THERE is a great television documentary series to be made about the history of Scotland’s clans but Neil Oliver’s recent The Rise of the Clans on the BBC was not it. For there are so many strands to clan history in Scotland that it would need much more than just a three-part series, not least because there were so many feuds across the entire country for centuries.

One of them, between the Lindsays and the Ogilvies in the 15th century, proved to be very violent and bloody indeed, with two full-scale battles fought in the space of less than a decade, the first of them centred on one of Scotland’s most sacred places.

Next year will see the 700th anniversary of the creation of the most important document in our nation’s history, namely the Declaration of Independence signed by the aristocracy of Scotland at Arbroath Abbey on April 6, 1320.

There will be many celebrations to mark the anniversary and this column will examine it in detail nearer the time of the septennial. In the meantime, it is worth remembering what it said. Translated from the Latin, these are the Declaration’s most famous words: “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

Expect these words to feature in all the celebrations next year.

The Declaration was most probably drafted by the monks of the Abbey under the guidance of the then Abbot of Arbroath, Bernard, who served Robert the Bruce as Chancellor of Scotland. Bernard was the 14th Abbot of Arbroath and, like his predecessors, he was a monk of the Tironensian Benedictine order.

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Founded and endowed by King William the Lion in 1178, it is often quietly forgotten that Arbroath Abbey was dedicated to a great Englishman, St Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. The Abbey was one of the first to take the name of the martyred saint, who was assassinated in 1170 and canonised in 1173, as it is very likely that King William knew him personally.

The Abbey soon became one of the richest religious foundations in the land, and William the Lion was buried before its high altar in 1214, a full 19 years before the Abbey was completed and consecrated.

The Abbey had an illustrious role to play in Scotland for almost 400 years until the Reformation swept away the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the monks joined the new Kirk, but that did not prevent great damage being done to the magnificent red sandstone buildings with some of the stonework finding its way into the walls of houses around Arbroath.

It was not always a place of prayer and peace, and became, quite literally, the battleground over which the Lindsay and Ogilvie families fought. For in 1445 or 1446, the grounds of Arbroath Abbey were the setting for a massive clan battle between the two families and their supporters. With 600 killed, it is listed as one of the most bloody clan conflicts of them all.

It is important to note the context in which the bloody feud took place. As the American author Robert Nock, who wrote a novel set against the background of the feud, explained: “Most historians, if they mention it at all, dismiss it as an example of feudal violence between clans that was all too prevalent in those days. However, the Battle of Arbroath was much more than a simple feud between clans. It was actually part of the ongoing power struggle between the powerful house of Clan Douglas and the Scottish kingdom which was controlled by the royal House of Stuart.”

That was indeed the case. The assassination of King James I on February 23, 1437, brought his six-year-old son, James II, to the throne at the age of only six. As happened so often with Scottish kings who were crowned while still in their minority, major disputes broke out between Scotland’s most powerful families who were intent on ruling in the young king’s place.

The Douglas family made first claim, with Archibald Douglas, the 5th Earl, taking command for two years before he died of a fever. Sir William Crichton, Sir Alexander Livingston and Earl James Douglas from the Avondale branch of the family formed a triumvirate to control the country. They arranged the death on trumped-up charges of the 16-year-old William, Earl of Douglas, and his younger brother David, 12. Both were beheaded despite James II pleading for their lives in an incident still known as the Black Dinner.

Even though only 16, Earl William had already married Janet Lindsay, daughter of the Earl of Crawford, a dynastic arrangement which tied the two families together. The Lindsays were the most powerful family in what is now Angus, and it was no surprise when the Master of Crawford, the son of David, the 3rd Earl of Crawford, was appointed by the Abbot of Arbroath to be their “bailie of regality” or chief justiciar, responsible for maintaining the law all around the Abbey and incidentally gaining control of tax collection.

That appointment proved to be a huge error, because Alexander Lindsay turned out to be a fierce and headstrong man who loved a fight, so much so that he earned the nickname the Tiger Earl. He was also known as Earl Beardie due to his hairiness, and he was soon showing the monks of Arbroath who was in charge – they described him as “uneasy to convent”.

The Lindsays and their neighbours the Ogilvies had been in a constant state of feuding since a series of unpleasant incidents in the previous century. The Abbot, one Walter Paniter or Panter, made a colossal error when the monks decided they could not thole the Tiger Earl any more, and appointed Sir Alexander Ogilvie, the 2nd Baron of Inverquharity in Lindsay’s place. He was a giant of a man but much more peaceable than Lindsay.

The feud escalated and in the early days of 1446 – some date it to 1445, yet again proof of the maddening absence of church records destroyed at the Reformation – the Lindsays and their supporters marched 1000 strong to the Abbey where on January 23 or 24, the Tiger Earl challenged the Ogilvie contingent in the Abbey to combat. The Ogilvies had made “bonds” with other clans, such as the Oliphants, Gordons, Forbes and Setons, who all sent men to fight, while the Lindsays had help from the Hamiltons of Clydesdale, sent to them by the Earl of Douglas.

At this point David, the 3rd Earl, tried to intervene – he was, after all, married to an Ogilvy. One of the Hamilton contingent recorded what happened: “The Erle of Crawfourd, being then at Dundee, posted in all haste to Aberbrothock (old name of Arbroath), and came there just as both parties [were] ready to begin the fight ... designing by calmness to take up the quarrel [he] went too forwardly to demand a parlie with Alexander Ogilbie for his sons. But before he could either be known or heard, he was encountered by a commone soulder, who thrust him in the mouth with a speir which lair him upon the ground.”

There was no avoiding battle now. Led by the Tiger Earl, the Lindsays and Hamiltons charged the Ogilvies and their allies. The Ogilvie lines broke and they started to flee, pursued through the town to a place called Loan of the Leys some three miles away. Here, the Ogilvies turned to make a last stand and they fought bravely until the battle ended in a joint withdrawal in which both sides retreated with their vast numbers of wounded.

As one historian noted: “It was calculated that 500 of the Ogilvies perished and at least 100 of the Lindsays. The bodies of the gentlefolk were interred with great solemnity in the Abbey Church: the humbler people were buried in the cemetery without.”

Another writer noted in the 1950s: “The graves of the dead of this battle have been from time to time found below the surface of the ground on both sides of the Brothock. The skulls and other bones which were recently disinterred in the course of excavations made at Orchard Street were probably the mutilated remains of some of these combatants.”

Alexander Ogilvie was among the dead, but after the battle and the death of his father, Alexander Lindsay, now the 4th Earl of Crawford, showed no mercy to his enemies. A chronicler of the period wrote: For ‘a gret tyme [he] held the Ogilbys at great subjecciounn, and tuke thair gudis, and destroyit their placis’.

Crawford allied himself even more closely with the Douglas family, so much so that he rose up to be a leading force in the so-called Douglas Rebellion against King James II. It followed the king killing the 8th Earl of Douglas, leader of the Black Douglas faction of the family, stabbing him through the heart at Stirling Castle.

The Lindsays had more or less ruined the Ogilvie power base but now, in support of their Douglas allies, the Tiger Earl decided to take on a rather more powerful clan chief, the Earl of Huntly, whose clan – later named the Gordons – were strong supporters of King James and were also allied to the Ogilvies. The latter clan joined what remained of their forces at Huntly and battle between the two sides became inevitable. This time we know exactly when and where it took place. About two miles north of Brechin at 11am on Ascension Day, May 18, 1452, Crawford’s rebellious Lindsay army met the royal forces under the Earl of Huntly.

There are previous few details of the actual fighting, but the Tiger Earl led from the front as usual. It was an exhausting to-and-fro struggle and at one point it looked as though Crawford would prevail, However, tradition has it that one of his supporters switched to join Huntly, and this proved decisive. Crawford’s army was badly defeated and he barely escaped with his life. His brother was not so lucky, being among nearly 60 “gentlemen at arms” slain on the field. Huntly lost two sons but only a handful of his officers. None of the senior Ogilvie men died.

The Tiger now turned his tail. With the Black Douglas cause collapsing, and under sentence of death and his family to suffer forfeiture of his estates for his rebellion, he sought an audience with James II and pleaded for mercy for his family. The historian JB Burke, quoting from chronicles of the time, says that Crawford “found himself compelled, for the sake of his house and followers, to sue for mercy.”

His pleading was masterful: “For himself, as he boldly tells the king, he was willing to underlie any fate, “either to be hangit [hanged], to be riven with wild beasts, to be drowned, or cassen [cast] over ane craig;”

“It was not even the sufferings of his dear wife, nor the weeping of his bairns [children], nor the lamentable sobbings of his friends that moved him, so much “as the decay and falling of our House, and lamentable chance and fortune of the noblemen of Angus, with the rest of my adherents, whose lives, lands, and guids [goods] stands in danger for my cause and surname of Lindsay. Have compassion on the noblemen, men that concordit to my faction, that they, at the least, be not spoilzied (spoiled) of their lives and heritages for my offence.”

King James was moved to mercy by the earl’s eloquence , and Crawford duly became a good subject. He even stopped fighting with the Ogilvies.

The Tiger Earl lasted only to 1454, however, dying of a fever.