The first Valentine’s Day thoughts, as we know them weren’t sent until hundreds of years after the death of the Good Sir James. Nonetheless, it seemed a good title for a piece on how James spent February 14, 1316.
He spent it fighting what he later called the hardest fight of his life, the battle of Skaithmuir (SKAY-mur), near Coldstream in the Borders region of Scotland. It becomes a scene in The Minstrel Boy, Book 2 of the Blue Bells Trilogy.
Setting the stage for Coldstream, we’d have to back up to 1286, the year when Alexander III ended his peaceful reign over what many see as a golden age of Scotland, by dying without a clear heir. (Ironically, as if an author had foreshadowed James’s destiny, James was that same year.) Into this void stepped Edward I of England, claiming his right to be overlord of Scotland. On March 30, 1296, after his failed attempt to rule Scotland through a puppet-king, John Baliol, who didn’t dance on his strings quite the way he’d expected, Edward attacked Berwick, thus launching the revolts led by William Wallace. This fight against the English invasion culminated, or should have culminated, in the great Battle of Bannockburn on June 24, 1316, in which Robert the Bruce’s small army routed the much larger might of England.
It was not the culmination because, although Edward II failed to inherit his father’s military skill, he more than made up for it with a double dose of the stubborn gene. Though soundingly and humiliatingly defeated, he refused to give a peace treaty agreeing to Scotland’s very mild terms which were, essentially, to acknowledge Scotland as the independent nation it always had been, and Bruce as her rightful king. In short, a promise to leave Scotland alone.
Thus, the First Wars of Scottish Independence continued.
Scotland, lacking the wealth and large armies of England, chose instead to launch a series of guerilla-style strikes into Northumbria. These raids, led most often by the Good Sir James (or The Black Douglasas the English called him) and Bruce’s nephew, Thomas Randolph, the Earl of Moray, served the dual purpose of harrying England into accepting a peace treaty and collecting money to fund the continued fight, which Edward II’s refusal to treat made necessary.
In the winter of 1315-1316, Douglas besieged Berwick, still held by the English. Heavy rains the previous spring and summer had already led to the beginning of the Great European Famine. Throw in a little siege, and Maurice de Berkeley, the commander of Berwick, was reduced to begging Edward II for help by October 1315. Few rations could get through the Scots’ blockade, however.
Finally, on February 14, 1316, a company of Gascon soldiers decided they would go get food for themselves. Under the leadership of a Gascon noble, the knight Sir Edmund Caillhau (or Raymond, in many sources), this company ventured into the rolling farmland along the River Teviot. They spread out, looking for cattle.
One Sir Adam Gordon saw some of them and raced to Douglas to report that there were a few cattle raiders out and about. Douglas accepted the report and went to intercept them. Instead of a few cattle raiders, he found a host of well-armed fighting men.
There are relatively few accounts of this battle to be found on the internet. The most detailed account I have found comes from David R. Ross’s wonderful book James the Good: The Black Douglas. He reports that the incident happened at Skaithmuir (SKAY-mur) a few miles north of Coldstream. Douglas came upon Caillhau’s brigade in the flat, open country of the Merse, perfect for cavalry, but with no natural defenses. Just the sort of situation James Douglas typically avoided.
With only seconds to decide whether to retreat or attack, he made the decision he would not run on Scottish soil, on his own marches, of which he was warden. His men were seasoned fighters, having spent the previous ten years and more fighting the English, and he had great faith in them. He stationed his men behind a small ford before unfurling his famous white banner with the blue band and three white stars, signalling his intent to fight.
The Gascons charged. They no doubt expected to easily overcome this small group. John Barbour, in The Brus, tells about the fight:
The Scotsmen bravely fought them back
There one could see a cruel fight.
And strokes exchanged with all their might
The Douglas there was full hard pressed
But the great valor he possessed
So lent his men courageousness
That no man thought on cowardice.
The Border Magazine, Volume 12, 1907, adds the picturesque touch that old tales say so much blood was shed in the battle that the river ran red for three days afterward. (The author of the piece seems to doubt it, but it is interesting that such stories would continue for centuries.)
John Barbour, interviewing men who knew Douglas, says Douglas later called it the hardest battle he ever fought. But, like Bannockburn, it resulted in sound defeat for the larger English force with amazingly few losses at all on the Scots’ side. Douglas himself fought his way to, and killed, Caillhau. With their leader dead, the Gascons lost heart, and were quickly beaten. James himself learned a lesson from this, and from that time on, always went for the leader of the opposing armies.
Most reports on Skaithmuir say there are no records of the size of James Douglas’s force, except that it was significantly smaller. David R. Ross says that Caillhau had 80 to Douglas’s 40. Maurice de Berkeley reported four days after the event that twenty men-at-arms and sixty foot soldiers were missing.
In the wake of Skaithmuir, James Douglas disappeared back into the Ettrick Forest, but afterwards, the tale was told by Englishmen of how he fought and won against overwhelming odds, and he was spoken of with awe.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Sir James!