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Issue 61 - The Wolf of Badenoch

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012


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The Wolf of Badenoch

James Irvine Robertson looks at the life and times of the Earl of Buchan

Justly or not, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan and son of Robert II, has gone down in history as the villainous Wolf of Badenoch. He fell out in a major way with the Bishop of Moray, largely over control of land, and burnt Elgin Cathedral. In the 14th century clerics were the chroniclers of history and the Wolf’s reputation was blackened for all time.

His eldest son Alexander, likely by his mistress, began his career as a leader of a band of Highland caterans. Posterity’s verdict on him? Many historians agree he did ‘more for the civilisation of Scotland than even the victor of Bannockburn.’ Alexander junior was the eldest of five brothers and all of them appear in the record as being wild and lawless, leaders of gangs of ruffians who terrorised the law abiding folk of northern Scotland. The most notorious exploit of the brothers came in 1392 when they led a band of wild Highlanders on a raid into lowland Angus, looting and burning. A punitive party, the local gentry led by the Sheriff, caught up with them and in the ensuing melee the Highlanders trounced the armoured knights and their men-at-arms.

A decade later Sir Malcolm Drummond died in mysterious circumstances; some folk darkly suspected Alexander of involvement. His widow was Isobel, Countess of Mar, and she was given the title, the lands, and the castle of Kildrummie in her own right. Soon after Alexander and his followers arrived, stormed the castle and carried off the countess, forcing her to sign a charter granting him her lands. All agreed that this was not really acceptable conduct. Alexander was compelled to release Isobel and she revoked the charter. But then Alexander turned up again at Kildrummie and Isobel married him. She gave him her title and lands and this time the charter was confirmed by the king.

He was now the Earl of Mar, the most ancient and honourable of Scottish titles. It was time he became respectable since he had ambitions above those of his father who was content to remain a barbaric Highland potentate. Alexander had won his earldom through charm rather than warfare.

He used it to cultivate his lowland neighbours and the citizens of Aberdeen. He took to the sea and harried English buccaneers who were attacking Scots merchant shipping trading with the continent. He began to build a national reputation.

In 1406, he was invited to England to participate in a jousting tournament with the Earl of Kent. He obtained a safe conduct from the King of England and went south with a train of 70 followers. He was a great social success in London and spent the next couple of years south of the border turning himself into a knight. He worked with the Scots ambassador, the Earl of Crawford, to negotiate the terms of a peace treaty with England.

In 1408 he took himself and his retinue to Paris where his reputation had preceded him. He took service with the Duke of Brabant and distinguished himself in the siege of Liege.

Presumably Isobel was dead since he married the heiress to the estate of Duffel in Brabant, but this was not straightforward. She had a dubious marital record and may still have had a living husband. At any rate she did not accompany him back to Scotland and he had to fight for the lands he acquired through her. ‘He fought with the Hollanders at sea, and gained the victory and a great prize; and at length made peace for a hundred years.’ While he was abroad Mar bought horses from Hungary - great horses, both mares and stallions - and spread their progeny throughout Scotland.

‘Thus was the cuntre, within few yeris efter, fillit ful of gret hors; howbeit afore his time was nocht but small naggis in this realme.’ ‘The roistering leader of ragamuffins, coming home with his foreign experience, became a mighty general and sage statesman.’ The home to which he had returned was almost in a state of anarchy. The king was held prisoner in England, having fled Scotland when he was 12 to escape the threat to his life posed by his uncle, the corrupt and ruthless Regent Albany who was loathed by the rest of the Scots nobility. Then Alexander’s father, the Wolf, died. He had controlled the earldom of Ross through his wife and this now reverted to the crown – which meant to Albany and he earmarked it for his own son. Donald, the Lord of the Isles, thought it should be his and landed the mainland with an army and gathered disaffected Highlanders to his banner.

This is where Mar was said to have rendered his great service to the nation. His father and Albany had been enemies and Mar himself was one of those who finally broke the power of the Albany Stewarts, but he recruited and took on the leadership of the lowland forces and met the invaders at ‘Red’ Harlaw in 1411. Had he lost the resulting battle, Donald and his horde would have moved south unopposed and would have little difficulty in recruiting enemies of Albany and overthrowing the government, leaving the country open to Henry IV. The English king had shown his mettle by seizing the throne and executing his predecessor Richard II. He still held the young King James I. In this scenario Scotland would have lost its independence as surely as if Bruce had lost at Bannockburn a century earlier.

But Mar with some 1500 men, few of whom had experience of warfare, met 10,000. The battle raged all day and most of Mar’s commanders were killed but he fought the islanders to a stalemate.

They withdrew from the battlefield overnight, leaving 900 dead to Mar’s 500.

Alexander Stewart had started his career as a thuggish Highland marauder. He died in old age a loyal subject of James I, Lord High Admiral of Scotland, undisputed ruler of Northern Scotland and guarantor of the security of the lowlands and the state against the barbaric hordes who would continue to threaten the country until 1746. He has been described as ‘One of the greatest commanders that Scotland ever produced.’