John of Islay, Earl of Ross

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This article refers to John II, Lord of the Isles; for John I, see John of Islay, Lord of the Isles
John of Islay
Eoin a Ile
Johannes de Yle
Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles
Comes Rossie et Dominus Insularum
Iarla Rois, Triath nan Eilean
Reign 1449–1476/1493
Predecessor Alexander of Islay
Heir Angus ÓgBoth titles went initially to King James IV; his grandson Donald Dubh would claim the Lordship of the Isles in the early 16th century.
Born 1434
Died 1503
Burial Either Scone or Paisley Abbey
Spouse Elizabeth Livingstone
Issue Angus Óg
House Clan Donald
Father Alexander of Islay
Mother Elizabeth Seton

John of Islay (or John MacDonald) (1434–1503) was a late medieval Scottish magnate. He was Earl of Ross and the 4th Lord of the Isles as well as being Mac Domhnaill, chief of Clan Donald. John would however prove to be the last of the Lords of the Isles, overmighty subjects of the Stewart Kings of Scotland and virtual kings in their own right in the Western Isles. His struggle for power with King James III of Scotland ended in humiliation, following which his illegitimate son Angus Óg rebelled against his rule. In a bitter civil war, John's fleet of galleys met those of Angus sometime in the early 1480s off the coast of Mull at the Battle of Bloody Bay, in which John's cause was defeated. After Bloody Bay he became an inconsequential figure; and Angus continued to dominate the affairs of Clan Donald up until his murder in 1490. In 1493 James IV brought the Lordship of the Isles to an end. John died unlamented in 1503, having witnessed the almost complete destruction of his family inheritance.

Early life

John was born to Alexander of Islay, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, and Elizabeth, daughter of Alexander Seton the lord of Gordon and Huntly. He succeeded to his father's territories in 1449 while a still a minor.

Marriage and Land

Early in his life he was forced to marry a woman he did not love for a promise that was never kept. John's marriage to Elizabeth Livingstone had been determined by the usual calculations of profit and position, as were those of other important people of the time. There was one important difference with the alliance of John and Elizabeth: he came from a great landed family, she did not. Elizabeth was the daughter of Sir James Livingstone, a powerful politician during the minority of James II, but in a conservative, land-based society, a figure of no lasting significance. John, with a large and hungry following at his heels, rich as he was, always needed more land. Sir James' power was purely personal, and his daughter would not normally have been considered as a suitable match for the Lord of the Isles. It seems he was persuaded to marry her after certain unspecified promises from the king. After Livingstone fell from power in the early 1450s James refused to honour these promises. Instead of growing to love or at least respect Elizabeth, John came to loathe her.[citation needed]

Rebellion against the King

MacDonald, The Lord of the Isles – a romanticised Victorian illustrator's impression

Soon after his disgrace Sir James took refuge with his son-in-law. John at once rose in revolt, taking the royal castles of Inverness, Urquhart and Ruthven, perhaps less to show his support for the Livingstones than to remind the king of his broken word.

Treaties and Allies

This revolt of the Lord of the Isles came at a dangerous time for the king, who was involved in a serious dispute with the eighth Earl of Douglas, the most powerful noble in southern Scotland. We can probably date to this time the famous bond between Ross and Douglas, men who were hardly natural allies. There is absolutely no evidence that Ross, Douglas or the Alexander Lindsay, 4th Earl of Crawford, the other party to the bond, planned to depose the king, though this has not prevented some historians from making such a claim. If this had been the intention James would presumably taken much more direct action, rather than simply invite Douglas to Stirling in February 1452 to discuss the matter, and Douglas would hardly have put himself in the power of the king, even with a safe conduct. As it was James tried to persuade the earl to break the bond and, when he refused, murdered him in a fit of royal anger. If the bond had been so treasonable, the arrest and trial of Douglas would have served his ends much more effectively than this crude crime of passion.

John showed little concern for the fate of his ally, especially as James effectively turned a blind eye to the occupation of the northern castles. His relations with the crown continued to improve and he did nothing to prevent the final destruction of the house of Douglas in 1455, even obtaining title to some of their border estates. The sudden and unexpected death of James in 1460 brought an early change of direction. Soon after the accession of James III, John received a proposal that was to lead to his eventual ruin.

Ardtornish and Westminster

File:James III of Scotland.jpg
James III of Scotland, whose power would ultimately eclipse that of the Lords of the Isles

So far John had done rather well. He had defied the king and survived. He extended his power and influence from Inverness to the English border. Had he died at this point he might be well remembered in the annals of Clan Donald. But he now took a fatal step, the consequences of which were to betray the essential weakness of his character. In England the Yorkists under Edward IV had chased the Lancastrian Henry VI from the country. Henry took refuge in Scotland, where he was well received. Edward at once sent the exiled earl of Douglas, the brother of the man murdered at Stirling, on a diplomatic mission to the Isles. At his court in the castle of Ardtornish John agreed to send his plenipotentiaries to London. This was a dangerous move, for while John's predecessors had contacts with the English, they had never committed themselves too far. Moreover, the English had never made any real attempt to assist the Lordship when it was in difficulties with the crown of Scotland. It should have been perfectly clear that Edward was trying to create a diversion. Sadly for the Lord of the Isles, it was not.

In February 1462 John's representatives concluded an agreement once referred to as the Treaty of Westminster-Ardtornish, that envisaged nothing less than the conquest and partition of Scotland. John agreed to pay homage to Edward in return for his help in obtaining all of Scotland north of the Forth. The treaty is a remarkably vague document considering the risks John was prepared to take. It says absolutely nothing about the nature, scale and timing of English support. But for Edward it was a brilliant diplomatic coup. He achieved maximum results at minimum expense, laying out only as much bait as necessary to create a political disturbance in northern Scotland.

Even before the agreement was concluded the Islemen took to arms, advancing eastwards under the command of Angus Og, John's illegitimate son. Once again Inverness was captured and the people of the north instructed to deny the authority of James III. Beyond this we know nothing from the sparse contemporary sources, not even how this rebellion was brought under control. It most certainly had the effect Edward desired; for the Scottish government, faced with rebellion in the north, and fearful of attack in the south, dropped the politically embarrassing Lancastrian connection. John, presumably now aware how worthless the Westminster agreement truly was, backed down, declaring his seizure of the Inverness customs had been illegal. No further action was taken against him-for the present.

Angus Óg and Bloody Bay

Bloody Bay

In the mid 1470s Edward, preparing for a war with France, and anxious for good relations with Scotland, finally revealed the full terms of the Westminster treaty. John was summoned before parliament to answer for his treasons, and when he failed to appear was declared forfeit. With no allies, either at home or abroad, John had little choice but to make his peace with the king in the summer of 1476. Considering the full extent of his treason, far greater than that which had destroyed the Border Douglases, he was treated with comparative leniency. He lost the earldom of Ross-outwith the Isle of Skye-as well as Knapdale and Kintyre, but retained control of the Hebrides. The designation of Lord of the Isles, moreover, was from this point forward to be granted by the crown, rather than self-assumed.

But John had lost much more than land: he lost prestige and standing among his own kin. The Lordship had always depended on territorial expansion to give life to its warrior values; but now that it was contracting all of the latent tensions came forth, finding expression in the person of Angus Óg. Angus, according to Hugh Macdonald, ejected John both from the leadership of the clan and from his own home, forcing him to seek shelter under an old boat, and precipitating a bitter civil war.[1] John managed to raise an army of his own against his son, and his fleet of galleys met those of Angus sometime in the early 1480s-we cannot be more precise than that-off the coast of Mull to the north-west of the present town of Tobermory, an area ever afterwards to be known as Bloody Bay. The Battle of Bloody Bay was a complete victory for Angus[citation needed], who continued to dominate the affairs of Clan Donald up to his murder in 1490.


What happened to John after Bloody Bay is uncertain; but he seems to have slipped quietly into temporary and obscure retirement.[citation needed]. The Annals of the Four Masters record the murder of his son, John Oge, by Diarmait MacCairbre in 1490. With the death of Angus John re-emerged from the shadows, but by now he appears to have been firmly under the tutelage of his nephew, Alexander of Lochalsh[citation needed]. Alexander tried to re-establish control over the earldom of Ross, but was defeated by the Mackenzies, a leading local family, at the Battle of the Park. In 1493 King James IV of Scotland finally brought the independent Lordship of the Isles to an end. John was taken to the Lowlands,[citation needed] destined to live out what was left of his life as a pensioner of the king, finally drifting out of history, apparently unlamented even by his own kin[citation needed]. He died not in Paisley in 1498 but Dundee in 1503[citation needed]. At his own request, he is said to have been laid to rest in the tomb of Robert II, his royal ancestor; however Robert was buried at Scone not Paisley, where the tomb of Robert III is located.

In 1540 James V in suppressing further disorders in the west reserved the style Lord of the Isles to the Crown (so far as he could do so), where it remains to the present day, if meaning nothing more than the destruction of the ancient Norse-Gaelic lordship. The office itself has been extinct since the 15th century.


It is difficult to know what to make of John of the Isles, the man who was destined to preside over the ruin of a great inheritance. He appears to have had an odd assortment of qualities, sometimes assertive and arrogant, other times weak and submissive. Hugh Macdonald, the seventeenth century historian of Clan Donald, says that he was; "a meek, modest man...and a scholar more fit to be a churchman than to command so many irregular tribes of people".[citation needed]

His wife, Elizabeth Livingstone, accused him of trying to murder her while she was pregnant. He started his rule as a lion and ended as a sheep[citation needed], having in the process alienated almost everyone, including the closest members of his family.[citation needed]

He fathered illegitimately:

  • John Macdonald
  • Margaret Macdonald. She married Kenneth Mackenzie, 8th of Kintail, son of Alexander Mackenzie, 7th of Kintail and Anna Margaret Macdougall.
  • Aonghas Óg Macdonald. He married Lady Mary Campbell, daughter of Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll and Isabel Stewart. He was murdered in 1490.


  • Bannerman, J., The Lordship of the Isles, in Scottish Society in the Fifteenth Century, ed. J. M. Brown, 1977
  • Cannon,John ; Hargreaves, Anne. The Kings & Queens of Britain, (Oxford University Press, 2004) ISBN 0-19-860956-6
  • Dunbar, J., The Lordship of the Isles, in The Middle Ages in the Highlands, (Inverness Field Club, 1981) ISBN 978-0-9502612-1-8.
  • Grant, A., Scotland's 'Celtic Fringe' in the Late Middle Ages: the Macdonald Lords of the Isles and the Kingdom of Scotland, in The British Isles, 1100–1500, ed. A. Grant and R. R. Davies.
  • Gregory, D., The Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland, reprint 1975.
  • Mackie, J.D., A History of Scotland, Penguin Books, London (1991)
  • MacDonald, C. M., The History of Argyll, 1950
  • Macdonald, Hugh, History of the Macdonalds, in Highland Papers I, 1914.
  • Munro, J., The Earldom of Ross and the Lordship of the Isles, in J. R. Baldwin ed. Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland, 1986.


  1. Mackie, p115
Preceded by
Alexander of Islay
Earl of Ross
Succeeded by
Next held by James Stewart
Lord of the Isles
Succeeded by
office extinct