The Battle of Harlaw (Scottish Gaelic: Cath Gairbheach) was a Scottish clan battle fought on 24 July 1411 just north of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. It was one of a series of battles fought during the Middle Ages between the barons of northeast Scotland against those from the west coast.
On a minor road just two miles north west of the centre of Inverurie stands the very imposing monument erected in 1911 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Harlaw, fought on heathland to the north of the monument on 24 July 1411.
The Battle of Harlaw was the culmination of steadily growing conflict about who had legitimate claim to the enormously powerful Earldom of Ross, which controlled a vast swathe of northern Scotland extending from the Isle of Skye to Inverness. On one side of the argument stood Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany, a man whose cunning and ruthlessness enabled him to wield great power during the reign of three Scottish kings and act as if he were king for long periods; who murdered his nephew, the rightful heir to the throne; and who very nearly subverted the succession in favour of his own son. He was not a man to cross lightly.
On the other side of the argument stood Donald of Islay, also known as Donald, 2nd Lord of the Isles. As Lord of the Isles, Donald already controlled large parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and gaining control of the lands of the Earldom of Ross, to which he laid claim through marriage, would allow him to extend his influence much further to the north and into more fertile areas in the north east.
In Summer 1411 Donald of Islay gathered an army including MacIntoshes, Macleans, Macleods, Camerons and Chattans as well as MacDonalds at Ardtornish Castle near Lochaline. He then sailed around the north coast of Scotland, landing his forces at Dingwall where he defeated an army of 3,000 MacKays before moving on to capture Inverness. He had, in effect, taken the Earldom of Ross by force.
In an effort to draw Robert, Duke of Albany into open conflict, Donald, by now with an army of highlanders numbering some 10,000 men, marched east, into Moray, before turning towards Aberdeen. At Harlaw, Donald's army came face to face with a rapidly assembled force of 2,000 men, largely mounted knights, under the command of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, a nephew by adoption of Robert, Duke of Albany.
Few details remain of the conflict that followed, though the battle was protracted and bloody, often being known as "Red Harlaw" as a result. At the Battle of Red Harlaw, the successful defense of Aberdeen is lead by Sir Robert Davidson, Lord Provost of Aberdeen, who is killed in the battle.
Examining medieval life in Scotland and particularly in Aberdeen, will show that the seaport of Aberdeen had outperformed all expectations on the European stage in terms of its size and was recognized as one of northern Europe’s foremost medieval cities – not only as a significant trading hub but as one of the ‘great cities’ of England. Insights from the records we can see that in one month alone, sixty ships from Flanders and the Netherlands arrived at Aberdeen. They carried a variety of goods, including cloth and salt. There is also evidence of high status goods including walnuts, raisins, figs, and pepper arriving in Aberdeen from the Continent, which demonstrate the extent of the city’s trading in this period. However, the records also show that relations were not always good and were often marred by disputes around piracy, with Aberdeen perceived as ‘turning a blind eye’. The reputation for a tolerance of piracy even extended to the highest levels of society. Complaints had registered against the fifteenth-century provost of Aberdeen, Sir Robert Davidson, who had a reputation for condoning piracy. In this however, Sir Robert had the backing of the admiral of Scotland, Alexander Stewart, the earl of Mar.
On July 24, 1411, one of the bloodiest battle ever fought on Scottish soil took place just outside Aberdeen, between Celtic, Gaelic speaking Highlanders and Anglo/Norman English speaking Lowlanders, at stake the very crown of Scotland. The battle is remembered as “The Red Harlaw” or “The Reid Harlaw” - the word “red” referring to the great amount of blood spilled on both sides. It has been memorialized in many songs and poems. It is also known in Gaelic as Cath Gairbheach.
Commanding one side was Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, a grandson of King Robert II of Scotland. Leading the other side in the battle was Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, also a grandson of King Robert II. These first cousins obviously shared much of the same bloodline and each had a reasonable claim to the Earldom of Ross, a vast territory extending northward to Caithness, westward to the Isle of Skye, southward to Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, and eastward to Inverness, with superiority over the outlying lands from Nairn to Aberdeen. He who ended up controlling the shire of Ross, controlled the bulk of the Scottish Highlands, and thereby much of Scotland itself.
MacDonald would become known to history as Donald of Harlaw. While the current and uncrowned King of Scotland 12-year old James I was growing up in English jails, Donald, Lord of the Isles made it his business to secure the Earldom of Ross’ estates before the Stewarts or Albany, the Governor of Scotland could. By 1411, Donald, Lord of the Isles, threaten a dismemberment of the kingdom of Scotland by bringing his army westwards, it may well have also been his desire to plunder and destroy Aberdeen. Bent upon spoliation and bloodshed, and resolved to imitate his father’s barbarous exploits, he collected a vast number of “caterans” (bands of peasantry marauders and cattle-lifters), he descended from the range of hills which divides the county of Aberdeen and Forfar, devastated the country, and murdered the inhabitants indiscriminately. He defeated a large force of Mackays at the Battle of Dingwall and captured Dingwall Castle and then advanced on Aberdeen with 10,000 clansmen. Flushed with the progress he had made, Donald now resolved to carry into execution a threat he had often made to burn the town of Aberdeen. For this purpose, he ordered his army to assemble at Inverness, and summoned all the men capable of bearing arms to join his standard on his way south. This Lord of the Isles marched through Moray without opposition, where he committed “great excesses” in Strathbogie and in the district of Garioch, which belonged to the Earl of Mar.
The inhabitants of Aberdeen were in dreadful alarm at the approach of this marauder and his fierce hordes; but their fears were allayed by the speedy appearance of a well-equipped army, commanded by the Earl of Mar, who bore a high military character, assisted by many brave knights and gentlemen. The Earl was also joined by Sir Robert Davidson, the Provost of Aberdeen, and a party of the burgesses.
Near Inverurie the invaders were met by 1,000–2,000 with significant numbers of knights of the local Aberdeen gentry, many in armor, hastily assembled by the Earl of Mar. The town’s burgesses joined the force raised by Provost Robert Davidson to help halt the advance of the enemy. On spotting the islanders, Mar organized his force into battle array, with the main army behind a small advance guard of men-at-arms under Sir James Scrymgeour (Constable of Dundee, the hereditary standard-bearer of Scotland) and Sir Alexander Ogilvie of Auchterhouse (Sheriff of Angus). He split the army into three formations, with the knights as a cavalry reserve and the infantry arranged in schiltrons, close-packed arrays of spearmen. There is no mention of significant numbers of archers. MacDonald’s islanders were arranged in the traditional cuneiform or wedge shape, with Hector MacLean commanding the right wing and the chief of Clan Mackintosh on the left.
On a signal being given, the Highlanders and Islesmen, setting up those terrific shouts and yells which they were accustomed to raise on entering into battle, rushed forward upon their opponents; but they were received with great firmness and bravery by the knights, who, with their spears levelled, and battle-axes raised, cut down many of their impetuous but badly armed adversaries. After the Lowlanders had recovered themselves from the shock which the furious onset of the Highlanders had produced, Sir James Scrymgeour, at the head of the knights and bannerets who fought under him, cut his way through the thick colunms of the Islesmen, carrying death everywhere around him; but the slaughter of hundreds by this brave party did not intimidate the Highlanders, who kept pouring in by thousands to supply the place of those who had fallen. Surrounded on all sides, no alternative remained for Sir James and his valorous companions but victory or death, and the latter was their lot. The constable of Dundee was amongst the first who suffered, and his fall so encouraged the Highlanders, that seizing and stabbing the horses, they thus unhorsed their riders, whom they despatched with their daggers. In the meantime the Earl of Mar, who had penetrated with his main army into the very heart of the enemy, kept up the unequal contest with great bravery, and, although he lost during the action almost the whole of his army, he continued the fatal struggle with a handful of men till nightfall. The disastrous result of this battle was one of the greatest misfortunes which had ever happened to the numerous respectable families in Angus and the Mearns. Many of these families lost not only their head, but every male in the house.
At first the clansmen launched themselves at Scrymgeour's men, but failed to make much impression on the armored column and many were slain. However, every wave of islanders that was repulsed, was replaced by fresh men. Meanwhile, Mar led his knights into the main body of Donald's army with similar results. The islanders brought down the knights' horses and then used their dirks to finish off the riders.
By nightfall, the ballads claim that 600 of Mar's men were dead, including Ogilvie and his son, Scrymgeour, Sir Robert Davidson, Sir Thomas Morrow, William Abernethy, Alexander Straiton of Lauriston, James Lovel, Alexander Stirling and Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum. Sir Robert Davidson, Provost of Aberdeen, with 500 men-at-arms, including the principal gentry of Buchan, and the greater part of the burgesses of Aberdeen who followed their Provost, were among the slain. According to a Maclean history, Robert Davidson duelled with Hector Maclean (chief of Clan Mackintosh) until both were dead. Davidson’s body was brought to the town and entombed in the Church of St Nicholas, where its remains were discovered when the Church became ruinous about the year 1740. Many families lost not just their chief but every male in their house; Lesley of Balquhain died with six of his sons. Donald lost 900 men, a much smaller proportion of his total force, but including his two seconds-in-command.
Too feeble to retreat, Mar and his surviving men camped on the battlefield, expecting combat to resume in the morning. Come dawn they found that Donald had withdrawn during the night, retreating first to Ross and then back to the Isles. The casualties on both sides meant that neither side felt it had won the day, but the fight had kept Donald from Aberdeen and for the islanders, the absence of conclusive victory was as bad as defeat. As soon as the news of the disaster at Harlaw reached the ears of the Duke of Albany, then regent of Scotland, he set about collecting an army, with which he marched in person north, with a determination to bring the Lord of the Isles to obedience. Within a year, Albany the Governor of Scotland had recaptured Ross and forced Donald to surrender.
Aberdeen Town Council erected the Harlaw Monument, located to the north of the town of Inverurie, to the memory of Provost Robert Davidson and the burgesses of Aberdeen who fell in the battle. Designed by Dr. William Kelly and located to the south of Harlaw House, the granite monument is hexagonal and 40 feet (12.2 m) tall.
Today, on display in the entrance hall of Aberdeen's Town House, has the black armor that belonged to Robert Davidson, Provost of Aberdeen, who fell in the battle alongside most of the burgesses with him.
1439 Thomas Davidson, son of Robert Davidson was “one of the four counselors to Lord of Mar” and in 1439 known as “de Forbes”. He was described as a Burgess of Aberdeen and in 1460, “an armiger and witness at Huntly”. An armiger at this time was a man with a coat of arms; he would have been at the least a squire to a knight. To have become a Burgess in a town in Scotland from the 14th century onwards involved payment of a sum of money to the local merchant Guild, a body which regulated the trading privileges of that town as a closed shop. Burgesses were chosen from the well-to-do landholders and members of the local trade Guilds.
Scotland has a long tradition of privateering and piracy, with the relationship between the two often blurred. Illegal operators were sometimes hanged – but a blind eye was often turned to the actions of a well-connected few. Thomas Davidson, son of the former Provost of Aberdeen, Robert Davidson, was a wine merchant and tavern keeper, was amongst those who had legal Privateer status during the 15th Century, having received his Letter of Marque from the government which authorized him to attack. However, he also faced prosecution by the Dutch government that he had been involved in illegal acts. Davidson was also the legal adviser to the Earl of Mar, who headed up a commission into compensation payments for victims of piracy. Davidson was to get out of the court case using his connections but he was also involved in the capture of a boat belonging to Lord Mayor of London, Dick Whittington. In the book Bloody Scottish History of Aberdeen, author Elma McMenemy said the Provost was “certainly involved” in the seizure of the Mayor’s boat Thomas, whose cargo was sold in Amsterdam. Piracy had become such a problem that the Dutch and Hanseatic League imposed a trade embargo with Scotland, including wool from Aberdeen, Ms McMenemy said. The court case raised against Davidson by the Dutch was thwarted after he managed to get the French government to effectively stop the action. Davidson also got the Burgh of Aberdeen to write a letter to Danzig – which blamed the Dutch for the exploits. Davidson was in the clear
1499 William Davidson, Elder and a Burgess of Aberdeen, used a seal with an indistinct merchant’s mark. “Elder” signified that he had a son or relative of the same name, who would have been called “younger”. William, a son of Thomas “de Forbes” mentioned above, who is understood to have founded the family of the Davidsons of Auchinhamperis near Forgue on the old Aberdeenshire-Banff-shire border.