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General History of the Highlands
Disturbances in Sutherland and Battle of Harlaw


Alexander of Badenoch (the Wolf of Badenoch), Alexander Stewart, afterwards Earl of Mar, Earl of Sutherland, had a feud with Y-Mackay of Far, conflict took place between the inhabitants of Sutherland and Strathnaver, and Malcolm Macleod of the Lewis, Donald, Lord of the Isles, earldom of Ross, Lord of the Isles formed an alliance with England, Duke of Albany, Earl of Mar, battle of Harlaw.

The disorders in the Highlands occasioned by the feuds of the clans were, about the period in question, greatly augmented by Alexander of Badenoch, fourth son of Robert II, whom he had constituted Lieutenant or governor from the limits of Moray to the Pentland Frith. This person, from the ferocity of his disposition, obtained the appropriate appellation of "the Wolf of Badenoch". Avaricious as well as cruel, the Wolf seized upon the lands of Alexander Barr, bishop of Moray, and as he persisted in keeping violent Possession of them, he was excommunicated. The sentence of excommunication not only proved unavailing, but tended to exasperate the Lord of Badenoch to such a degree of fury that, in the month of May, 1390, he descended from his heights and burnt the town of Forres, with the choir of the church and tire manse of the archdeacon And in June following, he burnt the town of Elgin, the church of Saint Giles, the hospital of Maison-Dieu and the cathedral, with eighteen houses of the canons and chaplains in the college of Elgin. He also plundered these churches of their sacred utensils and vestments, which he carried off. For this horrible sacrilege the Lord of Badenoch was prosecuted, and obliged to make due reparation. Upon making his submission he was absolved by Walter Trail, bishop of St. Andrews, in the church of the Black Friars, in Perth. He was first received at the door, and afterwards before the high altar, in presence of the king (Robert III. his brother,) and many of the nobility, on condition that he should make full satisfaction to the bishop of Moray, and obtain absolution from the pope.

The Lord of Badenoch had a natural son, named Alexander Stewart, afterwards Earl of Mar, who inherited the vices of his father. Bent upon spoliation and bloodshed, and resolved to imitate his father’s barbarous exploits, he collected, in 1392, a vast number of caterans, armed only with the sword and target, and with these he descended from the range of hills which divides the county of Aberdeen and Forfar, devastated the country, and murdered the inhabitants indiscriminately. A force was instantly collected by Sit Walter Ogilvy, sheriff of Angus, Sir Patrick Gray, and Sir David Lindsay of Glenesk, to oppose him, and although inferior in numbers, they attacked Stewart and his party of freebooters at Gasklune, near the water of Ila. A desperate conflict took place, which was of short duration. The caterans bught with determined bravery, and soon overpowered their assailants. The sheriff, his brother, Wat of Lichtoune, Young of Ouchterlony, the lairds of Cairncross, Forfar, and Guthry, and 60 of their followers, were slain. Sir Patrick Gray and Sir David Lindsay were severely wounded, and escaped with difficulty. Winton has preserved an anecdote illustrative of the fierceness of the Highlanders. Lindsay had run one of them, a strong and brawny man, through the body with a spear, and brought him to the earth; but although in the agonies of death, he writhed himself up, and with the spear sticking in his body, struck Lindsay a desperate blow with his sword, which cut him through the stirrup and boot into the bone, on which he instantly fell and expired.

Nicolas, Earl of Sutherland, had a feud with Y-Mackay of Far, in Strathnaver, chief of the Clanwig-worgm, and his son Donald Mackay, in which many lives were lost, and great depredations committed on both sides. In order to put an end to this difference, the Earl proposed a meeting of the parties at Dingwall, to be held in presence of the Lord of the Isles, his father-in-law, and some of the neighbouring gentry, the friends of the two families. The meeting having been agreed to, the parties met at the appointed time, in the year 1395, and took up their residence in the castle of Dingwall in apartments allotted for them. A discussion then took place between the Earl and Mackay, regarding the points in controversy, in which high and reproachful words were exchanged, which so incensed the Earl, that he killed Mackay and his son with his own hands. Having with some difficulty effected his escape from the followers and servants of the Mackays, he immediately returned home and prepared for defence, but the Mackays were too weak to take revenge. The matter was in some degree reconciled between Robert, the successor of Nicolas, and Angus Mackay, the eldest son of Donald.

Some years after this event a serious conflict took place between the inhabitants of Sutherland and Strathnaver, and Malcolm Macleod of the Lewis, which arose out of the following circumstances. Angus Mackay above mentioned, had married a sister of Malcolm Macleod, by whom he had two sons, Angus Dow, and Roriegald. On the death of Angus, Houcheon Dow Mackay, a younger brother, became tutor to his nephews, and entered upon the management of their lands. Malcolm Macleod, understanding that his sister, the widow of Angus, was ill treated by Houcheon Dow, went on a visit to her, accompanied by a number of the choicest men of his country, with the determination of vindicating her cause either by entreaty or by force. He appears not to have succeeded in his object, for he returned homeward greatly discontented, and in revenge laid waste Strathnaver and a great part of the Breachat in Sutherland, and carried off booty along with him. As soon as Houcheon Dow and his brother Neil Mackay learnt this intelligence, they acquainted Robert, Earl of Sutherland, between whom and Angus Mackay a reconciliation had been effected, who immediately despatched Alexander Ne-Shrem-Gorme (Alexander Murray of Cubin,) with a number of stout and resolute men, to assist the Mackays. They followed Macleod with great haste, and overtook him at Tilttum-Turwigh, upon the marches between Ross and Sutherland. The pursuing party at first attempted to recover the goods and cattle which had been carried oft; but this being opposed by Macleod and his men, a desperate conflict ensued, in which great valour was displayed on both sides. lt "was long, furious, cruel, and doubtful," says Sir Robert Gordon, and was "rather desperate than resolute." At last the Lewismen, with their commander, Malcolm Macleod, nicknamed Gileaim Beg M’Bowen, were slain, and the goods and cattle were recovered. One man alone of Macleod’s party, who was sorely wounded, escaped to bring home the sorrowful news to the Lewis, which he had scarcely delivered when he expired.

These feuds were followed by a formidable insurrection, or more correctly, invasion, in 1411, by Donald, Lord of the Isles, of such a serious nature as to threaten a dismemberment of the kingdom of Scotland. The male succession to the earldom of Ross having become extinct, the honours of the peerage devolved upon a female, Euphemia Ross, wife of Sir Walter Lesley. Of this marriage there were two children, Alexander, afterwards Earl of Ross, and Margaret, afterwards married to the Lord of the Isles. Earl Alexander married a daughter of the Duke of Albany. Euphemia, Countess of Ross, was the only issue of this marriage, but becoming a nun she resigned the earldom of Ross in favour of her uncle John Stewart, Earl of Buchan. The Lord of the Isles conceiving that the countess, by renouncing the world, had forfeited her title and estate, and, moreover, that she had no right to dispose thereof, claimed both in right of Margaret his wife. The Duke of Albany, governor of Scotland, at whose instigation the countess had made the renunciation, of course refused to sustain the claim of the prince of the islands. The Lord of the Isles having formed an alliance with England, whence he was to be supplied with a fleet far superior to the Scottish, at the head of an army of 10,000 men, fully equipped and armed after the fashion of the islands with bows and arrows, pole-axes, knives and swords, in 1411 burst like a torrent upon the earldom, and carried everything before him. He, however, received a temporary check at Dingwall, where he was attacked with great impetuosity by Angus Dubh Mackay of Far or Black Angus, as he was called; but Angus was taken prisoner, and his brother Roderic Gald and many of his men were killed.

Flushed with the progress he had made, Donald now resolved to carry into execution a threat he had often made to burn the town of Aberdeen. For this purpose he ordered his army to assemble at Inverness, and summoned all the men capable of bearing arms in the Boyne and the Enzie, to join his standard on his way south. This order being complied with, the Lord of the Isles marched through Moray without opposition, lie committed great excesses in Strathbogie and in the district of Garioch, which belonged to the Earl of Mar. The inhabitants of Aberdeen were in dreadful alarm at the near approach of this marauder and his fierce hordes; but their fears were allayed by the speedy appearance of a well-equipped army, commanded by the Earl of Mar, who bore a high military character, assisted by many brave knights and gentlemen in Angus and the Mearns. Among these were Sir Alexander Ogilvy, sheriff of Angus, Sir James Scrymgeour, constable of Dundee and hereditary standard-bearer of Scotland, Sir William de Abernethy of Salton, nephew to the Duke of Albany, Sir Robert Maule of Panmure, Sir Alexander Irving of Drum, and Sir Robert Melville. The Earl was also joined by Sir Robert Davidson, the Provost of Aberdeen, and a party of the burgesses.

Advancing from Aberdeen, Mar marched by lnverury, and descried the Highlanders stationed at the village of Harlaw, on the water of Ury, near its junction with the Don. Mar soon saw that he had to contend with tremendous odds; but although his forces were, it is said, only a tenth of those opposed to him, he resolved, from the confidence he had in his steel-clad knights, to risk a battle. Having placed a small but select body of knights and men-at-arms in front, under the command of the constable of Dundee and the sheriff of Angus, the Earl drew up the main strength of his army in the rear, including the Murrays, the Straitons, the Maules, the Irvings, the Lesleys, the Lovels, the Stirlings, headed by their respective chiefs. The Earl then placed himself at the head of this body. At the head of the Islesmen and Highlanders was the Lord of the Isles, subordinate to whom were Macintosh and Maclean and other Highland chiefs, all bearing the most deadly hatred to their Saxon foes, and panting for revenge.

On a signal being given, the Highlanders and Islesmen, setting up those terrific shouts and yells which they were accustomed to raise on entering into battle, rushed forward upon their opponents; but they were received with great firmness and bravery by the knights, who, with their spears levelled, and battle-axes raised, cut down many of their impetuous but badly armed adversaries. After the Lowlanders had recovered themselves from the shock which the furious onset of the Highlanders had produced, Sir James Scrymgeour, at the head of the knights and bannerets who fought under him, cut his way through the thick colunms of the Islesmen, carrying death everywhere around him; but the slaughter of hundreds by this brave party did not intimidate the Highlanders, who kept pouring in by thousands to supply the place of those who had fallen. Surrounded on all sides, no alternative remained for Sir James and his valorous companions but victory or death, and the latter was their lot. The constable of Dundee was amongst the first who suffered, and his fall so encouraged the Highlanders, that seizing and stabbing the horses, they thus unhorsed their riders, whom they despatched with their daggers. In the meantime the Earl of Mar, who had penetrated with his main army into the very heart of the enemy, kept up the unequal contest with great bravery, and, although he lost during the action almost the whole of his army, he continued the fatal struggle with a handful of men till nightfall. The disastrous result of this battle was one of the greatest misfortunes which had ever happened to the numerous respectable families in Angus and the Mearns. Many of these families lost not only their head, but every male in the house. Lesley of Balquhain is said to have fallen with six of his sons. Besides Sir James Scrymgeour, Sir Alexander Ogilvy the sheriff of Angus, with his eldest son George Ogilvy, Sir Thomas Murray, Sir Robert Maule of Pan-inure, Sir Alexander Irving of Drum, Sir William Abernethy of Salton, Sir Alexander Straiton of Lauriston, James Lovel, and Alexander Stirling, and Sir Robert Davidson, Provost of Aberdeen, with 500 men-at-arms, including the principal gentry of Buchan, and the greater part of the burgesses of Aberdeen who followed their Provost, were among the slain. The Highlanders left 900 men dead on the field of battle, including the chiefs Maclean and Mackintosh. This memorable battle was fought on the eve of the feast of St. James the Apostle, July 25th, 1411. It was the final contest for supremacy between the Celt and the Teuton, and appears to have made at the time an inconceivably deep impression on the national mind. For more than a hundred years, it is said, the battle of Harlaw continued to be fought over again by schoolboys in their play. "It fixed itself in the music and the poetry of Scotland; a march, called the ‘Battle of Harlaw,’ continued to be a popular air down to the time of Drummond of Hawthornden, and a spirited ballad, on the same event, is still repeated in our age, describing the meeting of the armies, and the deaths of the chiefs, in no ignoble strain."

Mar and the few brave companions in arms who survived the battle, passed the night on the field; when morning dawned, they found that the Lord of the Isles had retreated during the night, by Inverury and the hill of Benochy. To pursue him was impossible, and he was therefore allowed to retire without molestation, and to recruit his exhausted strength.

As soon as the news of the disaster at Harlaw reached the ears of the Duke of Albany, then regent of Scotland, he set about collecting an army, with which he marched in person the north in autumn, with a determination to bring the Lord of the Isles to obedience. Having taken possession of the castle of Dingwall, appointed a governor, and from thence proceeded to recover the whole of Ross. Donald retreated before him, and took up his winter quarters in the islands. Hostilities were renewed next summer, but the contest was not long or doubtful—notwithstanding some little vantages obtained by the King of the Isles— he was compelled to give up his claim to the earldom of Ross, to become a vassal to the Sottish crown, and to deliver hostages to secure his future good behaviour. A treaty to this effect was entered into at Pilgilbe or Pelgillip, the modern Loch-Gilp, in Argyle.


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