Here are some of the sights from the medieval village at the Bannockburn celebrations at Stirling. Visitors interacted with stall holders learning about aspects of medieval life. It was a busy, crowded day and the changeable Scottish weather added to the atmosphere. Battle weary soldiers wandered about as well, perhaps checking on repairs to their weapons or grabbing sustenance on the way. King Edward even put in an appearance!
Within sight of the great castle of Stirling, an army approaches. King Edward II’s massive horde moved into place beside the flowing Bannockburn to face the much smaller force of King Robert, King of Scots. But that was 700 years ago…
Yesterday, another banner-waving army gathered – some 300 re-enactors to pay tribute; a small group albeit, but enough for a crowd of international visitors and local enthusiasts to see a few key elements of the battle. It was heartening to see so many families out with their children, sharing the country’s history with the next generation.
Here are some of the highlights:
Knowing a battle is forthcoming to relieve Stirling Castle, Robert the Bruce trains his spear-wielding men into mobile groups, known as schiltrons, to repel the cavalry charges of knights on huge, armoured destriers. Once positioned on the best ground for defence, the men watch and wait.
Soon an English knight with a taste for glory – young Henry de Bohun, thunders towards the Scottish king only to fall prey to his first blow which splits open his head. His prone body, still on his horse, is led off the field. And the warrior king bemoans the loss of his battle axe.
A fight ensues between the English commanders. Such discord unsettles the flow of battle. Their soldiers have travelled hard and fast to get there. They need to rest, and seek out firm ground midst bog and marsh near the burn to build their camp. Will it offer protection from the Scottish raiders during the night?
Robert receives welcome news: the English camp is in disarray, splintered by squabbling. He seizes his chance to fight a second day. The schiltrons do the job asked of them and the very able Scottish commanders, Douglas and Moray, take out sections of Edward’s army. Arrows fly overhead. Snarling, growling soldiers become entangled in a melee. Midst hoots of derision, the English soldiers retreat and the crowd applauds in appreciation…
I would think it no easy task to get formations of re-enactors to move about with relative ease to choreograph a convincing battle. Think then what it must have been like for the Scottish commanders to train men in their thousands. With few weapons to hand, the soldiers, armed with tall spears, became one form – the spiky, mobile schiltron, a clever, ancient battle tactic indeed.
Some say there were three schiltrons, others four, at Bannockburn but each had about a thousand men packed tightly together.
Battle numbers vary as no one knows for sure but probably 15,000 English versus 6000 Scots might come close to the mark. Some of you will know that there were Scots on both sides, reflecting the complex familial loyalties of the time.
What made the battle in 1314 such a decisive success? Was it Robert’s ability to inspire deep-seated loyalty, and his keen eye for strategy; the skills of his commanders – quick thinking, agile veterans of so many guerrilla campaigns; the passion of his army – soldiers gathered from across the land, and the ‘small folk’, keen to protect their homes and regain their freedom; or an English army weakened by hostile terrain and indecisive leadership tainted by conflict.
Perhaps all of the above – might be the answer! Regardless, this victory had an enormous impact on the psyche of the Scots, and confirmed hero status upon their king which is still celebrated today.
With the 700 year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn foremost in my mind this week, I found my way, on a pilgrimage of sorts, to the village of Douglas in southern Scotland. Why – especially with all the action up at Stirling?
Within St Bride’s church stands the tomb of one of Scotland’s bravest sons, James Douglas, guerrilla fighter for so many years during the War of Independence – trusted friend of Robert the Bruce and scourge of the English. So fearful a warrior was he with his hit and run raids that songs were made up, warning the children to beware, that the Black Douglas might come to get them in the night!
The stone church was quite small, humble almost in its current footprint, but obviously a much more substantial building in medieval times. I parked in the lane way and took the path up to the old cemetery where ancient gravestones stood upright, others had fallen asunder. It was a shock to find the door locked, but a sign pointed me in the direction of a cottage across the road. Soon I was back, sporting the heavy iron key.
Entering the cool confines, my footsteps echoed on the tiles. I was struck by the timeless essence of the place. Several tombs of the great Douglas family lay before me, resplendently carved stone effigies. On my left, Sir James lay, resting in his armour, sword and shield at the ready. I wondered what he might make of all the grand celebrations of the great battle at which he had fought so valiantly. I rested my hand upon his forehead and thanked him – for all his efforts, for his sacrifice.
Born in 1286 or thereabouts, young James was the son of Sir William Douglas, a valiant warrior in his own right who lost his life in the Tower. As an envoy of the English king, Robert the Bruce had been sent to take control of the castle in Douglas and, presumably, to take James and his mother into custody. Instead he chose to join Wallace and let James and his family escape, earning the iire of King Edward.
Later James became a squire of Bishop William Lamberton, travelling with him to Paris – a wonderful learning experience no doubt, and key to the lad’s safety. It must have become obvious though that he was not destined for the church. Years later, at an audience with King Edward, William Lamberton pleaded on James’s behalf for the return of the Douglas lands to its heir; these had been gifted to Sir Robert Clifford, an English knight. Edward went into a rage and James and his mentor were compelled to leave the interview quickly. He was to remain a landless, disinherited noble until 1314 and the Scottish victory at Bannockburn.
There is a wonderful tale of how James intercepted Robert on his passage in the hills north of Moffatt. Here he pledged his ardent support, in time becoming one of Robert’s most trusted lieutenants and a famed battle commander in his own right.
One of the stories, which has always fascinated me is that of the Douglas Larder. You’ll find this and more in ‘Sisters of The Bruce’. That this drama actually took place in St Bride’s church made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. For it was here that James and his faithful servant brought an end to English oppression in the village. The soldiers had gone to worship in the church, only to be set upon by the Douglas villagers. Then James led the raid back to the castle. The remaining garrison were quickly butchered and their heads thrown upon a fiery pile, along with barrels of ale and foodstuffs, forever known as the Douglas Larder. James then slighted the castle by poisoning the wells with dead horses. It was a savage attack of revenge for years of hardship endured by his people.
Castle Dangerous, the old castle of Douglas, lay further along the lane way. I drove through the village, eventually reaching a lovely loch. Pairs of swans with sets of fluffy grey signets floated along the reedy edges. In the distance, midst green fields and grazing sheep, the motte of the castle rose up. Upon its rounded crest stood a ruined tower. Close inspection revealed its more recent origin but it was an exciting finish to my visit – to walk upon the site of the Douglas Larder and to imagine the complex layers of history. I had the sense that James must have been well pleased with himself. Certainly, his father would have been proud.
The ‘Good Sir James’, as he was known by Robert, went on to carry out many feats of unimaginable bravado including the capture of Roxburgh Castle by subterfuge and daring. He shared Robert’s defeats and endured extreme physical hardship during the dark years on the run. But he never gave up hope and earned the great honour of carrying the heart of his king on its final crusade. There are so many aspects to his life that I cannot do justice to them here, but I was thrilled to have been able to pay my respects to a true hero of Scotland.
Seven hundred years ago, on the the 23rd and 24th June 1314, a battle took place along the banks of the Bannockburn, a small stream that wove a winding route through marshy ground not far from the great castle of Stirling in central Scotland. Recently, I was lucky enough to be taken on a walking tour of the fields, strongly believed to be the site of the battle. It was here that Scots, loyal to Robert the Bruce – Robert I , king of Scots, faced up to a much larger and better resourced army under King Edward II of England.
You might wonder how it was that Scotland came to win a battle against such a mighty foe.
That there were Scots on both sides reflects a complex history of divided loyalties midst the powerful families of Scotland. But to simplify the telling, the battle has always been described in terms of Scotland versus England.
It’s not my intention to describe the battle here but merely to highlight its significance. If you would like to know more about the backdrop to these dramatic events and Scotland’s first War of Independence, there are many well-known historical resources available in bookstores and online. And my novel, ‘Sisters of The Bruce’, which seeks to bring this powerful tale to life, might prove useful.
The battle was managed with precision by Scotland’s great warrior king. Despite his initial reluctance, Robert understood the invaluable benefit of preparation time. With careful deliberation, he chose the site which offered the greatest advantage, then set about training those who had gathered under his banner. This was no easy task!
Since gaining the Scottish throne, Robert had been forced by dire circumstance to engage in guerrilla tactics, utilising hit and run raids rather than entering into formal, structured warfare with invading armies. Given half a chance, his enemies with their skilful archers and armoured knights on horseback, would have made short work of his men.
Generally, the Bruce forces lacked sufficient numbers, weaponry and armour, except that which they had purloined. Ruse and strategy were Robert’s strongest weapons. Over time, with the success of these raids, support flourished.
Before the battle, pits were dug. Vicious iron spikes known as caltrops were concealed. Large platoons of men with long spears, much like huge, spiky hedgehogs, were trained to move about to force the enemy in a particular direction. These schiltrons proved successful in forcing the knights and horses onto the marshy ground and eventually into the fast flowing stream to drown. The slaughter must have been relentless and bloody.
Though the battle was won at enormous cost to both sides, the war for Scotland’s independence waged on for many years. However, through his endeavours, Robert finally secured the release of his female kinfolk who had been imprisoned eight years before, through the ransoming of captured knights.
Today, there is little to see apart from a picturesque burn winding its way amongst lush green fields where cattle graze. Such tranquillity is deceptive!
Do you love castles? I certainly do, and one that holds all the intrigue and drama of Scotland’s great past is Kildrummy Castle. Towering over a watery ravine, the ruined stone walls stand testament to the ravages of war. But first and foremost it was a home, a sanctuary for the earls of Mar built back in the 12th century, located on an ancient pathway across the rolling, high ground of the north east.
Today it is surrounded by lush fields. Sheep graze peacefully where armies once lay in wait for those within to capitulate.
How frightening that must have been – to see the campfires and tents of invaders stretching far out before the walls; smoke coiling upwards from myriad campfires across the fields; delectable smells drifting from cooking tents; and the inevitable din of soldiers in their thousands – bored, belligerent men impatient for the kill. And within the walls, men, women and children waited with rumbling bellies, exhaustion and dread written across their faces.
One such siege took place back in 1306. After Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scots, he was defeated in a series of skirmishes. His womenfolk fled north to Kildrummy. An English horde followed, intent on bringing the Bruce family and their supporters to their knees. No quarter was to be given for the dreaded Dragon banner had been raised. The women escaped, only to be captured later – their story unfolds in ‘Sisters of The Bruce’. But it was Robert’s brother, Neil, who held the castle firm, until the unthinkable happened. Betrayal! The cobblestones must have run red that day…
I wandered the ruins of this immense castle and stood at the postern gate. Was this where the soldiers had slipped in undetected, let in by a silent hand. But all was quiet now except for some quarrelsome ravens up on the battlements…
Look below the castle walls and you will glimpse a richly planted patchwork of rockeries and ponds. A fabulous 20th century garden nestles within the castle’s ancient quarry. It is open to the public, afternoons only, during the summer months. Make sure you take in the gardens as well for they offer a refreshing contrast to the stark, powerful drama of the ruins above.
Just came across this great review of ‘Sisters of The Bruce’, posted on amazon.co.uk in late May.
Informative, Absorbing and Entertaining:
The mark of a really good historical novel is that it informs the reader about the period in which it is set in a way that makes the reader feel part of it. This Harvey achieves with style.
The novel tells the story of a group of people who are generally ignored by history: the women related to a famous historical figure. As was so often the case in history, it was the women who suffered – and in the case of the Sisters of the Bruce, terribly – for the decisions and actions of their men folk. This novel brings their suffering to light.
Underpinning the novel is the story of one of the most complicated periods in Scottish history, which is told with warmth and understanding, principally through a series of imagined letters between Robert the Bruce’s sisters. This ingenious stratagem really brings the period alive and makes compelling reading, despite the fact that the character of each sister must at best be an inspired guess. It works because of the extensive research the author carried out and the quality of the writing.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in Robert the Bruce and the period of the Scottish Wars of Independence or simply in the lives of women at this point in history.”
My sincere thanks to the reviewer, Gartmore, who took the time to post a review.
One of the great joys of Barra – and there are many – is how to get there. Some might take the train from Glasgow to Oban on Scotland’s far west coast, then a five hour ferry ride, perhaps even seven hours if you go via the isles of Canna and Rum.
I was lucky enough to take the flight from Glasgow in a tiny jet which lands on a wide, curvaceous stretch of beach. I might mention here a three hour wait for fog to lift on the islands, but lift it thankfully did. What disturbed and delighted me most was the plane shimmying across the watery, pale sands, finishing with aplomb beside the airport (a small, squat building nestling on a neck of wildflower-strewn sand hills betwixt the heaving Atlantic and the aquamarine Hebridean Sea.
I came by invitation and my friends reassured me that this was a normal landing. Some time later, I was still buzzing with the feeling of freedom such an unfettered entry into life in the Outer Hebrides engendered.
Make your way here and you will find a pearly string of islands from Barra with its tiny family of rugged neighbours in the south to the flatter Uists, and more solid bulk of mountainous Harris and the peaty moors of Lewis in the north. Each person will tell you that their island is the best and they each have so much to offer. But It was certainly Barra’s turn to shine!
My hosts took me on a wonderful tour of Barra, including some of the islands within easy reach either by ferry or causeway. Why don’t you come along for the ride?
Kisimul Castle, home to the MacNeil clan, sits strategically within the harbour of Castle Bay, Barra’s main town. Neolithic and medieval sites abound across the islands and require exploration by car or on foot.
An hour’s ferry ride north and we reached the island of Eriskay where the story of Whisky Galore came to life. A ship had sunk with a cargo of whisky and other goods which were claimed by the local fishermen and farmers. Though humorous in many respects, the event caused severe social disruption within the small community when some of the culprits were jailed by the government of the day for stealing.
At the substantial causeway linking the island to South Uist in the north, I was delighted by a sign which announced ‘Otters Cross Here’ but sadly there were none about. Our journey took us to a ruined temple, owned by the Lords of the Isles, which appeared to be surrounded by a series of ancient burial mounds.
On a slight rise off the main road, a statue honoured the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, of Bonnie Prince Charlie fame. I found her history quite fascinating as well. She was jailed in London for a year for her part in helping the Jacobite prince evade his enemies, dressed as her maid. Some of you may know the lovely song which commemorates this incredible act of bravery. Upon her release, she escaped Scotland’s political woes but was later caught up, with her husband, in the American War of Independence.
The islands also saw great hardship with the clearances and there were rebellious groups of farmers who squatted on lands that had better resources than their own in a time of great social upheaval and poverty.
Vatersay, another causeway-linked island, this time to the south of Barra, had experienced the dreadful aftermath of a shipwreck. Sometime in the 19th century, the majority of a shipload of 350 emigrants bound for Quebec from Liverpool had perished in a storm. Beneath the monument on its great sandhill, the poor souls who had been washed ashore now lay buried.
Strangely another accident had occurred but much later during WW2. An airforce plane had crashed by the shore. The wreckage which had been recovered now lay beside a monument, a stark reminder of the tragic flight. These dramatic events from the past proved very moving.
But it was Barra’s landscape of pristine inlets and treeless hills – humped and scaly like giant amphibious creatures now turned to stone – which captured my imagination.
Above the rich machair grasslands, the calls of seabirds were a constant backdrop. I was lucky too, to see a large group of seals luxuriating in the sun on rocks in a sea-weedy bay. Perhaps the most remarkable find of the trip for me was on my last day, not long before my flight, with the discovery of fresh paw prints in the sand: of a parent otter, heavy and clawed, with its pup’s nearby – a tiny, delicate mirror image. So many wonderful memories!