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On June 24th 1314 the Scottish army led by Robert the Bruce beat Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Many people only know the history of the battle, and indeed of the Scottish struggle for independence, from films and popular songs. Hollywood has never been strong on historical fact as Mel Gibson’s dreadful “Braveheart” shows so perhaps it’s time for someone – me – to give a more accurate account of this famous and important battle.

As a starting point I’d draw your attention to that dreadful modern folk song “Flower of Scotland” which for some unaccountable reason seems to have become de facto the Scottish National Anthem – well it is at Rugby matches. Much as I liked it as a folk song when performed by the Corries folk group – it isn’t my national anthem, so I always sit through it.

However, in every verse there is a refrain:

That stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again

Well these lines refer to the defeat of Edward II by King Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

Background

On 26th March 1306 Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scots with the name Robert I. This followed a period of intense unrest as the throne of Scotland was fought over by the English Kings and Scotland, for centuries a proud and independent nation, was crushed under the heel of English invaders.

Robert and his father were among the Scottish nobles who had supported and fought alongside William Wallace though in truth Bruce saw Wallace more as a rival for the Scottish crown (in these days the Kingship wasn’t hereditary) than anything else.

In 1307 Bruce was deposed by the army of Edward I (the “hammer of the Scots”) and forced to flee. His wife and daughters were imprisoned and three of his brothers executed. Robert spent the winter on the island off the coast of Antrim (Northern Ireland).

Following the death of Edward, King Robert returned and commenced a successful guerrilla campaign regaining much of the land that had been taken by the English.

In the spring of 1314 Robert’s brother, Edward laid siege to English-held Stirling Castle. Unable to make any significant progress, he struck a deal with the castle’s commander that if the castle was not relieved by Midsummer Day (June 24) it would be surrendered to the Scots. By the terms of the deal a large English force was required to arrive within three miles of the castle by the specified date. This arrangement displeased both King Robert, who preferred his guerrilla tactics and wished to avoid pitched battles, and King Edward II who viewed the potential loss of the castle as a blow to his prestige.

Seeing an opportunity to regain the Scottish lands lost since his father’s death Edward prepared to march north that summer. As they did so Bruce shifted his army to the New Park, a wooded area, overlooking the Falkirk-Stirling road, as well as marshes known as the Carse and a small stream, the Bannock Burn.

The Battle

The Scottish force was composed largely of infantry, with few archers and little cavalry. Bruce placed his men between two stretches of uneven and boggy ground, so the English had to attack against a narrow front. This negated the English superiority in numbers, which has been estimated at three to one.

Bruce’s tactics worked to perfection. The English cavalry hurled charge after charge against the massed spears of the Scottish front, to little effect. The Scottish cause was aided when a large group of their camp-followers was mistaken by the English for fresh Scottish troops, and the English army broke ranks and fled.

The flight of the English troops was hampered by the boggy ground, and many were cut down by the pursuing Scots. The lack of Scottish cavalry limited pursuit, however.

Outcome

Bannockburn was the decisive blow in establishing the independence of Scotland from England. Although the English refused to recognise the fact until the treaty of Northampton 14 years later, Bannockburn set the seal on Scotland’s bid for freedom. Robert the Bruce is rightly remembered as a national hero for his role in ridding Scotland of the English yoke, at least for a time.

Aftermath

The Battle of Bannockburn became the greatest victory in the history of Scotland. While full recognition of Scottish independence was still several years off, Bruce had driven the English from Scotland and secured his position as king. While exact numbers of Scottish casualties are not known, they are believed to have been light. Records show that Edward lost around 9,000 men. Following the battle, Edward raced south and finally found safety at Dunbar Castle. He never again returned to Scotland.

So, now you see the link to “Flower of Scotland” which records the courage of the Scots who stood against “proud Edward’s army, and sent him homeward to think again.”

Conclusion

Thankfully these days the battles between Scotland and England are – for the most part – carried out on the sporting field rather than the battle field. So it was that in 1990 the Scottish Rugby team won the Grand Slam by demolishing the English at Murrayfield. They arrived full of arrogance and pride – and were sent home to think again. It was a moving experience to hear the massed voices of Scotland supporters singing “Flower of Scotland” and lest anyone think this shows a warlike fervour they should read all the verses of the song, paying particular attention to the final verse:

O flower of Scotland
When will we see your like again
That fought and died for
Your wee bit hill and glen
And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again

The hills are bare now
And autumn leaves lie thick and still
O’er land that is lost now
Which those so dearly held
And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again
 
Those days are passed now
And in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now
And be the nation again
That stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again
 

Yes, it’s a grand song celebrating a grand nation.
But it isn’t my national anthem!

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