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John of Islay, Lord of the Isles, lived from about 1305 to 1386. He was also known as Eoin MacDomhnaill or Iain mac Aonghais MacDhòmhnaill. John was the first chief of Clan Donald to claim the title of Lord of the Isles. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John was the son of Angus Óg of Islay, who had fought alongside Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. The death of Robert the Bruce in 1329 brought conflict and confusion, as Edward Balliol, with English support, sought to wrest the crown of Scotland from the head of Robert's infant son, David II. Edward Balliol was desperate for support from any source, and offered John of Islay new lands in Kintyre and Knapdale as well as the islands of Skye and Lewis, in return for his support. John accepted, but there is little evidence of his support for Balliol taking any concrete form.
Instead, John wrote King Edward III of England asking for his confirmation of the land grants made by Edward Balliol. In his letter, John signed himself Dominus Insularum or "Lord of the Isles". It was the first time this title had been used, and as a result John of Islay can be regarded as the first true "Lord of the Isles". When David II returned to power, John of Islay was initially regarded as a traitor. In the end practical politics prevailed, and in return for pledging himself to David II, John was allowed to keep all the lands he had accumulated except for Kintyre, Knapdale and the Isle of Skye.
Meanwhile, John had married into the related Clan Rauri, and when the head of the clan was murdered by William, Earl of Ross, in 1346, John claimed the clan's lands on behalf of his wife. These added to his his existing holdings Knoydart, Moidart, Arisaig and Morar, and the islands of North and South Uist, Benbecula, Barra, Eigg and Rum. He governed his domain from an administrative centre at Finlaggan on Islay.
The defeat of the Scots by the English at the Battle of Neville Cross in 1346, and the imprisonment in England of David II, opened the way for John of Islay to further consolidate his power. An important step was his building on a long-standing friendship with Robert Stewart by taking Robert's daughter Margaret as his second wife in 1350. Robert Stewart became Robert II of Scotland on the death of David II in 1371, further strengthening John of Islay's position.
John built on his relationship with the Stewarts by persuading Ranald, his oldest son from his first marriage, to give up his claim to Clan Chieftainship to Donald (or Domhnall), his oldest son from his second marriage, and Robert II's grandson. In return John gave Ranald the lands he had inherited via his first wife from Clan Rauri, in the process creating the Clanranald branch of the family.
John of Islay was a consummate politician and diplomat rather than a warrior, and under the guise of "Lord of the Isles" he was able to recreate most of Somerled's Kingdom of the Isles. But while gaining virtually all the powers of a king, John made sure he never gave the impression he was laying claim to be one.
He was all too aware of the danger that would be posed by the Scottish King should the Lord of the Isles ever be perceived as a threat to Scotland. This was, sadly, a lesson his successors failed to learn.