Battle of Bloody Bay

In the early 1480’s Angus Óg,1 the illegitimate son of John Macdonald ,3 led a revolt to overthrow his father and supplant him as Lord of the Isles.1 John Macdonald attempted to block Angus Óg by resigning many of his titles, lands associated with the Lordship to the Scottish crown at Sterling. To ensure he would still have power and prestige after the uprising, Macdonald retained to himself only the Barony of Kinloss in Murray, the Barony of Kinnaird in Buchan, and the Barony of Cairndonald in the West.1 Macdonald’s resignation drew King James IV directly into the conflict in Western Isles.

James IV sent several expeditions to confront Angus Óg. The third was led by the Earls of Argyll and Atholl and was accompanied by Macdonald himself. Macdonald called on Hector Odhar Maclean as his Lieutenant-General1 to persuade those loyal to the old Lordship to join the King’s forces; among those who answered that call were the Macleans,2 the Macleods of Harris,2 and the Macneils of Barra,2 among a few others.1 The rest of the vassals of the Lordship had already aligned themselves to Angus Óg.

Argyll and Atholl appeared fearful to engage Angus Óg, and failed to draw him into battle on their terms. The King’s forces wanted a land-battle and waited on the northern shores of Mull near the present town of Tobermory. As Maclean of Ardgour patrolled the Sound of Mull in a galley, Angus Óg‘s fleet rounding the Point of Ardnamurchan. Ardgour immediately displayed his colours to signal he was ready for battle. Angus Óg assumed that Hector Odhar, his father’s Lieutenant General, was aboard the galley challenging him and thus turned his fleet to intercept Ardgour.2

When Hector Odhar saw the colors raised aboard Ardgour’s galley, he knew the battle was upon them. The indecisiveness of Argyll and Atholl had left the King’s forces unready. Angus Óg‘s fleet was ready and outnumbered Ardgour’s single galley. Hector Odhar and Macdonald rushed to relieve Ardgour, but the battle was already in progress and going badly for the kings’ forces. 2

When the chief of the Macleods was killed, his kinsmen unfurled the Fairy Flag, believed to have magical powers that could turn the tide of battle in favor of the one who unfurled it. Upon seeing the Fairy Flag the Macleods who had aligned with Angus Óg switched sides and began fighting for King’s forces.5 Unfortunately, the battle had already been decided and the King’s forces were soundly defeated.

Angus Óg took many prisoners, including his father, John Macdonald ,1 and Hector Odhar, Macdonald’s Lieutenant-General.1 Many others were killed as they sought refuge ashore in the aftermath of the battle.2 Among those killed after the battle were 50 Macleans who had taken refuge in a cave. Angus Óg‘s men smoked the men out and massacred them as they ran out to escape the smoke.4

Angus Óg intended to execute Hector Odhar on his own galley, fortunately the Chief of Clanranald intervened saying that, “he would have no-one to bicker with if Maclean were gone.”4 Though Hector Odhar’s life was spared, he was forced to give “his oath of fidelity” to Angus Óg4, the undisputed new Lord of the Isles.

Though the exact date of the Battle of Bloody Bay, or Ba ‘na folia3 in Scots Gaelic, is unknown, it certainly happened before 14884. Although some have determined the year as 1482,1, 3 it is more likely that the battle took place in 1484.2, 4


  1. 1.  MacLean, J. P. A History of the Clan MacLean from Its First Settlement at Duard Castle, in the Isle of Mull, to the Present Period. Cincinnati: R. Clarke, 1889. 1p50-60. Print.
  2. 2.  Sinclair, Alexander. The Clan Gillean. Charlotteown: Haszard and Moore, 1899. p57
  3. 3. &nbps;Seneachie. An Historical and Genealogical Account of the Clan Maclean. London: Smiht, Elder, and Co. Corrnhill, 1838. p24. Print.
  4. 4.  Maclean-Bristol, Nicholas. Warriors and Priests: The History of the Clan Maclean, 1300-1570. East Linton, East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell, 1995. 4p70-75. Print.
  5. 5.  MacLeod, Roderick Charles (1927). The MacLeods of Dunvegan. Edinburgh: Privately printed for the Clan MacLeod Society. pp. 68–71.

Written September 23, 2014