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Iain Beag of Handa

Handa Island
[58.381280, -5.186311]
Brendan O’Hanrahan
North West Highlands Geopark

According to the Old Statistical Account, written in 1793 by the minister of Eddrachillis, the Rev. Alexander Falconer. There was a man who lived on Handa island named Little John McDhoil Mhic Huishdan, in Gaelic it is likely he would have been known as Iain Beag Mhic Dhomhnaill Mhic Uisdein. The same Iain Beag, so-called…

According to the Old Statistical Account, written in 1793 by the minister of Eddrachillis, the Rev. Alexander Falconer. There was a man who lived on Handa island named Little John McDhoil Mhic Huishdan, in Gaelic it is likely he would have been known as Iain Beag Mhic Dhomhnaill Mhic Uisdein. The same Iain Beag, so-called because he wasn’t very tall, was renowned as a powerfully strong fighter, skilled with sword and bow. He is said to have kept a war galley or birlinn with between 12 and 20 armed men at his disposal, to ensure he was always ready for any challenge or attack. The island of Handa does not offer much in the way of shelter against the prevailing winds from the southwest and south, and it is likely that he kept the birlinn  hauled up the beach near where the remains of the old township are today, or moored in Tarbet. Falconer comments that there were allegations that he used his base on Handa to carry out a career as a pirate, but then says there is no proof of this.

16th Century Highlanders

During the reign of James VI the Laird of Lewis died, and a dispute erupted regarding his succession, as clan rules often did not result in the eldest automatically succeeding. The laird was said to have had up to 60 natural sons with several women. However, a dispute broke out between the oldest and youngest sons. The local judge, breitheamh, played a crucial role in the decision, to appoint the younger son as the new laird. The eldest son eventually retired to the mainland in the wake of the dispute, letting his resentment fester for several years.

At some point news came to the judge that a French vessel was illegally catching fish in the Minch. The judge instructed the young laird to seek out and apprehend the offending French fishing boat. He succeeded in catching the vessel, but the weather turned foul and they were both forced to seek shelter from the raging storm. To the misfortune of the young chief, their place of safety turned out to be anything but, as they had laid anchor just below the base of the still-smouldering elder MacLeod. 

Ardvreck Castle, Loch Assynt built in the late 16th Century

Upon learning of the identity of the sailors and their leader in the bay below, the older brother immediately sent a party of men to seize his sibling. Without any further ceremony, he had him hanged from the nearest tree. He had hoped, after despatching the man he saw as an usurper, to simply and straightforwardly succeed as the uncontested chief. 

After these events, the entire MacLeod clan seemed to have blamed the breitheamh, the Morrison judge, for the murder of the Macleod chief. Revenge on the breitheamh was now the main objective for the Macleod’s. They put out a contract on the judge’s head and entrusted the execution of this primarily to Iain Beag from Handa.  News of the plans reached the breitheamh, and he fled to the shelter of the Mackays in Durness. Iain Beag eventually learned where the judge had left his boat and laid an ambush. The unsuspecting Judge Morrison walked into the trap on his return and Iain Beag from Handa promptly slew both the judge and his brother. To add insult to injury Iain Beag followed up his dreadful deeds by sailing over to Lewis and marrying the poor judge’s widow.

While the OSA, states that this took place during the reign of King James VI, it is far more likely to have been a retelling of a medieval tale, if true, as sixteenth century records of the MacLeods of Lewis are relatively complete. But as a great storyteller once said…why let the truth get in the road of a good story.

Find out more about Clan Warfare of the 16th Centrury

Acknowledgements

Images:

Highlanders: Scots and Irish in the Thirty Years War. Copyright: Public Domain

Ardvreck Castle: By Paul Hermans. Copyright: Public Domain