Battle of Harlaw – 24 July 1411
Our auld forebears o’ deathless fame,
As chronicles record,
At Bon-Accord’s all sacred name,
Fu’ aften drew the sword.
‘Tis ken’d the craftsmen a’ set out,
An’ fought a fam’d Harlaw,
An’ did their foemen fairly rout,
Lang ere they had a Ha’.
Deacon Alexander Robb
Poems and Songs (1852)
The Battle of Harlaw was a major event even by the bloody standards of the time.
In the summer of 1411, the ageing Donald of Isla, Lord of the Isles, invaded mainland Scotland with a huge, battle-hardened army, only to be fought to a bloody standstill on the plateau of Harlaw, fifteen miles from Aberdeen, a town he had threatened to sack.
His principal aim was to gain the Earldom of Ross from Euphemia, Countess of Ross who had been made a ward of her uncle, the Duke of Albany. Donald may have believed that Euphemia was either dead or being pressured by her uncle to enter a nunnery. She eventually renounced the Earldom in favour of John Stewart, Earl of Buchan, in 1414, three years after the Battle.
The Lord of the Isle raised an army, the core of which were battle hardened Irish galloglasses, clad in mail and wielding battleaxes, savage fighters who were notoriously effective against mounted troops. There is no contemporary description of the armament of the rest of his army and descriptions stated in later narratives cannot be confirmed.
Before capturing Dingwall Castle, Donald was attacked by Clan Mackay killing many and taking more prisoners. Dingwall was garrisoned and Donald defeated the Laird of Lovat, near Beauly, before attacking Inverness, calling more men to his standard.
On leaving Inverness, his force was probably well over 10,000 strong and he headed towards Aberdeen stopping at the “ferm toun of Harlaw” near Inverurie.
Here they were met by an army led by the Earl of Mar, assisted by many brave knights, gentlemen from Angus and the Mearns along with Robert Davidson, Provost of Aberdeen supported by Burgesses of Guild and many tradesmen.
Advancing from Aberdeen, Mar marched by Inverurie, and approached the islanders stationed at the village of Harlaw.
The armies met on the Pley Fauld at Harlaw near the monument. The fight lasted all day and was one of the most brutal in Scottish history. Described by hardened mediaeval chroniclers as ‘atrocious’, ‘Reid Harlaw’ left some 3,000 dead and wounded.
The disastrous result of this battle was one of the greatest misfortunes which had ever happened to the numerous families in Aberdeenshire, Angus and the Mearns including Robert Davidson, Provost of Aberdeen.
Mar and the few brave companions in arms who survived the battle, passed the night on the nearby hill.
When morning dawned, they found that the Lord of the Isles had returned north during the night. Donald’s retiral could not have been stopped for over half of Mar’s army was dead or wounded. The battle was in reality a bloody draw but Aberdeen had been saved.
Dismissed by Scott as a ‘Celt v. Saxon’ power struggle, it has faded from historical memory, other than in the north-east of Scotland.
The histories themselves fall into two groups – those written at or around the time, and those composed some 300 years later. These later accounts form the basis of most modern descriptions of the battle, but they tend to be romantic and highly imaginative, creating noble order where chaos once existed.
(Thanks must be recorded to Dr Ian A Olson for the updating of information previously detailed on this page
Bludie Harlaw Realities, Myths, Ballads by Dr Ian Olson