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Issue 86 - The Lay of the Land

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016


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The Lay of the Land

James Irvine Robertson addresses the repeated battlefield mistakes of the Scots Wars of Independence

Sometimes the student of history is aghast at the decisions made by those who should have known better. During the Wars of Independence, the Scots were adept at winning skirmishes; but faced by a full-scale formal battle, time and time again the Scots suffered shattering defeats – generally caused by incompetent leadership and the skill of the Welsh archer. In 1297 Wallace convincingly won at Stirling Bridge, but the English had been in disarray, their army split in two. At Falkirk, two years later, he formed his forces into the traditional circular schiltrons. Military historian Charles Oman described the formation thus: “The front ranks knelt with their spear butts fixed in the earth; the rear ranks levelled their lances over their comrades heads; the thick-set grove of twelve foot spears was far too dense for the cavalry to penetrate.” However, such an arrangement was a sitting duck for the longbow and Edward's Welsh archers were so skilled that they could each have several arrows in the air at one time; against this steel-tipped storm the schiltron was inevitably shattered.

Bruce learned the lesson of Falkirk and had plenty of time to prepare the battlefield at Bannockburn. He still used the schiltron, but now he organised his men into a rectangle so that they could attack as well as defend themselves against cavalry. Sowing the ground with staked pits and caltrops meant that the enemy horsemen could not deploy and the narrow front flanked by bogs prevented the archers from spreading themselves for maximum effect. The result was a victory. But Bruce knew that this engagement was an exception and he broke his army down into small bands after that and thereafter picked off the English whenever the opportunity presented itself.

In August 1332, some 2500 Englishmen landed in Fife under Edward Baliol. They were the Disinherited; those nobles who had backed England and lost the land that had been theirs in Scotland. They soon found themselves facing a force five times their own size just south of Perth with another army hurrying to trap them. The Scots needed to do nothing but wait as the vice closed.

The English drew up in a narrow valley; their centre was formed by dismounted spearmen and flanked by archers spread along the hillsides. The new Scots regent, the Earl of Mar, ordered an attack and the schiltron rolled forward. Under the arrow storm, it barely reached the English spearman before it stalled. Mar sent in a second schiltron, which collided with the one in front. The base of the valley became a charnel house with men scrambling on top of each other to escape the arrows and suffocating those beneath. Unsurprisingly, only 33 Englishmen died, whereas estimates of the Scots deaths vary between 3000 and 15,000.

A year later, Edward III's army was arrayed on the slopes of Halidon Hill, waiting to face a larger Scots force that was approaching in an attempt to relieve the siege of Berwick. A Scots chronicler wrote that they “marched towards the town with great display, in order of battle, and recklessly, stupidly and inadvisably chose a battle ground at Halidon Hill, where there was a marshy hollow between the two armies, and where a great downward slope, with some precipices, and then again a rise lay in front of the Scots, before they could reach the field where the English were posted.” Again, the Scots attacked. An English chronicler recorded that “the Scots who marched in the front were so wounded in the face and blinded by the multitude of English arrows that they could not help themselves, and soon began to turn their faces away from the blows of the arrows and fall.” English losses were described as light, the Scots dead again numbered thousands including Sir Archibald Douglas, the Guardian of Scotland, and five earls. It was another shocking defeat.

The next formal battle in the war was in 1346 at Neville's Cross. Edward III was campaigning in France and doing rather well, so Philip of France invoked the Auld Alliance and asked Bruce's son, the 22 year-old David II, to create a diversion on Edward’s home turf.

Keen to show he was the equal of his father, David led an army of 10,000 on a devastating raid into England with the rich city of Durham as his objective. However, Edward was not a man to leave his back door unguarded and it was a complete surprise to the Scots when, on the morning of 17 October, a foraying column under Sir William Douglas stumbled upon an English army just south of Durham. He was chased off with a loss of some 500 men. He gave warning to King David and the Scots aroused themselves to find the English in full sight.

David had the numbers and seemed to have learned the lessons of history. He took up a position fronted by broken ground and stone walls, and waited for the English to attack. They didn't, but instead their archers came forward and began to flight their arrows into the three Scots divisions. Either David withdrew or he attacked. The king ordered his army forward – across the terrain he had already chosen to impede an English advance. The right wing found itself in a steep-sided valley being showered by arrows from above and retreated in confusion. On the left, the Scots rolled the English back, but exposed their flank to English cavalry attack and fell back, thus exposing the central division commanded by the king to attack from three sides as well as from the sky. The result was inevitable.

The king was captured hiding under a bridge with two arrow wounds, one in his face, and spent the next eleven years in England until the Treaty of Berwick in 1359 that ended the second War of Independence.

Was the lesson learned? Alas! Two generations later at Homildon Hill, Hotspur confronted Douglas, leading a raiding party of 10,000 men. He formed schiltrons and the Scots were slaughtered. Sir John Swinton and 100 men led a charge out of the schiltron, saying: "Better to die in the mellay than be shot down like deer". It will not shock you to learn that all perished, as did much of the army.