Dominus Insularum. Lord of the Isles. Perhaps the most romantic of all titles a man could be raised to with his inauguration ceremony at Cnoc Seannda, Islay, overlooking his capital of two islands in Loch Finlaggan. That of the Lords of the Isles was a coastal empire, fierce opponents of feudalism, the symbol of Gaelic independence, a combination of Pictish and Gaelic culture and laws and the zeal of the Norse warrior and the practicality of its designs and crafts.
But the dynasties produced great politicians and generals, mostly ruthless men, talented with war, diplomacy, and fuelled by zealous ambition. Ancient traditions and education still served Macdonald, whichever Macdonald bore the name and title, as sword and shield served the feudal warrior. And Macdonald was always eager enough to make good use of them.
The Celtic practices of tanistry and a patriarchal tribal system had fallen out of fashion elsewhere in Europe. Only the north and west of the British Isles continued Celtic government, appointing tanists from the chief's gene pool at his discretion as his heir, and with a chief wielding uncontested power over his clansmen with the responsibilities as caring for them and their families as brothers and sisters.
For some reason, possibly because it meant they were one of the last pillars of a civilisation which had been powerful for thousands of years, the Lords of the Isles took a dislike to more modern governments, such as the feudal Kingdom of Scotland, which was mustering its power and prestige even across the Highland line.
This was a sacred line for Clan Donald, more than a geographical or racial boundary.
They found they could not trust Scotland any more than Scotland could trust them. But both sides underestimated the power of the other.
Macdonald saw the feudalist state far to his west, the Highland clans in between, known as Scotland, as a deserter. A traitor. And, thus, an easy target.
The Norman kings of Scotland saw Macdonald as a subject who was much too powerful, and agreements soon merged with disagreements, and allies sided with enemies.
But both sides were ready for the conflict that they foresaw, on the rolling, golden hills, the slopes of Red Harlaw.
Donald of Islay, Lord of the Isles
He was the son of Good John of Islay, Lord of the Isles, who was a benefactor of the church and founded many monasteries with his own, personal wealth. His rule meant that many mainland lands came under the leadership of Clan Donald. These included Lochaber, Kintyre, Knapdale, Garmoran, and Morvern, amongst others. John had been inaugurated at Cnoc Seannda as the chief of Clan Donald, ri Innse Gall, not as Lord of the Isles, or Dominus Insularum as he signed himself.
He expanded and consolidated Clan Donald power to include much of the Hebrides and that ancient state rose once again into the most powerful force in western Scotland.
Like his ancestors, he didn't see his realm as a part of Scotland, or even a vassal. Clan Donald had long held independence, ruled by its own dynasties, with its own government, with separate speech and customs to the domain of the Kings of Scotland, far to the east. Recently the ancient rivalry between them and the nearby feudal state had been subdued, but now Clan Donald's power was on the rise, and that of Scotland, with its nobles once again feuding, was hardly that of previous centuries.
Donald was the personification of Gaelic independence and had all the traits that his ancestor Somerled would have possessed and admired.
He was proud, strong, and resourceful, zealous in his defence of freedom, and ambitious almost to the point of obsession.
However, at the time he wasn't the only ruler who was not under Scottish control, even if he was the only one with any real right. In the Borderlands, the Douglases held the marches and would not let go. The Albany Stewarts were a powerful force, and would become Donald's enemies.
But to say that Donald's lands were not in Scotland's control, whilst true, does not mean he had no connections. He did have connections. And they were strong. Not only was he allied to many Highland clans who also considered themselves independent, but he was actually the grandson of King Robert II, and a cousin of Robert III. He even went as far as to incorporate parts of the Scottish royal coat-of-arms in his own.
He further increased the area of influence of Clan Donald, with many more mainland holdings coming under his authority. He was quick to stake his claim for the grandest Highland estate of them all - the Earldom of Ross.
The earldom of Ross
Stretching from Inverness in the east, Loch Tay in the south, and Skye in the west, this was a vast earldom. Formerly, it was the hold of one of the mormaers of Scotland, during the reigns of the original Picto-Scot royals. In Donald's time, it was held by Alexander Leslie, and surprisingly there was peace between Donald and Alexander. This was probably because Donald's wife, Mariota, was also Alexander's sister.
Of course, Donald supported his claim through marriage.
But the Albany Stewarts thought otherwise, also with a claim to the earldom and the throne, and were true to their thoughts.
Donald was, of course, furious, and sent his diplomats to England to try and obtain him an audience with the captive Scottish heir, James Stewart.
England replied with a better message than Donald had expected. They offered an alliance against the Duke of Albany.
The road to Harlaw
In 1411, support of the captive heir was strong, and Donald was bold enough to assault along the north of Scotland. He mustered a force of ten thousand clansmen at Ardtornish in Morvern, Argyll, which was comprised of both those of whom he was chief and a coalition of other clans, mostly his vassals, and packed this mighty army into his galleys, and set sail for Scotland.
Seen as the chief of chiefs by many of the Highland clans, who thought Donald was the only true defender of their culture and language, Donald had no problem in getting local support for his campaign. Many clansmen joined his army, as he rampaged through Ross and the northern Highlands, leaving nothing but scorched ground for his enemies.
Donald had acquired Dingwall Castle prior to his campaign, and Ross was defenceless to the onslaught of his coalition.
He led the offensive against Alexander Stewart, known as the Wolf of Badenoch, who was Earl of Mar (through the capture of Mar's rightful heiress and her seat at Kildrummy), and Lord of Garioch, Lochaber and Badenoch. He was one of Albany's chief northern supporters, and inflicting a defeat on him, a despised tyrant, would both fuel Donald's merciless campaign and send a clear message to Albany. It would also give Donald control over all land north of Aberdeen.
The battle of Harlaw
It has been suggested that Donald only intended to send out a message to Albany, keeping Ross and not expanding beyond there, but sacking Aberdeen so his campaign wasn't entirely pointless. He may well have been interested in the throne, but he also would have had little desire to rule a nation he, and many of his race, saw as deserters, having abandoned the traditional ways and adopted a feudal system.
If he had of course taken the throne, which was likely well within his reach had he not jumped into the campaign so quickly, and waited for politics to give him a stronger advantage, it would have shaken the foundations of the British Isles, and changed the face of Northern European politics.
But his aims were not so high. He continued his relentless march east to Aberdeen, and it soon became apparent that the city was his goal, even though he had already sacked Inverness.
Alexander was slow in mustering his forces, probably expecting reinforcements. But there were few people who could challenge the armies of Dominus Insularum, and fewer who would, especially when fighting alongside a tyrant. Even a 'barbarian' Celtic army was sooner an ally than him.
But when he said that Aberdeen would be sacked by Donald if the men of the town didn't muster, Alexander found recruits. From Aberdeen and the surrounding area, he managed to raise a force of two thousand men. This was mostly of gentlemen and rich lairds. It is rumoured that in the slaughter many families were destroyed, and there wasn't a merchant family in the northeast of Scotland that didn't lose its son or father, or even both, or several of the first.
The landscape around Harlaw (I have been there myself, I can support this) is mostly flat, with scattered woodland. Much of the farmland is recent. It seems to have been much more like a marsh in places in Donald's era, with more forest.
It was perfect ground for Donald's irregulars, and for the Highland Charge in its original form. But Mar seems to have had slightly favourable ground, if he was approaching from the east, and ground which would, from looking at the lay of the land, have been drier than that which Donald deployed on, as well.
This is mostly speculation, though. No trustworthy accounts of the battle exist, and Robert Burn's ballad is a biased, ignorant account, with wildly exaggerated numbers for Donald, and underestimated numbers for Mar.
The battle began with a straight charge into Mar's lines. The ferocity was typical and carved a swathe in Mar's vanguard, almost cutting his army in two. Cavalry was useless and many mounts were slain beneath their riders by the clansmen, and the knights cut down.
Nevertheless, armour prevailed, as it had done at Renfrew under Somerled's command, and at the Battle of the Standard with the legendary charge of the Gallgaels. For all its disadvantages from Gaelic eyes, feudalism had indeed produced wealth and warriors in equal measure.
Nonetheless, true to their martial birth, Donald's soldiers fought fiercely on until the night, when over one thousand of their number and one thousand of Mar's lay slain on the field, at which point they finally withdraw having exhausted all tactical options and their own arms.
Mar's force slept on the battlefield, believing Donald would attack again. But this second attack never materialised. Donald fled westwards into the Highlands once again, abandoning his claim to the throne, and Ross with it.
Seeing as, tactically, the victory had gone to him, Mar swept along Donald's line of retreat, taking Dingwall and the crucial earldom with it.
But Aberdeenshire, Angus, Kincardineshire, and Nairn had been relieved of their ruling and merchant class in the battle, so in a sense Donald had indeed stripped the city of its wealth. Many of his prisoners were held and not released, which further aided to the pain felt by much of the northeast.
Their agricultural land had been burned, their towns and cities had been pillaged, entire villages razed, and hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians killed, as well as their leaders and the flower of the gentry class.
No-one dared to follow Donald across the water, and although his allies in England did nothing, he was secure amongst his clansmen. His sennachie's speech which I have quoted at the beginning of this article, commanding the sons of Conn to remember hardiness in strife, must have been taken to heart that day.
Donald's wife never gave up her claim to Ross, and Donald never truly gave up his claim to the throne.
Castles of the Clans, Martin Coventry
Rìoghachd nan Eilean, Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart
The Lords of the Isles, Ranald Williams
Various Internet sources