Time to honour a forgotten national hero

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SCOTLAND should celebrate an unsung hero of the stature of William Wallace who saved his country from being overrun by Norsemen and becoming a Norwegian-speaking nation in the 12th century, claims a writer.

Somerled, who was born around 1100 in Morvern, Argyll, grew up as a warrior hermit, leading the local people against the Norsemen seeking to control the area of which he had pronounced himself thane.

His success apparently helped to preserve the Gaelic language.

However, King Malcolm IV became concerned at Somerled’s increasing power. Somerled marched on Malcolm at the Clyde in 1163, but within a year Somerled’s army had dispersed and its leader was dead.

A book about Somerled has been written by Kathleen McPhee, who says that although comparatively little is known about him he deserves a place in the pantheon of Scottish heroes.

She said: "Although Somerled led troops against the Scottish king I do regard him as equally as important as William Wallace for his role in fighting off the marauding Norsemen who had assumed significant pockets of power. "The Norsemen were operating from Shetland down the west coast of Scotland to the Isle of Man, Dublin and Anglesey, so his contribution in driving them away from Scottish shores should not be underestimated.

"It safeguarded the future of the Gaelic language.

"His power base was the north-west coast of Scotland, from where he was able to proclaim himself Lord of the Islands. His legacy also includes fathering the Clan Donald which went on to produce great soldiers as well as fostering strong relationships with Ireland.

"His pioneering work in shipbuilding - which included introduction of the moveable stern rudder - also gave him the edge over the Norsemen and meant his sea campaigns against them were successful.

"Despite his achievements there is little in terms of monuments left to honour him - the exception being Saddell Abbey in Kintyre. He has been sidelined beyond the curtains of history."

However, Dr David Brown, senior lecturer in Scottish history at Glasgow University, claims the book has taken its stories from 17th-century tales of Somerled.

He said: "Somerled is very famous and one should not say he has been neglected. His main legacy is that he is the founding father of the major families of the Western Isles, including the MacDonalds and the McDougalls.

"In the 12th century the political situation was complex, with a lot of warring factions which Somerled was part of. Although he took up arms against the Scottish king the concept of an independent Scotland is an anachronism at his time.

"It is more the 17th-century tales that tell of his successes, but in reality the situation was more complex than that."

Somerled, by Kathleen McPhee, is published this month by Neil Wilson Publishing.