Reid Harlaw – The Battle of Harlaw 1411

Commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Harlaw

On 24 July 1411 a huge army, some say of 10,000 men, of Ross under Donald, Lord of the Isles, marched on Harlaw close to the Aberdeenshire town of Inverurie to engage in one of the bloodiest battles in medieval Scotland at what became ‘Reid Harlaw’.

There was great rivalry for power between the Buchans and the Stewarts and the Lord of the Isles. Times were hard. Landed gentry were losing incomes due to succession of failed harvests, famine and dramatic reduction in the Scottish population resulting in fewer rents and reduced incomes from taxes. Failed harvests led also to death of cattle reducing income for Donald of the Isles who turned to the Highland mainland with its more benign climate and potential for improved earnings from the land.

The men of Ross (which stretched west to Skye) saw victory at the Battle of Dingwall and advanced through Moray. They continued south and east towards Aberdeen pausing to camp for the night of 23 July on high ground close to Inverurie.

The following morning the Gaels were challenged by men under the Earl of Mar.
Alexander Stewart of Mar, from Kildrummy Castle, dominated the area and under instruction from his uncle, the Duke of Albany, he had gathered an army of men from Moray, Mearns, Angus and Aberdeenshire. He was supported by the great Keith and Forbes families. Mar was a nephew of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, the Wolf of Badenoch.

Mar’s 2000 men in their conical helmets and quilted warcoats employed the Scottish schiltron formation to deflect assault and attacked with battle axes, spears and maces. Some of his men were in armour and mail and rode on horses. Mar’s army was reinforced by men from Aberdeen whose population of 3000 supplied just under 50 fighters led by their provost Davidson who carried the Weaver’s banner from the town’s Seven Incorporated Trades.

Under Domhnall MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, the Highlanders were urged into battle with songs from their bard ringing in their ears. The Highlanders had brought the tools of their trade – scythes, axes as well as some swords and dirks for close up combat. They hamstrung the horses of Mar’s cavalry as it bore down on the men on foot.

On the side of his uncle, Donald of the Isles, was Reid Hector (Red Hector) – Hector Roy Maclean, Chief of the clan Maclean. He engaged in combat with Alexander Irvine of Drum resulting in the death of both men from their injuries.
Victory was claimed by both sides but the Gaels invasion was halted and Aberdeen was not taken.

The Irvines of Drum were wiped out in the battle and other families lost all their men-folk. Aberdeen’s Provost Davidson’s was killed and his body carried back to the town and buried in the Kirk of St Nicholas and his sword delivered to the Incorporated Trades where it still lies. Many men were buried at nearby Kinkell Church, now a ruin.

Some 900 Highlanders and around 600 Lowlanders were killed at Harlaw on 24 July 1411. The slaughter and especially the death of Reid Hector led to the creation of the first Pìobaireachd (anglicised pibroch) in his memory, The Lament for Red Hector. And, of course, there is the very famous ballad, the Battle o’ Harlaw (see below).

The site of the battle was initially marked by standing stones – Liggars Stane and Donald’s Tomb. Today there are cairns to Drum and Provost Davidson. The large granite monument to Davidson is 40 feet tall.

Harlaw was an important event in that it marked the victory of the Teutonic Scots (those from the Lowlands who spoke English) over Celtic Scots (those who spoke Gaelic from the Highlands).

The voice in the ballad of The Battle o’ Harlaw is of John Heilanman in conversation with Sir James the Rose and Sir John the Gryme (Graeme).

As I cam in by Dunidier,
An’ doun by Netherha’,
There was fifty thousand Hielanmen
A-marching on Harlaw

As I cam on, an’ farther on,
An’ doun an’ by Balquhain,
Oh there I met Sir James the Rose,
Wi’ him Sir John the Gryme.

‘O cam ye frae the Hielan’s, man?
An’ cam ye a’ the wey?
Saw ye Macdonell an’ his men,
Cam marchin doon frae the Skee?’

‘Yes, I cam frae ta Hielan’s man,
An’ I cam a’ the wey,
An’ I saw Macdonell an’ his men,
As they cam doon frae Skee.’

‘Oh was ye near Macdonell’s men?
Did ye their numbers see?
Come, tell to me, John Hielan’man,
What micht their numbers be?’

‘Yes, I was near, an’ near eneuch,
An’ I their numbers saw;
There was fifty thousan’ Hielan’men
A-marchin’ to Harlaw.’

‘Gin that be true,’ says James the Rose,
‘We’ll no come meikle speed;
We’ll cry upo’ our merry men,
And lichtly mount our steed.’

‘Oh no, oh no,’ says John the Gryme,
‘That thing maun never be;
The gallant Grymes were never bate,
We’ll try fit we can dee.’

As I cam on, an’ farther on,
An’ doun an’ by Harlaw,
They fell fu’ close on ilka side;
Sic fun ye never saw.

They fell fu’ close on ilka side,
Sic fun ye never saw;
For Hielan’ swords gied clash for clash
At the battle o’ Harlaw.

The Hielan men, wi’ their lang swords,
They laid on us fu’ sair,
An’ they drave back our merry men
Three acres breadth an’ mair.

Brave Forbës to his brither did say,
‘Noo, brither, dinna ye see?
They beat us back on ilka side,
An’ we wis forced to flee.’

‘Oh no, oh no, my brither dear,
That thing maun never be;
Tak’ ye your good sword in your hand,
An’ come awa wi’ me.’

‘Oh no, oh no, my brither dear,
The clans they are ower strang,
An’ they drive back our merry men,
Wi’ swords baith sharp an’ lang.’

Brave Forbës drew his men aside,
Said ‘tak your rest awhile,
Until I to Drumminnor send,
To fess my coat o’ mail.’

The servant he did ride,
An’ his horse it did na fail,
For in twa hours an’ a quarter
He brocht the coat o’ mail.

Then back to back the brithers twa
Gaed in amo’ the thrang,
An’ they hewed doun the Hielanm men,
Wi’ swords baith sharp an’ lang.

Macdonell he was young an’ stout,
Had on his coat o’ mail,
An’ he has gan oot throw them a’,
To try his han’ himsell.

The first straik that Forbës strack,
He garrt Macdonell reel,
An’ the neist ae straik that Forbës strack,
The great Macdonell fell.

An’ siccan a lierachie
I’m sure ye never saw
As wis amo’ the Hielan men,
When they saw Macdonell fa’.

An’ whan they saw that he was deid,
They turn’d an’ ran awa,
An’ they buried him in Leggett’s Den,
A large mile frae Harlaw.

They rade, they ran, an’ some did gang,
They were o’ sma’ record;
But Forbës an’ his merry men,
They slew them a’ the road.

On Monanday, at mornin’,
The battle it began,
On Saturday, at gloamin’,
Ye’d scarce kent wha had wan.

An’ sic a weary buryin’
I’m sure ye never saw
As wis the Sunday after that,
On the muirs aneath Harlaw.

Gin ony body speer at you
For them ye took awa’,
Ye may tell their wives and bairnies
They’re sleepin’ at Harlaw.

4 Comments to “Reid Harlaw – The Battle of Harlaw 1411”

  1. Good version of Harlaw – but I prefer Fishgut Mac’s…….

  2. The battle was the outcome of a power struggle and as usual ordinary people were swept up in it, ultimately many dying as a result. Of course it’s obscene that only some are thought worthy enough to be remembered. Provost Davidson and the Burgesses have their tower and it was mean spirited not to extend the symbol of sacrifice to everyone who fought and died.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Do you find it alright that the Macdonald who was responsible for all this death and chaos is honoured on a war memorial to the dead of 1411 while men of so many of the families who helped save the city go unrecognized?
    William Leslie

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