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
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.
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.
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.
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.