Robert the Bruce & Battle of Bannockburn, pt.1

"The Bruce Bannockburn and Beyond" (excerpt)


"King Faces King: Prelude to battle"


Bruce's Troops

Bruce's best troops were his spearmen, normally trained to fight in a motionless defensive role, he drilled them into moving units of schiltrons. He spent many hours teaching them how to exploit the exhaustion of the English cavalry after the failure of their charges. In the center, both James "Black" Douglas commanded the Clydesdale men and those from the western border with Bruce's brother Edward, who led contingents from Buchan, Angus, Menteith and Lennox. Randolph led the troops from Ross, Moray and Inverness. Bruce himself stood on the right flank and controlled the Scottish reserves, where he controlled the pace and tactics of the ensuing battle.

Bruce's army was deployed in four large divisions or "battles", each division consisting to two schiltrons. Douglas's division stood on the left flank, Randolph and Edward Bruce took the center, and Robert the right. The small body of Scots light cavalry was placed under the command of Sir Robert Keith, and was deployed on the right at the rear of the army.

King Robert Bruce
[Robert the Bruce] Although short in numbers, Robert, made up for this deficiency through hard training. The Scots were familiar with wielding the 12 foot spears, standing tight in formations, resisting the temptation to run wildly into the conflict. Bruce prepared the ground around the burn of Bannock carefully. Pits and traps (murder holes) were set then covered with loose brush. Tree trunks were built into barricades across forrest paths. The time of combat was near, and Bruce was prepared.




More Preparations

Six and a half centuries have changed the terrain, the field on the actual battle site. It is now lost under the urban spread of Stirling, roads, railway, farms, and drainage schemes and timber clearance. Men still argue over the actual site of the battle, disputing it's location by yards.

[Map of Stirling in relation to Bannockburn] Wherever the exact location, it mattered little on the hot, wet, summer day in June, 1314. The road from Falkirk made a thousand years before by the Romans, ran northward from the Torwood over the burn and through the New Park, past St. Ninian's church to the castle gates of Stirling. Bruce had decided to fight here, before Stirling, rather than anywhere else in his kingdom, and having made the choice had picked his ground with cunning and skill. Arriving from Torwood on Saturday, June 22, he placed his four schiltrons along the road through the New Park, facing eastward, screened by trees, and with the advantage of higher ground above the plain. As mentioned, the left flank division was led by Thomas Randolph, Bruce's nephew. The next schiltron was commanded by Walter the Steward (the ancestor of the Stewarts), though because he was young and inexperienced, its effective leader was Bruce's lieutenant "Good Sir James" Douglas. Douglas was used as a roving general in many battles as he was adept at slipping behind enemy lines. Then Edward Bruce's division, entrusted with the lion and yellow standard of his brother. The King himself, moved up from the reserves to take the right flank schiltron, upon the southern edge of the Park and the bank of the Bannock. A supply camp at Cambuskenneth, north of the Forth, was commanded by Sir John Airth. Robert Keith held 500 light cavalrymen in reserve.


The Pits of Bannockburn

The position selected by Bruce, then called the New Park, was partly open and partly encumbered with trees. On one side it was covered by a morass, known as the New-miln Bog, the crossing of which was dangerous and difficult. He formed his troop in four divisions but sufficiently near to keep up communication. Though his army was Lowland and Highland, the main numbers of the forces were Highlanders who spoke little to no English or French. This made it somewhat difficult for the Bruce as his Lowland troops spoke a crude form of English with some Gaelic mixed into it. But, the majority of the Highlanders spoke only Gaelic. Bruce's solutions was two-fold. He had intended to train the front ranks to communicate in English and this naturally led to a Lowland army mixed with English speaking Highlanders. The rest of the Highlanders, who fought very individualistic by nature, were used at his secret reserve behind Coxet Hill. Bruce himself spoke both Gaelic and English, and so he commanded the Highland reserves as well. Three of the four divisions faced south-east, the direction by which the enemy must approach, and extending from the brook or 'burn', called the Bannock, to the village of St. Ninian. He also commanded the right wing and it was protected by means of pits dug where the ground was firm. These pits (military historians call them 'murder holes') were a foot in breadth and three in depth, with a stake in each, and covered lightly with sods and branches. Elsewhere were strewn iron calthrops -- pieces of iron all disposed in a triangular form, so that one stands in a perpendicular direction, and is intended to lame horses.

On 22 June, Bruce received tidings that the English were advancing from Edinburgh, and he immediately marched his forces from the Torwood to the positions he had assigned them two days before. The reserve was taken again by Bruce personally. Some make a worthy argument that this was so that he could talk to the reserves who were gillies or Highlanders, and spoke only Gaelic. Angus of the Isles, his faithful friend and ally, was with him; and to his little body of light cavalry was the Marishal of Scotland, Robert Keith. He would be assigned the duty of filling any bad gaps in the Scots line until infantry could fill it in. More importantly, he was to disperse the Welsh and English longbow archers.

Longbow archers
[Engish, Welsh Archers]This was key to the Scots chances of winning the battle. If the archers were to get into a position and were protected by cavalry or infantry, they could send death to the Scots schiltrons from hundreds of yards away until the schiltrons broke. This was how serious the longbow threat was to the Scottish army. The Royal Standard, a red rampant lion on a field of yellow, was fixed in stone which marked the centre of the Scottish line. In Bruce's rear was a little valley. Above it rose a long, green ridge, now known as Gillies' Hill for thereon were all the Highland reserves and the baggage and supplies for his army. The secret reserve was thought to have been made up only of "camp-followers" for centuries. Certainly there were some peasant followers present, but as mentioned earlier, they were not the main force on the hill and could have done little as an effective fighting unit when needed -- though many historians are still vague as to the real identity of these "camp-followers" -- leaving the false impression that were mere peasants, women and children. This vagueness has led to wild rumours and legends as to who may actually have been the secret reserves and some have gone as far as to suggest that it was a body of 700 Knights Templars, who were mostly dead or on the run by the time of the battle of Bannockburn. The whole idea of Scottish Templars has become something of a cottage industry for small organisations seeking glory or fame. Truth is, there were chroniclers at the battle and no mention of any "Templar" army was ever made. This is an invention by some Masonic orders, or radical spinoffs of these orders, centuries later. Simply put: There were NO Templars at the Battle of Bannockburn. The reserve units were Gillies, meaning "retainers" or "boys" as either defintion works. They were mixed Highland Clans who really turned the tide at the battle. I will go into specific mention of which Scottish Highland clans were purportedly present in the next section.

The Scots expected the battle to open with an English cavalry charge, and as mentioned, had protected their front with pits and traps. Between these pits they had scattered hundreds of deadly calthrops -- devices consisting of four metal spikes so arranged that however they lay on the ground one spike was always erect; these would take the horses of the heavy cavalry out of the battle and throw their charge into disarray...or so it was hoped.

These pits and traps along with the natural protection of the New Park formed a honeycomb, as Barbour called them, and with the Bannock, they were further protected on the right flank of the army from a charge of horse.

The Highland Connection

The Highland clans, some of which had hitherto held aloof of the Scottish Wars of Independence under Wallace, had now come down from their mountains and joined Bruce in strength under at least twenty-one Chiefs. This was an unprecedented number of Highland clans gathered together, some hateful of each other, to cooperate with the English speaking Lowlander and a Celtic-Norman King. But Bruce did have a Celtic mother and was a Gaelic speaker himself, and had enjoyed the help and support of most of the Highlanders from his days on the run from the Comyns, their allies and the English armies.

Three chiefs, with their clans -- MacDougal, Cumming (Comyn), and MacNab -- were in the ranks of the English and would later lose land to other clans (such as the MacDonald's and Campbells).

In this, the most decisive battle of its history, Scotland's army was strongly Celtic. There were Lothian men and borderers with Edward Bruce and the Steward, but there were also Gallgaels from Galloway, Scoto-Picts from Fife, and Randolph's spearmen were from Moray and Ross. With his own Carrick levies, Robert's division included Islesmen, who'd been with Bruce from the beginning, mountain men from Argyll, Gaels brought by Angus Og of Clan Donald, honouring an old promise and expecting rich rewards. "My hope," Bruce told him, "is constant in thee", and that hope was reciprocated. The lands of the chief of Clan Donald had been forfeited since his support for Balliol, and the Chief's younger brother Angus Og might this day win them for himself, as well as those of the MacDougalls.

Robert's army was less than a quarter, closer to one-fifth, of the numbers of Edward II's. His warriors came from all over Scotland. His 5,000 schilton spearmen consisted of both Lowlander and Highlander, with a strong contingent coming from the Western Isles. Bruce himself commanded a phalanx of Gaelic clans. According historians C. Rothero and Tim Newark, the following clans are considered represented at Bannockburn and lead there by their chiefs. Cameron, Campbell, Chisholm, Fraser, Gordon, Grant, Gunn, MacKay, MacIntosh, MacPherson, Macquarrie, Maclean, MacLeod, MacDonald, MacFarlane, MacGregor, MacKenzie, Menzies, Munro, Robertson, Ross, Sinclair and Sutherland. Some in Clan Gunn of NA don't agree, but one has to remember that this battle was coming for over 6 months, probably a year. Everyone in Scotland knew the English were coming to reclaim Stirling Castle, and that Bruce would have to face Edward's powerful English armies. It is completely in character for the Highlanders, in such a situation, to voluntarliy come down to Falkirk or Stirling to participate in the upcoming battle. In fact, it is known that some Highlanders were turned away because Bruce didn't have enough provisions to feed them all. Since Mr. Newark, a respected historian and writer of many books, includes all these clans, I do so as well with honest conviction. Clan Gunn was represented, if not by chiefly order, than certainly by individual members of the clan. Now keep in mind this list of clans represents only the confirmable Highland clans and there were undoubtedly more. Other Lowland families were also long time Bruce supporters such as Keith, Douglas, Boyd, Burnett and others. In no way is this a complete and final list of clans that took part in the actual battle of Bannockburn, but these are the I will confirm.

Some notable clan exclusions are Cumming (Comyn), MacDougall, MacDowell, and MacNab who all fought for the English, and would suffer for it later.

Blessing the Troops

On the morning of 23 June, 1314, the whole army heard Mass, said by Maurice, the aged and blind Abbott of Inchaffray; and perhaps no more impressive sight can be imagined than the appearance of those 15,000 men, all ready to die for their country, on their knees before God in prayer.

Then a proclamation was made that if any man was unprepared to fight and all with honour, he might depart; but no man quitted the ranks.

Prebble stated that "after Mass, Bruce rode to inspect the pits and men and was pleased with what he saw, sending word that his men, then breaking their fast with bread and water, should 'busk them on their best manner,' should arm and stand ready for the day. If any man was poor in heart, unwilling to take what God might send, he could go now without molestation. Commanders had made such offers before, and would make them many times again, and history has yet to record an army that accepted so generous a release from imminent slaughter.

In the nervous tension before battle, when men are cunningly told that they may stay or go, they stiffen their self-respect by choosing the former. Bruce's army answered as he expected, with a single cry, said Barbour, that none was afraid.

The Scots Prepare

A skirmish line of Ettrick archers now lined the New Park, and within it the Schiltrons had moved a few yards from the road to better ground. Randolph and some of his men moved forward with the short bow Ettrick archers, the main body staying by St. Ninians. Edward Bruce advanced eastward from the road, his brother Robert was facing south across the pot holes and the burn. The people of the nearby villages and much of Scotland had come to see the battle, and Bruce moved them (they also became known as camp followers), to the woods behind Coxet Hill in the heart of the New Park, safely behind the Steward's schiltrons and the Gillies (Highlanders) secret reserve on Coxet Hill, and the main Highland reserve on Gillies Hill. Douglas and Sir Robert Keith returned from a reconnoiter of the advancing English army around noon. They had gone south through the Torwood, Douglas leading the way quietly, stealthily through the forest. What they saw startled them. A great column of horse and foot, two miles long and approaching on either side of the old Falkirk road.

"Their shields were shining dazzingly,
Their bascinets were burnished bright,
Reflecting back the sun's great light.
Embroidered banners floated high,
And spears and pennants could they spy,
And countless knights upon their steeds,
All brilliant in their coloured weeds."

The bravest host in Christendom, said Barbour, would have been dismayed by such a multitude. As the king's Marishal, master of his five hundred light horse, Keith was probably more than dismayed. He and Douglas rode back and told Bruce that the English "covered all the earth," and were ordered to keep what they had seen to themselves, to spread instead a story that the enemy was advancing in disorder. It was a bold lie, of which the English were soon to make some truth.

Arrival of the English

On the morning of St. John the Baptist, June 24th, the English troops were seen debouching from the vast wood which then stretched away towards Falkirk. The June sunshine fell brightly on their burnished arms. According to Barbour, they seemed to cover all the country far and wide, and the mail of the men-at-arms "made the land seem all aglow". Innumerable white banners were waving in the wind, and the multicoloured pennons of the knights floated above the glittering columns like a sea. The vanguard of the English, consisting of archers, billmen and spearmen -- comprising most of the infantry -- was now advancing, under the Earls of Gloucester and Hereford, covered by a heavy body of mailed cavalry in support. The remainder of the English troops were so hampered by the difficulties of terrain that their formation of nine great columns, to the eyes of the Scots, seemed to form but one enormous mass, gleamimg with flashes of armour, and shaded by the mulitude of silken banners and coloured pennons that floated over them in the soft summer wind. Edward II himself commanded this vast array: he was surrounded by a bodyguard of 400 chosen men, the flower of English chivalry.

When the Scots saw this mighty host rolling towards them like a vast wave, the Scots joined in a universal appeal to heaven for aid against the strength of their enemies; and, barefooted and bareheaded, the Abbott of Inchaffray passed along the line, with a crucifix in his hand, bestowing benedection and absolution on all, while the soldiers knelt before them.

Sir Humphrey de Umfraville, a Scot on the English side, suggested to Edward the policy of feigning a retreat, to lure Bruce from his strong position. His counsel was heard with disdain, and on observing the Scots on their knees at prayer , Edward cried out, "They crave mercy!". "It is of heaven, and not your highness," replied de Umfraville; "for on that field they will be victorius or die".


Bruce Faces off against an English Knight

The most famous battle in Scottish history began with an event right out of a Hollywood production.

[Bruce]Edward II had his men halt on the south side of the burn, but they had marched too far in the stifling, midsummers heat to stop now. Each English baron and knight was jealous of the other, all clamouring to get at the Scots. As soon as they saw the Scots skirmish line retreating into the New Park, they ordered their trumpets to sound and led their eager young men forward at a gallop, over the burn and up a slow rise towards the trees. One Scot alone seemed to be waiting for them on a grey Highland pony and war-axe in hand. One of the leading English knights, Sir Henry de Bohun, recognised the Scots king, couched his lance and spurred his horse forward.

Henry de Bohun was Humphrey de Bohun's ,the Earl of Hereford's, nephew and Bruce was familiar with him. De Bohun, realising that, in one blow, he had a chance for glory by slaying the Scots king before the battle, put his visor down and lance forward. He charged Robert who had been out scouting positions. Seeing the English knight powering towards him, lance extended, the reaction expected of a warrior taken off-guard would have been to fall back to a safer position.

But to turn now, in front of both armies, especially his hand-trained Scots, would be equally disasterous. Bruce also had a particular loathing for de Bohun. When Bruce had been on the run in the early days of his reign, Edward I had handed his lands in Annandale and Carrick over to the de Bohuns. Later, Edward II had given Bruce's Essex estates to the same family.

Instead of retreating or charging at the armoured, lanced de Bohun, Bruce carefully turned his grey palfrey slightly sideways to the charging de Bohun. Skillfully, at the last second, Bruce shifted his horse's position and the Englishmans lance point went harmlessly past him. De Bohuns charge had been deflected and Robert raised himself high in his stirrups and brought down, with all his strength, the battle-axe on the passing knight's head. Bruce clove de Bohun's head and helmet in twain by one blow of his battle-axe, laying him dead instantly. A great cry went up from the combined Highland and Lowland army, and the tone of the battle was, perhaps, set.

Bruce's encounter with de Bohun on an open field in full view of both armies is the stuff of herioc legend. In fact, if it weren't recorded as fact by both English and Scottish chroniclers, it might not sound believable. But it was and it was typical of Bruce's cool, cunning intelligence. The potentially disasterous encounter is more artful than valiant. Bruce was simply much more cautious, much safer than his reckless opponent. Once committed to his tilt, head down and lance couched, de Bohun relied upon weight and not maneuver. Against an enemy similarly outfitted and committed to victory, it would have been decided by brute impact. But a cool-headed, lightly armoured, lightly horsed, man ignored the "nice" obligations of chivalry; side-stepped a rider that could not be halted and slew him like an ox as he passed.

Robert Bruce rode back to his division where he was reproached for the risk he had taken. Bruce's only response was a sad look at his now useless war-axe and the words "I haif broken the haft of my gude axe."

Next: the English and Scottish armies clash in what would be the worst defeat the English ever encountered in Britain or indeed in all it's medieval history. Scot's would have to fight for their very lives and independence under the cool leadership of Robert the Bruce.

Next, the battle itself.

  • The Battle of Bannockburn - Part 2

  • Bruce and Bannockburn Menu

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