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Scotland Magazine Issue 16
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Battlefields and beauty spots
David Gordan highlights some of Scotland's most famous battle sites
If there is one thing we can say for sure about Scotland’s history it is that it has been one of the most turbulent and violent in the world.
Inter clan strife as well as struggles against a long line of invaders has resulted in the land being littered with battlefield sites.
Many of these are now well preserved and have visitor centres where you can find out about the epic struggles that took place there. Others are memorable for their solitude or simple memorials, whilst some are lost forever as their exact site is veiled by the mists of time.
It is by no accident that four of the battlefield sites we have looked at are situated in or near the Borders, as this was the bloodiest of all Scotland’s historical areas. Not only did Scots fight the English but also the great families fought here against both English and Scottish as it suited their fortunes.
Scottish battles have varied in size, with hundreds to thousands taking part, and they have been spread out all over the land from Loch Long, where a Viking army was defeated, to the Isle of Lewis where the violent conflicts against the Morrisons took place.
Writing this article has not been easy as it has been not so much a question of what to put in – Culloden and Bannnockburn are obvious candidates – but rather what to leave out. Battles such as Falkirk, Pinkie, Stirling Bridge, Largs, Harlaw and Dunbar all left their mark on Scotland’s development.
Visting the sites of these battles can be a moving experience but it is also one of learning and appreciating that the events of the past are just as important today as they were then.
Further information can be obtained from http://www.visitscotland.com or there is a special website for North American readers on http://www.ToScotland.com. Have a look too at the many more battles listed on websites such as http://www.rampantscotland.com and http://www.gaelicscottish.com.
The oldest recorded battle that we know about, fought in AD84.
The precise spot where the Caledonian leader, Calgacus, met the Roman legions is not known but it was probably in north-east Scotland in what is now Aberdeenshire. It is though there were some 30,000 Caledonii (hence Caledonia) who were totally defeated by the disciplined Roman legions in what has become the furthest north set piece battle. Some 1300 years later, an error led to the name becoming “Grampian” which is the name now given to the Cairngorm Mountains, east and south of the river Spey.
Getting there: Well actually you can’t, as the battle site is unknown. The Cairngorms however are Scotland’s Alps and have tremendous scenery, walking, skiing and wildlife viewing opportunities. The best bases to explore them from are places such as Braemar, Grantown-on Spey and Aberdeen, the ‘Athens of the North’ with its granite built buildings twinkling in the sun.
An English army, led by Edward II, marching to relieve Stirling Castle, were met by King Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, near Stirling in 1314. The heavily armoured English army was soundly defeated whilst the Scottish casualties were relatively light. Bannockburn is particularly noted for the use of skilful cavalry control in the battle, something very rare in a medieval engagement.
Bannockburn was the worst defeat ever suffered by an English army, they had taken the field with 23,000 men against 10,000 but were routed and harried all the way back to the Northumberland border. King Edward II escaped back to England ahead of his men.
Getting there: On the Glasgow road just outside Stirling, the site can also be accessed from the M80 and M9 via the A872. The National Trust of Scotland has a very informative heritage centre at the Bannockburn site and some pleasant walks.
Near the centre is the Borestone site that by tradition was Bruce’s command post before the battle; it is marked by an impressive equestrian statue of Bruce. Stirling is the nearest place to stay. William Wallace’s sword is huge and is a must see.
At Flodden in 1513 one of the most disastrous battles in Scottish history took place.
James IV advanced into England with an army said to number 30,000. After some early successes, a number of Northumberland castles fell to the Scottish cannon. However an English army, led by the Earl of Surrey, cut off the Scottish army’s retreat and met the Scots on Flodden Field in Northumberland. After a bloody battle, in which King James fell, the English commander estimated that 10,000 Scots had been killed.
Getting there: The Flodden battlefield site has simple stone memorial and a board depicting the plan of the battle site, which is still virtually unaltered today. It is reached by travelling south out of Coldstream on the A697 where it is sign-posted some six miles along the road.
Coldstream is the nearest town where you can find accommodation and is famous itself for the home of the Coldstream Guards.
The town’s park has a stone presented by the regiment overlooking the spot where General Monk crossed the Tweed to restore Charles II to the throne.
THE BATTLE OF RULLION GREEN
This battle was fought in 1666 as a result of King Charles II attempting to impose his religious ideas onto the Church of Scotland, replacing any clergy who would not co-operate. The new ministers however were not popular and in November 1666 a rebellion started in Galloway but spread throughout the south-west. As the Covenanters advanced towards Edinburgh they were pursued by Sir Thomas Dalyell who caught up with around 1,000 of them in the Pentland Hills. The rebels made a brave stand but were overwhelmed. Some met their fate on the gallows but many others were transported abroad.
Getting there: The battle took place near Flotterstone in the Pentland Hills on the A702 trunk road just south of the Edinburgh City bypass, the Martyrs’ Memorial to those who died in the battle can be seen by a decent walk from the Flotterstone information centre. It’s wild country though and adequate clothing is recommended.
The nearest town for accommodation is Penecuick but the site can be easily reached by a short drive from Edinburgh city centre.
On the 27th July 1689, during the first Jacobite uprising against the granting of the throne to William of Orange as King of both Scotland & England instead of the Stuarts, the Battle of Killiecrankie took place just north of Pitlochry.
General Hugh Mackay attempted to move a column of 4,000 government troops through the Pass of Killiecrankie in order to occupy Blair Castle. Viscount Dundee (John Graham of Claverhouse) took up his position with his 2,500 Jacobite Highlanders occupying the high ground of the pass. After several hours of stand-off Graham’s Highlanders charged down the steep slopes crashing, broadsword in hand, into the government troops who were swept away.
Casualties were huge on both sides including Dundee who had led his troops personally and was killed in the charge.
Getting there: Three miles to the North of Pitlochry on the A9 the Pass of Killiecrankie offers a splendid walk beside the River Garry through a densely wooded gorge with abundant wildlife. A visitor centre provides information on the area’s natural history, as well as the battle (see contact panel for details).
After raising his standard at Glenfinnan on 19th August 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stewart marched south to Edinburgh, reaching there by 14th September. The Hanoverian army of 2,500 men under Sir John Cope gathered near the hamlet of Prestonpans to the east of the city.
He expected an attack from the west, but the Jacobite army circled around to the east taking Cope by surprise. Despite their lack of artillery and inferior weapons, the Jacobites quickly overran the government troops, killing 500 of them and capturing another 1,500, with their own losses numbering less than a tenth of that number.
Getting there: Located about half a mile east of the centre of Prestonpans the battlefield is marked today by a pyramid-shaped mound, formed of the waste from local coal-mining activities. This is a short but steep walk that is rewarded by superb views of the Firth of Forth.
On the 16th April 1745 the final battle of the Jacobite Uprising took place on Culloden Moor.
The Duke of Cumberland, bringing to an end the ambitions of the ‘Young Pretender’ to recover the throne for the Stewart dynasty, decisively defeated the army of Prince Charles Edward Stewart, consisting mainly of Highlanders. More than 1,000 Highlanders were killed, 500 taken prisoner.
Getting there: B9006, five miles east of Inverness. Turf and stone dykes that played a crucial part in the battle have been reconstructed on their original site, and a small flock of Hebridean sheep is grazing here as they did in 1746, as part of the Trust’s long-term project to remove gorse and other thick bushes and so restore the field to its condition at the time of the battle. The visitor’s centre has a permanent Jacobite exhibition and there are displays and recreations taking place during the summer.
National Trust for Scotland Heritage Centre
Tel: +44 (0)1786 812664
Pentland Hills Ranger Service
Tel: +44 (0)131 445 3383
Pass of Killiecrankie Visitor Centre
Tel: +44 (0)1796 473233
Tel: +44 (0)1463 790607