Somerled I GILLEBRIDESON
- Born: Abt 1030, Scotland
- Marriage: Unknown
- Died: 1083 about age 53
- Buried: 1083, Saddell Abbey
Another name for Somerled was Somerled Isle Of MANN.
NOTE 14, p. 60.-Sumerledo regulo Herergaidel.
This Sumarldi or Somerled, the celebrated ruler of Argyle, who is also mentioned in the Orkney saga, and in the saga of King Hacon Haconsson as the founder of his dynasty, is styled king or " petty king" only in this Chronicle and the Irish annals. The sagas do not mention his father, but from a genealogy, preserved it would seem among his descendants, the Mac Donalds, and printed in Johnstone's Antiquitates Celto-Norinannicæ, p. 152, we learn that he was son of Gilbrigid, and grandson of Gil-Adomnan.a Skene (Highlanders in Scotland, V. ii. p. 40, 41) informs us, from two curious old Gaelic MSS., that Gil-Adoninan was driven out from his possessions in Scotland by the violence of the Lochians and Fingalls (i.e., the Norwegians), and took refuge in Ireland, and that Gillebridd, as it would appear, made an unsuccessful attempt to recover his paternal lands, which, however, was at last effected by Somerled, who " put himself at the head of the inhabitants of Morven, and by a series of rapid attacks succeeded, after considerable struggle, in expelling the Norwegians, and making himself master of the whole of Morven, Lochaber, and north Argyle," to which he soon afterwards added the southern district of Argyle. Perhaps we may be able to carry the genealogy still farther up than to Gil-Adomnan. In the Annals of the Four Masters it is stated that "Somerled, son of Gilbrigid, king of Innsie Gall " (i.e., the Sudreys), died in 1083. It seems evident from the repetition of the personal names that this Somerled was the father of Gil-Adomnan, and that, being originally and properly Lord of Argyle, he had also acquired some of the adjacent isles, as Jura, Mull, etc., enough to procure him the title of Insular king. We might even be inclined to think that Gil-Adomnan, being, as we presume, his son, was expelled his dominions by Godred of Man, not, as Mr. Skene suggests, by Magnus of Norway, who already found Godred and Lagman fully established in the Isles. Indeed the chief family possessions of Godred, being as demonstrated above, the island of Isla, which is next to Jura and Argyle, we may guess that not only in the earlier years of Godred, before he conquered Man, but even in the times of their respective ancestors, there existed constant feuds between both families, such as generally used to rage among neigh-bouring clans in those days, and that the expulsion of Gil-Adoninan to Ireland was only a continuation of ancient conflicts. Seeing, farther, that the Norwegian name of Somerled, which appears twice in the dynasty, indicates some connection with Norwegian families, and that the powerful Earl Sigurd, the father of Thorfinn, had really a son his first-born, named Somerled, while the husband of his sister, the Sud reyan earl, is called " Gille " (i.e., Gilbrigid, Gilchrist, Gil-Adomnan, or another similar name), we find it rather likely that Somerled the elder u-as a descendant of Earl " Gille " by the sister of Earl Sigurd, arid that his nanie, as well as that of Earl Sigurd's son, was derived from the same common ancestor; nay, it is even probable that Somerled of the Isles, who seems to have been born about 1020, was immediately named after the Orkneyan earl who died about that time.
Somerled was born around 1113 in Morven, Argyleshire. He was the son of Gillebride Mac Gille Adomnan and a Viking woman. Although there is some contention on his ancestry, his father was apparently either of the Royal line of Dalriada, Gall Gael (which is Cruithni or Pict) or both. Somerled's name means 'summer wanderer', a name used by his contemporaries to describe the Vikings. For Somerled, it was a name that prophecized his life -and the combination of bloodlines, at least in Somerled's case, proved itself powerful, as he later forged a permanent spot for himself in the history of the Isles and Scotland.
Sometime in Somerled's early youth, the Lochlans and the Fingalls (Clans or tribes) expelled Somerled's family from their home. They took refuge in Ireland, where Gillebride managed to persuade the Colla (an Irish tribe) to assist him in the recovery of his possessions or holdings. A large force of approximately 500 men accompanied the family home. The mission was a failure, however, and his father either died in the battle or soon afterwards.
Somerled lived for a while in the caves of his homeland, fishing and hunting for his survival. Slowly he grew into manhood and became, according to the accounts; "A well tempered man, in body shapely, of a fair and piercing eye, of middle stature and quick discernment." During this period of his life several things happened in quick succession which made Somerled a man of stature.
In one story, Somerled put himself at the head of the inhabitants of Morven and attacked the Norwegians. He was successful, and recovered his family's lands at the same time. He then was master of Morven, Lochaber and northern Argyle. Soon after this he conquered the southern portions and pronounced himself Thane or Regulus of Argyle. This happened at about the same time as David the First's war with the Norwegians, which took place in 1135, so Somerled may have received these lands in a grant from the King.
His newfound power greatly increased his standing, but it also drew the attention of his neighbors, the Vikings in the Isles (the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Man and that general area). Somerled, however, still did not have the force required to take on the Olaf the Red, the Viking Lord of the Isles. Instead he chose to woo his enemy for the hand of his daughter, Ragnhild. Eventually he succeeded (some say by trickery) in obtaining Olaf's daughter's hand and the two were married in approximately 1140.
For the next fourteen years Somerled and Ragnhild lived in relative peace and started raising a family. Raginald gave him three sons, Dugall, Reginald, and Angus. These sons joined his son by a previous marriage, Gillecallum.
In 1154, Olaf (Olave in some stories) was murdered by his nephews who quickly took control of the northern half of the Kingdom of the Isles. Olaf's son, Godfred (or Godfrey) heard of the events and returned from Norway, quickly regaining possession of the entire Kingdom. But Godfrey was a tyrant, and the Islemen soon revolted against his leadership. Some of the chieftans of the Isles appealed to Somerled for help. He joined them and defeated Godfrey, in the process taking the southern half of the Kingdom for himself. About two years later Godfrey and Somerled again went to war, this time Somerled was using new ships with a rudder and Godfrey was defeated again. Somerled became King of the Isles in about 1156.
At about the same time, Somerled was also campaigning in Scotland to a small degree and this in combination with his new title as King of the Isles drew the attention of its King. King Malcolm IV of Scotland was concerned over Somerled's growing power and dispatched an army to Argyle. In 1160, after a battle the two Kings reached an understanding and there was again peace. This peace was short lived however, as in late 1163, after being continually insulted by Malcolm and his ministers, Somerled led an army against Scotland.
The King of the Isles sailed up the Clyde with 164 galleys and 15,000 troops to Greenock. He landed at the Bay of St. Lawrence and marched on Renfrew. There are two popular stories about what occurred in Scotland. In one version, a bribed nephew murdered Somerled and the army of the Isles dispersed and went home. In the other version of the story, battle was joined between the Scots and the men of the Isles and Somerled was killed. His son Gillecallum, his heir, also died during the battle. Now without a leader, the army from the Isles dispersed and went home. In either case Somerled died in Scotland in very early 1164.
Somerled is generally credited with breaking the power of the Vikings in the Isles as his descendants remained Kings of the Isles for centuries after his death. One of Somerled's grandsons, a Donald, is also considered the ancestor of the Clan Donald, for his sons were the first to carry the name MacDonald.
The Founder of Saddell Abbey - Somerled
One of the most important and least well-known figures in Scottish history, Somerled was born around 1113 in Argyleshire. Of mixed parentage, his father was a Gaelic chieftain, Gillebride Mac Gille Adomnan, and his mother was Norse. Although there is some contention on his ancestry, his father was apparently a descendant of the Royal line of Dalriada, whose dynasty had abandoned their ancestral heartland to the Vikings when Kenneth MacAlpin had moved his powerbase east to the ancient Pictish capital of Scone in the mid-9th century.
By the time of Somerled's birth, the Vikings had long been in control of all of the northern and western isles of Scotland, and great swathes of the mainland too. It is Somerled who is credited with defeating the Vikings and establishing the great Gaelic power that became the Lordship of the Isles.
Somerled had four sons, Dugall, Reginald, and Angus by his second wife, the daughter of the Norse King of Man, and the eldest by his first marriage, Gillecallum. Dugall gave his name to the Clan MacDougall, and Reginald's son Donald gave his name to the clan MacDonald.
The time of the Lordship brought a flourishing of Gaelic culture the equal of any court in Britain, if not Europe, which lives on to this day. Professional poets and musicians composed and performed original works alongside skilled and knowledgeable physicians, scholars, lawyers and artisans.
Somerled's success in the west brought him into conflict with the Scottish crown and was ultimately to lead to his death in 1164. In late 1163, the King of the Isles sailed up the Clyde with 164 galleys and 15,000 troops to Greenock. There are two legends about what occurred after he landed. In one version, a bribed nephew murdered Somerled and the army of the Isles dispersed and went home. In the other version of the story, battle was joined between the Scots and the men of the Isles and Somerled was killed along with his son and heir, Gillecallum. It is said that the army of the Isles returned to their homeland where they buried their dead chieftain in the abbey church that he had founded at Saddell in Kintyre.
The History of Saddell Abbey
The story of Saddell Abbey is the story of the Lordship of the Isles and of the great monastic adventure which swept across Europe from the 11th century. These two historical movements were to came together in a quiet wooded valley on the east coast of Kintyre in the year 1148 to create the little monastic church that has survived, ruinous but still upstanding, over eight and a half centuries down to the present day.
The monks who built Saddell Abbey were not the first to settle in Kintyre, however. In the years following St Columba's foundation of the monastery on Iona in A.D. 563, missions were sent out throughout Scotland and new monasteries were established as far north as the lands of the Picts and as far south as Lindisfarne in the Kingdom of Northumberland. There were probably several monastic settlements on Kintyre, but little is known about them, or whether any survived the Viking raids which began in the Hebrides in 798. The decision by the kings of Dalriada to move Columba's relics to Kells in Ireland and Dunkeld in Pictland in 849 marked the end of Iona's pre-eminence and the beginning of Norse power in the area. While there is no evidence for an early Christian settlement at Saddell, the name itself is Norse for 'sandy dale', and indicates that Vikings probably lived there for a time.
The monastery on Iona survived the Viking attacks, and when the ancient Celtic monastic way of life was finally ended it was not to be at the hands of pagan warriors, but by a new form of monasticism which had begun in Italy during the 6th century. The creator of this new way was St Benedict who founded the famous monastery of Monte Cassino and there composed a rule for his monks which, over the following centuries, was to become the basis of all monastic life in western Christendom.
The arrival of the white monks at Saddell was just one small part of an explosive revival of monasticism throughout Europe at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries. The roots of this revival can be traced to the early 10th century, when the abbey of Cluny in Burgundy was founded. The monks there adopted a strict way of life based on St Benedict's Rule, but with even greater emphasis than before on physical denial. On entering this new, reformed order a Benedictine monk had to renounce the world, surrender all his private property and vow to stay in the monastery until he died.
This new and quite extreme monastic philosophy struck a chord with the men of Europe and they flocked to join the monasteries to live this radical and austere Christian existence. Indeed, it was feared by some at the time that the human race itself would come to an end should so many young men continue to choose to live the celibate life of a monk. The three most popular of these new orders were the Carthusians, or black monks, the Tironensians, or grey monks, and the Cistercians, or white monks. The community at Saddell Abbey were members of the Cistercian order.
The Cistercians were to flourish in Britain for over four hundred years. In their heyday, when the reputation of the white monks was at its peak, its houses formed part of the greatest ecclesiastical organization ever seen and they were patronized by kings, bishops and aristocracy.
The Cistercian order was founded in 1098 when a monk called Robert, the abbot of a prosperous monastery in Burgundy, left with a group of brothers to found a new monastery in the wild local forests. Robert was uncomfortable with the wealth and prosperity which his old monastery had acquired, and, like so many Christians of his time, he chose to follow a simpler way of life. The place where they settled was called Citeaux, which, in the Latin language that the monks used, gave them their name, the Cistercians.
The success of the order led to new, daughter houses being founded, and eventually there were to be more than 700 Cistercian abbeys spread throughout Europe. The Cistercians' first foundation in Scotland was at Melrose in 1136, and another 10 were to be founded, including the small abbey in Saddell Glen in Kintyre.
Saddell Abbey owes its foundation to two men - the Hebridean warrior-king Somerled and St Malachy of Armagh. It was during a pilgrimage to Rome in 1139 that Malachy, the bishop of Armagh, visited the great Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux in France. Inspired by his experience there, on his return he founded the first reformed monastery in Ireland at a place he called Mellifont, the 'fountain of honey'.
The foundation of Saddell Abbey came during St Malachy's final journey to Rome in 1148. His biographer wrote that he left Mellifont and
"...in the morning he went on board, and the same day, after a prosperous crossing, came into Scotland. On the third day he reached a place which is called The Green Lake; which he had caused to be prepared that he might found an abbey there. And leaving there some of his sons, our brothers, as a convent of monks and abbot, he bade them farewell and set out."
Although all of the documents have been lost, it would appear that for the original foundation at Saddell St Malachy supplied the monks from Ireland, and Somerled provided the land to build upon. After his death, his son Reginald continued to support both the community at Saddell and the new Benedictine foundation at the old Celtic site on Iona.
The life of a Cistercian monk was vividly described by Aelred, the abbot of the great English abbey of Rievaulx: "Our food is scanty, our garments rough, our drink is from the stream and our sleep often upon our book. Under our tired limbs there is but a hard mat; when sleep is sweetest, we must rise at bell's bidding. Self-will has no place; there is no moment for idleness or dissipation."
The choice of location of a new monastery was crucial to the Cistercians. Hidden in the quiet of the countryside, the monks could concentrate without distraction on their search for spiritual union with God. Aelred may have thought the physical life of a Cistercian monk was tough, but he described spiritual life in the abbey as "everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world".' Today, over eight centuries after the first monks arrived from Ireland, it is still easy to see why the quiet, pastoral Glen Saddell was a perfect match for the Cistercian philosophy.
From its foundation until the mid-15th century the Cistercian life at Saddell continued without much notice in national history. It was probably always a small community, on a confined site, with modest buildings. As such, however, it probably fulfilled the Cistercian ideal better than any other abbey in Scotland, and maybe in Europe as a whole.
This is not to say that Saddell Abbey was not an important site. As the first foundation of the reformed religious orders in the area which was soon to become the Lordship of the Isles it marked the change from the old Celtic form of monasticism to the new European one, and, more broadly, the beginning of a new, powerful and fertile period in the culture and history of the Gaelic Western Highlands and Islands.
Created and supported by the Lords of the Isles, it is no surprise that Saddell Abbey died when its patrons had their lands and their powers taken from them by the Scottish crown. On the 1st of January 1508, fifteen years after the final forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles, King James IV granted the lands of Saddell to the bishop of Argyll and gave him a licence to build a castle there. The construction of the castle marked the end of religious life at Saddell Abbey - after 360 years of worship, the Opus Dei was to be heard no more.
It is possible that at this point in time the abbey may have been abandoned to decay into a forgotten ruin and to disappear into history, a footnote only to the crushing of the Lords of the Isles and the victory of the Scottish crown. But Saddell possesses another memory from the days of the Lordship, an artistic treasure which shows us today how just truly important a place it was and how wealthy and sophisticated its patrons were - the collection of magnificent sculpted stones that once marked the resting places of great lords and churchmen in and around the abbey church.
Throughout the Lordship as a whole, more than six hundred of these richly carved crosses, grave-slabs, and effigies have survived to the present day, with probably many more lost in antiquity. It used to be believed that all of these stones were made on Iona, but now we know that it was the location of just the largest of four or five 'schools' of carving in the region in the 14th and 15th centuries. One of the most important of these workshops was located in Kintyre, and modern experts now believe that it was based at Saddell Abbey.
Of the collection of twelve carved stones at Saddell there is one cross, six graveslabs and five effigies - portraits in stone of the men they commemorated. Today at Saddell Abbey you can stand face to face with three great warriors from the time of the Lordship. You can see the armour they wore, the swords they wielded and the ships that they sailed in. Better than any song or saga, these stone carvings show us just how powerful the fighting men of the Lordship were, just why it took the Scottish crown so long to bring them under its control and why they felt the need to build such a strong castle in this seemingly quiet, peaceful glen. The Saddell stones are witness to all of these things and much more besides.
Noted events in his life were:
• Alt. Birth: Alt. Birth, Abt 1030.