BLOODY HARLAW – by Duncan Harley


A special train left the Joint Station at Aberdeen on Friday 24 July 1914 and headed north to the old railway station at Inverurie where it stopped to pick up a number of very important passengers before proceeding to a point midway between Inverurie and Inveramsay.

Wooden ladders were lowered onto the track and, on that damp and blustery pre-first-war summer’s day, some 300 passengers disembarked then trudged up through the muddy fields to join crowds of locals who had gathered to witness the inaugural ceremony of the monument to the July 1411 Battle of Harlaw.


The battle is of course often portrayed as a simple bloodthirsty clash between Highland and Lowland cultures and popular belief holds that the outcome saved the city of Aberdeen from rape and pillage at the hands of the highland hordes.

The Lord of the Isles was indeed a troublesome noble. He looked upon himself as legitimate heir to the Earldom of Ross and when the Duke of Albany, who had become Regent following the death of King Robert III, refused to grant the claim - giving it to his own son – Donald gathered an army and invaded the disputed territory. Some historians however wonder why this is so well remembered. It was after all, a fairly minor clash in the big picture of history despite the appalling loss of life. And, in the big scheme, the clash of arms between the warring factions achieved little.

Post-battle, both sides retreated to lick their wounds and, as always, the common soldier, the camp followers and the ladies of the baggage train paid the bloody price.

Donald’s plan had been to give his battle-hardened but cash-hungry army a shot at some well-earned booty and of course he hoped to expand his territory in a further land-grab. His regiments, numbering perhaps as many as 10,000 men at arms plus a further few thousand camp-followers, entered the rich farmlands of the Garioch through the Glens of Foudland and made their way south on foot past Culsamond, Insch and Old Rayne before coming to a dead stop at Harlaw in the face of determined opposition organised by the Earl of Mar.

Son of the infamous Wolf of Badenoch of cathedral burning fame, Mar had foreseen the Highland danger well in advance and had summoned men from as far south as Dundee to counter the threat. Local knights including Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum, Sir Andrew Leslie of Balquhain and Sir Henry Preston of Fyvie rallied to the cause as did a contingent from Aberdeen under the command of Lord Provost Robert Davidson.

Donald of the Isles commanded the heights and Marr’s force, numbering perhaps 2,500 had the difficult task of charging up the long grassy slope towards what is nowadays known as Balhaggardy.  The hand to hand conflict ebbed and flowed until near dawn the next day with successive onslaughts being fiercely repulsed and with no obvious victory for either army.

Finally, both sides fought each other to a complete standstill.

Much of the action of that day is recalled in heroic ballad form:

As I came in by Dunnideer and down by Netherha.
There were fifty thousand Hielanmen all marching to Harlaw.
As I came on, and farther on, and down and by Balquhain,
Oh there I met Sir James the Rose, wi him Sir John the Gryme.


Oh, came ye frae the Hielans man? An came ye a' the way?
Saw ye Macdonell and his men as they came frae the Skye?'
Yes, me cam frae ta Hielans, man, an me cam a' ta wye,
An she saw Macdonell his men, as they cane frae ta Skye.'

Oh was ye near Macdonell's men? Did ye their numbers see?
Come, tell to me, John Hielanman, what micht their numbers be?
Yes, me was near, an near eneuch, an me their numbers saw;
There was fifty thousand Hielanmen a marching to Harlaw.

Gin that be true,' says James the Rose, we'll no come meikle speed;
'We'll cry upon our merry men and lichtly mount our steed.
Oh no, oh no,' says John the Gryme. 'That thing maun never be;
The gallant Grymes were never bate, we'll try what we can dee.

As I came on, an farther on, an doun and by Harlaw,
They fell fu close on ilka side; Sic fun ye never saw.
They fell fu close on ilka side, sic fun ye never saw;
For Hielan swords gied clash for clash, at the battle o Harlaw.
  
The Hielanmen, wi their lang swords, they laid on us fu sair,
An they drave back our merry men three acres breadth an mair.
Brave Forbes to his brither did say, noo brither, dinna ye see?
They beat us back on ilka side, an we'll be forced to flee.

Oh no, oh no, my brither dear, that thing maun never be;
Tak ye your good sword in your hand, an come your wa's wi me.
Oh no, oh no, my brither dear, the clans they are ower strang,
An they drive back our merry men wi swords baith sharp an lang.'

Brave Forbes drew his men aside, said, Tak your rest a while,
Until I to Drumminnor send, to fess my coat o mail.
The servant he did ride, an his horse it did na fail,
For in twa hours an a quarter he brocht the coat o mail.

Then back to back the brithers twa gaed in among the thrang,
An they hewed doun the Heilanmen, wi swords baith sharp an lang.
Macdonell, he was young an stout, had on his coat o mail,
An he has gane oot throw them a, to try his han’ himsell.

The first ae straik that Forbes strack, he garrt Macdonell reel,
An the neist ae straik that Forbes strack, the great Macdonell fell.
An siccan a lierachie I'm sure ye never saw
As wis amo the Hielanmen, when they saw Macdonell fa.

An whan they saw that he was deid, they turnd an ran awa,
An they buried him in Leggett's Den, a large mile frae Harlaw.
They rade, they ran, an some did gang, they were o sma record;
But Forbes an a his merry men, they slew them a' the road.

On Monanday, at mornin, the battle it began,
On Saturday, at gloamin, ye'd scarce kent wha had wan.
An sic a weary buryn I'm sure ye never saw
As wis the Sunday after that, on the muirs aneath Harlaw.

Gin ony body speer at you for them ye took awa,
Ye may tell their wives and bairnies;
They're sleeping at Harlaw.
Following the slaughter, the highlanders melted away to the north and the power of the Lord of the Isles was so weakened that in 1412 he was forced to submit to the Scottish Crown. Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire were spared the wrath of highland domination but of course many combatants, some famous, lay dead and dying on the battlefield.

The city’s Provost Davidson was slain and his body returned to Aberdeen for burial in Collison’s Aisle within St Nicholas Church and one local laird, Sir Andrew Leslie of Balquhain lost all six of his sons. Provost Davidson remains the only serving Aberdeen lord provost, to date, to have suffered death on the field of battle.

For several hundred years the battlefield lacked a decent monument. There were sites identified in the locality which were rumoured to house the mass graves of the dead. The Liggart Stone is said to mark the final resting place of camp-followers murdered in the post battle bloodletting, another now lost mass grave may have contained captives slaughtered in the aftermath. 
And o
ver at nearby Kinkell graveyard, the ornate tomb of Gilbert de Greenlaw, a knight who fought and perished on the field at Harlaw, once languished within the ruined church.

In 1911 Professor Davidson of Aberdeen University, a descendant of the fallen Provost Davidson, suggested that the Aberdeen City Council should commemorate the 500th anniversary of the battle. A sub-committee of the city Finance Committee visited the battlefield for a recce and agreed to release funding. As a result, the tall granite memorial we see today was commissioned.

Constructed of Corennie granite at a cost of £350 and standing some 45ft high, the monument was designed by Aberdeen architect William Kelly of Kelly’s Cats fame and is sited near the spot where Provost Davidson is said to have fallen.
Puzzlingly the monument for many years remained incomplete. About 16ft from the ground Kelly had made provision for the placement of several armorial plaques bearing the coats of arms of the principal combatants on both sides.

A letter published in the February 2010 issue of Leopard Magazine gives a clue to the mystery of the missing armorial shields. In the letter, Ross Herald of Arms, Charles Burnett reveals that as “three of the arms were to represent Macdonald, Maclean and Macintosh, there was an objection to paying for the arms of the ‘enemy’ and as a result no heraldry was added to the monument.”
The Ross Herald of Arms goes on to say that the arms “originally to be included were: City of Aberdeen, Leslie, Mar, Forbes, Irvine, Keith, Leith, Ogilvy, Scrymgeour, Macdonald, Maclean and Macintosh.”


Finally in 2011, when passions had cooled, the missing shields were added to the Harlaw Monument in time for the 600th anniversary of what had become known locally as ‘Reid Harlaw’.  
In a further twist, the booklet recording the order of events for the inaugural ceremony which took place in 1914 records that among the 300 invited guests, there was a contingent of German naval officers in dress uniform.

Following a loyal toast to the King, Lord Provost Maitland proposed a toast to the German Kaiser.

Following suitable applause Commander Sebelin, the most senior German officer present, replied “I think it a very great honour that you recognise our Emperor on this occasion.”
Just a few weeks later, on August 4 1914, both Germany and Britain would be at war. Commander Sebelin went on to sink thirteen Allied ships during the conflict.

He died when his submarine, the UC43, was sunk with all hands by the British navy in the North Sea on march 10 1917.


If you have enjoyed this extract from my recent book – The Little History of Aberdeenshire, then please consider purchasing a copy from your local bookshop or from Amazon. Or you can borrow for free from both Aberdeen City Library or Aberdeenshire Library Service.
ISBN: 9780750989299
Published by The History Press @ £12 in hardback

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