I wish that I could have seen the battle at Bannockburn.
It wasn’t, by modern standards, a very big battle, but it was a long one, lasting two full days. It was a failed attempt by the English army, under Edward II, to relieve Stirling Castle from siege by Scottish independence forces led by Robert the Bruce during the First War of Scottish Independence.
By the year of Bannockburn, 1314, Edward II was losing the hold his father, Edward I, had consolidated on Scotland. Robert the Bruce had claimed the Scottish throne in 1306, and was retaking Scottish strongholds one by one.
Robert the Bruce is one of history’s warrior-giants. He was physically enormous, a multi-lingual and well-educated nobleman, and he absolutely scared the pants off the English. He would have scared the pants off you, too: he embodied that unusual and frightening combination of physical size, martial competence, and charismatic leadership. He is described, at one point in the Battle of Bannockburn, as splitting Henry de Bohun’s helmeted head at full charge with one blow of his axe.
Estimates put the English force at Bannockburn at approximately 15,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry; the Scots fielded somewhere less than 10,000, a small percentage of which would have been mounted.
These nearly-30,000 men hurled themselves at each other for two days, charging and recharging, until approximately two-thirds of the English infantry were dead. Even if Scottish casualties were light, something like 15,000 men probably died at Bannockburn.
And I wish that I had seen it. I do not believe that it was cinematic or noble or good, and I certainly do not wish to have participated in it – I am no reenactor, and I do not hanker after olden and blood-soaked days. One of the great privileges of living in our age is that one has a much lower chance of dying in battle.
But battles, armed clashes between large groups of people, are part of the human experience. They must have been terrible and awesome to see: thousands and tens of thousands of men bent on nothing but their own survival and the destruction of the other.
There really isn’t anything else like battle in the human experience, and it has happened in every culture in every time in recorded human history. War is one of man’s unique characteristics – our ability to abstract and organize violence is one of the things which sets us apart from other animals (with the possible exception of chimps).
War isn’t a universal masculine experience, but it is a defining one. Men everywhere and through all times have done battle with other men, and have measured their strength by their ability to do so. They marched and ran and rode in lines – they hacked each other to pieces with swords, rained arrows on each other, ran each other down with horses, and blew each other apart with guns.
William James wrote, in ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘, “We inherit the warlike type; and for most of the capabilities of heroism that the human race is full of we have to thank this cruel history.” I think that may be an over-simplification, and I know James would agree with me (for it is one of the main thrusts of the essay) that war is a blight, the reduction of which is an unalloyed good for mankind.
Nevertheless, the ability to steel one’s nerve, to run or ride headlong into an advancing or overwhelming enemy, to die not for necessity but for a rule or for a principle, is an astonishing and human ability. It’s part of who we are, a capability which informs the collective human psyche, which defines at one stroke the best and worst limits of ourselves, and it is strange to think that I will never see something which has been so fundamental to the self-conception of so many.
And I wish I could have.
Title is from the song ‘Scots Wha Hae’, the lyrics written by Robert Burns as a speech given by Robert the Bruce before Bannockburn.
Image is of the statue of Robert the Bruce at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, taken from the BBC.