The Battle of Harlaw


The Brim Battle of Harlaw

24 July 1411

There was not, sin’ King Kenneth’s days, (sin’=since)
Sic strange intestine cruel strife, (sic=such)
In Scotlande seen, as ilk man says,
Where monie likelie lost their life; (monie=many; likelie =likely)
Whilk made divorce tween man and wife, ( whilk=while, whilst)
And monie children fatherless,
Whilk in this realm has been full rife;
Lord help these lands! Our wrangs redress! (wrangs=wrongs)

So reads a verse from the ballad of the Battle of Harlaw, which was fought at the village of that name on the waters of the Ury near its junction with the Don, on the eve of the Feast of St. James the Apostle, 24th July, 1411.

Donald of the Isles (MacDonald, Lord of the Isles) was the most powerful Highland noble of his day, and laid claim to the Earldom of Ross. Legally his claim was justified, but the Countess of Ross had resigned the earldom in favor of the Earl of Buchan, and this settlement was upheld by the Crown, which feared any increase in Donald’s great domain. Burning with fury Donald formed an alliance with the English, who promised support. Then, raising the clans in the West Highlands, he swept across Scotland as far as Dingwall where Black Angus MacKay of Farr made an unsuccessful attempt to check his progress.

After defeating MacKay of Farr, Donald continued his advance into the fertile eastern plain, heading for Aberdeen. Duncan Stewart, Earl of Mar, a son of the Wolf of Badenoch, came to the aid of the distressed Aberdonians and with a small army, many times less than Donald’s in numerical strength, gave battle at Harlaw.

The importance of the battle, which some have called a draw, was that it was the first and only real battle of Highlanders versus Lowlanders. That is a somewhat simplistic but a very often cited look at the battle. The Highlander had the numbers, but the Lowlander had slightly better arms and armor, having obtained them both from England and the continent.

The contest was long and furious, and at the end of the day some fourteen hundred men lay dead. Over half of Mar’s gallant little army perished. Sir James Scrymgeour, Constable of Dundee and hereditary Standard Bearer of Scotland, was among the first of the defenders to die. The Highland dead included the chiefs of the clans MacLean and MacIntosh. It is said that Red Hector of the Battles, son of Lachlan MacLean of Duart, and Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum sought out and slew each other in personal combat; and in commemoration the families of Duart and Drum for long afterwards had a custom of ceremoniously exchanging swords whenever they met.

During the night which followed the battle most of the Highlanders disappeared homewards to enjoy the booty of Mar’s captured baggage train. Donald was forced to leave Mar in possession of the field, and return to the Western Isles. Both claimed a victory, the Highlanders got the booty and went home, as they so oft did.

Many families in Angus and the Mearns were deprived not only of the fathers but all of the sons: Leslie of Balquhain, for instance, perished with all six of his sons. The Provost of Aberdeen was among the slain – civic office had its perils in the fifteenth century.

One of Scotland’s older historians, John Hill Burton, gives an interesting evaluation of the battle. He describes it as being between foes, “[i]of whom their contemporaries would have said that their ever being in harmony with each other, or having a feeling of common interests and common nationality, was not within the normal range of expectations.” [/i] Here Burton perhaps overdraws the picture. Only a century earlier a united Scotland had supported Bruce, and a feeling of common nationality must have existed in Bruce’s Gaelic-speaking army drawn from all part of Scotland, including far up into the highlands. But that may have been an alliance of necessity more than affection. Lowlanders and Highlanders had been moving away from each others culture since the time of Malcolm Canmore. They would continue to move away at a frightening pace.

But when national stakes were not in hazard, there was a natural enmity between the Western Highlanders and the inhabitants of the rich lands of the north-east plain, enmity bred by covetousness on the one part and apprehension on the other.

In many a bereaved home, both in the Western fastnesses and on the north-eastern plain, the words of the poet must have applied:

“And monie a ane will mourne for aye The brim battle of the Harlaw.”

©Skye-Net, R. Gunn, 1995/2009

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