Battle of Alltan-Beath

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Battle of Alltan-Beath
Part of the Scottish clan wars
Looking towards Foulis Castle - - 1019643.jpg
Foulis Castle where Donald Mackay was imprisoned after the Battle of Alltan-Beath
Date 1542
Location Knockartel, Scotland
Result Clan Sutherland victory
Clan Sutherland
(Supporters of John Gordon, 11th Earl of Sutherland)
Clan Mackay
Commanders and leaders
Hutcheon Murray of Aberscross
Gilbert Gordon of Garty
Donald Mackay
Unknown "A company of men"

The Battle of Alltan-Beath also known as the Battle of Ailtan-Beath was a Scottish clan battle said to have taken place in the year 1542 in the village of Knockarthur (or Knockartel), in Sutherland, in the Scottish Highlands. It was fought between men of the Clan Mackay and Clan Sutherland.

Accounts of the events and circumstances surrounding the battle vary in accounts from different historians.

Accounts of the Battle[edit]

Sir Robert Gordon[edit]

An account of the battle written by the historian Sir Robert Gordon (1580–1656) states that there was peace between the Mackays and Sutherlands from the death of John Mackay in 1529 until the year 1542 when chief "Donald Mackay came with a company of men to the village of Knockartel, burnt the same, and took a prey of goods from Strathbrory". He goes on to say that the goods were soon recovered and that soon afterwards Donald Mackay again invaded Sutherland and marched as far as Skibo Castle and encamped there.[1]

Sir Robert Gordon goes onto say that in that year: "The Gordon Earls of Huntly and Gordon Earls of Sutherland both coming north into Sutherland , they did summon the Sinclair, Earl of Caithness and Donald Mackay to compear before them at Helmsdale, to answer for their intromission with the bishop's rents, and for the wrongs which they had done, and caused to be done upon the bishop's lands. The Earl of Caithness compeared at the time and place appointed, and yielded himself to their mercy. So, having made a final agreement with them at Helmsdale, he returned again into Caithness. Donald Mackay was also at this time brought to the Earls of Huntly and Sutherland, who (upon Mackay's submission) pardoned him what was past; yet he was at their command imprisoned in the castle of Foulis".[2]

Conflicts of the Clans[edit]

An account of the Battle of Alltan-Beath was written in the book Conflicts of the Clans published by the Foulis Press in 1764, written from a manuscript from the time of King James VI of Scotland (1566–1625): This account also states that Mackay was "apprehended" and imprisoned:

Donald Mackay of Strathnaver, having succeeded his brother, John, taketh the occasion upon the death of Adam, Earl of Sutherland (who left his grandchild, John, young to succeed him) to molest and invade the inhabitants of Sutherland. He came, the year of God 1542, with a company of men to the village of Knockartoll, burnt the same, and took a great prey of goods out of Strathbrora. Sir Hugh Kennedy of Griffen Mains dwelt then in Sutherland, having married John, Earl of Sutherland's mother, after the death of his father, Alexander, Master of Sutherland. Sir Hugh Kennedy being advertised of Mackay's coming into Sutherland, he advises with Hutcheon Murray of Abirscors, and with Gilbert Gordon of Garty, what was best to be done. They resolve to fight the enemy; and so having gathered a company of men, they overtook Mackay, unawares, beside a place called Ailtan-Beath, where they invaded him suddenly; having passed his spies unseen. After a little skirmish the Strathnaver men fled, the booty was rescued, and John MacIan-MacAngus, one of their chieftains, was slain, with divers of the Strathnaver men. Donald Mackay, nevertheless, played the part of a good soldier; for in his flight he killed, with his own hand, one William Sutherland, who most eagerly pursued him in the chase. The inhabitants of Sutherland and Strathnaver (in regard of Earl John's minority) did thus continually vex one another, until this Donald Mackay was apprehended and imprisoned in the Castle of Fowlis, in Ross, by commandment of the Queen Regent and the Governor, where he continued a good while in captivity.[3]


Although accounts of the battle and how Donald Mackay was captured vary, all historians agree that he was imprisoned in Foulis Castle, seat of the Munros of Foulis, chiefs of the Clan Munro.

17th-century historian Sir Robert Gordon writes of Mackays imprisonment at Foulis: "where he continued a good while in captivity; from whence he escaped by means of Donald MacK-ean-voyr, (Mackay) a Strathnaver man, who advised him to flee away"[2]

19th-century historian Alexander Mackenzie wrote in his book the History of the Munros of Fowlis (1898): "In this year 1542, a feud broke out between Donald Mackay, Chief of the Clan Mackay, and John Gordon, 15th Earl of Sutherland, during which Mackay committed several depredations. He was ultimately apprehended, and by order of the Gordon Earl of Huntly, Lieutenant of the North, was imprisoned in Fowlis Castle, where he was kept for a considerable time in captivity. He however managed to make his escape through the connivance of one Donald Mackay, a Strathnaver man; and it seems highly probable that Baron Robert Munro of Fowlis was cognisant of the plan adopted to effect the liberation of his prisoner, as the Mackays and Munros were for generations on very friendly terms.[4]


  1. ^ Mackay, Robert. (1829). History of the House and Clan of the Name Mackay. p.114 - 118: Quoting from Gordon, Sir Robert (1580–1656). A Genealogical history of the Earldom of Sutherland.
  2. ^ a b Gordon, Sir Robert (1580 -1656). A Genealogical history of the Earldom of Sutherland.
  3. ^ Foulis Press. (1764).The History of the Feuds and Conflicts Among the Clans in the Northern Parts of Scotland and in the Western Isles: from the year M.XX1 unto M.B.C.XIX, now first published from a manuscript wrote in the reign of King James VI." The only changes made is the modernising of the orthography to 1890 standards:-- . Retrieved on January 05, 2013.
  4. ^ Mackenzie, Alexander. (1989). History of the Munros of Fowlis. pp.40 - 41.

Coordinates: 58°01′52″N 4°06′58″W / 58.031°N 4.116°W / 58.031; -4.116