We know very little about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig from comtemporary documents1. The only source I know of written during his life time2 tells us that he lived at Cross, in Morar; that his brother was Allan MacDonald, 5th chief of the MacDonalds of Morar; and that both he and his brother followed the Catholic religion.
Ranald was, according to tradition, born in 1662. MacDonald genealogies say that he was the third son of Young Allan, the 4th chief of the MacDonalds of Morar3. The genealogies say that Ranald had two sons, John MacDonald of Cleadell, Eigg, and Donald.
The MacDonalds of Morar are a sept of Clanranald, and Ranald is said to have been Clanranald’s factor (estate manager)6, and to have travelled with the Clanranald chief on his journeys around the Islands7. Ranald is also said to have worked the drove roads, taking the cattle to market in Falkirk8.
Ranald would, like his relatives, have supported the Jacobite cause, though I have seen no mention of his politics. Ranald’s younger brother, Alexander MacDonald, 6th of Morar, is said to have been “out” with Dundee in 16899, presumably fighting at the Battle of Killiekrankie.
At some point in his life, Ranald is said to have taken over a farm on the island of Eigg. However it’s not clear to me when this might have been10, and he may have returned to Morar later in life. He is supposed to have been buried in Eigg, in an old tomb inside the ruined church of St Donnan11.
Ranald’s main legacy is his music. He is said to have been a celebrated performer on the pipes, fiddle and clarsach12, and to have composed great music which is still performed today. We know of one student of his, who is said to have learned piping from him; Domhnall Mac Dhomhnaill ’Ic Lachlainn (Donald MacGuaire or MacQuarrie), a famous piper of Eigg in the late 17th and early 18th century, known as Am Piobaire Mór13.
1. Henry Whyte (Fionn), ‘Historic, Biographic and Legendary Notes’ in David Glen, Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd (p.20) says “in a MS. history of the Clan Ranalds, dated 1700, he is referred to as ‘The best player upone the pype now living.’”. I did wonder if this source might be Colin S. MacDonald, Manuscript History of the Clan Ranald (unpublished), Kingston, Ontario, but this is aparrently dated 1954. No-one I have asked has seen this manuscript, or been able to suggest another source, and I have not been able to corroborate this quote. Keith Sanger has suggested that the tradition date of Ranald’s death, 1741, is wrong, and that it was his son who died in that year. Keith points out contemporary documents which may refer to Ranald, implying he was living in Morar when he died around 1712. See Final Chords, online at wirestrungharp.com and also Keith Sanger, ‘Ranald MacAilean Oig; fact and fiction’, West Highland Notes & Queries Series 4. No.1. (August 2016). It seems likely that further archive research may well turn up other contemporary references to Ranald which may confirm or disprove some traditional claims made about him.^
2. A List of Papists within the Shire of Inverness, 1705. National Records of Scotland CH1/2/5/3 f.177. This document, under the heading “in Morar”, lists first “Allan Mack Donald vic Coul of Morar" and then "Ranald Mc Donald of Cross his brother”. Transcribed in Miscellany of the Maitland Club volume III, 1843, p.430., and by Keith Sanger, in Final Chords, online at wirestrungharp.com ^
3. A & A. MacDonald, ‘The Genealogy of Clan Donald’, in The Clan Donald, vol 3, 1904, p.254. There is a tradition amongst the Rhetland MacDonalds that they are descended from Ranald, but this is not supported by the MacDonald genealogies. ^
4. J. Calder Ross, ‘Memorial Stone at Kildonan, Eigg’, Scottish Notes & Queries Vol IV, No. 9, February 1891.^
5. Rev. Charles MacDonald, Moidart, or among the Clanranalds 1889, p.99, says “...without having studied at Padua, he developed an extraordinary knowledge...”, which I take to be the author making a rhetorical point, rather than picking up on a tradition that Ranald was in Italy. ^
9. ‘Minor Highland Septs, No. 2: The MacDonalds of Morar, styled “Mac Dughail”’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. XV, 1838-9, p.65. ^
10. Ranald witnessed a bond signed at Kildonnan, Eigg, in 1678, acording to Keith Sanger, ‘Ranald MacAilean Oig; fact and fiction’, West Highland Notes & Queries Series 4. No.1. (August 2016). Was he already living at Sandavore by that date?^
11. J. Calder Ross, ‘Memorial Stone at Kildonan, Eigg’, Scottish Notes & Queries Vol IV, No. 9, February 1891. Also Norman MacPherson, ‘Notes on Antiquities from the Island of Eigg’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, March 1878. It is curious, considering the traditional date of 1741, that the stone in his alleged tomb has the date 1641 carved on it. I have seen one claim that he died in 1641 presumably based on the stone date. Keith Sanger, in Final Chords, online at wirestrungharp.com says “A circumstantial case can be made that he in fact had died before 1715”. ^
12. D.C. MacPherson (Abrach), ‘Raonull Mac Ailein Oig’, in An Gaidheal, summer 1874, p.73: “Fidheall no clàrsach bu choimh-dheis; agus cha do leag a lùdag air sionnsar, pìobaire b’fhèarr.” ^