Category Archives: Scotland Past

The Battle of Harlaw

The Harlaw Monument with Bennachie in the background.

Just outside the North East town of Inverurie stands an impressive stone monument, erected to commemorate a famous clash between an army led by Donald, Lord of the Isles on one side and the Earl of Mar on the other. Fought on the 24th of July 1411 the battle of Harlaw was one of the bloodiest ever fought in Scotland. By the end of that brutal day over 1500 men lay dead with many more injured and maimed

Crest of Clan Donald on Battle of Harlaw Monument

The battle was triggered by a feudal dispute over the Earldom of Ross. Scotland’s seventeen year old King, James 1st, had been a prisoner of the English since 1406. His uncle, Robert Stewart, the Earl of Albany, had assumed control. Eager to increase his own power base in the monarch’s absence he had set his sights on moving his immediate influence west, to the Earldom of Ross. His Granddaughter Euphemia, still a child, had gained the Earldom on the death of her father Alexander Leslie, in 1402. Albany made Euphemia his ward eventually declaring himself Lord of the Ward of Ross. The Lord of the Isles had a stronger claim to the Earldom as his wife was Euphemia’s Aunt so faced with Albany’s actions he decided to grab the Earldom for himself by force.

After taking Dingwall and Inverness Donald had moved East with his army in order to secure the various Banffshire and Aberdeenshire estates associated with the Earldom of Ross. Accounts from the time suggest his eventual aim was to attack and occupy Aberdeen before heading South towards Tayside in order gain control of as much territory as possible. The task of stopping him was given to Albany’s nephew, The Earl of Mar.

Donald’s army was said to have been nearly 10000 men strong. That number has probably been exaggerated as the years have gone by and the stories were retold but there is no doubt that it vastly outnumbered Mar’s force. Made up of various members of the nobility from Aberdeenshire and Tayside as well as the Lord Provost of Aberdeen and the town’s Burgesses it is thought that he brought about 1600 troops to the field.

Crest of the Earl of Mar

Most of what actually happened that day, including who the eventual victor was, is lost in the mists of time. What we do know is that it was a savage and brutal encounter, even by the standards of the day. The battle was fought on foot, the soldiers on each side using spears, swords, axes and hammers to stab, slash gouge and smash their opposite numbers in to oblivion. As night fell at the end of an exhausting and bloodthirsty day both sides withdrew to their own lines to rest. When dawn broke the next day it was to reveal that Donald had totally withdrawn and begun the journey back to his western homeland.

The Earl of Mar could have claimed victory given that his main aim of protecting Aberdeen from attack had been achieved. However the high percentage of Mar’s men who died would suggest that Donald was the victor so why he decided to withdraw rather than continue pressing the advantage of superior numbers is unclear. It may have been that he thought he had lost the battle himself given the large number of casualties his own army suffered as well as the loss of his second in command, Hector Maclean of Duart.

Many local high ranking family members were slain including the Lord Provost of Aberdeen, Robert Davidson. The tombstone of one of the knights who died that day, Gilbert De Greenlaw, can be seen at Kinkell Church near Inverurie. The stone had been ‘recycled’ for use at a later date by one of the local landowners before being rediscovered. Now standing upright inside the walls of the ancient church it is unusual in that it has engraving on both sides.

Tombstone of Gilbert De Greenlaw

At the nearby Chapel of Garioch can be found Leslie’s Cross.  Unveiled in 2011 as part of the ceremonies to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the battle,  it replaced the original,  now long lost,  which had stood on the battlefield. Sir Andrew Leslie had fought alongside the Earl of Mar and was to see six of his sons slaughtered on that bloody day. There may be little real evidence remaining of the battle itself but the devastating impact it had on so many North East people explains why this battle in particular has lived on so long in local folk memory.

Leslie’s Cross at the Chapel of Garioch

As for the cause of so much bloodshed,  the Earldom of Ross, it passed in to the control of Albany in 1415 before returning to the Lord of the Isles around 20 years later.



The Brandsbutt Stone, a Pictish Puzzle.

The Brandsbutt Stone

One of the joys of living in Scotland is that there is a story to be found at every turn.  As you travel the country the landscape and buildings make it hard to resist stopping to take in what they are trying to tell you.  Sometimes it’s the sight of a magnificent building such as Dunottar Castle which practically shouts at you to come and bear witness to the history surrounding it. Other times it’s a gentle whisper from a plaque on the side of a nondescript city centre building.  With such a wealth of antiquities it can be easy to take it all for granted yet some of the voices calling us from the distant past can still surprise us by appearing in the most unexpected  places.

In the middle of a modern housing development in the ever expanding North East town of Inverurie lies an example of one of the most baffling messages left behind by our ancestors, the Brandsbutt Stone.  It does seem a bit peculiar to find such a wonderful piece of Pictish art surrounded by 21st century dwellings but that’s what makes it so much more enjoyable. The stone itself is only about a meter tall, the material being the locally abundant whinstone.  At some point it was broken up and used to repair a dyke at the edge of the now long gone Brandsbutt farm.  Luckily it was rediscovered around 1900, pieced together again and erected near where it would have originally stood,  possibly as part of an even older stone circle.

With so little evidence as to what these Pictish stones were for it is left to the visitor to gaze at the carvings and imagine for themselves just why so much care was taken to create them. This stone contains two of the most frequently recurring Pictish symbols, a crescent and V rod sits above a scaly serpent and Z rod.  On the right hand side of the stone is an ogham inscription, an alphabet which originated in Ireland consisting of a series of lines. It has been deciphered as a reference to the name Eddarrnonn who may have been a local saint or a person of high rank.  Possibly it’s a territorial marker, a declaration of status.  It may simply be a memorial, the symbols depicting death and the entrance to the after world.  The V rod and crescent could just as easily be a primitive sundial, marking the passing of the seasons.  Trying to weigh up the various theories all adds to the fascination that an encounter with one of these ancient objects can generate.

The symbols could even be references to the ancient Roman religion of Mithraism, also rather wonderfully known as the Mithral Mysteries.  Brought to the Picts by Romans who remained behind after their armies withdrew there are claims that the rituals of modern day freemasonry have their origins in this ancient religion.  Looking at the V rod and crescent depicted on the Brandsbutt stone the similarity to modern day masonic emblems is striking.

Sometimes you have to work a wee bit to conjure up a complete tale from the past. There may be no obvious ending to the story the Brandsbutt stone is trying to tell us but as opening lines to a mystery go it’s up there with the best.

The Brandsbutt Stone is located near the junction of Gordon Terrace and Brankie Road in Inverurie.   Turn on to Gordon Road from Burghmuir Drive then take the second left on to Gordon Terrace.

Finlaggan. Where the Lords ruled the Isles.

Finlaggan 02-01-2016

On the Hebridean Island of Islay, not far from the small village of Ballygrant and at the end of a short single track road, lies Loch Finlaggan. Cradled within the lower slopes of the gentle surrounding hills you cannot fail to be struck by the almost other worldly atmosphere that pervades the area. On an Island where clean air is in no short supply things still seem even fresher here. The abundant sheep, slowly wandering from one fine grazing place to another, seem whiter than elsewhere, like wee fluffy clouds on legs. As you look across the Loch the sky, even on a rain swept day, seems bigger and higher. There is also something else here that is hard to escape, a sense of solemnity, the feeling that there is some sort of direct connection with people and events faraway in the past.
At the Northern end of the loch sits two small islands. The larger island, Eilean Mor, is connected to the shore by a wooden walkway. The smaller island is known as Eilean Na Comhairle and for over 150 years these two islets hosted the administrative centre of one of the most powerful seagoing powers of its time, the Lordship of the Isles. Nominally under the overall rule of the Scottish Kings, the Lords of the Isles were effectively autonomous rulers of the Hebrides. They also controlled large parts of mainland Scotland including Kintyre and Knoydart, the actual areas governed changing as power ebbed and flowed between the Lords and the Kings of Scotland.
Initially it is difficult to see quite why this place was chosen as the headquarters for a great seafaring power. As you wander around the skeletal remains of ancient buildings on Eilean Mor an understanding starts to develop. That same sense of connection with the past felt on arrival at the shores of Loch Finlaggan seems amplified, as if the remaining stonework is somehow resonating with scenes from the past. This would have been a vibrant place, a centre not only of power but of culture, for the Lordship of the Isles was distinctly different from the rest of Scotland where the Anglo Saxon influence was already firmly evident. This was an emphatically Gaelic kingdom. Archaeologists have found solid evidence that music was played here, mainly on harps. Songs would have been sung and poetry, composed by the favoured poets of the Lords, the MacMhuirich family, would have been recited in the great hall, praising their Lordships as benevolent rulers and great warriors. Under the patronage of the Lords sculptures were commissioned. Stone slabs carried images of the great and good. Magnificent stone crosses were created, many of which still remain on Islay.
The discovery of a 14th century pilgrims badge, which was only obtainable in Rome showed that these were well travelled people, knowledgeable about the world around them. The medical needs of the Finlaggan people were met by the Macbeatha family, incomers from Ireland who practiced a fairly advanced form of medicine for the time.
The actual business of the Lords of the Isles was conducted on Eilean Na Comhairle where the fourteen man council met, away from the hustle and bustle on the main island. Treaties would be discussed, documents signed, laws passed. The only surviving Gaelic charter in existence, dating from 1408, may well have been signed here given that the witnesses were all Islay men.
Remains of human habitation from Stone Age times show that this was a special place from the earliest of times. And maybe that’s where the biggest clue to  why the Lords of the Isle chose this place to take their most serious decisions. Perhaps it was already known as a place of ritual, a serious place that added extra gravitas to proceedings. We will probably never know. What remains on these two small islands throws up as many questions as answers and that for me is one of the main attractions of Finlaggan. In order to truly savour this distinctive location requires you to engage your imagination and maybe just let yourself remain still for a while as you try to hear the echoes of some long gone ballad seep out of the now humble ruins.

There is a small but informative visitor centre at Finlaggan,  operated by the Finlaggan Trust.  Entry to the islands is by way of donation which can either be given at the visitor centre of placed in the honesty box as you approach Eilean Mor.

The Finlaggan Trust website is here.

Glasgow’s Coat of Arms, Tales of Sex, Violence and Royal Scandal.


As the well known saying goes, every picture tells a story and Glasgow’s coat of arms are no exception. You could easily dismiss them as rather staid signs of civic identity. However the familiar emblem tells a tale containing, sex, violence and royal scandal.

Sat on top of the coat of arms overseeing the whole story is the benign looking figure of St Mungo and quite rightly so.  It is his story after all. Mungo was born around AD510.  His mother was  Princess, Tenew, daughter of the King of the Lothians who became pregnant after a dalliance with a Prince. It would be no understatement to say that the King was not too pleased at the prospect of his daughter giving birth to an illegitimate child.  In fact he was so angry he had his daughter flung from the top of Traprain Law, a two hundred metre high hill near Haddington. Luckily Tenew and her unborn child survived the ordeal and managed to escape across the Firth of Forth in a coracle to Fife, ending up in Culross.

Here they were taken under the care of St Serf.   Mungo’s birth name was Kentigern.  It was St Serf who gave him the less formal pet name, Mungo. Mungo can be translated as ‘my dear one’ or ‘my friend.’ A modern day Glaswegian would simply say ‘Pal.’

Sometime around AD530 Mungo set up a church on the banks of the Clyde in order to spread the word of Christianity.  He chose a spot near the Molendinar Burn, a place where the River Clyde was easily forded. For over a decade he lived a peaceful, monastic and austere life, as you would expect from the man seen as Glasgow’s founder. After being driven out by the anti-Christian King of Strathclyde Mungo settled in Wales before eventually returning to Glasgow.

At the base of the coat of arms the words, ‘Let Glasgow Flourish’ appear, taken from a sermon by St Mungo. The centrepiece contains images of a bird, tree, bell and three salmon, each with a gold ring in its mouth. A handy wee rhyme acts as a reminder of these symbols.

Here is the bird that never flew

Here is the tree that never grew

Here is the bell that never rang

Here is the fish that never swam

The bird refers to a  robin that Mungo’s benefactor, St Serf, had tamed. In an attempt to turn St Serf against his favourite pupil his jealous classmates had rather cruelly slaughtered the bird.  However Mungo thwarted their plan by bringing the bird back to life.

Whilst tending a fire at St Serf’s monastery, young Mungo had fallen asleep and the fire had gone out.  Not wishing to incur the wrath of the other inhabitants Mungo took a branch from a nearby tree and placed it in the fire.  It instantly burst in to flames, relighting the fire and saving Mungo from unwanted grief.

Mungo undertook a pilgrimage from Rome whilst resident in Wales and it is said he returned with a bell which he regularly used during services. The bell was thought to have miraculous properties although what these were is not really clear.

The three fish tell the rather sordid tale of the Queen of Strathclyde’s infidelity and how St Mungo rescued her from the King’s wrath.  Queen Languoreth had been having an affair with one of her husband King Riderich’s knights. Rather stupidly she had gifted her wedding ring to her lover.  Her husband lured the knight to the banks of the Clyde where he ripped the ring from his finger and threw it in to the river. He then confronted his wife and informed her that if she couldn’t produce her wedding ring she faced death.  Now most people caught out having an affair would be unlikely to turn to the local holy man to get them off the hook.  Luckily for our hapless Queen she did though and after being told of her plight Mungo sent one of his servants to the river to catch a salmon and bring it back to him. Mungo cut open the salmon and there inside its belly was the Queen’s ring which she was able to present to her husband. Apparently the King was so confused he accepted his wife’s protestations of innocence.

So there we have it,  the origins of Glasgow, its founder, it’s motto and one of the best fisherman’s tales ever told, all depicted on one plaque.




Deacon Brodie, Edinburgh’s Gentleman thief, hung on this day in 1788.

On the 1st of October 1788 Deacon William Brodie of Edinburgh was executed for his crimes on a gallows he reputedly played a part in designing.

William Brodie was born in September 1741 in Edinburgh, the son of a successful cabinet maker. Following in his father’s footsteps, young Brodie entered the family business and soon built a reputation for himself as a highly skilled craftsman and respectable businessman. His standing was further enhanced by his position as Deacon of one of Edinburgh’s trade guilds, The Incorporation of Wrights. As a member of the Cape Club, a convivial society which met nightly in Edinburgh’s Old Town, he rubbed shoulders with local dignitaries and higher members of society.

Deacon Brodie Figure on The Royal Mile (by Kim Traynor)
Deacon Brodie Figure on The Royal Mile (by Kim Traynor)

Deacon Brodie had a dark side though, he was a compulsive risk taker. During the hours of darkness Brodie was fond of frequenting some of the more unsavoury establishments in the Cowgate area where opportunities to gamble on cards, dice and his favourite, cock fighting, were plentiful. His personal life was no less risky or expensive. Brodie had two mistresses to support as well as five illegitimate children.

It was probably a combination of financial pressure and the  thrill of it  that saw his criminal activities commence. It is thought his first robbery occurred in 1768 but he may well have started before then on a smaller scale. As an accomplished locksmith it was easy for Brodie to copy the keys to a bank door enabling him to enter with ease at night and steal over £800. His criminal activity gradually increased over the years as his lifestyle became more and more costly but it was his meeting with George Smith in 1786 that was to see him crank up his crime wave considerably. Smith, an Englishman newly arrived in Edinburgh, was also a locksmith and the two men were to plan and carry out several robberies together. Several prominent citizens and businesses saw themselves targeted and relieved of property and cash. It can only have added to Brodie’s excitement when as a councillor he found himself discussing what was to be done to catch the ne’er do wells responsible.

It was the desire to pull off ever bigger crimes that was to prove Brodie’s undoing. Within a year of meeting Smith the duo had become a gang of four, as criminals John Brown and Andrew Ainslie were recruited. They began to spread their operations further afield with properties in Leith also being targeted. The gang must have thought themselves untouchable as they decided to pull of the big one, an assault on the Excise office at the bottom of the Royal Mile. The job was an unmitigated disaster. Departing from their normal modus operandi they decided to break in to the building. This time they were disturbed and had to flee the scene, their haul only amounting to £16.

Brown was the first gang member to be arrested and in return for a pardon he gave evidence blaming Smith and Ainslie for the robbery. Brodie fled to Amsterdam but was soon captured and returned to Edinburgh to face trial. Ainslie also received a pardon in exchange for giving a full account of the robbery so it was that only Brodie and Smith stood together in the dock in August 1788. The case against them was overwhelming. The verdict was guilty, the sentence, hanging.

Deacon Brodie was hung on the 1st October in front of a huge crowd. His case had totally gripped Edinburgh as the man formally seen as a respectable citizen had his outrageous private life laid bare. Rumours circulated that he had somehow cheated death by wearing a steel collar to prevent his neck from breaking on the gallows. The rumours however were false. If Brodie had been involved in designing the gallows he met his fate on then his skill as a craftsman had triumphed again. Brodie was cut down and declared dead. However his story did continue as Robert Louis Stevenson used it as inspiration for his classic tale of a man with two identities, Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

Nowadays the story of Deacon Brodie is often retold to Edinburgh’s tourists. Of the man himself there is little sign, his body having been consigned to a long lost unmarked grave. However you can visit the pub on the Royal Mile that bears his name or enjoy a coffee at the Deacons House café in the Old town, reputedly the site of Brodie’s workshop. And whilst you enjoy a leisurely coffee or beer you can look around the room and wonder which of your fellow customers are, like Brodie, harbouring a dark side.

Deacon Brodie's Tavern. (by Kim Traynor)
Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.
(by Kim Traynor)