PS 252 – The Red Hand in the MacDonalds’ Arms

Primary Sources

KB Lamh Dhearg Chlann Domhnuill / The Red Hand in the MacDonald’s Arms KB.23: 56

Notes on Gaelic Title

Làmh Dhearg Chlann Dòmhnaill Lamh Dhearg Chlann Domhnuill / The Red Hand in the MacDonald’s Arms KB. The Red Hand of Clan Donald.

Roderick Cannon (2009)

Historical Notes

This tune undoubtedly connects with a poetic dispute between two Irish bards around 1690. One bard, Diarmuid Mac an Bard, claimed the ‘Red Hand’ for the crest of the Magennis clan in response to a Bard called ‘Cormac’. At that point another bard, Eoghan O Donnghaile, got into the wrangle claiming the ‘Red Hand’ for the O’Neills. Finally, the Scottish poet MacMhuirich entered the fray with two poems castigating both of the Irishmen and pointing out that it belonged to MacDonald of the Isles.

This is Henry Whyte’s retelling of the legend (1911):

How the MacDonalds got the Red Hand which is ever associated with them is well known. Somerled of the Isles had three sons – Dugald, Reginald, and Duncan – who disputed as to which of them should have the lands of Slate in Skye. At last it was decided that each of them should man his own birlinn and race for Skye from some of the other Western Isles, and that the land should belong to the son who first placed his hand on it. In this race Dugald’s boat was soon left behind. Duncan’s boat began to leak at the plug, which he withdrew, inserted his thumb to make it tight, and urging his men was on the point of winning. When Reginald saw this, he placed his left hand on the gunwale of his own boat, severed it at the wrist with a blow from the claymore in his right, threw it ashore, and as the red hand was the first to touch the land he got himself declared winner. (Historic, biographic and legendary notes to the tunes by “Fionn”, p. 19)

And this is Henry Lee’s version (1920):

A romantic story of these times has been handed down by the seannachies. On one occasion when the galleys were approaching land held by the enemy, their leader, to urge on his followers, swore an oath that the clansman whose hand first touched the shore should be the owner of the land forever. The Clan Donald hero of the story sprang to the prow of his galley, and with a stroke of his dirk cut off his hand, and cast it upon the shore, thus obtaining the lands for himself and his descendants. To this day the crest of the MacDonalds is the bleeding hand, and the point where the hand was thrown is still shown in Skye, and known as Ru Barnaskitaig. (History of the Clan Donald, pp 22–23)

Keith Sanger 2015

Other Material

William Donaldson’s Set Tunes Notes (2014)

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