Battle of the Shirts

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Battle of the Shirts
(Blàr na Léine, Kinloch-Lochy)
Part of the Scottish clan wars
Loch Laggan from Kinloch Laggan - geograph.org.uk - 1347871.jpg
Loch Laggan from Kinloch Laggan
Date July 1544
Location Laggan, north end of Loch Lochy (Laggen and Kinloch Lochy)
grid reference NN289967[1]
Coordinates: 57°1′49″N 4°49′8″W / 57.03028°N 4.81889°W / 57.03028; -4.81889
Result Stalemate
Belligerents
Clan Fraser of Lovat
Assisted by Clan Grant
Clan MacDonald of Clanranald
Assisted by Clan Cameron
Commanders and leaders
Hugh Fraser, Lord Lovat John of Moidart (Iain Muideartach)
Strength
300 500
Casualties and losses
5 survivors
(295 killed)
8 survivors
(492 killed)

The Battle of the Shirts (Scottish Gaelic: Blàr na Léine, also the Battle of Kinloch-Lochy) was a Scottish clan battle that took place in 1544 in the Great Glen, at the northern end of Loch Lochy. The Clan Donald and their allies the Clan Cameron fought the Clan Fraser and men from Clan Grant.[2] The battlefield is currently under research to be inventoried and protected by Historic Scotland under the Scottish Historical Environment Policy of 2009.[3]

Clan tradition of the clans involved and all histories written since the period have stated that the name was derived from the fact that the day was so hot that both sides threw off their plaids, fighting in their shirts. However, some have postulated in recent times that Blàr na Léine is a corruption of Blàr na Lèana 'the Field of the Swampy Meadow'.[1] (See Field of the Shirts? below for details.)

Background[edit]

In 1540, John of Moidart,[4] Chief- or Captain- of the Clan MacDonald of Clan Ranald, fell foul of the Scottish Royal Government during King James V's visit to the Hebrides. He was imprisoned, with other Chiefs of the Isles.

A dispute arose over who would take over the Chiefship of Clan MacDonald of Clan Ranald, and the Clan Fraser and Fraser of Lovat backed Ranald Gallda (the Stranger), son of the fifth Chief of Clanranald by a Fraser wife. Ranald had been fostered by the Frasers. Many of Clan Ranald found Gallda unacceptable.

Ranald of the Hens[edit]

For some years after the imprisonment of John, Ranald managed to take control of the affairs of Clanranald. Though he proved himself to be a brave and courageous man, the traces he has left in clan tradition are far from flattering. Highland chiefs were always expected to be lavish with their hospitality. However, when Ranald saw some oxen being prepared to celebrate his inauguration as chief, he is said to remarked that chickens would have done as well, earning him the nickname of Raonuill nan Cearc-'Ranald of the Hens'. When John Moidertach reappeared in the summer of 1543, Ranald, with no local support, was forced to take refuge with his Fraser kinsmen. Lord Lovat, chief of the Frasers, at once prepared to defend his rights. True to his warlike nature, John did not wait to be attacked-he carried his own war eastwards.

John of Moidart Advances[edit]

John of Moidart summoned his kin and allies in the early summer of 1544. He was joined by the Clan Cameron, the Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry, the Clan MacDonald of Keppoch and the Clan MacDonald of Ardnamurchan (Macians of Ardnamurchan). The combined force then advanced east, carrying out an extensive raid in the districts of Abertarff and Stratherrick-the property of Lord Lovat-and the nearby estates of Urquhart and Glenmoriston, belonging to the Clan Grant. Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness was also taken. This raid was more than a simple family feud; it was a major provocation to the government, and especially to George Gordon, the 4th Earl of Huntly and chief of Clan Gordon. Gathering the levies of the north, including those of Lord Lovat, chief of Clan Fraser and the Laird of Grant, chief of Clan Grant, the Earl of Huntly advanced to meet the insurgents. Ranald Gallda came along with the Frasers.

John of Moidart, however, now showed himself to be a guerilla leader of some genius. Rather than risk a battle with a stronger enemy force, he retreated right back to his own country, the almost impregnable territory known as the Rough Bounds, the area between Loch Sunart in the south and Loch Hourn in the north, the very heartland of Clanranald. Donald Gregory, the nineteenth century historian of the Highlands, claims that Huntly managed to advance right into Moidart to restore Ranald, but there appears to be no evidence for such a contention. Surrounded by enemies, Ranald is unlikely to have felt very safe in Moidart, and he returned east with the rest of Huntly's army.

Kinloch-Lochy[edit]

No sooner had the enemy retreated than John set off in pursuit. Keeping out of sight, he shadowed Huntly as far as the mouth of Glen Spean in Lochaber. Here the enemy forces separated, with the Earl of Huntly and the Laird of Grant returning to Badenoch, while Fraser of Lovat with Ranald returned to his own country, with no more than 400 men in all.

This was the moment John had waited for. Moving fast, he crossed to the north of Loch Lochy in the Great Glen, ready to intercept the Frasers, marching along the southern bank. Seeing the danger he was in Lovat sent part of his forces to a nearby pass, which would offer some prospect of a retreat if things went wrong. He then prepared to engage the Macdonalds and Camerons.

The Battle of Kinloch-Lochy began in the age old Highland fashion with a discharge of arrows. Once the missile weapons were exhausted, both sides moved into a terrible close-quarter engagement with battleaxes and the huge two-handled swords known as Claymores. Lovat attempted to disengage, but the men of Clanranald had taken the pass through which he intended to make his escape. The Frasers fought to the last, but only five are said to have survived, James Fraser of Foyers and four common soldiers. Only eight Macdonalds are said to have survived the conflict as well. Lord Lovat, his eldest son and Ranald Gallda were among the dead, along with several hundred others. For days after, the Loch is said to have been red with blood.

Field of the Shirts?[edit]

The battle was fought in mid-July 1544. The better-equipped among the Highland armies at this time were still wearing chain-mail, as we know from a reference by an English observer in Ireland a year after the Battle of Kinloch-Lochy and tomb effigies. This is also supported in tradition by the tale that the armourers of Clanranald and the Frasers laid blows on one another to test the quality of their workmanship. It has also been postulated that it was not until the following century that Highland armies advanced into battle clad only in plaid without body armour.

However, this would only be true of the wealthier gentlemen and upper class professional soldiers such as the famed Scoto-Irish Gallowglass mercenaries of the period. Most of the lower class of clansmen on both sides would have been far too poor to afford the chain armour of the gentry, so the notion of stripping off plaids (which were already worn in the period) as opposed to armour is not unlikely.

The lyrics in 'Blàr Allt-Eireann' (Moladh Clann Domhnaill), describing Clan Donald at the Battle of Auldearn, mentions Blàr na Léine, ruling out any possibility that the Battle of Kilsyth might be the real Blàr na Léine.

However, this mention of the name of the field as "Blàr na Léine" in a Gaelic song composed about 100 years after the event also seems to lend credibility to the traditional explanation for the name, as does an old ceòl mór ("big music" aka pìobaireachd, i.e., classical pipe music) composition which is also named for the battle. It seems rather dubious that Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, with their traditionally strong oral traditional knowledge of song and story (especially among the bardic class), would somehow confuse in their own language the origin of the name of a prominent clan battle which generated songs and stories for over a century after the event. It should also be considered that the word léine (shirt) has an acute accent, whereas the word lèana (meadow or swampy plain) has a grave accent, which would affect the pronunciation in Gaelic in such a manner that it is unlikely a native speaker would confuse the two.

Fortress Moidart[edit]

For the most part, Huntly focused his attention in other parts of Scotland thereafter, as a result of which John, Cameron of Lochiel, and the chiefs of Glengarry, Keppoch and Glencoe were free to spend the month of April 1545 sacking the regions near Urquhart Castle, destroying what they did not take. Parliament attempted to summon John to answer accusations of treason several times beginning in September, but John did not respond. No records suggest that Parliament ever successfully called to account the Captain of Clanranald, who finally died unrepentant in 1584.[5]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Site Record for Blàr Leine". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. 
  2. ^ Blar Na Leine
  3. ^ "Inventory battlefields". Historic Scotland. Retrieved 12 April 2012. 
  4. ^ Iain Mùideartach, Ian Moidartach.
  5. ^ Paterson, Raymond Campbell (30 April 2001). The Lords of the Isles. Birlinn Ltd. pp. 74–79. ISBN 1-84158-097-X. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • The Book of Clanranald, in Reliquae Celticae, vol. II ed. A. MacBain and J. Kennedy, 1894.
  • Fraser, James, The Chronicles of the Frasers. The Wardlaw Manuscript, ed. W. Mackay, 1905.
  • Grant, N., Scottish Clans and Tartans.Crescent Books, New York, 1987 ISBN 0-517-49901-0.
  • Gregory, D., History of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, 1975 reprint.
  • Hill, J. M., The Distinctiveness of Gaelic Warfare, 1400–1750, in The European History Quarterly, vol. 22, 1992.T
  • Lesley, Bishop John, The History of Scotland from the Death of King James I, 1830.
  • MacDonald C., Moidart, or among the Clanranalds, 1889.
  • Mackay, D. N., Clan warfare in the Scottish Highlands, 1922.
  • Alexander MacGregor, 'The Feuds of the Clans.