Overshadowed by the more glamourous battles of Sterling and Bannockburn a century before, between the Scots and the English, Harlaw has been long forgotten by many, but remains historically as important to the Scottish line of succession, not to mention being one of the bloodiest battles ever to have taken place.
Historians when asked, will argue at length as to the significance of Harlaw as a battle for the right of lineage, some claiming it as a clan war, others claiming it nothing more than an excuse for looting. But in July 1411, the succession of the Earldom of Ross was the cause of this bloody and inconclusive battle.
In 1370 after laying claim to the Earldom of Ross, a Royal charter, issued by King David II was granted to Uilleam, Earl of Ross confirming his right to the title as legal heir. The charter dictated that in the absence of a male heir the titles, lands and Earldom was to pass, as was standard to the eldest daughter, without division. Two years later, Uilleam died leaving as his sole heir, his daughter Euphemia. Euphemia, married to Sir Walter Leslie, had two children, son Alexander and daughter Mariota. Her lands were held in the name of her husband, as Earl of Ross, Euphemia taking the title Countess of Ross.
Following Leslie’s death, in 1382, the titles and lands passed back to Euphemia to be held in her own right. In 1387, the Countess married the Wolf of Badenoch, Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan. Through this marriage Stewart was able to award lands included in the inheritance to a number of his children. In 1394, Euphemia sought from the Pope and was granted an annulment of her marriage, based on its lack of viability. Stewart had spent most of his married life living with his mistress Mairead inghean Eachann with whom he had several children. Ross, a substantial inheritance, including the rights to large expanses of land and their titles, passed back to the Countess in favour of her son, Alexander and Euphemia died at some point between 1394 and 1398, the latter date being more favourable, as Abbess of Elcho, and was buried in Fortrose Cathedral.
Alexander Leslie inherited the Earldom from his mother, and married the daughter of Robert Stewart Duke of Albany, Isabel. They had one child, Euphemia who was sickly and weak from birth. Stewart was the son of Robert II and brother of Robert III, the former Earl of Carrick. Between them they had ruled as regents when their father became unfit to rule. Robert III was no better a King than his father and so Albany had continued to act as regent, however his nephew David Stewart, Duke of Rothesay was gaining power through his father, which began to threaten Albany’s own power. The situation was not helped by Rothesay’s subsequent break in his betrothal to Elizabeth Dunbar, daughter of the 10th Earl of March, in favour of Marjorie Douglas, daughter of Archibald the Grim, 3rd Earl Douglas.
The union however produced no children as Albany, using an alliance with Douglas’ successor, Archibald, 4th Earl Douglas, had Rothesay arrested in 1402 on charges of expired Lieutenancy (he had been sworn as Lieutenant of the Kingdom in 1399) on his way to official business in St Andrews. Albany’s men took him to the castle at St Andrews and then blindfolded and ridden backwards on a mule to Albany’s seat in Falkland where he was allegedly starved to death over the following weeks. Alexander Leslie, Duke of Ross died just six weeks later also in mysterious circumstances, also in Falkland whilst under Albany’s guard. Albany subsequently gained guardianship of Leslie’s only daughter the infant Euphemia, which gave him control of the Earldom of Ross. Four years later when Robert III’s remaining heir, 12 year old James, was captured on his way to France, and handed over to Henry IV’s court, Robert III died and Albany was once again named regent of Scotland for the imprisoned James I.
Meanwhile Alexander Leslie’s sister Mariota had married Albany’s rival, Donald Balloch, Lord of the Isles, whose younger brother Alexander had ousted the Earl of Moray from his lands abutting those of Albany. Through his marriage, Donald claimed the Earldom of Ross for himself. Donald of Islay was also a grandson of Robert II and first cousin of Robert III. In 1408. Donald reaffirmed an alliance he had made with Henry IV in 1405. Historians argue that it was this alliance which formed the pretext for the subsequent battle of Harlaw, as Henry’s way of gaining control of the Lowlands of Scotland. Following lengthy preparations, in 1411 Donald attacked the lands of Ross from his forces assembly point at Ardtornish Castle on the Sound of Mull. His invasion went smoothly until he met a defensive force of the clan Mackay outside of Dingwall, the seat of the Earls of Ross, led by Angus-Dubh who was subsequently captured. His brother Rory-Gald Mackay was killed in the Battle. DIngwall Castle fell to Donald, although later he was to give his daughter in marriage to Angus.
He continued his invasion to Inverness where his forces reassembled, combined with those of Boyne and Enzie on Banffshire, and drove forward into Moray where he met no resistance. As his force swept by the lands of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, in Strathbogie and Garioch, his men ravaged the villages, laying waste and pillaging. On July 23rd 1411 he reached and set up camp north of the town of Inverurie, Aberdeen was his goal. The Earl of Mar, anticipating Donald’s advance, had summoned his own forces, formed by the clans, mainly from the Lowland areas, the Irvings, Morays, Stirlings, amongst others, and the gentry of Buchan, Mearns, and Angus. On the morning of 24th July, 1411, the clan forces led by Mar marched north from Inverurie to meet with the Highland forces in battle. Sources vary as to the numbers of men each side held, each numbering several thousand. Mar’s clans were smaller in number to the commonly held figure of Donald’s 10,000 men, however his army consisted of many mounted knights, as well as men of foot.
The Highlanders advanced in a wedge, MacLeans to the right, MacKintosh to the left, in waves attacked the forces under Mar, each assault cut down, each replaced with a fresh line of men. Mar in turn sent his cavalry in, they met their end swiftly as their horses were cut from under them and then they were finished. Wave after wave of men advanced and were repelled, one of the Lesleys died alongside six of his sons. Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum is said to have fought a legendary lone duel trading blows of the sword with Hector MacLean until they both dropped dead. As night fell, and the battle concluded, Donald’s losses were recorded as around 1000, to Mar’s 600, although more in number a lesser proportion of his starting force. Mar’s men camped where they fell, expecting the battle to renew the next morning. Under cover of darkness and unknown to their enemy, Donald and the Highland army withdrew. Neither side defeated, both claiming victory, the battle of Harlaw claimed the lives of Alexander Ogilvie, Sheriff of Angus and his son, Sir Thomas Moray, the constable of Dundee Sir James Scrymgeour, William Abernathy and Alexander Stirling, amongst other notables.
The dead of the battle were laid to rest in the church of Kinkell, south of Inverurie. Albany mustered a fresh Army and marched on Dingwall to reclaim Ross in 1412, suspecting that Donald had merely retreated to gather fresh forces himself. He soon after took many of Donald’s land possessions, forcing Donald to cede his claim on the Earldom. In 1415, with the prospect of marriage to Thomas, 3rd Earl Moray, Euphemia surrendered her lands title and claim of Ross to Albany’s son the Earl of Buchan. The marriage did not take place, and Euphemia entered a convent, where she remained until her death. Albany’s son, Murdoch, imprisoned under Henry IV was ransomed in exchange for Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland in 1416, where he had been held with the young James I. Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany died in 1420, his son John Stewart, Earl of Buchan was killed in 1424 in the battle of Verneuil, James was finally ransomed that later that year, by which time Murdoch had taken his father’s title and ruled as regent for four years. James returned to Scotland in 1425 and had Murdoch executed for treason. His brothers were exiled on James’ orders. Following the removal of Stewart heirs, the Earldom of Ross finally passed back into the hands of Mariota, and to her son Alexander, heir of Donald Balloch of Islay, upon her death in 1429. And there begins a whole new chapter…….