Friday, February 16, 2018

In Search of Bannockburn

By Annie Whitehead

On a recent trip to Scotland I had, as is my wont, attempted to see as many historical sites as possible, and, looking at the map as we left Doune Castle (filming location for Outlander, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) it seemed to me that a short drive would take us to Bannockburn, and since the place was marked clearly on the map, we'd be there in a matter of minutes.

I'll say no more about that, except that the words lost, minor roads, and divorce were uttered.

But, a roadside sign showed how close we were, for we had inadvertently found ourselves at the very edge of the battle site.

We had arrived on the eastern slope of Gillies Hill, where the servants, cooks, smiths - essentially the non-combatants - of Robert Bruce's army were placed for safety before the battle. It is assumed that at some point they went down the hill, nearer the fighting, but perhaps only to loot, sensing that the battle was all but won.

Bannockburn was a major engagement between the forces of King Edward II of England and Robert Bruce, thenceforth Robert I of Scotland. A short distance from Gillies Hill we could see the monument to Bruce, and we set off. Eventually we found the Visitors' Centre, down in the valley but not, necessarily, on the site of the battle.

For, although it is known that the battle commenced on 23rd and continued into 24th June, 1314, it has never been established exactly where the main fighting took place.

On 22nd June, Bruce had moved his men to the New Park, two miles south of Stirling Castle. There were trees beside the road to the castle which would make it hard for Edward II's cavalry to be deployed, while to the southwest, a place named Halbert's Bog, and rolling hills, would be protection from attack.

Stirling Castle, seen from Bannockburn
On the morning of 23rd, Edward's troops marched from Falkirk towards Stirling (a matter of some fourteen miles). Edward received word that Robert had blocked the road through the Park. Edward commanded his army to stop for a break, but, either through disobedience or confusion, the vanguard pressed on, only to be pushed back by the Scots.

Later in the day, two of Edward's knights attempted to take 300 cavalry to higher ground, but they were met by a schiltron*, which pushed them back.

Mindful of a possible night-time attack by the Scots, that night Edward decided to cross the Bannock Burn and set up camp on the far side, on the 'Carse', an area of lower ground.

This was no easy feat. They needed to erect makeshift bridges to get the horses across the water. It took a long time, with some having to wait until nearly dawn to cross.

Meanwhile, at dawn, Robert Bruce ordered an advance, as close to Edward's line as possible. First to engage were the archers, but it was the Scots who were forced to pull back first. The English cavalry lined up, as best they could in the unfavourable terrain.

The English cavalry could not get past the schiltron, led by the Earl of Moray. Unable to present more than a limited front, they could not take advantage of their superior numbers, and were further hindered by those who began to retreat, pushing them back. Sir Robert Keith successfully led the Scottish cavalry against the English archers, depriving Edward of his deadliest resources.

Hand-to-hand combat ensued, with many English soldiers being pushed back to drown in the Bannock Burn.

After the battle, Edward fled to Dunbar, and thence to Berwick. The fighting did not end there, with Scots harrying into England and Robert Bruce facing opposition still from the Balliols, in the form of John Balliol's son, Edward, but a plot against Robert in 1320 failed.

Edward II meanwhile, refused to accept Robert as king of Scotland, but in 1320 the Declaration of Arbroath , a letter (sealed by the nobles of Scotland) to Pope John XXII, asserted Robert's right to rule Scotland.

So, that's a potted history of the battle itself. But while the Visitors' Centre has a wealth of information about it, it cannot provide the answer to the question: where was the battle?

There is hardly any archaeological evidence for the battle. No human remains, no pieces of military or personal equipment, and no mass graves have been found. The fighting took place over a huge area, and this was subject to wholesale looting. The sources refer vaguely to 'the wood', the 'kirk', 'the great ditch' and even a 'dry field', hard to identify now without specific place-names.

It seems to have been agreed that the first day's fighting occurred round New Park, which roughly equates to the site of the Visitors' Centre, but argument continues about the second day, with many topographical features, such as the 'great ditch' still unidentified. Up to eight potential sites have been identified from written sources. These sources include: 
The Lancercost Chronicle, The Chronicle of Andrew of Wynton, Liber Pluscardensis, Chronica gentis Scotorum, Vita Edwardi Secundi, The Brut, or Chronicle of England, and The Anonimalle Chronicle
This is not even a complete list, yet still the site cannot be pinpointed with precision. One theory contends that the battlefield was specifically on the Carse, between the Pelstream Burn and the Bannock Burn. Another potential site is under a school and a modern housing estate. The Visitors' Centre was set up to preserve the general area, rather than commemorate a specific site, and there is a magnificent monument to Robert Bruce there.

In 2012 and 2013 an archaeological survey of the Carse was undertaken, yielding some medieval pottery which was of roughly the date of the battle, which suggests human settlement and thus reduces the weight of one argument which contends that the area was too boggy to be a battle site.

The best hope for identification lies in a technique known as LiDAR, a system of recording the landscape using lasers to create a computer model of the landscape, and then studying the possible routes taken by Edward's army.

Ironic, then, that we had initially been unable to find Bannockburn, for it transpires that there is nothing really to find.

As an Anglo-Saxonist, I am used to relying on written and archaeological evidence. Rarely am I able to visit a known battle site, or see a building which dates from the period. So it still surprises me that such a major battle as Bannockburn, one which marks, to all intents and purposes, Scottish independence from the Plantagenet kings, should have left so little trace of itself. A huge impact on history, yes, and a wealth of written material, too. But for the visitor to Bannockburn, all that awaits is - an admittedly impressive - 3D visual 'experience', a chance to view the monument, but no insight at all into where the fighting actually took place.

*Schiltron - a formation of tightly-packed spearmen (around 500-1000)

[all illustrations are photographs taken by and copyright of the author, except the Declaration of Arbroath, which is a Public Domain image via Wikipdedia]


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.


  1. Great article, Annie. I had the privilege, many years ago, to tour the environs of Bannockburn with the late Stirling bookseller and local historian, Bob McCutcheon. Bob showed me what he believed to be Edward's Ford, where the English army crossed the Bannock. I walked along the burn and tried to imagine the battlefield as it then existed, but area has built up and changed significantly. I too hope that one day the archaeologists will locate the site with certainty.

    1. Thanks Glen - Yes, it would be wonderful if they were eventually able to build up a better picture of what happened where, or at least link the landscape to the written sources.

  2. I always find it interesting that evidence of these battles in the form of artifices is missing or sparse. Looting yes. But bones? It baffles me. I thought Chas Jones did a marvellous job on Fulford. The team actually did find evidence eventually and now that site is to become a housing estate. Excellent article btw, Annie.

    1. Thanks Carol - glad you liked it. Yes, I'm staggered by how little they've managed to find. Such a pivotal battle, and not even pre-Conquest. And, yes, why no bones? I hope one day that they solve the mystery.

  3. I meant artefacts above. iPad scrambles. It may be that bodies got burned in charcoal pits but even so I would expect evidence.

    1. Yes, I'd assumed that auto-correct was to blame :-)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.