Donald (of Harlaw) MacDonald (1363-1423) – II Lord of the Isles

Donald (of Harlaw) MacDonald (1363-1423) – II Lord of the Isles:

The Battle of Harlaw (Scottish Gaelic – Cath Gairbheach) was one of the most devastating battles fought in the annals of Celtic history on the 24th July 1411 just north of Inverurie in Aberdeen-shire.  It was to be a battle for supremacy between the Celt and the Teuton.

The battle was fought to resolve competing claims to the Earldom of Ross, which was a large area located in northern Scotland. Robert Stewart, Earl of Mar, Duke of Albany and Regent of Scotland, had taken control of the Earldom of Ross from his niece, Euphemia Leslie.  Euphemia gave up her right to the Earldom of Ross when she swore allegiance to the veil.  She became a nun.

Donald, second Lord of the Isles, who was married to Euphemia’s Aunt Mariota Leslie, contested this claim and he invaded Ross on the 24th July, 1411, in order to take the Earldom by force.  Along the way to Inverurie he plundered and took Dingwall.  Dingwall Castle was to be the site where his grand-son, Ùisdean MacDonald of Sleat (the progenitor of the MacCutcheon family name) was born in 1436.

The ensuing bloody battle lasted from sun-rise until sun-set and came to be called Red “Reid” Harlaw.  According to Buchan “there fell so many imminent and noble personages as scarse ever perished in one battle against a foreign enemy for many years before”.

Folklore tells us that Donald came with an army of foot gallóglaigh and red-shankes that was 10,000 strong; Mar (Robert Stewart) came with an army of 2,000. Donald’s men were armed with claymores, bows, sparth axes, short knives and targe shields – the weaponry of the gallóglaigh; Mar’s Knights and Scottish lowlanders came with a cavalry reserve on horseback,  equipped with hand and a half sword; some wore  an open-faced bascinet  helmet with a mail-reinforced arming doublet beneath a solid plate armour.  Mar’s men also carried spears or thrusts, maces,  and battle axes.

It was said, ”upon a signal being given, there was a furious onslaught of Highlanders and Isles-men setting up those terrible shouts and yells which they were accustomed to raise on entering into battle, rushed forward upon Mar’s men”, bringing down horse and rider with mighty swings of their sparth axes.  By nightfall, as the story was told, 600 of Mar’s men lay dead or dying on the battlefield; Donald suffered a loss of 900 strong able-bodied highlanders.  Most of those who fell on the battlefield that day were buried at Kintail church.

When the sun finally set over Harlaw, too beaten and weak to retreat, Mar’s men camped on the battlefield, expecting to be slaughtered the following morning.  However, at dawn the next morning, Mar found that Donald had retreated during the night, back to Ross and the Isles.

Was this a victory?  With the mass loss of life, neither side was a winner. However, Mar kept Donald temporarily out of Aberdeen and the Lord of the Isles never did officially attain the title “Earl of Ross”.  However, Donald MacDonald claimed that he won the battle and gained the Earldom of Ross. The title Earl of Ross did eventually happen, officially, to his son Alexander III Lord of the Isles.

And thus he came to be called “Donald of Harlaw”.

Donald, second Lord of the Isles, married Lady Mariota (Mary) Leslie, (only daughter of Sir Walter Leslie by his wife, Euphemia, countess of Ross) in favor of whose marriage there is a dispensation dated 1367.  Mariota’s only brother, Alexander, married Isabella, daughter of Robert Stewart, Earl of Mar and Duke of Albany, Regent of Scotland.  It was this union that produced Euphemia (the niece who became a nun).

Mariota Leslie became Countess of Ross in her own right after her niece resigned the Earldom in favor of the veil.  By this marriage the Lord of the Isles had issue;

  1. Anna MacDonald who married Robert Duncan MacLagmayn;
  2. Another daughter MacDonald who married Dugald Campbell, first captain of  Dunstaffnage Castle;
  3. Alexander who succeeded as III Lord of the Isles and X Earl of Ross;
  4. Angus, bishop of the Isles;
  5. Son MacDonald who became a Monk;
  6. Mariota, who married Alexander Sutherland and to whom her brother, Alexander (Lord of the Isles) gave the lands of Duchell as appears from the grant of the same in the possession of  Sinclair of Rosslin (Woods Douglas Peerage).

Donald died, according to Findon, in 1423; according to Gregory circa 1420; according to Hugh MacDonald, the shenachie, though not mentioning the year of his death, says that he died at Ardhorinish in Morvern in the forty-fifth year of his age and was buried at Icolmkill, “after the rites and ceremonies of his predecessors.”

SOURCE:        History of the MacDonalds by Alexander Mac\kenzie – anno 1881.



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