Donald of Harlaw by W.D. Lamont MA DPhil DLitt.

“Donald of Harlaw” – this is how the folk of the northeast think of Donald, 2nd Lord of the Isles and de jure Earl of Ross. To us of the west the battle of July 1411 is but one of the major incidents in the turbulent history of the Highlands and Isles; but in the lore of Aberdeenshire it ranks as a local “Bannockburn”. That is, indeed, an understatement. According to one version it preserved Scottish civilisation from the fate of ancient Rome under the barbarian avalanche. Another interpretation is that a victory for Donald would have meant a division of Scotland into two kingdoms, differing in language, culture and social structure. His defeat secured the survival of the Stewart line, and you may be shewn his grave hard by Harlaw field.

In point of fact, Donald was not defeated, his “tomb” may be the remnant of a prehistoric structure, and he was very much alive long after Harlaw. The conflict had nothing like the significance ascribed to it in local legend, but it does belong to an extraordinary period in Scottish history.

Harlaw was fought by Donald to make good his claim to the Earldom of Ross. The ancient line of earls ended in the 14th century with an heiress, Euphemia, who married Sir Walter Lesley. They had two children, Alexander and Mariota (sometimes called Mairi or Margaret). Alexander, who succeeded his mother, married Isabella, daughter of the Duke of Albany. They had one child, Euphemia, who became a nun and was thus legally deceased; but apparently under pressure from Albany she bestowed the earldom on his son, her mother’s brother. Meantime her aunt Mariota, her father’s sister and therefore the true heir, had married Donald of Ila, lord of the Isles, and he quite properly claimed the earldom in right of his wife. Albany, at that time governor of Scotland while his nephew, James I was a prisoner of England, rejected Donald’s claim; and so the scene was set for the memorable fray.

Before going further with the story, it will be worth looking at she contending parties in view of the suggestion that they represented respectively the forces of barbarism and civilisation. As the following table shows, all those actively engaged were descendants of Robert II.


ROBERT II Stewart King of Scots (d.1390)
King of Scots
Robert Stewart
Duke of Albany
Alexander, Earl of Buchan
(The Wolf of Badenoch)
Margaret Stewart
= John Macdonald
of the Isles
Euphemia Countess of Ross = Walter Lesley
of Albany
of Albany
Alexander = Countess of Mar
Donald of Harlaw = Mariota** Lesley
Mariota** Lesley
Alexander Lesley Earl of Ross = Isabella* of Albany
(became a nun)


Donald, “the barbarian”, was a son of John of Ila and Princess Margaret Stewart. He had been educated at Oxford. On 1st August 1378 is recorded the safe-conduct enabling him to enter England and proceed to the city of Oxford as a student of the university there. Presumably, as a Scot, he would go to Baliol.

The champions of civilisation were, first, the Duke of Albany, governor of the kingdom, who was almost certainly responsible for the murder of his nephew, the elder son of Robert III. It was fear for the safety of the younger son, the future James I, that resulted in the boy’s capture by the English on his way to France. Then there was the Duke’s younger brother, the Earl of Buchan, notorious as the “Wolf of Badenoch” who terrorised the north and sacked Elgin Cathedral in the course of a dispute with the bishop. He had an illegitimate son Alexander who roamed the lands with a gang of Highland freebooters and murdered Sir Malcolm Drummond in order to marry his wife, the Countess of Mar. This was the Earl of Mar who was chosen to lead the government forces against Donald of the Isles.

It is not difficult to follow Donald’s route. By the time he reached the battlefield his force is said to have been about 10,000; but initially it would have been considerably smaller. There were probably about 6,000 men who assembled with their galleys in Lochaline (Morvern), the naval base for Ardtornish. At that time the usual Hebridean galley was one of 14 or 16 oars; and as one counts 3 men to the oar as the complement for a military expedition, there would have been between 120 and 150 ships in the original fleet. Gathering reinforcements as they proceeded, the expedition moved up the Sound of Mull, sail assisting oars under favourable conditions. Round Ardnamurchan they would be joined by the men of Garmoran and the Small Isles. Passing from the Sound of Sleat through the narrows of Kylerhea and Kyleakin, they would be in what were technically alien waters; but the men of Skye and Wester Ross would have no hesitation about throwing in their lot with the Islesmen against the “sassanachs” of the east. With numbers further swollen from the Long Island, the host turned into Lochcarron. Arriving at Strome Castle, the vessels were beached or moored and the army proceeded overland. Though conditions in the first traverse would be fairly Spartan, the way from Garve to Inverness would gradually open up prospects of the rich living ahead. But it also brought the first serious indications of hostility. There is a Pictish symbol-stone at Strathpeffer known as the “Eagle Stone” (from the principal device), or “The Stone of Turning” because it is supposed to mark the point at which the Highlanders were diverted on their way to Dingwall. At that important town there was a determined resistance only overcome after some difficulty, and Lovat disputed the crossing at Beauly. Inverness was again extremely hostile, and was partly burnt while the castle was sacked. Donald did, however, gain an important ally by the accession of Clan MacIntosh.

From then on it was a triumphal procession through Moray, Banff and Aberdeenshire, with the fat of the land for the taking in those long summer days of July. Donald’s declared intention was to waste the domains of his enemies from Mar to the banks of the Tay, burning the city of Aberdeen in the process, and the inhabitants regarded this as no idle threat.

Meantime Mar had collected his forces, the feudal levies of Mar, Angus and Mearns. With him, amongst many other distinguished knights, were Scrymgeour, Constable of Dundee and hereditary standard-bearer of Scotland, Ogilvy Sheriff of Angus, and Sir Robert Davidson, Provost of Aberdeen, with a troop of stout burgesses. Advancing by Inverurie, he found the Highlanders posted near the village of Harlaw, and the two forces presented a strange contrast. Donald’s 10,000 were armed with the kind of sword commonly shown on our sculptured stones, pole-axe, bow and arrow, dirk and round targe. Mar had 1,000 men comparatively well disciplined and including a stiffening of armoured knights. His freebooting days a thing of the past, he acquired a high reputation in continental wars. He also had the advantage of having himself led Highland forays and was therefore familiar with their tactics. He found Donald’s army well positioned, on a kind of platform with a declivity falling on the west to the river Ury, and on the east an extensive moss. This left no scope for cavalry manoeuvre, but he knew his own strength.

The Highlanders advanced to the charge with their wonted impetuosity. The knights levelled their spears and wielded battle-axe and mace. Scrymgeour led the van into the melee, Mar following with the main body. There was no difficulty in cleaving a way into the Highland host and Mar himself penetrated to the heart of the enemy. But though tens and twenties fell around him, hundreds closed in to take their places. Encumbered by the sheer numbers of slain, his men became immobilised and exhausted. The Highlanders stabbed the horses, pulled down and despatched the riders; and so the carnage continued until the fall of night.

Too exhausted to do more than gather the survivors round him, Mar counted the cost. Scrymgeour, Ogilvy and over 500 men, including most of the principal gentry, were slain. He himself was badly wounded, and his company spent the night on the field, not as claiming victory but because they were literally too exhausted to do anything else. They dreaded the dawn when the attack would be resumed. But when at length it broke, they could hardly believe their eyes. Donald and his survivors – which did not include Maclean of Duart or Macintosh -were seen in the far distance, returning to the west.

We do not really know the extent of Donald’s losses; and it is the carnage among the flower of the families of north eastern Scotland that puts Harlaw on official record. As on some of the great national occasions, a statute was passed exempting the heirs of those who had fallen from the customary feudal dues (probably not applicable to the Lordship!), and the imposing monument on the field is in memory of the Provost and burgesses of Aberdeen who did not return.

Well, who won the battle of Harlaw? No one. Who, then, secured the fruits of the drawn engagement? There were none. It would have made no difference, even in the short run, whether Donald had lost or won. If he really wanted Ross, he should have gone in and taken possession (which he did), and then conserved his forces so as to hold it (which he did not). According to Fordun, Albany led an expedition to “pacify” Ross-shire and then continued down into Argyll where he finally forced Donald to renounce his claim, the agreement being apparently concluded at Polgilp (Lochgilphead).

Although Donald himself died about 1420 without having secured the earldom, the title of his widow Mariota was eventually recognised by James I and passed on to their son, Alexander 3rd Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross.

There are some who say that the old Celtic gods failed in their duty to the house of Somerled when they allowed Donald of Ila to meet Mariota Lesley of Ross. Look very carefully at the subsequent history of the Lords and their lands – and decide whether you agree.