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The Battle of "the Bloody Pits"



After the battle of “Aberlemno” in 1004 the defeated Danes who were able to regain their ships, sailed north with the intention of reaching Caithness, which they had occupied for more than a century. Because of the weather conditions a decision was made to anchor in Gamrie Bay to await a fair wind to take them home. When it became obvious the gales showed no sign of abating, they decided to put a raiding party ashore to try and get supplies as their food was getting scarce. At first all went well. A raiding party of about 600 men was landed on the “Braid Sands” and succeeded in penetrating some distance into the country, rounding up cattle and other farm animals and driving them down to the shore. As they re-entered the Den of Afforsk they see before them the grey, but not unfriendly sea, the waiting ships and safety. Alas it was not to be! As they moved out onto the East Side of Mhor Head they saw through the morning mist an awesome sight on top of the hill to their right! Under the command of Mermane, Mormaer of Buchan, a large Scottish army had taken up position on Castle Hill, the hill overlooking the beach where they intended to re embark. To get to their ships the Danes would have to pass under the very noses of this army, who would rain down arrows, stones and other missiles from the heights above. Soldiers getting on and off ships are always at their most vulnerable.

Abandoning their original intention of dropping down onto the sandy shore, the Northmen moved out along Mhor Head to a position where the Church was later to be built to take stock of their predicament. From there they were at a safe distance from the Scots, but was still in a position to drop down to the beach if the chance arose. The best hope for the Danes would be if they could entice the Scots down from their strong position where they could defeat them, the Scots being for the most part untrained levies.

But the Scots were in no hurry. Reinforcements were arriving all the time. The Scots now felt strong enough to take the offensive. But the Scottish commander knew his men were reluctant to attack these fierce Norse warriors. So he decided to appeal for Divine help. He declared to his army that if they defeat the Danes in battle he would build a church to Saint John on the site where the enemy was now encamped.

This declaration did much to raise the fighting spirit of his men. Half the Scottish army moved round the top of Mhor head to a position above the Danes, to cast down stones on the Danish position, while the rest launched a furious attack across the Den of Afforsk. Forced to fight on two fronts the Danes retreated to the top of Mhor Head.

Meanwhile the fleet, having watched their kinsmen retreating, set sail along the coast to the west looking for a place to land more men in an effort to help. At Greenside, near the Mill of Cullen, they proceeded to land reinforcements who hastened to help their fellow countrymen.

Back at the battle, the Danes, having reached the top of the headland, took up a defensive position. As the battle swayed to and fro they were joined by the second Danish force. Launching a fierce attack the joint force drove the Scots back down the hill until they reach their original campsite where they stopped to re-group.

But Scottish numbers were swelling all the time as more and more reinforcements arrived. Once again they took the offensive and drove the Danes back up the hill until they were cornered at the point of Mhor Head. No more help could come from the ships, there being barely enough crew left to sail them home. Cut off and trapped by this much larger Scottish army, the high cliffs behind them making further withdrawal impossible - they were massacred to a man. After the battle the bodies of the dead were thrown into several natural hollows or pits which were conveniently close at hand. Those open graves, over the weeks and months visited by wolves and other scavenging animals who fed on the gruesome contents, were aptly named “Bloody Pits”, the name by which they are still known.

The divine promise was duly kept and a small church was built on the site of the Danish camp. Three Danish chiefs were discovered on the field of battle and their sculls were cut off and built into the wall giving the church the name “The Church Of The Sculls”.


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