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Battle of Bannockburn - winning Scotland's independence.

The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314 - a crucial event in Scotland's story. But it isn't the most scenic of Scotland's battlefields. Don't blame King Robert tho. 

Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn was fought in June of 1314 and gained Scotland almost four centuries of independence, until its aristocracy sold out to a London parliament in 1707.

Now, for Scots, the date of Bannockburn is probably the best-known historical event in the nation's history.  However, it is a very long time ago now and today's Scotland is mostly looking to its future rather than living in its past. 

Still, it doesn't stop the tourism industry (amongst others) from keeping the story of Bannockburn alive. But there's only one little drawback about the actual Battle of Bannockburn. What was King Robert I thinking about when he selected the battlefield?

It's June 1314...about to kick-off

Come with me...to a warm summer day more than 700 years ago. 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. Actually, I’ll make a note of that…..

Anyway……(and to paraphrase), back on that day in the 14th century, the King purses his lips. He is troubled. He’s totally committed to ending the English occupation of Scotland 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. In short, it's the jackpot.

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? You remember...the son of King Edward I of England aka 'The Hammer of the Scots'.)

Meanwhile, back in the field, Robert fingers his battleaxe. He’s already a bit sweaty under the chain mail. While preparing for the Battle of Bannockburn, he has 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 and has done his best to make the ground less suitable. 

But now a word from the PR team

However, his faithful (but getting nervous) PR advisor suddenly tugs at the King's sleeve. He's not altogether happy with something. He speaks up...

‘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, some of it will be zoned as housing and, well, not all of it is very pretty and it’s slightly industrial in places. Quite nondescript, to be honest. My lord, westward, 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.

Besides, you never did sell the film rights. Look what Braveheart has done for the visitor numbers at the Wallace Monument.’

Robert the Bruce works the room

Robert the Bruce works the room

(Left) Robert the Bruce sneakily snapped as he attends a press event before the battle. Can you spot him? (Hint: it's the guy with the colander on his head and the steel wool sweater.) That’s King Edward of England on the right, by the way. 

And - to cut a long story short - king turned to his military people, the real 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.

As everyone knows, the Battle of Bannockburn ended when Bruce’s army of camp followers arrived on the scene, with those who were the most camp shouting ‘We want to see King Edward. We think he’s really nice!

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. (I can recommend its thoroughness to serious students of the battle.)

The battlesite has had a visitor centre on the site for many years – and a new one opened in 2014. Unusually, we got an invitation to view the National Trust for Scotland's Bannockburn Visitor Centre - a very high-tech affair. So if you want to know what we thought of it, then follow that link.


Battle of Culloden

As a footnote, after many conflicts and few Scottish 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 more Scots fought for the government side than joined Bonnie Prince Charlie’s outfit. There’s a page on the much later Battle of Culloden here. And it’s an atmospheric place.

Clan marker at Culloden Battlesite, near Inverness

Clan marker at Culloden Battlesite, near Inverness

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. I suppose, in a way, it’s a kind of yardstick as to what the Bannockburn experience, as interpreted by the National Trust for Scotland, has to match. (And fails to, IMHO.)

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 also 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. (The Jacobite PR machine had the great idea of composing lots of Scottish songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie.)

**Note: the storage capacity of a shortbread tin with Bonnie Prince Charlie on the box lid is usually measured in ‘Jacobytes’.