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Issue 33 - The first Highland charge

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Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007


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The first Highland charge

This issue, James Irvine Robertson looks at the bloody history that surrounds Sir David Lindsay, 1st Earl of Crawford, and the battle at Glasclune

April 23, 1390, the Feast of St George, was a fine sunny day.

The windows of the houses lining old London Bridge were packed with spectators. Pennants and multicoloured awnings fluttered in the gentle breeze and a grandstand, ‘a summer castle,’ had been erected for King Richard and the ladies of his court.

Lord Welles had challenged any Scotsman to knightly combat, and Sir David Lindsay of Glenesk, under safe conduct and with 30 mounted followers, arrived to pick up the gauntlet. Their passage of arms was the highlight of the day’s entertainment. Their chargers thundered towards each other; lances crashed into shields; Lord Welles was unhorsed and the duel continued with daggers until Sir David lifted his armoured opponent by the point of his dagger and hurled him, once again, to the ground. Sir David then raised his defeated adversary and led him to Queen Anne.

The King presented the Scotsman with a silver cup and he spent three months being feted at the English court. He returned home to Glenesk in Angus and ‘in thankfulness for his victory he founded a chantry, of five priests, or vicars choral, within Our Lady Kirk at Dundee.’ Robert, son of Duncan of Atholl, disputed the right of Sir David to sole ownership the lands of Glenesk. Robert’s brother-in-law was the late Sir Alexander Lindsay, David’s father, and their respective wives were co-heiresses to these estates; Robert did not receive his full share, he thought. Early the following year, 1391, Sir David set up a meeting to sort out the difficulty, but Robert’s people did not turn up. Lindsay was a parfait gentle knight, his armour shiny, his court French of the highest standard. Robert was not. He was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander whose stronghold lay amid the wild hills of Atholl.

As well as his own kindred he had the support of Duncan who had built Garth Castle. He was one of the most thuggish of the 40-odd illegitimate sons of Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch. Instead of a conference to sort out the differences with Sir David, Duncan suggested a raid.

Sir David sent an emissary into Atholl to find out why the meeting had failed, but he never returned.

Thomas, Patrick and Gibbon were Robert’s younger brothers. Along with Duncan Stewart, they led 300 men, armed with claymores and targets, across the whiskery moors into the peaceful glens of Angus and attacked without warning – killing, stealing cattle, plundering grain stores. Columns of smoke from burning cottages and barns marked their passing.

Any feeble resistance was brushed aside.

The Sheriff of Angus, Sir Walter Ogilvy of Auchterhouse, was a little to the south.

When word of the attack reached him, he summoned the local gentry. Sir David Lindsay was in Dundee but soon joined them. They gathered together 60 horsemen, the flower of Lowland chivalry.

These men were the Abrams or Challenger tanks of their day who could be expected to scythe through and scatter the lightly-armed Highlanders. The forces met at Glasclune, near Blairgowrie, where the ruins of an ancient castle still stand.

With their pipes playing, the Highlanders watched the armoured warhorses and their mail-clad riders approach, unsheathe their lances and manoeuvre for their thundering advance.

Before the knights were properly lined up, the Highlanders threw aside their plaids and rushed at them, swarming inside the reach of their lances, hacking at horses and riders with their claymores. The Highland charge would confound conventional warfare for another 350 years. On this, its first test, it proved devastating.

‘The Sheriff was slain, with his half brother, Leighton, Lairdof Ulishaven; and there fell also the Laird of Ochterlony, and the lairds of Cairncross, Guthrie and Forfar. Sir Patrick Gray was seriously wounded; so was Sir David Lindsay, who more narrowly escaped with his life. Strongly mounted and fully armed, he galloped hither and thither through the press, dealing death with every thrust of his lance; till at length, when he had transfixed one of the Highlanders, and borne him to the ground, to which the long spear-point protruding through his back pinned him, the wounded savage, in the last paroxysm of fury, writhed himself up on the lance, and swinging his claymore round his head, struck Sir David a terrible blow on the leg, cutting through the stirrup leather, and through the steel boot to the bone.’ Having delivered this stroke, the desperate swordsman sank slowly down and expired with the lance in his body. Sir David’s limb bled profusely, and he would have been slain outright had not some friends, espying his perilous condition, seized his bridle, and forcibly led him out of the fray. With his retreat, the murderous contest closed – the few surviving horsemen riding off with all speed, and the victorious sons of Duncan left in possession of the field of battle.’ And all the booty.

The Government was weak; the King, Robert III, had never fully recovered from the kick of a horse.

But Duncan, son of the Wolf, and a few of his henchmen were captured, brought before Sir James Crawford, the Justiciary of Scotland, and executed.

The Athollmen were not so easily winkled out of their hills. Their leaders were the children of Duncan of Atholl – “Dunchad” in Gaelic – and the authorities described them as the ‘Clan Donachie’ the first time the word ‘clan’ was officially used to describe a group of Highlanders.

Sir David gathered his forces for a properly planned reprisal into Atholl to destroy these marauding cutthroats. The Lowlanders’ approach was observed from every mountaintop, giving plenty of time for the Highlanders to gather their allies and kinsfolk.

The Lindsays were met at the watershed at the top of Strathardle, a few miles north east of modern Pitlochry. Another desperate running battle ensued. Once again the nimble Highlanders showed they could match and beat Lowland mail and cavalry and Sir David and his men were driven back leaving many dead.

In 1392, Parliament, using the only available weapon, passed an Act of Forfeiture against the leaders of the Duncansons. But it had no effect; and Sir David never ventured upon a third trial of strength with foes that had proved themselves so formidable. But he held on to the lands of Glenesk – and became the first Earl of Crawford and Admiral of Scotland.