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It's getting on for the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314, when Scotland gained almost four centuries of independence, before its aristocracy sold out to a London parliament in 1707. Now, for Scots, the date of the Battle of Bannockburn is probably the best-known historical event in the nation's history. There's only one little drawback. What was King Robert I thinking about when he selected the battlefield?
Picture the scene. It is June 1314 and King Robert is surveying the landscape near Stirling. He is sometimes called Robert the Bruce. He got this name mostly through non-native historians: the implications being that he wasn't a 'proper' king. It's a bit like referring to the present queen as 'Elizabeth the Windsor', I suppose.
Anyway......(and to paraphrase), back in the 14th century, the King purses his lips. He is troubled. He's totally committed to ending English occupation and has already spent years battling to recover occupied castles. Now Stirling Castle is on the horizon. It’s the last castle still with an English garrison and if King Robert wins the coming battle, he gets to keep it. But it’s high summer and hot. There’s a cloud of dust rising up from 20,000 English soldiers who are not best pleased at having to defend it and march into Scotland under their king, Edward the, uhmm, Plantagenet. (Look, I’m not on safe ground with the English history - it's King Edward II, ok?)
Meanwhile, Robert fingers his battleaxe. He’s already a bit sweaty under the chain mail. While preparing for the Battle of Bannockburn, he made sure lots of pits were dug. Likewise, he has the all-important calthrops in place. These were nasty little devices with upward pointing spikes strewn on the ground and intended to lame horses. Robert is really worried about the superior enemy cavalry.
I just wish that at some point he had turned to his faithful (but getting nervous) PR advisor who would have said something like:
‘Sire, the knights are fair drawing in. And this ground is most favourable for skewering yon cavalry like kebabs. But around seven hundred years from now, according to my PR crystal ball, it will be far from picturesque in terms of the visitor centre that the National Trust for Scotland will have built there. For lo, it will be zoned as housing and, well, not very pretty and slightly industrial. Quite nondescript, to be honest. My lord, yon Trossachy looking mountains will essay your purpose better. Their lofty spaces will serve the turning of a tour bus with greater ease’.
But King Robert replied: ‘Forsooth, my trusty PR person, I pay you all this money every month and you’re only telling me this now? And not even a mention yet of the Battle of Bannockburn in the Stirling Observer? Now’s the day and now’s the hour. So get the ‘Chains and Slaver-eee’ press release out, pronto. And after this, I’m handling my own account.’
And so the king turned to his military experts, rather than listen to the PR folk, and won a great victory at the Battle of Bannockburn, near Stirling. Not allowing the enemy cavalry - the heavy weaponry of the day - to manoeuvre was crucial. So he was right to choose and prepare this ground on the edge of Stirling. Nobody seems quite sure of the exact setting of some of the battle incidents that took place on the river-terraces and marshy fields of what is now the mostly built-over outskirts of Stirling, though there’s some awesomely intelligent material on the Battle of Bannockburn on that link. The battlesite has had a visitor centre on the site for many years - and a brand-new one is, at time of writing, planned to open by the 2014 anniversary. More on this later.
As a footnote, after many other conflicts and few victories, there was the Battle of Culloden, 432 years later, the last battle fought in Scotland, in a civil war often misrepresented as a Scotland versus England conflict. In reality, it split families and saw more Scots fight for the government side than join Bonnie Prince Charlie's outfit. There's a page on the much later Battle of Culloden on this website. And it really is an atmospheric place.
The National Trust for Scotland have a visitor centre there too, on the actual battlefield near Inverness. They present a really vivid experience of the clash, din, gore and grubby, bloody realities of what it must have been like to tangle with grapeshot and rusty blades on the bleak cold moorland near Inverness. It's most excellent and thoroughly recommended.
As most Scots know, Prince Charles Edward Stuart lost at Culloden in 1746 - so his Jacobite forces were unable to restore a Catholic monarchy to the throne of Britain. However, the Jacobites had their own magnificent PR people, especially in the days when shortbread tin-lid illustrations were the new media, and we still sing lugubrious 'Will he no Come Back Again' romantic dirges about the rash adventurer.
Marker for some of the fallen clansmen on the Culloden Battlefield.
The Battle of Bannockburn was fought close to Stirling Castle. Follow that link for information on this and other castles.
Return to the history of Scotland page.
Or return to the Scotlandinaweek home page.
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