TORONTO, ON, Jun 18, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Scotland’s two most famous battles, Bannockburn and Culloden, are sometimes viewed as historical bookends. Bannockburn (1314) is seen as a “defining moment of Scottish identity,” whereas Culloden (1746) is a tragic concluding chapter in the quest for Scottish independence. Reality, though, is a little more complicated.
Bannockburn’s chief protagonists were Robert Bruce and Edward II, kings of Scotland and England respectively. The battle took place 700 years ago – on June 23/24, 1314 – near the modern Scottish city of Stirling. And despite a manpower disadvantage of roughly three-to-one, Bruce won a stunning victory.
On the first day, the knightly skirmishing was inconclusive, albeit prophetic. Challenged to single combat by Henry de Bohun, Bruce promptly dispatched him with a skull-splitting whack from an axe. In those days, knightly conventions could have gruesome consequences.
The serious killing, however, happened the following day.
Tactically, Bruce’s trump card was the schiltrom, a shoulder-to-shoulder hedgehog arrangement of Scottish spearmen, which wreaked havoc on the opposing cavalry. Estimates of English casualties run well into the thousands.
Interestingly, though, Bannockburn wasn’t the first time that a Scottish army had deployed the schiltrom against an English force. Facing it at Falkirk in 1298, Edward’s father – Edward I, the legendary Hammer of the Scots – destroyed it by the clever use of his archers. But when it came to the military exigencies of medieval kingship, Edward II wasn’t cut from the same cloth as his father.
Over four centuries later, near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, the shoe was on the other foot. There at Culloden in April 1746, the Duke of Cumberland laid waste to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army. And while much nostalgic romanticism ensued, the die was essentially cast for the political arrangements that persist to this day.
But is it historically accurate to think of Scottish relations with England as a tragic arc, running from the independentist triumph of Bannockburn to the final subjugating defeat at Culloden?
Let’s begin with Bannockburn.
Describing Robert Bruce as Scottish and Edward I as English implies a retrospective recasting of history in search of alignment with modern categories. But if today’s nationalities are properly applied, they were both members of a French aristocracy that had first arrived in the British Isles with William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion of 1066.
Bruce was actually a de Brus, and his family had only been in Scotland since 1124. Edward’s pedigree was even more recent, being a direct descendant of Henri d’Anjou, who’d assumed the English crown as Henry II in 1154.
Thus, as the historian Hugh Kearney points out, it’s a tad naïve to view Bannockburn as a conflict between England and Scotland as we know them today. More realistically, it was a “struggle for power within the Norman ascendancy.”
And in the years between Bannockburn and Culloden, England and Scotland became a single political entity, with the Scots initially in the driver’s seat, or at least on the throne.
When Elizabeth I died heirless in 1603, James Stuart, then James VI of Scotland, also became James I of England and Ireland. Just over 100 years later, the Acts of Union completed the process, thereby creating the current United Kingdom.
Along the way, though, the Stuarts misplaced their mojo. Thanks to his absolutist tendencies, Charles I lost his head in 1649, causing the monarchy to be temporarily abolished while he was at it. Then, almost 40 years further on, similar tendencies and religious differences led to his son, James II, being turfed. Unlike his father, James kept his head. However, lingering ambitions and restoration attempts notwithstanding, the House of Stuart was effectively done and dusted.
And restoration, not independence, was what Bonnie Prince Charlie was on about. Rather than fighting for Scottish freedom, he was attempting to restore the Stuarts to the kingship of Scotland, England and Ireland. In sporting parlance, he was after the Triple Crown.
Think also about the composition of the forces at Culloden. A substantial chunk of Cumberland’s army was actually Scottish, with some sources claiming that more Scots fought against Bonnie Prince Charlie than fought for him. In a significant sense, it was really a civil war.
Of course, none of this means that Scots who are so disposed shouldn’t vote for independence in the forthcoming referendum. But clarity on history would make it a more informed vote.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.
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