Highlands & Islands

Fighting fairytales: Strange stories of Scottish battles

Image caption A horse provided one Scots earl with an unusual weapon against Norse invaders in the 13th Century

An imported weapon has been blamed for the Scots defeat in battle 500 years ago. But even less conventional arms - and characters - have decided other conflicts involving Scotland.

Flodden on 9 September 1513 was one of Scotland's worst defeats in battle against the English.

Casualties on the Scots side were heavy. Among the 10,000 killed were King James IV, 12 earls, 13 barons, five heirs to titles, three bishops and two abbots.

Pikes, 18ft-long weapons imported from France to be added to the Scots' armoury, have been blamed by an expert for leading to the huge losses because it proved too unwieldy on the terrain of the battlefield in Northumberland.

But the outcomes of other battles in Scotland's distant past have been decided by even more unusual weapons and fighters.

According to local legend, Perthshire's Battle of Luncarty had an army of Scots facing defeat to a force of Danes.

Image caption Fairies are said to have had an influence on Scottish clan battles

But the fight of AD990 was turned to the home side's advantage when a farmer and his two sons stepped forward and battered the invaders with plough yokes.

Danes also feature in two other historic tales of battle.

At Tauch Hill at Kintore, near Aberdeen, the local residents helped King Kenneth II to victory by driving cattle covered in oak leaves at the Danish lines.

The rout of the Danes is celebrated on Kintore's coat of arms. It shows a shield, an oak tree and two horned bulls standing up on their back legs.

In the 13th Century, the Battle of Embo in the Highlands pitched fighters loyal to the Earl of Sutherland against a Danish force.

The earl is said to have sealed victory when he felled the invaders' leader with the severed leg of a horse.

Pregnant wives

Among unusual names for conflicts include July 1544's Blar na Leinne, Gaelic for Battle of the Shirt.

Also known as Battle of the Shirts, it marked a violent escalation in a dispute over the leadership of Clanranald, one of the most powerful branches of Clan Donald.

About 300 Frasers and Macintoshes led by 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.

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

Because of the warm weather, the fighters are said to have only worn long shirts under their chain-mail and armour.

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 Leine.

Image caption A cairn marks the spot where a clan chief is said to have been killed by a warrior fairy

One of the strangest accounts of warfare must be August 1598's Blar Thraigh Ghruinneirt - the Battle of Gruinart.

Normally the mention of fairies conjures up images of elfin-like little people who decorate spider webs with dew drops, or reward a child for a lost tooth.

But the fairy that appeared at Gruinart was more likely to be found knocking teeth out than collecting them.

The battle was the last significant clan conflict fought on Islay. It pitted Sir Lachlan Mor MacLean, the 14th Chief of Duart, against his nephew Sir James MacDonald of Islay.

Legend tells of Dubh Sith - the Black Fairy - arriving from the nearby island of Jura just before the battle began and offering his services as an archer to MacLean.

The chieftain insulted the fairy and sent him away.

The enraged Dubh Sith then joined MacDonald's side and went on to succeed in shooting and killing MacLean. The spot where he is said to have died is marked by a cairn today.

MacDonald went on to win the battle. It was later recalled in a poem which last year was sung by a Gaelic choir.

A fairytale is also attached to the MacLeods of Dunvegan Castle on Skye.

Unfurling the Fairy Flag, a gift from a fairy maiden, is said to have turned the tide of a battle in the clan's favour.

In reality, the fabric is thought to have been made in the Middle East and to have been a relic of the Crusades.

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