Battle of Harlaw
In the 15th century, there was nothing quite like a territorial dispute to bring tensions between Highlanders and Lowlanders to boiling point. In 1411, one such contretemps would spill over into major conflict when Donald of Islay , Lord Of The Isles, would wage war on Alexander Stewart, Earl Of Mar, for the rightful ownership of the Earldom Of Ross.
To be fair, a mighty swathe of land was at stake – little wonder that these two powerful men should covet it. From Skye and Ross in the west of Scotland, south through to Urqhuart, Loch Ness , and the eastern ex-tremities of Nairn and Aberdeenshire, the Earldom Of Ross was a plumb piece of real estate, an important part of Scotland. Both Mar and Donald would have legitimate claims to inherit Ross. Unfortunately, their dispute came at a time when Scotland was left wanting for royal leadership. King James I was languishing in an English prison when he could have perhaps solved the feudal unrest back home.
That several thousand men would fight at Harlaw was testament to both Mar and Donald’s standing, and the significance of Ross. The chasm in diplomacy between the Highlands and the Lowlands would add spice to a battle which – although came some way short of civil war – was symptomatic of the fractious dynamic of Scottish politics. According to folklore, as many as 10,000 men would fight for the Donald; the Highlanders outnumbering a rival army of a few thousand men.
Donald marched south, gathering men from Highland clans on his way to Inverness. The town of Dingwall was in the way, and an army under Angus Dubh MacKay was given an emphatic trouncing as Donald raised the standard. Claiming Ross when his enemy was at large was not enough for Donald, and at Harlaw, near Aberdeen, he and Mar would meet in a most bloody affair. Upon learning that the Highlanders were en-camped near Harlaw on the eve of the battle, Mar assembled his men at Inverurie, marching to Harlaw at dawn.
It was a very Scottish battle; many of the tactics pioneered in the First War Of Scottish Independence were deployed here. Phalanxes of pikemen were arranged in schiltrons, the forests of spears would reduce cavalry charges to carnage. Mar’s army, though outnumbered, were a staunch fighting unit. Harlaw was an intense confrontation, the fighting lasted throughout the long summer night.
Though accurate accounts of the battle have been shrouded in the romanticism of balladry – with estimates in song of 900 highlanders dying, and 600 of Mar’s men – there is no doubting the savagery of this encounter. Nor the futility. Donald would claim victory, but he wouldn’t march towards Aberdeen , and shortly Mar would reclaim the earldom, only to be inherited by the Lord Of The Isles a generation later.
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