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Issue 74 - The battle that defined a nation

Scotland Magazine Issue 74
April 2014


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The battle that defined a nation

The 700 year old story of Bannockburn

Bannockburn’ – just hearing the word stirs every Scottish soul. Bannockburn is much more than just a village near Stirling; it is much more than just a battlefield – it represents a special moment in the history of Scotland, a moment which has much greater importance than the victory itself, and which has pretty much defined Scotland’s sense of nationhood ever since.

I started primary school in Bannockburn in 1951.Our school was a short distance from the Bannock Burn, and less than a mile from the battlefield. We never visited either, and yet, we knew about the battle which had been fought in June 1314; we learned about ‘The Bruce’, and we knew what the score in that most important of matches had been: Scotland 1, England 0.

When I eventually did make it to the ‘battlefield’ in my late teens in 1964, it was to see Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson’s newly unveiled statue of Robert the Bruce, erected to commemorate the 650th anniversary of the battle. I remember being especially impressed that Bruce’s head – what
little you can see of it encased in his regally-decorated helmet – was apparently modelled on his actual skull which had been unearthed in his tomb in the choir of Dunfermline Abbey a century and a half earlier. The bronze Bruce on his warhorse, therefore, is as accurate a representation of what he actually looked like as we are ever likely to see.

Returning half a century later to see the refurbished sculpture returned in preparation for the 700th anniversary celebrations next month, I had the benefit of a National Trust for Scotland historian to answer some of my many questions. Well at least to answer those questions for which there are definitive answers. The thing is, seven hundred years is a very long time.

While several contemporary, although incomplete, accounts of the battle were written, very few artefacts which could even have come from the period of the engagement have ever been found on the site, despite some pretty serious excavations over the years. An arrowhead was found there, but as the area was a hunting ground, arrowheads would not have been unexpected.

That absence of solid material evidence has been one of the greatest challenges facing the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in developing the battlefield site and the new visitor centre. Just how do you bring the story of a battle to life for today’s visitors when there is nothing tangible to show off apart from a big field and a magnificent 50-year-old statue? The answer is that you engage with the latest visual technology. Visitors will have the chance to fight the battle themselves in 3D simulations – making tactical decisions and suffering the consequences. In the visitor centre the battle will be fought on vast video screens, so that by the time visitors walk out towards the rotunda, they will have a real sense of what a 14th century battle was like: the closeness of the fighting, the brutality of the weapons, and the terrible carnage which ensued. The NTS people are acutely aware of the fine line which exists between accurate historical re-enactment, and theme-park entertainment, and are clearly focused on using 21st century technology in an attempt to achieve the former, and tell as historically accurate and complete a story as possible.

While digital video is all well and good, really getting a sense of what conditions were like is never going to be possible. A suit of medieval armour was immensely heavy – even the replica Bruce helmet with its attached chain mail which I tried on weighed a fair amount, although wearing it, with the weight evenly dispersed, it seemed much less heavy than when just picking it up. Fighting while fully encased in armour must have been exhausting. Actually, just getting suited up must have been exhausting, never mind wearing it all day after getting up on a horse and engaging in very close physical contact.

Bruce is traditionally said to have raised his standard and camped his army in the area known as the Borestone near the entry to the New Park on the 22 June the day before the first battle. The battle is believed to have started near there, rather than anywhere closer to the present-day village of Bannockburn. The site of the Rotunda and the new Visitor Centre are, probably, close to that point. But while that may have been where Bruce set up camp and even initially engaged the English, the idea that the battle was contained within the site has long been dismissed. Bannockburn was a series of battles on the move, fought over 23–24 June, so there is no precisely delineated battlefield – the fighting would have taken place over an area of several square miles. Indeed, it is known that action covered an area from Bannockburn field to Cambuskenneth Abbey about three miles away.

The Bannock Burn meanders around the rotunda site – Bruce had chosen wisely, establishing his troops in one of the more easily defended parts of the landscape. Although the landscape was largely made up of fertile farmland, there were around him several areas of boggy marshy land, prone to flooding, and offering some measure of protection. There was really only one easy way to Stirling, on slightly elevated land along which the old Roman road ran.

Before visiting the site, it is a good idea to read up on the battle and try to understand how it fitted into the bigger picture of Scotland’s Wars of Independence – without that, it is really quite difficult to imagine what went on over those two June days seven centuries ago. There is plenty of choice – books on Bannockburn have been multiplying during the build up to the anniversary.

Read a modern one, though, as earlier published accounts of the battle are somewhat unreliable, and several Victorian and Edwardian accounts, although undoubtedly engaging, are pretty much works of fiction.

There is a short description on the account of the years before the battle in the prologue of the new centre.

The romantic idea of Bannockburn as the inevitable and final encounter between the English and Scottish armies in a long struggle for Scottish independence is just that – a romantic idea. In fact it was a battle neither side actually wanted. The army of Edward II was fully prepared as it was a force equipped for full conquest. Bruce was as prepared as he ever could be, having spent weeks training his men in the Torwood.

Equally romantic and unsupported by contemporary accounts is the idea of a united Scotland fighting off the invader. Factions in Scotland had changed sides on several occasions in the preceding years, the Bruces amongst them, and some historians believe that had it not been for the aggression of the English in the years before Bannockburn, Scotland might have degenerated into civil war – the Bruce faction against the Balliol faction – rather than pulling together against a common foe.

But, as I said at the beginning, the victory at Bannockburn has endured for seven centuries as a key component of the cement which binds Scottish nationhood, more than eclipsing the short-term impact of the outcome.

While it is clear that, by the closing years of the 13th century, the English briefly believed that they had conquered Scotland – in that they had inflicted heavy losses on the Scottish nobility and had a puppet ‘government’ in place – they had by no means quelled the Scots, nor had Edward I, the English king, ‘annexed’ Scotland to his kingdom. His forces simply occupied large parts of the country, and garrisoned the major centres.

Resistance under William Wallace, Andrew Murray and others clearly aligned to the Balliol camp, secured a measure of self-government again over large parts of the country – the Battle of Stirling Bridge being a notable victory in September 1297. Their gains were largely reversed the following year at the Battle of Falkirk, with Wallace disappearing from public prominence until 1305. His capture, trial for treason, and barbaric execution may have been a worthwhile public relations exercise for the English, but in Scotland – where he had done much to pursue the ideal of Scottish nationhood – his death acted as a rallying call for Bruce and others to revitalise their efforts to rid the country of the English. Bruce’s seizure of the crown, however, was a bitter pill for the Scots nobility to swallow and the barons took a bit of convincing.

When the English King Edward II ascended the throne in 1307, most of Scotland was effectively under his control, but by 1313 his rule only really held sway in the south of the country, and by 1313 the Scots had regained most of the country with Roxburgh and Edinburgh falling to them. Much of lowland Scotland was paying Bruce off in order to be left alone. The Scots had also began raiding over the border into England.

For Robert the Bruce, the imperative was not only to rid the country of the English occupiers, but for the English king to recognise Scotland as an independent nation with King Robert I as its monarch – a tall order as the Scots were still far from united behind him.

There were still strong pockets of resistance to his rule – for he was not the legitimate heir to the throne, the Balliol line still having a strong following – and inflicting a decisive victory over the English in battle, while not something he relished, would certainly further his cause.

By 1313 Bruce had brutally dealt with many of his enemies in Scotland. Those who had opposed him were either dead, in exile, or had partially succumbed to peace on his terms.

One of the places garrisoned by the English was Stirling – with a significant English force in the castle – and the English intent was clearly to reach and relieve their beleaguered garrison in the castle. To achieve that, of course, they had to get past the Scots, and the nature of the landscape offered them very few avenues – flanking attacks were unlikely to be successful due to the slow progress troops would be able to make across the soft ground, leaving them really only the opportunity of either a frontal attack, or a wide detour.

There is the additional feature that this was a wooded hunting ground, and Bruce’s troops could conceal themselves easily in the forest – out of sight of both the garrison at Stirling Castle, and the English armies approaching from the south. Although no evidence has been found, tradition has it that the Scots had been in position long enough before the night of 23rd June to have prepared the landscape by digging deep holes at the sides of the Roman road to create a bottleneck and funnel the advancing cavalry – all of this ignored by a Stirling garrison under governor Philip De Mowbray Stirling Castle who had already been granted safe passage to Edward II. Mowbray had already negotiated a controlled withdrawal with Robert’s brother should help not reach them by mid-summer’s day.

Engagement with the enemy was made on three occasions that evening – once in the general area of today’s monument, then later nearer St. Ninians, and near Cambuskenneth. Although the Scots came off better, none was conclusive of course, and the numbers of combatants involved was far less than the more jingoistic stories published in the 19th century.

An 1851 account by Charles Roger suggested the English entered Scotland with a force of 60,000 foot-soldiers and 40,000 cavalry, but it is likely the total combatants on both sides at Bannockburn amounted to between a fifth and a tenth of that number – with the English troops outnumbering the Scots by about three to one.

On 24 June the Scots moved at first light from the Bore stone through Balquiderock wood, and at around 9am the main battle commenced, both sides fielding archers, spearmen and cavalry, and the nature of the terrain favoured the Scots. But chroniclers – and later writers – would not refer
to it as the Battle of Bannockburn, but as the Battle of Stirling. Bannockburn as a place did not exist – there was the Bannock Burn, but that was named after a small hamlet known locally as Bannock, and virtually unheard of outside the immediate vicinity.

The English archers took the early initiative, forcing the Scots back a little, but Bruce countered by advancing on the English, whose position reportedly gave them little room for manoeuvre. They were pushed back, but were neither bowed not defeated, although apparently disorganised. The Scots pressed home their advantage engaging in close hand-to-hand fighting, and making an orderly English withdrawal impossible.

What ensued on the field of Bannockburn was little short of a massacre of immense proportions, and the surrender and capture of large numbers of Edward’s men, later exchanged for Scottish prisoners held by the English. It was probably all over by lunchtime.

After Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce’s position was much more secure, but conflict was by no means over.

The English would attempt a further invasion just three years later, and then again five years after that, and the Balliol family would attempt to overthrow him in 1320, but Robert finally got English recognition of his position as king of an independent Scotland just a few weeks before his death in 1328.

With the story of a battle fought seven centuries ago, it will never be possible to separate military fact from the mythology and romanticised folklore, and why would we want to – in Scottish hearts the importance of the Battle of Bannockburn simply transcends such detail.