On a minor road just two miles north-west of the centre of Inverurie stands the very imposing monument erected in 1911 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Harlaw, fought on heathland to the north of the monument on 24 July 1411.
The Battle of Harlaw was the culmination of steadily growing conflict about who had legitimate claim to the enormously powerful Earldom of Ross, which controlled a vast swathe of northern Scotland extending from the Isle of Skye to Inverness. On one side of the argument stood Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany, a man whose cunning and ruthlessness enabled him to wield great power during the reign of three Scottish kings and act as if he were king for long periods; who murdered his nephew, the rightful heir to the throne; and who very nearly subverted the succession in favour of his own son. He was not a man to cross lightly.
On the other side of the argument stood Donald of Islay, also known as Donald, 2nd Lord of the Isles. As Lord of the Isles, Donald already controlled large parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and gaining control of the lands of the Earldom of Ross, to which he laid claim through marriage, would allow him to extend his influence much further to the north and into more fertile areas in the north-east.
In Summer 1411 Donald of Islay gathered an army including MacIntoshes, Macleans, Macleods, Camerons and Chattans as well as MacDonalds at Ardtornish Castle near Lochaline. He then sailed around the north coast of Scotland, landing his forces at Dingwall where he defeated an army of 3,000 MacKays before moving on to capture Inverness. He had, in effect, taken the Earldom of Ross by force.
In an effort to draw Robert, Duke of Albany into open conflict, Donald, by now with an army of highlanders numbering some 10,000 men, marched east, into Moray, before turning towards Aberdeen. At Harlaw, Donald's army came face to face with a rapidly assembled force of 2,000 men, largely mounted knights, under the command of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, a nephew by adoption of Robert, Duke of Albany.
Few details remain of the conflict that followed, though the battle was protracted and bloody, often being known as "Red Harlaw" as a result. By nightfall no clear victor had emerged, but overnight Donald withdrew towards Inverness, leaving the Earl of Mar controlling the battlefield next morning. By some estimates the highlanders had lost around 1,000 men, compared with the proportionately much higher losses of 600 suffered by the Earl of Mar's army. Among the lowland knights killed at Harlaw was one Gilbert de Greenlaw, whose grave slab can be seen at Kinkell Church, just to the south of Inverurie.
It remains open to debate who, if anyone, "won" the Battle of Harlaw itself. The person who came out best of all was, characteristically, not actually present on the day. After Donald withdrew his forces, Robert, Duke of Albany, was able to proclaim the outcome as a triumph for the forces of civilisation over the barbarious highland hordes. He then led an army to retake Ross unopposed. In 1415, he awarded the Earldom of Ross to his son, John Stewart, the 2nd Earl of Buchan.
The Battle of Harlaw is often seen very much as it was portrayed by the Duke of Albany, as the final failed grab for power by the Lords of the Isles, and the start of the hegemony of lowland Scotland. The truth is a little more subtle. Donald's mother was a daughter of Robert II, and it is equally valid to think of the background to the battle as just one of many dimensions of the struggle for power within the Stewart family. But for those who were simply at Harlaw that day at the command of their feudal superiors, or because they wanted to protect their land and property, and particularly for the many who like Gilbert de Greenlaw died as a result, this is a distinction that matters little.