In the next chapter of the Scottish history series we take a look at the battle of Harlaw (1411) which was fought between English backed Highlander forces under Donald of Islay, and a Lowland army led by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar. The battle saved Aberdeen from being sacked and checked the expansionist policies of the Lords of the Isles.
Due to the ongoing tensions between Scotland and England at this time, The English King, Henry IV bypassed the Scottish King Robert III and proposed an alliance with Donald of Islay in an attempt to control further Scottish raids into England. Donald of Islay saw the alliance as an opportunity to seize more power when the Scottish regime was weakened. When the Robert III died in 1406, the throne passed to the Kings uncle Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany due to his son being held as a political prisoner by the English. Fearing this would stabilise the Scottish regime and give them capacity to cause trouble south of the border, the English renewed their alliance with Donald of Islay who seized the opportunity to lay claim on the Earldom of Ross.
The Earldom of Ross was contained a large amount of land in northern Scotland, and Donald of Islay had a claim to this land through his marriage to Mariota Leslie, who was the aunt to the current heir Euphemia. However, Robert Stewart, the Duke of Albany claimed warship over Euphemia in the hopes to secure the Earldom of Ross for his son Alexander Stewart. Thus, the battleground was set to claim the Earldom of Ross.
A significant amount of time passed before the battle as it took both sides a great effort to raise their forces. Donald of Islay mustered his forces at Ardtornish Castle and advanced along the Great Glen culminating in an attack on Inverness during which the town was sacked. As Albany still refused to recognise his claim to the Earldom of Ross, Donald then headed south-east towards Aberdeen intent on reeking destruction. Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar – was the regional commander and raised a force to counter the Highlanders. In particular the populace of Aberdeen, keen to ensure their town didn’t suffer the same fate as Inverness, rallied to his support.
The Highland forces were estimated to be around 10,000 strong while the lowland forces were far less, however, they did consist of heavily armoured knights which put them at a great advantage.
On the 24th of July 1411, on the road between Inverness and Aberdeen, the battle was about to begin. The Earl of Mar organised his troops into three schiltrons with his cavalry in reserve. He then ordered a strong march towards the high ground where the Highland army was camped.
In an attempt to dissuade the advance, the Highland troops launched repeated attacks on the lowland vanguard. However, the heavily armoured troops of the lowland vanguard were able to defend against these attempts. When the rest of Mar’s forces arrived on the summit to join their vanguard, the Highland troops adopted the same strategy of repeated attacks on their schiltrons. Though under immense pressure, the Lowland troops waveringly held their line. Thus, due to their lack of armour and equipment, the Highland troops were forced to pull back after losing a great deal of men.
As dusk approached, the Highland forces withdrew completely, after losing an estimated 1,000 troops and many prominent clan chiefs. Donald of Islay was forced to abandon his advance on Aberdeen. The Lowland army was estimated to have lost around 600 men.
In the end, both sides claimed the victory though in reality the battle was a bloody stalemate.
Source: Battlefields of Britain