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  The Strategy and Tactics of the Scottish Armies 1296-1314  

The Strategy and Tactics of the Scottish Armies 1296-1314

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay describes the strategy and tactics used by the commanders of the Scottish armies during the period 1296 to 1314.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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Chapter II

From Victory to Defeat: - Stirling Bridge to Falkirk

Stirling Bridge

As William Wallace was leading a growing rebellion in the lowlands early in 1297, news spread of a great rising in the north led by Andrew de Moray. As events progressed, Wallace developed the use of a new tactic, later to be used with great success by Bruce, i.e. the rapid deployment of fast moving light horse to attack and harass English patrols and garrisons. These tactics pinned them back into fixed positions and made control of the countryside- the collection of taxes and provisions- difficult. With his growing success, Wallace had to manage ever greater numbers of men and hence his exploits increased in scale. As the year progressed the English commanders in Scotland grew increasingly anxious. This is shown by the worried letters to the treasury in London from Hugh Cressingham complaining about the impossibility of raising taxes in Scotland as all was in a state of unrest.6

In the North, Moray had cleared out most of the English forces and linked up his forces with those of Wallace some time during the August of 1297 thereby creating a unique force, composed of both Lowlanders and Highlanders. There was a set back with the surrender at Irvine in July 1297 of an army under the command of the Earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce and Sir William Douglas. They could be seen as being the more traditional leaders, in the eyes of the country, than Wallace and Moray, but they may have had less stomach for the fight.

An English army charged with subduing Scotland left Berwick at the end of August 1297 and marched towards Stirling under the joint command of Hugh Cressingham and John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey. The force, including many Welsh, reached Stirling on the 10th of September and was faced by a Scottish force drawn up on the foothills of the Ochils and on the Abbey Craig which overlooked the mile long causeway linking the only bridge across the River Forth to the dry ground and Stirling castle. On the morning of the 11th of September a large force of heavy cavalry and foot marched across the narrow bridge, two abreast, under the watching eyes of the Scots.[Map B (1)]

When it was deemed enough English troops had crossed, the Scots forces were given the order to charge and a group of spearmen - hidden from the eyes of the English - set off[Map B (2)] and succeeded in cutting off the bridgehead which had been formed. The English troops who had crossed the bridge were cut off from help[Map B (3)], and were duly massacred while the greater part of the English army watched helpless on the other side of the Forth.[Map B (4)]

The blame for the loss of the battle of Stirling bridge could be placed upon Hugh Cressingham who, on grounds of expense, turned back reinforcements on the way to Stirling and who on the day of the battle turned down an idea for an outflanking manoeuvre7 for the same reason.[Map B (1a)] The tactical skill which was shown by Wallace and Moray does lend them some credit, yet it was the inept generalship shown by Warenne and Cressingham on this occasion that won the day for the Scots. However the idea of footsoldiers in an offensive role is of great interest.

The tactical positioning (as shown on the map) had obviously been worked out well beforehand and the planning of the battle had, it would seem, taken up a large part of the Scots time. The timing of the rush down the causeway was crucial to the success of the Scots as, had too many English troops been allowed to cross, the final outcome could have been drastically different.

It should also be pointed out that the troops who had beaten this large semi-professional English army- a balanced force of cavalry, archers and heavy foot- were the landless peasants and not the great Scottish lords.

The Scots now had to prepare themselves for the wrath which Edward I would surely vent on his return from campaigning in France. Scotland suffered great misfortune with the death of Andrew de Moray (possibly due to wounds received at the battle) and subsequently Wallace was left in sole control of the Scottish forces and ultimately the whole country.

The Battle of Falkirk

Wallace spent the time between the victory at Stirling and the invasion by Edward I training his forces. He now had the power, having been made Guardian, to issue a general summons to raise an army. He organised these soldiers into divisions to guard the possible landing sites for English troops sailing from the continent.

The number and quality of the English forces raised by Edward can be seen as a reflection of his wrath and determination to wreak revenge- 2000 horse & 12000 foot, all veterans of the Flanders campaign.

When Edward invaded in the summer of 1298 he found a barren and wasted land in front of him, for Wallace had engaged upon a policy of 'scorched earth' in order to frustrate the English king's attempts at subduing him. Bruce was to repeat this successful strategy in 1310.

After losing contact with the Scots, Edward received news that they were camped at Falkirk. The greatest fear of the Scots was the English heavy cavalry (it was this fear which had led to the surrender at Irvine). To meet this threat, Wallace arranged his forces in four schiltroms or 'shield-rings' defended by the few Scots archers and fronted by sharpened stakes and ropes.[Map C (1)] Behind him lay a wooded area (an extension of Callendar Wood & the Torwood) and in front ran the River Avon. His forces were arrayed "on hard ground on one side of a hill beside Falkirk"8

The Scots position was not as strong as at Stirling, yet it was adequate for the type of defensive battle Wallace intended fighting. His men had been trained to fight in a strong defensive formation where they stood or sat in ranks, with their 20 feet long pikes slanting at all angles, the aim being to bring down the charging horses, thereby incapacitating the mail clad knights.

The events at Falkirk are well documented by Guisborough, although there are other sources of information available. The battle of Falkirk is a good example of superior generalship overwhelming a strong opposition. The English cavalry ignored Edward's proposal for a halt until the foot had eaten, and advanced in two separate "battles" or brigades until they encountered the marsh in front of the Scots position.[Map C (2)] They then swung to left and right endeavouring to go round this obstacle. When the English heavy cavalry had carried out this manoeuvre they charged the outer Scots schiltroms. Meanwhile the Scots cavalry, fearing the English feudal might, fled the field.[Map C (2)] The battle now became a contest between the Scots peasantry in their schiltroms and the English nobility, and at first the Scots held their ground. The English cavalry, having ridden down the Scottish archers,[Map C (3)] could make no headway against the solid ranks of pikes. At this point the Welsh archers and Gascon crossbowmen moved forward to bring their weapons to bear on the immobile Scots.[Map C (4)]

Slowly but surely the gaps in the schiltroms grew and the English cavalry now began to exploit them, and their charge finally broke the schiltroms, this dour long-drawn out battle becoming a massacre.[Map C (5)]

The tactics employed by Wallace of attempting to meet the English on their own terms failed because he could not counter the combined threat of the English cavalry and Welsh archers. The tactics used by Wallace were however generally sound. He had sloping ground to his front with a marsh and river in front of that. Moreover he had a large wooded area behind him through which to escape. However, when his cavalry fled he had no means of dispersing the English archers. This meant that no matter how good a position he had, he could not win the day. Bruce learned by this mistake, and at Bannockburn he had a force of light horse standing by to disperse any English archers who might threaten his position.

The battle of Falkirk was not decisive, in the sense that afterwards the English still did not fully control Scotland, but it is important because not until Bannockburn did the Scots again attempt to fight the English in a pitched battle. The role of Wallace diminished rapidly, as his reputation in the eyes of his contemporaries was built on his military successes. The defeat of Wallace at Falkirk raises the possibility that it was Moray not Wallace who possessed the tactical skill to defeat the English at Stirling bridge. In any case, after Falkirk the war passes into yet another phase, where the Scots teetered on the brink of defeat.

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