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Issue 74 - 10 Best Battlefields

Scotland Magazine Issue 74
April 2014


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10 Best Battlefields

Where clashes that defined a nation took place

Battle of Skirmish Hill
Melrose Scottish Borders
Also known as the Battle of Melrose, the Battle of Skirmish Hill took place near the River Tweed, west of Melrose, on the 29 July 1526. It was fought between Walter Scott of Buccleuch, supported by the Elliot’s, and Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, aided by the Kerr’s and Maxwell’s. Douglas had failed to release King James V from his guardianship, and the young king eventually sent a letter to Buccleuch pleading with him to reclaim his liberty. It is thought that Douglas, with around 400 men and the king, were traveling to Edinburgh when Buccleuch’s army of 600 intercepted them at the village of Darnwick, having descended from the Eildon Hills. The ensuing battle was close fought until another 80 Kerr’s arrived, at which point the conflict swung in the favour of Buccleuch. However it did result in 80 of his men and over 100 of Douglas' being killed. Today only a small information board gives any clue to the battle having taken place here.

The Battle of Largs
Standing conspicuously on the edge of the Firth of Clyde, at the attractive coastal town of Largs, is The Pencil. This local landmark was built in 1912 and commemorates the Battle of Largs that took place here in 1263. It was the most famous battle in the long running Scottish Norwegian War and ended in a victory for the Scots, led by Alexander of Dundonald, against King Haakon’s Norwegian forces. It was also instrumental in bringing to an end the Viking rule along Scotland’s west coast. The build up to the battle had been going on since the 12th century when the Scots had defeated the Norwegian’s at Renfrew but ultimately Argyll and the Isles came under control of the Norse. But with incessant Scots pressure King Haakon set sail from Bergen with 200 ships and was joined by the King of Man and his army. On arrival at Largs negotiations were opened but when a storm blew up it forced Haco to land on the rugged coastline where armed combat took place, ending with the Norwegian’s suffering great losses and a Scots victory. The Pencil is a popular marker, and one that provides a focal point to this historic clash.

The Battle of Langside
One of the most important battles in Scottish history, the Battle of Langside, took place in and around what today is Queen’s Park, on Glasgow’s south side, on the 13 May 1568. It was the final defeat of Mary, Queen of Scots who had been forced to abdicate the throne in favour of the infant James VI. Eleven days after having escaped from Lochleven Castle, Mary assembled 6,000 soldiers in a desperate attempt to hold on to the crown. Marching towards Dumbarton Castle Mary and her troops were blocked by 4,000 men, led by the Earl of Moray who had recently been appointed Regent of Scotland in Mary’s absence. Having retired to higher ground Mary witnessed the defeat of her army in less than one hour. Mary fled to England where she was eventually executed in 1587. A fine monument stands on Battlefield Road having been erected in 1887.

The Battle of Bothwell Bridge
South Lanarkshire
In 1679, with the Restoration Regime of King Charles II reign in full swing the opposing Covenanters had seen a minor victory at the Battle of Drumclog (near Strathaven) after hard line suppression of the Covenanter’s open-air meetings (known as conventicles) by Government forces. Around 4,000 Covenanters then set up camp on what is now Hamilton Racecourse but with the subsequent arrival of 5,000 government troops, under the Duke of Monmouth, it was only a matter of time before things came to a head. And it did. On the 22 June 1679 the Battle of Bothwell Bridge began. A small faction of Covenanter troops held onto Bothwell Bridge and, although they put up stiff resistance for two hours, the disparity of numbers between the two sides meant the Covenanters were soon overwhelmed and around 400 were killed on the battlefield. Another 1,200 were taken prisoner and marched to Edinburgh, where they were held prisoner at Greyfriars Kirk. It is worth wandering along the Clyde Walkway, past the Covenanting Monument and Bothwell Bridge and trying to picture the bloodshed that took place here.

The Battle of Prestonpans
East Lothian
The Battle of Prestonpans, a few miles from Edinburgh, was the first significant conflict of the Jacobite Risings of 1745, one that would end in disaster only a few months later at Culloden. However the Battle of Prestonpans saw a
decisive victory over the Hanovarian Government troops for the Jacobite’s led by Charles Edward Stuart. Having landed in Scotland in July 1745, and raising the standard near Glenfinnan in the August, the Jacobites quickly became a major threat to government rule. And so a government army of 2,500 men, under the auspices of Sir John Cope, sailed into Dunbar on the 17 September. They then set up camp near Haddington and upon hearing of the Jacobite army approaching Edinburgh they set their course, eventually meeting near Preston Village. The clash began at dawn on the 21 September, and was over a short time later with around 300 of Cope’s men killed, 10 times the casualties suffered by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops. Today there is a memorial cairn and a viewing platform marking the battle site.

The Battle of Bannockburn
Along with Culloden the Battle of Bannockburn remains the most famous in Scottish history. 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the clash that took place on the 23 and 24 June 1314 and saw a critical victory for Robert the Bruce in the Wars of Independence. Bruce’s Scottish army was massively outnumbered by Edward II and his military might with some 6,000 Scottish soldiers facing 16,000 English troops, by far the largest army ever to invade Scotland. But Bruce’s tactics helped overcome the massive disparity of numbers. Using the natural slopes, humps and hollows of the terrain to set up their defences it still took two days of brutal combat and vital information from Sir Alexander Seton, a Scots noble who defected from the English army and brought Bruce vital intelligence, before Edward II fled. This left Bruce with complete military control in Scotland. A new state of the art visitor centre opened at Bannockburn earlier this year, providing a wonderful stage to learn more about one of the most momentous events in Scotland’s history.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge
Just as the Battle of Bannockburn was Robert the Bruce’s most significant victory, the Battle of Stirling Bridge was William Wallace’s most important. His victory over the Earl of Surrey, on the 11 September 1297, led to Wallace gaining sole command of Scotland’s troops. The roots of the conflict lay in the induction of John Balliol, with the support of Edward I, as vassal king, which in turn led to the sacking of Berwick and the defeat of the Scottish Army at Dunbar. In due course Surrey marched his army from Berwick and met Wallace near Stirling on the floodplains of the River Forth. Again the English army vastly outnumbered the Scots but a critical mistake by Surrey played a considerable part in his downfall. Rather than ford the Forth a couple of miles upstream Surrey chose to cross the wooden Stirling Bridge, which could only take a few men at a time. Seizing his moment Wallace and his men viciously cut down their enemy. Today the marvellous 16th century Stirling Bridge spans the winding River Forth, the splendid view dominated by the Wallace Monument.

The Battle of Dunkeld
The lesser-known Battle of Dunkeld took place on the 21 August 1689, only a month after the more famous Battle of Killiecrankie. Both took place during the first Jacobite Rising and saw significant losses, which seriously undermined their cause. Unlike other conflicts, the Battle of Dunkeld took place on the streets of the Perthshire town, in and around Dunkeld Cathedral. With the loss of John Graham of Claverhouse at Killiecrankie, the Jacobites proceeded towards Dunkeld, under the tutelage of their new commander, Alexander Cannon. Trailed by General Mackay and his government troops the Jacobites eventually reached Dunkeld, a garrison defended by the Cameronians, who were Covenanter supporters. The battle lasted for 16 hours and saw 4,000 Jacobites engage in conflict with only around 1,200 Cameronians. However on the verge of defeat the Cameronians saw the Jacobites retreat, leaving the government army victorious. The final defeat of the first Jacobite Rising would take place only a few months later, on the 30 May 1690, at Cromdale.

The Battle of Inverlochy
Inverlochy, which stands in the shadow of Ben Nevis, a short distance from Fort William, has borne witness to two battles. The first, in 1431, was fought after King James I had imprisoned Alexander Islay, the Lord of the Isles. A Highland Force, led by Alexander’s cousin, Donald Balloch, defeated Royalist Forces and it is thought that around 1,000 men were killed. The second battle took place in 1645 when Royalist forces led by the Marquis of Montrose overwhelmed the Earl of Argyll’s Covenanter army, dealing them a massive setback. Much of the battle took place in and around Inverlochy Castle, which today is worth exploration. Despite having been built around 1280 by the Lord of Badenoch, John Comyn, it remains in good condition. Inverlochy Castle held a strategic position at the Great Glen’s southern entrance and was one of a number of forts that secured the Comyns as one of Scotland’s most powerful families of the time.

The Battle of Culloden
It lasted only one hour and was the final battle to be fought on British soil. The Battle of Culloden, arguably Scotland’s most famous battle, was a key moment in British history as it marked the end of a bloody 60-year civil war. It was fought on the 16 April 1746 between Charles Edward Stuart and his Jacobite army and Government forces led by Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland. The Duke’s soldiers had arrived at Culloden fit and in good spirits. In marked contrast Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men reached Culloden lacking in strategy, provisions and confidence in their leader. When dawn broke on the day of the battle several Jacobites had either fallen asleep or were searching for food and when the Government forces, numbering 9,000, started firing around 1pm, the 5,500 Jacobites were quickly and easily picked off. In turn, those who lay wounded or fleeing the scene were brutally slain. It is estimated that around 1,250 Jacobites were killed on the day and another 3,000 taken prisoner in the aftermath – the great Jacobite rebellion was over.