The inaugural conflict for Scottish freedom, known as the First War of Scottish Independence, is a defining segment in Scotland's storied past. Within this turbulent era, spanning from the onset of English incursions in 1296 until the affirmation of Scottish independence via the Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton in 1328, the gritty narrative of Scotland's fight for self-governance unfolded. Culminating from this period's chronicled events was Scotland's fortified stand, solidified by their heralded victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. 

On the 23rd and 24th of June in the year 1314, the decisive Battle of Bannockburn was waged, crystallizing as a pivotal landmark in the First War of Scottish Independence. This clash saw the strategic prowess of Scotland's King, Robert the Bruce, challenging the formidable legions led by King Edward II of England. The Scots, though vastly outnumbered, cleverly leveraged the harsh landscape, the formidable schiltron phalanxes—soldiers equipped with extended pikes—and an unwavering spirit to shift the war's momentum in their favor. This monumental engagement not only sealed a Scottish triumph but also signaled a turning point in their pursuit of national autonomy. Historic recitations, notably by Barbour and akin chronicles of the time, elevate this conflict as a tactical exemplar, anchored by Robert the Bruce's immortal words: "We fight not for glory, nor for wealth, nor honors; but we fight for freedom alone, which no good man surrenders but with his life." 

The era of relative serenity under King Alexander III's rule, characterized by economic stability, came to an abrupt halt with his untimely demise on 19 March 1286. With his passing, a power vacuum emerged, leading to the tragic "Great Cause." This succession crisis unfurled as various noble families vied for the Scottish crown, following the death of the young Margaret, Maid of Norway, Alexander's only remaining heir.

Scotland's susceptibility to civil unrest captured the interest of King Edward I of England, whose appetite for control led him to intervene under the guise of arbitration. His adjudication at Berwick-upon-Tweed ended with a controversial acknowledgment of John Balliol’s claim to the Scottish throne. Edward's subsequent annulment of Scottish autonomy and blatant disregard for sovereignty stoked the embers of rebellion. Undermining Scottish nobility, he called upon John Balliol to stand trial as a common plaintiff, prompting Balliol's abdication and breeding further dissent.


Photo one: Bannockburn, Scotland, modern day. A view of the possible location where the battle of Bannockburn and Sauchieburn took place. A view of King's Knot and King's Park. There is much debate as to the exact location. Source: War History Network license.

Photo two: Stirling, Scotland, 17 December 2011. View of Stirling Bridge and the Abbey Craig from Stirling Castle. Source: Kim Traynor; This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Amidst the ensuing subjugation and discontent, the sacking of Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1296 and the defeat at the Battle of Dunbar heralded open defiance against the English imperium. These events catalyzed the emergence of Scottish national heroes, such as Andrew de Moray and William Wallace, who led a burgeoning resistance movement. De Moray orchestrated guerrilla warfare across the northern realms, rekindling the flames of revolt, while Wallace's assassination of Sheriff William Haselrig ignited a broader insurrection, transforming their cause into a nationalistic endeavor.

The stance of figures like Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, lent ecclesiastical legitimacy to these efforts, condemning the annexation by English forces.

Allying Clans and Noble Dissension

While the Scottish infighting ceased in the face of interloping adversaries, strategic divisions among Scottish leaders during the skirmishes against the English near Irvine in July 1297 compromised the cohesiveness of the insurrection. The ambiguity of alliance among the nobility implied deliberate tactics to create a buffer for Wallace and Moray's unyielding forces, furthering their territorial liberation objectives. In parallel, King Edward I, preoccupied with continental commitments, underestimated the tenacity of the Scottish factions. Despite the temporary setback in the Scottish camp, Wallace and Moray successfully restored control north of the Forth, culminating in the Siege of Dundee Castle.

12384006885?profile=RESIZE_710xUnyielding in their quest for national self-determination, Wallace and Moray stood as figureheads of the Scottish independence movement. The fateful Battle of Stirling Bridge on 11 September 1297 manifested their military ingenuity. With deliberate tactics, they allowed the English vanguard to overextend upon the bridge before launching a decisive assault. Edward's English cavalry foundered in the marshlands, juxtaposing the strategic prowess of the Scottish forces. The battle concluded with a Scottish victory and the English forces in retreat, but the jubilation was marred by the loss of de Moray.

In the aftermath, Wallace's influence burgeoned, and his initiatives to reestablish Scotland’s international trade relations signified his commitment to national resurgence. An epistle sent to the Hanseatic League assured European merchants of renewed access to Scottish trade, underscoring Wallace's administrative ambitions. However, Wallace’s subsequent invasion of England exemplified a strategic pivot, deftly capitalizing on English disarray to amass resources and fortify his position within the Scottish hierarchy.

Wallace's knighthood and subsequent appointment as Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland symbolized his ascendancy, entrenching his leadership role amid Scotland's ongoing campaign for sovereignty. Edward I's militaristic campaign back in Europe marginalized Scotland in peace negotiations, yet the relentless Scot remained steadfastly opposed to yielding to English dominance.

The geopolitical landscape shifted profoundly as internal dynamics among Scottish leaders unfolded, with Robert Bruce and John Comyn assuming guardianship amidst personal rivalries. Francophile influences and papal rebukes against Edward's intrusions offered Scotland a glimmer of diplomatic respite.

The Scottish Heroes' Fall and the Proliferation of Warfare

Despite considerable strides made in diplomacy and military engagement, the ultimate capture and execution of Wallace in 1305, under charges of treachery, tainted the Scottish morale. His gruesome execution was a somber testament to the perilous journey of Scottish patriots against imperial invasion. Edward's concerted campaigns to integrate Scotland into the English realm persisted unrelentingly, punctuated by a series of sieges, battles, and strategic maneuvering.

Simultaneously, Bruce's clandestine intentions surfaced, encompassing backroom dealings signaling a commitment to the Scottish cause, yet tarnished by accusations of betrayal and opportunism. The termination of a pact and a flight to Scotland indicated a coming surge in the fight for Scottish autonomy, emblematic of the tumultuous and bloody quest for nationhood.

Upon arrival in Dumfries, Bruce encountered Comyn and sought parley within the sacred confines of Greyfriars Church on 10 February 1306. Their discourse quickly escalated as Bruce confronted Comyn with allegations of duplicity, allegations Comyn vehemently repudiated. Enraged by the denial, Bruce unsheathed his dagger, delivering a non-fatal wound to Comyn. As Bruce vacated the sanctuary in distress, his associates—Kirkpatrick and Lindsay—ensured Comyn's demise. The aftermath saw Bruce compelling the capitulation of English justices in their stronghold, compellingly shifting the balance of power. Aware that his actions had irrevocably set the path before him, Bruce faced the stark dichotomy of claiming the Scottish crown or living as a fugitive. The sacrilegious nature of Comyn's assassination warranted ecclesiastical condemnation; however, Bruce's alliance with Lamberton and the backing of the Scottish ecclesiastics, who were poised to defy the Papal authority for the national cause, became pivotal as Bruce laid claim to the throne of Scotland.

After the coronation, Bruce’s recognition as King faced formidable challenges, including the consolidation of his authority over Scotland and the relentless adversity from England. His sagacious martial strategies significantly underpinned Scottish resistance. Bruce orchestrated a series of guerrilla attacks, painstakingly reclaiming Scotland, fortress by fortress. Despite formidable odds, his forces secured pivotal victories at pivotal engagements like the Battle of Loudoun Hill. These military successes were not mere skirmishes but a testament to Bruce's tactical acumen and the indomitable spirit of the Scots. Their cumulative impact culminated in the Battle of Bannockburn, a watershed moment reinforcing Scottish resilience. The subsequent Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton was a diplomatic triumph, cementing Scotland’s sovereignty, and exemplifying the tenacity of a nation under Bruce's leadership.


12384007481?profile=RESIZE_400xThe Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn, fought on 23- 24 June 1314, not only signifies a cornerstone of Scottish history but also exemplifies the turning of the tide during the First War of Scottish Independence.

The anticipation of conflict grew as Stirling Castle, a significant military hold and bastion of royal power occupied by English forces, faced a siege by the Scottish army. In response to Robert the Bruce's ultimatum demanding the allegiance of Edward II's supporters, the latter assembled a formidable force aimed at relieving the siege, thereby triggering the clash that became known as the Battle of Bannockburn.

As dawn broke on 23 June 1314, the strategic calculus of both the Scottish and English forces came to the forefront, illustrating a tense prelude to the forthcoming battle. King Robert the Bruce, aware of the tactical implications of his positioning, contemplated two primary maneuvers. By advancing north beyond the Forth, he could avoid confrontation; conversely, by moving westward into the complex terrain of mosses and hills, he could leverage the geography to his advantage. The latter choice, he knew, would force Edward II's hand. Given the relentless English advance towards Stirling, a pivotal showdown became increasingly inevitable.

The English King Edward II, whose leadership style teetered on hastiness as reflected in the seventy-mile march executed within a week, found his forces beleaguered by fatigue and scarcity—a testament to the critical state of his overburdened army. This miscalculation by Edward II had irrevocable consequences, as both men and beast neared the point of exhaustion, a prelude to their critical state at the onset of battle near Stirling.

Edward, alongside his council, now faced the urgent task of formulating battle plans, acutely aware of the likely challenges posed by the Scottish positioning. Orders were swiftly dispatched, instructing the English divisions to anticipate contact with the Scots, who were expected to be entrenched within the marshy expanses adjacent to the River Forth.

The English army's divisional approach contrasted starkly with the defensive tactics of the Scots, who erected schiltrons—formidable square formations of pikemen—ready to withstand cavalry charges. These schiltrons, expertly commanded by Thomas Randolph and others, provided a bulwark for the Scottish forces. Despite the Scottish archers wielding longbows of yew comparable to those of the English, their numbers were comparatively lower, impacting their role within the battle's grand scheme. Historical anecdotes, including the verse of the captured Carmelite friar Robert Baston, recount minimal participation from archers, while some records suggest the utilization of slingers and crossbowmen by one or both factions in this critical juncture of medieval warfare.

Early Engagements and Leadership

The triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn represented much more than a mere military conquest; it was a decisive moment in Robert the Bruce's quest to solidify his sovereignty and the autonomy of Scotland. His determination was clear—he endeavored not only to fortify his position as monarch but also to compel acknowledgement from Edward II and subdue internal disputes over the Scottish crown, which had been embroiled in a long-standing power struggle involving various claimants, including the Balliol and Bruce factions.

The effects of Bannockburn resonated beyond Scotland's borders, signaling a pivotal shift in medieval military strategy. W. M. Mackenzie insightfully notes that Bannockburn, along with the battles of Falkirk and Courtrai, heralded a new era where "infantry properly handled" proved their dominance over the hitherto revered mounted knights. The Scottish spearman, exemplified on the battlefield of Bannockburn, left an indelible mark on European warfare, prompting nations to rethink and reorganize their military forces towards infantry-centric compositions.

Furthermore, the strategic significance of Stirling Castle cannot be understated. As Herbert Maxwell elucidates, "Bruce's position was taken up to bar King Edward's access to Stirling." Stirling's geographic and symbolic stature was paramount; it was the gateway to the Highlands and a bastardy of royal power. For Robert the Bruce, surrendering it to English forces was inconceivable. The result of this historic conflict was a resonating declaration of Scotland's right to self-determination, reverberating through the annals of history as an exemplar of tenacity and military innovation.

On the battle's first day, the Bruce adroitly selected the terrain at New Park, a field bordered by dense woodland, playing to the strength of his infantry while neutralizing the English mounted knights' efficacy. The English cavalry, adept at open-ground warfare, would find the terrain challenging.

In a display of strategic brilliance, the Scottish forces were segmented into four schiltrons—dense infantry formations composed of pike-wielding soldiers—that would anchor Bruce's tactics throughout the battle. These units were commanded by King Robert himself, his brother Edward Bruce, his nephew Thomas Randolph, the Earl of Moray, and the unit under the joint command of Sir James Douglas and Walter the Steward. Angus Og Macdonald, Lord of the Isles, enhanced the Scottish battle line with additional troops, including esteemed galloglass warriors.


Photo three: A depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn from a 1440s manuscript of Walter Bower's Scotichronicon. This is the earliest known depiction of the battle. Scanned from Brown, Michael (2008) Bannockburn: The Scottish War and the British Isles, 1307-1323, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press ISBN: 0-7486-3332-4. Original at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Source: Wikipedia. In the Public Domain.

Photo four: Stirling, Scotland. Robert Bruce Monument near Stirling in Scotland close to the site of his historic and much celebrated military triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Source: War History Network license.


Amid these preparations, an iconic clash took place involving King Robert and Henry de Bohun, which epitomized Bruce's martial prowess. Facing each other in a bout of single combat, King Robert victoriously cleaved de Bohun's helmet and skull with his battle-axe, an act that became emblematic of his leadership and might. Upon this early confrontation, the English troops under the Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Hereford advanced, only to succumb to a retreat after facing the staunch Scots in the woods, finding they had underestimated the maneuvering capabilities and resolve of the Bruce's forces.

The Climactic Conflict

12384007669?profile=RESIZE_710xThe subsequent day witnessed a fortification of Scottish resolve, bolstered by insights from Alexander Seton, a defector from the English camp, who admonished the Scots of the low morale among Edward II's troops. The Scottish army moved from New Park, openly presenting their formidable schiltrons in a progressive advance across the plain. As the Scots knelt in a moment of prayer before resuming their march, they solidified their determination to either achieve victory or perish honorably. The charge by the Earl of Gloucester, driven by an accusation of cowardice by Edward II, hastened a confrontation that led to his demise, thus depriving the English of a key commander early in the fray.

The English forces struggled to maintain their formations while attempting to employ longbowmen, whose effectiveness was blunted due to fears over friendly fire. Their bowmen's attempt to reposition was disrupted by a tactical assault from the Scottish cavalry, negating what might have been a pivotal advantage. Edward's army, with its knights encumbered by the adverse environment of the Bannockburn, failed to replicate the tactical formations that had heralded their prior victories on the European continent. Soon, the realization set in among Edward's senior commanders, Aymer de Valence and Giles d' Argentan, that the day—and indeed, the battle—was lost to the Scots, prompting a desperate escort of the king away from the field to ensure his safety.


Stirling Castle’s surrender signaled a momentous achievement for Robert the Bruce and the Scottish cause. The tactics leveraged at Bannockburn had profound repercussions, leading to the capitulation of key strongholds like Bothwell Castle and the resumption of Scottish control over previously contested territories. Freedom for Scottish captives, such as Robert's family members and the Bishop of Glasgow, was secured through the exchange of captured English nobles, marking a poignant gesture toward the restitution of Scots who had suffered under prolonged imprisonment. In the longer term, raids against the north of England and even the extension of the conflict to Irish shores punctuated the ongoing struggle. The setbacks faced by England after Bannockburn resulted in the Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton of 1328, granting de jure recognition of an independent Scotland.



"The Battle of Bannockburn." The Great Tapestry of Scotland. Last modified July 20, 2023. https://www.greattapestryofscotland.com/the-battle-of-bannockburn/.

"The Battle of Bannockburn." Historic UK. Last modified November 21, 2023. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/The-Battle-of-Bannockburn/.

Bauer, Susan W. The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

"The Scottish Wars of Independence, 1286-1328." Education Scotland. Accessed February 15, 2024. www.educationscotland.gov.uk/higherscottishhistory/warsofindependence/index.asp.

"Scotland's History: The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314." BBC. Accessed February 12, 2024. https://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/battle_of_bannockburn/.

Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War III: Divided houses. London: Faber and Faber, 2009.

"The Wars of Independence." BBC. Accessed February 14, 2024. https://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/the_wars_of_independence/


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  • Hi Scott,

    I appreciated how you situated these events within the broader context of Scotland's struggle for autonomy and the complex web of alliances and rivalries that shaped the era.

    Building on your analysis, I think it's worth exploring further the long-term impact of Bannockburn on Scottish national identity. The battle wasn't just a military victory, but a powerful symbol of resistance that helped to galvanize Scottish opposition to English rule. In the centuries that followed, Bannockburn would be celebrated in art, literature, and popular culture as a defining moment in Scotland's history, one that embodied the spirit of independence and self-determination.

    At the same time, the road to independence was far from straightforward. Even after Bannockburn and the Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton, Scotland faced ongoing challenges to its sovereignty, both from external threats and internal divisions. The struggle to maintain independence would be a recurring theme in Scottish history, culminating in the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the Act of Union in 1707.

    Nonetheless, the First War of Scottish Independence and the Battle of Bannockburn remain powerful reminders of Scotland's distinct national identity and its long struggle for self-determination. Your post does an excellent job of bringing these events to life and highlighting their enduring significance.

    I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how the memory of Bannockburn has shaped Scottish identity over the centuries. How has it been commemorated and celebrated, and what role does it play in contemporary Scottish politics and culture?

    Great work on this piece.


    • Hi Kyle, 

      Thank you for the kind words and articulate response--much appreciated. There are two historians that you should explore if you haven't already. Susan Bauer and Jonathan Sumption. Both esteemed authors have fantastic volumes of work. Sumption has five (5) volumes on The Hundred Years War and Bauer has three books contextualized as "The History of the World Series."  

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