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Dance If Ye Can: A Dictionary of Scottish Battles

Dance If Ye Can: A Dictionary of Scottish Battles

Book excerpt

Part One


I have brought you to the ring; dance if ye can – William Wallace, Falkirk, 1298 

Romans, Picts and Vikings

Scottish soldiers have attracted respect, contempt, admiration, vilification and sometimes fear, but perhaps most of all there was fascination. Every enemy he encountered seemed to comment on the attire, attitudes and methods of fighting of the men of the north.

        When Julius Agricola marched his Romans into Caledonia in the early 80s, his biographer, Tacitus wrote telling comments on the tribesmen that he met. The initial comments were hardly charitable, as Tacitus termed the Caledonians “a pack of spiritless cowards” but their practice of guerrilla warfare tested the mettle of even the professional Roman army.  

        Unlike the Celts of the south, before the Caledonians faced Agricola in pitched battle, they sent their women and children to safety. When battle was joined, Tacitus no longer slated his opponent:

  The Britons wanted neither skill nor resolution. With their long swords and cetrae, they managed to elude the heavy weapons of the Romans, and at the same time to discharge a thick volley of their own.

       The Caledonians used the chariot, which was an anachronism elsewhere, but were defeated by superior Roman tactics. However, even in retreat they:

        had their moments of returning courage and gave proof of virtue and of brave despair. They fled to the woods, and rallying their scattered numbers, surrounded such of the Romans as pursued with too much eagerness.’

        Other invaders met similar tactics: the Scots proved expert at the savage night raid, the battle, the retreat and ambush in woods or hills. Calgacus, who commanded the Caledonians, could almost have written the Rules of Engagement for future Scottish wars.

       If one accepts that the Picts were a Celtic people, and that is by no means certain, then their way of life would equate with other societies across the British Isles. At the apex of Celtic life was a warrior aristocracy, whose exploits were lovingly recalled by bards. Unfortunately no bardic writings remain from any of the Pictish nations, but instead they left some of the finest stone carvings in Europe. A carved stone at Aberlemno, near Forfar, may refer to the battle of Dunnichen in 685, when the Picts repulsed the Northumbrians. The stone depicts a battle between two distinct groups of warriors, one with helmets and one without.

       There are various scenes, but the Pictish tactics seem clear. When facing cavalry the infantry appeared to fight in three disciplined ranks. The front rank held a defensive shield, with a sword ready for retaliation, the second thrust forward his spear to cover his front rank man and the third waited in reserve. In effect it was a schiltron, the same tactic as Wallace used at Falkirk, and not too dissimilar to the squares of Waterloo or Ulundi, where Scots also fought.

       The enemy carried swords and spears, with round shields and helmets of a type that the Northumbrians used.  The horsemen used the spears for throwing, not couched as lances, and the level of Pictish horsemanship must have been high to control their animals in close battle. Weapons and tactics of the Dark Ages seem to have been broadly similar across Scotland. Pictish stone carvings from Orkney reveal men with spears that are not much taller than themselves, while their shields are small and square, with that of the chief the most ornate.

       Other evidence comes from verse. The Gododdin is a bardic elegy that may refer to the battle of Cattraeth, although there is a strong possibility that some of the verses were tagged on at a later date. The story is of glorious defeat, and naturally all the warriors ere heroes. Verses speak of men with names such as Hyfeidd the Tall, Caradawg and Gwawrddur; the Gododdin is about a British war band, the “retinue of Mynyddawg” that fought the encroaching Angles around 600 AD. They came from south of the Pictish lands, and were describes as:  “a force with steeds and blue armour and shields, javelins aloft and keen lances, and bright mail-coats and swords.”  There are echoes of Arthur in the words, inevitable defeat against insufferable odds, a Homerian tragedy enacted upon the damp lands of Britain.

       To the west of the lowland British were the Dalriadic Scots, and if they fought like their blood brothers from Ireland, then they used shield and sword, the large spear known as a sleg and the smaller bir and foga. In the early days when Rome was the enemy, the heroes rode chariots to battle and fought for honour and cattle. They gloried in single combat and displayed the heads of their victims, but rather than chain mail they fought with armour of linen or even with no protection at all.

       There is a work of the tenth century known as the Senchus Fer nAlban, the History of the Scots, which includes a military survey of Dalriada. This text reveals that the kingdom was split into three sub-kingdoms, with a combined fighting strength of around 2,100 men. As an island and coastal nation, it is not surprising that the warriors were expected to take their place at the oars of the ships in addition to fighting on land.

       Such were the warriors of the Dark Ages. In the eighth century the Norse roared south, with large axes, long swords and coats of mail. Where other nations fell before the Viking menace, the warbands of the Alban nations fought back and in the Highlands at least, the men adopted many of the Norse battle tactics. 

        At the battle of Bruanburh, the Scots fought in similar style to their Norse allies. They fought on foot, behind a shield wall. It became a Scottish tradition to ride to battle but dismount before the fighting began.


Medieval and Renaissance

      By the twelfth century the picture is clearer, as Scottish warriors faced more literate opponents. The Norman-English affected little respect for the native Scots as King David’s expedition of 1126 combined Galwegian with men from Lothian, Norman with Celt. While the Norman lords huddled around the king, secure in grey armour and kite shaped shield, the Galwegians fought naked, or nearly so, with leather shields and swords, while the men from the lowlands had the small shield and the long spear that was to be Scotland’s primary weapon for centuries. When they got close, the Scottish spearmen were ferocious opponents, but the English countered with the longbow that killed at a hundred paces.

        At this period the Scottish host was composed of every fit man between sixteen and sixty. When the king commanded, they were duty bound to serve for forty days, unpaid. The local maormor, later known as an earl, led the men of his area, and in the Highlands, the status of clan chiefs depended on the number of men in their fighting tail. This method ensured that the king had the maximum of manpower with the minimum expense, but it also made for an untrained and short-term army. Like their Dark Age ancestors, most Scots fought on foot, and not until the statutes of Robert I in 1318 was there any official attempt to provide some protection from the killing hail of English archers. Even the quilted coat or chain mail of the wealthy was little defence, while the poorest, those worth less than £10, could only shelter behind their courage.

       Save for a short war with Norway, rebellion in Moray and an invasion of Man, the Scottish knights had little opportunity to show their military prowess. They stagnated in relatively peaceful Scotland. The knights retained the appearance of martial skill, but when Edward of England mounted a challenge, all they knew was the conventional charge of chivalry, which failed before the experience and guile of veteran English commanders. Wallace and Andrew Moray used the power of the people, but it was King Robert I who returned to the old Celtic tactics of hit and run and ambush. His lieutenant, James of Douglas, became the commando fighter par-excellence, and generations of Borderers followed his lead.

         By the late Middle Ages there was a degree of professionalism about the nucleus of the royal army, with full time artillerymen and perhaps a number of crossbowmen in the royal castles. In 1429 King James I ordered the Scots to learn archery, presumably with the hope they could beat the English at their own game. The Scots probably paid lip service to the idea, but retained their traditional arms. In the event, the king’s idea was sound but outmoded; by the fifteenth century there were to be no more ritual slaughters of Scottish armies by Welsh and English longbowmen.

        Each area of Scotland would have an annual wappenshaw, literally, ‘weapon show’, where in theory each man’s state of readiness for war could be checked and maintained. The primary infantry weapon in the Lowlands continued to be the spear, sometimes termed a pike, and those who could afford it carried a sword. The Scottish spearmen, however, were not to be despised. They fought shoulder to shoulder in a compact hedgehog known as a schiltron that could advance on an appalled enemy or repel the charge of armoured chivalry. If a sufficient number of spearmen could reach the enemy, they were hard to beat.

       While the gentleman class provided the heavy cavalry, the Borders produced a large number of light horsemen, known as prickers. These men were invaluable for scouting, irregular warfare and the fast, hit-and-run raids that were a Border speciality. Both William Wallace and King Robert I used the archers from Ettrick, while parts of the Highlands also sent archers, such as the contingent from Argyll at the battle of Pinkie.

       Highland and Lowland fighting men evolved differently, probably due to their diverse cultural backgrounds.  Writing in 1420, Andrew Wyntoun describes the Highland combatants at the Battle of the North Inch as fighting “with bow and ax, knyf and swerd.” The bow was an important weapon in the north. In 1521 John Major said that the Highlanders:

        Always carry a bow and arrows, a very broad sword with a small halbert, a large dagger, sharpened on one side only, but very sharp, under the belt. In time of war they cover their whole body with a shirt of mail of iron rings, and fight in that.

       Major was obviously referring to the upper classes of Highland society, for he added that the:

       Common people of the Highland Scots rush into battle, having their body clothed with a linen garment manifoldly sewed and painted or daubed with pitch, with a covering of deerskin.

       In 1549, when the French were assisting to remove the last of the English from southern Scotland, the Frenchman John de Beaugue wrote that the Scottish army were:

       Followed by the Highlanders, and these last go almost naked; they have painted waistcoats and a sort of woollen covering, variously coloured.

 The Lowlanders were also light infantry, with a spear or pike, an iron or steel helmet and a leather jerkin or quilted jack. In the Borders, at least, firearms became popular in the sixteenth century.

        Writing in 1583, another Frenchman, Nicolay d’Arfeville, wrote that the Highlanders used:

       The bow and arrow, and some darts, which they throw with great dexterity, and a large sword, with a single-edged dagger. They are very swift of foot, and there is no horse so swift as to outstrip them.

       In the early 1570s, Lindsay of Pitscottie termed the Highlanders:

       Very rud and homlie kind of people…called the Reidschankis or Wyld Scottis…thair weapons ar bowis and dartis, with ane verie broad sword and ane dagger scharp onlie at the on edge.

        Describing the Highlanders as ‘redshanks’ was common at the time, the name referring to their bare legs, and casting memories back to the Norwegian King Magnus who earned the title Magnus Barelegs when he adopted Hebridean dress after his campaigns in the west.

        George Buchanan, who wrote in 1582, mentioned that the Highlanders wore:

       An iron bonnet and an habbergion…even to their heels. Their weapons…are bowes and arrows. The arrows are for the most part hooked, with a bauble (barb) on either side, which once entered within the body cannot be drawn forth again, unless the wounde be made wider. Some of them fight with broad swords and axes.

         The combination of light infantryman with armoured axe men was potent, causing major problems at Harlaw in 1411 and defeating a royal army at Inverlochy twenty years later. The axes seem to have been a speciality of some of the warriors from the far north and the Western Isles, the areas most influenced by the Norse. There was a traditional movement of warriors from western Scotland to Ireland from at least the thirteenth century. These men were known as galloglaich, or gallowglass, which meant ‘foreign warrior.’ Gallowglasses often settled in Ireland and featured in most Irish conflicts until the wars against Queen Elizabeth. They fought on foot, wearing long shirts of mail and wielding a long handled battleaxe. They were the elite fighting men of the Irish chiefs and kings.

        Scottish Highlanders featured very strongly in sixteenth century warfare in Ireland. In 1545 Donald Dubh sent many of his men over, and an English observer reported that they were:

       Very tall men, clothed…in habergeons of mail, armed with long swords and long bows but with few guns; the other thousand, tall mariners that rowed in galleys.

        Peregrine O’Cleary, in his Life of Hugh O’Donnell described the Highlanders who fought Elizabeth as carrying:

        Horn-hafted swords, large and military, over their shoulders. A man when he had to strike with them, was obliged to apply both his hands to the haft.

        At the other end of the country, the Borders also created a distinctive type of warrior. Their light horsemen usually bore the brunt of any English invasion, and when not at war, were often involved in clan feuding or straightforward cattle reiving.  In the fourteenth century Froissart had commented that the Scots rode to war, with the common people on little hackneys and geldings. By the sixteenth century the Borderers had evolved their own culture of the horse and their prickers were perhaps the most professional soldiers in Britain. The word professional means just that; they rode and fought for profit, not for glory or honour, and would leave a battlefield without a qualm if there was a chance of a quick buck. More like modern soldiers than their contemporaries, the Border ‘licht horsemen’ were supremely functional. From the steel helmet that protected his head, past his reinforced quilted jacket to the leather boots, everything had a purpose, and none more than the nine-foot lance, the backsword and the pair of pistols that they used with chilling skill.

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