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The Battle of Harlaw

[ Roud 2861 ; Child 163 ; G/D 1:112 ; Ballad Index C163 ; trad.]

Jeannie Robertson sang The Battle of Harlaw to Alan Lomax in London in 1953. This recording was included in 1998 on her Rounder CD The Queen Among the Heather. She also sang it live in Edinburgh in 1958. This recording made by Hamish Henderson was released in 1984 on her Lismor album Up the Dee and Doon the Don.

Lucy Stewart sang The Battle of Harlaw to Peter Kennedy and Hamish Henderson in Fetterangus, Aberdeenshire, in 1955. This recording was included in the anthology The Child Ballads 2 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 5; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968). The 2000 Rounder Records reissues of this album has both Jeannie Robertson’s and Lucy Stewart’s versions mixed up to one track.

Ewan MacColl sang The Battle of Harlaw in 1956 on his and A.L. Lloyd’s Riverside anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume III. This song and 28 other from this series were reissued in 2009 on his Topic double CD set Ballads: Murder·Intrigue·Love·Discord. Kenneth S. Goldstein noted in the album’s booklet:

This ballad describes (though rather inaccurately) the battle of Harlaw, fought on 24 July 1411. Donald of the Isles, Who justly claimed the Earldom of Ross, invaded the Scottish lowlands with 10,000 islanders and men of Ross in hope of subjugating the people of the country as far as the Tay River. He was met at Harlaw, north of Aberdeen, by the Lowland forces under the command of the Earl of Mar, and was forced to retire after losing 900 of his men; the Lowlanders lost 500. As would be expected, the Lowlanders made a ballad about the battle and, in The Complaynt of Scotland (1549), mention is made of a ballad The Battel of the Hayrlau, but this ballad has apparently been lost.

Child believed the traditional ballad, which he knew in only two texts, to have been of relatively recent tradition, chiefly because of the prominence given to the Forbeses, whom history does not report as even being in the battle, and from the omission of the real leaders such as the Earl of Mar.

The ballad is likewise inaccurate in reporting the size of the Highland armies, and in telling of the killing of MacDonald. The names of Sir James the Rose and Sir John Graeme are out of place in this ballad and have probably been borrowed from the ballad of Sir James the Rose (Child 213).

The version MacColl sings was learned from Jeannie Robertson of Aberdeen.

The Exiles sang The Battle of Harlaw in 1967 on their Topic album The Hale and the Hanged. A.L. Lloyd and Gordon McCulloch noted:

The battle of Harlaw, a few miles north-west of Aberdeen, was fought on 24 July 1411, ostensibly between highlanders and lowlanders, though in fact it was but an episode in a larger conflict between the centralised Stuart monarchy and the Scottish barons. The highland forces of Donald of the Isles lost the day. But if the battle is old, the ballad is relatively new, and in the form it is sung here, it has probably been circulating for little longer than a century, or 150 years at most. It appeared in print several times during the nineteenth century, which helped to stabilise it somewhat. Within the last few years it has been recorded from several singers including the celebrated Jeannie Robertson.

The Clutha sang Harlaw in 1971 on their Argo album Scotia!. Don Martin commented in the liner notes:

The Battle of Harlaw took place in the year 1411 between an army led by Donald, Lord of the Isles, and the forces of the Earl of Mar. This ballad is generally believed to be considerably more modern, but so little is known of the origin of such productions that the possibility of a continuous oral tradition dating back to the Fifteenth Century cannot be entirely ruled out. The tune used by The Clutha was obtained by Gavin Greig from William Forbes of Ellon, Aberdeenshire.

The Battlefield Band sang The Battle of Harlaw in 1978 on their Topic album At the Front.

Andy Hunter sang The Battle of Harlaw in 1984 on his Lismor album King Fareweel.

Old Blind Dogs with Jim Malcolm in lead sang The Battle of Harlaw on their 1997 album Five. This track was one of Iona Fyfe’s “desert island choices” in Living Tradition 127 (2019).

Jim Reid sang Harlaw in 2005 on his Greentrax album Yont the Tay. He noted:

A great historical battle. But for folk singing I would know nothing about it and a number of other momentous lowland battles.

Jock Duncan sang The Battle of Harlaw at he Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife, in May 2009. This recording was included a year later on the Festival CD There’s Bound to Be a Row (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Vol. 6). The liner notes commented:

The grim battle, fought in 1411 at Harlaw in Aberdeenshire, takes us back to a time when Lowlander and Highlander had to settle which of the two was to have political supremacy in Scotland. According to the ballad (Child 163), the battle was a disaster:

Oot o fifty thoosand Hielanders,
Bit fifty three gaed hame;
And oot o aa the Lawland men,
Scarce twenty marched wi Grahame.

There is reference to a song The Battle of the Hayrlau in The Complaynt of Scotland (1549) but the text of this is lost and it is probable that the present form of the ballad is more recent (FSNE 11; GD 112). The ballad was a favourite of Jock’s uncle Charlie Duncan and as Jock says: “He had the aul words boy, oh aye. An he pit in the ‘Dirrum a doo a daddie O’. It wis from him that I got the style o that song.”

Beth Malcolm (daughter of Jim Malcolm) sang Harlaw on her 2023 album Kissed and Cried.


Jeannie Robertson sings The Battle of Harlaw

As I cam’ by the Garioch land,
An’ doun by Netherha’,
There were fifty thoosan’ Hielan’men,
A-marchin’ tae Harlaw.

Chorus (after each verse):
Singing didde-aye-O,
Sing fa-la-doh,
Sing diddle-aye-O-aye-ay.

“It’s did ye come fae the Hielan’s, men,
An’ did ye come a’ the way?
An’ did ye see MacDonal’ an’ his men
As they marched fae Skye?”

“It’s I cam’ fae the Hielan’s, men,
An’ I cam a’ the way?
An’ I saw MacDonal’ an’ his men
As they marched fae Skye.”

“It’s wis ye near or near enough,
Did ye their number see?
Come tell tae me, John Hielan’ man,
What might their number be?”

“For I wis near or near enough,
An’ I their number sa’;
There were fifty thoosand Hielan’men
A-marching tae Harlaw.”

For they went on an’ furder on,
An’ doun in by Balquhain;
It’s there they met Sir James the Rose,
Wi’ him Sir John the Grame.

“If that be true,” said Sir James the Rose,
“We’ll no’ come muckle speed;
We will caal upon wir merry men,
An’ we’ll turn wir horses’ heid.”

“O nay, O nay,” said John the Grame,
“Sic things we mauna dee;
For the gallant Grames were never bate,
And we’ll try fit they can dee.”

They went on an’ furder on,
An’ doun in by Harlaw;
They fell full close on ilka side,
Sic strikes ye never sa’.

They fell full close on ilka side,
Sic strikes ye never sa’;
For ilka sword gaed clash for clash
At the Battle o’ Harlaw.

The Hielan’men wi’ their lang swords,
They laid on us full sair;
The’ drove back wir merry men,
Three acres breadth an’ mair.

Lord Forbes to his brother did say,
“O brither dinna ye see?
The’ beat us back on every side,
An’ we’ll be forced to flee.”

“O nay, O nay, my brother dear,
O nay, that mauna be;
For you’ll tak’ your guid sword in your hand,
An’ ye’ll gang in wi’ me.”

For the’ two brithers brave,
Went in amangst the thrang;
They swope doun the Hielan’men,
Wi swords baith sharp an’ lang.

The first stike Lord Forbes gied,
The brave Lord Donal’ reeles;
The second strike Lord Forbes gied,
The brave MacDonal’ fell.

What a cry amongst the Hielan’men,
When they see’d their leader fa’;
They lifted him an’ buried him
A lang mile fae Harlaw.

Jock Duncan sings The Battle of Harlaw

As I cam in by Dunideer,
An doun by Netherha,
I saw fifty thoosan Hielanmen,
Aa marchin tae Harlaw.

Chorus (after each verse):
O a dirrum a doo a daddie O,
A dirrum a doo a day.

An fen I cam on an farrer on,
An doun an by Balquhain,
’Twas there I saw Sir James the Rose,
An him Sir John the Grahame.

“O did ye come fae MacDonald’s, men,
An did ye their number see?
An were ye near and near eneuch,
Fit mith their number be?”

“Aye, I wis near an near eneuch,
An I their number saw;
There’s fifty thoosan Hielanders,
Aa marchin tae Harlaw.”

“If that be so,” said James the Rose,
“Och, we’ll nae come muckle speed;
I’ll hae tae tell ma gallant men,
Na tae turn their horses’ heid.”

“O na, O na,” said John the Grahame,
“O na, that winna dee;
The gallant Grahames hiv niver been beat,
Och, we’ll see fit we can dee.”

O they fell sae thick on ilkie side,
O sic straiks ye niver saw,
For ilkie sword gaed clash for clash
At the Battle o Harlaw.

Noo the Hielanders wi their claymores,
They laid on us fu sair,
Weel, they knockit us back on ilkie side,
Sax acre breadth or mair.

Sir Forbes tae his brither did say,
“Here brither dinna ye see?
They’ve beat us back on ilkie side
Mebbe we’ll be forced tae flee.”

“O na, O na ma brither dear,
O na that winna dee,
Ye’ll tak your gweed sword in your han,
An ye’ll gyang in wi me.”

Noo back tae back the brithers brave,
They gaed in amang the thrang,
An they cut doun the Hielanders,
Wi swords baith sharp an lang.

The first ae straik Sir Forbes struck,
It gar’d Lord Donald reel,
The neist ae straik that Forbes struck,
Wi the brave MacDonald fell.

O siccan a pilacherie,
The like ye niver saw,
There wis amang the Hielanders,
Fin they saw Lord Donald fa.

And fin they saw that he wis deid,
Noo, they aa did gyang awa,
Fin they beeried Lord Donald in Legget’s Den
It’s a mile abeen Harlaw.

It was on a Monday mornin,
That the battle it hid begun,
’Twas noo Setterday gloamin,
Bit ye’d scarce ken fa had won.

Of aa the Hielanmen,
’Twas fifty two gaed hame,
And oot o aa the Lowland men,
Scarce twenty marched wi Grahame.

Noo, siccan a weary beeryin,
The like ye niver saw,
It wis on a Sunday mornin
In the moss aneth Harlaw.

Noo, if ony Hielan lassie spiers at ye,
For them that gaed awa,
Weel, they’re sleepin soun an in their sheen,
In the howe aneth Harlaw.