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Historic Earls and Earldoms of Scotland
Chapter 1 - Earldom and Earls of Mar
Section III

AFTER Alexander Stewart became Earl of Mar, he was an active supporter of his uncle, the Duke of Albany, who was then Regent of Scotland. He was a man of great energy, but a very unscrupulous character, and never relinquished the characteristics of his original aims as a leader of broken men upon the hills. This appeared in his restless visits to England and France with a train of armed retainers, ready to engage in any daring exploit

In 1411, the family quarrel between Donald, Lord of the Isles, and the Duke of Albany came to a crisis, solely owing to the determination of the latter to ignore the lawful claim of Donald, Lord of the Isles, to the Earldom of Ross, in right of his wife, Margaret Leslie. Legally and morally, Albany, the grasping Regent of Scotland, was on the wrong side in this family quarrel, and desired to aggrandise his own family in defiance of law and justice. He wanted the Earldom of Ross for his own son—the Earl of Buchan. Albany found an admirable agent for his purpose in the person of his nephew—Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar; and the Regent entered into a bond with him for mutual support, and commissioned Mar to lead the local army of the counties of Aberdeen, Kincardine, and Forfar, and the citizens of the burghs of Aberdeen and Dundee. Indeed, Mar was recognised as an able and brave leader of men.

All hope of a peaceful settlement of the quarrel having vanished, at last the Lord of the Isles resolved to try issues with the Regent, and enforce his right to the Earldom of Ross by the sword. He mustered his vassals and followers, and at the head of about six thousand men he crossed the water to the mainland. He marched through the Earldom of Ross, in which he received much support, and greatly increased the strength of his army. Proceeding southward, he advanced through Moray, crossed the Spey, and continued his advance through Banffshire and the higher grounds of Strathbogie and the Garioch, and pitched his camp on the Hill of Benachie. There he posted his army, and awaited the attack of his adversary—the Regent Albany; but this grasping schemer had not the courage to face the man whom he had been the cause of bringing so far from home. It is said that Donald’s army numbered ten thousand men. On the other side the Earl of Mar was at the head of the chief men and their followers of the three counties mentioned above, and a considerable number of the citizens of Aberdeen and Dundee. Although not quite so numerous as Donald’s host, they were much better armed and equipped. The leading men of the north-east of Scotland were on the field—the Forbeses, the Irvines, the Burnetts, the Leslies, the Hays, the Gordons, Ogilvies, Leiths, and others; Robert Davidson, the provost of Aberdeen, and Sir James Scrimgeour, the hereditary constable of Dundee. The battle was fought on the 24th of July, 1411, upon a moor edging up the Hill of Benachie. The action was long and furiously contested, many fell on both sides, and night put an end to the desperate struggle. There was no great victory on either side, but Donald and his followers retreated, leaving a great number of slain men. Many of the Lowland barons and their followers and the citizens of Aberdeen and Dundee, were slain on the field. Thus locally, the Battle of Harlaw was a great and important event, and was commemorated in an early ballad.

Yet no important event in Scottish history has been more strangely misinterpreted than the Battle of Harlaw. For it was entirely a personal and family quarrel in its origin, cause, and effect. It had not the slightest national or racial significance; it was a mere family quarrel from beginning to end, of which the Duke of Albany was the instigator. Further, the Duke of Albany failed to attain his aim, for Donald of the Isles retained possession of the Earldom of Ross, and his son Alexander succeeded him in 1420. In 1424 James I. granted a charter to Alexander, Lord of the Isles, confirming to him the right to the Earldom of Ross. On the 27th of May, 1425, when Murdoch, Duke of Albany, (the late Regent’s son) was tried in the Castle of Stirling, and sentenced to be executed, Alexander, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, was one of the jurymen on the trial. These facts speak for themselves, touching the cause and effect of the Battle of Harlaw.

The Earl of Mar was appointed Admiral of the Realm of Scotland. It appears that he attacked and despoiled English vessels at sea between Berwick and Newcastle. On the 16th of November, 1420, he entered into an agreement with Murdoch, Duke of Albany, and Governor of Scotland. In this bond, the earl, and his son, Sir Thomas Stewart, were bound always to act on the Governor’s side before and against all men, except the King alone. The Governor bound himself to give the earl one-half of the profits of the Justiciary Courts of Aberdeen, Banff, and Inverness. The Governor was to give his letters patent that he would stand by the earl—as the late Governor had done—in all disputes and quarrels. The Governor undertook to confirm the grant by the earl to his son, Sir Thomas Stewart, of the lands of Mar and Garioch, if the earl could show a charter by the King, confirming the lands of Mar and Garioch to himself and his heirs. The Governor would not consent to the marriage of his son and heir apparent, Walter Stewart, with the daughter of Sir Robert Erskine, without the consent and assent of the Earl of Mar. The Governor had given to the earl the profits of the lands of Badenoch, Urquhart, and Strathown, until they could be let to advantage, when the Governor was to receive one half of the profits, and the earl the other half for life.

Shortly after the return of James I., Mar resigned the Earldom into his hands, and on the 28th of May, 1426, the King granted a charter to his cousin, Alexander Stewart, and his natural son, Sir Thomas Stewart, of the Earldom of Mar, and the Lordship of the Garioch, to be held by him during his life, and after his death by Sir Thomas and his heirs lawfully begotten, whom failing, to revert to the Crown. On the 9th of January, 1427, James I. granted a charter to Alexander, Earl of Mar, of the lands of the Lordship of Badenoch, in the Sheriffdom of Inverness, during the period of his life. It seems doubtful, however, if he derived much profit from the Lordship of Badenoch. In 1431, Donald Balloch, a cousin of the Lord of the Isles, completely defeated the Earl of Mar in a pitched battle at Inverlochy, in Lochaber. About this time Mar was appointed by the King Lieutenant of the North.

The Earl of Mar had no legitimate children, and he made the utmost efforts to secure the succession of his natural son Sir Thomas to the Earldom. Sir Thomas married Margaret, Countess of Buchan, a daughter of Archibald, fourth Earl of Douglas, the widow of John, Earl of Buchan (the Regent Albany’s son), and only an heir seemed necessary to render the succession to the Earldom of Mar secure. But the fates were against the Earl and his son. Sir Thomas Stewart died childless in the lifetime of his father; and on the death of Earl Alexander himself, in 1435, the King annexed the Earldom of Mar and the Lordship of the Garioch to the Crown. After his death, John of Clat, a canon of Brechin and Aberdeen, and prebendary of Cloveth, bequeathed a sum of money to celebrate a mass annually at the altar of St. Catherine in the Cathedral of Aberdeen, for the repose of the soul of Alexander, Earl of Mar.

James I. ignored the claim of Sir Robert Erskine, a son of Sir Thomas Erskine and Janet Keith, who was the nearest heir of Isabel, the late Countess of Mar and Garioch. Sir Robert was a determined though a prudent man, and he had no intention of tamely yielding to the royal will; yet he wisely refrained from remonstrating with James L The chief aim of the policy of James I. was to reduce the power of the barons. In his short reign he annexed the Earldoms of Fife, Monteith, March, and Mar to the Crown.

In 1435 Sir Robert Erskine and his son and heir, Thomas Erskine, entered into a contract with Sir Alexander Forbes, afterwards first Lord Forbes, by which it was agreed that Sir Alexander should do all in his power to help Sir Robert Erskine and his son to obtain all their right of the Earldom of Mar and Lordship of the Garioch. And for his help, counsel, and trouble on their behalf, Sir Robert and his son undertook for themselves and their heirs to give Sir Alexander and his heirs the Lordship of Auchindor, with the patronage of the Church, the Buck, and Cabrach, and a half davach in free forest, lying within the Earldom of Mar and Sheriffdom of Aberdeen—granting a charter of these lands to him in fee and heritage within forty days after the recovery of the Earldom of Mar.

After the murder of James I. at Perth, in 1437, Six Robert Erskine took the requisite legal steps in the usual form to secure his right of succession to the Earldom of Mar and Lordship of the Garioch. As a descendant from Ellen, the eldest daughter of Gratney, Earl of Mar, a sister of Donald, Earl of Mar and Regent of Scotland, Sir Robert Erskine maintained that after the death of the Countess Isabel, he was the nearest and lawful heir to the Earldom of Mar. In 1438 Sir Robert obtained two special retours of service, the first of which was dated the 22nd of April. The inquest was summoned and presided over by Sir Alexander Forbes, Sheriff-Depute of Aberdeen; and among the names of the jurors on the inquest were—Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum, Sir Gilbert Hay, a brother of the Lord High Constable of Scotland; Sir John Forbes and Sir William Forbes; Alexander Keith of Inverugie, Alexander Meldrum of Fyvie, and other twelve. These jurors, after making the usual inquiry, found that—"Isabel, Countess of Mar and Garioch, had died in the peace and faith of the King, vested and seized in the lands of the Earldom of Mar and Lordship of the Garioch; that her cousin, Sir Robert Erskine, was her nearest legitimate heir in the half of the said lands and lordship; that he is of lawful age; that the lands of the Earldom of Mar are held of the Crown by ward and relief, and the lands of the Lordship of Garioch in free regality; that the half lands of Mar are now in the hands of the King through the death of the late Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar; and further, that the lands of the regality of Garioch are in the hands of Elizabeth, Countess of Buchan, wife of Sir Thomas Stewart" The second retour was dated the 16th of October, 1438, and was also presided over by Sir Alexander Forbes, Sheriff-Depute, and excepting five of the names, the jurors were those who had been on the first inquest The finding and report of the jurors were similar to that of the first retour.

In virtue of these retours it appears that Sir Robert was infefted in the Earldom. Subsequently he assumed the title of Earl of Mar and Lord Erskine, under which he granted a number of charters to vassals of the Earldom. On the 26th of June, 1439, Robert, Earl of Mar and Lord Erskine, granted a charter to Sir Alexander Forbes of the half of the Lordship of Strathdee, in the Earldom of Mar. He was at once recognised as Earl of Mar in Aberdeen, as appears from an entry in the records of the city, dated the 28th of December, 1439, when he was made a free burgess and member of the guild, as "a noble and powerful Lord, Robert of Erskine, Earl of Mar and Lord Erskine." On the 10th of May, 1440, he granted a charter to Alexander Irvine of Drum, confirming to him the lands of Davachindore and of Fidlemouth, in the Earldom of Mar.

But the Government soon began a struggle with the Earl, which was protracted and tantalising. During the minority of James II. various arrangements were entered into between Lord Erskine and the Government, the drift of which was to delay a final settlement of his claim to the Earldom until the King attained his majority. At Stirling, on the 10th of August, 1440, it was agreed between the Government and Lord Erskine that the Castle of Kildrummy should be delivered to Lord Erskine and kept by him for the King’s behoof until he be of age. Lord Erskine promised to lay his claims before the King and Parliament to be decided. In the meantime Lord Erskine was to receive all the rents of the half of the Earldom of Mar which he claimed. Whenever Erskine got possession of the Castle of Kildrummy he was to deliver up the Castle of Dumbarton to the King. It appears that Lord Erskine surrendered the Castle of Dumbarton to the King, but he was not put in possession of Kildrummy Castle.

On the 9th of August, 1442, Lord Erskine appeared before the King and council in Stirling Castle, and complained that Crichton, the Lord Chancellor, had refused to retour him to the Lordship of the Garioch, or put him in possession of the Castle of Kildrummy; he then protested that "he might and should be free to intromit, at his own hand, with the whole lands of Mar and Garioch." Accordingly, he immediately after besieged and took the Castle of Kildrummy, and the King then seized Erskine’s Castle of Alloa.

James II., on the 12th of May, 1447, by letters patent, charged Lord Erskine and his son Thomas to deliver up the Castle of Kildrummy for the King’s reception, when he visited these quarters of the kingdom, under the penalty of rebellion. In June, 1448, another agreement was made between Lord Erskine and the King and Council, by which Erskine undertook to deliver up the Castle of Kildrummy before the 3rd of July to anyone appointed by the King to keep it till the King attain his majority; and then to deliver it up to either of them whom Parliament found to have a right to it. The King and Council undertook that as soon as the Castle of Kildrummy was delivered up, the King should deliver up to Lord Erskine his Castle of Alloa, with all its furniture and warlike stores.

It appears, however, that the Government had not fulfilled the above conditions. For on the 4th of April, 1449 Sir Thomas Erskine, the eldest son of Lord Erskine, in the name and on behalf of his father and himself, appeared before the King and Parliament at Stirling, and declared that he was willing to fulfil the agreements between the King and his father and himself touching the lands of the Earldom of Mar and the Castle of Kildrummy, and to abide by the judgment of Parliament. He protested against the unjust detention of the revenues of the Earldom. On the 26th of January, 1450, Sir Thomas again appeared before the King and Parliament, and asked that justice should be done to his father touching the Earldom of Mar, which belonged to him by hereditary right, and was unjustly withheld from him by the King. To this the Lord Chancellor of Scotland replied that, by an Act of a General Council, it was enacted that until the King came of age he should possess all the lands and lordships in which his father died vested and seised; and that he was ready, "by his Privy Council, to hear the claim of Lord Erskine, as well as the claim of the King, to the Earldom."

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