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Battle of Dingwall

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A part of Scottish Military History


Battle of Dingwall

There is some conjecture regarding the timing of this battle. It is generally presumed to have occurred during the invasion of Scotland by Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles in 1411. This is mentioned on the wikipedia site. However some historians suggest that the battle occurred prior to 1411. The events of the day certainly appear to support the year of 1411 as being the year of the battle and is supported in all of the original source documents.


Between 1406 and 1410 the MacDonalds, under Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, invaded Skye and alienated the MacLeods. In 1408 MacDonald made a treaty of mutual aid with Henry IV of England. In 1410 the strategic situation with MacDonald had become so troublesome that a Council was called. The Exchequer Rolls of 1410 show that the Regent summoned the Earls of Douglas, March and Mar to council to discuss the coming crisis with Donald[1]. Sir Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, gathered his northern barons at Kildrummy castle, Aberdeenshire, on the eve of Christmas 1410. It could be presumed that preparations were made to resist an invasion should it come. Scotland was of the opinion that MacDonald would attack in the north, forcing a retaliation from the Regent and draw Scotland's army to battle around Inverness, thus opening the way for an English invasion in the south. MacDonald had the largest fleet in Scotland and, with England's support, could effectively shut down Scotland's trade.

In March 1411, Donald is thought to have mustered his clansmen, and also, presumably, Clan Maclean from Duart, from his holdings around Islay and Argyll and gathered, presumably at Finlaggen Castle. The Collectanea de rebus albanicis[2] advises that 10,000 clansmen responded to the call at Finlaggen and out of these Donald selected 6,600 to accompany him in the invasion of Scotland but this is likely an exaggeration.[3] It is likely that they sailed north towards the end of March 1411; their destination was Loch Carron on Scotland's west coast, part of the Earldom of Ross and held by Mackenzie of that Ilk, based at Eilean Donan castle led by Murdoch Mackenzie. Skene mentions: "...this invasion was but a part of a much more extensive and more important scheme for which the claim of the earldom served but as a pretext; and that upon the failure of the greater plan [due to Donald failing at Harlaw], that claim [on Ross] was readily resigned."

Although the map places the Regent in the Lothians and the Earl of Mar near Falkland Palace there is no real historical evidence of them being in either location. There is even a paucity of Chamberlain and Accounting records of this year and although there is some evidence, from Charters under the Great Seal, that the Regent was in Edinburgh around March 1411, this is not conclusive. There is certainly evidence of the Regent having an army in the field before June 1411 and the speed with which it was deployed later in July and August suggests it was well equipped.

A number of historians[4] suggest that Donald had laid waste to the Earldom of Ross, no doubt discussing the lands of Syke (MacLeods) and around Loch Carron (Mackenzies) and that Angus Du Mackay, related to both, came to their aid. This fails to appreciate the strategic situation. Mackay were clearly acting on behalf of the Regent of Scotland, again a relative, and attempting to stop MacDonald before he could join with Clan Chattan. Sir Robert is likely providing an excuse to why the Earl of Sutherland did not lead the men on the field.

In about April 1411, MacDonald marches on the Royal castle at Inverness. There are few roads and no historical accounts but it could be presumed that he "gathered" his men (MacLeods and Mackenzie) and followed the line of what is now A890, which will bring him out near Strathpeffer, just west of Dingwall, the principal seat of the Earldom of Ross. Bain, in his study on Ross, is clearer when he provides that the battle "had its locus on the line of the Strathpeffer Railway, some distance west of the point where the Peffery, after crossing the valley, turns eastward at about a right angle. At this period the stream meandered through the wide morass, (now) the site of the upper lake".

Both the MacLeods and the MacKenzies are known to have been with him but only under sufferance.[5] It is not known whether they participated at the Battle of Dingwall but it seems improbable.

Location of the Battle

The Battle of Dingwall likely occurred early in the fighting season and probably around May. Donald arrived at, what is now, Strathpeffer, en-route to Dingwall, with around 6,000 men.[6] It seems likely he was not expecting any opposition and would have already known that the Regent was not in the field.

It seems, according to the family historian, that he stopped at Strathpeffer and was advised that a force of 4,000 men, including the levy of Sutherland and Ross, headed by the Mackays, were formed up for battle before the castle at Dingwall. This location, often taken literally, actually seems improbable and is not consistent with the method of fighting amongst Highland clans; they needed open space. It is more likely that it was meant to imply "before" him and the castle of Dingwall. The map shows that for Donald to have reached the castle he would have needed to have destroyed the town of Dingwall and of which there is no evidence.

Although stated to be the battle of Dingwall, there is no evidence of the battle actually occurring in the town and the castle was known to survive as Donald puts Angus Du Mackay and Murdoch Mackenzie in the dungeons of the castle. It seems more likely that the battle was fought further west and closer to Strathpeffer as this is where Donald would have come out of the mountains. the battle actually taking place about 6 kilometres west of Dingwall. Bain is adamant on this point and it seems that modern historians have failed to associate the battlefield at Strathpeffer with "Dingwall" although Bain clearly states this.

Battle of Dingwall

Mackay is mentioned to have led the levies of Ross and Sutherland, thus representing the Regent and Scotland rather than a clan battle. Analysis supports Robert Mackay[7] when he suggests that, with Mackay, were men from Assynt (MacLeods), Caithness and Ross (Munroes and Mackays). Bain provides[8] that with the Mackay was "the always loyal" Munros of Ferrindonald, then commanded by Robert, fourth Baron.

Bain provides that the "way to Dingwall and its Castle lay on a narrow ledge, with the dangerous quagmire on the one hand and the rough hillside on the other. Astride this ledge Mackay posted his forces, and his judgement in occupying it, ... was fully justified by results."

In a manner typical of this day there is no real account of the battle nor any account of any casualties although the action is thought to have been bitter. It could be presumed that it would have been typical of highland battles of the day with both sides lining up and charging at each other. Donald likely had about 6,000 men and Angus Du some 4,000. Bain suggests that Donald was surprised in the field by the numbers against him and is stated to have withdrawn and taken a circuitousness route to avoid the field. However it is clear that a battle took place.

Alexander Macbain[9], in his editorial on Skene's second edition of “The Highlanders of Scotland”, suggests that “all Fordun's numbers are clearly exaggerated for the clans and chiefs in arms in Macdonald's cause”. He also states that at Dingwall the Mackay had “all the malcontents of the Earldom of Ross at his back”. He further states that the clan, Mackay, were never as numerous as the Mackenzie and thus had less than 2,000 on a muster of the day thus supporting the presumption that there were more than the Mackays on that field fighting for Scotland. From Macbain it could be supposed that Macdonald's force at Dingwall was around 6,000 and more like 4,000 after. If we are to believe these numbers the battle site would still need to accommodate 10,000 men without formation and probably needed to have a frontage of around 1.5 kilometre. To give an example of comparison, at the battle of Culloden the Jacobite army was 4,500 and the tactics would not have been dissimilar to that of Dingwall, or Harlaw. The Jacobite front at Harlaw was nearly 1.2 kilometres, the armies 400 metres apart.

The armies would have formed up in clan groups behind the chieftains in roughly a single line which differed in depth depending on the clan. The book of Mackay[10] claims Angus Du at the head of 4000 men was overpowered and captured while his brother Rorie Gald was killed. While the history of the Mackays suggest they lost the battle of Dingwall with heavy casualties it doesn't mention how many and nor is there any mention of the damage inflicted on Donald but we can assume it sizeable.

Clan Munro have viewed this battle, called Blar-in-inich (Battle of Solitude), as one of their greatest achievements. In their history it is regarded as the place of turning and is remembered in the Clach 'n Tuindain - Stone of Turning. It, the stone with the Eagle of the Clan, originally stood on the opposite side of the hollow, somewhere near where the railway station once stood, thence it was removed to form part of a boundary dyke, and was ultimately erected in its present position where, termed "The Eagle Stone," it forms one of the sights of Strathpeffer.[11]


After the battle of Dingwall it seems that Donald rested there for sometime. Angus Du Mackay was held in prison at Dingwall and then sent back to one of the MacDonald castles on the west coast, likely Finlaggen, where he will meet his future wife, Donald's sister. MacDonald threw Mackenzie into the dungeons at Dingwall, likely for failing to accept him as overlord. MacDonald was still in Dingwall when Mackenzie arranged for his own release by capturing “Donald's immediate relatives”, presumably his sons.

Donald was now in possession of Ross but this is clearly not what he came for. This is alluded to in Mackenzie's work[12] where he suggests that after the destruction of the Mackays at the battle of Dingwall “Donald was now in complete possession of the Earldom [of Ross], but his subsequent proceedings showed that the nominal object of his expedition was but a cover to ulterior designs”.

Donald still had not managed to get the Regent to commit his force to a battle with Donald in the north. There is no evidence that the Campbells and Stewarts, that guarded the approach to the south had moved and the Regent, not one to leap into a fight unless really stacked to his favour, was still in the Lothians. Donald likely waited out the month of May and start of June at Dingwall then moved onto the royal castle at Inverness. There is still no evidence of any movement by the Earl of Mar but it could be presumed that the “march” on Inverness would have provoked action as this was now a deliberate attack on Scotland and no longer a dispute over the Earldom of Ross. The pathway now led to the battlefield at Harlaw.


  1. Exchequer Rolls of Scotland; vol 4; page lvii, lxxiv and 132.
  2. Skene mentions in his work “Highlanders of Scotland” that the manuscript was written by a person under the name of Maclachlan in 1467.
  3. Events are noticed in History of the Macdonalds and Lords of the Isles; with genealogies of the principal families of the name; Mackenzie
  4. Including Sir Robert Gordon, Historian of the Earl of Sutherland and notoriously biased against the family when it comes to Mackay
  5. History of the Mackenzie; Alexander Mackenzie; page 63.
  6. History of the Macdonalds and Lords of the Isles; Mackenzie, 1881, page 62 suggests it was 10,000 men but this seems improbable.
  7. #S-1 Robert Mackay; page 55
  8. #S-3 Robert Bain; page 78
  9. Highlanders of Scotland; Skene, 2nd Edition, Excursus and Notes, page 422.
  10. #S-2 Angus Mackay; page 55
  11. #S-3 Robert Bain; page 79
  12. History of the Macdonalds and Lords of the Isles; Mackenzie, 1881, page 62


  • Source S-1Robert Mackay. History of the house and clan of Mackay ...... Vol. I. Edinburgh: A Jack, 1829. archive.org
  • Source S-2Angus Mackay. The book of Mackay. Vol. I. Edinburgh: Norman Macleod, 1906. Open Library
  • Source S-3Robert Bain. History of the ancient province of Ross (The County Palatine of Scotland) from the earliest times to the present time. Vol. I. Dingwall: Pefferside Press, 1899. archive.org

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