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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Thursday 7 December 2023

The Captive Crown

 This is the final book in Nigel Tranter's trilogy about the early Stewart kings. Robert III is still on the throne, although the actual rule remains in the hands of his brother Robert, Duke of Albany. Our hero, Sir James Douglas, is forced to head north to the Highland fortresses controlled by his friend Alexander Stewart after being falsely blamed for fleeing the battlefield of Homildon Hill. 

The likely murder of his son David in the last book by Albany put a little steel into King Robert. Some action in the form of confirming the Earldom of Mar on Alexander Stewart was probably more of a deliberate reassertion of power than it is portrayed by Tranter. The King also sent his second son, James (future James I), to St Andrew's for protection. He also actively arranged to send him to France, but the English King Henry IV had his ship captured. This left Albany in control of Scotland after Robert III died in 1406.

Both Robert II and III used Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire as their favourite home. This is my local castle, and my favourite local walk is from the castle to the coast down what is today called the smuggler's trail

There is a substantial overlap with Tranter's book, Lion Let Loose, which looks at the story through the lens of James I. However, this book follows events in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and Islands. The two stories do touch when our hero is part of an embassy to England to secure James' release and a diplomatic jaunt to France to seek the French King's assistance. However, Charles VI was insane, and the French court was riven with a power struggle.

Back in Scotland, Donald Lord of the Isles is building his strength for at least a land grab in the far north and possibly the crown itself. This forces Albany to come to terms with Alexander Stewart, who allied with Albany's son John as the only force capable of resisting Donald. Henry IV stood ready to invade from the south if Donald made progress.

This leads to the book's conclusion at the Battle of Harlaw 1411, known as Red Harlaw, due to the losses on both sides. Tranter exaggerated the size of Donald's army, which was probably around 9,000 men, still outnumbering the lowland forces led by Alexander Stewart, sagely advised by our hero. The battle itself was a hard-fought draw, although Donald withdrew. It was the last significant attempt by the Highland clans to control Scotland until Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in 1745.

The lowland schiltrons that faced the Islesmen in 28mm.

Typical axe-armed Islesmen with the distinctive Lord of Isles flag.


  1. That’s a nice looking castle 🏰

    1. It is, and well maintained by Historic Environment Scotland. I should visit more often, but you always ignore the sites close to home.