The Battle of Renfrew took place on the 20th of October, 1164.
You can lead your men to battle, but can you make ‘em fecht? Some are led, but Somhairle was not; he was a leader. That is until he encountered the Faeries from the Faroes in the grey hours of dawn before the Battle of Renfrew. Some histories would have it that Somerled was assassinated; betrayed and murdered in his tent somewhere near Inchinnan, close to the site of Glasgow Airport, by a page or by a nephew in the pay of King Malcolm IV. Other legends suggest that there was a supernatural element to the death of Somerled and that he was called to account by an emissary of the grim reaper; a spirit in the night or the sort of phantom you might find in a Norse Saga. There is even confusion around the actuality of the Battle of Renfrew; whether indeed a battle occurred. Nigel Tranter presents the story in his own immaculate style, in his novel entitled ‘The Lord of the Isles’. However, unless we reject out of hand all contemporary or near contemporary sources, Norse, Manx, Scots and Irish, Somerled, self-styled King of the South Isles, died on the 20th of October, 1164, and he died during the Battle of Renfrew.
The assassination theories emerged much later and at a time when it suited the historians of Clan Donald to present a different picture of their great ancestor, Somerled mac Gillebride, Rí Innse Gall (Rex Insularum or King of the Isles). You see, the Macdonald Clan would have it that their ancient line goes back to Somerled and beyond, with their ‘sloinneachan’ (lineage) going all the way back to the eponymous Righ an Domhain, literally ‘King of the Universe’, via Conn Ceud Cathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles). Laughingly, the ‘King of the Universe’ is supposed to have conquered the whole of Europe, from the Middle East to the Atlantic coast of Spain, and was a great warrior who made mighty Rome tremble on its foundations. Somerled's legacy as a progenitor of the Clans Macdonald derives from the three sons of his marriage to Ragnhild, the daughter of Olaf I, the Red Godredson, the Norse King of Man and the Isles. Aonghus went on to form Clan McRuari, the descendants of Dughall went on to form Clan MacDougall, and the descendants of Ragnald's son Donald Mor McRanald became Clan Donald, who went on to found the dynasty of the Lordship of the Isles. Funily enough, in an unpublished 2005 DNA study, Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University, concluded that as many as 500,000 people alive today are descended from Somerled. That would make him the second most common, currently known ancestor, after Genghis Khan.
Somerled was a great warrior in whose veins coursed the proud, martial blood of both Viking and Gael – the race of Gall-Gaidheal (‘Foreign-Gaels’). By 1156, he had carved out a vast fiefdom that included the isles from Bute to Ardnamurchan Point, in addition to Kintyre, Argyll and Lorne on the western mainland. Two years later, as the outcome of the Sea-Battle of the Isle of Man, fought against his brother-in-law, Gofraidh mac Amhlaibh (Godred II, the Black Olafson or Godfrey the Black), King of Mann and the Isles, Somerled ruled a kingdom that stretched from the Isle of Man to the Butt of Lewis. Fiercely independent, Somerled considered he owed no allegiance to any man – and certainly not to Malcolm the Maiden, King of Scots. In contrast, the ‘Book of Clanranald’ and Hugh MacDonald's ‘History of the Macdonalds’ gave Somerled a bit of a makeover and presented him as a man of peace, and a victim of circumstance and betrayal.
The Battle of Renfrew was one of the most decisive battles ever fought on Scottish soil and it was fought between the army of Malcolm IV and the citizens of Glasgow, led by Walter fitz Alan, the High Steward of Scotland, and a combined force of Islesmen and their Norse allies, led by Somerled mac Gillebride. It was prompted in part by the expansionist strategy of Malcolm the Maiden. After he had conquered Galloway in 1161 and set about Moray in 1163, his next target was very likely to have been the Isles. This was evidenced by the Norman-French family of the High Steward (later to become the Stewart Kings and later still, the Stuarts) having pushed its feudal boundaries to the shores of the Firth of Clyde from its castleton at Renfrew. From Somerled’s perspective, that was dangerously close to his territory of Argyll and the Isles. Of course, from Malcolm’s standpoint, Somerled’s apparent power posed the threat, and that led to the King’s deployment of fitz Alan and his demand that Somerled surrender his domains into the hands of the Crown; with the concession that he’d hold them thereafter as a vassal.
All of that coincided with a rebellion of discontented Nobles in Moray, which was intended to depose Malcolm and replace him with a ‘puppet’ monarch; William mac William or ‘the Boy of Egremont’, the son of William mac Duncan and grandson of Duncan II. Somerled’s family was interrelated with that mob and consequently, having more than enough incentive to say “Up yours, mate!” to Malcolm IV, he threw his weight behind the Moray uprising. Aware of the growing army at Renfrew, Somerled launched his own pre-emptive strike against the Steward’s army. He assembled an army of around 15,000 Islesmen from all parts of the west, including Argyll, Kintyre, the Hebrides, and some Norsemen out of Dublin, and sailed to the Firth of Clyde in his fleet of birlinns. He advanced on Renfrew and there the great battle was fought on the 20th of October, 1164. The royal army consisted of knights and armoured men-at-arms and in truth, Somerled's more lightly armed warriors were no match against them and were ultimately overwhelmed. Somerled was wounded in the leg by a javelin and then killed by a sword thrust. His eldest son from his first marriage, Gillabrigte (Gillecallum), died by his side. Many others were slain, before the remainder, having lost some heart at the death of their illustrious leader, escaped back to the galleys.
They battle was dramatically described in the Latin poem, ‘Carmen de Morte Sumerlidi’ (Song on the Death of Somerled), which exulted in the victory of the citizens of Glasgow thus: “And in the first cleft of battle the baleful leader fell. Wounded by a javelin, slain by a sword, Somerled died. And the raging wave swallowed his son, and the wounded of many thousand fugitives; because when this fierce leader was struck down, the wicked took to flight; and very many were slaughtered, both on sea and on land.” The Steward was perceived to have not only saved Glasgow and Renfrew, but to have saved the country from being overrun by savage hordes. To the victor the spoils – and ‘the Tell’.