An expert guide to the Wars of Scottish Independence

10 April 2013
imports_CESC_0-6i3joepl-100000_98430.jpg An expert guide to the Wars of Scottish Independence
An expert guide to the Wars of Scottish Independence by Roy Pugh, author of the book Killing Fields of Scotland AD83 to 1746. ...

Students of Scotland’s history are familiar with the Wars of Independence between 1296 and 1550, particularly the iconic Battle of Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce's spectacular victory over Edward II in 1314.

In 2014, Scotland marked the 700th anniversary of the battle in various ways.  However, Bannockburn was but one battle in the long, dour Wars of Independence.

In terms of warfare, Scotland is hardly comparable to that of ancient Persia and Rome, nor the great dynastic nations of Europe – France, Spain, Austria, Prussia, Czarist Russia and England.  However, Scotland’s history is dissimilar only in magnitude. For many centuries, warfare was far more familiar to the people of Scotland than literature, the arts, economic and social progress. It could be said with justification that to a great extent, Scotland’s history was martial, affecting all its people from peasant-farmer to its kings.

The start of the Scottish Wars of Independence

The Wars of Independence began with the defeat of a Scottish army at Dunbar, East Lothian by the forces of Edward I in 1296. Edward was the most ruthless of all English kings, determined to subjugate an inferior neighbour. William Wallace’s victory over England at Stirling in 1297 was cancelled out by Edward’s crushing defeat of the Scots at Falkirk a year later.

In 1314, Bruce tilted the scales in Scotland’s favour.  However, Bannockburn did not bring independence until 1328 and even that was shaky.  The conflict between Scotland and England would continue for over two centuries, with many battles fought and lost before England finally recognised Scotland as a free and independent nation.

In terms of the Wars of Independence, my latest book The Killing Fields of Scotland puts into perspective the conflict between Scotland and England. 

There was no grand strategy, no standing army, no power other than a determined resolve to restore Scotland’s freedom.

Scotland’s kings, nobles and the common people had no desire to conquer England apart from a few notable ‘invasions’ of northern England to press home the point.

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'Perilously close to submission'

Scotland was subjected to repeated bloody invasions, often brought perilously close to submission, diplomacy alone often saving the day.

That and the age-old Scottish response to aggressive invaders – a scorched earth policy denying sustenance to her tormentors rather than pitched battles.

There was nothing akin to power politics, a relatively modern science based on the existence of power, how much power a country has and what form this power takes. Bruce and other kings well understood England’s aims so they sought to impose on English kings the kind of war they least wanted to fight – ‘secret’ or guerrilla war in the reign of Bruce for example.

Scottish society was mobilised behind the war effort by appeals to patriotism, the preservation of an independent Church of Scotland and xenophobic sentiments. Unlike the serf in medieval Russia, the Scottish peasant was not owned by the state nor beholden to the same extent to his landlord which is why in Mel Gibson’s final stirring voiceover in the closing frame of the film Braveheart, the Scottish patriots fought ‘like warrior poets.’ 

The Scottish response to an aggressive England was raw patriotism – love of country at all costs – but that was not enough. The Scots needed victories simply because the shedding of blood was what impressed English kings such as Edward I, II and III. 

The Killing Fields of Scotland records these and other bloody encounters, with an entire chapter devoted to Bannockburn.

Roy Pugh is the author of The Killing Fields of Scotland: AD83 to 1746, available from Pen & Sword Books.

Battles fought on Scottish soil include those of the Scottish Wars of Independence, those occasioned by the English Civil Wars and the Jacobite Rebellions. The Killing Fields of Scotland tells the stories of these battles and many others fought in Scotland from the Roman victory at Mons Graupius in AD 83 to the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden Moor in 1746.

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