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Thursday 31 July 2014

Battle of Harlaw 1411

More holiday reading, this time John Sadler’s ‘Clan Donald’s Greatest Defeat: The Battle of Harlaw 1411’.

The battle, sometimes called 'Red' Harlaw due to the casualties, took place on 24 July 1411 north of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. It was fought between Donald, Lord of the Isles with a force of some 10,000 islesmen and highlanders, against Alexander, Earl of Mar with a Lowland force several thousand strong. 

Donald was enforcing his claim to the Earldom of Ross and was threatening Aberdeen when Mar assembled a force to oppose him. It is likely that the arrival of the Lowland army surprised Donald camped near Harlaw. Mar’s advanced guard consisted of the men of Angus and they were attacked by the Islesmen, being pushed back until Mar arrived with the main battle to support them. The main action was a battle of attrition with the islesmen and highlanders charging the spear armed lowland schiltrons. The rearguard, led by Forbes, joined the battle on the right wing and helped to push back the last assaults by Donald’s army. By nightfall, the Lowland army had lost around 600 men and the islesmen over 900. Mar held the field and Donald withdrew overnight. Probably a score draw to to Mar, but importantly, Aberdeen was saved. 
Sadler gives an extensive background to the conflict and the armies involved. As with most battles of this period, sources are scarce and the battle is described in a single chapter. The book is really a history of Scotland’s relationship with the Lordship of the Isles, rather than simply the battle itself.

Having read the book, it was time to refight the battle using Hail Caesar rules and 28mm figures.

The battle starts with the Lowland Angus vanguard being attacked by the Macintoshes. The left wing is routed and the right forced back.

Mar arrives with the main battle to form a new line as the main force of Islesmen advance.

The highland charge routs the remaining men of Angus and the right wing of Mar's force, but Mar himself fights off the Islesmen.

Finally Forbes arrives with the Lowland rearguard, but so do the Macleans and the whole line is engaged. So far pretty much as we believe the actual battle went.

However, history is now overturned, with Forbes being routed and the isolated Mar pushed back as the Lowland army breaks.

The gates of Aberdeen beckon for the highland host! 

Hail Caesar worked really well for this battle. The command system provided the staggered arrivals and there were credible lulls in the fighting while commanders rallied their men for the next stage.


  1. I read that book and do not agree with the author. My own research makes clear Donald, Lord of the Isles with his 10,000 men won the battle. That he chose not to go on to take Aberdeen, which he well could have, does not mean he "retreated" or "lost".

    At Harlaw’s conclusion, the Lord of the Isles still had at least 9100 warriors on the field while the Earl of Mar, who was lying on the field injured, had only 900. Even assuming another 900 of Donald’s men were wounded, with 8,000 fighting men, he could easily have taken Mar and marched on to Aberdeen. Hence, another explanation for Donald’s return to the Isles must be found.

    The nearest contemporary record is found in the Irish Annals of Connacht, where under the year 1411 it is stated “Mac Domnaill of Scotland won a great victory over the Galls of Scotland.” The 2011 article by Iain G. MacDonald, Donald of the Isles and the Earldom of Ross: West-Highland Perspectives on the Battle of Harlaw, is excellent and records the victory.

    The book Bludie Harlaw by Ian Olson discusses some of the primary sources that touch on the battle, though the author gets Clan Donald’s history wrong in several places.

    The McKean Historical Notes relating to the MacIain MacDonalds of Ardnamurchan, compiled by Fred G. McKean, 1906, at p. 38, refers to the Annals of the Old Abbey of Inis-Macreen and mentions the “great victory” of the Macdonald of Scotland in 1411.

    According to Donald Gregory, whose manuscripts are cited in the Highland Papers for May 1914, “Macdonald enjoyed the Earldom of Ross all his lifetime without any competition or trouble…but as long as the king was captive in England, the Duke of Albany the Regent used all his power to oppose him and impair his greatness, being vexed he lost the Battle of Harlaw.” (Highland Papers, vol. 1, at p. 34).

    Regan Walker

    [I tried to sign in with my Google account and did not see an active link]

    1. Thanks very much. Very interesting. Obviously at least a few sources.