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Reid Harlaw

Did ye ever hear any stories about the Battle o Harlaw, Jeannie?
Yes, the story that I was told when I was a little girl was that the Highland men would have won at th’ battle of Harlaw had they stayed put, and fought on.
But they lost heart when they saw their leader fa’, MacDonald.
Aye. And was there great slaughter in the battle?
Yes, they say that the Highland men, their blood was running for days after the Battle of Harlaw on the roads, like water.

How many people these days have heard of the battle of Harlaw? It was so traumatic and bloody that people remembered it for generations afterwards in Scotland as ‘Reid Harlaw’. The conversation above, so full of a vivid recollection of the slaughter, didn’t happen far away and long ago. It happened in 1953, when the folklorist, poet and singer Hamish Henderson travelled to Aberdeen to record the singer Jeannie Robertson. The song she sang for him about the battle was a version of Child Ballad 163A.

As a piece of history, it’s understandably partisan. The song records the heroic feats of two brothers who halt the advance of fifty thousand Highland men by killing their leader, the MacDonald. Of course there weren’t really fifty thousand highlanders at the battle, and Dómhnall Íle, their leader, was nowhere near when it took place in 1411. Yet Child 163A is a complex song, with mixed themes of ambivalence towards the almost numberless Highlanders, delight in the noblemen’s violent accomplishments, and a clear sense of the battle’s tragic consequences:

On Monanday, at mornin,
The battle it began,
On Saturday, at gloamin,
Ye’d scarce kent wha had wan.

An sic a weary buryin
I’m sure ye never saw
As wis the Sunday after that,
On the muirs aneath Harlaw.

Gin ony body speer at you
For them ye took awa,
Ye may tell their wives and bairnies
They’re sleepin at Harlaw.

Comparison with Jeannie Robertson’s version shows that the song has grown out along many different axes. Some versions like to emphasise the political causes of the battle in the dispute between Dómhnall, the Duke of Albany and the Earl of Mar. Some, like Jeannie’s, take a barely-concealed delight in the violence, and others, like the Child version, express a regret and uncertainty at the carnage. The versions orbit one another, merging and colliding to form new matrices of theme and expression.

This process somehow managed to sustain itself across five hundred years. Indeed, the Battle of Harlaw ballad is only one strand in a Harlaw tradition that encompasses Gaelic pipe and harp tunes, as well as brosnachadh, formal poetic incitements to battle. We could interpret this longevity in a number of ways: we could say that the wounds of Harlaw cut very deep. This might be true. But we could also say that the longevity of the tradition shows that it became a way of talking about the divisions between Highland and Lowland. It was a way of returning to and expressing enduring problems that found their ways into ordinary lives.

Harlaw, for Jeannie Robertson, was the subject of her own impressively present art. Writing about such divisive histories is always fraught with the danger that you might lose sight of poetry’s all-important now, but for me Jeannie’s song refutes these claims. Whether ancient or modern, these divisions are often emotional and painful, but it is better to feel that hurt than to let it work upon you in silence. Silence is oppressive, and our own silences allow us to oppress ourselves – something our own imperial apologists seem to have forgotten. By breaking that silence as poets, we transform factual accounts into something more difficult and emotional. We make our emotional wounds memorable in the sounds of our verse precisely because poetry is what we have created to be our remembrancer. But we also make our sounds because we wish others to hear our songs, renewing them through changing and adapting them. As with the songs and stories of Harlaw, we write histories to participate in traditions that will eventually reconcile us with each other.

Posted 8 years ago

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