Visiting Bannockburn

In Military History
A family wedding took me up to Scotland recently. On the way I celebrated my Scots ancestry on my father's side by breaking the journey for an hour or so at National Trust for Scotland's Bannockburn Heritage Centre, just south-west of Stirling. This is closer to the location of the first day's fighting than that of the decisive second day, further east and now mostly built over.   However, the open country to the west and south must still bear some resemblance to the ground over which the English advanced and on which Robert Bruce won his famous duel with Henry de Bohun, dancing round his lumbering charger on his nimble grey and splitting his helmet and skull with one blow of his axe.

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These superb 1/32 figures are displayed in the Centre in front of a broken axe, and the head embedded in Sir Henry's helm and skull are a nice detail! Bruce's nonchalant response to criticism of the risk he had taken, "Alas, my good axe is broken", is the first bit of history I can remember learning, though he would probably have said it in knightly French. Outside, he is commemorated by a large mounted statue. It's impressive, but rather a ponderous representation of such a smart strategist, tactician and light-cavalry warrior.

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The view from here to the south-west gives an idea of the terrain the English vanguard rashly advanced into to precipitate the two-day battle that Bruce was not planning to fight. The higher ground would have been more extensively wooded and the gentle contours significantly restricted the manoeuvrability of King Edward's superior force of 2000+ cavalry and 11,000+ foot, over half of them archers. Marshy ground (some, I thought, visible in the middle distance) added to the problem. The English were very poorly led but even able commanders would have found it difficult here to apply the lessons of earlier battles in the Scottish and Welsh Wars and make full use of their archers in support of the cavalry. Steady schiltrons of massed spearmen could defeat unsupported cavalry, as Sir Gilbert de Clare, Duke of Gloucester, leading a stupid charge quickly rediscovered, losing his life in the process. He was absentee lord of the manor of Lower Heyford, the village I live in (and they still talk about this recent tragic event in The Bell, when they have finished arguing about the number of Parliamentarian troopers seen trotting over the Long Bridge just the other day).

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Stirling Castle, the English objective, shimmered to the north.

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With more time, I would have explored the area of the main battle, Campaign 102 in hand. Important features can still be picked out in amongst the extensive housing that now covers most of the area. I had to look round the Heritage Centre quite quickly.   Its shop stocks an excellent range of books (including all the appropriate Osprey titles). Good exhibits include convincing life-size figures, a large diorama of the Battle of Stirling Bridge and an audio-visual presentation (which I couldn't stay to see). Display boards and photographs document recent investigations to locate the battle more precisely. The Centre also offers a two-hour living-history experience for children and chain mail and pieces of costume were laid out for them to try on. 

I had a friendly conversation with Thomas Randolph, soon to become Earl of Moray, once I had assured him of my dual nationality (and he did play for England for a while before transferring back in the year of Bannockburn).

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There wasn't time to interview him about his leadership of a schiltron in the battle and his daring capture of Edinburgh Castle from the English (a wonderful subject for a medieval title in the new Raid Series, if there is sufficient source material: probably not, sadly).   He admitted his two-handed sword was a little ahead of its time but enthusiastically showed how fighting with it involved far more than the frenzied swinging and slashing seen in Braveheart.

Point, pommel and quillons were all used offensively, and the sword was also used defensively, held with a hand at each end like a quarterstaff. Thomas, who re-enacts a 21st century Scotsman called Robert Ballantyne in his spare time, recommended the Black Knight sequence ("before it gets silly") from Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a much sounder demonstration of two-handed swordsmanship.

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