Gordon Forum for the Arts


Summer 2011

Reid Harlaw — 600th Anniversary

Remembering the Battle of Harlaw, 24 July 1411

“Six hundred years ago, the windswept fields of Harlaw were witness to one of the bloodiest of battles in our history. Although forgotten by many today, the Battle of Harlaw was well remembered in music and song. The bones of the dead are still turned up with the plough, and the ghosts of the dead are still seen by the Travelling People....”

So states John Purser, the eminent musicologist, in the introduction to his excellent CD Harlaw — Scotland 1411: ancient music and stories commemorating the legendary battle.

Legends there are many surrounding this battle; indeed most of what we know today comes down to us from ballad and pipe tune, legend and myth. The most popular version of the Ballad of Harlaw, a piece often sung in the Garioch, may be familiar to many:

The Harlaw Monument

As I cam in by Dunideer
and doon by Netherha
I saw fifty thoosan Hielanders
Aa marchin tae Harlaw.

These ballads were in circulation through the oral tradition for three hundred years before they ever appeared in publication. Ballads are, by their nature, prone to exaggeration (were there really 50,000 Heilanders?) and are inclined to bias, cheerfully altering the facts in order to please the balladeer's master. Many of the facts of this battle are lost in the mists of 600 years.

What we do know is that the dispute was over land. At that time Scotland's king, James I, was a captive in England. The Regent of Scotland, Robert Stewart, the Duke of Albany, wished to claim the Earldom of Ross, rich northern lands that extended to Kincardine. However Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, had a good claim to these lands and was determined to fight for them. Thus, in July 1411, a massive army of Highland men arrived on the high plateau of Harlaw (the stony or hard hill) and set up camp. This army had already sacked Inverness, and Aberdeen was next in their sights. Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Mar (and cousin of Donald MacDonald), was tasked with assembling the knights and barons of Angus, Mar, Buchan, the Mearns and the Garioch to stop any further advance. Despite being vastly outnumbered, perhaps by ten to one, Mar and his forces launched a dawn attack. The battle itself was a bloody confrontation in which men ferociously hacked and slashed, but with little plan or strategy. It ended only at nightfall when Donald withdrew having lost so many men, including the chiefs of the clans MacLean and MacIntosh. Mar claimed the victory but, in truth, neither side won. There were perhaps as many as 2000 left dead or wounded. In the North East army several important nobles were killed including the Provost of Aberdeen and Irvine, Laird of Drum, while Leslie of Balquhain Castle lost six sons. Aberdeen was saved and the Highland Army never attacked again, but this peace came at a dreadful price. In effect the battle achieved little, except to remind us of the futility and brutality of conflict.

Today there are some visible reminders of this battle. A red sandstone monument, erected exactly 100 years ago to mark the 500th anniversary and to honour the sacrifice made by Provost Davidson and the other Aberdeen citizens, stands tall on the hill at Harlaw and can be clearly seen from the A96. In Kinkell Kirkyard, Keithhall, one can see the gravestone of Sir Gilbert de Greenlaw, a nobleman of great esteem, decorated in full knightly armour. The Drum Stone, situated near Skene, is reputedly where Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum made his brother Robert promise that, were he killed, Robert would marry Alexander's new wife, Margaret Keith. Legend has it that not only did Robert oblige and marry the lady: he changed his name to Alexander. Over subsequent years, in honour of their ancestors' bravery, the Irvines and the MacLeans exchanged swords on each battle anniversary.

The Harlaw Monument

So from the past into the present. On July 24th of this year, there is to be a major commemoration in Inverurie. Civic heads and dignitaries from both City and Shire will assemble at the Town Hall then visit the monument. Inverurie Academy will have a significant display of related material for perusal on that day. In May six local primary schools made banners, dramatised the story and presented the Ballad of Harlaw. On June 9th the Elphinstone Institute, in association with the Seven Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen, hosted an all day conference and evening concert in the city's Trinity Hall. This venue was appropriate as it displays the only two artefacts from the day — Provost Davidson's sword and the Weavers' Banner. Topics covered ranged from archaeology to cultural legacy. Contributing to the concert were Sheena Blackhall, Elizabeth Stewart, Duncan MacGillivray and Paul Anderson. A further feature of this evening was the first performance of the winning song in a Song Writing Competition organised by SCaT (Scottish Culture and Traditions). For this, aspiring song writers were invited to pen their own ballad about Harlaw. The winner was Tom Clelland's Carrion Craw.

Let us end with the final stanza of the earliest known verses about Harlaw, published by Allan Ramsay in 1724 in The Evergreen — a collection of ancient Scots poetry and song. This version paints a sobering picture of the futility and utter waste of life wrought upon thousands of innocent men by this dreadful battle.

In July, on saint James his Even
That Four and twenty dismall Day,
Twelve hundred, ten score and eleven
Of Zeirs sen CHRYST, the Suthe to say:
Men will remember as they may,
Quhen thus the Veritie they knaw,
And mony a ane may murn for ay,
The brim Battil of the Harlaw.

Harlaw — Scotland 1411, a double CD with narrative by John Purser, features contributions from fiddler Bonnie Rideout, piper and singer Allan McDonald, clarsach players William Jackson and Bill Taylor, guitarist Al Pettaway, bodhran player Mathew Bell, piper Barnaby Brown, and ballad singers Andy Hunter and Elizabeth Stewart.

It is available for £15 from the libraries in Inverurie, Meldrum and Insch, from the Garioch Heritage Society, 18 High Street, Inverurie AB51 3XQ, or from www.bonnierideout.com.

Text by Margaret Hearne

The Harlaw Monument
Photos by Michael Watt (above) and Sean Purser (below)

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