The Battle of the Shirts, also known as the Battle of Kinlochlochy, took place on what became known as ‘Blar na Léine’ or the ‘Field of the Shirts’, near the head of Loch Lochy, on the 15th of July, 1544.
The Battle of the Shirts was fought in the summer of 1544 between the protagonists, John of Moidart (Iain Moydertach), Chief of Clan Ranald, supported by the Macdonalds and Camerons, and Hugh, 3rd Lord Lovat, the MacShimi Chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat. The Frasers, together with their allies, the Grants, were returning home along the Great Glen after assisting the Gordon, Earl of Huntly, whose army had penetrated as far as Inverlochy in an abortive campaign against the Highlanders. Reputedly the largest and most bloody inter-clan battle ever fought, close to one thousand men fought in hand-to-hand combat before the Fraser force was almost completely wiped out. The battle was fought on ground now underwater at the head of Loch Lochy and was so called, because it took place on a hot day in July and the two sides threw off their plaids and kilts to fight in just their shirts!
After the death of James V and during the minority of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, a period of turbulence and oppression ensued in the Highlands, accompanied by scenes of ferocity and lawlessness. Clan Ranald was particularly active in these unruly activities and its long standing mutual enmity with the Frasers was further fuelled by the usurpation of Lord Lovat’s brother in law, Ranald mac Allan of Moidart (known as Ranald Gallda, ‘the Stranger’), by his cousin, John mac Ranald of Moidart. Internecine warfare amongst the clans was rife and it normally didn’t need too much of an excuse for a conflict to start. Ranald Gallda had claimed the Chieftainship of Clan Ranald, but after the episode when he became known to the Macdonalds as ‘Ranald of the Hens’, he was dismissed.
In 1531, John of Moidart had become legitimate leader of Clan Ranald after the death (some say killing) of the sixth Chief, Alasdair. After a period during which John was imprisoned and escaped, and Ranald of the Hens was laughed out of Moidart, John reasserted his authority, in 1542. Two years later, in extending their territorial claims, John of Moidart and his cronies, Ewen Mlenson and Ronald M’Coneilglas, had caused the whole country of Urquhart and Glenmorriston, which belonged to the Laird of Grant, and the MacShimi country of Abertarf and Strathglass, to be wasted and plundered. As a consequence, the Earl of Arran, acting as Regent, made the Earl of Huntly and the Earl of Argyll Lieutenant-General of all the Highlands and Lieutenant of Argyle and the Isles, respectively, in order to restore peace to the region.
The Earl of Huntly raised a large army, comprised of Macintoshes, Grants, and Frasers and in May, 1544, marched against Clan Ranald and Clan Cameron. Meanwhile, the Earl of Argyll had been successful in persuading many of the invading Macdonalds and their allies to retire from the conquered lands in Badenoch and return to their own western territories. This kind of took the wind out of Huntly’s sails and he withdrew, leaving the Frasers and Grants to return to their own lands.
However, on his way back, Lord Lovat arrived at Letterfinlay and was told that Clan Ranald was on the march to intercept him. As soon as he reached the north end of Loch Lochy, he perceived the Macdonalds, about five hundred strong, descending from the west and sweeping across the burn that cuts the brae at the foot of Ben Tigh. Lovat had no choice; he could neither refuse nor avoid battle.
As a prelude to the slaughter, a sort of skirmish took place with bows and arrows, until both sides had expended their stock of shafts. The combatants then drew their swords and, in time honoured Highland fashion, charged upon each other with deadly intent. It is said that Cameron archers charged headlong into the fray, recovered their spent arrows and fired again at the Frasers, this time with deadly, point-blank accuracy.
The carnage was terrible and few escaped on either side as only the darkness of night put an end to the fighting. Lord Lovat was left dead on the field and his eldest son was mortally wounded. He died three days later, having been taken prisoner. According to tradition handed down in clan records, only four of the Frasers and ten of Clan Ranald remained alive. It seems certain that the Frasers came off the worst as almost the entire able male population was lost. Legend has it that eighty of the deceased Fraser men left pregnant wives at home, each of whom delivered a baby boy and in such fashion saved the clan from extinction.
As soon as news of the battle was brought to the Earl of Huntly, he returned to Lochaber with an army and apprehended many of the leading men of the hostile tribes, including Ewen Cameron, who was executed, in 1547. However, John of Moidart not only survived the battle, he escaped retribution by fleeing to the Isles. Later, during the absence of the Earl of Huntly in France, John returned and recommenced his disorderly deeds.
Some people would have you believe that ‘Blar na Léine’ is merely a corruption of ‘Blar na Leana’, which means the ‘Field of the Swampy Meadow’. My belief is that the battle was fought at a site, which was indeed known as the ‘Swampy Meadow’, but after the battle, in reference to the manner of fighting, it became commemorated as ‘Blar na Léine’ or the ‘Field of the Shirts’. In a sense, though, many battles fought by Highlanders could have been so called as the habit of casting off their distinctive, but cumbersome, garments was entirely practical.
In the 16th Century, fighting men wore armour, including lined helmets, hammered steel breastplates with quilted gambesons beneath, and heavy jacks of iron-studded, quilted canvas. Not surprising then, that in the sweltering heat and in a battle of such ferocity and duration, the men disposed of their outer garments; right down to their shirts.