The Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn

23-24 June 1314

By David Tucker

‘Bannockburn’ was a key battle in Scottish history. This article for Scotland’s Year of Stories will summarise the importance of the battle while also explaining how visitors to Scotland, as well as Scots themselves, can relive the experience in the town of Bannockburn, nowadays part of the city of Stirling in central Scotland.

First, the victory and its aftermath

The Scots were led by King Robert I, known throughout history as ‘Robert the Bruce’, whose stunning victory at Bannockburn – against overwhelming English odds – helped to cement his future reputation as a great and admired leader. For the English, the defeat was doubly galling, since Robert’s opponent, Edward II, had attacked Scotland to avenge the earlier defeat of his father, Edward I, at an equally famous battle, that of Stirling Bridge in 1297 (famously recounted in the film Braveheart).
‘The Bruce’ would go on to establish broadly based Scottish parliaments; to sponsor the Declaration of Arbroath, which appealed to the Pope to recognise Scottish sovereignty; and to make peace with England (albeit temporarily) through the Treaty of Northampton (1328), thus completing his lifetime ambition in the year before he died.


Before the battle

The story of Bruce’s rise to prominence began eight years before Bannockburn. Claiming his family’s right to the throne of Scotland, against the wishes of the English king, Edward I, Bruce and his followers killed his main rival for the throne, John de Balliol. Shockingly, the murder took place within a church in Dumfries, leading to Bruce’s instant excommunication. Unabashed, he proclaimed himself as King of Scots the following year (1306).

Inscription on statue at Bannockburn

Edward I died in 1307 but the English forces under his son, Edward II, continued to harry the Scots, seeking to capture their upstart King. After six years of guerrilla struggle against the English invaders, Bruce’s burgeoning army was in control of much of Scotland. But the strategically important Stirling Castle, which commanded routes into and out of central Scotland, was still in English hands.

Stirling Castle: View to the Highlands

An unusual deal took place. At the start of 1314, English-held Stirling was under siege by Robert’s brother, Edward. The two sides somehow came to an agreement that the English garrison would surrender the castle on Midsummer Day (24th of June) unless it was relieved by English forces before that day. Edward II himself decided that the challenge was important enough for him to lead a large army into Scotland to relieve Stirling Castle.

Into Battle

June 1314 arrived and with it came the largest army ever seen in Scotland. Some 15-20,000 (?) soldiers – mainly English, but from several other countries – were assembled to confront a Scottish army of about 6-8,000 (?) volunteers.

As with all medieval battles, the precise numbers are sketchy (see Footnote on Sources), but the English side was certainly vastly superior to that led by Bruce. Also dubious are any claims of precision for where the armies assembled and fought, but the outcome of the ensuing battle was certain.

There were, in effect, two battles, on 23rd June and 24th June. The battle on the first day ended in a stalemate, each side reinforcing itself overnight.

More than any other event surrounding the battle, the legend of Robert himself engaging in a successful duel with one of his enemies has ‘gone down in history’. In the run-up to the first day’s battle, The Bruce is said to have detached himself from his advancing army to attack one Sir Henry de Bohun.

bruce-duel with de-bohun
Bruce's duel with de Bohun

Avoiding the English knight’s charge, Bruce turned and cleft his helmet and head open with his battle axe, generating such power that the shaft of the axe broke in half.

On the second day, Bruce used his knowledge of the terrain – low hills overlooking the muddy marshland of the ‘carse’ of Stirling – to his advantage. The English cavalry charge was ineffective, as were the English archers.

View across battlefield (?)

Most effective were the Scottish schiltrons: tightly packed, circular groups of spearmen which could hold off either cavalry or infantry charges before moving forwards, as impenetrable as hedgehogs

Battle recreation at NTS centre

Later on the 2nd day, the Scots led their own infantry assault on the enemy who fell into disarray, ‘fleeing in several directions’. The regular Scottish troops were followed onto the battlefield by the Sma’ (small) Folk: casual, local volunteers bearing whatever amateur arms they could muster, but fearsome nonetheless.

Bruce’s tactics combined careful strategy with the brutalities of medieval warfare, most of which could never be shown on the silver screen:

  • For example, they strew the ground with caltrops: 4 or 5-pointed metal ‘stars’ which always fell with one sharp nail pointing upwards, capable of crippling either horse or man
  • Also to deter charge by cavalry or foot soldiers, ‘murder holes’ were dug into the ground ahead of the enemy: deep pits with sharp spikes in them, disguised by turfs, into which both man and horse would fall to be maimed or killed
  • Brutality extended to treatment of the retreating English, although how many lost their lives will never be known. Many must have simply drowned in the mud or in the burns crossing the Carse since they were fully armoured and would have been dragged under.
The Carse (flat land) near Bannockburn

Bannockburn today

The township of Bannockburn is today a quiet suburb of the city of Stirling but this is hardly surprising. Medieval battles across Europe were often fought on fields close to towns and cities which, as they expanded over the centuries, enveloped the original battlefields. Fortunately, at least some of the Bannockburn site is today protected and preserved from development.

The battle is commemorated at the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre, financed in part by the Scottish Government (through Historic Environment Scotland) but operated by the charity, National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which owns much of the land on which the battle is believed to have taken place.

Entrance to NTS centre, Bannockburn

Behind the centre is a striking equestrian statue of Robert next to a ‘rotunda’ bearing a poem by Kathleen Jamie (made a Makar in 2021) and surrounding the famous Borestone cairn (a stone monument).

Kathleen Jamie's poem in rotunda
Borestone 'cairn' at NTS centre

The old cairn, a stone monument, was preserved from the original memorial to the battle. Originally, a large rock called the Bore Stone was supposed to mark the spot where Bruce raised his standard in 1314.

The Bruce statue was originally created by the sculptor, Pilkington Jackson, in 1964, the year that commemorated the 650th anniversary of the battle. It was cast in bronze and elevated on a plinth of natural granite. For the 700th anniversary, 2014, some restoration of the statue was needed and the rotunda was added. In the middle is a tall flagpole bearing the national flag of Scotland, the Saltire.

National Trust for Scotland visitor centre: Battle of Bannockburn

Within the visitor centre itself, we learn about the battle and the events leading up to it through exciting, modern audio-visual displays and live demonstrations. The centre also has a welcoming cafe and a shop stocked with a variety of merchandise connected to the Battle of Bannockburn.

Shop and cafe at visitor centre

The centre offers free admission to its cafe and shop and to the field containing the statue of Bruce and the Rotanda. A charge is made (in 2022, adult £7.50 + concessions) for those wishing to immerse themselves in the Battle of Bannockburn Experience with digital recreations of the battle and introductory videos. There are also displays and demonstrations of medieval weaponry.

The centre is open 10.00-17.00 every day.

The Battle of Bannockburn, Glasgow Road, Whins Of Milton, Stirling FK7 0LJ

Tel: 01786 812 664

Footnote on Sources

A visit to the National Trust for Scotland’s Battle of Bannockburn (see above) is a must for learning about the Battle but there are countless printed and online sources. This article refers to the authoritative account by Historic Environment Scotland entitled ‘Battle of Bannockburn BTL4’.

So-called ‘contemporary’ accounts were often completed long after medieval battles and were usually biased to either side of the conflict. For Bannockburn, early accounts include The Brus (John Barbour) and the Chronicle of Lanercost.

Photographic credits
Author’s own except Wikimedia Commons for Bruce/de Bohun (from A Chronicle of England)

About the Author

Author at Bruce statue, Stirling Castle

David Tucker has been a Scottish Blue Badge tourist guide since 2010. The Blue Badge qualifies him to guide anywhere in Scotland but he specialises in tours around Central Scotland, including Stirling and The Trossachs

Location: Bridge of Allan, Stirling

Image: Pipe band marching at the Ballater Highland Games. VisitScotland / David N Anderson