The Battle of the Clans – Perth 1396

Local social historian Gary Knight, in his first blog for the Perth City website, shares with us the dramatic Battle of the Clans.

The clans in the highlands of Scotland were an unruly lot. They were constantly feuding with their neighbours and regularly raiding into the low fertile lands of Moray, Perthshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire, and Stirlingshire. The king’s laws meant very little to this warlike, tribal society. In 1396, things were so bad between Clan Chattan and Clan Kay, who were forever raiding each other’s lands, stealing livestock, and burning down houses, that King Robert III sent an army north to deal with the problem. The commander of this army knew it was likely that when he marched into the mountains, his forces were in danger of being ambushed by the men of Chattan or Kay – or perhaps both clans would unite. The outcome could be the massacre of the royal army.

So, he came up with a plan and sent messengers to speak to the two warring clans with a proposal. This was a chance to sort out the problem in one day, sparing countless lives. The commander of the king’s army suggested that the two clans each send thirty men to Perth for a fight to the death on the city’s North Inch. The clan chiefs agreed and when the king heard of this plan, he was so delighted, he decided he and his court would come to Perth to watch the spectacle.

A large brightly coloured pavilion was put up for the royal party and benches were laid out for the people of Perth to sit on. The crowd waited expectedly in the warm summer sun as the skirl of the bagpipes drew closer and closer. Then dozens of kilted warriors took up position on the inch in front of the king’s pavilion. As the two clans lined up, a referee counted the men on both sides, but a problem was found. Although Clan Kay had thirty men, Clan Chattan had only twenty-nine. They must have miscounted before they left or lost a man on the way to Perth. Royal heralds walked amongst the crowd holding up a gold coin for anyone who would take up arms and fight for Clan Chattan. The city population murmured amongst themselves and fidgeted as the king, looking on like a Roman Caesar in the Colosseum, waited patiently. Just as it seemed no one would take up the offer of gold and Clan Chattan would have to forfeit the contest, a voice boomed from the benches: “I Sir Herald will take that coin and fight for Clan Chattan!”

The voice belonged to the city blacksmith, a giant of a man, strong and powerful. His name was Henry, better known as Hal o’ the Wynd. Hal was given a sword and took up his place amongst the Chattan clansmen.

The king gave the signal to start and arrows were fired between the two sides. Then the men, screaming their clan slogans in Gaelic, charged into the affray. The sunlight danced on sword and axe blades as they cut through the air, slicing into flesh and bone. The green grass became crimson red and sticky from the flow of blood as the screams of the wounded echoed around the inch. The referee called a halt to the battle and the two sides parted. Sweating, panting men, soaked in blood, gulped at the water given to them and used it to wash blood from slippery hands. They likely used their few minutes of rest to glance around, looking for friends or kinsmen, counting how many were still alive compared to the enemy. Wounds were quickly patched up with strips of torn cloth before the signal to fight came again.

The Chattan’s and Kay’s got stuck into each other once more. As the two sides slogged it out, it became clear that Clan Chattan were gaining the upper hand and in the end, all but one of Clan Kay perished. The sole surviving Kay jumped into the River Tay and swam to safety. Hal o’ the Wynd was said to have fought bravely. He was permitted to keep the gold coin and earned his place in Scottish history.

* Some accounts say the Battle of the Clans was fought between Clan Chattan and Clan Cameron.

Gary Knight started his journey as a storyteller and tour guide nearly twenty years ago, specialising in dark Stories from Scotland’s history with his own company, ‘History and Horror Tours’. He has many alter-egos from different periods of history, from Grave robber to Jacobite Officer and can often be found playing the roll of Perth’s executioner, Sandy Dow, up and down the country at
historical events (with wife, Lynne, playing the hapless victim).

His varied repertoire includes working on events with Mercat Tours Edinburgh, Traquair House, Historic Scotland, Ghost Events Scotland, Scone Palace, Jedburgh Castle Jail, Blair Castle, Gleneagles Hotel and the Crieff Hydro Hotel. He can also be credited with starting ‘The Haunted Castle Tour’, the first official storytelling tour
round Castle Menzies, near Aberfeldy. The tours ran for 5yrs and were extremely popular, creating a great amount of revenue and publicity, partly through various appearances on radio and television! Gary is currently creating his first blog and has just finished writing his first book, ‘Not So Fair a City, dark stories from Perth’s past’, which will be printed by Perth based publisher, Tippermuir Books, this summer.

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