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General History of the Highlands
Clanranald and Lord Lovat - Field of Shirts

During the reign of James V. some respect aid in the Highlands to the laws; but the divisions which fell out amongst the nobility, the unquiet state of the nation during the minority of the infant queen, and the wars with England, relaxed the springs of government, and the consequence was that the usual scenes of turbulence and oppression soon displayed themselves in the Highlands, accompanied with all those circumstances of ferocity which rendered them so revolting to humanity. The Clanranald was particularly active in these lawless proceedings. This clan bore great enmity to Hugh, Lord Lovat; and because Ranald, son of Allan Macruari of Moidart, was sister’s son of Lovat, they conceived a prejudice against him, dispossessed him of his lands, and put John Macranald, his cousin, in possession of the estate. Lovat took up the cause of his nephew, and restored him to the possession of his property; but the restless clan dispossessed Ranald again, and laid waste part of Lovat’s lands in Glenelg. These disorders did not escape the notice of the Earl of Arran, the governor of the kingdom, who, by advice of his council, granted a special commission to the Earl of Huntly, making him lieutenant-general of all the Highlands, and of Orkney and Zetland. He also appointed the Earl of Argyle lieutenant of Argyle and the Isles. The Earl of Huntly lost no time in raising a large army in the north, with which he marched, in May, 1544, attended by the Macintoshes, Grants, and Frasers, against the clan Cameron and the clan Ranald, and the people of Moydart and Knoydart, whose principal captains were Ewen Mlenson, Ronald M’Coneilglas, and John Moydart. These had wasted and plundered the whole country of Urqubart and Glenmorriston, belonging to the Laird of Grant, and the country of Abertarf, Strathglass, and others, the property of Lord Lovat. They had also taken absolute possession of these different territories as their own properties, which they intended to possess and enjoy in all time coming. But, by the mediation of the Earl of Argyle, they immediately dislodged themselves upon the Earl of Huntly’s appearance, and retired to their own territories in the west.

In returning to his own country, Lovat was accompanied by the Grants and Macintoshes as far as Gloy, afterwards called the Nine-Mile-Water, and they even offered to escort him home in case of danger; but, having no apprehensions he declined, and they returned home by Badenoch. This was a fatal error on the part of Lovat, for, as soon as he arrived at Letterfinlay, he was informed that the Clanranald were at hand, in full march, to intercept him. To secure an important pass, he despatched Iain-Cleireach, one of his principal officers, with 50 men; but, from some cause or other, Iain-Cleireach did not accomplish his object; and, as soon as Lovat came to the north end of Loch Lochy, he perceived the Clanranald descending the hill from the west, to the number of about 500, divided into seven companies. Lovat was thus placed in a position in which he could neither refuse nor avoid battle. The day (3d July) being extremely hot, Lovat’s men, who amounted to about 300, stript to the shirts, from which circumstance the battle was called Blar-Nan-Leine, i.e., the Field of Shirts. A sort of skirmish at first took place, first with bows and arrows, which lasted a considerable time, until both sides had expended their shafts. The combatants then drew their swords, and rushed in tine Highland fashion on each other, with fierce and deadly intent. The slaughter was tremendous, and few escaped on either side. Lord Lovat, with 300 of the surname of Fraser, and other followers, were left dead on the field. Lovat’s eldest son, a youth of great accomplishments, who had received his education in France, whence he had lately arrived, was mortally wounded, and taken prisoner. He died within three days. Great as was the loss on the side of the Frasers, that on the opposite side was comparitively still greater. According to a tradition handed down, only four of the Frasers and ten of the Clanranald remained alive. The darkness of the night alone put an end to the combat. This was an unfortunate blow to the clan Fraser, which, tradition says, would have been almost entirely annihilated but for the happy circumstance that the wives of eighty of the Frasers who were slain were pregnant at the time, and were each of them afterwards delivered of a male child.

As soon as intelligence of this disaster was brought to the Earl of Huntly, he again returned with an army, entered Lochaber, which he laid waste, and apprehended many of the leading men of the hostile tribes, whom he put to death.

The great power conferred on the Earl of Huntly, as lieutenant-general in the north of Scotland, and the promptitude and severity with which he put down the insurrections of some of the chiefs alluded to, raised up many enemies against him. As he in company with the Earl of Sutherland was about to proceed to France for the purpose of conveying the queen regent to that country, in the year 1550, a conspiracy was formed against him, at the head of which was Macintosh, chief of the clan Chattan. This conspiracy being discovered to the earl, he ordered Macintosh to be immediately apprehended and brought to Strathbogie, where he was beheaded in the month of August of that year. His lands were also forfeited at the same time. This summary proceeding excited the sympathy and roused the indignation of the friends of the deceased chief, particularly of the Earl of Cassills. A commotion was about to ensue, but matters were adjusted for a time, by the prudence of the queen regent, who recalled the act of forfeiture and restored Macintosh’s heir to all his father’s lands. But the clan Chattan were determined to avail themselves of the first favourable opportunity of being revenged upon the earl, which they, therefore, anxiously looked for. As Lauchlan Macintosh, a near kinsman of the chief, was suspected of having betrayed his chief to the earl, the clan entered his castle of Pettie by stealth, slew him, and banished all his dependants from the country of the clan.

About the same time the province of Sutherland again became the scene of some commotions. The earl having occasion to leave home, intrusted the government of the country to Alexander Gordon, his brother, who ruled it with great justice and severity; but the people, disliking the restraints put upon them by Alexander, created a tumult, and placed John Sutherland, son of Alexander Sutherland, the bastard, at their head. Seizing the favourable opportunity, as it appeared to them, when Alexander Gordon was attending divine service in the church at Golspikirktoun, they proceeded to attack him, but receiving notice of their intentions, he collected the little company he had about him, and went out of church resolutely to meet them. Alarmed at seeing him and his party approach, the people immediately dispersed and returned every man to his own house. But William Murray, son of Caen Murray, one of the family of Pulrossie, indignant at the affront offered to Alexander Gordon, shortly afterwards killed John Sutherland upon the Nether Green of Dunrobin, in revenge for which murder William Murray was himself thereafter slain by the Laird of Clyne.

The Mackays also took advantage of the Earl of Sutherland’s absence, to plunder and lay waste the country. Y-Mackay, son of Donald, assembled the Strathnaver men and entered Sutherland, but Alexander Gordon forced him back into Strathnaver, and not content with acting on the defensive, he entered Mackay’s country, which he wasted, and carried off a large booty in goods and cattle, in the year 1551. Mackay, in his turn, retaliated, and this system of mutual aggression and spoliation continued for several years.

During the absence of the Earl of Huntly in France, John of Moydart, chief of the Clanranald, returned from the isles and recommenced his usual course of rapine. The queen regent, on her return from France, being invested with full authority, sent the Earl of Huntly on an expedition to the north, for the purpose of apprehending Clanranald and putting an end to his outrages. The earl having mustered a considerable force, chiefly Highlanders of the clan Chattan, passed into Moydart and Knoydart, but his operations were paralyzed by disputes in his camp. The chief and his men having abandoned their own country, the earl proposed to pursue them in their retreats among the fastnesses of the Highlands; but his principal officers, who were chiefly from the Lowlands, unaccustomed to such a mode of warfare in such a country, demurred; and as the earl was afraid to entrust himself with the clan Chattan, who owed him a deep grudge on account of the execution of their last chief, he abandoned the enterprise and returned to the low country. Sir Robert Gordon says that the failure of the expedition was owing to a tumult raised in the earl’s camp by the clan Chattan, who returned home; but we are rather disposed to consider Bishop Lesley’s account, which we have followed, as the more correct.

The failure of this expedition gave great offence to the queen, who, instigated it is supposed by Huntly’s enemies, attributed it to negligence on his part. The consequence was, that the earl was committed a prisoner to the castle of Edinburgh in the month of October, where he remained till the month of March following. He was compelled to renounce the earldom of Moray and the lordship of Abernethy, with his tacks and possessions in Orkney and Zetland, and the tacks of the lands of the earldom of Mar and of the lordship of Strathdie, of which he was bailie and steward, and he was moreover condemned to a banishnient of five years in France. Bat as he was about to leave the kingdom, the queen, taking a more favourible view of his conduct, recalled the sentence of banishment, and restored him to the office of chancellor, of which he had been deprived; and to make this act of leniecy somewhat palatable to the earl’s enemies, queen exacted a heavy pecuniary fine from the earl.

The great disorders which prevailed in the Highlands at this time, induced the queen-regent to undertake a journey thither in order to punish these breaches of the law, and to repress existing tumults. She accordingly arrived at Inverness in the month of July, 1555, where she was met by John, Earl of Sutherland, and George, Earl of Caithness. Although the latter nobleman was requested to bring his countrymen along with him to the court, he neglected or declined to do so, and he was therefore committed to prison at Inverness, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh, successively, and he was not restored to liberty till he paid a considerable sum of money. Y-Mackay of Far was also summoned to appear before the queen at Inverness, to answer for his spoilations committed in the country of Sutherland during the absence of Earl John in France; but he refused to appear. Whereupon the queen granted a commission to the Earl of Sutherland, to bring Mackay to justice. The earl accordingly entered Strathnaver with a great force, sacking and spoiling every thing in his way, and possessing himself of all the principal positions to prevent Mackay’s escape. Mackay, however, avoided the earl, and as he declined to fight, the earl laid siege to the castle of Borwe, the principal strength in Strathnaver, scarcely two miles distant from Far, which he took after a short siege, and hanged Ruaridh-Mac-Iain-Mhoir, the commander. This fort the earl completely demolished.

While the Earl of Sutherland was engaged in the siege, Mackay entered Sutherland secretly, and burnt the church of Loth. He thereafter went to the village of Knockartol, where he met Mackenzie and his countrymen in Strathbroray. A slight skirmish took place between them; but Mackay and his men fled after he had lost Angus-Mackeanvoir, one of his commanders and several of his followers. Mackenzie was thereupon appointed by the earl to protect Sutherland from the incursions of Mackay during his stay in Strathnaver. Having been defeated again by Mackenzie, and seeing no chance of escape, Mackay surrendered himself, and was carried south, and committed a prisoner to the castle of Edinburg, in which he remained a considerable time. During the queen’s stay in the north many notorious delinquents were brought to trial, condemned and executed.

During Mackay’s detention in Edinburgh, John Mor-Mackay, who took charge of his kinsman’s estate, seizing the opportunity of the Earl of Sutherland’s absence in the south of Scotland, entered Sutherland at the head of a determined body of Strathnaver men, and spoiled and wasted the east corner of that province, and burnt the chapel of St. Ninian. Mac-Mhic-Sheumais, chief of the Clan-Gun, the Laird of Clyne, the Terrell of the Doill, and James Mac-William, having collected a body of Sutherland men, pursued the Strathnaver men, whom they overtook at the foot of the hill called Ben-Moir, in Berridell. Here they laid an ambush for them, and having, by favour of a fog, passed their sentinels, they unexpectedly surprised Mackay’s men, and attacked them with great fury. The Strathnaver men made an obstinate resistance, but were at length overpowered. Many of them were killed, and others drowned in the water of Garwary. Mackay himself escaped with great difficulty. This was one of the severest defeats the Strathnaver men ever experienced, except at the battle of Knoken-dow-Reywird.

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