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"The Battle of Harlaw - 1411" from "Clan Donald - Volume I," 1896


Battle of Harlaw Memorial, Inverurie, Scotland


Ballad of the "Battle of Harlaw"

The Rise of Forbes from "Reid Harlaw"

The western islands and coast of Scotland were largely settled by Gaels from Ireland which created the kingdom of Dál Riata (or Dalriada.) The Gaels of southern Scotland spread to the ancient Pictish lands of the northeast and evolved into the Mormaerdom of Moray. The Earldom of Ross stretched from Skye to Inverness-shire, including parts of Aberdeenshire.

David II King of Scots died childless in 1371. He was succeeded by Robert II (1316 – 1390), the son of Robert I’s daughter Marjorie and Walter Stewart, named after his family’s hereditary role as High Steward of Scotland. Robert II was followed in 1390 by his ailing son John, who took the regnal name Robert III (1337 or 1340 – 1406). During Robert III's reign (1390–1406), actual power rested largely in the hands of his brother, Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany. After the suspicious death of his elder son, David, Duke of Rothesay in 1402, Robert became fearful for the safety of his younger son, the future James I. Robert sent James to France in 1406 and the the English captured him en route. When Robert III died in the same year, Robert Stewart took the reigns of the Scottish government.


In 1402, Stewart assumed the protection of Euphemia II, Countess of Ross, the daughter of Alexander Leslie, Mormaer or Earl of Ross, and his wife Isabella Stewart, Stewart’s daughter. Euphemia had succeeded to the Earldom of Ross upon her father’s death in 1402.


However, this claim was contested by Donald of Islay, Lord of the Isles (died 1423), who had married Euphemia's aunt Mariota, the daughter of Euphemia I, Countess of Ross and her husband, Walter Leslie, Earl of Ross. These competing claims lead to a series of battles between the Pictish barons of northeast Scotland against the Gaelic clans of the west coast. 

To secure his claim, Donald of Islay recruited the clans of MacIntoshes, Macleans, Macleods, Camerons and Chattans to join with the MacDonalds. In 1411, he landed at Dingwall and defeated the Mackays to capture Dingwall Castle in 1411. He then took Inverness and advanced toward Aberdeen. However, he was met at Harlaw on July 24, 1411, by a force commanded by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar and nephew by adoption to Robert Stewart. The Earl of Mar, commanded the clans of Leslie, Lovell, Murray, Straiton, and Forbes. 

The clans battled all day and at dusk Donald withdrew. Both sides suffered casualties of 600 to 1,000, including the chiefs of the MacIntoshes and Macleans. The battle is commemorated by a 40-foot high memorial on the battlefield near the town of Inverurie.

Alexander Forbes (ca. 1380 – 1448), son of Sir John de Forbes (died 1405), joined the Earl of Mar in the battle. He displayed such great prowess in his fighting skills that he was celebrated in the folk ballad “Battle of Harlaw.” Clearly, the ballad was more fiction than fact since the lyrics imply that “brave Forbes” himself killed Donald (Macdonell):

The first ae straik that Forbes strack,
He garrt Macdonell reel,
An the neist ae straik that Forbes strack
The great Macdonell fell.


In 1421, Forbes married Elizabeth, the only daughter of George Douglas, Earl of Angus, and granddaughter of Robert III. In 1423, his friend Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Mar, granted Forbes the lands of Alford, the foundation of the estates around the present Castle Forbes (Putachie.) In 1430 King James I, his wife’s uncle, granted to "dilectis nostris Alexandro de Forbes, Militi, et Elizabeth, sponsae sue" (ibid.) additional lands in Edinbanchory, Kearn and Mar. By July 1442, Forbes was made a Lord of Parliament. Thus, through Alexander Forbes’s battle skills and bravery, the House of Forbes was firmly established with land, title, and a royal bloodline.

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