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Military History & Travel: The Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace Monument, & Stirling Castle

On my final post about exploring military history in Scotland, I thought I would go all out. Admittedly this triple combination is a lot of info for one post but when taken together, however, it becomes clear that due to the proximity of these locations and their interconnectedness that it only makes sense to touch upon them all in one go.

Before launching into the histories of these three topics though I want to touch upon just how close and interconnected they are. If you are brave enough to ascend the narrow and winding stone stairway of the impressively tall National Wallace Monument and emerge onto the top observation platform, then you will be able to gaze across the land, over the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and onto Stirling Castle in the distance. Likewise, if you work your way up through Stirling Castle and then gaze out to the northeast you will look over the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge and be able to spy the National Wallace Monument in the distance- they are little more than two miles apart. The significance here is that, because of the events that were to unfold on September 11, 1297, these three sites are forever connected. On that date the castle stood where it does today, the battlefield was chosen by circumstances and the combatants, and where Wallace’s Monument stands he himself once stood, watching the gathering of the English host and formulating a plan for the upcoming clash.

That’s a lot to take in at once, I know! But if it seems overwhelming to read about all at once, it’s even more overwhelming to witness firsthand and to explore together. Yet seen all together it tells the story in its entirety, and helps you visualize the scope of what happened there like no other way can. Taken together they tell the story of one main event: the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and so before I delve into an overview of exploring the area a synopsis of the battle itself is in order.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was a battle fought during the First War of Scottish Independence and took place on September 11, 1297. The site itself was of significance because the narrow medieval bridge that once spanned the River Forth was generally regarded as the gateway into the Scottish Highlands. As such, there have been fortifications in some form or another on the Craig that currently is surmounted by Stirling Castle since the fall of Rome. These fortifications helped regulate commerce and the movement of peoples between the Highlands and the Lowlands and have served at times as garrisons for the housing of soldiers. The universal knowledge of the site and the efforts put forth to control it made it an obvious flashpoint if war were to erupt between England and Scotland, which indeed did in 1296.

King Edward I invaded Scotland with the intent of both subduing it and bringing it under his rule as king and had found much success through the end of 1296. Revolts against his incursion developed in the Highlands in 1297 however, which were led by William Wallace, Andrew de Moray, and other nobles. These revolts gained enough momentum as to become a threat to King Edward I, causing him to send forces north to crush the revolts and kill or capture the ringleaders. As Wallace and de Moray already controlled much of the Highlands this put in motion the events that would lead to the clash – and stunning Scottish victory - at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

The forces sent north by King Edward I were led by John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, and as he had enjoyed previous success in battle against the Scots was overconfident and impatient to do so again. When his forces came upon Stirling Bridge a halt was called in order to reconnoiter the area, and when it was determined that it would be disadvantageous to try and force a crossing by the army there negotiations were attempted to be opened with the Scots across the river. Growing impatient with the lack of progress with the negotiations, which in hindsight was an obvious delay tactic by Wallace, de Warenne ordered his forces to cross the bridge on September 10th - only to then recall them in confusion due to of all things his oversleeping on the morning of the advance. This tipped the Scottish forces off who then moved to occupy Abbey Craig (the current site of the National Wallace Monument) to observe the English army’s movements. Knowing the narrowness of the bridge and how encumbered English heavy cavalry would be in crossing it Wallace and de Moray waited until a large force of infantry had crossed before giving the signal to attack.

The resulting battle was a complete and stunning route of the English forces. Trapped by the aforementioned narrowness of the bridge and the many bends of the River Forth, the English panicked when the Scottish charged down off the Abbey Craig and into their midst. With the bridge immediately becoming a choke-point the English army quickly found itself surrounded either by the swiftly running River Forth or the attacking Scottish spearmen. A botched attempt at a cavalry charge was repulsed with loss and at that English resistance rapidly deteriorated. Those who weren’t drowned trying to swim the river were cut down by the Scots whose attack turned to bloodlust as the situation became apparent. Aside from the famous escape of the English Knight Marmaduke Thweng who somehow forced his warhorse back across the bridge in retreat all of the Knights and most of the infantry host who crossed the bridge were lost, a loss amounting to roughly 100 cavalry and 5,000 infantry killed. The English forces opposite the battle who were trapped on the far side of the river could only watch in horror as the force that had crossed was cut down, and rather than attempt to come to their aid de Warenne instead ordered a full retreat. Not only that, but he also ordered the destruction of the bridge to prevent pursuit by the Scots which effectively doomed any English forces who might have otherwise been able to make an escape. It was a major tactical blunder committed by de Warenne that lead to the destruction of his army, coupled of course with the audacity of Wallace and de Moray with theirs.

Exciting stuff to say the least! As an American, battles that involve knights “in shining armor” seem like the stuff of legends- and don’t get me started on William Wallace! Yet here it all is; a castle, a medieval battlefield, and a monument to Sir Wallace who actually fought on said battlefield. There is much to see here, but honestly I want to shy away from giving any sort of guided tour and focus more on my experience. Besides, believe me, I could go on for pages and still not do the area justice.

For starters, the battlefield itself doesn’t really exist in a sense that it can be walked over and experienced ala Gettysburg. The ground that the battle was fought upon as best as can be figured lays under modern development and even a sports field for the local elementary school. Also, the stone masonry bridge that currently spans the river Forth is not the one that stood during the battle (nor is it in the same location) and was actually constructed in the 1500’s. So what’s there to experience you say? Your imagination should always be running wild when exploring a battlefield, and for this one it’s just going to have to run a little wilder.

When you cross the current bridge that spans the river Forth and head towards the National Wallace Monument, stop and look around. The river doesn’t seem deep but the banks are steep, which would be very hard indeed to negotiate in armor or on horseback. Also for not being deep the river does have an obvious current which is another impediment to crossing it. These observations taken together can help explain the panic of the English infantry when they realized that they could not cross back across the bridge to safety. As you walk through the neighborhood on your way to the monument you will also notice that you are headed uphill, which will become increasingly obvious the closer you get to the Craig the monument is built upon. This would give additional advantage to the Scottish infantry as they rushed out from the cover of the Craig: they would be headed downhill into the English who were already rapidly running out of room to maneuver, giving immense weight to their attack. This also helps partially explain the failure of the English cavalry charge as not only was it disorganized but was also headed uphill. As my experience went, that was about as much of the battlefield as I could explore, the only other thing being that I got to see an overview of the field of action. Which for that, I needed to climb Wallace’s tower, which is where we’re headed next.

The National Wallace Monument is built upon Abbey Craig which is the general area in which Wallace watched the gathering English host and from where he then launched the aforementioned attack. There is a visitor center at the base of the Craig, but to reach the monument you have to either take one of the scheduled trolleys up the hill or walk it. We chose to walk it which, while admittedly difficult, was beautiful and dotted with informational plaques. The only drawback to walking that I can see is that you will be somewhat winded when you actually reach the monument- see below for significance. The monument itself was constructed in 1869 and consists of a narrow stone tower that houses multiple floors of artifacts that can be reached by climbing a winding narrow stone stairway. This is not for the faint of heart! And I don’t mean to make a Braveheart pun here either. The climb is arduous and with two way traffic downright scary at times. If you have knee or back problems, or heart problems, or do not deal well with heights, you may want to put some serious research and thought into this before attempting it.

But should you decide to give it a go, you will be rewarded with several exciting exhibits on multiple floors that showcase William Wallace’s life and his cause, the history of the wars of Scottish Independence, and various artifacts- including an over five foot long sword that is said to have belonged to Wallace himself. When you finally make it to the top, after 246 steps, you will emerge onto a windswept open observation platform that will provide you with a well-earned breathtaking panorama of the surrounding area for miles. You will be able to see Stirling Castle in the distance among the beautiful topography, and you will also see the battlefield itself. A helpful display board is placed in the perfect spot to be able to study it and then look out down onto the actual battlefield area. With this view you gain the final piece of the puzzle to the English defeat. The trap the English found themselves in now becomes readily apparent- the River Forth winds in the extreme and happens to create a dramatic bend right at the site of the old bridge and battlefield, thus essentially creating a large pocket in which the English host became rapidly entrapped in. Taking this in along with seeing the steepness of the banks of the river and the swiftness of the current, and experiencing the uphill/downhill nature of the area, one now gets the full picture of how this battle would have unfolded back on that September day in 1297. Like I mentioned, in the absence of an actual demarked battlefield and all the interpretive signs that go with it, a little imagination is needed in order to understand the battle from the combatant’s point of view.

From here, it’s on to Stirling Castle which, although being only a couple miles away is a bit too far to walk in my opinion. After climbing up Abbey Craig and then climbing up Wallace’s Monument, you might just want to save your remaining strength for the castle itself. We hired a cab right from the visitor center which got us to the castle in fifteen minutes and was to me worth every penny.

So before heading into Stirling Castle two important things of note; One, it is a major tourist attraction that can take you most of the day to get through and can be very crowded with other tourists. And two, Stirling Castle played very little role in the battle of Stirling Bridge. It is a major part of the overall history of the area, and of the conflict(s) between England and Scotland, and further plays an important role in Scottish history in general. But again, its role in the battle that we have been discussing is negligible. That aside, I feel that it is of such overall importance that a visit to it helps tie together the Battle of Stirling Bridge to the surrounding area, plus, since at least some portion of the structure was standing during the battle, the castle serves as a primary witness to the clash.

Briefly, the Scots had abandoned the castle by the time of King Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in 1296. Upon reaching the castle the English immediately took possession and set about garrisoning it, knowing full-well that there would be trouble coming out of the Highlands. On the eve of the battle in 1297 garrison troops from the castle joined John de Warenne’s English forces, and many were subsequently lost. After the Scottish victory the Scots again took brief possession of the castle, only to then abandon it to the English the following summer. The castle would then change hands many times and be the host to many sieges and battles fought within its proximity in the coming years, but for now that history will allude us.

As I had mentioned before, touring Stirling Castle is a big undertaking. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of touring a castle before then you know that the experience lays somewhere between exploring a museum and a fort. Again, as an American it is easy to become overawed by castles- and rightly so! They are everything our childhood imaginations were full of and more, with the obvious added bonus that they are rich with centuries of history and conflict- Stirling Castle obviously being no exception. I cannot really pretend to give a tour of it here and frankly, you the reader wouldn’t want me to. A siege involving a massive trebuchet named “War Wolf”? Check. A mysterious buried Knight and the forensics used to discover his gruesome past? Check. An alchemist and would be “Birdman” who attempted to “fly” from the castle walls?? Check and check. There are many centuries of history and conflict to experience here, from the comical to the somber, all of which is worth your time and yes, your respect. Any levity aside, this massive structure has witnessed years of strife and bears the scars to prove it- whether physically or metaphysically.

I hope you enjoyed this three-part tour of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, the National Wallace Monument, and Stirling Castle- and I hope further that you’ve enjoyed our time in Scotland together as well! With this post I will be saying goodbye to Scotland and taking us next to France for some serious military history travelling. Farewell Alba!

R. E. Weston

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