Angus Og, Lord of the Isles– a strong and romantic moniker, evoking fascinating images even before you know anything about him; a name you can really sink your teeth into.
The irony is that Og actually means young. So this great man was really running around being called Junior. Hey, Junior, could you go slaughter the English battalion on my right? Junior, I need 20 galleys and a hundred of your strongest warriors.
I much prefer Angus Og!
His name aside, he was a fascinating man, yet another who deserves far more attention from history than what he has received. He looms large (a little historical humor, as some sources say he was small in stature) and colorful in Nigel Tranter’s Bruce Trilogy. But when it comes to researching him, there is very little.
The facts that are known are minimal. He was the middle son of Angus Mor. (Mor is large, or elder, in Gaelic.) His older brother, Alexander, supported his brother-in-law, MacDougall, and the English. I have come across very little about his younger brother, Iain (or John) Sprangach, apart from learning that Angus Mor’s lands in the western Isles of Scotland were originally split between the three sons. Angus Og received Kintyre and Mull.
In a fascinating web of family loyalties, influences, and motivations, we find that Angus Og’s father, Angus Mor, and his uncle, Alisdair Mor, were continually at odds with their cousins, the MacDougalls (that would be Lame John of Lorne and his father, Alexander). In an attempt to heal that rift, Angus Og’s older brother, Alisadiar Og, was married off to a MacDougall heiress.
Deepening the complexity of the situation, Angus Mor, Alisdair Mor, and Alisdair Mor’s son Donald were most likely supporters of Robert Bruce against the English. It is true that Alisdair Mor and Donald both signed fealty to Edward I of England in 1291, but then, so did most Scottish nobles, including Bruce himself, under duress.
Alisdair Mor died in battle against his own kin, the MacDougalls, in 1299, and Angus Mor a year later in 1300, leaving Angus Og’s older brother, Alisdair Og, as the head of the clan. Alisdair, being now more closely related to the MacDougall family, gave his allegiance to the MacDougalls and the English, even becoming Admiral of the Western Seas.
Angus Og appears to have possibly supported his brother briefly– very briefly, as he is thought to have been largely neutral by 1301. In 1306, the newly-crowned King Robert, in reality more a fugitive than a king, fled to the Western Isles, and sought refuge with Angus Og. His risk paid off richly, with Angus Og becoming one of his earliest and strongest friends and supporters, the more so when Angus Og’s older brother Alisdair Og, was defeated in 1308 on the banks of the Dee in Galloway, by Edward Bruce. One source says he disappeared into Ireland. Another states very specifically that he was first taken prisoner by Edward Bruce, escaped to Castle Swein(or Sween) in North Knapdale in western Scotland, recaptured by Robert Bruce, and imprisoned in Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire, where he soon died. This left Angus Og as clan leader, and the powerful new Lord of the Isles.
Donald MacDonald, in Clan Donald,says that Angus Og had supported the English, and had a sudden change of heart. He discusses and dismisses the idea that this change of heart sprang from self interest: supporting a fugitive is hardly a way to further one’s own cause. He concludes, instead, that Angus Og was simply re-adopting the decade old loyalty of his father to the Bruce family’s claim to the throne. I do think it is also worth noting that Bruce and Angus Og shared a common enemy: the MacDougalls. Bruce came to Angus Og seeking asylum very close on the heels of his (Bruce’s) defeats at the hands of John of Lorn at Dalry. And it is human nature that, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’
From here on, Angus Og and his islemen warriors are repeatedly found by Bruce’s side. Angus Og is reported to have been at the 1307 engagement in Galloway, in which Bruce’s brothers, Thomas and Nigel, were captured. Angus’s cousin Donald fought with Bruce to re-take Arran. This same Donald seems to have been present at one of Bruce’s early parliaments in 1309.
One source says that Angus Og brought 5,000 of his Islemen to Bannockburn. Take this number with a grain of salt, as other sources put Bruce’s entire force as low as 5 or 6,000, while other place it as high as 13,000. However, it is clear that Angus Og’s men made up a large, no doubt vital, percentage of Bruce’s army, considering he fought that day against an army that must have been a minimum of 20,000 men, possibly two or three times that many. (Once again, sources differ greatly on these numbers.)
Angus Og’s men formed the reserve at Bannockburn. Bruce held them back until the critical moment, when the English cavalary were already in disarray, and then called them in to support Edward Bruce, on the right. The storming of the field by Angus Og and his Islemen is said to be one of the events that turned the battle. Both John Barbour and Walter Scott have immortalized not only Bannockburn, but Angus Og’s part in it, in verse. Walter Scott puts it thus:
“One effort more and Scotland’s free! Lord of the Isles, my trust in thee!”
It is since Angus Og’s critical aid at Bannockburn that Clan Donald has forevermore been awarded the honor of holding the right wing in the royal army.
Not much is written of Angus Og’s activities in the wake of Bannockburn, except to say that he was granted extensive lands by Bruce and remained Bruce’s steadfast friend and ally the remainder of their lives. There is an interesting story about the dowry brought by his bride– a large force of strong, young warriors– and he went on to have two sons, Good John of Islay, and Iain (that’s two sons named John, isn’t it?) and two daughters.
Bruce died in 1329 and Angus Og soon after in 1330. He is buried on Iona, the traditional burial ground of the Kings of Scotland, under a tomb bearing his arms: a ship with furled sail, a standard, a lion, and a tree.
[As an interesting side note, Angus Mor, father of Angus Og, is also a many-times great grandfather of Lady Diana Spencer, Winston Churchhill, George I, and Louis XVII.]