Alasdair MacColla was a Scottish Highlander born in the early 17th century, on the Isle of Colonsay, into Clan Donald. Like his father before him, Colla; Alasdair soon found fame as a soldier; being noted for his use of the claymore (claidheamh-mòr, Scottish Gaelic) In his youth, he saw action against Clan Campbell, who at that time, the MacDonalds had a long running and violent feud with, over territory and power. This ill will was only further compounded what with the Campbells being Presbyterians, and the MacDonalds Catholics. However, Mac Colla really came to prominence with the onset of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
With his Clan, The MacDonalds, siding with the Royalists and Irish Confederates, Clan Campbell on the other hand, had sided with the Scottish Covenanters. For those two mortal enemies, it was to be no other way. And it was in that conflict that Alasdair soon earned his fearsome, and somewhat brutal, reputation. As commander of a battle-hardened company of veteran Scottish warriors, MacColla terrorized the Protestant populations of Northern Ireland and the Scottish Lowlands in a series of bloody campaigns that would have him forever remembered as a noble hero to his Clan, and a bloodthirsty monster to that of his enemies.
Alasdair was known for his gigantic frame and immense strength; reportedly standing close to seven feet tall. Early in the war, Mac Colla was forced to flee the Western Isles, which had been attacked by a sizeable Covenanter/Campbell force. Colla, his father, was taken prisoner by the Campbells.
On the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Mac Colla found himself again, over the water, this time in Antrim, under the command of Randal MacDonald, the chief of the Irish MacDonalds (Descendants of Scottish Clansmen) Mac Colla, who was a Catholic, quickly became involved in fighting the Protestant settlers in east Ulster, such as at the 1642 Siege of Coleraine. Though he was implicated in a few massacres of Protestant civilians, he also scored several notable military victories during this period. However, he was defeated and wounded in an attack on Lurgan, but was rescued by Dónall Geimhleach Ó Catháin. Subsequently, the MacDonalds lost almost all of their land back in Scotland; their homes were torched, and most of their people killed, imprisoned, or exiled. Alasdair’s father, again, was one of those imprisoned (he would later be executed in captivity), and after this crushing defeat, Alasdair was forced to leave Scotland with a handful of survivors and relocate to Northern Ireland, where he took over as the de-facto leader of his defeated people.
With the Ulster Insurrection, Alasdair found himsel commanding two companies of Highlanders, whom he led in a series of raids that pillaged, burned, and plundered much of the countryside; laying waste to Covenanter lands. When Protestant Lord Archibald Stewart suddenly showed up near the town of Kilrea, and with six full companies of Covenant Infantry, Mac Colla and his men charged towards a force three times greater than his own (more on that in Part 2) The Covenanters, many of whom had never really seen combat before, immediately began to falter. Despite recording victory after victory, and Alasdair proving himself’ to be a daring, though bordering-on-reckless, commander, the Confederate Catholics in Ireland were eventually defeated.
At some point during this time, Mac Colla had been badly wounded in battle when he was shot and stabbed, possibly at the same time; and ended up having to spend a year or two lying low and recovering from injuries that were remarked to have been certainly fatal to a lesser man. However, it would take more than a couple of chest wounds to keep Alasdair MacColla down, and by 1644, not only had he completely recovered from his injuries, but he’d meantime assembled a force of 1,600 mercenaries, loaded them onto warships, and then crash-landed right back in the middle of his Clan’s ancient Scottish homeland; a land now occupied by the hated Campbells.
Immediately upon landing, Mac Colla and the returned Clan MacDonald created a swath of destruction 40 miles wide, destroying any Campbell or Covenant forces they came across. In their razing of the land, they burned people alive, wiped out entire towns, captured some castles, and did so much destruction, that the Campbells rewarded Mac Colla, for his unbridled cruelty, with the nickname: “Alasdair the Devastator”
Alasdair “the Devastator” at returned to his ships sometime after, only to find that a group of Campbells had snuck in, killed the ship guards, and then burned the craft to ashes while he was out plundering their lands. This was bad news, as it meant that he was now completely surrounded by people he’d just spent the last year massacring.
Thankfully, Mac Colla then linked up with the Royalist James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose (and in doing so, a simple Scottish warrior had become a British general). He was also able to raise men among his far flung MacDonald Clansmen, and other anti-Campbell Scottish clans throughout the area. In the subsequent Scottish Civil War that followed, Mac Colla and Montrose won a series of victories at the battles of Tippermuir, Aberdeen, Inverlochy, Auldearn, Alford, and Kilsyth. After Kilsyth, Montrose conferred knighthood on Mac Colla. Mac Colla also took the opportunity whilst campaigning, to pillage the Campbell lands further, killing all the men he could find therein. In one an alleged incident in Argyllshire, Mac Colla is said to have, and rather horrendously so, burned down a building full of Campbell women and children. The site of which, become known as the “Barn of Bones”
Yet despite all of the above, MacColla’s legend still had room to grow, and grow it did, which will be covered in part two..
MacColla’s last name is also written as MacDonald, Macdonnell, Mac Colla, McColla, MacDonald, McDonnal, Donald, Donnelly, M’Coll Keitach, and Mac Coll Chiotach Mac Domhnuill; all of them branches of clan Donald.