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Issue 42 - 10 Battles that changed Scotland

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Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


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10 Battles that changed Scotland

Mons Graupius, 83AD Of all the early battles and skirmishes amongst the Caledonian tribes and against their common enemy, the Romans, Mons Graupius is credited with having the most importance in establishing Scotland as an independent nation.

You would think this meant that the Romans lost. In fact, Mons Graupius was a Roman victory, thought to have taken place at Bennachie, approximately 17 miles northwest of Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland. The battle was a major stand by the Picts against their invaders and the first decisive battle known to have been fought on Scottish soil.

Calgacus and his Pictish army may have been defeated, but today there is argument about the accuracy of the account by the contemporary Roman historian Tacitus, and the real numbers of Picts to have been killed.

The fact remains that the Romans were in retreat within two years, and within 10 years of the Battle of Mons Graupius they had dropped back to Newcastle in northern England.

Nechtansmere, 685AD Once the Romans had packed up and left, both Scotland and England were fair game for any invading force. After Mons Graupius, the Battle of Nechtansmere was the next big step for Scotland in establishing its identity and securing itself against invaders from the south.

This time it was the Northumbrian Angles who were pressing into Pictish territory. The battle site is thought to be at Dunnichen Moss at Letham in Angus, where the woad-painted Picts used a proven strategy of mock retreat to lead the Northumbrians into a trap, where they were crushed by the Pictish warriors from both sides.

The Picts, led by King Brude (or Bridei) mac Maelchon, routed the Northumbrians and killed their leader, King Ecgfrith, forcing the defeated army to retreat as far south as the Firth of Forth.

They never pushed north again.

Largs, 1263 By the 13th century, Scotland’s Western Isles and Argyll were under the control of Norse invaders. As usual, the Scots were not taking this lying down, and in 1263 the King of Norway dispatched an army to deal with the Scots once and for all.

Astorm forced some of the Norse army to land at Largs, where the united Scots engaged them in battle. The rest of the Norse army then had to land at Largs as well, but it seems they did not have time to arrange a proper battle formation before they were slaughtered by the Scots.

The Battle of Largs was extremely instrumental in the development of Scotland, as the defeated Norwegians soon after departed from the country and widespread allegiance was sworn to the King of Scots.

Stirling Bridge, 1297 Before the Battle of Stirling Bridge, anyone might have thought that the English army was unstoppable. King Edward I of England was relentless in his campaign against Scotland, and his recent victories must have bolstered the expectation of the English forces that they would win, whatever the battleground.

In fact William Wallace, the Scottish resistance leader, was in a perfect position for this fight. The English army had to cross a narrow bridge over the River Forth, only two horses abreast. Wallace and his men waited until over half the English army had crossed over before charging down the causeway and cutting off their escape route.

The Earl of Surrey commanding the English forces soon had the bridge destroyed while the rest of his army fled, leaving those on the other side trapped with the Scots, who showed no mercy.

Bannockburn, 1314 That wily tactician, King Robert Bruce, won a major victory for Scotland at Bannockburn. Having besieged the Englishoccupied Stirling Castle and demanded its surrender, Bruce waited while the English king, Edward II, rushed north.

Bruce chose a good position between two stretches of boggy ground, so that the English had a limited frontline and their higher numbers had little impact. Repeated cavalry charges were all to no avail. As the English tried to flee, the Scots cut them down in the boggy ground adjoining the battle site.

The English still would not recognise Scottish independence for another 14 years, but Robert Bruce will always be remembered for his decisive expulsion of the English, at least for a while.

Flodden Field, 1513 The Battle of Flodden Field was a really low point for the Scots, who were outflanked and decimated by the English army, a little past the border in Northumberland.

King James IV assumed that the English would attack from the south, so placed his heavy guns accordingly, on Flodden Hill. The Earl of Surrey, more by accident than design, marched his forces past the Scottish army’s position in a thick fog, and came around, attacking from the north which forced the Scots to leave their favoured position.

The English had lighter, more powerful guns. As the Scots streamed down the hill, they had to abandon their heavy gunnery to do battle and were destroyed by the artillery of the English, and their use of the 18-foot long pikestaff only hampered them further. What compounded the situation further was that King James and most of the nobility of Scotland died on the battlefield.

This battle had such an impact on Scottish manpower and morale that the King of England faced no real threat from Scotland for nearly three more decades.

Pinkie Cleugh, 1547 Coming out of the infamous and unsuccessful ‘Rough Wooing’, where the English attempted to force marriage between the 10-year-old King Edward VI of England and the five-year old Mary Queen of Scots, the Duke of Somerset, the English commander, organised a major campaign to subdue his opponents.

In comparison to Somerset’s well-trained and organised war machine, the Scottish army led by the Earl of Arran was rather feeble and outdated. Somerset used not only infantry, cavalry and artillery, but also a bombardment from his ships off the coast at Musselburgh.

The Scots had about 36,000 men compared to the English army of 16,000, but their tactics and weapons were no match for the English on this occasion. It was the last major battle between the two kingdoms before they were brought under the reign of a single monarch in 1603.

Glen Coe, 1692 Amassacre more than a battle, the story of Glen Coe has gone down in history as one of the worst and most dishonourable atrocities committed in Scotland. It was not only the fact that an attempt was made to wipe out an entire Highland clan just to make a point, but that the soldiers who did it had already enjoyed traditional Highland hospitality before turning against their hosts.

Captain Robert Campbell had been given strict orders to destroy all of the MacIans, men, women and children. He was actually related by marriage to the MacIan Chief, but had been left in no doubt that any failure on his part would have grim consequences.

Of about 200 people residing in Glen Coe at that time, 38 were slaughtered, perhaps implying that some of Campbell’s men did not have the stomach for the job in hand.

Prestonpans, 1745 In July 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland near Moidart. The English, under the Hanovarian rule of King George II, had little enthusiasm for the return of a Stuart monarchy, but, in Scotland, support for the Jacobite cause to reinstate a Stuart on the throne of Britain was running high.

The Jacobites’ opponent in battle was General Sir John Cope, whose army only numbered about three thousand. They were poorly organised, inexperienced and inadequately trained, so it only took a few minutes for the Jacobite army to break the battle formation of the British government army.

It was a humiliating defeat and a promising victory for the Scottish rebels, who were still in with a chance of securing their own future.

Culloden, 1746 Following the battles of Prestonpans and Falkirk, the Jacobites must have felt optimistic about their chance of success, but it was not to be.

An aborted attempt to launch a surprise attack on the enemy left the Jacobites tired and hungry when the Duke of Cumberland ordered his own men to march into battle on the morning of 16th April 1746. The two armies faced each other on Culloden Moor, close to the highland Capital of Inverness. The British artillery was immediately devastating, so while Prince Charles waited for the British to advance further before commanding his own troops to charge, the British could see the success of their artillery and they just kept on firing. By the time that the order to charge was issued, it was already too late and the Scottish forces were overcome.

Culloden was the last major battle to take place on British soil. In less than an hour the battle was finished, and Scotland’s traditional clan culture gave way to a new era.