The Battle of Harlaw, known as ‘Red Harlaw’, took place near Inverurie on the 24th of July, 1411.
The Battle of Harlaw was fought in the lee of the Mither Tap o’ Bennachie, a prominent Aberdeenshire landmark that shoulders into the surrounding countryside and presents a formidable barrier to energetic clamberers. The flat moor by Harlaw, which is now mostly farmland, began about a mile north west of the bridge over the River Urie, just north of Inverurie, spreading up to the rise of Bennachie. There is an annual foot race, called the ‘Kilter’s race’ that takes place every summer, around the time of the battle. Runners in their kilts and simmets are bussed to the car park at the Back o’ Bennachie and maun climb to the start at the summit. Seven and a half miles later, the finish line beckons by Inverurie’s sports pavilion. I’ve ran the race twice; the second time just to prove to myself that I really was daft.
Long before I was bauchlin’ doon the road towards Inverurie, an army of Hielantmen, led by Donald, 2nd Lord of the Isles, marched from Inverness towards Aberdeen, more or less following the route of today’s A96. The town by the banks of the Urie was strategically located to control any advance towards the City of Aberdeen, and it was there that the Earl of Mar had marshalled his troops. Donald’s forces camped in the heather on the high ground near Harlaw on the night of the 23rd July. On the following morning, the Earl of Mar marched out of Inverurie to engage the Highland army.
The first verse of the 18th Century ballad, ‘The Battel of Hayrlau’, sets the scene:
“As I cam’ in by Dunidier,
An’ doun by Netherha,
There was fifty thousan’ Hielantmen
A-marching to Harlaw.”
The Battle of Harlaw was the result of a feudal dispute over land and title and power involving the monarchic dynasty of the house of Stewart, with its many tendriled familial links. The influence of the Stewarts extended through its legitimate and illegitimate offspring, one or other of whom had ruled de jure or de facto, through partiality and intrigue, and aye if needs be, conflict, since the death of David II, second and last of the line of Bruce. However, that rule was tenuous in some parts of the realm, particularly in the north and west. Particularly in relation to claims to the Earldom of Ross, a vast swathe of northern Scotland extending from the Isle of Skye to Ross and Inverness, with some sway over the counties of Nairn and Aberdeen. Whoever held Ross gained wealth and territory, and was able to wield corresponding power and influence in the land. It was the subject of a steadily growing conflict.
The protagonists could seem to be aligned north and south, highland and lowland, Scot and Gael perhaps, also captive King and ambitious subject or an uncompromising Regent and upstart Lord. Notwithstanding such theories, those who fought the battle were feudal Lords and Clan Chiefs with their retinues and retainers who mostly came from north of the Forth. It was simply a sign of the times that, after the death of the weak and inefectual Robert III and with the rightful King, James I, literally a prisoner of Henry IV of England, that Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany, uncle to James I, Regent and King in all but name since lang syne, would receive occasional threats to his dominance. He may have thought he was invincible as his chief lieutenants were, for the most part, either an offspring or an offcut and his one real foe, his nephew, the Duke of Rothesay, he had neatly removed from the scene by having him starved to death at Falkland. Nevertheless, Albany was as vulnerable as ever Scotland was to England and to a threat from the Isles. Not insignificant, perhaps, was the treaty between the Lord of the Isles and England’s King, still extant.
Significantly, the challenge came from within the family, so to speak, and due to contested issues of inheritance. Donald of Islay, 2nd Lord of the Isles, already controlled large tracts of the western highlands and islands of Scotland. Gaining control of the Earldom of Ross would allow him to extend his influence much further to the north and east, and the fertile lands down to Aberdeen on the coast. Like his proud ancestors, he had no real cause to regard a Stewart as his rightful monarch. Here’s where it gets complex. Euphemia, Countess of Ross in her own right, died in 1394 and her son, Alexander Leslie, inherited the Earldom. Alexander then married Albany’s daughter, Isabel Stewart, and they had a daughter, also called Euphemia, who was said to be either sickly or disfigured. When Earl Alexander died in 1402, Euphemia, due to the absence of a male heir and according to a charter of David II, inherited the title. As she was still a minor, Albany became her guardian and assumed control of Ross.
Another twist in the tale stems from the Earldom, although not the title, having been in the possession of Alexander Stewart, the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’ and Earl of Buchan, brother to Albany. That was because he had been married to the elder Euphemia for ten years prior to an annulment. An illegitimate son, resulting from the adulterous liaison that had cost Buchan the Earldom of Ross, was Alexander Stewart, who in 1411 was the Earl of Mar. Donald of the Isles’ claim to Ross rested on his marriage to Mariota Leslie, sister of Earl Alexander and Euphemia’s aunt. As the eldest surviving daughter she fulfilled the terms of King David’s charter and had right to the title. No title for Donald, but as consort he was entitled de facto to the Earldom. A final twist was that Donald’s mother was a daughter of Robert II, making Donald Albany’s nephew, as was the Earl of Mar. Donald had the better claim to the Earldom, but Albany was in possession and the Earl of Mar was set to occupy and defend it on his behalf.
The ballad draws to a close with, “… Ye’d scarce kent wha had wan” and ends thus:
“An sic a weary buryin’
I’m sure ye never saw
As wis the Sunday after that,
On the muirs anneth Harlaw.”
The fighting lasted all day, until darkness eventually forced a halt and Donald’s men withdrew. It had been so severe that it became known as the ‘Battle of Red Harlaw’ and was certainly a costly affair for both sides. If there was a victor, it was Donald, but only on points. Like me in the Kilter’s race, he got no prize. He was forced to lick his wounds and never recovered to again pose a threat to the Crown. The hegemony of the Stewarts was maintained and Scotland’s history is the one we know, instead of the one it might have been.