Scots Sangs Fur Schools

Traditional and new Scots songs for use in Scottish schools

THE BATTLE OF HARLAW

In 1411 Lord Donald of the Isles and his army marched across the North-East of Scotland. Two miles north-west of Inverurie the Highlanders met a Lowland army. The battle was inconclusive, but the Highlanders withdrew.

The detail given in this ballad does not accord with historical accounts, since it suggests that the Lowland army won. The result of the fighting was a draw, though the invading Highlanders then withdrew.

But the build up of tension to the ferocious fight, then the sad outcome, are carried well forward by the jaunty tune.


As I cam by the Garioch land

And doon by Netherha'

There were fifty thoosan Hielanmen

A-marchin tae Harlaw.

Chorus:

Singin didee-i-o,

Sing fal la do,

Sing didee-i-o-i-ay.


“It's did ye come fae the Hielans, man,

An did ye come a' the wey,

An did ye see MacDonald an his men

As they marched frae Skye?”

“It's I come fae the Hielans, man,

An I come a' the wey -

An I saw MacDonald an his men

As they marched frae Skye.”


“It's wis ye near and near enough,

Did ye their number see?

Come tell to me, John Hielanman,

What might their number be?”

“For I was near and near enough

An I their number saw:

There were fifty thoosan Hielanmen

A-marchin tae Harlaw.”


For they went on an furder on

An doon an by Balquhain:

It's there I met Sir James the Rose

Wi him Sir John the Graham.

"If that be's true", said Sir James the Rose,

"We'll no come muckle speed.

We will call upon wer merry men

And we'll turn wer horses' heids."


"Oh nay, oh nay", said Sir John the Graham,

"Sic things we maunna dee:

For the gallant Grahams were never bate

An' we'll try fit they can dee."

For they went on an furder on

An doon an by Harlaw:

They fell full close on ilkae side,

Sic strikes ye never saw.


They fell full close on ilkae side,

Sic strikes ye never saw -

For ilkae sword gied clash for clash

At the battle o Harlaw.

The Highlandmen wi their lang swords

They laid on us fu sair;

They drove back wer merry men

Three acres breadth an mair.


Lord Forbes to his brother did say

"O brither, dinna ye see?

They beat us back on every side,

And we'll be forced to flee."

"O nay, O nay, my brother dear,

O nay, that maunna be.

For ye'll tak your guid sword in your hand

And ye'll gang in wi me."


For the two brothers brave

Gaed in amangst the thrang;

They swope doon the Hielanmen

Wi swords both sharp an lang.

The first strike Lord Forbes gied

The brave MacDonald reeled,

The second strike Lord Forbes gied

The brave MacDonald fell.


What a cry among the Hielanmen

When they seed their leader fa,

They lifted him an buried him

A lang mile frae Harlaw.

Additional final verse that Jeannie Robertson usually sang:

If anybody ask o ye

For them that’s gaed awa,

Ye can tell them plain and very plain,

“They’re sleepin at Harlaw"


This dramatic ballad is sung by Jeannie Robertson.


This ballad is much more modern, but we do not know when it was made. There was an older ballad about the battle, it was one of the songs listed in the Complaynt of Scotland in 1549.

Sir Walter Scott wrote eleven verses of a ballad about Harlaw, saying it was sung by Old Elspeth, a character in his book The Antiquary. His song begins well.

Now haud your tongue, baith wife and carle

And listen, great and sma

And I will sing of Glenallan's Earl

That fought on the red Harlaw