Using guerilla warfare, Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, has been successfully keeping England’s army, the most powerful in the European world, from taking over all of Scotland.
    In June 1313 Robert returns to the mainland after his success in capturing the Isle of Man only to discover that his brother, Lord Edward Bruce, has made a bargain with the Scottish warden of English-held Castle Stirling: if the English do not relieve the castle by mid-summer 1314, the warden will hand Stirling over to the Scots. Robert is furious! Now, King Edward has reason to invade Scotland in force.
    Elated, the English king sees the agreement as a way to reclaim his dwindling power at home. He uses the time to strengthen his ties with his magnates and draw in the best knights from across Europe with promises of lands, titles, and wealth... once the battle is won.
    The next June, King Edward brings north 2,500 barded knights and 20,000 men-at-arms to a place called Bannok, and a nearby stream called Bannok Burn. His train “in good order” stretches 20 miles.
    King Robert has no barded knights and only 5,500 men-at-arms, most of whom are armed with long spears. His only advantages are his cunning, Scots courage, and his arrival at the battlefield before the English.
    Far from the supposed goal of capturing Castle Stirling or the Scottish crown, Robert knows the battle at Bannok Burn is for Scotland herself.



What’s the Big Deal About Bannockburn? 

By Carolyn Hale Bruce and Charles Randolph Bruce

This article was originally printed in Highlander Magazine 2006

In June of 1314, an English army under personal command Edward II lumbered up to Scotland, toward Stirling to be exact, with the intention of ending this “Scottish independence” stuff once and for all. This was probably the European world’s finest army of the day, and numbered three or four English to every one Scot that would meet them on the field of battle below Stirling Castle.

Stirling Bridge, of course, had been the site of the great defeat of the English under the command of John de Warrene, 7th earl of Surrey in September of 1297. It was won by the combined forces and leadership of nobleman Sir Andrew de Murray (or Moray) and commoner William Wallace. The opposing armies were nearly equal in number, the Scots numbering fewer by about 160.    

Central to their victory was the Scots’ use of the bridge itself, which carried across the River Forth the ancient Roman road on which the English approached. The roadway was atop a causeway, the surrounding ground being low and marshy. As the English knights on their heavy destriers crossed the narrow bridge in pairs, they necessarily spread out upon the miry soil to await those coming behind.

Watching from the higher ground of Abbey Craig, the Scots allowed fewer than half of the English force of about 6,350 foot, including hundreds of archers, and 350 cavalry to cross the bridge, and attacked them while their strength was divided. Sweeping down from their vantage point, the Scots sent two forces at their foe, one head on, and the other to cut off the English from their compatriots on the south side of the bridge.

The English heavy cavalry found it difficult to maneuver on the soft ground, and the huge schiltroms formed by the Scots pikemen wrought much death upon horses and riders alike. Shoulder to shoulder, the Scots moved as an impenetrable mass best defended against by flights of hundreds of arrows, but the English archers had been dispersed by the Scots horsemen and many fled from the field. (Schiltroms were sometimes called “hedgehogs” because they bristled with hundreds or thousands of lengthy, sharp-pointed spears.)

From south of the Forth the several thousand remaining English saw what was happening but could only advance by crossing the same narrow bridge. Under the weight of men and horses crowding upon it, the bridge collapsed, drowning some and leaving the others helpless to reinforce the troops being slaughtered beyond the bridge.

(As an aside, the reader might have noticed that the very enjoyable 1995 movie Braveheart, in addition to other historical inaccuracies, showed the battle being fought on a broad plain, with no sign of river or bridge. When asked why, it is said that Mel Gibson, who played the role of William Wallace as well as having directed the film, gave the answer, “Because the bridge was in the way” The questioner is said to have quipped, “Aye, that’s what the English found!”)

Unfortunately, Sir Andrew de Murray died later in the year, apparently from wounds received in the battle. William Wallace, however, continued his fight against the English interlopers and was knighted by the Scots and made Guardian of Scotland. He won several more encounters against the troops of Edward I, but when the elderly English king personally commanded his army at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298, he succeeded in turning the tide against Wallace. The valiant Scot escaped with little more than his life, but for years continued to work for the Scots against England, both at home and on the Continent.

As depicted in the movie mentioned above, Wallace was betrayed to and captured by the English (though not by Robert the Brus’ father… who had been dead for about two years by then). Sir William Wallace was “tried” for treason against Edward I, to whom he had never sworn allegiance, and put to death in a most horrible manner on August 23, 1305.

Robert the Brus, earl of Carrick and lord of Annandale (who, like the bridge, received short shrift in Braveheart), took up the torch and the Scottish crown soon after Wallace’s murder and continued the fight for Scottish independence to be restored.

Most of the castles in Scotland were occupied and administered by appointees of the English king, who was obsessed with holding the northern kingdom as his own. After a terribly costly battle at Methven in 1306, Robert realized he could not defeat the English with traditional warfare and set about devising tactics of his own that would favor his far smaller forces and lesser resources. He became what we today might call a guerilla leader.

For eight years the Scots led by King Robert fought and, one by one, recaptured the numerous Scottish castles held by the English. In 1307, early in Brus’ war against England, Edward I died and was replaced on the throne in London by his son, Edward II. The battles raged on until, finally, Stirling Castle was one of the few fortresses in Scotland remaining in enemy hands.

Robert’s only living brother, Edward de Brus, laid siege.

For some time the siege of the well-supplied citadel dragged on, and Sir Edward grew tired of it, as did the English warden of the castle, Sir Philip de Mowbray. In chivalric fashion, the two met and agreed that, if the English king did not relieve the castle by June 24, 1314, de Mowbray would hand the castle over to the Scots and go home. Thus was the stage set for the second battle on the broad, low fields beneath Stirling Castle.

This time there would be far more English troops; as Edward II led them up the road from Edinburgh, including baggage and supporters and with all in good order, his army would have stretched out over twenty miles. He had already engaged a poet to write a stirring epic about the heroic battle, of course an English victory, and decided who among his supporters would afterward be given which titles, castles, and lands in conquered Scotland.

As reports of the approaching massive army began to reach Robert’s ears, he was unsure as to whether he could withstand such an invading force, especially since the battle would be fought in the traditional manner with the two armies charging each other across open ground.

The slaughter of several thousand Scots at Methven had left a very bitter aftertaste.

He mulled over his predicament. His brother having bargained honorably with the English warden at Stirling, Robert could not refuse to fight and remain King of Scots. Yet if he went forward with the battle and lost, killing thousands of Scottish men and lads, he would not long remain king either, presuming that he lived.

This battle at Bannok, below Stirling, would determine whether or not Scotland would in future be a free country as she had always been.

Dare he not fight?

To do otherwise would be abject surrender.

The Brus rode out to inspect the area that would be the battleground, the “gory bed” written about centuries later by Robert Burns. As he studied nature’s placement of the multiple streambeds and marshes, the hillocks and hedges, the fens and the fields, he determined where his troops should sleep and where they would fight.

To conceal their numbers Robert would place his men in the forest of New Park, south of Stirling and west of the Roman road on which Edward II would approach. He knew the area of Bannok, to the east of the road, was especially a honeycomb of streamlets and rills that flowed into Pelstream Burn to the north and Bannockburn to the south. That was where he wanted the English.

As he had done at Loudoun Hill, Robert had his men dig leg-breaking holes or “pots”, and he placed sharp-pointed caltrops between the causeway and the New Park to discourage his foe from coming toward him. He then sent Thomas Randolph with a force of about five hundred to meet a smaller English troop attempting to skirt around to the east and relieve Castle Stirling.

When the vanguard of King Edward’s army arrived, the rest of his forces and their supply train were in such disarray that the last of their wagons had not yet left Edinburgh, thirty-three miles away. Falling into Robert’s trap, the tired English made camp exactly as he had planned, on the sodden carse between the two burns. 

They found only small patches of firm land on which to sleep, and some Englishmen raided nearby villages, even stealing doors off houses so that they might create dry pallets on which to sleep. As the horde continued to file into the marshes, they grew more and more crowded and by morning, few were rested.

This was the time Robert chose to move.

Between three and four hours past midnight on June 24th 1314, the sun rose to bring eighteen hours of daylight. The English awakened to find the Scots arraying themselves in battle formations, a surprising change from their usual hit-and-run tactics. Moving down the long slope toward their enemies, the Scots paused and went to their knees, bowing their heads. Thinking they were surrendering to his superior force, King Edward was delighted that they knelt to ask his mercy, but the Scot Ingram de Umfraville dashed his illusion, telling him that they were asking mercy of God for their sins, not him, and the Scots would win or die.

Three huge schiltroms, six rows deep and bristling with thousands of iron-tipped spears, advanced toward the English across a field of ripening grain. Edward de Brus led the foremost schiltrom, flanked on the left by the second, commanded by James Douglas and Walter the Stewart, and on their left, a third under Thomas Randolph. John Barbour wrote that a fourth schiltrom was held to the rear, under the king’s command.

The first English response to reach the Scots were horsed knights who flung their mounts and themselves against the iron-headed pikes of the schiltrom. Most were killed, and the schiltroms kept moving forward.

The still unready English were in close quarters and could not get themselves rightly organized, neither officers nor soldiers. The second and third Scots schiltroms met a “disordered” line of cavalry that was said by Barbour to have been “all in a schiltrom”, meaning that they were massed together rather than being arrayed in the normal line. Onward the Scots pressed, pushing hard upon the muddled English, who yet stood their ground.

It was then that a contingent of English archers fired their missiles into the schiltroms in great waves and damaged the Scots, and would have done worse had not the mounted warriors under Sir Robert Keith been ordered into the fray. Keith’s light cavalry successfully scattered and set the English archers to flight, causing panic and turmoil among those headed toward the battle from rear positions.

In such close quarters, the English were ripe for the Scots archers to make themselves known, and flight after flight of Scottish arrows wafted into the midst of the hapless English, who weakened in their resolve. At first it was but a slight yielding, but they were being given no quarter by the relentless Scots and their resistance faltered. Soon it was not a matter of relinquishing a few feet of ground, but became instead a crumbling of will, sending many English fleeing before the exulting Scots as they rushed, still holding formation, after the English.

There has been much discussion about who were the members of the group that arrived next on the scene. Some say it was a reserve force, some say it was an army of mostly Templars, others say it was the camp followers or “small folk” who charged into the conflict with makeshift weapons and banners. Most agree that the battle was already won at that point, but the English, seeing “fresh troops” arriving, abandoned any thought of resisting further, and ran.

The English king, who had fought bravely throughout and wanted to continue, was made to leave the field by some of this knights, who knew the battle was lost and that Edward II must not be captured or killed. Escaping along the edge of the carse, the king and around five hundred mounted men fought their way through numerous attempts at capture, and rode hard for Castle Stirling.

Once the English king had fled the field, the battle was all but over, and his army had nothing to fight for except escape. Some followed the path of the king, others made for the River Forth, where many drowned trying to cross in the swift current. Yet others turned south and in disordered terror endeavored to flee across Bannockburn, but so many crowding upon the already torn banks turned the whole into a morass of muddy death. It is said that here was where the English took the battle’s greatest casualties as those behind struggling forward forced those ahead to topple into their watery graves in such numbers that later-comers could cross “dry shod” over the bodies of the drowned.

Arriving at Stirling, Edward II and his knights found their entrance denied by a raised drawbridge and locked gate. de Mowbray knew the castle belonged to the Scots after the battle was lost, and with the king holed up there, he would be taken prisoner. Thus Edward and his band traveled west, and south to circumvent Robert’s army, with James Douglas and about sixty Scots on their heels.

Once south far enough, the king turned again, toward Dunbar and shelter. Arriving on June 25th, he abandoned his guard and took refuge until he could board a vessel to Bamburgh, from where he rode north to Berwick and met up again with those he had left at Dunbar. He rested there for a fortnight.

As to the remains of his army, some fled to Stirling, were denied entrance, and were captured by the Brus’ forces later that day. Once they were no longer a threat, the Scots plundered the battlefield and the English supply train, rather than pursuing the remainder of the English army.

Thousands of English troops, both on horse and on foot, some of which had not had the opportunity to participate in the surprisingly short battle, marched away unscathed. The earl of Hereford and nearly two thousand knights and men went to English-held Bothwell Castle, where the “important” knights and barons were taken inside. Learning of this circumstance, Edward de Brus took an army and rode there forthwith. The castellan, a Scot named Gilbertson, threw open the castle to his countrymen, instantly shifting his allegiance, and Hereford and his fifty companions were captured.

As to the rest, they left Bothwell heading south on a march of about four days, but it was rough territory, much of it populated by unfriendly border clans who claimed many of the refugees before they made the border.

There were battles in which there was greater loss of life on both sides; there were even battles between the neighboring countries after Bannockburn. Robert had other castles to capture (and deconstruct), and none of them are even known to most of the world’s Scots. There has been no blockbuster movie made portraying the battle in any meaningful way. And most of the battlefield is now infringed on and built over, so obviously the homeland Scots don’t even have a particular reverence for the site.

So why do we make such a big deal of the Battle of Bannockburn?

It’s a big deal because Bannockburn was not really a battle for Stirling Castle, though it was one of the benefits accrued to Scotland because of the conflict’s being won. It was a battle for the whole country. The battle for independence.

Bannockburn was the battle for Scotland. 


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