Saturday, December 17, 2011

Harlaw – The Aftermath

It is generally accepted that the 1411 Battle of Red Harlaw was fought as a result of a competition for the Ross Highlands of Scotland, and pitted the forces of Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isle, against Aberdeen area forces fighting for the survival of their town, under the banner of a Stewart of Albany, typically known as the Earl of Mar – a man who had also laid claim to Ross, sparking Donald's attack.

Though the battle seems to have been a military draw, the Earl claimed and effectively had the victory for at least the next few years to follow. The battle truly was a life or death situation for the combatants, even beyond the battlefield. In the case of the Aberdeen defenders, their industrious and vibrant town stood a chance of being plundered and destroyed. In the case of Donald, if he could not secure Ross and it fell into the hands of the Stewarts of Albany, his island kingdom could be in jeopardy, and it is likely he would have had to retire to Ireland where his bother, John Mor MacDonald ruled a sizable chunk of Ulster.

John and Donald had experienced their own falling out not long before Harlaw, but had seemed to make amends. John was well-loved in Ireland and managed to make allies out of just about every faction in Ulster – the native Irish, the transported Scots, the English king, and even the Anglo Scots. Between Donald and John the northern Irish Sea coastal regions were solidly meshed into one Gaelic kingdom led by Clan Donald. Donald's branch was later referred to as Clan Donald North, whereas John's clan in Ireland and on the Scottish island of Kintyre became known as Clan Donald South.

Adding to the confusion of the day, King James, the son of the deceased Robert III, had been taken prisoner by the English, causing Robert's death from a  broken heart. The Albany Stewarts, led by James's uncle, Robert Stewart, essentially ruled Scotland as the de facto royal family, refusing to pay the ransom that would set James free. Donald had sent emissaries to visit both the English king and King James, and it is likely that he saw James's return to Scotland as a way to save his coastal kingdom and perhaps receive royal sanction for his claim to Ross, a sanction that was eventually offered not to him but to his son Alexander, after the death of Donald in 1423.

Donald's mother was the daughter of Robert II, a king who had complicated many land rights in Scotland by marrying off his several children to families of power throughout Scotland. His goal was to unify the country but, instead, he created unintended internal strife between many of his descendants, including Donald of Harlaw and the Stewart who met him on the Harlaw battlefield, who was Donald's first cousin.

The year after Donald's death, King James was returned to Scotland. It didn't take him long to seek revenge on the Albany Stewarts putting at least the top three to death, with Alexander McDonald sitting on the jury along with 20 other knights of the realm.

On the death of Albany, King James assumed control of Ross, however Alexander began using the title Master of Ross. Apparently this didn't sit well with James as he invited Alexander to Inverness along with several of his top clan members and his mother. The group was promptly arrested though many were released shortly afterwards. However, Alexander and his mother were kept in separate prisons in James's attempt to quell problems in the Isles.

By 1428, Alexander was released on good behavior. This was due, in part, because of the death of his uncle, John Mor MacDonald/McDonnell of Ulster and Clan Donald South. John had been supporting a grandson of Robert III, also named James, as the true king of Scotland, probably because of his nephew's imprisonment. 

King James sent one James Campbell to treaty with John Mor with an offer that if he swore allegiance to King James, the king would acknowledge him as Lord of the Isles, having been the brother of Donald, Lord of the Isles. John refused and Campbell tried to arrest him. A fierce battle ensued and John was killed.

Now the king's reputation was in serious trouble, having imprisoned Alexander and essentially having been responsible for John's death. These were the North and South leaders of Clan Donald, who was, at the time, the most widespread, most powerful clan in Scotland – a clan allied with many families along the coast and throughout the Highlands.

King James had James Campbell tried and executed for murder, and he refused to accept any blame for the fiasco, releasing Alexander on a bond of good behavior. Alexander wasted little time. Gathering his forces and allies, he attacked and burned Inverness, the town where he been taken prisoner, in the spring of 1429. He also swore allegiance to the younger James, the same man his uncle had supported.

However, as luck would have it, this younger James died an untimely death leaving Alexander exposed to the wrath of King James, with no strong leader in Ulster and Kintyre, and no alternate king to raise forces. King James sent a force to hunt down Alexander. The Lord of the Isles turned himself in, in August of that year. He is said to have pleaded for mercy in his underwear, with a sword pointed to his throat and the handle offered to King James.

Through the intercession of many nobles in Scotland, King James forgave Alexander's transgressions and once again released him. Part of James's motive may have been that the son of John Mor, Donald Balloch, had managed to gain the support of nearly all the coastal clans to fight against James. The man sent to capture Alexander was the very same Earl of Mar who had stopped his father at Harlaw. However, the Earl was soundly defeated at the Battle of Inverlochy, by Donald Balloch leading many other clans, along with forces from Ireland.

The king could see the deck was stacked against him. Alexander was not only allowed to assume the title Earl of Ross, but also was made Justiciar of Scotland, essentially the top law enforcement officer in all of Scotland. As such, he appointed sheriffs and other law officers, and oversaw legal proceedings throughout Scotland. He reported only to the king, and next to the king was the most powerful man in all of Scotland.

With these recent developments in favor of Alexander, Clan Donald reached the zenith of its power. Meanwhile, King James had alienated so many nobles throughout Scotland with ruthless attacks, false arrests and executions, that a plot was set to assassinate him. In 1437, the plan was carried out and King James was found hiding in a sewer pipe and summarily put to the sword.

Alexander had been living principally at Dingwall Castle and Inverness, rather than in the Isle, where his ancestors had ruled from. Upon King James's death, Alexander became the most powerful man in all of Scotland, though he had lost support from some of his island kinsman. Eventually a new king came to the throne. Alexander died in 1449, at Dingwall. He was followed by his son, John. John again faced the wrath of the crown and of other nobles to where he eventually gave up the title of Earl of Ross and retired to the Isles. His brother, Hugh of Sleat, became chief of the MacDonalds of Sleat and from him the headship of Clan Donald North descended.

On John's death, and with ever increasing incursions into the Highlands and islands by the new king, the once powerful Clan Donald was reduced to infighting amongst themselves, or with other local clans over the slim pickings that were left. Control of the clan shifted, for the most part, to Clan Donald South. Many clan members moved to Ireland to support their McDonnell cousins and were among the first people known to be referred to as the Scotch-Irish, undoubtably a contraction of Scottish-Irish.


By 1498, the seat of the Bishop of the Isles was moved off the Isle of Skye and out of Clan Donald influence for the first time in roughly 1,000 years. The only northern leader, Hugh of Sleat, also died that year at Paisley Abbey. His brother had become not much more than a pauper and died in Dundee in 1502. The king sent for his body and belongings to have them properly buried. The struggles and power of Clan Donald moved its focus to Ireland, and to some degree to Kintyre. The Campbells slowly annexed much of the old realm of the Lord of the Isles, as a reward for their service to the crown.

Red Harlaw, in many ways, was the beginning of the rise and eventual fall of the Lord of the Isles, and of the great island powerhouse of Celts and Vikings first brought together by the legendary Somerled. Today, Prince Charles, of England, holds the ceremonial title of Lord of the Isles. Sir Godfrey Macdonald is Chief of Clan Donald and Sir Ian Macdonald is Chief of Sleat, known in Gaelic as Clan Uisdean. 






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