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Battle of Drumnacoub

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It was a battle, likely a coup, between two factions of Clan Mackay. One, led by the Clan Chief, Angus Du Mackay, and the other, supported by Angus Murray (Moray) of Cubin, led by Morgan Neilson and Neil (or Nigel) Neilson. The two Neilson brothers were sons to Neil, said to be son, but likely illegitimate, to Donald Mackay, thus nephews to Angus Du although may have been related to his wife, a daughter of Neil of Barra (family of MacNeil of Barra).

Although there is uncertainty regarding the date of the battle it can be dated to after a Charter of the Great Seal where Neil Neilson, said to be Nigello Nelesoun and one of the combatants, obtained from King James I., 20 Mar 1430, a charter of the lands of Creich, Gerloch, Daane, Moyzeblary, Croinzneorth, Tutumtarwauch, Langort and Amayde, in the Earldoms of Ross and Sutherland, escheated from his deceased brother, Thomas.[1] As "Nigello Nelesoun" is killed at the battle it must have been after that date. Also the forces of the Mackay were said to have been led by Ian (Eng:John) Aberach Mackay who is said to have been a son to Angus Du Mackay by his second wife. He could only have been born around 1415 at the earliest, thus young at the battle. Angus Mackay suggests he "was not yet out of his teens".

Background In 1429[2] and after the Inverness action by James I., Thomas MacNeil, suggested to be a relative of Angus Du Mackay, Clan Chief of the Mackay, and possessor of the lands of Creich, Spanzedell, and Polrossie, in Sutherland, entered a feud against Mowat of Freswick. After a battle Mowat escaped to the Chapel of St. Duffus, near Tain in Ross, seeking sanctuary. Thomas MacNeil followed him and burnt down the chapel, killing Mowat. It is worth noting that Thomas MacNeil (Neilson on the Latin record) may not have been a child of the of the Mackay but an ancestor to lye MacNeil, son of Neil of Gigha and a relative of the mother of the Mackay ancestors. They, it seems were the rightful owners of the lands of the MAckay. This Thomas possessed large parts of the north; Spinnydale, Invercarron, and Polrossie in the south, Bighouse, the two Trantles, Golval, Balnaheglishand the two Forsies in Strathalladale, Creich, Garloch, Daane, Moyzelblary, Conzcorth, Tuttin-Tarwach, Langort, Amayde, Achanies, Altasmore, Leynfatmore, and Inveran. Angus Mackay[3] in mentioning that "Part of these lands, if not all, were held by Angus Du and his heirs on the charter of 1415 from Donald, Lord of the Isles, so that Thomas must have held them of Angus. The king, however, appears to have ignored that charter... " fails to recognise the obvious. These lands were held by Thomas Neilson, granted to the Mackay under a Charter by Donald which he had no authority to provide. It was this that was the cause of the lands disputes.

James I., already incensed with the fighting amongst the Highland clans and just recently executing some and jailing others for this behaviour, proclaimed Thomas Macneil a rebel and outlaw, and promised his land to any that would bring him to justice.

Angus Murray (the son of Alexander Murray of Cubin), understanding the King's proclamation, held a secret conference with Morgan and Neil MacNeil, brothers to Thomas. Angus offered them, if they would assist him to apprehend their brother, his two daughters in marriage, and assist them to get the peaceful possession of Strathnaver, which they claimed as their hereditary right. The belief was that it was going to be relatively easy and even with little or no resistance at all, seeing that Neil Wasse Mackay (the son of the chief) lay prisoner of the Crown at Bass Rock, and Angus Dow himself was unable, by reason of the weakness of his body at that time, (by illness or wounds we are not told) to withstand them.

Morgan and Neil Neilson agreed and sought to capture their brother. They caught up with him on his estates at Spanzedell, in Sutherland, and delivered him to Angus Murray. Murray then presented him to the King, at whose command Thomas Macneil was executed at Inverness. The lands of Polrossie and Spanzedell, which he had possessed, were given to Angus Murray for this service. Angus Murray, for performance of his promise made to Neil and Morgan Mackay, gave them his daughters in marriage.

Later, James I., under the Great Seal, dated Perth 20 Mar 1430, provides a charter of the lands of Creich, Gerloch, Daane, Moyzeblary, Croinzneorth, Tutumtarwauch, Langort and Amayde, in the Earldoms of Ross and Sutherland, escheated from his deceased brother, Thomas, to Nigello Nelesoun, for his service in capturing the rebel.[4]

The latter Charter was likely the trigger for war. Angus Murray, now controlling, with Neil Neilson, a large part of what were Mackay lands, sought support from Robert, Earl of Sutherland, already in a bitter feud with the Mackay, to depose Clan Mackay and insert the Neilson brothers in their stead.

Earl Robert is said to have supported the cause of Angus Murray, although how is not mentioned, and Angus Murray invades Strathnaver. Angus Dow Mackay, seemingly bed-ridden, convened his countrymen, and, because he was unable himself, and his son in prison, he granted command to Ian Aberach Mackay, his son by his marriage to a daughter of Alexander Carrach MacDonald of Keppoch.[5]

The forces met at Druim-nacoub, said to be two miles from Tongue; principal seat of Clan Mackay.

The Battle Joined

As normal for the ancient clan battles there is very little information provided regarding the battle itself. The historian suggests, typically, "There ensued a cruel and sharp conflict, valiantly fought a long time, with great slaughter, so that, in the end, there remained but few alive on either side". This, of course, is an exaggeration. It would have been atypical of battles of the day; short, sharp, charge from short range with maximum force designed to break the enemy; that failing, a fierce hand to hand combat with one side eventually breaking and fleeing the other chasing.

Angus Mackay provides that Angus Moray of Cubin and his force, stated to be 1500, advanced towards Tongue by way of Lairg, Shiness, and Crask-Rorie accompanied by Morgan and Neil Neilson. The strategy of Mackay was to lure them on as far as possible before giving battle. They met at the head of the pass to the north of Ben Loyal within two miles of Castle Varrich, Drum nan Coup. We can presume, from the events of the battle, that the Mackay had around 1000 at the battle. There is no discussion regarding the anomaly of numbers; the Mackay attended the Parliament in 1428 with 4000 men. History suggests that Angus Du Mackay was carried to the field and watched the battle, likely from the height of the brae, frustrated by his inability to fight.

At this point in the battle the men of Angus Moray discovered that the battle leader of the Mackay was John Aberach and taunted the Mackay with "Cuiridh sinne buarach air an laogh ud" - we will put a cow shackle on yonder calf. The Mackays, stationed with the advantage of height and protection on the flanks with their backs to the brae, hurled defiance at their foes and initiated the battle with a "long-range discharge of arrows". This suggests, not having the long bow, that the distance apart was about 200 metres.

Angus Moray and the Neilson brothers charged "with great impetuosity and confidence" and the charge was met by the Mackay, who had the advantage of position and were fresh while the former were fatigued with their long march, After some fierce fighting the Mackay drove them back down the pass in confusion. Angus Murray, Morgan Neilson and Neil Neilson were all killed on the field. John Aberigh, "having lost all his men", was left for dead on the field. The Mackays pursued as far as Ath Charrie, a ford on the stream running into Loch Loyal, where a stone marks the graves of the last party killed in the flight.

Angus Mackay, with some bias, suggests this as the "Bannockburn of the Mackay - it saved their country from greedy and unnatural usurpers". This may not have been an entirely accurate summation and evidence suggests that the Neilson (MacNeil) brothers held a rightful claim while Mackay did not.

History also suggests that after the battle, Angus Du was taken down to the field to search for his relatives. The source mentions he was looking for his nephews, Morgan and Neil but it is just as likely he was looking for John Aberigh Mackay, who had been left on the field. Angus Du Mackay was killed, by an arrow "by the hands of a skulking assassin"[6], named as Iver, or Evander, a follower of the Earl of Sutherland, residing in Shinness. John Aberigh Mackay was found and afterwards recovered; yet he was "mutilated all the rest of his days", yet he will be strong enough to lead the clan at Battle for Ruaig-Shansaid in 1437.

  1. Register of the Great Seal; vol 2, Charter no 147, page 32.
  2. The events are stated to have occurred after the parliament of Inverness by James. Although this is often stated as having occurred in 1427 it occurred in Aug 1428. The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al eds (St Andrews, 2007-2015), A1428/8/1. The record leaves no doubt that this is the event under consideration and although it has been debated whether this was actually a Parliament the issue is not relevant to this discussion here. A cursory examination of the records, on the web site, surrounding this event will illustrate that James did not have a Parliament in Inverness in 1427.
  3. #S-2 Angus Mackay; page 58
  4. Register of the Great Seal; vol 2, Charter no 147, page 32.
  5. Note that many, including the source being used here, state, on the authority of Sir Robert Gordon, incorrectly that Ian (John) was illegitimate or "bastard". This is purely biggotry from Sir Robert Gordon. Angus Du and his wife were within prohibited degrees, as was common. It is not clear whether dispensation for the marriage and legitimacy for the children was obtained, thus giving rise to the claims by Sir Robert Gordon.
  6. Robert Mackay #S-1 Robert Mackay; page 72

Sources: The History of the Feuds and Conflicts Among the Clans in the Northern Parts of Scotland and in the Western Isles: from the year M.XX1 unto M.B.C.XIX, now first published from a manuscript wrote in the reign of King James VI

  • Source S-1Robert Mackay. History of the house and clan of Mackay ...... Vol. I. Edinburgh: A Jack, 1829. archive.org
  • Source S-2Angus Mackay. The book of Mackay. Vol. I. Edinburgh: Norman Macleod, 1906. Open Library

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