In June of 1297, two letters thought to be composed by Alexander MacDonald, acting bailiff for King Edward I of England1, describe the pursuit of perpetrators of crimes against the English crown. Alexander MacDonald, a.k.a., Alexander of Islay, had come into his position following the Anglo-Scottish War of 1296, after which, naturally, the Comyn-MacDougall alliance previously supported, if only indirectly as the government of Edward I’s choice for king of Scotland, John Balliol, had fallen out of favor with the English king.2

MacDonald asserted, first, that Alexander MacDougall of Argyll, the eldest member of that line, was guilty of committing crimes against the king, namely, by attacking MacDonald holdings in the western seaboard of Scotland. MacDonald also reported that Lochlan and Roderick MacRuari were plundering the islands of Skye and Lewis, and even worse, attempting to destroy the MacDonald fleet, some of which had been put under “ecclesiastical protection”.

In fairness to all parties, the crimes listed by Alexander MacDonald were seen in a slightly different light by his opponents.

Consolidation and control of the western seaboard had been a vague notion at best since the fall of the “King of the Isles,” a specter-like historical figure named Somerled of Argyll. Even during Norwegian rule, when the Norse expanded their domain south from the Orkneys along the western seaboard to Man, practical rule was established only by presence of force, and that meant longships filled with soldiers. Once the Norwegian king returned to Norway, Somerled with his fleet of galleys filled the void.

By the end of the 13th century, no political group in the theater of the British Isles was more aware of the need for control over the western seaboard than the Scottish government of John Balliol. As early as 1292/93, a strategy was developed towards stabilizing the clan rivalries between the descendents of Somerled in the northern isles of the Hebrides: “The crown was hampered in the west by having little land of its own, apart from Lorn, and therefore was in need of a strong local agent to assert its authority-a consistent theme in Scottish royal policy in the thirteenth century. The MacDougalls, as close allies of the Comyns, were ideal candidates for such a position.”

While the battle of Dunbar ended the ground-based defense of Balliol Scotland in 1296, the MacDougall fleet was not immediately brought to bay, the warring factions of the isles continuing the fight into the next spring
6 with the Bruce and MacDonald alliance supporting the English crown. Adding to the unrest in the isles and the mainland strongholds of the most mighty of the isle clans, was the imposition of a new power structure by Edward I following the War of 1296. From their point of view, most had not suffered great losses, and yet “their king had been removed by force and many of their natural leaders were absent…As individuals and groups, these Scots were now forced to confront major threats to their positions. Sheriffs and constables…were agents of a king who had trampled on the rights of their king and the liberties of their realm…By spring of 1297 many Scots of middle rank saw English rules as a direct threat to their security and safety. In the face of these threats they were prepared to take up arms.”7

The second of Alexander MacDonald’s letters indicates just such threat. At this point, Alexander of Argyll had been captured and made prisoner at Berwick Castle.
8 Roderick MacRuarie and his brother Lochlan were captured, but Lochlan escaped and, with Duncan MacDougall, a son of Alexander of Argyll, had retreated to Inverlochy Castle in Lochaber and was under the protection of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and Lochaber.9

Then, Edward I was informed: In front of Inverlochy Castle
10 “were two great galleys, than which there were none bigger in the islands.” (“duae magnae galeae fuerant, quibus in insulis non fuerant majores”)11 Here, there are two versions of the state of these galleys, Rixson indicating that the great ships were being “prepared…for sea,”12 while G.W.S. Barrow claims they were being outfitted for war.13

Either way, upon discovering the galleys of John Comyn, MacDonald’s mission changed from, purportedly administering the King of England’s justice to initiating a military action against, in this case, a neutral party, the Comyns. According to the letter, due to the fierce defense of the galleys, which lay close to the castles walls, MacDonald could not remove them “so that they wouldn’t be a danger to Edward’s subjects.” In lieu of that, he burned them.

No further reference is made by MacDonald pertaining to his primary mission, to capture Lochlan MacRuarie.

MacDonald’s actions beg the question: Just what threat did the galleys of John Comyn pose to warrant such a bold action against a neutral party? The answer must be two-fold, dealing with estimates of the size of these galleys compared to the size of the average West Highland galley of the day, and a summary of naval strategy of that time period.

Any consideration of West Highland galleys during 13th century must focus on the Scandinavian influence that had prevailed for nearly 500 years, from roughly 800 A.D., in the Orkneys and the Hebrides.
15 The West Highlands and the Hebrides have not produced definitive archeological artifacts of the types of ships in use during the 13th century; however, heraldic devices, seals, and manuscript illustrations have provided clear evidence of the Scandinavian, or Viking, influence on shipbuilding.16

While the most common representation of Scandinavian/Viking vessels is the longship, or the warships of the Viking era, archeological evidence of Scandinavian origin, as well as descriptions from the sagas of Norway and Iceland, indicate a fairly large variety of ship types, each serving a specific purpose. For example, the knorr, while built along similar lines to the longships, had a much deeper hull with decking fore and aft and was used as a cargo ship for commerce as well as for carrying supplies in support of an overseas expedition, as was the case when King Haakon IV of Norway plundered in Scotland in 1263. In fact, an attempt to recover a knorr beached by the Autumnal winds was most likely what caused the initial skirmishes that became known as the “Battle of Largs,” the battle often considered to be the final battle, insignificant as it seemed at the time, which wrested control of the Hebrides from Norway.

The skuta was an example of a small, fast ship, mentioned particularly in Egil’s Saga, as the means by which Egil escaped a much larger warship by rowing into shallow water where their attackers could not follow. The skuta, and the very similar karfi, were quite probably the favored type of vessel in the Hebrides. Since these ship types were considered, by the Norse, to be “light coastal vessels” with “speed being the particular hallmark of the skuta,”
18 these would’ve fit the conditions of the isles perfectly.

In the Norse tradition, the size of a vessel was measured by the number of oars, in the case of a boat, or the number of thwarts, or rooms, the space between the ribs of the vessel, in the case of ships. When measuring by thwarts, each thwart corresponds to one pair of oars, so a 10 thwart boat would have 20 oars.

There is no early evidence as to the size of Hebridean galleys except for the inference that can be made from mediaeval charters recording only one ship of 20 thwarts. Apart from this, for our time period, documentary records indicate that all other ships had 13 thwarts or less.

It can be surmised, however, and accounts of King Haakon using Highland galleys for missions up the lochs during the Scottish campaign of 1263 support this, that speed and maneuverability, as well as adaptability, were the primary concerns for the construction of West Highland galleys. In this environment, it was advantageous if the boats could be portaged, or carried, across strips of land, which demanded a smaller, lighter boat. Also, the lack of jetties and harbors in the isles not only created the necessity of light boats, which were easily beached and then removed back to the sea, but also for boats with low sides to make for easier loading and unloading. These galleys were most likely in the 8-12 thwart range, with anywhere from one to three men per oar, or up to six men per thwart.

The space between thwarts varied from boat to boat, so the number of thwarts was not a precise form of measurement, yet still, there are available estimates as to the actual size of these boats. Again, the Scandinavian tradition and relatively recent research provide valuable insight. The measurements of two finds, at Oseberg and at Gokstad, both ships very much like the inferred size and style of the West Highland galley, along with measurements from a source called the Flatoy Book, provide a fine sample, shown here from smallest to largest:
13 thwarter…18.5 meters
(Oseberg) 15  thwarter…22 meters
(Gokstad) 16 thwarter…24 meters
20 thwarter…28 meters
30 twarter…52 meters
Of note, the 30+ thwart class of ship came to dominate all sea fights and were considered to be the big battleships of the era. Considered by some to be he largest ship ever erected in Norway, the Kristsuden, the flag ship of King Haakon IV during his Scottish expedition, had 37 thwarts.23

Before consideration of ship size in accordance with fleet strategy, we must distinguish between raiding parties and invasion/expansion expeditions and the vessel requirements specific to each action.

During the early decades of the Viking Age (800 A. D. -roughly 1300 A.D.), the primary forces encountered by the non-Scandinavian world were raiding parties. These groups were engaging in piratical activities and, as such, speed, versatility, and maneuverability were balanced against the sea-worthiness of the vessel and troop capacity. Ships with a line similar to the Gokstad ship, of 16 thwarts, but most likely a bit broader and heavier depending on the length of the journey in open sea as opposed to coastal waters, maintained the perfect balance of all considerations, a shallow draft that would allow river travel while delivering a sizable force quickly and, sometimes even more importantly, remove that force quickly. These raiding ships were not built as “war ships,” but as troop transport ships, in part, because the first century of the Viking raiding parties met a Western Europe which had virtually no sea defenses. There are very few examples of this type of ship in battle at sea.

On the other hand, the concept of a war fleet originated in Scandinavia as a battleground at sea. In the saga of Haakon Haakonssonn the tone is set, “They said it was the Norsemen’s wont to take to their ships when they would be at strife.”

The first centuries of the Vikings era were marked by strife as sea-kings erected powerful fleets with which they attempted to establish their authority over regions of the mainland, with varying degrees of success. All power, and so, all war, was bound up in the ships, and it was during this time that classes of ships specifically designed to engage in battle at sea evolved.
26 As sea-kings became regional kings, royal ships came to be associated with royal power, and the model of the great battleships was established.27

The sagas often equate the power and stature of a king with his ships. From Egil’s Saga, “In the spring he had a big long ship built, with a dragon prow, (and) had it equipped as splendidly as possible. …He became powerful and spent a lot of thought on the display of his ships and weapons.”
28 The connection between ships and power was direct. The battleships, especially, represented wealth in the form of capital investments of labor and natural resources, as well as military might and the means of expansion.29

In fact, the wealth that a great ship or a battleship represented, the power gained through ownership of one of these vessels, dictated the ultimate goal of battle at sea. Thus, the aim of the naval engagement was to acquire the enemy’s warships. The battles were not fought under sail, and, in fact, there is much evidence in the sagas that the mast was always lowered during a fight. These battles essentially became contests between floating fortresses. The aim was to maneuver into a favorable position, all the while engaging in ranged warfare, mostly with arrows, but as the distance between ships decreased, rocks and pieces of metal were thrown as well, and then grapple the ships together to form a sort of “fenced arena” in which hand-to-hand combat took place, the victor removing his opponent overboard and manning the opponent’s vessel.

The great battleships evolved with the objectives of these naval engagements in mind. According to the fighting techniques of the days, first and foremost, they were erected to be as high as possible so that the crews might stand at the top strake (the side plank nearest the gunwale, the highest on-deck point above the water line) and shoot arrows down into the enemy ship. Also, the height would prevent the enemy from easily boarding the battleship, while making it possible to board the enemy’s ship from above. Essentially, the great battleships created the classic “high ground” advantage on the water.

Surrounding the battleship, the great ships (twenty-fivers) and the smaller, faster vessels complimented the strategy with greater maneuverability and speed, attacking and providing support where needed. Often, the larger boats would be attached to the battleship to make for a more stable fighting platform, while the smaller, lighter and faster craft would remain mobile. Again, ships with high sides had an overwhelming advantage in battle at sea.

In Norway, these battles always took place on the enclosed waters of fjords and sounds, a bay or the lee of an island, which provided tolerable waters for maneuvering and marksmanship.
33 In the isles of the Hebrides, while there is little evidence available, poetry, commentary, and even grave slabs have provided evidence of a similar strategy of naval engagement as to the Norse, but with smaller, lighter vessels with greater speed and maneuverability than the great ships of the Norse, more time was spent in ranged warfare as the ships maneuvered for position.34

It is perhaps the last Scottish expedition by a Norwegian that we have our best model for the control the control of the western seaboard. Here we see the structure of the Norse battle fleet being implemented as an invasion force.

With largest ship ever built in Norway as his flag ship, Haakon IV was not only displaying his royalty and wealth, but also a show of might that enabled him to ravage 1/3 of Scotland, mostly through the use of Highland galleys sent up the rivers and lochs with the assurance that any Scottish pursuit would end at the high gunwales of the Norse battleship, Kristsuden.

Not only does this expedition provide the basic structure of a fleet which might gain absolute control over the waters of the western seaboard of Scotland, but it most likely established a regional memory of the power of such a fleet, a memory which would be passed down through the families involved in this struggle. Those families are dominated by the families of the West Highlands, the descendents of Somerled. In fact, the strongest supporter of Haakon IV was the uncle of Lochlan and Roderick MacRuarie, Dugald McRuarie. Meanwhile, Ewen MacDougall of Argyll allied himself with the king of the Scots, Alexander III, even naming his son, Alexander.
36 This was the same Alexander that was mentioned pursued by Alexander MacDonald, bailiff to Edward I, in the spring of 1297.37

This tradition of sea power was summed up in the great ships of Norway, and likewise, in the Highland galleys of John Comyn which MacDonald discovered at Inverlochy Castle. Based on the regional memory of Haakon IV’s fleet and MacDonald’s observation that these galleys were the largest in all the isles,
38 as well as from his decision to give up on the capture of Lochlan MacRuarie and instead direct his efforts and those of his allies towards either confiscating or destroying these powerful vessels, there’s no reason to doubt that Comyn’s galleys very closely resembled those warships classed as the great ships of Norse ship building tradition.

Were they of the size of the great battleships? They probably were not, as the ship building tradition would demand a ship with a bit more maneuverability than the battleship class for the isles environment. Even in the time of Haakon IV, the Kristsuden, seemed a bit unwieldy in the waters of the western seaboard, at one point, requiring no less than 8 anchors to keep it from the fate of a supply ship and several longships that were blown ashore in the of the Autumnal gales.

It is quite probable that, just as the Norse had come to rely mainly on the second class of great ships, those around the size of 25 thwarts,
40 the shipwrights of John Comyn would have employed those hard-earned lessons and built accordingly. None the less, as MacDonald came upon Inverlochy Castle in pursuit of his quarry, much to his consternation, he came face-to-face with two galleys of such a length and height that they represented the total annihilation of his own family’s sea power. He acted accordingly.


1R. Andrew MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland’s Western Seaboard, c.1100-c.1336, Great Britain 1997, p. 166
2Dennis Rixson, The West Highland Galley, Edinburgh 1998, p.13
3Ibid. p.13
4R. Andrew MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles, Great Britain 1997, p.39

5Alan Young, Robert the Bruce’s Rivals: The Comyns, 1212-1314, East Lothian, 1997, p.127
6Michael Brown, The Wars of Scotland 1214-1371, Edinburgh Univ. Press Ltd., 2004, p.181
7Ibid. p.181
8MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles, p. 164
9Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p.15
10Ibid. p.15
11Ibid. p.208
12Ibid. p. 16
13G. W. S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots: Government, Church and Society from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 1973, 2003, p. 347
14 Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p.16
15Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p. 115
16Ibid., p. 128
17MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles, p. 113
18Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p. 115
19A. W. Brogger, Haakon Shetelig, The Vikings Ships: Their ancestry and evolution, New York, 1951, 1971, p. 126
20Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p. 74
21Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p.73
22Brogger, Shetelig, The Vikings Ships, p. 144
23Ibid., pp. 144-148
24Ibid., p. 132
25Brogger, Shetelig, The Viking Ships, p.140
26Ibid., p.140
27Ibid., pp. 136-137
28Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p. 119
29Ibid., p. 119
30Brogger, Shetelig, The Viking Ships, p. 172
31Ibid., p. 146
32Rixson, The West Highland Galley, pp. 81-82
33Brogger, Shetelig, The Viking Ships, p.172
34Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p.82
35MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles, pp. 112-15
36Ibid., p. 112
37Ibid., pp. 157-8
38Rixson, The West Highland Galley, p. 208
39MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles, p. 113
40Brogger, Shetelig, The Viking Ships, p. 159

The Comyn War Galleys of Inverlochy
Copywrite © Bruce Alan Archer - 2013
Clan Cumming Society of the United States