The Battle of Roslin

THE BATTLE OF ROSLIN -1303

The Battle of Roslin which took place on 24 February 1303, surprisingly has hardly featured in the accounts of major battles that took place during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The two most notable battles of the period are the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1296) and the Battle of Bannockburn (1314).  Stirling being the ‘Gateway to the Highlands’ has perhaps stolen the mantle of being the most strategic stronghold in all of Scotland particularly during the Scottish Wars of Independence. 

Background

Robert the Bruce murdering John Comyn

And yet when we take a look at the events that led up to and during the Battle of Roslin, this should surely have a higher prominence in the history of Scotland’s fight for independence. It is possible that the battle did not get due recognition because the Scots army was not led by either of our most iconic heroes, Robert the Bruce or William Wallace. In fact, the Scots were led by John Comyn who was a bitter rival to Robert the Bruce. Perhaps for this fact alone, he and the Battle of Roslin have been airbrushed out of Scotland’s history. Remember that Robert the Bruce murdered Comyn on the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries in 1306.

The Battle of Roslin

But be in no doubt that this was a huge battle. Early accounts suggest that the English Army was split into three divisions consisting of up to 30,000 men. On the Scottish side there were approximately 8,000 men. There are some that would argue that the English numbers were significantly less. Maybe the figures were exaggerated as part of Scotland’s pro-independence propaganda and was designed to motivate more Scots to the cause. 

In any case, the Scots were seriously outnumbered but it did not deter them from taking on this English army. The English army had advanced into Scotland on what can only be described as yet another punitive campaign. When John Comyn got wind of their encampment in the Roslin area, he and his small army travelled twenty miles overnight. Before first light they pounced on the English army, slaughtering the vast majority and taking some high value prisoners as bargaining chips.

Surprise

Whilst the Scots were dividing the spoils of war, the second division of the English army had been alerted by some of the fleeing soldiers. 

Comyn hadn’t realised that there was yet another part to this army. Quickly replacing their horses with English horses and redistributing captured weapons to their vassals, Comyn prepared his men for this onslaught. Remember the Scots had ridden and marched overnight so would already be tired. The second battle lasted longer than the first and it was bloodier. There were more Scottish casualties in this second round of fighting but against the odds, the Scots were victorious. They achieved this by the inspirational and motivational leadership of John Comyn and his right-hand man, Simon Fraser. 

Kill Burn – where the water ran red with blood for three days

When the Scots realised that there was a third division on its way, they put all of the English prisoners to the sword. It is little wonder that the shallow stream that ran through the battle area became known as the Kill Burn as it ran with blood for three days afterwards. Some question why the English would have divided up their forces in the first place. But this was standard practice particularly where there were huge numbers of troops. They would have encamped each division in a different area to provide more space. Also, it is most likely that this English army was split up to go in different directions with different objectives. 

Final Victory

At the end of the third battle, it has been suggested that fewer than 3,000 English actually survived. This means that if the high figure of 30,000 English troops fought at the Battle of Roslin, then up to 27,000 were killed by the Scots. And this by a force of no more than 8,000. Therefore, it is debateable that the Scots fought a force that was three times their size. However, it cannot be denied that this battle was a major battle that seriously increased support for Comyn and his fight for independence. 

The Aftermath

King Edward I of England

But as with any defeat of this nature, King Edward I of England would not let this go unanswered. The following year in 1304, he raised another huge army which he led personally into Scotland. He laid waste wherever he went, capturing castles and fortresses placing English Lords in charge of them. Scottish nobles were forced into pleading loyalty to him. The following year in 1305, William Wallace who had long been a ‘thorn in his side’ was betrayed by a Scottish noble, John Stewart of Mentieth.  As a warning to the Scots, Wallace was taken to London where he was tried and brutally executed. 

So, perhaps because of the events that took place in the years immediately after the Battle of Roslin and Edward’s dominance over Scotland, the battle faded into insignificance. 

Interestingly, the area of the battle site is now farmland and consists of Research Centres which are part of the University of Edinburgh. The Roslin Institute which is where ‘Dolly the Sheep’ was conceived, sits on the western edge of the battlefield. In fact, the institute is no more as it has been bulldozed to make way for a new housing development. Not far from here there is an area called Shinbanes Fields. From time to time, in centuries gone by, farmers would find human bones when ploughing the fields. This could explain the unusual name ‘Shinbanes’ meaning shin bones. 

Other place names in the area include Hewan Bog and Stinking Rig. It is believed that both names were given as it is where many of the English were hewn down in battle. Their bodies were afterwards buried in the area and thus we have the name Stinking Rig because of the rancid smell that emanated from there. 

Conclusion

As a keen metal detectorist, I have approached the University of Edinburgh seeking permission to detect on the land. However, all requests have been declined. Perhaps that is best because it is quite possible that the area could be a mass burial site. But if it were ever to be excavated what secrets could it throw up? Certainly, when archaeologists and historians have investigated the area of the Battle of Bannockburn they have turned up very little physical evidence of a battle taking place there. 

But the area of the Battle of Roslin could literally be a treasure trove of information that would throw so much more light on the way battles were fought back in the early 14th century. 

If this is something that would be of interest to visitors to the Edinburgh area, then this can be incorporated into a visit to Rosslyn Chapel. From Rosslyn Chapel it is only a short 10-minute walk to the Battle of Roslin monument. The scenery is beautiful and it is so peaceful. This can be included in our Rosslyn Chapel tour or a tailored tour to your requirement. Check out our Tours page on our website.

Other Areas of Interest Nearby

Also nearby is Hawthornden Castle which has some underground caves, said to have been used by both Robert the Bruce and William Wallace during different times. Further out from Roslin, is the small village of Temple which can lay claim to being one of the earliest sites used by the Knights Templar when they were outlawed on mainland Europe. 

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

The 11th September 1297 was a major turning point in Scottish history due to the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Ever since 1286 with the death of Alexander III, Scotland had been left without strong leadership. Initially, Alexander’s granddaughter and only heir Margaret was to return from Norway to take up the throne. But sadly she died on the journey over to Scotland.

Numerous Scottish nobles claimed their right to the throne but without collective agreement no one could be chosen. Edward I of England was invited to arbitrate over the proposed contenders. Seizing his opportunity, he declared himself overlord of Scotland. At the same time he chose John Balliol to become king but only because he would be “his puppet.”

Balliol only remained King for a few years before Edward returned to Scotland in 1296 and forced him to abdicate. Edward took control of all of the major strongholds in Scotland and placed his trusted nobles in charge. This set Scotland on a path that would lead to the Battle of Stirling Bridge. 

However, Scotland had struggled for centuries to stand up to its much larger and more powerful neighbour. There was simply a lack of belief that they had the will, the manpower and most important of all a strong leader.Now the facts of William Wallace are difficult to establish with any sense of conviction. Much of Wallace’s story is provided by the 15th century poem written by Blind Harry. Bear in mind that this was written almost 160 years after Wallace’s death, much of its content would have been passed down by word of mouth. 

The Life and Heroic Actions of the Renowned Sir William Wallace, General and Governor of Scotland.

Blind Harry

This 12-volume work became the key reference to the life and times of Wallace and most significantly his greatest victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

By the time the Battle of Stirling Bridge took place, William Wallace had been slowly building his army. It was not a conventional army in terms of its size. It certainly wouldn’t have been capable of fighting a full-scale battle on the battlefield against Edward’s army. Instead, Wallace resorted guerrilla-style warfare. With much smaller groups of fighters, he would lay traps and ambush English convoys. He and his men became the proverbial “thorn in the side” of the English army. 

The increasing uprising suffered a blow when many of the Scottish nobles submitted to the English in the July of 1297. But Wallace joined forces with another rebel, Andrew Moray, and together they achieved their first victory at the siege of Dundee. 

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle

This victory gave them the impetus to challenge for the “jewel in the crown.”  Stirling Castle was strategically important for any army if it wanted to control the gateway to the north of Scotland. The Castle itself, like Edinburgh Castle, towered over the surrounding area and was easily defended. More importantly, it controlled the bridge that allowed access over the River Forth. 

The only problem for Wallace and Moray was even with their combined forces, they were still vastly outnumbered by the English army at Stirling. Timing was key. Wallace somehow had to entice the English army from the Castle down onto the plain below. This would mean that the English army would need to cross over the bridge. It was not substantial, barely able to allow two cavalrymen to cross side by side. 

Abbey Craig

However, from the vantage point of the Abbey Craig (the location of the Wallace Monument), Wallace was able to monitor English movements. Over a period of several hours, the English moved their cavalry and infantry over the bridge.  Seizing the moment, Wallace and Murray then brought out the rest of their army and charged at the English. In a panic, the English turned tail despite being trapped in the loop of the river. At the same time, Wallace and Murray sabotaged the bridge.

It was a major defeat for the English, with many being killed on the battlefield, and the remainder drowning in the river. The remainder of the English army back in the Castle immediately retreated back to Berwick. This left the Castle back in Scottish hands and was to instil a new-found confidence in the Scots. Wallace and Murray were appointed Guardians of Scotland. Sadly, Murray died only a few months later from wounds sustained at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. And within a year, Edward I brought an even larger army to Scotland and defeated Wallace’s forces at Falkirk.

Edinburgh Cab Tours provide tours of Stirling Castle and the surrounding areas. Alternatively, let us know what you wish to visit and we will tailor the tour to your requirements. For further details go to our TOURS page.