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

The Rise of Forbes from "Reid Harlaw"

The 1411 Battle of Harlaw, one of the bloodiest war in Scotland, was the making of the House of Forbes. Alexander Forbes, son of Sir John of the Black Lip, so distinguished himself that his commander, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, rewarded him with vast estates; he was awarded the title of the first Lord Forbes; and George Douglas, Earl of Angus, agreed to his marriage to his only daughter, Elizabeth, granddaughter of Robert III. Alexander’s bravery was celebrated in the popular ballad, “Battle of Harlaw.” 

The battle was as much a conflict between cultures as it was a clash between the clans. Scotland was settled by Gaelic kingdoms of Dál Riata (or Dalriada) on the western seaboard. The Gaels of southern Scotland absorbed Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon culture and spread to the Pictish areas of the northeast. This became part of the Mormaerdom (kingdom) of Moray. The Earldom of Ross stretched from Skye to Ross and Inverness-shire, with control over Nairn and Aberdeenshire. In 1370 Uilleam (William), Earl of Ross received a charter from King David II, confirming his right to the title and directing that in the absence of male heirs, the entirety of the earldom, titles and lands would fall to "the elder daughter always" without division. Uilleam died in 1372 without a male heir, and the title passed to his daughter Euphemia. By her first husband Sir Walter Leslie, Euphemia had two children – Alexander Leslie and Mariota (anglicised as Margaret or Mary). After Walter's death, Euphemia married Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan (the "Wolf of Badenoch") in 1382. This gave the Stewarts control of the earldom. In 1392 the marriage was annulled as Buchan had long been living with Mairead inghean Eachainn with whom he had a number of children, including Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar. Euphemia died in 1394 and her son Alexander Leslie inherited the title.

Seal of Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany

Battle of Harlaw Memorial, Inverurie, Scotland

Ballad of the "Battle of Harlaw"

On July 24, 1411, near Inverurie, Donald was met by a force of about 2,000 men hastily assembled by the Earl of Mar. After a day of fierce fighting there was no clear victor. Donald had lost 900 men before retreating back to the Western Isles, and Mar had lost 600. Many families lost not just their chief but every male in their house. Mar and his surviving men camped on the battlefield, expecting combat to resume in the morning. However, Donald withdrew during the night, retreating first to Ross and then back to the Isles. While neither side could claim an outright victory, Mar was successful in stopping Donald’s march to Aberdeen. Within a year, Albany had recaptured Ross and forced Donald to surrender. However Mariota was later awarded the earldom of Ross in 1424 and the Lordship of the Isles would keep the title for much of the 15th century.


The ferocity of the battle gave it the nickname "Reid Harlaw" (Red Harlow) from the amount of blood spilled. The battle is commemorated by a 40-foot high memorial on the battlefield near the town of Inverurie.

Alexander Forbes (ca. 1380 – 1448) was the eldest son of Sir John de Forbes (died 1405), Sheriff-depute of Aberdeen. In 1408, Forbes accompanied Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, and Sir Walter Lindsay to England to a jousting meet organized by Lord Beaumont. The Scottish poet and chronicler Andrew de Wyntoun praised Forbes as one of the four Scottish knights who bested the English knights in the tournament and wrote that "for gret pris and renoun, the Scots knights won gret commendatioun." 

Forbes also joined the forces commanded by Robert Stewart’s son Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Mar, in the Battle of Harlaw. Again, 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” 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.

(See the complete lyrics of the Battle of Harlaw here.)

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, 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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