Drumnacoub – A Bloody Battle in the Far North

Battle of Drumnacoub (between 1427 and 1433)

The Kyle of Tongue

The Kyle of Tongue

This battle was an internal feud among the men of Clan MacKay but also involved some Sutherland men. A disastrous battle, it led to the loss of many senior members of the clan and most of the belligerents on both sides.

The origins of the battle begin with an ongoing feud between the MacKays and their neighbours the Sutherland Clan. In 1370 the MacKay chief had been murdered by the Sutherlands in Dingwall. This had led to considerable acrimony between both clans as you can imagine and finally in 1426 Angus Du MacKay and his son Neil marched into Sutherland lands to take revenge. They met the Sutherland clan at Harpisdale.

The battle was more or less fought to a stalemate with no clear winner and considerable slaughter on either side. News of the conflict reached James I in Edinburgh. James wasn’t exactly having the easiest of times and frustrated by yet another inter-clan war he rode north to Inverness and demanded that the clan leaders submit to him. Angus duly complied and volunteered his son as a hostage to guarantee his clan’s good behaviour. Neil was taken to the Bass rock. an island prison in the outer Firth of Forth. During his imprisonment he was given the nickname ‘Vass’ a phonetic spelling of ‘Bass’

While this was going on three cousins of Angus Du: the brothers Thomas Mackay, Morgan Mackay, and Neil Neilson Mackay had a dispute with the Laird of Freswick – a man by the name of Mowat. Thomas pursued him to the chapel of St Duffus in the town of Tain. Mowat claimed sanctuary at the chapel but Thomas killed him anyway and burned down the chapel for good measure. As anyone who has followed the fortunes of Robert the Bruce will know murdering someone in a house of worship was a serious breach of etiquette and burning it down was even worse, so once again James I was forced to intervene so he denounced and outlawed Thomas, promising his land and possessions as a reward for his capture dead or alive.

Angus Moray (of Clan Sutherland) apprehended Thomas and handed him over to the law, however there was clear suspicion that Thomas’ own brothers; Morgan and Neil Neilson had assisted Angus Murray for a share of the spoils. Thomas was carted off to Inverness and executed and this apparent betrayal within the clan (made even worse by conspiring with a Sutherland) split the clan.

The Earl of Sutherland – seeing a good opportunity to break the power of the MacKay clan further supported Morgan and Neil Neilson by offering his own daughters in marriage (though they had already married Moray’s daughters). As well as helping them make a bid for the MacKay lands.

Back in Caithness Angus Du and his illegitimate son John Aberach Mackay were in a tight spot. Angus was by now an old man and had no will to fight, preferring to make some sort of settlement with his cousins. He offered all his land apart from Strathnaver but they refused the deal, intending to take all of MacKay lands for themselves. At this point Angus’ illegitimate second son John Aberach Mackay stepped in to advise the elderly chief and offered to defend the MacKay lands or die trying.

Some time between 1427 and 1433 (exact dates are unclear) the two sides met at Drumnacoub (Druim na coub, Drum-ne-coub) a few miles from the coastal village of Tongue on the North East coast.

The battle was a long and terrible one with both sides suffering heavy losses, by the end of the day Neil Mackay, Morgan Mackay and Angus Moray were all dead, John Aberach Mackay was severely wounded (possibly loosing an arm) and lay critical on the battlefield and very few from around 3,000 men (around 1,500 on either side by some estimates) were left standing.

Angus Du in despair asked to be carried to the battlefield to search for his son John but an opportunistic Sutherland archer spotted him and killed him with a well aimed arrow.

Shortly after the battle the remaining MacKay clan had to consider who would succeed as chief. Many supported John despite his illegitimacy but as fortune would have it Neil ‘Vass’ MacKay escaped from imprisonment at the Bass rock and made his way back north (it turned out the governor was married to a MacKay and she possibly helped him break out). John deferred to the legitimate heir and Neil was made chief. John was given lands around Lochnaver.

Neil pursued the Sutherlands who had supported the potential usurpers and a year later took revenge at the Battle of Sandside Chase. The widow of Neil Neilson and his son were given fairly rough treatment at the hands of those loyal to Angus Du’s side and for their own safety the moved to Olrig in Caithness. John dropped the name MacKay and became known as John Bain, progenitor of the Bain Family.


About rodger moffet

Rodger is the owner of ScotClans.com.

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