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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 III

From Defeat to Victory: Methven to Bannockburn.

Between 1298 and 1304 Scotland returned to the old custom of guardianship. Bruce and John Comyn were guardians until 1300, when Bruce resigned. Comyn, Bishop Lamberton and Ingram de Umfraville then led jointly until 1301 when John de Soules was appointed sole guardian. There were no major battles, but English armies were sent north annually between 1300 and 1303 in order to subdue the country which they only effectively controlled in the south west. The castles still in Scottish hands held out but fell after sieges involving huge numbers of English troops.

John Comyn surrendered in 1304, as did most of the others. By 1305 resistance seemed to be at an end. Wallace had finally been caught and executed, but within six months Robert Bruce had killed John Comyn and sat himself upon the throne.

The events which followed King Robert I's coronation in 1306 are well documented, including his rout at Methven9 by Aymer de Valence and his defeat at the hands of John MacDougall of Lorn at Dail Righ at the head of Strathfillan.10 These left him with only a few hundred men and in fear for his own safety. Consequently he fled for the Western Isles, spending the winter of 1306/7 in hiding.

When he returned to Scotland in 1307 his luck seems to have changed. He had a minor military success in Glentrool,11 with the defeat of an English raiding party. At Loudon Hill12 he avenged Methven by forcing Valence to fight on a narrow front, having blocked off the road with earthworks thereby negating the English superiority in numbers. This demonstrated his increasing tactical awareness.

The Pass of Brander

By 1308, due to his successes, some of which are mentioned above, Bruce had changed his military position out of all proportion, being now in control of the greater part of Scotland. He advanced into Argyll following the present day route under the slopes of Ben Cruachan[Map D (1)]- an excellent place for an ambush- where he encountered the forces of John MacDougall hidden on the rocky slopes of the Ben.[Map D (1)] Bruce, no doubt expecting an ambush, had sent a small group of lightly armed men under Douglas scrambling up the slopes in order to get higher up the Ben than the enemy.[Map D (2)]

As the troops of Bruce came into view along the path the Argyll men fired arrows and rolled stones down upon them.[Map D (3)] Even as they did this an answering hail of arrows came from the Highlanders who now charged down the mountainside,[Map D (3)] with the rest of the king's men attempting to scramble up the slope to get at John of Lorn's men. [Map D (3)]

With the Argyll men now caught in a pincer movement they could do nothing but flee with Bruce's men following hotly in pursuit. John of Lorn's troops made it to the only bridge across the River Awe but had to leave it intact because of the speed at which they were being chased.[Map D (4)] This enabled Bruce to reach Dunstaffnage which he at once began to besiege. John of Lorn slipped down Loch Awe in his galley having watched the battle from it.13

The victory for Bruce at Brander avenged Dail Righ and was a supreme example of the change both in his fortunes and in his tactical planning. By sending Douglas to climb Ben Cruachan with lightly armed Highlanders he anticipated an ambush and prepared a contingency plan.

This change in both tactics and strategy seems to have been thought out during Bruce's enforced stay in the isles over the winter of 1306/7. On his return there were risings in both the north and the south at almost the same time. This suggests that planning had taken place, providing Bruce with the chance to use his tactical skill to great effect. He decided to secure his base in North and West Scotland by destroying his enemies' power, before directing his energies on expelling the English. By 1308 he had effective control of Scotland, apart from the English strongholds. Bruce was helped by the death of Edward I because he was effectively left unharassed, thereby giving him the opportunity to destroy his Scottish opponents who had allied themselves with England

The Battle of Bannockburn

Bruce had outstanding successes in the years between Brander and Bannockburn. Chief among these were the captures of castles with no siege equipment and occasionally without the need for a siege. He and his lieutenants employed innovative and audacious tactics which achieved success due to a combination of careful planning, luck and English carelessness. The tactics involved the use of specially constructed rope ladders which could be held up against a castle wall by means of an iron grappling hook. In this way were the castles of Perth (1313) and Roxburgh (1314) taken.

Edward Bruce and the commander of Stirling Castle, Sir Philip Moubray had agreed that the castle would be surrendered unless a relieving army came within 2 miles of the castle by mid-summers day 1314. This left Robert Bruce with no option but to fight a pitched battle with the forces of Edward II, a straight confrontation between the heavy chivalric cavalry of England and the pike armed foot of Scotland.

Bruce spent his time waiting for the English army by training his troops in order to give them a greater tactical advantage than Wallace had had. He did this by training his troops to advance in open order, and when threatened to form a hollow schiltrom, which could then be used to counter attack.

The English army was composed of about 3000 cavalry and 17000 foot although these estimates are continually being revised. Time was running out for Edward to reach Stirling on time and his troops were urged on at great speed and with little rest. Bruce had arranged his 6000 men into four divisions with his small body of horse under the command of Robert Keith positioned in the New Park.

The English forces arrived near Stirling on 23rd June and some of the cavalry pressed forward without waiting for the main body to arrive. The vanguard advanced along the Roman road until they encountered the division of Robert Bruce supported by his brother Edward.[Map Ex (1)] The English were beaten off by the strong Scottish formations and retreated in disarray.

Meanwhile a troop of some 300-800 cavalry14 had advanced through the carse unnoticed by the Scots[Map Ex (1a)] possibly intending a reconnaissance of the position or attempting to relieve Stirling castle. Whatever the case, this force was belatedly challenged by Moray. The English troops saw this challenge as being little more than sport and allowed the Scots to draw up, in a hollow schiltrom with their pikes slanting at all angles in order to bring down the horses. When the Scots had formed up, the English cavalry charged, encircling the schiltrom, but could find no way through. They eventually resorted to throwing their maces and axes in an attempt to break a way through. The schiltrom nevertheless stayed firm. Beaten by this, the English began to waver. At this point Moray began a counter attack from the schiltrom which succeeded in breaking the English, some of whom fled to Stirling Castle and the rest back the way they had come.

Looking at this engagement, it is obvious that the Scots were well trained and drilled, for the movement from defence to attack seems to have taken place quickly. This could only have been done with training and explains why the 'small folk' (the irregular untrained foot) were kept out of the schiltroms where they would have been a liability.

Edward II had now moved the foot up to the region of the New Park and having received news of the setbacks earlier in the day he came to the conclusion that he must bivouac overnight in order to destroy the Scots the next day. The English were in constant fear of a surprise attack and having crossed the Bannock burn[Map Ey (2)] spent the night with their horses bitted. The Scots meanwhile were still debating whether to face the English the next day or whether to retire to Lennox and employ guerrilla warfare tactics. A Scot in the English service turned the tide when he reported to the Scots that morale in the English camp was low.15

The next day the Scots advanced from the New Park in open order by the right, i.e. in echelon, with Edward Bruce's division leading, followed by Moray and then Douglas.[Map Ey (3)] This caught the English by surprise for they did not expect the Scots to move to attack, thereby seizing the initiative vital for their success, and in great haste the vanguard led by Gloucester charged the nearest division (Edward Bruce). They were routed and Gloucester killed.

The English vanguard was now driven back into the main body of the army which was constricted in movement due to their cramped position, almost like a great schiltrom16. This prevented the proper deployment of the various arms of the force. The Scots drove home their advantage with the three divisions of Moray, Douglas and Edward Bruce pressing the English back.[Map Ey (4)] At length a body of archers managed to get out onto the Scots flank and their fire began to take effect17. It was for precisely this situation that Bruce, perhaps with the lessons of Falkirk in mind, had kept the body of light horse apart from the Scottish army and it now charged and dispersed the archers,[Map Ey (5)] "A classic example of the correct use of an inferior force of cavalry"18. With the dispersal of the archers Bruce moved his reserve division up onto the flank of Douglas and the Scots again began to press the English back into the Bannock Burn.[Map Ey (6)] At this point the "small folk" appeared from the forest having been hidden in a valley behind Coxet hill.{Map Ey (7)] To the English this appeared to be a fresh army coming to add to the already overwhelming pressure on them, and consequently the English army broke and the battle became a rout.[Map Ey (8)]

The broken English army fled; the right towards Stirling castle in such numbers that Bruce thought that they would have to be fought next day, the centre towards the Forth where they were destroyed in the marshes and the left into the gorge of the Bannock Burn where they were compressed and many drowned. Edward II and his retinue fled the field, pursued by Douglas and the light horse, and made their escape to Berwick being too strong in numbers to be overcome.

The defeat at Bannockburn was a severe dent to the pride of England for they had been beaten by an army almost entirely composed of foot soldiers, a thing almost unheard of in medieval warfare.19 The tactics employed by Bruce showed how superior a general he was compared to Edward II. His use of the ground and indeed his deployment of both men and horse were masterful. The men were very highly trained, and it was this training, combined with a cohesion between the leaders and their men, cavalry and footsoldiers which gave the Scots victory.

However it must be said that the severe tactical blunders which were committed by the English were also a prime factor, for these gave the Scots a tactical superiority. The English army lacked the vital factor of cohesion between the leaders and the common soldiery. The cavalry tended to act independently of the foot and the jealousies involved severely hampered their actions.

They also chose to fight on a battlefield which made it impossible for them to deploy effectively. This allowed the Scots to dictate the battle and the English paid the price.

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