Ranald MacAilean Oig; fact and fiction

Ranald MacDonald or Ranald MacAllan Og, of the MacDonalds of Morar family has been the subject of numerous traditional tales but with few hard facts. Indeed that the traditional tales mostly have a supernatural element should arouse the suspicion that they are, like many of the even earlier folk tales of fairies and changelings, a method of dealing with the less pleasant realities of life. A subject which has been well covered by Ronald Black in his introduction to ‘The Gaelic Otherworld’ in his new edition of Gregorson Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

image showing Ranald's name

Therefore in the absence of solid evidence this author and others have mainly relied on just one main source, the three volume ‘The Clan Donald’ published by the two Ministers, the Reverends MacDonald and MacDonald between 1896 and 1904, where they state that, Ranald of Cross. He had a great reputation as a piper, and was also reckoned a good performer on the harp and violin.[1] It was on that basis that Ranald MacAllan Og was included as a harper on this site and in the book ‘Tree of Strings’, published in 1992. The research has however continued since then and it has become clear that this simple statement presents a number of problems when set against the evidence now to hand.

Ranald MacAllan Og was certainly a piper but the claim that he was ‘of Cross’ and was also a harper and violer seems to be the result of some enthusiastic embellishment by the two Victorian Ministers with no such claims appearing prior to their publication. Indeed it has some similarity to some other erronious additions to piping history, also down to an over enthusiastic clerical historian when in 1840 the Reverend Doctor Norman MacLeod published a number of unsubstantiated claims about the MacCrimmon family of pipers including the myth that they originated in Italy in the town of Cremona.[2]

Ranald MacDonald, the third son of Allan MacDonald of Morar was certainly born sometime before 1664 since he was old enough to, along with his brother Alexander, witness a bond by their eldest brother Alan MacDonald younger of Morar to a local minister signed at Kildonan on Eigg in 1678. He was never described in any legal document as being ‘of Cross’. The reference to him in a list of ‘Papists’ in Inverness–shire returned to the the Church of Scotland in 1705 was a misunderstanding by its writer of the circumstances of the Morar family at that time. Cross was the home held by whoever was the head the family at the time. However in the list he was described correctly as Allan MacDonald of Morar whose name was followed by that of his brother Ranald who had returned to live at his elder brothers home, but as he was therefore in Cross, the compiler assumed he was ‘of Cross’.

Ranald’s son Donald was though later described as ‘of Cross’ due to his holding a wadset on the lands of Cross. Donald MacDonald the son of Ranald died in 1741, a date which has been stated to be that of Ranald the father’s death.[3] It is clear that both the son’s designation and date of death have erroneously been projected back onto the father. Donald MacDonald was the second husband of a daughter of MacDonald of Keppoch and they had one son who died at the age of 17 in 1757.[4] Ranald’s other son John was, according to his cousin John MacDonald of Morar, (who was trying to unscramble the problems caused by the wadset); also without any male heirs and he was also described as illegitimate. At least that is the more polite description and does provide an element of a factual basis to one of the traditional tales about Ranald.

Which returns to the question of when did Ranald MacAllan Og die? There is one account from 1891 which mentions Ranald but as part of a short comment on the Clanranald Memorial Stone in Eigg and a discussion of its armorial. The reference to Ranald is brief and unlike the account written around the same period by the two MacDonalds only describes him as a piper. It is probably the source of the claim that he died in Eigg but mostly has the usual mention of the ‘traditional’ tales and his connection to the supernatural. It does though claim that he had survived after 1686 ‘and did not die till late in the [seventeenth] century’.[5]

Once again the date is wrong which raises a question mark against the other information. Ranald certainly lived into the eighteenth century but was probably dead before 1715. The events of that year produced a large number of records of various sorts, from forfeited estate papers to the legal changes in estate ownership due to the deaths in battle or forfeiture and search of these has produced no sign of Ranald, or has there been any record of him thereafter. It may also be significant that for a man around whom a lot of the traditional tales involve his physical prowess there are none connected to that military action.

There are however two contemporary records which suggest that he probably died around 1711–1712. One concerns the sale of bagpipes belonging to a deceased ‘Ranald’, for whom he is the most likely Ranald around at that particular time and place. The other is a legal document served on a debtor to Ranald MacAllan to recover what was owed but which was being served by three other parties rather than Ranald himself, suggesting that Ranald was dead and they were acting to tie up his remaining financial affairs.

From a general overview of Ranald’s life he does appear to have been something of a ‘wild child’ which probably accounts for him being ‘remembered’ in semi mythical tales rather than real life events. After his father had died when he returned to live with his brother at Cross, Allan now ‘of Morar’ along with the next eldest brother, (and subsequent heir to Allan) Alexander MacDonald of Meobole; drew up a document noting that their father while alive had never made any provision for Ranald therefore they would make a cash settlement on him.

The fact that his father had not made any kind of settlement suggests that Ranald and his father were estranged. It is also notable that even then his two elder brothers chose to make a financial allowance on him rather than a holding of land suggesting he was somewhat feckless and they were concerned he would alienate any land he held outside of the Morar family. Whether Ranald electing to apparently become a piper rather than a respectable Tacksman on the Morar estate was enough to have displeased his father is unclear but there is also circumstantial evidence that Ranald may have been too close to a number of Campbells, enough at that period to displease any MacDonald parent.

A longer and fully referenced version of this biography of Ranald MacAllan Og is in preparation but being mainly of piping and genealogical interest with no connection to harps it will be appearing elsewhere. This short account is primarily designed to correct the previous accounts on this harp specific site along with some explanation to why he is no longer considered to have been a harper.

[1] MacDonald, A and MacDonald, A. The Clan Donald. (1904), vol 3. p 254

[2] For the critical assessment of that claim see, Cheape, Hugh. The Origins of the MacCrimmons, in The Proceedings of the Piobaireachd Society Conference. Volume XXVI (1999)

[3] Haddow, A. J. The History and Structure of Ceol Mor. (1982), p 78.

[4] The daughters name is not actually given but it does mean that Donald the son of Ranald MacAllan Og was through his wife related to the Rev Patrick MacDonald whose wife was also a daughter of MacDonald of Keppoch.

[5] Ross, J Calder. Memorial Stone at Kildonan, Eigg. Scottish Notes and Queries. Volume IV. No 9 (February 1891). 167-168

Submitted by Keith Sanger, 6 February 2015

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