A Brief Account of the Battle of Harlaw, 26th July 1411, and the Events Leading up to it by Ernest, Baron Porcelli.

The late Ernest, Baron Porcelli, also author of “The White Cockade,” submitted this article to the Editor in 1954 and is now printed as a tribute to this keen scion of the Clanranald family.

The father of Donald of Harlaw, was John of Islay, 7th Lord of the Isles, from the great Somerled, Rex Insularum, King of the Sudreys (Southern Islands), Thane of Argyll, and Lord of Kintyre, Knapdale, Morven and Garmoran, etc, while, according to Highland tradition he is known as Somhairle Mor Mac Gille Bhride.

On the death of John of Islay at a very advanced age in 1386, or according to the famous Red Book of the Macdonalds in 1330 at the Castle of Ardtornish on the west coast of Morven not far from Barony Point in the Sound of Mull, which he himself had built and which was long after regarded as the family seat of the Lords of the Isles, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Donald, by his second wife, Princess Margaret, daughter of Robert II, King of Scots.

Donald, known later as Donald of Harlaw, buried his father in Iona with the greatest splendour and all the pomp and ceremony which the Church could provide, owing to his many benefactions to it.

According to the Red Book, Reginald or Ranald, eldest son of John by his first wife, Amy MacRuari, was Steward over the Isles at his father’s death. Calling a meeting of “the Nobles Isles and of his brethren at one place he gave the sceptre to his brother at Kildonan in Eigg, and he was nominated Macdonald and Donald of Islay, contrary to the opinion of the men of the Isles”. Thus was played that last scene in the drama of the transfer of the Lordship of the Isles and was to create the cleavage in the Clan Donald.

It was his marriage which was to lead to the Battle of Harlaw, for he married Lady Mary Lesley, daughter of Sir Walter Lesley and Euphemia, Countess of Ross in her own right. The Earldom of Ross, which could go through the female line, was a prize well worth winning and of such immense proportions that it could not be overlooked, entailing, as it did, such vast possessions that, if added to those already owned, would make any holder of the title immensely strong and might even prove a threat to the State.

Lady Euphemia Lesley had, in addition to her daughter, Lady Mary, a son, Alexander Lesley. On the death of Sir Walter Lesley, the Countess of Ross married Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, called the Wolf of Badenoch, who, at his wife’s request was confirmed as Earl of Ross, by the King, his father, to the exclusion of her son who, however, in 1398 did succeed to the title.

He married a daughter of Robert, Duke of Albany, the Regent of Scotland, an extremely astute and able schemer, and left behind one daughter, Euphemia, said to be sickly, some say deformed, and certainly unlikely to live long. Her nearest living relative was her Aunt, the Lady Margaret of the Isles.

So the stage was all set for the enaction of the drama now to take place; for on the one side was her Aunt, who, with her husband, was ready to step into her possessions, while on the other side loomed the sinister figure of the Regent of Scotland, determined at all costs to prevent the possessions of this very wealthy girl coming either under the influence or into the hands of the Lord of the Isles. If she were to die, without naming an heir, her Aunt would normally succeed her.

So it was not at all surprising when she suddenly decided to remove herself from the outside world and enter a convent, and there to await her coming of age, when the Regent felt sure she would assign to him her rights.

But Donald of Islay, however, had very different views on the subject. He feared, probably quite rightly that the Regent had designs to eventually considerably curb and curtail the powers of the Island Chieftain and at any rate enrich himself at the expense of what the Chief looked on as already his. He argued, again probably rightly, that as the girl had taken the veil and had renounced the world, she was legally dead and that being so, his wife, the Lady Margaret, had become her successor and he was prepared to back up his contentions by force of arms.

Soon the whole countryside was ablaze as the Fiery Cross passed on its way to every spot and glen, where the Macdonald influence was paramount, both on the Mainland and in the Islands.

In the Midsummer of 1411, everywhere in the Western Highlands could be seen members of the Macdonald Clan hastening to obey the order of their Chiefs and making for the rendezvous which was to take place at Castle Ardtornish in Morven – and very shortly afterwards Donald of slay set sail for the west coast of Ross, where he duty landed and quickly reached Dingwall, which he took.

Here he was attacked by the Clan Mackay, under their Chief, Angus Dubh Mackay, but the only result was the complete rout of the men of Caithness and the capture of their Chief. Donald then proceeded to capture the Castle of Dingwall, which he left garrisoned and proceeded on his way to Inverness by Beauly, defeating the Laird of Lovat and his leaders, who opposed his claims to the Earldom of Ross.

Arriving at Inverness, which he occupied, he called on all the able bodied men of Ross to flock to his standard, which very many did. He now decided to march eastwards and attack Aberdeen, which he had threatened to sack and burn. On leaving Inverness shortly after 21st July, his force was then probably well over 10,000 strong. The main body was under the Lord of the isles and consisted chiefly of Islanders, including the MacLeods of Lewis and Harris under their Chiefs; the right wing under Hector Maclean of Duart, and the left wing under Mackintosh of Mackintosh, while John Mor Tanister of Dunnyveg commanded the reserve.

When the inhabitants of Aberdeen heard that the Highland host was on its way towards their City under the Lord of the Isles, who had vowed he would most certainly burn it, they were overcome with terror. But to their rescue came all the gentry of Aberdeenshire with their retainers, under the Earl of Mar. A first cousin of Donald of Islay, he had had a most extraordinary career. Son of Alexander Stewart, 4th son of King Robert II, the notorious Wolf of Badenoch, he had at one time been a leader of bandit and eventually captured the widow of Sir Robert Drummond of Stobhill in her Castle of Kildrummie (Countess of Mar in her own right). He became Earl of Mar by forcibly marrying her.

After her death he went abroad and fought in the various wars there. Finally returning to Scotland he appeared a somewhat reformed character. At the head of his mail-clad Knights, generally thought to be not much more than a thousand strong, he advanced by Inverurie and got contact with the Highlanders at the village of Harlaw, about ten miles North West of Aberdeen.

The Highland Army, in addition to the Macdonalds consisted chiefly of the Mackintoshes, the Camerons, the Macleans, the Mackinnons and the MacLeods. They were poorly armed, compared with their opponents, broadswords, bows, axes and wooden shields being opposed to Mar’s mail-clad Knights, armed to the teeth.

The battle took place on 26th July 1411, and lasted all day, when after desperate tussles on both sides, the fighting ceased at nightfall. The losses of the Highland Army have been estimated at 900 killed and possibly a similar number wounded, but despite their very heavy losses, the Lord of the Isles appears to have had at least 8,000 men still available. On the other hand, Mar’s losses were overwhelming. Out of an Army little over a thousand strong, 600 lay dead and many more wounded, including Mar, their gallant Commander.

However, the Lord of the Isles, feeling that despite the result of the battle of Harlaw, it would be unwise to continue his advance, decided to withdraw into the Highlands, which was carried out unmolested by his opponents. The following year the Regent attacked the Lord of the Isles, but fighting him in his own country it is not surprising that he failed to have any success. However he did prevent Donald of Harlaw ever enjoying the Earldom of Ross and when in 1415, the girl Euphemia resigned in favour of her grandfather the Regent, he conferred it on his son, John Stewart, Earl of Buchan, who was killed at the battle of Verneuil in NW France in 1424, when John, Duke of Bedford, heavily defeated the French and captured the town.

Donald of Harlaw is said to have joined a religious order in his declining years. The date of his death is by no means certain. According to the Red Book he died in Islay – and was buried with great pomp in the tomb of his ancestors at Iona.

Footnote by the Editor: To finish the story it must be recorded that, although Donald did not succeed to the Earldom officially during the reign of James I, on the death of that Monarch, Alexander, son of Donald, was installed in the Earldom officially by James II in 1437. Alexander issues a charter in that year as Earl of Ross, and he continued thus. His son, John, last Lord of the Isles, succeeded as Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross until the forfeiture of that Earldom in 1446. –D.J.M.