The Sons of Raghnall: Highlands Rising

As King of Scots, my first act was naturally to centralise; the Dukes didn’t like that more than half, and Moray rose in revolt, and half the Highlands with him. I have borrowed the ballad of Harlaw from our own history, and report its words accurately, including the weird “fetch the coat of mail” interlude. I have no idea what this is about in the OTL version, but it fits perfectly into my saga of the sons of Raghnall.

I’m writing this around 1200 in game time, and “historical” references to the fourteenth century are accurate only to our own history – in the game timeline, the Isles were united by 1300, although not by me. The linguistic comments, likewise, are from OTL; who knows what the languages would do in this alternate timeline.

Introduction: Child 163

Oh, cam ye frae the Hielands, man,
an’ cam ye a’ the wey?
Saw ye MacDonald an’ his men,
as they cam in frae Skye?

(Chorus): Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

So begins one of the innumerable versions of Child 163, “The Battle of Harlaw”, omitting for impatient modern audiences the introduction of the narrator and his meeting with “Sir James the Rose, and wi’ him Sir John the Graeme” (or Gryme, or Graham, depending on how much the writer feels like Anglicising the name) and instead beginning with their interrogation of this useful informant. From the historian’s perspective, this is just as well; for neither of these knights is to be found in any other source touching the battle in 1171. A “Jimmie, called the Rose” appears in court records of the border marches in the fourteenth century, but no mention is made of him being a knight; nor would a border reiver frequently arraigned for stealing English cattle – admittedly an offense which the marcher lords of the time viewed with some forbearance – be likely to lead the armies of the Kings of Scots against their rebellious vassals. The Grahams, likewise, while prominent in the wars with England, are not noted for mixing it up with Hielan’ clans. (Riding-names from south of the border are quite another matter.) We may conjecture, then, that the version of the song collected by Child has been mixed up with another ballad, telling the story of some now-forgotten Border raid. The army that broke the Highland Rising was led, in feudal fashion, by King Ranald, his brother and heir-apparent Morgan taking the right flank, as is attested by the carvings on their respective tombs in Edinburgh Castle. It is, however, not completely implausible that they might have stopped to interrogate random wayfarers as to the whereabouts and strength of their enemies. The scouting of feudal hosts was a notoriously slipshod affair. Even if we do not take the dialogue as word-for-word accurate, then, it may give us a reasonable feel for the mood of the King’s army, unsure of whether they’ll be fighting today or living tomorrow, but knowing that a formidable host of Hielan’ savages is somewhere in the vicinity and spoiling for a fight.

MacDonald on the March

Aye, Ah cam’ in thro’ the Dunkeld lands,
an’ doon by Netherha’,
an’ Ah saw McDonald an’ his men,
a-marchin’ on Harlaw.

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

An cam ye near, an’ near enough?
Did ye their number see?
Come tell tae me, John Hielantman,
what mecht their number be?

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

Aye, Ah cam near, an’ near enough,
and Ah their number saw:
There was fifty thousand Hielantmen
a-marching on Harlaw!

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

There was, of course, nothing of the kind. Even as late as the twentieth century, a state with powers of registration and compulsion unimaginable to a medieval lord might have found it difficult to raise fifty thousand fighting men from the territories of the Dukes of Moray. In 1171, the entire feudal host of Scotland was nowhere near fifty thousand, and if it had been, it could not have been gathered in one place without starving. Nonetheless, it is clear that Fergus, Duke of Moray and Laird MacDonald, had raised a considerable army, perhaps as many as eight thousand men if we allow him mercenary gallowglasses from Ireland as well as the fighting tails of his vassals. If we assume instead that he relied only on the muster of his clans and septs, he would have had perhaps five thousand; in addition to MacDonald, men of Sutherland, Mackenzie, Ross, Mackay, and Sinclair are known to have fought at Harlaw, and we may conjecture that other northern clans were also present. The very heavy casualties of “Red Harlaw”, described by all commentators as an unusually bloody battle in an age not noted for well-organised fighting retreats, no doubt account for the very circumspect behaviour of the obstreperous northern lairds in the generation following the Rising.

Approach March

Fifty thousand, then, should not be taken literally; but it does appear that the King’s army was somewhat outnumbered – perhaps as much as three to two – and we may well believe the account of some dismay in their council following the traveller’s report:

“Gin that be true,” says James the Rose,
“We’ll come nae muckle speed.
We’ll cry upon our merry men
An’ turn oor horses heid.”

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

“Oh na, na na”, says John the Graeme,
“This thing it canna be.
The gallant Graemes were never beat
We’ll try what we can dee.”

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

Note the pun on the dialect word ‘dee’, here meaning both ‘die’ and ‘do’. It is not clear whether the Graham’s objection is to the intelligence they’ve just received, or to Sir James’s plan of retreat; he could plausibly be saying either “MacDonald cannot possibly have fifty thousand men” or “We cannot possibly retreat”. If the latter, it may be worth noting that this is not necessarily the pig-headed honour of a nobleman too stubborn to adapt his strategy to the situation; medieval armies were not noted for their agility in maneuver. If MacDonald was at all close, James may simply be saying that a retreat without fighting could all too easily become a rout, leading to the certain destruction of the army without even a chance at victory. In such circumstances, offering battle even though outnumbered may be the best of bad options.

Hielant Charge

At this point, it appears that the narrator is conscripted, or turns around to go with the King’s army; or perhaps we are to take it that he is no chance-met stranger but rather a scout. At any rate he ceases to report the conversation about the size of McDonald’s army, and instead turns to the battle itself:

As I cam on and further on
And doon an’ by Harlaw,
They fell fu’ close on ilka side.
Sic strokes ye never saw.

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

They fell fu’ close on ilka side,
Sic strokes ye never saw,
For ilka sword gaed clash for clash
At the battle o’ Harlaw.

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

The Hielantmen wi’ their lang swords
They laid on us fu’ sair
And they drove backwards all oor men
Three acres’ breidth and mair.

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

Here we can detect at least a faint hint of the actual course of the battle – and note that the narrator has taken sides; they are now ‘oor’ men. King Ranald appears to have deployed his men in a classic medieval array, with three battles each consisting of a core of heavy pike – schiltrons, the traditional hedgehog formation of Lowlands armies – with supporting archers in the gaps between the schiltrons. The central battle was echeloned somewhat forward of the other two, and took the brunt of the Highland charge, as Ranald had no doubt intended. MacDonald, relying on the sheer shock power of thousands of screaming clansmen, attempted no maneuvers – in any case of doubtful utility with his undrilled and unarticulated troops – but simply launched a death-or-glory light-infantry charge. His men appear to have fought naked or nearly so, throwing aside their wool coverings before beginning their attack; if so, Harlaw is nearly the last gasp of a practice first attested more than a millennium earlier, when the Gauls (a confederation of Celtic tribes) who sacked Rome fought naked, relying on the favour of the gods for protection. MacDonald’s men were at least nominally Christian, and while they may have invoked the Lord of Hosts, or any number of local saints, for protection, it is likely that they would have fought in armour if they could afford it; the same is probably true of the Gauls. The Highlands, while rich in fighting men, have always been poor in everything else; there is, we may note, a reason why the Celtic cultures that were found all over France in 390 BCE were reduced to a thin seaboard fringe by 1171. Nonetheless, their charge was just as formidable as it had been when Quintus Sulpicius’s six legions fled the Allia; Ranald’s central schiltron was driven back in some disarray, and seems to have been on the verge of disintegration.


Brave Ranald tae his brother did say,
“Noo, brother, dinnae ye see?
They’ll driv us back on ilka side;
we’ll be forced tae flee!”

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

“Oh na, na, na, ma brother dear!
This thing it canna be.
Ye’ll tak’ yer guid sword in yer haund
an’ ye’ll gang in wi’ me!”

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

The sudden switch to “Brave Ranald” is another indication of a lacuna or a mixup somewhere in Child’s version. We hear no more of Sir James or John the Graeme, and the repetition of “This thing it canna be” would seem to indicate that the same speaker is intended. It is interesting to observe that the counsel of action is put in the mouth of the King’s brother, while the King himself seems despairing. There is no obvious textual reason for this, “Brave Morgan” scanning just as well as “Brave Ranald”; why then does not the King get the glory of advocating the attack? It is for precisely such reasons that oral traditions are a valuable supplement to the written record: The little hints of character and courage that gleam through the centuries give us what no amount of multiply-attested dry facts can.

Political Interlude

Some versions of the ballad insert a rather unbelievable interlude in the battle at this point, in which Ranald sends a servant to fetch his armour:

Brave Ranald drew his men aside,
Said, “Tak your rest a while,
Until I to Drumminnor send,
To fess my coat o’ mail.”

The servant he did ride,
An his horse it did na fail,
For in twa hours an a quarter
He brocht the coat o’ mail.

This is clearly not credible, and is omitted from most modern performances of the ballad. Rather than try to explain it in terms of the tactics of the day, it seems preferable to look to politics. King Ranald’s near-mythical ancestor, Ragnvald I, is said to have fought at Stamford Bridge, where the Norwegian army was (according to saga) routed through being surprised and caught without its armour. Surely the episode of fetching the mail coat is some reference to this ancestral event; but what its purpose may be we cannot tell at this distance in time. Satire, commentary, editorial? Perhaps it is meant to comment on the strategic unpreparedness of the King; it was the disaster of the Northumbrian War that had sufficiently weakened his grasp on the throne – more accurately, his immediately available forces – that MacDonald thought he had an opportunity to establish the lairds’ right to settle their own disputes. If Ranald had been able to call up the army that marched to defeat at Newcastle, MacDonald would, presumably, have come in meekly when he was called upon to “answer for his breaches of the King’s peace”; or, if meekness is unbelievable in so stiff-necked a laird, he would at any rate have kept to his mountain fastnesses and defied the king to come fetch him out, rather than offer battle on his opponent’s home ground. As it was, he instead sent word that the breach of the king’s peace was an offense not found in any ancient law of Scotland, which was true, and that he was therefore innocent of wrongdoing, which was at least arguable; and that “as for me, the King his peace shall not protect those guilty of doing harm to me and mine; and if it likes not the King that it be so, let him look to the peace of his own lands!” This haughty challenge – in more modern language, “I’ll burn and pillage what I damn well like, and if you don’t approve you can get an army together to stop me” – seems to have caught Ranald by surprise, hence his lack of numbers at Harlaw. Nonetheless he had an ace up his sleeve.


Then back to back the brothers twa
Gaed in among the thrang
And they hewed doon the Hielantmen
Wi’ swords baith sharp and lang.

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

The first ae stroke that Ranald struck,
He gart MacDonald reel
And the neist ae stroke that Ranald struck,
The great MacDonald fell.

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

This should not be taken literally. Ranald’s trick was not in his own personal fighting skills, but in having a small cavalry reserve – nothing that would have decided a battle on the Continent, nor even in the English civil wars, but deadly against a Highland clan muster of undrilled infantry armed with swords. Ranald does appear to have personally led the charge into the Highlanders’ right flank; if it is unlikely that he personally exchanged blows with MacDonald, the fact remains that it was this intervention which won the battle for the Lowlanders, and established the King’s Peace as a fact of law, if not always of life, in Scotland. The private armies remained, as did the feuds; and in truth the King’s writ did not necessarily reach very far into the mountains. But the time of open warfare between the lairds, with formal declarations, set-piece battles, ransomed captives, and all the other paraphernalia of feudal conflict, was over.


Such an achievement was not bought cheaply:

Sic a kyvie amang the Hielantmen
when they seed their leader fa’;
they buried him in Leggett’s Den,
a lang mile frae Harlaw.

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

Some rade, some ran and some did gang
They were o’ sma’ record
But Ranald and his merry men
They slew them a’ the road.

Wi’ a derrum-a-dru; an’ a dree, an’ a drum; wi’ a derrum-a-dru-drum-drey!

If ony man should speer at ye
Of them that’s gaed awa’
Tell ’em this, and tell ’em plain:
They’re sleepin’ at Harlaw.

MacDonald in fact survived the wounds that “gart him reel”, and was eventually ransomed by his relatives, unlike most of his army. The men “of small record”, of course, were not worth anything to a captor, and were consequently slaughtered out of hand; it may also be that Ranald explicitly ordered a massacre as a means of terrorising the Highlands into submission. If so, it seems to have worked. MacDonald, at any rate, troubled his reign no further, whether for lack of men or because his wounds bothered him; if, as still another version of the ballad claims, “the sword ran in an ell” – that is, the length from a man’s elbow to the tip of his finger – then we can well understand that his enthusiasm for fighting may have been rather dampened.

Linguistic Commentary

The Lallans dialect in which the ballad is most often sung, like all Scots dialects short of actual Gaelic, is a variant of English in which much of the old Norse influence has been retained, Norman French is much less prominent, and some older pronunciations survive. For example ‘mecht’ has the Germanic ‘ch’ sound of Bach where modern English ‘might’ has dropped the diphthong and shifted the vowel differently; this pattern also occurs, among other places, in ‘nicht’ versus ‘night’, ‘brocht’ versus ‘brought’, and ‘dochter’ versus ‘daughter’.

As a further demonstration, we can note that the soft ‘ch’ sound is difficult to produce, in fact it is the last to be mastered by both Norwegian and German children, who often elide it into ‘sh’. Consequently it has disappeared, along with grammatical cases and consistency in spelling, from English, a pidgin of at least three languages; wherever it appears in Scots we can see the long Norse, as opposed to Norman French, history of the northern part of the Isles. This is perhaps at its clearest in the word ‘church’ (two soft consonants), which is recognisably cognate (granting a vowel change) in German ‘Kirche’ (second consonant is soft), Norwegian ‘kirke’ (first ‘k’ is soft, like the German ‘ch’), and Scots ‘kirk’ (both consonants hard).

With this in mind it becomes rewarding to look for the cognates, at least for those who enjoy such intellectual games. For example, ‘mair’ for ‘more’ is pronounced exactly the same as its Norwegian cognate of the same meaning, ‘mer’. Likewise with ‘haund’ (English ‘hand’) and Norwegian ‘hånd’. ‘Neist’ for English ‘next’ is, again, clearly related to Norwegian ‘neste’, and more closely so than either one is related to German ‘Nächste’. ‘Speer’ is not a weapon, but a verb meaning ‘to ask’, related to Norwegian ‘spørre’. Finally ‘ilka’ is related to Norwegian ‘hvilken’, meaning ‘which’; here the cognates seem to have taken different paths of meaning. We can thus give the translation “drive us back on every-which side” for Ranald’s “driv us back on ilka side”.


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