The Battle of the Clans occurred on the feast of St. Michael; the 28th of September, 1396.
There once was a fight that took place on the North Inch at Perth, which would have been more at home in ancient Rome than in medieval Scotland. Evoking images of gladiatorial contests and staged battles, the Battle of the Clans would not have been out of place in the Coliseum. The Battle of the North Inch was the kind of clash of which legends are made and in that respect, it doesn’t disappoint. Some so called facts are debatable, but after Sir Walter Scott got in on the act, its status was assured. Scott immortalised the story in his novel ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’, in which he tells of a thirty-a-side fight to the death that took place in the presence of Scotland’s then ‘Caesar’, Robert III. Nigel Tranter, in ‘A Folly of Princes’, also presents a cracking account of the Clan battle.
Of the opposing Clans, there seems to be no disputing one was Clan Chattan; represented by Mackintosh. Where versions differ is in their opponents. Many accounts state Mackay, whilst Scott refers to Kay or Quhele and sets the date as Palm Sunday. According to Sandy Stevenson on the Tour Scotland website, historian Alexander Mackintosh Shaw, in ‘Clan Battle at Perth’, points out that there was a fight that took place on a Palm Sunday, but that was in 1430. Shaw goes on to state that there is “sound historical ground for the view that the parties to the fight [on the Inch] were Clan Chattan and Clan Cameron.” Sandy states that a Mackay historian backs up Shaw, saying that there are “the most cogent reasons to think that the opponents of the Mackintoshes were the Camerons.”
A historian by the name of Robert Gunn quotes a version in which the combatants are both of Clan Chattan. He refers to an internal feud between MacPherson and Davidson (according to A. M. Shaw, the Clan Chattan federation was composed of MacKintoshes, MacPhersons, Davidsons, MacGillivrays and Macbeans). However, as the account erroneously refers to Robert II, perhaps it can’t be trusted. A Clan Cameron website is backed up by historian William G. A. Shaw of Easter Lair, who credibly and convincingly identifies the Chattan opponents as Camerons. It makes sense when you consider that these two Clans nurtured a feud lasting the best part of four hundred years.
Commenting on the feud, W. G. A. Shaw reports that, around 1340, the Camerons took the Clan Chattan lands of Torcastle by force and soon after tangled again at Drumlui. Then, in 1370 (or 1386), the Camerons of Lochiel fought Clan Mackintosh at the Battle of Invernahavon. Those representatives of Clan Chattan were given a hiding that time, primarily because Clan Mhuirich (Macphersons) left them to it on the day, after a sulk about precedence in battle order. However, the very next day, the federated Clans patched up their differences and took their revenge on the Camerons who were “put to flight.” The feud continued to fester, and in 1389 (or 1391 or 1392), it involved the son of the Wolf of Badenoch, who led a Highland host of Hielantmen, including Chattan, in the Raid of Angus, during which the Battle of Glasclune took place.
That Glasclune action brought Sir David Lindsay of Glen Esk, Overlord of Strathnairn and brother-in-law of the King, into the equation. Walter Ogilvie, the Sheriff of Angus, alongside his half-brother and several other knights and lairds, was killed in the pitched battle, interestingly, proving that Highlanders were a match for armoured chivarly. However, Lindsay arrived in time save the day, albeit he got badly wounded for his trouble. So it was that a few years later, in 1396, with the feud resurfacing, Lindsay and Thomas Dunbar, the Earl of Moray, accompanied the Earl of Carrick in an attempt at restoring order, fearing a destabilising war in “the north of Scotland beyond the mountains” as Bower has it.
As told by Stephen Boardman in ‘The Early Stewart Kings; Robert II and Robert III; 1371-1406’, Bower records that it was Lindsay and Dunbar, who “actually engineered the submission of the two clans to this form of dispute settlement.” Boardman calls the battle “a judicial conflict, presided over by the King,” which was both a royal response to complaints about the “ineffectiveness of royal justice in the north” and “designed to bring the long-running dispute between the two kindreds to an end.” Interestingly, whereas Boardman describes the brutal duel as “a public relations triumph for Robert III,” Stevenson suggests he “weakly assented” and then “lowered himself to be a spectator.”
Under the guidance of the ill-fated Carrick, Lyndsay and Dunbar organised the event, having timber and iron barriers constructed and “making lists for 60 persons fighting on the Inch at Perth” at a cost, according to the Exchequer accounts for 1396, of £14 2s & 10d. The King and his court, including his brother, the Duke of Albany, who effectively governed the Realm, took their positions in the grandstand – the gilded arbour summerhouse of the Dominican Monastery, which overlooked the Inch.
The legendary part of the story has it that one of Clan Chattan was posted missing on the day, through either sickness or fear. Sandy says that “the Mackintosh MS History affirms that one of the clansmen had fallen sick,” but Wyntoun makes no mention of one side lacking a man. The imbalance lends the story another twist. Enter Hal Gow o’ the Wynd to take the place of the absent Mackintosh. Known also as Henry Smith or the Gow-Chrom (crooked Smith), when the Camerons refused to withdraw a man, Hal is supposed to have been recruited for “half a French gold crown” and maintenance for life – if he survived. Wyntoun has no mention of this Perth blacksmith, armourer, saddler or harness-maker that “fought for his own hand,” but both of these dubious, but colourful, elements appear in Bower, no doubt embellished over time.
The 30 combatants on each side, most barely clad in saffron coloured tunics, were armed “with bow and ax, knyff and swerd” and the battle was so bloody and furious that the spectators were seized with “an inexpressible horror.” Tranter has archers on each side firing their allotted “three arrows” before joining in hand-to-hand combat. Sir Walter Scott has the clansmen breaking off at half time for a breather, at which point, around “twenty of both sides lay on the field, dead or dying; arms and legs lopped off, heads cleft to the chin.” At the end of the carnage, Clan Chattan had eleven men (barely) standing, including, apparently, Hal o’ the Wynd. Of the Camerons, only one man remained alive. He is supposed to have fled the field and swam to safety across the silvery Tay.
As a plausible alternative, Tranter has this survivor babbling incoherently whilst being tended to by the Monks and accounts for the missing fighter by having him swim the river at the outset, at the instigation of the machiavellian Albany. Tranter’s artistic licence also has Shaw Beg MacFarquhar leading Clan Chattan, with Gilchrist MacIan in command of those he calls Cumming (Comyn). (W. G. A.) Shaw records more accurately no doubt, that the leader of Clan Chattan was Shaw MacGilchrist MacIain Mackintosh, whom he goes on to say died in 1405 and was buried in Rothiemurchus Kirk.