How do you understand a battle when there’s no battlefield left?
On June 23 and 24 the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn shall come to pass, and although historians have located the site of the main action it can still be hard to wrap your head around just how 7,000 Scots managed to win against an English army 20,000 strong.
Not to worry, you’ve got a former Bannockburn ‘Battlemaster’ here at your disposal, and I’ll take you to some of the places that helped me come to grips with an epic battle fought over 700 years ago.
Immerse yourself in the battle
At the risk of being incredibly obvious, the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre has a thing or two to teach about how it all went down. After immersing yourself in a 3D, real-time (virtual) battle where you can change history, take a walk out to the iconic rotunda and Bruce statue.
Not only does this bring you face-to-axe with an extraordinary likeness of the great man himself, you are now standing where Bruce established his main force as the English army rumbled up the Roman Road.
You’ll notice straight away that it’s raised ground, with views for miles in all directions. By denying Edward II’s army this ground, Bruce forced them east – straight into a low-lying bog that would prove their utter undoing.
No trip to Stirling is complete without a jaunt up the Abbey Craig, home to the Wallace Monument.
In addition to spectacular views, this gives you a fantastic bird’s eye over the landscape that made Stirling the ‘heart of Scotland’. With the River Forth coming in from the east and hills to the west, Stirling is at a narrow choke point in the land. Bottom line, any army wanting to move from Scotland’s south to it north, or vice versa, had to go through Stirling. Bruce knew this, and he put the land itself to work.
The bogs, burns and ridges hemmed in Edward’s army, rendering their numbers and cavalry useless – all the Scots had to do with their wall of 15-foot spears was push until there was nothing left to push against.
There are some places in Scotland where appearances are utterly disproportionate to significance. Milton Ford is one such place, where the Glasgow Road crosses the ‘blink and you miss it’ Bannockburn itself on the way into Stirling.
This inauspicious spot is where perhaps the single most defining moment of Robert Bruce’s life played out. It was here that the English knight Henry de Bohun, mounted on a massive destrier warhorse and clad in the finest armour, charged headlong at Bruce.
On a small palfry and wielding only his axe, Bruce met de Bohun’s charge and sent the knight crashing down with a single blow – a feat whose implications would not have been lost on the materially outmatched Scottish army.
Had that moment gone differently, Bruce’s men may never have fought at all, and Scotland itself might have been a distant memory.
So when you’re standing at this muddy patch next to a tiny river in a suburb, wondering why you’re not up on the walls of Stirling Castle or strutting across Stirling Bridge, just know that you are standing where fates – and nations – were made.