The Fair Maid of Perth

The name Fair City, a nickname of Perth, has its origins in an iconic battle which followed a very strange series of events in and around the city of Perth. This was long before the well known poem Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott, which was based on events at the time around the battle. In order to get to know the work, we need to know about the battle behind it.

The Fair Arrangement

Known as both the Battle of the Clans and more commonly the Battle of the Inch, this was the famous battle in question that took place in Perth in 1396, at the now North Inch Park. This would be where Highland duo the Chattan Confederation and Clan Cameron (Clan Kay officially) came to solve their long running differences. Inadvertently created the cities much loved nickname in the process.

Much like the other clan wars in the Scottish highlands at these times, the two rival clans had been fighting for land. Their feud had lasted for nearly two hundred years, and over those years each clan began to involve ally clans as the matters took a complex twist, and spread throughout much of the Highlands. The battle would take place between the Clan Kay & Chattan Confederation.

Chattan Confederation. The Chattan Confederation was initially a traditional Clan of the Chattan family, though as the family spread across the Highlands, over time they separated into various different clans. Though they would reunite as one of the first clan confederations. It was effectively a clan union- a collection of clans (a super-clan), with Clan Mackintosh of Inverness possibly there most notable members, though union members Clan MacPherson are direct descendants of the original Chattans. The group were said to be represented by Clan Mackenzie in this particular battle, although like upcoming opponents the Kays the 30 fighters were most likely selected from various clans. If it was Clan Mackenzie then they fight under Clan Mackenzie- they wouldn’t fight under a another (traditional) clans name- though the Union name, an old family name, would be suitable. The Chattan Confederation was very influential in the increasingly popular clan unions, or confederations, of the time.

Touch not the cat but a glove.

Chattan Confederation Motto

Clan Cameron/Kay. The mystery of opponents ‘Clan Kay’ is still debated today. Its clear though its the Clan Cameron. Clan Cameron had held long running disputes with the Chattan Confederation over stolen lands in the Highlands. However they did have allies too, and given they fought in this battle under the name Clan Kay, it is likely that they called upon them. Of course if your enemy is picking fighters from a variety of clans they will choose the most suitable and best fighters for the occasion, thus given them a clear advantage (in a 30v30 battle the Cameron’s may have had to call on some youth to make up the numbers). So it seems the Cameron’s attempted to combat this Union advantage by rounding up more experienced fighters from other clans, and thus didn’t fight under the Cameron name.

Let Us Unite.

(Aonaibh Ri Cheile)

Clan Cameron Motto


The Fair Battle

The battle was organised and witnessed by King Robert III himself- and would one in which he would long be remembered for. The King had become concerned about the growing amount of clashes between these many different clans in this one single dispute, with the King fearing the feud could end up breaking into an all out Highland war. The Royal one had failed in an attempt to bring several clan chiefs together to resolve the matter in a peaceful way, and was unsure about what clan to support in any royal intervention- which would have been difficult to negotiate anyway. So the Battle of the Inch was setup effectively where the King would decide who was right- by who was victorious in the battle. This is considered a bizarre event, as it was not common for these disputes to be resolved in this kind of Roman-like manner.

A 30v30 battle was nevertheless arranged to take place at the park in Perth, and it was to be set out as a fight to the death. Following the Roman Catholic Mass in the town centre on the morning of 26th September 1396, the two opponents made their way through the town centre streets with their swords and bows- and clan bagpipers marching alongside. The battlefield had been set by the King, with three barriers being inserted and the River Tay completing the ring as the forth barrier. A royal stand was installed for the King and his entourage.

The battle though, almost never took place. As the two clans made their final preparations at the battlefield, the Chattan Confederation realised that they were one man short and refused to fight. Word on the street has it that the final fighter had spent the night with one of the towns fair lassies, and he had thought better of a scrap in the park. However, up stepped a blacksmith by the name of Henry Smith. Known by the nickname Hal o’the Wynd, he was said to be struggling financially and had offered to step in for a great reward. He had little experience of fighting but the circumstances gave the confederation little choice. and Smith was given a weapon, armour, a few promises of gold, and sent in.

The two would meet at the makeshift ring little after noon. After the traditional stand off and exchanges of abuse and weapon waving, the trumpet of Robert III signalled the beginning of the battle as the two clans ensued with the fight arms waving and mouths spitting fury- they charged before spectacularly colliding. It was a bloody bloody battle. As the moans and groans became louder, and the battle raged on longer, it is said that many of the spectators had gone before the end.

With 11 men still standing at the end, it could be said that The Chattans confederation won fairly comfortably. Only one of the Clan Kay fighters were left at this point– and he ran for it. Bolting, before swimming across the Tay, the fleeing and humbled fighter would be the only Cameron/Kay survivor. There is a rumour that the runner was hanged upon his return to Clan Kay base. This departure though, signals the victory for the Chattans.

The battle would never achieve its intended purposes, like many had predicted. The Cameron’s and the Chattans continued their long running disputes for several centuries. The long awaited peace between the two would be brought about only at their deaths- as they would unite for the final Jacobite Uprising, though this would also be their end. The man who stepped in for the Chattans, Henry Smith, lived to gain his promised rewards– half a French crown of gold. He even went on to establish his own Clan within the Chattan Confederation, Clan Smith.

A Chattan man negotiates with Hal o’the Wynd, aka Henry Smith (tank top) (photo courtesy of artuk.org)

The trumpets of the King sounded a charge as 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 twenty 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.
 

The Fair Maid of Perth Extract

The Fair City

Sir Walter Scott wasn’t around when the North Inch battle took place, having not been born until 1771. The capital writer was greatly inspired by old tales of Scottish past, and in particular by the old author Blind Harry (the Wallace). Subsequently Sir Walter began writing a series of novels based around life in the country at the time of Blind Harry, and upon a visit to Perth in the 1770s he had began learning stories of the most famous battle of Perth- the Battle of the North Inch. Subsequently he would release one of his most famous works, a novel- the Fair Maid of Perth.

Henry Smith would feature prominently in the novel, initially acting as a hero vigilante. The Blacksmith made a key intervention during an altercation between Catherine Glover, the Fair Maid of Perth and daughter of Simon Glover the Glovemaker, and the Duke of Rothesay David Stewart- in which the duke, who was the son of the then king Robert III, would attempt to kidnap the young Maid but was halted by blacksmith Henry. Henry Smith would subsequently feature prominently in the novel- due to his real life story in the Battle of the Inch he had become very popular with writers as a hero figure.

A battle with Smith and a young Earl-to-be Conachar, again over the Fair Maid, would lead to the 30 man Battle of the Inch in the poem. The character Conachar was the young Earl in question. It is when he becomes the new chief of ‘Clan Qubele’ (Clan Cameron in real life) that the long running disputes between the earl and Smith reaches crisis point, and a Colosseum-like battle is quickly arranged by Robert III- who smells danger. The story at this point becomes and finishes in similar fashion to the real life events with some slight fictionalised details. The feeling fighter at the end, for example, is named as Conachar in the poem though was an unnamed Chattan in real life.

Eventually, the hero and victorious blacksmith rides off with the Fair Maid into the sunset, with many of their descendants becoming notable in Scottish society in the years to come. Of course this is completely fictional as Catherine Glover, the Fair Maid, is not a real person- not even based on a real person, being entirely made up by Sir Walter Scott. Despite this, the story of the Fair Maid is a well known and popular one in the city, and there is a house in Perth city centre, the Fair Maid’s House, which was claimed to have been lived in by the Maid and her family for centuries.

Henry Smith was nicknamed Hal o’the Wynd by Sir Walter in the poem and its a name that is often referenced to the real Henry Smith today- not a nickname the hero was given in real life however. There is a house named after him in Perth city centre too, the Hal o’the Wynd house. This common tribute to the real Henry Smith by his fictional term is an insulting one and could well be comparable with, say, the Freedom statue of Tom Church- which was planted in the William Wallace Monument carpark just outside of Stirling. The statue depicts Mel Gibson as William Wallace, and was removed in 2008 after surviving 11 years of vandalism.


House of the Fair Maid of Perth, by James Crichton

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