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Battle of Harpsdale

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A part of Scottish Military History


Battle of Harpsdale 1426

The Battle of Harpsdale was a battle fought in Caithness, Scotland, at Achardale, about 13 km south of Thurso. The historical record, provided in the main by Sir Robert Gordon[1] views the battle as a result of an incursion into the lands of Clan Gunn in Caithness. Clan Mackay was met and repelled at Harpsdale by a conglomerate of Clans, generally supposed to be Clan Gunn and Clan Keith as their allies, supported by supporters of the Earl of Sutherland, likely Clan Murray.


Judging by the record, primarily that of Sir Robert Gordon, Angus Du Mackay, from between 1415 and 1420 went on a spree of ravaging the lands held by various of the name Sutherland. Certainly Nicolas Sutherland, the man that murdered his father, gets more than his share. In these endeavours, a point missed by the family historians, he was likely abetted in this with his relationship with the Albany Stewarts, who now had complete power in the north until the return from captivity of James I. There can be no question, given their faith in the man that supported their cause at the Battle of Dingwall, that he was their arm in the north.

However the power of the Albany Stewarts was diminished by the death of Sir Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, and destroyed by the return of James I in 1424 and the execution of Sir Murdoch Stewart. This event is generally unnoticed in regards to the impact on the Mackay however the fall of the Albany Stewarts was the catalyst for attacks on the Mackays. Likely starting in 1420 and certainly by 1424 a number of attacks on and by the Mackay are noticed. Although often put down to Clan battles there is certainly the appearance of usurpation of the Mackay. The Earl of Sutherland was keen to gain control of their lands and power of their clan leading to a significant number of clashes in the far north. Many of these are between Clan Mackay and the sons of MacNeil, supported by the Earl of Sutherland and his allies.

The Battle

In one of these incessant family feuds we are advised[2] that "In the days of Robert, Earl of Sutherland, the year 1426, Angus-Dow Mackay, and his son Niel, assembling all the forces of Strathnaver, they entered into Caithness with all hostility, and spoiled the same. The inhabitants of Caithness convened with all diligence, and fought against Angus-Dow Mackay at Harpsdale, where there was great slaughter on either side."

Gordon is the main source for these events and is thus, in these cases, unreliable. However clearly a battle occurred and there "was much slaughter on both sides". It is more likely, and recorded in other more modern sources with less bias, that Clan Sutherland, fighting in support of the claims of Thomas MacNeil on the Mackay lands, was represented by Clan Gunn and Clan Keith.[3]

Details of the battle are non-existent and there are no credible sources. However it could be assumed to be an engagement typical of the day. Both sides line up, about 400 metres apart, in a single line with Clan Chiefs at the front and clan supporters behind the Chief. The location over which the battle is believed to have been fought is flat and could easily contain the numbers thought, in legend, to have been there. It seems unlikely to have been as large as stated however and, as was typical of the historical record, the numbers are vastly overstated. Clan Gunn for example, could muster 200 men to the Inverness gathering the year after while Clan Mackay could muster 4000.


In August 1428[4], James I, incensed with the behaviour of his nobles in the north convened a Council at Inverness and summoned his nobles. In the continuation of Fordun's Chronicle we are advised that amongst those summoned the Clan Mackay where "Angus-Dow alias Mackay, leader of four thousand Strathnaver-men, or Mackays, and his four sons, were arrested." Of note, the nobility attending included Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, Kenneth More, John Ross, William Leslie and Angus de Moray and Macmaken who were each leaders of 2000 men. They were all amongst the 50 or so nobles and heads of families that James imprisoned.

As a result of the actions of the Parliament Angus Du Mackay gave up his son, Neil, into custody. Some historians correlate the events but there is clearly no real interrelationship. James was enforcing his power across all these nobles and the Mackay was one of the strongest. MacDonald, who would be imprisoned along with his mother, retaliated fiercely by burning Inverness soon after his release, an act that very nearly had him executed.

Some historians, John Pinkerton[5] included, placing the date as 1427 provides: "Two of them, leaders of a thousand each, were instantly tried, condemned, and beheaded; and one, who had murdered the late Lord of the Isles, was also executed in impartial justice. The others were scattered, as prisoners, among the castles of different lords through the kingdom; and after a time some were condemned to death, and some were restored to liberty. The Lord of the Isles and his mother were retained in captivity till, apparently after a year or more, the former was delivered, while the latter seems in vain to have been retained as an hostage for his fidelity"

This appears to have been missed and was the real cause for the Parliament. Indeed Pinkerton even provides this in "The Lords of the Isles in particular, by their constant confederacy with England, and repeated inroads, well deserved a signal chastisement." It also provides that Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, had been murdered and by one of the two immediately executed by James suggesting that James was bringing justice.

The inter clan rivalry between Mackay and the MacNeil was not finished and would only be decided at the Battle of Drumnacoub.

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Categories: Battle of Harpsdale