THERE is always a problem when dealing with the history of the clans in Scotland. You can say something about a clan, perhaps praising it to the heavens, and members of another clan, usually their former enemies, will condemn you to Hell, and vice versa.

Suggest, for instance, that the Campbells weren’t entirely responsible for the Massacre of Glencoe, as this column did a few weeks ago, and you will probably not be on any MacDonald Christmas card list for a while.

At one time or another, every neighbouring clan in the Highlands appears to have been at war, or at least in plenty of battles with each other, even if some of them were just skirmishes or land or cattle grabs.

At the risk of annoying clans everywhere – especially in the USA, where they take these things very seriously – it can be safely said that the most famous and certainly the most bizarre clan battle of all took place in September 1396.

It was the Battle of the North Inch, or Battle of the Clans or Clan Combat, a mediaeval jousting tournament in all but name, except that this fight on foot featured 60 men trying to hack each other to death, and mostly succeeding.

There is very little that can be said with complete accuracy about the battle. Even a supposed eyewitness, Andrew of Wyntoun, mixed up some of the details in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland. But then he wrote the original story of Macbeth and the witches, so is hardly a reliable correspondent anyway.

Like all the best fights, the names are not fully remembered but the gory details have been recalled with relish for centuries.

It definitely took place, and it was observed at close quarters by the then King Robert III who ordered it to happen, and his son Prince David. We know that for certain because the Exchequer accounts of Robert’s reign show an entry for 1396: “For timber, iron, and making of lists for 60 persons fighting on the inch at Perth, 14 pounds, 2 shillings and 11 pence.”

We are not even sure who the combatants were, and historians and clans have disagreed down the centuries. A lot of the problem was that Sir Walter Scott intervened, and anyone who thinks that the author of Tales of a Grandfather never made things up has another think coming – he most certainly did, but only for the sake of literature.

In The Fair Maid of Perth which, along with Redgauntlet, is one of the best works of Scott’s later career, when he was writing like fury to pay off his creditors, Scott made the Battle of the North Inch the denouement of his novel.

He calls the two clans "Chattan" and "Quhele", which are usually taken to be Chattan and Kay (the MacKays). But why would the Chattans – actually a confederation of clans such as the Macphersons, Davidsons, Mackintoshes and (Highland) Shaws – go to war with distant clan MacKay, who were not their traditional enemy?

Much more likely was the battle being the product of a long-running feud between the Chattan confederacy and clan Cameron. Their lands were contiguous, and the two sides had fought the Battle of Invernahavon a few years beforehand.

The Camerons lost heavily that day, due to the Macphersons changing their mind and joining in at the last minute, but took revenge on Chattan land, cattle and clansmen ever since.

The version which has the Battle of the Clans being between the Davidsons and Macphersons over some slight to Highland pride has some merit, but for the sake of consistency the following much-researched but nevertheless surmised account of the battle will say that it was between the Chattan clans and the Camerons, as they definitely had a history between them.

Their clan fights and many other instances of lawlessness in the Highlands and environs concerned King Robert, whose own younger brother Alexander, the infamous Wolf of Badenoch, had hardly set a good example in burning Elgin Cathedral in June 1390 while supposedly trying to pacify the north of the country.

The King is reported to have sent two of his generals north to sort things out between the warring clans, but they found the situation intractable.

It was from one of those generals, Sir David Lindsay of Glenesk, later the Earl of Crawford, that the idea for the battle probably originated. He was Scotland’s most famous knight, and had participated in tournaments in England and France, both melees and jousts – the former being close-quarter combats, such as the Battle of the North Inch.

Whoever dreamed it up, King Robert duly ordered that 30 men of each clan meet at Perth’s North Inch, there to settle their grievances in a mass trial by combat. The Inches of Perth are not islands as their name suggests, but promontories to the North and South of the main part of the city alongside the River Tay. To this day, North Inch still remains as a public park and has hosted international cricket matches.

A flat and grassy meadow in 1396, it was the ideal place for the battle, not least because Perth was seen as the last bastion of civilisation before the Highlands.

The Royal court came north from Stirling and the 17-year-old Prince David, later the first Duke of Rothesay, became umpire for the day. Though his father had been virtually disabled since being kicked by a horse in 1388, nevertheless David would eventually predecease King Robert, allowing his younger brother to become the first King James.

As the two clans marched through the city then known as St John’s Toun, the good burghers came out to see these fierce warriors, who many thought of as savages.

One Clan Chattan member ducked out at the last minute, claiming sickness, and King Robert suggested that a Cameron stand down to make things even. Not a man of them would slur his honour by doing so and it looked as though the battle might have to be called off.

But up stepped one of the most curious figures in Scottish history, a local blacksmith, Henry Smith, known to posterity as Hal o’ the Wynd.

Either a giant or short and stocky depending on whose account you believe, Hal volunteered to take the missing clan member’s place for the sum of half a French crown, about 7s 6d, and on condition that he would be looked after for life if the Chattans won.

The combatants marched before the King and the spectators, who were ranged on three sides with the River Tay on the other. Each combatant was allowed three arrows, a shield known as a targe, a dirk (knife) and a weapon of choice, either a sword or battleaxe.

There was little doubt about the tactics – the two sides would loose their arrows and then simply charge at each other, as the clans had done since time immemorial and would do so for centuries afterwards.

Let Scott take up the description – it’s as good as any story about what duly happened after the arrows were let loose.

“The trumpets of the King sounded a charge, the bagpipes blew up their screaming and maddening notes, and the combatants, starting forward in regular order, and increasing their pace, till they came to a smart run, met together in the centre of the ground, as a furious land torrent encounters an advancing tide.

“Blood flowed fast, and the groans of those who fell began to mingle with the cries of those who fought. The wild notes of the pipes were still heard above the tumult and stimulated to further exertion the fury of the combatants.

“At once, however, as if by mutual agreement, the instruments sounded a retreat. The two parties disengaged themselves from each other to take breath for a few minutes.

“About 20 of both sides lay on the field, dead or dying; arms and legs lopped off, heads cleft to the chin, slashes deep through the shoulder to the breast, showed at once the fury of the combat, the ghastly character of the weapons used, and the fatal strength of the arms which wielded them.”

Soon after the second charge it was clear who had won. Eventually only 12 men were left alive, 11 on the Chattan side and just one of their opponents, who escaped by swimming across the river and was never seen again.

Hal o’ the Wynd survived almost unhurt, having killed more than his fair share, and he was indeed maintained by the Chattan clans, founding Clan Gow – the Gaelic word for a blacksmith.

King Robert no doubt saw the battle as a way of settling issues as well as diminishing the strength of two warlike clans, but it didn’t work out that way. The Chattan confederacy and the Camerons remained enemies for a very long time, at least until they marched and fell together for the Jacobite cause.

Those of us born south of the Highland line – and thus technically sassenachs, as that word means southerner – can say it was all so long ago and clan relationships mean nothing now.

But if you believe that to be the case you should look up the website of the Clan Chattan Association at, where you will see that the confederacy that fought at North Inch is very much alive 620 years later.