Clan MacLeod was founded in the 13th century by a Norse-Gael noble named Leod. The name Leod, or Leòd, comes from the Old Norse name Ljótr, meaning “Ugly.” Leod gained land in the Hebrides, a series of islands off the Northwest coast of Scotland, and his relatives and followers formed a clan that was likely of mixed Norse Viking and Gaelic descent. Leod and the first six Chiefs of MacLeod are buried on the island of Iona with 48 Scottish, eight Norwegian, and three Irish Kings.
The Hebrides were known as the Innse Gall “Islands of the Foreigners,” or Suðreyjar “Southern Islands” in Old Norse. They were ruled by the Rex Insularum, or King of the Isles, Viking sea-kings of the Dynasty of Guðrøðr Crovan from 9th to 12th century. In 1158 the sea-kings lost control to the Rìgh Innse Gall, or Lords of the Isles. While these islands became part of Scotland in 1266, they were virtually independent until 1493 when the King of Scotland claimed the lands and title.
By the 14th century the Clan MacLeod had split into two separate branches. Both Chiefs sat on the Council of Lords of the Isles. One of these branches was led by MacLeod of Dunvegan, also called MacLeod of Harris. This MacLeod branch was named after its main holdings, the Isle of Harris, and Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. It was founded by one of Leod’s son’s, Tormod. As a result, this branch is sometimes known as the Sìol Tormoid or “Seed of Tormod.” The other branch of the clan was led by MacLeod of Lewis. This branch was also named after its main territory, the Isle of Lewis. Its first Chief was probably one of Leod’s Great-Grandsons, Torcall. For this reason, this branch was known as the Sìol Thorcaill “Seed of Torquil.”
circa 1200 Clan founder Leòd is born, fostered by Pal, son of Balki and vicecomes of Skye. Leod was widely thought to be son of Pal’s ally Olaf the Black, King of the Isles and Man. Leod may actually have been a 3rd cousin, a great-grandson of the sister of Godred Crovan, Helga Haraldsdottir
1266 the Hebrides become part of Scotland, Lord of the Isles Angus Mor MacDonald accepts King of Scotland Alexander III as feudal superior and the mixed Hebridean culture becomes less Norse and more Gaelic, the final end of the Viking age proper in Scotland
1297 Scots led by William Wallace revolt against English rule, creatively depicted in Braveheart
1314 Battle of Bannockburn: Tormod, son of Leod, fights in the forces of Robert the Bruce
1320 Leod’s grandson Murchadh acquires the Baronies of the Isle of Lewis and Assynt from marriage to the Nicholson heiress, his son Torquil is the eponymous founder of the MacLeods of Lewis, the Siol Torquil. Malcolm Gillecaluim, 3rd Chief and another grandson of Leod builds a keep at the old curtain-wall sea-fort at Dunvegan, takes the crest of a bulls head and Motto of “Hold Fast” after an encounter with a wild bull
1350 4th Chief of MacLeod of Harris, Iain Ciar marries a daughter of the Irish O’Neill chief. MacLeods serve as Gallowglass and Redshanks mercenaries in Ireland for the next 300 years
1395 Battle of Sligachan: Spoils divided by the victorious MacLeods at Creag an Fheannaidh, the Bloody Stone in Harta Corrie
1403 Battle of Tuiteam Tarbach: MacLeods devastate Strathnever, then fight Mackays on the banks of the river Oykel
1411 Battle of Harlaw: MacLeods support Domhnall of Islay and the Highlanders against the lowland Scots
1480 Battle of Bloody Bay: William “Longsword” Dubh, Chief of MacLeod of Harris and Dunvegan dies supporting Lord of the Isles John of Islay against the rebellion of his son, Angus Og, who has the support of Roderick MacLeod, 7th of Lewis
1493 King of Scotland claims land and title of Lordship of the Isles, begins the lawless “Age of Feuds and Forays”
1500 The College of Piping at Borreraig is run by the MacCrimmons under patronage from MacLeod of MacLeod, credited for creating the classical music of the pipes.
1513 Battle of Glendale: Alexander “The Humpbacked”, 8th Chief MacLeod Alasdair Crotach gets his nickname from a battle-axe wound from fighting against Clanranald
1560 MacLeods and Mackays sent a large group of Gallowglass to support Shane O’Neill in his rebellion in Ireland
1566 Raid on Dornoch: MacLeod of Assynt and Mackay of Strathnever burn the town
1577 Massacre of all 395 Clanranald inhabitants of the Isle of Eigg in retaliation for some MacLeods being set adrift, bound
1578 Battle of the Spoiling of the Dyke and the Massacre at Trumpan Church in Waternish
1586 Battle of Leckmelm: Sutherlands, Mackays, and MacLeods of Assynt under Chief of the Slight-ean-Voir, James macRory MacLeod, fought Clan Gunn near Lochbroom
1596 Torquil Dubh, Chief of MacLeod of Lewis devastates his illegitimate brother Torquil Connanach’s lands of Coigach and Lochbroom, MacKenzies retaliate. Violence escalates, and the Scots King decides to have a private company, the Fife Adventurers, exterminate the troublesome inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis
1597 Isle of Lewis forfeit to the MacKenzie Earl of Cromartie after the failure of the Fife Adventurers company to ethnically cleanse the island. Stornoway Castle was also lost and later destroyed by Parliamentarian forces in the English Civil War
1601 War of the One-Eyed Woman, MacLeod devastates Trotternish.
Battle of Carinish: Last battle in British Isles fought with Bows and arrows, MacLeods led by Donald Glas MacLeod fought MacDonald of Sleat on North Uist.
Battle of Coire na Creiche (Corrie of the Spoils): Last clan battle on Skye
1651 Battle of Worcester– MacLeods lost 700 men fighting on the Royalist side against Oliver Cromwell’s forces
1745 MacLeods of Raasay fight at Culloden on the Jacobite side, their lands are devastated by the Duke of Cumberland in retaliation. The 22nd Chief, Norman “The Wicked Man” MacLeod of Dunvegan declares nominal loyalty to the Government and retains lands and Dunvegan Castle. MacLeod’s Piper Donald Ban MacCrimmon was captured at the battle of Inverurie, and Jacobite pipers went on strike until the “King of Pipers” was released
1746 Parliament passes the Act of Proscription, intended to finally crush the clan system. Bans on “possessing, using, or bearing broad sword or target, poignard, hanger, or dirk, side pistol, gun, or other warlike weapon.” Wearing of Highland clothing such as “the plaid, philibeg, or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan, or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats” had a mandatory prison sentence of 6 months for first offense, transportation for 7 years the second. Piper James Reid was hanged for playing the bagpipes, as they were ruled by a court to be a “Instrument of War”
1776 Norman the 23rd Chief raises a Battalion of Black Watch to fight in America, but is captured enroute. He earns a fortune as a General in the East India Company during the 2nd Mysore Anglo-War of Tipu Sultan in India, 1782-1784. This conflict was notable for Tipu’s iron-cased rocket artillery being adapted by the British as Congreve Rockets, the “Rocket’s Red Glare” of the Star Spangled Banner.
Migrations of MacLeods
Highlanders migrated to other countries for various reasons. Opportunity for wealth and adventure lured many of the clan into mercenary service in the 15th to 18th centuries.
Some of the 14th to 17th century Gallowglass that fought for the Irish against the English came from the MacLeods. The Chief led a fleet of 500 men to Ireland in 1594 to assist the Earl of Tyrconnell, Red Hugh O’Donnell and the O’Neills against the English during the 9 Years War. A Robert MacLeod was a mercenary for William of Orange in 1690 fighting against the Irish, yet his descendants became very Irish, living in County Cork today.
In 1430, an Alexander MacLeod became part of the French Royal Guard, and his descendants are the French Maclots today. In Poland, descendants of a 1620’s MacLeod mercenary for Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus in the 30 Years War became Machlejds, and later fought in the resistance against the Nazis during WWII.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, exile of Royalist prisoners and rebel Jacobites to the North American and Caribbean colonies accounted for some of the MacLeods in the new world. Soldiering around the British Empire brought MacLeods to India and Africa. The Dutch military service also attracted many MacLeod officers, some of whose families remained there, including Norman MacLeod who was an Admiral of the Netherlands in 1900.
Economic realities drove the next wave of emigration. At first, word of land for the taking led many MacLeods to voluntarily seek of a better life in the colonies during the 18th century. Many MacLeods in this wave settled in the American Colonies, the greatest concentration in the Carolinas.
Later, starting at the beginning of the 19th century, Landlords forced the clearances of people from their homes and croft farms to make way for the more profitable sheep. Landed families often found debts forced them to sell their land and emigrate as well. Some of these MacLeods found themselves in Canada and Australia, as well as the new United States.
Warriors, Scholars, and Patrons of the Arts
Since the Clan’s beginning, MacLeods have been renowned warriors, scholars and patrons of the arts. Even after the destruction of the clan system, the tradition continues in the new world.
In the conflicts of the last half of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st century, many MacLeod society members in US and Commonwealth forces were at the forefront of the land, sea, and air forces, some with bagpipes in hand. Not just warriors, but scholars and artists also continue to come from the descendants of Leod.
Piping holds a special place with MacLeods, as they were the patrons of the MacCrimmon Piping college at Borreraig, on Skye, where traditional piping was born. In the US today, the association of the clan with piping continues. The Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod Trophy for Open Piobaireachd, is presented to the most skillful player of the traditional music of the Great Highland Bagpipe at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina. In addition each of the 13 Clan MacLeod Society regions of the United States holds a MacCrimmon Quaich Competition for Grade I Amateur Piobaireachd pipers.
MacLeods, through The Dunvegan Foundation, remain patrons of the Gaelic language and poetry, traditional piping, drumming, fiddle, and harp music. Academic grants also go to maintain libraries of MacLeod material at university and public libraries.
Surnames Associated with Clan MacLeod
Siol Tormod Septs
Siol Torcaill Septs