Highlands & Islands

Unbuttoning the Battle of the Shirts

Loch Lochy
Image caption The battle happened at the head of Loch Lochy in the Scottish Highlands

Blar na Léine, the Battle of the Shirts, of 15 July 1544 is one of the 39 clashes in Scotland's Inventory of Historic Battlefields. The clash is clothed in myth and legend.

The combatants

Blar na Léine was a battle between rival clans and marked a violent escalation in a dispute over the leadership of Clanranald, one of the most powerful branches of Clan Donald. It came at a time of unrest in the Scottish Highlands.

About 300 Frasers and Macintoshes led Lord Lovat and Ranald Gallda, pretender to the chiefdom, were attacked by as many as 600 MacDonalds and Camerons led by John Moidartach of Moidart, chief of Clan MacDonald of Clanranald.

Where?

The clash was fought at the head of Loch Lochy on flat ground between Loch Lochy and Loch Oich.

Laggan is a village close to the battlefield today.

Weapons used

There were archers on both sides and volleys of arrows were exchanged, before chaotic and ferocious hand-to-hand fighting with battleaxes and claymores.

It was said that because of the warm weather, the fighters only wore long shirts under their chain-mail and armour.

Fraser histories tell of clansmen fighting with dirks in the waters of Loch Lochy. A stream from the loch was said to have run red with blood for days after.

Accounts of the battle written in the 19th Century claimed firearms were used, but historians have questioned this.

Who won?

The MacDonalds triumphed, but archaeologists and historians say sources make conflicting claims about dead and injured among the warring clans.

One account tells of 80 of the slaughtered Frasers leaving pregnant wives at home. All the women later gave birth to baby boys who went on to help the clan to recover from its losses at Blar na Léine.

There were also claims only eight MacDonalds survived, but this has been challenged by the fact that the clan "rampaged" through Fraser land in the months after the battle.

Image caption It was claimed one clan was replenished by the birth of 80 baby boys

Lord Lovat and Ranald Gallda were among the dead.

However, various stories emerged about how Ranald met his demise, including that he was slain by the father of a man he was fighting, murdered by a surgeon dressing his wounds after the battle and felled by a clansman called Mac Dhonuill Ruaidh Bhig.

Mac Dhonuill Ruaidh Bhig was said to have been killed in the struggle by Ranald's sword before he died.

Stories tell of Mac Dhonuill Ruaidh Bhig's skull, which had a large cut in it, being passed around the communities of Ardnamurchan and Suinart long after his death.

Source: Historic Scotland's consultation document on Blar na Léine.

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