Saturday, July 24, 2010

Battle of Harlaw

The Battle of Harlaw, fought on the 24th of July in 1411, was mainly nothing more than a big clan war, but it has gone down in the history of Scotland in song and story like most things and is remembered as pretty much a bloodbath and a non-victory for either side. It’s one of the many battles that is counted a draw.

The Lord of the Isles had a fiefdom of Clan Donald for longer than a century, since the Norsemen had lost control of the Western Isles in 1266. He was well into mainland politics. The MacDonalds had fought with Bruce in the Wars of Independence and their Chief, Angus Og had been one of Bruce’s lieutenants at Bannockburn. The Lord of the Isles was based in Dunyvaig Castle, but had control over all the Western Isles and could muster an army of Ten thousand men at his pleasure.

At Christmas time in 1411 Donald, the Lord of the Isles, had a clan gathering at his castle, Ardtornish on the Sound of Mull. It was said that he selected six thousand men and sent the rest back home, then sent his army to the mainland and marched up the Great Glen to Inverness. He burned Inverness and was joined by followers from other clans including the MacIntoshes, the MacLeans, the MacLeods, the Camerons and men from Clan Chattan. His troops, now ten thousand strong, headed to Aberdeen where he promised them lots of plunder for their troubles.

Alexander, the Earl of Mar, was not daunted with Lord Donald’s men and gathered what he could along with the Provost of Aberdeen who was only able to muster a few burgesses. Mar however, could count on the allegiance of of some north-eastern lairds as well as some seasoned knights.

On the eve of battle, the Highlanders on a plateau north-east of Inverurie while Mar’s forces, who were less than Donald’s but better armed, gathered at the slope of the hill. At dawn, the armies began to prepare for battle. There were not many tactics involved; it was mainly a test of valor and courage. Not loosing any time preparing or waiting for tactical ideas, the two armies charged each other. The Highlanders bravely faced the Lowlanders better weaponry of spears and armor, but they kept charging and regrouping.

The Lowlanders held their ground at first, but the Highlanders were relentless and by the afternoon, the battle had turned into ferocious hand to hand combat. By nightfall, the two armies had done all the fighting they could. There was no real victory on either side. They withdrew and Donald moved back to Inverness, leaving about a thousand clansmen, including the chiefs “Red Hector” MacLean and the MacIntosh, dead on the field of Harlaw. The Earl of Mar also had heavy losses. Six hundred men including the Provost of Aberdeen. The city of Aberdeen had been saved, though the battle just deepened the division of Lowland and Highland.

Today the battle is marked by a monument that was erected by the city fathers of Aberdeen in 1914 and is still remembered as the Battle of Red Harlaw.

There is a song called the Battle of Harlaw sung by the Corries. Go have a listen!

I’ll be back next week to talk about the battle of Killiecrankie

Slainte, Hazel

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