Battle of Harlaw, The [Child 163]

DESCRIPTION: A Highland army marches to Harlaw (to claim an earldom for their leader). The local forces oppose them on principle, and a local chief kills the Highland commander. The battle is long and bloody, but the defenders hold their ground
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1823 (Laing)
KEYWORDS: battle nobility
HISTORICAL REFERENCES:
1411 - Donald, Lord of the Isles, gathers an army to press his (legitimate) claim to the Earldom of Ross. Both sides take heavy losses, but the Highlanders suffer more and are driven off
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Aber),England(South))
REFERENCES (8 citations):
Child 163, "The Battle of Harlaw" (2 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #7}
Bronson 163, "The Battle of Harlaw" (21 versions+1 in addenda)
ChambersBallads, pp. 18-25, "The Battle of Harlaw" (1 text)
Greig #11, pp. 1-2, "The Battle of Harlaw"; Greig "Folk-Song in Buchan," p. 62, "Battle of Harlaw" (1 text plus 1 fragment, 1 tune)
GreigDuncan1 112, "The Battle of Harlaw" (14 texts, 11 tunes) {A=Bronson's #6, B=#8, C=#11, E=#9, F=#3, G=#5, H=#12, I=#10, J=#4}
Ord, pp. 473-475, "Harlaw" (1 text)
DT 163, BATHARLW*
ADDITIONAL: Michael Brander, _Scottish and Border Battles and Ballads_, 1975 (page references to the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition), pp. 51-54, "The Battle of Harlaw" (1 text, 2 tunes) {Bronson's #15, #7}

Roud #2861
RECORDINGS:
Jeannie Robertson, "The Battle of Harlaw" (on FSBBAL2) {Bronson's #14}
Lucy Stewart, "The Battle of Harlaw" (on FSB5, FSBBAL2) (on LStewart1) {Bronson's #13}

NOTES: The source for Whitelaw-Ballads, pp. 138-140, "The Battle of Harlaw" (1 text) is Allan Ramsay, The Ever Green (Being a Collection of Scots Poems Wrote by the Ingenious before 1600) (Edinburgh: Allan Ramsay, 1724 ("Digitized by Google")), Vol. I pp. 78-90, "The Battle of Harlaw." It is included by Child as English and Scottish Ballads (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1860 ("Digitized by Microsoft")), pp. 180-190, "The Battle of Harlaw," but not included later as a text for Child 163. In his notes to 163 Child writes "The piece is not in the least of a popular character" (vol. 3, p. 317). It is clearly not the same song as those represented by Child 163, so I have not included it here as a reference. Whitelaw writes of the 31 8-line verse text that it was "first published by Allan Ramsay, and in all likelihood written by him." - BS
Most ballad books discussing the Battle of Harlaw mention only the immediate cause: The conflict over the Earldom of Ross. This follows Child (whose notes, in this case, are rather inadequate).
The conflict was real but hardly the whole story: The only heir of William, Earl of Ross, was a daughter Euphemia Ross. (Not to be confused with the Euphemia Ross who was the wife of King Robert II.) There were some questions about the legality of her inheriting the title -- the Earldom of Ross had been a male entail (see, e.g., Boardman, p. 47), but that could be changed.
Interestingly, there was a question about whether she would marry at all -- Thomson, p. 23, says that she possessed "severe disabilities," adding on p. 24 that she was a hunchback; apparently she was at one time destined for a convent. But given the land she controlled, that could hardly stand. King David II married her to Walter Lesley, an elderly crusader, in 1366, and changed the entail so that the earldom could pass in female line (Boardman, pp. 46-47). All might have been well had not Euphemia outlived Lesley.
In 1382, Euphemia married Alexander the "Wolf of Badenoch," a younger son of King Robert II. (Boardman, pp. 77-79). This produced a new set of complications, because the marriage to Alexander ended in divorce (Boardman, pp. 179-180). Magnusson, p. 211, says that the Wolf was "flagrantly unfaithful," leading Euphemia to denounce the marriage and demand her land back. In the end, Euphemia left no heir.
The exact date of Euphemia Ross's death is unknown, but it was probably around 1395. Alexander of Badenoch, being the sort of man he was, held onto the earldom after her death, but he died in 1406 -- and while he had sons, they were not by Euphemia and not heirs to Ross. Donald of the Isles (died 1423), as husband of Mary/Margaret Lesley, the sister of the old Earl of Ross (Euphemia's father), was the obvious heir (Fry/Fry, p. 94) -- and he set out to make good that claim. Hence the events resulting in the Battle of Harlaw.
But the conflict was in fact much more important than a conflict over an earldom. Since the death of Robert Bruce, Scotland's central government had been weak even by Scottish standards: David II Bruce had spent much of his reign in English hands, his successor Robert II the Steward was a tired old man, Robert III was crippled and had limited ability to rule, and the King at the time of Harlaw was James I, who was still only a teenager and in English custody anyway (Cook, p. 151). The country, since the time of Robert III, had been ruled by Robert Duke of Albany, the younger brother of Robert III (they shared the name Robert because Robert III was born John but took a different throne name; he thought "John" unlucky).
Albany was energetic, but his government was not secure (Magnuson, p. 226, documents the vicious way in which he maintained power); Scotland was degenerating into a collection of quarreling baronies. (The mess was so bad that, when James I got loose, he would destroy as many of Albany's descendants as he could lay his hands on; Ashley-Stuart, p. 41.) The Highlands were almost completely beyond central control. The Lords of the Isles were in effect independent kings, with a dynasty going back to the Irish-born prince Somerled (c. 1105-1164), who during the 1150s managed to lay claim to most of the Hebrides by conquest or negotiation (Ashley-Kings, p. 432). The title of "Lord of the Isles" became official with "Good John," Lord of the Isles 1330-1387 (Thomson, p. 16). Donald, the Lord of the Isles in this song, was John's heir.
The Lords of the Isles were often very conservative, holding fast to the old Gaelic ways, and they were willing to ally with anyone or anything, including the English, against the lowland government (Thomson, p. 17). As a result, they had great influence in the western Highlands. Give them control of Ross, in the central Highlands, and Scotland would likely have split into two nations -- or, possibly, the Lords of the Isles could have been able to take control of the whole thing. After all, Donald was the grandson of Robert II by his daughter Margaret (see the genealogy in Boardman, p. 41).
Ordinarily, Donald would not have been much threat to the monarchy; he stood rather low in the succession -- he trailed the current king James I, James's successors if he had any, Albany and his son Murdoch and his heirs, John earl of Mar (the son of the Wolf of Badenoch, and hence Donald's step-nephew or something like that), and Mar's heirs. (Note that Mar was the leader of those who fought MacDonald at Harlaw.). Still, a sufficiently strong lord could easily get around that. Harlaw allowed the government to retain just enough control to prevent either possibility.
Magnusson, p. 231, says of the battle itself that it "has become a byword for savagery and valour... and became known in ballad and folk-tale as the Battle of Red Harlaw.... It was the fiercest and bloodiest battle ever fought by the Gaels; it was also a battle which nobody won."
Magnusson, p. 232, claims that MacDonald selected six thousand men at a Christmas feast in the Isles and shipped them to the mainland. There he picked up four thousand more followers. Thus he had perhaps ten thousand men to fight at Harlaw -- fully half the size of the army typically quoted in the ballad, which makes the song relatively accurate compared to some histories of the time, which might multiply the size of an army by a factor of ten.
Magnusson adds that Mar's forces, though outnumbered, were better-armed than the supporters of the Lord of the Isles. The uncoordinated fight consisted mostly of mobs of Highlanders charging the massed lowlanders, who held off the attacks by staying in tight formation (Magnusson, p. 233). Magnusson estimates MacDonald's losses at one thousand, Mar's at six hundred -- ten percent or more of the forces engaged.
That was Donald's last serious attempt to claim the Earldom of Ross. Albany managed a strong counter-push after that, and the Lord of the Isles was mostly quiet for the remaining dozen years of his life. Though it was a tactical draw, Harlaw was a great strategic victory for Mar and the lowlanders -- and for Albany and the central government. As well as for the Earl of Mar, who in the aftermath picked up the Earldom of Ross as well (Thomson, p. 29).
It was not the end of the conflicts between the Lords of the Isles and the central government; Alexander, the successor of Donald MacDonald, rebelled against King James I almost as soon as his father died. He had a great deal of success, and almost managed to capture Inverness -- but James I was not Albany. He gathered an army and captured Alexander MacDonald (Thomson, p. 30). It seemed as if the power of the Lords of the Isles would be broken. It probably would have been, had James lived longer. But he was murdered, and his heir was a minor, and the pro-government Earl of Ross was killed at Verneuil in France (the last great victory of the English over the French in the Hundred Years' War; Thomson, p. 32, says Ross died in 1436, but Verneuil was fought in 1424 -- and Seward, p. 201, says explicitly that John Stewart, Earl of Mar, was one of many killed at Verneuil.)
Alexander of the Isles -- who seems to have escaped his captivity quickly (Ashley-Stuart, p. 42) was able to regain much of his power as a result. The regency, to earn his support, finally gave him the Earldom of Ross (Thomson, p. 32; Ashley-Stuart, p. 47, adds that he was appointed Judiciar as well, the idea being to get him to control the Highlands). He supported the regency (probably out of self-interest) until his death in 1449. But John MacDonald, who succeeded him as Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross while still a teenager (Thomson, p. 35), was reckless and not particularly wise in his gambles. When his correspondence with the English was revealed, he lost the Earldom of Ross (Thomson, p. 37). And his (political) marriage was childless (Thomson, p. 36). John had illegitimate children, including a son Angus Og whom he managed to have legitimized, but Angus Og rebelled against his father.
In the aftermath of yet another civil conflict, Angus Og was murdered, meaning that John's heir was his grandson Donald Dhu -- a young man already a prisoner in a Campbell castle (Thomson, p. 40). John was by now so distrusted (and so ineffective) that he was stripped of the title "Lord of the Isles"; the title was never really revived (Thomson, p. 41). Donald Dhu's death in 1545 marked the effective end of the MacDonald dynasty in any event (Ashley-Kings, p. 541); there were collateral branches, of course, but no longer a true clanleader. The Battle of Harlaw thus marked, in a sense, the pinnacle of MacDonald power. And, hence, the turning point that would ultimately make the Campbells the great clan of Scotland.
This ballad is generally regarded as historically unreliable, on several counts -- a charge dating back to Child. David Buchan, however, takes a different view (in the article cited as "Buchan").
The first objection to the song lies in the prominence of the Forbeses in a battle directed by the Earl of Mar. Buchan, however, alludes to Dr. Douglas Simpson's book The Earldom of Mar, which attempts to reconstruct this battle.
According to this view, the citizens of Aberdeenshire were concerned about the invasion by Highlandmen, and sought to block it. But they could not know which route MacDonald would take to the city -- via Harlaw or Rhynie Gap, several hours' march apart. Simpson argues that Mar garrisoned Harlaw and assigned the Forbeses, strong vassals situated in the area, to guard Rhynie.
When the Highlandmen arrived at Harlaw, Mar sent for the Forbeses. They arrived on the scene, defeated the nearest Highland forces, and partly retrieved the battle. The ballad then makes sense if seen as a description from the Forbes standpoint.
The second objection, to the presence of Redcoats, Buchan meets by assuming the song has been confused with an account of the Jacobite rebellions. This strikes me as less convincing.
The third argument that the song is recent comes from the similarity of versions. Buchan argues that this could have been caused by broadsheets distributed by Alexander Laing, who printed the earliest (B) fragment known to Child. This is possible though by no means sure (no such early broadsheet, to my knowledge, has been found) -- but in any case the objection is weak, because Bronson's #15, at least, represents a text well removed from the common stream. Most texts of "Harlaw" are from Aberdeenshire; they could be close together simply because many local singers knew the song and could compare their texts.
Ord reports a claim that the chorus is derived from a druidic chant. Uh-huh. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 4.0
File: C163

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