Finding the Battle of Bannockburn

The Bannockburn Big Dig Team © Callum Bennets @ Maverick Photo Agency

The Bannockburn Big Dig Team © Callum Bennets @ Maverick Photo Agency

Bannockburn is the most iconic battle of Scottish history and was the key battle in the Scottish Wars of Independence. Fought over two days, the 23 and 24 of June 1314, the battle was a resounding victory for Robert I’s army over a much larger force led by Edward II of England. The victory established Robert the Bruce as de facto King of Scots and ended any realistic claim of the Plantagenets to the Scottish throne, by both removing the last significant English garrison and the Bruce’s Scottish enemies from the country.

However, despite its iconic status, the precise location of the actual battlefield was unknown, with a variety of potential sites beneath and around the modern village of Bannockburn the subject of academic debate.

Map showing the various sites investigated around Bannockburn © GUARD Archaeology

Map showing the various sites investigated around Bannockburn © GUARD Archaeology

Between 2011 and 2014, a new search for the site of the Battle of Bannockburn took place, spurred on by the 700th anniversary and the National Trust for Scotland’s new state-of-the-art Bannockburn Battlefield Centre. Led by a team of archaeologists, historians and environmental experts drawn from the National Trust for Scotland, the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, Stirling Council, Stirling University, the Treasure Trove Unit and GUARD Archaeology Ltd, every available resource and technique was put to the test. LIDAR, aerial photography, map regression, documentary research, geophysical prospection, walk-over surveys, metal-detecting surveys, excavation trenching and systematic test-pitting was carried out with the support of metal detectorists from the Scottish Artefact Recovery Group and Detecting Scotland and the participation of over 1,314 enthusiastic local, national and international volunteers of all ages. Supported by BBC Scotland, the work culminated in a two-part BBC 2 documentary ‘The Quest for Bannockburn’, presented by Neil Oliver and Tony Pollard, which aired in June last year.

There is very little on the ground to mark where the battle apparently took place‘, said Warren Bailie, who led GUARD Archaeology’s team. ‘The Bore Stone at the summit of Brock’s Brae, was according to tradition where Robert the Bruce’s standard was set during the battle, but this doesn’t actually appear in written accounts before 1723 and even then only one fragment of the original bore stone still survives at the Bannockburn Visitor Centre.

As with any new development in an archaeologically sensitive area, investigations were undertaken across the footprint of the new Bannockburn Battlefield Centre prior to its construction. These did not uncover any evidence from the battlefield, but rather a number of Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age fire pits, which brought home the enormity of the task, not simply trying to discern the archaeology from the intensively developed landscape of modern-day Bannockburn but discerning it from one event 700 years ago from the archaeology accumulated over many thousands of years.

Bannockburn 700 project

The launch event for the Bannockburn 700 project took place on Monument Hill exactly 700 days ahead of the 700th Anniversary of the battle. The work here established that the Roman Road, reputed to have led both the English and Scottish armies to this position, did not actually lead here. Instead it was surmised that the Roman road lay below the current main road which sweeps past this site on lower ground.

The Roman road was encountered, however, during subsequent excavations by local volunteers, led by Murray Cook  of Stirling Council, in an area just south of Randolph’s Field. This was a key feature in the landscape during the Battle of Bannockburn as it was the principal road to Stirling Castle from the south and revealed the route by which Edward II’s army approached the battle, and where Robert the Bruce’s soldiers opposed them.

Cambuskenneth Abbey is another significant landmark that was in existence at the time of the battle and features in numerous records of the period. The Abbey is one of the few places specifically mentioned in near contemporary accounts of the battle. It was here that Robert the Bruce kept his army’s baggage prior to the Battle of Bannockburn, though it is possible that this was also where supplies related to the on-going siege of Stirling Castle by the Scots were stored (it was to relieve the siege that Edward II brought his army to Bannockburn). The investigations around the ruins of the Abbey, which have been dated no earlier than the thirteenth century, involved geophysics, test-pitting and metal detecting led by GUARD Archaeologists. A trench close to the Abbey ruins revealed an assemblage more consistent with the medieval beginnings of Cambuskenneth Abbey. But a metal-detecting survey across the fields to the south and west of the Abbey recovered, amongst over 1,000 finds, a silver Edward I/II coin that was minted in London during the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. This coin would have been in circulation at the time of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and could derive from booty taken from the defeated English army.

Edward I/II Coin from Cambuskenneth © GUARD Archaeology

Edward I/II Coin from Cambuskenneth © GUARD Archaeology

Exactly one year before the 700th Anniversary of the Battle, the Bannockburn Big Dig took place, investigating Braehead, Balquidderock Wood and Broomhill over 7 days. The findings included 133 metal artefacts, mostly iron and of eighteenth century, but from amongst the 139 test pits excavated was recovered an assemblage of medieval artefacts including white gritty ware and Scottish red ware, both types potentially contemporary to the battle, as well as considerable amounts of later medieval pottery. The evidence here, dispelled the myth that the Carse was an uninhabited bog during the middle ages. The nature of these interspersed habitable areas across an unfamiliar and otherwise boggy landscape may have been a major factor in the outcome of the battle, given the accounts that when the Scottish army surprised the English army early on the second day of the battle, the English forces were driven across the Carse towards the Forth, where flanked by the Pelstream to the north and the Bannock Burn to the south, they had nowhere to run.

Medieval spur and stirrup

A survey at Redhall Farm involved test-pitting and metal detecting of 10 ha along the eastern banks of the Bannock Burn. Among the hundreds of artefacts recovered was one spur fragment that turned out to be of medieval date. This was the first indication of medieval equestrian equipment found on any of our investigations to date. The test pits along the inner meanders of the Bannock Burn also turned up some sherds of medieval pottery, again evidence of medieval occupation of this landscape.

Left: Fragmentary medieval spur from Redhall. Right: medieval stirrup from Carse Fields © GUARD Archaeology© GUARD Archaeology

Left: Fragmentary medieval spur from Redhall. Right: medieval stirrup from Carse Fields © GUARD Archaeology© GUARD Archaeology

Another metal detector survey at Carse Fields covered an additional 10 ha area and recovered a medieval stirrup. This was now the second artefact that could be potentially attributed to medieval cavalry.

Broadley’s Farm is spread over many fields along the courses of the Pelstream and Bannock Burn. The land therefore provided opportunities to investigate wide areas on the Carse as well as the inner meanders and river banks where it was hoped that artefacts from the battle might await discovery. The metal detecting survey of 30 ha of land and excavation of 50 test pits turned up more medieval pottery, further evidence that the Carse was habitable during the medieval period.

Some of the medieval pottery recovered during the Big Dig © GUARD Archaeology

Some of the medieval pottery recovered during the Big Dig © GUARD Archaeology

In true dramatic archaeological style the battlefield kept us all waiting to the bitter end for the most treasured of artefacts‘, said Warren Bailie. With the help of GUARD Archaeology colleagues, Maureen Kilpatrick and Christine Rennie, and fifty local volunteers, a last ditch attempt to recover more evidence of the battle got under way on 15 February 2014. While lots of non-descript iron objects were discovered – a few horse shoes, recent coins, nineteenth century horse harness pendants – one of the volunteers found something a little more special, a copper alloy cross harness pendant which even then appeared significant. Analysed soon after by Dr Natasha Ferguson of the Treasure Trove Unit, traces of silver gilt and blue enamel were identified. XRF analysis later found traces of gold too. This cross pendant dated to the early fourteenth century and once adorned the horse harness of  an English nobleman’s horse. It’s location here, on the Carse, understood in the context of the other findings of the project, provides the clearest archaeological evidence found so far for the location of the Battle of Bannockburn.

Left: Cross Pendant for a Knight's Horse Harness © GUARD Archaeology. Right: Image from a thirteenth century manuscript, the Trinity Apocalypse, showing cross pendants on the horse harness of the central figure. © Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 4.0 International Public License.

Left: Cross Pendant for a Knight’s Horse Harness © GUARD Archaeology. Right: Image from a thirteenth century manuscript, the Trinity Apocalypse, showing cross pendants on the horse harness of the central figure. © Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 4.0 International Public License.

The medieval material culture discovered during the Bannockburn investigations demonstrates that the Carse was settled in the medieval period when for so long many dismissed the area as an inhospitable and boggy environment during that period. The new key equestrian artefacts – the spur, stirrup and cross pendant – which may relate to the rout of the English army from the battlefield on the second day, substantiates the location of the Battle of Bannockburn on the Carse here too.

Map of Bannockburn showing the new archaeological find spots and the likeliest course of the battle over 23 and 24 June 1314. © Tony Pollard / GUARD Archaeology Ltd

Map of Bannockburn showing the new archaeological find spots and the likeliest course of the battle over 23 and 24 June 1314. © Tony Pollard / GUARD Archaeology Ltd