Published in Medieval Warfare 6.3. Click here for a pdf of the uncorrected proof.
On 15 July 1544, Hugh Fraser, the third Lord Lovat, marched northwards along the bank of Loch Lochy. The chief of the Frasers was accompanied by his son and heir, Simon, the Master of Lovat, and his nephew, Ranald Gallda, claimant to the title of Captain of Clanranald. They were followed by 400 warriors, drawn from the leading gentlemen and able men of Clan Fraser. This host was about to fight one of the most celebrated battles in Highland history.
Lord Lovat would have been attended by a troop of guardsmen known in Gaelic as luchd-taighe (household men) or more poetically, léine-chneis or –chrios, the chief’s protective ‘shirt next to the skin’. The guardsmen, who traditionally numbered 10, 12 or 16, were sometimes called buannachan (billet men), reflecting the practice of billeting troops on unfortunate tenants. The exactions of some buannachan became infamous. Later MacDonald and MacLeod traditions featured tales of heroic peasants (lowly men who were despised for toiling in the soil and excluded from military service) employing cunning ruses to trap and kill the greedy and bullying buannachan.
According to Martin Martin, a native of Skye who toured the Western Isles of Scotland in the 1690s and recorded the traditional practices of the clans, the ‘young gentlemen called Luchktach (i.e. luchd-taighe), or Guard de Corps, always attended the Chieftain at home and abroad; they were well trained in managing the sword and target, in wrestling, swimming, jumping, dancing, shooting with bows and arrows, and were stout seamen.’ Martin adds that ‘every Chieftain had a bold Armour-Bearer, whose business was always to attend the person of his master night and day to prevent any surprise, and this man was called the galloglass; he had likewise a double portion of meat assigned him at every meal.’
In 1544, the Master of Lovat was accompanied by his own guard of ten men, described as ‘half a score of pretty men… each of his ten men was worth ten men.’ It is likely that Ranald Gallda, styling himself as a chief, had a guard, and that he and his cousin were attended by armour-bearers.
The remainder of the Fraser force was organised into companies of variable size under captains. The captains usually led their own immediate kin and dependents rather than men from other branches of the clan or from allied clans and septs. As the Earl of Argyll (chief of Clan Campbell) explained to a correspondent in 1565, gentlemen captains ‘cannot trust to unknown men so well as their own men.’
When Lord Lovat reached Letterfinlay, he was met by a delegation led by the chiefs of the Grants and MacIntoshes. They warned that John Moidartach, the Captain of Clanranald, was shadowing Lovat’s march on the far side of Lochy Lochy, and that he would attempt to ambush the Frasers at its head. The chiefs offered their own retinues to bolster Lovat’s force and to escort him to his territory by Loch Ness, but Lovat declined. He was confident in the fighting skills of his men: it was well known that Hugh Fraser insisted on an exacting training regime with sword and bow; a later Fraser chronicler remarks that Lovat’s men were ‘a terror to his bad ravaging neighbours.’ Lovat was also swayed by the protest of his kinsman, James Fraser of Foynes. This head-strong man, as he was remembered in Fraser tradition, asserted that Lord Lovat would be considered cowardly if he marched in convoy with the Grants and MacIntoshes. The 400 Frasers, insisted Foynes, were a “party strong enough for all that could contradict them in the road.”
Grant and MacIntosh departed and Lovat continued his march, but the chief now thought it prudent to detach a force of a hundred men to act as a rear guard. If John Moidartach and his allies did attack at the head of the loch, this force would either march to the aid of the chief or keep his line of retreat open. Bean Clerach, a trusted vassal, was assigned the captaincy of the detachment and instructed to keep within sight of the main Fraser force, but he managed to march his men ‘out of sight beyond Drumglach [Druim Glaoidh, the hill overlooking Letterfinlay] most inadvertently, so that he was of no use to the host.’
As the Frasers neared the head of the loch, John Moidartach’s force was sighted marching from the north side of the loch towards Laggan Achadrom. The army consisted of Moidartach’s own MacDonalds of Clanranald, and contingents from the MacDonalds of Keppoch, and the Camerons. The force marched under seven banners, suggesting it was organised into seven companies, and its estimated strength was ‘not under five or six hundred men’.
Despite being outnumbered by perhaps two-to-one, Lord Lovat determined to fight. When the MacDonalds and Camerons were first sighted, the Frasers still had time to retreat by the way they had come, but Lovat instead halted his force in a field at the head of Loch Lochy, held a counsel of war, took mass with his personal chaplain and then refreshed himself before haranguing his clansmen. Lovat reminded the gentlemen of their heroic forbears and emphasised the justice of their cause (the restoration of Ranald Gallda and exacting revenge for Moidartach’s invasion of Fraser lands). The chief stressed how he was related to the gentlemen, that he would fight with them and for them, and he would rather die than endure the shame of retreat.
John of Moidart
John Moidartach doubtless delivered a similar speech to his men, reminding them how in 1540, he had been unjustly imprisoned by the king, stripped of the charters to his lands, and usurped by the despised Ranald Gallda.
Ranald was a MacDonald, being the youngest son of Allan MacRuari of Moidart, the Captain of Clanranald, and his second wife, the daughter of Thomas Fraser, the second Lord Lovat. Ranald was brought up in Lovat’s household and his MacDonald kinsmen bestowed on him the nickname of Gallda, the Stranger.
Allan MacRuari was executed in 1509 and succeeded as chief by his eldest son, Ranald Bane. However, in 1513 he too was executed for some unspecified treason and succeeded in turn by his son, Dougal, but his reign as chief was tyrannical and he was assassinated. Dougal’s young sons were overlooked in the succession and Alexander, the second son of Allan MacRuari, assumed the title of Captain of Clanranald. He then ensured that John Moidartach, his talented, but illegitimate, son, succeeded him before 1530. John consolidated his position as clan chief by establishing himself as a feudal lord. He spent the 1530s acquiring charters for the Clanranald estates, but in 1540 this ambitious chief was imprisoned by King James V.
Lord Lovat seized the opportunity to press the claim of his nephew: John’s charters were revoked and Ranald Gallda, as the surviving son of Allan MacRuari, was granted the estates and installed as Captain of Clanranald. However, the Stranger did not prove a popular leader and, following the death of James V in 1542 and John’s release from prison, he had to retreat back to Fraser country. Reinstalled as Captain by popular consent, John Moidartach proceeded to form a coalition with the MacDonalds of Keppoch and the Camerons. Together they invaded Fraser and Grant lands around Loch Ness. John was interested in more than plunder and intended to occupy the lands, but in summer 1544 the Earl of Huntly, in his role as the Crown’s lieutenant in the north, raised a large army to restore the lands to the Frasers and Grants. The Captain of Clanranald decided on a tactical retreat and withdrew.
The royal army, including the 400-strong Fraser contingent, met with no resistance, reclaimed the evacuated territory and advanced down the Great Glen to Inverlochy. Achieving his objective with such ease, Huntly hastened to return home. Despite the warnings of Grant and MacIntosh about the likelihood of a Clanranald ambush, Lovat wished to proceed directly to his reclaimed lands via the Great Glen, passing by Loch Lochy, rather than take the roundabout route with the royal army via Glen Spean. Lovat marched directly into John Moidartach’s trap.
The Battle of the Shirts
The battle began when the opposing sides came into bowshot. Every Highland warrior was an accomplished archer, his skills honed by continual practice and hunting. According to John Leslie, the Bishop of Ross, whose History of Scotland was completed in 1570, the ‘skirmishing’ started ‘with bows and arrows, which lasted a long time, until their whole shafts was expended on both sides.’ With their supply of missiles exhausted, the clansmen charged to close quarters and ‘fought so cruelly’ with swords.
Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, writing in the 1620s, echoes the Bishop: ‘They first discharged their bows… and their arrows being spent, they fly to their swords.’ A more detailed picture of the fighting is offered by Reverend James Fraser. A keen student of history and traditions of his clan, he started writing his True Genealogy of the Frasers in 1666. In his description of the battle, the reverend skips over the archery duel and moves directly to the ‘hot engagement’ in which Fraser, MacDonald and Cameron warriors ‘fought more like lions than men’.
Reverend Fraser records that the combatants were armed with two-handed swords and Dence (Danish) axes, and some had protective gear of head pieces and coats of mail. The fighting was brutal. The Frasers fought heroically, especially Lord Lovat, the Hard Slayer as the Clanranald warriors called him, and he was the focus of their attack. The Frasers, waiting in vain for Bean Clerach to reinforce them, were pushed back towards the loch, and finally into it, where the combatants grappled and the fighting was so close that axes and swords were dropped and dirks were drawn. The day was so hot that many warriors fought in their shirts, hence the popular name of the battle, Blar na Leine, the Field of the Shirts. However, this description may actually stem from a mistranslation of the Gaelic Blar na Leana, the field of the swampy meadow, which would well describe the location at the head of Loch Lochy.
Lovat’s men were eventually overwhelmed. Lord Lovat and Ranald Gallda were slain. The Master of Lovat was severely wounded. The victors carried him from the battlefield and he was nursed in the house of Cameron of Lochiel, but died three days later.
Later traditions assert that all, or all but four or five, of the 300 Frasers were killed. However, in 1545, correspondence between the representatives of Donald Dubh (in rebellion against the Scottish Crown as claimant to the Lordship of the Isles) and Henry VIII of England, noted that Donald’s ally, ‘the Captain of Clanranald, in his defence, slew the Lord Lovat… with thirteen score of men’.
We have, so far, focused on the Fraser warriors, but gentlemen required servants and baggage carriers. It was typical of the aristocratic annals of the clans to ignore these lowly clansmen, but Bishop Leslie reports that, as well as the 300 Frasers, ‘a great number of commons’ were killed. The number of servants attached to a Highland company is rarely recorded, but in 1664, the Earl of Sutherland sent 120 ‘chosen and able men…with sixty servants to take care of the baggage’ to aid the MacIntoshes in a campaign against the Camerons.
John Moidartach’s force suffered heavy casualties but no MacDonald or Cameron notables were slain. His allies would be hunted down and executed by the Crown, but wily John was untouchable in remote Moidart and he was eventually pardoned. In 1572 he even entered into a bond of friendship with Hugh Fraser, the fifth Lord Lovat and grandson of the Hard Slayer.
John held the Clanranald estates until his eventual death in 1584. He did so not by charter, but by the sword.
Info panel to accompany original artwork
Reverend James Fraser describes Fraser and MacDonald combatants armoured with coats of mail. The habergeon was certainly popular with Highland fighting men, as were jacks and plate armour, but the illustration by Marek Szyszko shows two fighters at Loch Lochy equipped with actouns (the Scots variant of aketon), a padded fabric armour much favoured by Highlanders because it doubled as a weatherproof coat. The actoun could be proofed with wax or pitch and a facing of deer skin might be added for extra protection against cuts. Robert the Bruce’s legislation of 1318 required yeomen to be equipped with bascinets and actouns. Highlanders continued to use this gear for hundreds of years. A 17th century effigy of a MacLean chief on Inch Kenneth shows the deceased in his fighting gear of morion, actoun, sword and targe (the shield covers most of the hilt, but the pommel suggests a Highland-type two-handed sword), and dirk. He even holds a cannon ball in his right hand.
The heads of the warriors in Marek’s illustration are protected by bascinets. This type of helmet, long out of fashion in Lowland Scotland, remained popular in the Highlands into the mid-sixteenth century. The grave slab of Donald MacGillespie, who died after 1541, depicts the Islay gentleman with the usual panoply of bascinet, actoun and long sword. The bascinet was superseded by the morion, but as late as 1678 some Highland fighting men were noted for their use of the bascinet and other archaic armour like mail pisanes and plate limb defences. One observer remarked that such pieces were only known in ‘our old laws’ and had not been used in the Lowlands ‘for several hundreds of years’.
Marek’s illustration vividly demonstrates combat with the two-handed Highland-type sword. This distinctive sword, with its sloping quillons and quatrefoil terminals, appeared in the 1490s and remained the principal weapon of the Highland gentleman until the early seventeenth century. Combat with the two-handed sword was fast and fluid. Relatively light and well-balanced (weights of surviving examples range from 1.8 to 2.6 kg), it was sometimes used in conjunction with a small round shield (targe or buckler), as at the battle of Glen Livet in 1594.
The sources relating to the battle of Loch Lochy are conveniently collected in an Inventory of Historic Battlefields document, available for download here.
D. Gregory’s The History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland (2nd ed., Glasgow 1881), remains the best starting point for untangling the complex history of the Highlands. On Highland militarism, see M. MacGregor, ‘Warfare in Gaelic Scotland in the Later Middle Ages’ in J.A. Crang, et al. (eds), A Military History of Scotland (Edinburgh 2012), 209-231. For arms and armour, see D.H. Caldwell, ‘Having the Right Kit: West Highlanders Fighting in Ireland’ in S. Duffy (ed.), The World of the Galloglass (Dublin 2007), 144-168. On two-handed Highland-type swords, see ‘Halflang and Tua-Handit’.