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PUBLICATION DATE: September 2, 2021
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Bludie Harlaw: Realities, Myths, Ballads
By (author) Ian A. Olson
In the summer of 1411, the ageing Donald of Isla, Lord of the Isles, invaded mainland Scotland with a huge, battle-hardened army, only to be fought to a bloody standstill on the plateau of Harlaw, fifteen miles from Aberdeen, a town he had threatened to sack. One of the greatest battles in Scottish history, described by hardened mediaeval chroniclers as ‘atrocious’, ‘Reid Harlaw’ left some 3,000 dead and wounded. Dismissed by Scott as a ‘Celt v. Saxon’ power struggle, it has faded from historical memory, other than in the north-east of Scotland.Written records in Latin, Scots, Gaelic and English are presented in their original form, and with transcriptions and translations. Two major ballads are analysed, one contemporary, and one fabricated over 350 years later – which is still sung. Lowland views dominate, because of the loss and destruction of Highland records, notably those of the Lords of the Isles themselves. The histories themselves fall into two groups – those written at or around the time, and those composed some 300 years later.These later accounts form the basis of most modern descriptions of the battle, but they tend to be romantic and highly imaginative, creating noble order where chaos once existed.
Reviews of Bludie Harlaw: Realities, Myths, Ballads
'Olson sets out to detonate the myths, scrape away crusty layers of propaganda and misinformation that have obscured the truth. The result is an accomplished addition to the literature of Scotland's history, which illuminates with startling clarity some of the stoorier corners of what has passed for the study of the Battle of Harlaw' — Jim Crumley * Scots Magazine (Book of the Month) * 'I am sure this is the most comprehensive treatment of the subject ever carried out' — Professor Edward Cowan 'This is a superb comparative study of the last of the truly medieval texts … a work which explores the history and thus the very purpose of a work such as a ballad' — David Moses, Ampleforth College * Innes Review * 'An outstanding authority on the Battle of Harlaw together with its ballads and music, is Dr Ian Olson who has just completed Bludie Harlaw, which must be the most comprehensive record of the event' — James C A Burnett of Leys, Crathes Castle 'In Bludie Harlaw … Ian A. Olson has essentially assembled virtually every surviving written (or transcribed oral) source on that conflict, and then analysed and presented them in such a fashion that we are able to decide for ourselves … a definitive chronicle' — Roger Hutchinson * West Highland Free Press *
Ian A. Olson
Ian Olson, educated at Robert Gordon’s College and Aberdeen University’s Medical School, followed a largely medical science and teaching career in Aberdeen, Bristol, Nottingham and Kuwait. He had a parallel career in Scottish ethnology, especially the traditional and historical ballads, and traditional singing, with both academic and popular publications. Awarded an honorary degree by Aberdeen University in 2006 for his medical and ethnological career, he has now retired from medicine and is currently Honorary Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen.