Battle of Coire na Creiche

Blàr Coire na Creiche

The final battle in a lengthy on-off feud involving the Macdonalds of Sleat and the MacLeods of Dunvegan and Harris took place in 1601 in a scree-strewn hollow beneath the black Cuillin. This area had long been used as an out-of-the-way holding spot for cattle thieved in raids. One particular raid was planned by Donald Gorme of Sleat in retaliation for recent MacLeod attacks on Macdonald lands in Trotternish and North Uist.

This series of conflicts came after a lengthy period of rapprochement between the clans. Some seven years earlier the two chiefs had teamed up to go to the aid of Red Hugh O’Donnell in his rebellion against Elizabeth of England’s overlordship in Ireland. Each chief at the head of 500 clansmen had crossed to Ireland in 1594. The details and outcomes of that adventure is another story, but the friendship forged between the chiefs led to Donald’s marriage to Rory Mór’s sister Margaret (sometimes recorded as Mary). The marriage itself was subject to a contract called a handfast. In this arrangement, a man and woman lived together as husband and wife for up to a year and a day. If, during this period, the woman bore a male child to be heir, then full marriage would result. If not, then both parties returned to their respective families free of obligation.

Tradition has it that, after a year and a day, Margaret MacLeod had not borne a child, male or female. At some point and there is no record of how it came about, Margaret had lost the sight in one eye. Donald Gorme, having no further use for Margaret, decided to send her back to her brother. This repudiation might have been insulting enough but Donald decided to up the humiliation. He had Margaret tied, facing backwards, onto a one-eyed horse, led by a one-eyed servant and followed by a one-eyed mongrel dog, and sent all four back to Dunvegan Castle. Rory Mor MacLeod was enraged, by the treatment of his sister, and the insult to himself and his clan. Rory’s response was violent, ordering the devastation of Trotternish, long an area disputed by the two clans. Tit for tat raids followed, the Macdonalds raiding Harris and the MacLeods harrying North Uist resulting in the Battle of Carinish. Finally, a large MacDonald party devastated Minginish and Bracadale.

The MacLeod chief Rory Mór was absent on business with the Earl of Argyll, perhaps seeking assistance in his struggles with the Macdonalds, but Donald Gorme was aware that Rory’s brother Alasdair would quickly respond to the raid and try to catch the perpetrators red-handed at Coire Na Creich. Donald ensured he had enough warriors nearby to reinforce the raiding party and have enough of a force to match the pursuing MacLeods. Some accounts have the two sides awaiting overnight for a dawn encounter, others say that the MacLeods were there first, attempting ambush, knowing that the raided cattle would be brought to Coire Na Creich, others that they set about each other in the afternoon as soon as the MacLeods caught up with the raiders. At any rate the struggle was prolonged and bloody. It seems that the Macdonalds were better tacticians since just as at Carinish not long before, they gained the upper hand, though it is not known whether judicious use of archers, as reported at the earlier battle, was a key factor.  Alasdair MacLeod and some thirty of his senior kinsmen were captured in addition to the many fatalities and wounded on both sides.

The Privy Council of Scotland were alarmed at the devastation caused by the raids and the brutality of the battles. The two chiefs were ordered to desist immediately, and to surrender themselves while the events were investigated, and a peace negotiated. MacLeod was ‘detained’ by his friend Argyll, while Macdonald had to give himself up to the Earl of Huntly. Meetings were initiated at Eilean Donan and then at Glasgow. All prisoners were released and the wrong against MacLeod’s sister was recognised. She was given leave to pursue legal redress against her former ‘husband’ but no record is extant that she ever did so. Macdonald was free to marry again, which he did so soon afterwards. The feud of the one-eyed woman was over.