Battle of Tarbat

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Battle of Tarbat
Part of the Scottish clan wars
Tarbat Old Church.jpg
Tarbat Old Church, Portmahomack, rebuilt in 1756
Date 1480s (1486?)
Location Tarbat peninsula, Easter Ross
grid reference NH914840
Coordinates: 57°50′N 3°49′W / 57.833°N 3.817°W / 57.833; -3.817
Result Ross victory
Clan Ross Clan Mackay
Commanders and leaders
Alexander Ross of Balnagown Angus Roy Mackay, 9th of Strathnaver
Unknown Unknown
Casualties and losses
Unknown No survivors?

The Battle of Tarbat was a Scottish clan battle fought in the 1480s on the Tarbat peninsula, in Easter Ross. The Clan Ross cornered a raiding party of Clan Mackay near the village of Portmahomack and put many of them to the sword. The survivors sought sanctuary in the nearby church but the Rosses set fire to it, killing all inside. The Mackays took revenge for this outrage in the subsequent Battle of Aldy Charrish.

It should not be confused with the Battle of Tarbat Ness in the 11th century, when Thorfinn the Mighty defeated "Karl Hundason",[1] possibly a Viking name for Macbeth.


The second half of the 15th century had seen a series of raids by the Mackays of Strathnaver on the Rosses of Balnagown.[2] Finally the Rosses gathered their forces to attack the invaders who were led by Angus Roy Mackay of Strathnaver,[2] son of Neil "Bass" Mackay.

The exact date of the battle is uncertain, other than it happened before the Battle of Aldy Charrish, which documentary evidence dates to either July 1487 or June 1486.[3] The date most commonly cited for events at Tarbat is 1486, but all that can be said is that it was probably some time in the 1480s.[4]


The Rosses appear to have encountered the Mackay raiding party on the Tarbat peninsula, where they were "fiercely attacked".[2] It appears that many Mackays were killed before they sought shelter in the Tarbat church.[5] More were apparently killed before the church was set on fire.[2] Angus Roy MacKay was among those killed.[5] As a poem put it :[6]

Archaeology supports this story. Archaeologists have been investigating the Tarbat Old Church at Portmahomack for evidence of a major monastery largely destroyed around 800AD.[7] While the target of this presumed Viking raid has attracted most attention, a new church was built on the site in the 13th century. This "Church 4" apparently suffered a major fire during the Middle Ages. Fire has scorched the sandstone of the internal walling to a bright orange, even in the crypt, and charcoal from possible roof timbers or thatch was found in the nave near the crypt entrance.[8]


John (Iain) Riabhach Mackay avenged his father's death by invading the Ross lands with the help of Clan Sutherland in 1487. This raid culminated in the Battle of Aldy Charrish at the head of the Kyle of Sutherland which saw Alexander Ross of Balnagowan and many of his kinsmen slaughtered. The Clan Ross never really recovered from this defeat.[2]


  1. ^ Roberts, John Lenox (1997), Lost Kingdoms: Celtic Scotland and the Middle Ages, Edinburgh University Press, p. 22, ISBN 978-0-7486-0910-9 
  2. ^ a b c d e Eyre-Todd, George, 1862-1937 (1923), The Highland clans of Scotland; their history and traditions vol II, New York: D. Appleton, p. 481 
  3. ^ See Battle of Aldy Charrish article for a discussion of its date.
  4. ^ Carver (2008) describes it as an "incident of the 1480s".
  5. ^ a b MacKinnon, Donald (1957), The Clan Ross, Edinburgh: W. & A. K. Johnston & G. W. Bacon, p. 16–17, ISBN 978-0-7179-4537-5 
  6. ^ Ross, John Robert; Ross, Charles Campbell; Ross, A. C. Gordon (1972), The great clan Ross: with heraldic arms of the principal families and genealogies of the cadet branches in Scotland and the new world (2 ed.), p. 41 
  7. ^ Carver, Martin (2008), Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts, Edinburgh University Press, p. 69, ISBN 978-0-7486-2442-3 
  8. ^ Carver (2008) p.159