Robert the Bruce in Battle: A battlefield trail from Methven to Bannockburn

By James Murray | 20 June 2014 | Updated: 24 June 2014

Bannockburn was neither the first nor the last battle in the First War of Independence - Robert the Bruce fought a long war all over Scotland and Northern England. Follow in his footsteps here

A re-enactment of the battle of Bannockburn
Re-enacting the Battle of Bannockburn: legend has it that the Bruce met the Earl of Hereford's nephew's Henry de Bohun in single combat on the first day, breaking his axe over his opponent's head© National Trust for Scotland
The 700th anniversary of the infamous Battle of Bannockburn will be marked with festivities and re-enactments drawing attention to Scotland’s proud heritage and culture.

Taught as the pivotal moment in Robert the Bruce’s campaign for independence from the English crown to generations of Scottish school children, it seems the anniversary of this well-known battle will also provide the backdrop to the referendum on Scottish independence on 18th September this year.

What better time, then, to revisit the important sites of Robert the Bruce’s tireless campaign for freedom? Come on a journey around the north of Britain to see where the Bruce’s guerrilla tactics were learned, and where eventually he got the chance to turn the tide in his favour.

King of Scotland

Robert was crowned King of Scotland at the ancient site of Scone, near Perth, on March 25 1306. This, however, was not without significant opposition, since he had murdered one of his rivals, John Comyn, in order to secure his position.

Legend has it that Scottish Kings were crowned sitting on the Stone of Scone at the summit of Moot Hill from as far back as the 9th century, when the very idea of Scotland, or Alba,  was still in its infancy.

The hill and a replica of the stone can be taken in on a visit to Scone Palace, while the original stone itself can be found at Edinburgh Castle - returned in 1996 after 700 years of exile at the Palace of Westminster.

Scone Palace
the modern Scone Palace© Peter Hodge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Having suffered a major defeat against the Earl of Pembroke at Methven, just a little to the west of Perth, in June 1306, the Bruce disappeared, probably to the Western Isles, and then returned to his native Ayrshire the following year.

This time he adopted a more passive policy of resistance – avoiding pitched battle against a more numerous and better equipped enemy wherever possible.

The area where King Robert is reputed to have gained his first minor victory against part of Pembroke’s forces, at Glen Trool in Dumfries and Galloway on March 31 1307, is today a perfect location for outdoor activities such as walking, cycling and fishing.

The traditional site of the battle, as well as ‘Bruce’s Stone’ – a massive granite boulder commemorating the action, can be found on a short walk around Loch Trool, while the highest mountain of the Lowlands, the Merrick, can be climbed directly from the nearby visitors centre.

Loch Trool
Loch Trool© David Baird and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Repeating the formula of his victory against the Bruce the previous year, Aymer de Valence (Earl Pembroke) challenged him to another pitched battle.

On the plains below Loudon Hill, east of Kilmarnock, the Bruce made sure he was prepared this time – constructing three wide ditches with space between for his pikemen to stand massed in a schitron formation against the more numerous English infantry and cavalry.

With 600 men fighting against 3,000, the Bruce scored a notable victory on May 10 1307, and although it was not a total rout, it did mark a turning point in his fortunes and the beginning of his successful campaign to unite all of Scotland behind his kingship.

Today some modest monuments to the various actions fought in the area can be found on the summit of the dramatic rocky outcrop of the hill.

The English King Edward I, the Bruce’s implacable rival for dominion of Scotland, meanwhile died on his way to confront him in battle later that year. This gave Robert the perfect opportunity to concentrate on his Scottish enemies.

Lands and castles in the north and west of the kingdom were reduced by the Bruce over the following year, culminating in the Battle of Barra, or Inverurie, near Aberdeen, on May 22 or 23 1308.

Though ill, possibly with scurvy, King Robert rode out with his army to confront his old enemies the Comyns for the last time – reputedly causing a rout by his appearance alone.

Inverurie Castle, the Bass
the motte of Inverurie Castle, known locally as the Bass© Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
In the modern town of Inverurie the remains of the old motte and bailey castle, which the Bruce may have camped at shortly before the battle, are preserved within the town cemetery, along with a fascinating collection of Pictish symbol stones salvaged from the walls of a dismantled church.

Following a notable victory over the MacDougalls of Argyll at the Pass of Brander, probably later that summer, the Bruce had sufficient authority to call his first Parliament, held at St Andrews in March 1309.

One of the principle cities of Scotland at this time, St Andrews was the home of the relics of Jesus’ first apostle, Andrew. As the third holiest site of pilgrimage in Christendom, it also boasted the largest cathedral ever built in Scotland, dedicated by King Robert himself in 1318 after 150 years of construction.

St Andrews Cathedral
the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral© Alex Bishop and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
St Andrews today is a vibrant university town, featuring the remains of the Bishop’s Palace perched just above the sea; the Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA); the Royal and Ancient golf club; and some of the finest sandy beaches in the UK, as well as the ruins of the cathedral.

The Battle of Bannockburn

King Robert was permitted several more years to work on reducing the English garrisons and viceroys installed to rule Scotland for Edward I before his son, Edward II, gathered an army to relieve Stirling Castle in 1314.

The Battle of Bannockburn was fought around the woodland of New Park on the road to Stirling on June 23 and 24.

Current estimates give Edward about 13,000 troops, including 1,000 heavily armoured knights, while the Bruce probably commanded about 6,000 foot soldiers and a few hundred light cavalry.

On the first day the vanguard of the English army was routed under the impetuous leadership of the Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Hereford, whose nephew was killed in single combat with King Robert at the start of the engagement.

Re-assembled on the second day, the English forces advanced chaotically against the Scots on more open ground, and may have faltered as their heavy cavalry fell foul of the ditches the Bruce had secretly dug around his position a couple of days earlier.

Due to the narrowness of the position, the English numerical superiority was unable to tell, and the whole mass was caught up in a sudden retreat which foundered in the ditch of Bannockburn. 

Re-enactment at Bannockburn
a pike Schiltron at a re-enactment of the Battle of Bannockburn© National Trust for Scotland
The National Trust for Scotland owns a stretch of land considered at one time the most likely site of the battle on the second day, as well as the recently re-furbished visitors centre featuring exciting new 3D battle experiences. However, as the recent BBC documentary ‘The Quest for Bannockburn’ has shown, the exact location of the battle remains a mystery.

Though an astonishing victory, Bannockburn was just one battle in a much longer war. By 1319 King Robert had re-captured the border fortress town of Berwick from England, but Edward II continued to be able to muster large armies which could not be confidently met by the Scots in open battle.

Yorkshire Raid

In that year a Scottish raiding force of 10–15,000 men was sent into Yorkshire, reportedly to capture Queen Isabella, who was staying at York. In the main, however, the raid was designed to draw attention away from Edward’s counter-siege of Berwick, where his whole royal army was massed.

The Archbishop of York mustered a large militia army of c. 20,000 men, and met the Scots in open fields at Myton near Boroughbridge on September 19, hoping to catch them unprepared. The Scots were forewarned, however, and caught the English out of formation instead, cutting off their retreat across Myton Bridge in the confusion.

Another crushing defeat and slaughter took place, this time deep in English territory, but once again it was just one strategic success – the Scots were forced to retreat straight back into Scotland as the main English army moved down from Berwick to confront them.

More significant was the Battle of Byland on October 14 1322, in which Edward II himself was almost captured as a large Scottish force out-manoeuvred a portion of the English army near York, which was returning from a fruitless expedition to Edinburgh.

Byland Abbey
Byland Abbey, near the site of the battle© Ian Skinner and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Even after this, the war dragged on, with the young Edward III at the centre of the last major engagement at Stanhope Park, near Darlington, on August 3 and 4 1327.

The English regents Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer had paid large amounts for a mercenary army to defeat the Scottish incursion, but after the King was nearly seized in a night raid and the Scots marched comfortably homeward, the mounting costs of the war became untenable, forcing them to open negotiations.

Treaty

The Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, sealed at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh on March 17 1328, and then ratified by the English parliament in Northampton, is a short document ceding almost everything to King Robert.

Probably envisaged as a temporary pragmatic measure ending a war the beleaguered regents could not afford to fight, the grand summation of the Bruce’s mission to carve out Scotland as a kingdom of his own just a year before his death must nevertheless stand out as a major milestone in British history.

Copies of both the treaty and the Declaration of Arbroath, sent to the Pope in 1320, are held in the National Archives of Scotland. The story of the Declaration, which has been described as the first recorded expression of nationhood in Europe and a major influence on the American Declaration of Independence, is told at the ruins of Arbroath Abbey on the east coast of Scotland, between Dundee and Montrose.

A copy of the Declaration of Arbroath at Arbroath Abbey
a re-production of the Declaration of Arbroath at Arbroath Abbey© Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Arbroath Abbey
Arbroath Abbey© Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Possible site of the Battle of Bannockburn
one of the many possible sites of the Battle of Bannockburn© Robert Murray and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Methven Castle
Methven Castle, currently a guesthouse and wedding venue© Arthur Bruce and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Loudon Hill
the volcanic plug of Loudon Hill© Iain Thompson and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Trig point and battle memorial at summit of Loudon Hill
a memorial to the battle at the summit© Alan Pitkethley and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
The Pass of Brander
The Pass of Brander© Stan Campbell and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
The Bishop's Palace from Castle Sands, St Andrews
ruins of St Andrews Castle, known as the Bishops' Palace© Nikki Mahadevan and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle, whose garrison Edward II hoped to relieve in June 1314© Kim Traynor and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
The River Swale, from Myton Bridge
the River Swale, near Myton© D. S. Pugh and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Holyrood Abbey
the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, where the treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton was finally sealed in 1328© Liz 'n' Jim and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
The First War of Independence: a Timeline
  • 25th March 1306: Scone – Robert the Bruce crowned King of Scots
  • June 1306: Battle of Methven - Bruce defeated in pitched battle by the Earl of Pembroke
  • 31st March 1307: Battle of Glen Trool - minor victory for Bruce in a guerrilla campaign
  • 10th May 1307: Battle of Loudon Hill - first major victory in a return match against the Earl of Pembroke
  • 22nd May 1308: Battle of Barra / Inverurie - victory over old rivals, the Comyns, near Aberdeen
  • summer 1308: Battle of the Pass of Brander - victory over the the Macdougalls of Argyll
  • March 1309: First Parliament at St Andrews
  • 23rd/24th June 1314: Battle of Bannockburn - major victory over Edward II
  • 19th September 1319: Battle of Myton - victory over a Yorkshire militia deep in England
  • 6th April 1320: Declaration of Arbroath - a letter from Scottish nobles to Pope John XXII proclaiming Scotland an independent country
  • 14th October 1322: Battle of Byland - English army routed in England on return from attack on Edinburgh
  • 3rd and 4th August 1327: Battle of Stanhope Park - Scots under James 'the Black' Douglas nearly capture Edward III at Weardale, Durham
  • 17th March 1328: Treaty of Northampton - sealed at the Abbey of Holyrood, ending the war for just 5 years
To find out more about Bannockburn and other Scottish battles see the Battlefields Trust website: http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/resource-centre/

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Latest comment: >Make a comment
For centuries the Scottish tried to steal English land and made raids into England. The English from the earliest times defeated the Scots 99% of the time. Fact Robert the Bruce was more Norman than Scottish. He not only betrayed the English king but murdered the true rightful heir to the Scottish throne, Comyn. Along with committing the mass murder of Irish people in Ireland. Fact just as many Scots didn't want him as those who did. Please keep the racist anti-English Bruce trail out of England
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