It was a hot and muggy July in 1314 at Stirling Castle on the eastern coast of Scotland. Good King Robert, the Bruce, had just won a great victory at Blàr Allt a’ Bhonnaich or the Battle of Bannockburn, sending England’s Edward II, his pride and his army crushed, home to think again. But at Stirling Castle within sight of the battleground, midges swarmed around hundreds of men, sweat-drenched as they tunneled under the walls and fired the supports. Great billows of smoke rose in columns. Walls and towers crashed to the ground.
Well, that’s how I imagine it anyway.
It was not the English who were destroying the huge Scottish castle which had surrendered to the Scots on June 25, the day after the battle. The English needed castles to try to control the Scottish countryside and its stubbornly independent people. Instead, King Robert the Bruce was slighting the last of the great Scottish castles as he had been doing for the past six years. There was only one way to deny the English those strongholds. Destroy them. (Slight is used in the old sense of “to level with the ground” and is the common term for leveling a castle)
The English built the great castles of Wales to suppress the Welsh people. Scotland already had great castles such as Berwick, Stirling, Edinburgh and Roxburgh which the English could use for that purpose. The early days of the Scottish War of Independence had proven to King Robert that he could not hope to hold the castles against the overwhelming numbers the English could bring against him. The English needed castles them to hold Scotland. The Scots didn’t. It was their home.
The Scots fought a different kind of war as explained in a famous verse called Good King Robert’s Testament:
On foot should be all Scottish war.
Let hill and marsh their foes debar
And woods as walls prove such an arm
That enemies do them no harm.
In hidden spots keep every store
And burn the plainlands them before,
So, when they find the land lie waste
Needs must they pass away in haste
Harried by cunning raids at night
And threatening sounds from every height.
Then, as they leave, with great array
Smite with the sword and chase away.
This is the counsel and intent
Of Good King Robert’s Testament
Earlier in 1314, Sir James Douglas, Lord of Douglas had captured Roxburgh Castle, one of the largest in Scotland, after one of his infamous sneak attacks, and the king sent his brother with an entire army to slight it. Not wishing Douglas to get one up on him, for they were well-known for competing with each other, Sir Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, captured Edinburgh Castle which was also promptly slighted on King Robert’s command.
However, this wasn’t new, but a longstanding policy of King Robert’s. The first of the castles that I know of to be destroyed was James Douglas’s own Douglas Castle which Douglas first burned, probably in 1307, and then completely slighted a year later after the English had rebuilt it.
This policy became a fixture. In the north of Scotland, castles could be strongholds for King Robert’s domestic enemies, the Comyns and their allies, so those were destroyed. In the south of Scotland, castles were essential to English war policy. That was where most of the great royal castles were and capturing them took much longer. But captured they were, one by one. After the Battle of Bannockburn, only Berwick Castle remained standing until 1318.
By the end of 1314, Scotland, in effect, was a kingdom without castles.
About J.R. Tomlin:
Born in the US, in Texas to be specific, to a Scottish father and American mother, J. R. grew up spending time both in Texas and Scotland, mainly in Edinburgh where her grandparents lived. Her first memory of writing is a poem in the second grade, and she long had an ambition to be a poet, which was given up when she realized that her poetry was pretty bad. Instead she went into journalism. She attended the University of Texas at Austin and now lives in the rainier clime of the US Pacific North West. Her historical novels of Scotland include Freedom’s Sword and A Kingdom’s Cost.