Battle of Bannockburn

Asserting Scotland’s Independence

The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314 – a crucial event in Scotland’s story. Scotland, the underdogs, pull it off. The opposition blame the poor condition of the pitch. Admittedly, it isn’t the most scenic of Scotland’s battlefields but don’t blame King Robert. 

The Battle of Bannockburn was fought in June of 1314 and re-gained for Scotland almost four centuries of independence, until its aristocracy sold out to a London parliament in 1707. (The ordinary folk didn’t have a vote back then.)

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…just ahead of kick-off.

Come with me…to a warm summer day more than 700 years ago. Picture the scene. It is midsummer in June 1314 and King Robert is surveying the landscape near Stirling.

Just to be clear: 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 (Lizzie the first of Scotland) as ‘Elizabeth the Windsor’, I suppose. Actually, I’ll make a note of that…..

The Bannockburn battlefield today
The Bannockburn battlefield today, as viewed from the visitor centre on a very dreich April evening, 700 years later.

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 of England, 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 battle-axe. 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. (A bit like a police ‘stinger’ used to stop stolen cars and general bad people.)

Robert is really worried about the superior enemy cavalry and has done his best to make the ground less suitable for a charge of heavy horses with heavily armoured knights aboard them. 

King Robert ahead of the big match
The two team managers, King Robert I, left, (with colander on head and steel wool sweater) and King Edward II of England, right, with white furry headband (the big woose) take press questions ahead of the big match.

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. So that’s all good.

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.

Not as nice as, say, Killiecrankie, Glenfinnan, or even Culloden…my lord…

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 but expensive 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 newspaper?

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.’

Bruce defeats de Bohun and the Scots take an early lead
Wallop. Illustration from children’s history book 1906. De Bohun on brown horse (which I think would have been more heavily draped and also more blurry as he would have been going at quite a lick.)
Bannockburn – the underdogs take an early lead…

At that point,the conversation broke off. 

Some English toff called Sir Henry Bohun had spotted Robert. According to the post-match account, the knight, playing upfront, lowered his lance, spurred his horse and charged. 

The nearby Scots shouted a warning and probably winced, thinking ‘here we go again…’

King Robert was riding only a wee white pony – a paltry palfrey that was small but very nimble. 

With the English knight bearing down on him, pointy end first, King Robert chose his moment, pulled his mount aside, stood up in the stirrups and walloped the careering Bohun so hard with his battleaxe as he thundered by that he split helmet and its contents cleanly in two.

(‘Cleanly’  here really means very messily indeed.) Robert broke his axe handle and the Scots gave out a massive sigh of relief. Presumably.

And so, after that morale-boosting start – to cut a long story short – king turned to his military people, the real experts, rather than listen to the PR folk, and went on to win 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, after two days of fighting, 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 intelligent material on the battlefieldstrust.com website, among other places.

The battlesite has had a visitor centre on the site for many years – and a re-vamped one opened back in 2014. Unusually (almost uniquely, in fact) 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 the link.

If you like battlefields then Culloden Moor, near Inverness, is a must see.