanded. Or, Donald Mor could have taken his inspiration from the family stories, songs and poems about the affair that sprang forth like new leaves on a tree in spring. One such MacLeod song commemorates the first Waternish battle thusly:

Remember ye the day of the Aird, Or that other of Milegaraidh? Men were in sad condition, Lying prone showing the white soles of their feet. Many a woman was sorely grieving Missing her sons there, having no brother, And no man left to delight her. May my malediction be with Clanranald!

Another scrap of translated verse refers to the drowning of those raiders who managed to escape from the first battle in the only boat that had not been destroyed by the MacLeods:

West Wind to the Neist* Sea to boiling Board to breaking Clanranald on boat a'breaking I'm not cariing.

* Neist is an exposed headland southerly of Dunvegan Head. There is now a Light at this site.


In 1602, James VI brought a halt to the vicious and cruel conflict that was ferociously launched at the Battle of Glendale circa 1490. This was a battle which MacLeod won after the Fairy Flag was unfurled for the first time. Ironically, it was Royal policies from as far back as the early 1400's that fomented bitter enmity between the two clans. Ceaseless warfare, founded on competition for land and the egos of otherwise rational Chieftains – Alasdair Crotach of Harris and Dunvegan, for example, showed flashes of nobility as well as cruelty – wreaked havoc on the communities of the western islands.


Death in numerous skirmishes and battles, the burning of Trumpan Church and its congregation, the massacre of men, women and children trapped in a cave on Eigg were among the horrible outcomes of the feud. There were other horrors that had a long-lasting impact. Starvation among the people of both Clans was common when in some seasons crops were destroyed and farm animals were maliciously slaughtered if they couldn't be driven off. The loss of so many children and young men and women over the period of a century had negative impacts that were immeasurable and long-term.


Well might these tragedies be expressed in the lore of the people through stories, poems, songs and the art of piping. There was much for the common folk to lament and much for the bards and musicians to record for posterity.


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