Scottish Poetry Selection
- Harlaw

The Battle of Harlaw was fought near Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, on 24 July 1411 between Donald of Islay, Lord of the Isles (MacDonald) and an army commanded by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar. The battle formed the culmination of a long-running dispute and rivalry between the Lord of the Isles and the Regent Albany. A gathering of the Clans under Donald proceeded against Inverness to bring the Regent to battle. A defending force of some 3,000 under Angus Dubh MacKay was routed and Inverness fell to Donald. Albany was slow to muster his forces in the south and Donald marched through Moray spreading word of his intent to plunder Aberdeen. This provoked the men of Aberdeen to arms and put themselves under the command of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar. The opposing armies sighted each other in the region of Harlaw. It is thought that Donald had a force of at least 6,000, consisting mostly of Highland footsoldiers armed and arrayed a traditional, perhaps antiquated, Gaelic style.

The force numbering some 2,000 under Mar consisted almost entirely of well armed mounted cavalry - a local mustering raised by the barons and knights of the region which featured nearly every notable lord of the area. The battle was fierce and continued until dusk. Many of the lowland knights were unhorsed and forced to fight on foot. Despite their lack of numbers and poor tactical situation, Mar's army continued to fight through the day and inflicted great losses upon the highlanders. The contest earned its traditional designation "Red Harlaw" as a result of the fierceness of the fighting.

At the end of the day, Donald had lost around 1,000 men, perhaps as little as a tenth of his force, but Mar had lost a proportionately greater part of his - again 1,000 men, but this included a tremendous number of the notable lords and knights. Donald withdrew during the night following the battle This withdrawal led to claims of victory by some historians - a fact which has led to a continuing general ambiguity over the outcome of the battle and one described as "Donald had the victory but the regent had the printer". The Regent Albany eventually gathered a large force and recovered the lands lost to Donald, with no opposition.

Here is Sir Walter Scott's vivid (and perhaps biased?) account of the conflict. He certainly has a distorted view of the numbers fighting on each side!


Now haud your tongue, baith wife and carle,
And listen, great and sma',
And I will sing of Glenallan's Earl
That fought on the red Harlaw.

The cronach's cried on Bennachie,
And doun the Don and a',
And hieland and lawland may mournfu' be
For the sair field of Harlaw.

They saddled a hundred milk-white steeds,
They hae bridled a hundred black,
With a chafron of steel on each horse's head,
And a good knight upon his back.

They hadna ridden a mile, a mile,
A mile, but barely ten,
When Donald came branking down the brae
Wi' twenty thousand men.

Their tartans they were waving wide,
Their glaives were glancing clear,
The pibrochs rung frae side to side,
Would deafen ye to hear.

The great Earl in his stirrups stood,
That Highland host to see;
'Now here a knight that's stout and good
May prove a jeopardie:

'What would'st thou do, my squire so gay,
That rides beside my rein,
Were ye Glenallan's Earl the day,
And I were Roland Cheyne?

'To turn the rein were sin and shame,
To fight were wondrous peril;
What would ye do now, Roland Cheyne,
Were ye Glenallan's Earl?'

'Were I Glenallan's Earl this tide,
And ye were Roland Cheyne,
The spur should be in my horse's side,
And the bridle upon his mane.

'If they hae twenty thousand blades,
And we twice ten times ten,
Yet they hae but their tartan plaids,
And we are mail-clad men.

'My horse shall ride through ranks sae rude,
As through the moorland fern -
Then ne'er let the gentle Norman blude
Grow cauld for Highland kerne.'

Meaning of unusual words:
carle = peasant,
cronach = loud shout
sair = hard, severe
chafron = cheveron
branking = bearing oneself proudly, prancing, strutting
brae = steep hillside
glaives = gloves
pibrochs = music of the Scottish bagpipe
kerne = rabble

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