In most of the stories about Malcolm II and the battle against the Danes fought at Mortlach A.D. 1010, Malcolm defeats the Dane army by damming up the water at the Giant’s Chair with raw hides and releasing it on the Danes who are in the fields near Mortlach church. Though, in many of the historic documents found, the story is slightly different.[1] It’s also unthinkable damming up such a strong stream of water with raw hides. A more realistic story is the Danes hearing about the army risen by Malcolm approaching Mortlach meeting on the field near Mortlach church. At first the Danes prevailed by slaying three Scottish thanes – Kenneth of the Isles, Dunbar of Lothian and Graeme of Stratherne. The Scots, panic-struck, retreated past Mortlach church. At this critical moment Malcolm, in despair of assistance, threw himself from his horse and made a vow to found a cathedral church to the same tutelar power or according to another account to enlarge the church by three lengths of the royal spear, provided he should obtain the victory by the saint’s intercession. Malcolm then rose from his knees and fought with enthusiasm slaying Enecus, one of the Danish leaders. Malcolm’s Troops, now animated by confidence in the aid of the saints and having the advantage of ground, turned on their foes with utmost zeal and put them in their turn to flight. The rout of the Danes was complete although they also attempted to rally on an eminence (Tomnamuid) near the old castle of Balvenie. There they lost another general named Magnus or Manus from whom Bal-venie, I.e. Manus’ Town, is said to have taken its name. Olaus, a third Danish leader, escaped to Moray with a few of his followers.[2] 

Malcolm II, King of Scotland by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II (1641-1697), Photo credit by Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

Some error in the account

It is very likely that the stories of two different engagements have been jumbled together and have changed in the passing of time for it may be urged against the supposition that the Danes would have encamped in such an unusual and unsuitable place that even when the approach of an enemy was not apprehended, their ordinary places of encampment were on the tops of hills as the camp of the Conval and many other places clearly show. But a yet stronger argument is found from the fact that it was only when the heroic King was borne reluctantly back by his retreating soldiers that according to historians “he espied the chapel” and the probability therefore is that the engagement began at the hill of Tomnamuid and that the Haugh below the chapel only became the battleground when the retreat of the Scots was checked by the nature of the ground and their drooping courage revived by the oration and vow of the King. The damming of the river with the bulls’ hides must therefore be attributed to some of the many minor engagements that had taken place thereabout in ancient times.

Memorials of the Battle[3]

Besides the graves referred to and other memorials of the fight numbers of pieces of broken weapons and armour have from time to time been found. And only about 300 years ago a massive gold chain was turned up in the glebe which is supposed to have belonged to some of the slaughtered generals. Where it is now is unknown. But the most enduring memorial of the victory is the 24 feet added to the church by the king in fulfilment of his vow and by which we learn that his spear at the battle must have been eight feet long which has ever been religiously marked off in all the renovations the church has undergone. Into which three of the skulls of the enemy were built. The cavities where the Danes’ heads were built into the wall is covered over but the place was for long still pointed out.

[1] Shaw’s History of the Province of Moray Vol.01, 1882, page 136, The Battle at Mortlach with the Danes.

[2] Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, 22 November 1853, Battle of Mortlach.

[3] Elgin Courier – Friday 31 May 1861, Rollicking Rambles II.