MacDonnell, Alasdair (Alexander) MacColla (d. 1647), Gaelic lord, was the third son of Coll MacGillespie and (most probably) Mary, daughter of Ranald MacJames of Smerby: both parents were MacDonnells, but the use of fixed hereditary surnames was not normal practice in Gaelic Scotland. The context that shaped his life was the decline of the clan Donald and the corresponding rise of the Campbells. His father emerged from the internecine and inter-clan struggles that surrounded the death of Angus MacDonald in 1614 as a resentful tenant of the Campbells on the Hebridean island of Colonsay, where MacColla was brought up. When he was about twenty-five years old, an opportunity to recover the possessions and position lost to the Campbells was presented by the opposition of the covenanters to Charles I. In 1638 Randal MacDonnell (qv), second earl of Antrim, proposed to come to Charles's aid by mounting an expedition from Ulster, with the proviso that he be rewarded with a grant of former MacDonald lands in the west of Scotland. This bid to revive the clan Donald under his leadership did not survive the contemptuous dismissal of Lord Deputy Wentworth (qv) as to the plan's feasibility, but Archibald Campbell, the covenanting eighth earl of Argyll, was prompted to preemptive action. In June 1639 Coll and two of his sons were imprisoned and Alasdair and his brother Ranald took refuge with the MacDonnells of Ulster. Some months later, Colonsay was granted to a Campbell. It seems to have been with a view to taking hostages as bargaining counters that Alasdair and Ranald mounted an unsuccessful attack on Islay in November 1640, some months after the second bishops’ war had ended in a truce.
The rebellion that broke out in Ulster in October 1641 did not extend to north Antrim, where a mixed regiment of protestant and catholic companies was raised to defend the earl's estates, with MacColla as one of two catholic captains. This arrangement worked well for some months, but the success of the rebels and the heightening anxiety of the settlers fostered mutual distrust as both parties became convinced that the alliance could not be sustained: early in January 1642 the catholic companies launched a bloody surprise attack on their comrades-in-arms at Portnaw and encouraged the local population to rise in arms. On 11 February, MacColla engaged his former commander at Laney, near Ballymoney, and slaughtered most of his force. The arrival of a Scottish army in April, Argyll's regiment among them, changed the balance. MacColla and his men were forced westwards, where they joined the main Irish army under Sir Phelim O'Neill (qv) in a campaign against the ‘Lagan army’ of settlers in Derry and Donegal. By most accounts, it was MacColla's impatience that was responsible for the crushing defeat of the Irish force when the armies met at Glenmaquin on 16 June. As he recovered from a thigh wound, he considered changing sides once more. By September he had concluded a written agreement with the commander-in-chief of the Scottish army, the earl of Leven, who promised the release of the MacDonald prisoners, a free pardon, and the restoration of Scottish lands in return for service against the Irish rebels. The arrangement fell through, perhaps because Argyll was unwilling to cooperate, and MacColla remained inactive and uncommitted for the best part of a year.
Civil war had broken out in England, and the Scots covenanters entered into a ‘solemn league’ with the English parliament in September 1643, prompted in part by the disclosure of the intrigues of the earl of Antrim, who was hoping to combine the anti-parliamentarian forces in the three kingdoms and come to the king's aid by way of an Irish invasion of Scotland. The plan linked the royal cause with the interests of the MacDonalds, and its first expression, from November 1643, was a prolonged harassing of the Western Isles by a force led by MacColla. This force had been destroyed by the end of June 1644, but MacColla had already returned to Ireland, where Antrim's plans had progressed significantly. With royal approval, arrangements had been concerted between Antrim and the king's lieutenant general, the earl of Montrose, to coordinate risings in Scotland with an invasion from Ireland, and Antrim had secured the assistance of the supreme council of the Irish confederates. MacColla had returned to Ireland to take command of an expeditionary army of some 1,600 men, which sailed from Wexford on 27 June. He quickly took control of the territory bordering on the Sound of Mull, but Scottish royalists were not convinced of the bona fides of a MacDonnell invading force composed of ‘redshanks’ and Ulster Irish, and the expected support was not forthcoming. Moreover, Montrose's efforts to raise the south had come to nothing. MacColla's response, as an army commanded by Argyll approached, was to set off on 29 July 1644 on a march through the highlands that took him to the forest of Atholl, where Montrose sought him out in mid August. The two complemented one another: MacColla supplied the army that Montrose lacked; Montrose, as the king's lieutenant general and a protestant, provided the credibility that made it possible for a catholic invasion force to be accepted as a royalist army.
Together the two men mounted a spectacular campaign, the credit for the success and blame for the ultimate failure of which have proved difficult to assign. They struck first on 1 September at Perth, where the local defence force, the fencibles, was routed at Tippermore and slaughtered in its retreat to the town. Pursued by Argyll's army, they moved on to Aberdeen, where the local levies proved equally ineffectual in battle on 14 September, and the town was mercilessly sacked. From there, MacColla returned to the west, where the recruitment of support proved much easier than it had in the summer, while Argyll attended to the defence of the lowlands. When winter approached and Argyll prepared his winter quarters, Montrose and MacColla defied the conventions of warfare and set about a devastation of Argyllshire, which culminated at Inverlochy on 2 February 1645 in the defeat of Argyll and the slaughter of the Campbells. Dundee was taken early in April and a covenanter force defeated at Auldean on 9 May. MacColla was back in the western highlands, recruiting and celebrating the release of his father and brother from captivity in a prisoner exchange, when Montrose won another victory nearby at Alford on 2 July. The three Irish regiments were present, however, killing as usual ‘with too little compassion, and too much cruelty’ (Patrick Gordon, Britane's distemper, 131). The way was now clear to enter the lowlands, the king's defeat at Naseby in June added urgency, and Montrose moved south towards Glasgow, strengthened by the return of MacColla with reinforcements. At Kilsyth, on 15 August, they met and destroyed the last of the covenanter armies, killing perhaps half of its 7,000 men. In the aftermath, politics briefly replaced war as Montrose set about negotiating the formation of an alternative government with royalist politicians, distancing himself from his disreputable recent fellows-in-arms, many of whom responded by leaving for the highlands and the Western Isles. When General Leslie, returning in haste from England with six regiments of the Scottish army, encountered Montrose's greatly reduced force at Philiphaugh on 13 September, he defeated it with ease and inflicted on its remaining contingent from Ireland the treatment that they had become notorious for meting out to others.
MacColla, who had been knighted by Montrose on 18 August, was recruiting in Ayrshire when the desertions took place, and in Argyllshire seeking to stir up enemies of the Campbells, when Montrose's army was defeated. He left Montrose to his fate and campaigned in the isles and the highlands until June 1647. There is little clear record of his movements. Tradition suggests that he devoted himself to laying the country waste and killing what Campbells he could find, but the underlying coherence of his actions was provided by the renewal of his association with the (now) marquis of Antrim, who joined him with an army of some 2,000 men in June 1646. Antrim's intentions were, as always, complex. Ostensibly, or fancifully, he hoped to raise royalist Scotland to deliver the king from captivity in Newcastle and reinstate him in England. More immediately, he aimed to gain control of the old MacDonald heartland in Kintyre and, with MacColla's assistance and in defiance of the king's explicit order to lay down his arms, he did so. In January 1647 he returned to Ireland to seek to persuade the confederate general assembly to send reinforcements to Scotland, leaving MacColla behind to defend what had been gained. Though Antrim's mission was successful, the enthusiasm of the assembly's authorisation to him to raise an army of 5,000 men for the king's service was not matched by the necessary urgency of execution. Threatened by a mounting covenanter offensive, MacColla offered to take his men to Spain, to the relief of many in the Scottish parliament who wished only to be rid of him, but the adamant opposition of Argyll prevailed. General Leslie's army entered Kintyre on 24 May and defeated an apparently ill-prepared MacColla on the following day. MacColla fled to Islay and thence to Ireland, where he landed with the rump of his army at Dundrum in Down early in June, leaving the Campbells to take control, and his father and brother Ranald to the hangman.
In Ireland the confederates were in difficulties. In June 1647 the royalist lord lieutenant, the marquess of Ormond (qv), surrendered Dublin to a newly arrived parliamentarian army, and the earl of Inchiquin (qv) conducted a wide-ranging offensive in Munster on behalf of the parliamentarians. Half of the ‘redshanks’ were assigned to the Leinster army, and most of them perished in its defeat at Dungan's Hill on 12 August. The other half were assigned to Munster, where MacColla was appointed governor of Clonmel and lieutenant general to the inexperienced Theobald, Viscount Taafe (qv), to whom the veteran commander Lord Muskerry (qv) had entrusted the task of managing the inexorable show-down with Inchiquin. When Taafe brought Inchiquin to battle at Knockanuss, near Mallow, on 13 November, MacColla's wing carried all before them and set about plundering the enemy's baggage train while Taafe's wing was routed. There was no centre, and Inchiquin's cavalry was able to reach and surround MacColla's men before they had been brought to order. In the ensuing melee, MacColla and most of his ‘redshanks’ were killed. A persistent tradition, perhaps no more than a tribute to his supposed invincibility in battle, held that MacColla had been treacherously killed after yielding no quarter.
Little is known of MacColla's personal life. He was married late, to a daughter of Hector MacAllister of Loup in Kintyre, whose name is unknown and with whom he had two sons, Coll and Gillespie, born about 1645 and 1647 respectively. His celebrated nickname – ‘Colkitto’ – is not authentic. It was his father who was known as Coll Ciotach (literally, left-handed; figuratively, crafty) and MacColla who, first identified as Colkitto's son, became known to those who did not know him as Colkitto. The belief that he was the inventor of the redoubtable ‘highland charge’ has a sounder claim to credence. This stratagem, in which the soldiers discarded their muskets after an initial volley or two and charged forward in disciplined wedges with broadsword and targes and whooping war cries to engage the enemy as they laboriously reloaded, was developed in Scotland with devastating effect during Montrose's campaign, but it was first used by MacColla at Laney in 1642.