Warfare in Medieval Scotland

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Warfare in Medieval Scotland

Warfare in Medieval Scotland includes all military activity in the modern borders of Scotland, or by forces originating in the region, between the departure of the Romans in the fifth century and the adoption of the innovations of the Renaissance in the early sixteenth century. In this period conflict developed from minor raids to major conflicts, incorporating many of the innovations of continental warfare.


Overview

Artist's impression of the Battle of Brunanburh, fought between the forces of Constantine III, King of Scots and Aethelstan, King of England in 937

In the Early Middle Ages war on land was characterised by the use of small war-bands of household troops often engaging in raids and low level warfare. The arrival of the Vikings brought a new scale of naval warfare, with rapid movement based around the Viking longship. The Birlinn, which developed form the longship, became a major factor in warfare in the Highlands and Islands. By the High Middle Ages, the kings of Scotland could command forces of tens of thousands of men for short periods as part of the "common army", mainly of poorly armoured spearmen and bowmen.

After the "Davidian Revolution" of the twelfth century, which introduced elements of feudalism to Scotland, these forces were augmented by small numbers of mounted and heavily armoured knights. Feudalism also introduced castles into the country, originally simple wooden motte-and-bailey constructions, but these were replaced in the thirteenth century with more formidable stone "enceinte" castles, with high encircling walls. In the thirteenth century the threat of Scandinavian naval power subsided and the kings of Scotland were able to use naval forces to help subdue the Highlands and Islands.

Scottish field armies rarely managed to stand up to the usually larger and more professional armies produced by England, but they were used to good effect by Robert I of Scotland at Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 to secure Scottish independence. He adopted a policy of slighting castles and made use of naval power to support his forces, beginning to develop a royal Scottish naval force.

In the Late Middle Ages under the Stewart kings these forces were further augmented by specialist troops, particularly men-at-arms and archers, hired by bonds of manrent, similar to English indentures of the same period. New "livery and maintenance" castles were built to house these troops and castles began to be adapted to accommodate gunpowder weapons. The Stewarts also adopted major innovations in continental warfare, such as longer pikes, the extensive use of artillery, and they built up a formidable navy.

Warfare in Medieval Scotland includes all military activity in the modern borders of Scotland, or by forces originating in the region, between the departure of the Romans in the fifth century and the adoption of the innovations of the Renaissance in the early sixteenth century. In this period conflict developed from minor raids to major conflicts, incorporating many of the innovations of continental warfare.

In the Early Middle Ages war on land was characterised by the use of small war-bands of household troops often engaging in raids and low level warfare. The arrival of the Vikings brought a new scale of naval warfare, with rapid movement based around the Viking longship. The Birlinn, which developed form the longship, became a major factor in warfare in the Highlands and Islands. By the High Middle Ages, the kings of Scotland could command forces of tens of thousands of men for short periods as part of the "common army", mainly of poorly armoured spearmen and bowmen. After the "Davidian Revolution" of the twelfth century, which introduced elements of feudalism to Scotland, these forces were augmented by small numbers of mounted and heavily armoured knights. Feudalism also introduced castles into the country, originally simple wooden motte-and-bailey constructions, but these were replaced in the thirteenth century with more formidable stone "enceinte" castles, with high encircling walls. In the thirteenth century the threat of Scandinavian naval power subsided and the kings of Scotland were able to use naval forces to help subdue the Highlands and Islands.

However, one of the best armed and largest Scottish armies ever assembled still met with defeat at the hands of an English army at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, which saw the destruction of a large number of ordinary troops, a large section of the nobility as well as the king, James IV.

Early Middle Ages

Detail of Pictish stone at Aberlemno Church Yard, showing mounted warriors

In the politically divided world of early medieval Scotland the nucleus of most armed forces was a leader's bodyguard or war-band. In the British language, this was called the teulu, as in teulu Dewr (the "War-band of Deira"). In Latin the most common word in this period is tutores, and derives from the Latin verb tueor, meaning "defend, preserve from danger".<ref>L. Alcock, Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain AD 550–850 (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2003), 56</ref>

In peace-time, the war-band's activity was centred around the "Great Hall". Here, in both Germanic and Celtic cultures, the feasting, drinking and other forms of male bonding that kept up the war-band's integrity would take place. In the contemporaneous Old English epic poem Beowulf, the war-band was said to sleep in the Great Hall after the lord had retired to his adjacent bedchamber.<ref> L. Alcock, Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain AD 550–850 (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2003), 248-9</ref>

It is not likely that any war-band in the period exceeded 120-150 men, as no hall structure having a capacity larger than this has been found by archaeologists in northern Britain. The war-band was the core of the larger armies that were mobilised from time to time for campaigns of significant size. These wider forces depended on the obligations to defend a province or kingdom by land and sea. Early sources from Dál Riata indicate an attempt to define this as an obligation based on landholding, with obligations to provide a specified number of men or ships based on the amount of land held by an individual.<ref>A. A. M. Duncan, "The Making of the Kingdom" in, R. Mitchison, ed., Why Scottish History Matters (Edinburgh: Saltire Society, 1997),13</ref>

Pictish stones, like that at Aberlemno in Angus, show warriors with swords, spears, bows, helmets and shields.<ref>B. Yorke, "Kings and kingship", in P. Stafford, ed., A Companion to the Early Middle Ages: Britain and Ireland, c.500-c.1100 (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 76-90</ref>These images may show infantry in formation, or gathered together for protection, and they show mounted troops, sometimes heavily armoured, suggesting a mounted warrior elite.<ref>D. Mersey, Warriors (Conway: Maritime Press, 2007) 240</ref>

Hill Forts

Early fortifications in Scotland, particularly in the north and west, included modest stone built towers known as brochs and duns and, particularly in the south and east larger hill forts. There is evidence for about 1,000 Iron Age hillforts in Scotland, most located below the Clyde-Forth line.<ref>J-D. G. G. Lepage, British Fortifications Through the Reign of Richard III: An Illustrated History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 25, 31</ref>

They appear to have been largely abandoned in the Roman period, but some seem to have been reoccupied after their departure.<ref>A. Konstam, Strongholds of the Picts: The Fortifications of Dark Age Scotland (Botley: Osprey, 2010) 12</ref> Most are circular, with a single palisade around an enclosure.<ref>J-D. G. G. Lepage, British Fortifications Through the Reign of Richard III: An Illustrated History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 25, 31</ref>

Forts of the Early Medieval era were often smaller, more compact, "nucleated" constructions, sometimes utilising major geographical features, as at Dunadd and Dunbarton.<ref>L. R. Laing, The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland, C. AD 400-1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn., 2006), 34</ref> The large number of hill forts in Scotland may have made open battle less important than it was in contemporaneous Anglo-Saxon England, and the relatively high proportion of kings who are recorded as dying in fires, suggest that sieges were a more important part of warfare in Northern Britain.<ref>B. Yorke, "Kings and kingship", in P. Stafford, ed., A Companion to the Early Middle Ages: Britain and Ireland, c.500-c.1100 (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 76-90</ref>

Ships

Modern replica of Viking Knarr

Sea power may also have been important. Irish annals record an attack by the Picts on Orkney in 682, which must have necessitated a large naval force, and also they lost 150 ships in a disaster in 729.<ref>J. N. G. Ritchie and A. Ritchie, Scotland, Archaeology and Early History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2nd edn., 1991)171-2</ref><ref>K. J. Edwards and I. Ralston, Scotland after the Ice Age: Environment, Archaeology and History, 8000 BC - AD 1000 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003)211</ref>

Ships were also vital in the amphibious warfare in the Highlands and Islands and from the seventh century the Senchus fer n-Alban indicates that Dál Riata had a ship-muster system that obliged groups of households to produce a total of 177 ships and 2,478 men. The same source mentions the first recorded naval battle around the British Isles in 719 and eight naval expeditions between 568 and 733.<ref>K. J. Edwards and I. Ralston, Scotland after the Ice Age: Environment, Archaeology and History, 8000 BC - AD 1000 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003) 6</ref>

The only vessels to survive form this period are dugout canoes, but images from the period suggest that there may have been skin boats (similar to the Irish currach) and larger oared vessels.<ref>L. R. Laing, The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland, c. AD 400-1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn., 2006), 129-30</ref>

The Viking raids and invasions of the British Isles were based on superior sea-power, which enabled the creation of the thalassocracies (sea-based lordships) of the north and west. The long-ship, the key to their success, was a graceful, long, narrow, light, wooden boat with a shallow draft hull designed for speed.

This shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only 3 feet (1 m) deep and permitted beach landings, while its light weight enabled it to be carried over portages. Longships were also double-ended, the symmetrical bow and stern allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without having to turn around.<ref>N. A. M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain. Volume One 660-1649 (London: Harper, 1997) 13-14</ref>

High Middle Ages

David I knighting a squire

By the twelfth century the ability to call on wider bodies of men for major campaigns had become formalised as the "common" (communis exercitus) or "Scottish army" (exercitus Scoticanus), based on a universal obligation linked to the holding of variously named units of land.<ref>G. W. S. Barrow, Scotland and its Neighbours in the Middle Ages (London: Continuum, 1992) 59</ref>

This could be used to produce a regional army, as the future Robert I did when from 1298-1302 when, as Earl of Carrick, he raised "my army of Carrick", but also a national Scottish army, as he did later in the Wars of Independence.<ref> M. Brown, Bannockburn: the Scottish War and the British Isles, 1307-1323 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 95-9</ref> Later decrees indicated that the common army was a levy of all able-bodied freemen aged between 16 and 60, with 8-days warning. It produced relatively large numbers of men serving for a limited period, usually as unarmoured or poorly armoured bowmen and spearmen.

In this period it continued to be mustered by the earls and they often led their men in battle, as was the case in the Battle of the Standard in 1138. It would continue to provide the vast majority of Scottish national armies, potentially producing tens of thousands of men for short periods of conflict, into the early modern era.<ref>A. D. M. Barrell, Medieval Scotland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 23</ref>

There also developed obligations that produced smaller numbers of feudal troops. The introduction of feudalism to Scotland is usually attributed to the Davidian Revolution of the twelfth century. When David I acceded to the Scottish throne in 1124 after spending much of his life living as a baron in England, he brought with him a number of Anglo-Norman vassals, to whom he distributed lands and titles, first in the lowlands and borders and then later in buffer zones in the North and West. Geoffrey Barrow wrote that among other changes this brought "fundamental innovations in military organization". <ref>G. W. S. Barrow, Scotland and its Neighbours in the Middle Ages (London: Continuum, 1992),59</ref>

These included the knight's fee, homage and fealty, as well as castle-building and the regular use of professional cavalry, as knights held castles and estates in exchange for service, providing troops on a 40 day basis.<ref>M. Brown, The Wars of Scotland, 1214-1371 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004) 58</ref>

David's Norman followers and their retinues were able to provide a force of perhaps 200 mounted and armoured knights, but the vast majority of his forces were the "common army" of poorly armed infantry, capable of performing well in raiding and guerrilla warfare, but only infrequently able to stand up to the English in the field, as they managed to do critically in the wars of independence at Stirling Bridge in 1297 and Bannockburn in 1314.<ref>K. J. Stringer, The Reign of Stephen: Kingship, Warfare, and Government in Twelfth-Century England (London: Psychology Press, 1993) 30-31</ref>

Castles

Scottish Castles

Rothesay Castle

Castles, in the sense of a fortified residence of a lord or noble, arrived in Scotland as part of David I's encouragement of Norman and French nobles to settle with feudal tenures, particularly in the south and east, and were a way of controlling the contested lowlands.<ref>C. J. Tabraham, Scotland's Castles (London: Batsford, 2005), 11</ref> These were primarily wooden motte-and-bailey constructions, of a raised mount or motte, surmounted by a wooden tower and a larger adjacent enclosure or bailey, both usually surrounded by a fosse (a ditch) and palisade, and connected by a wooden bridge. They varied in size from the very large such as the Bass of Inverurie, to more modest designs like Balmaclellan.<ref>C. J. Tabraham, Scotland's Castles (London: Batsford, 2005) 16</ref>

In England many of these constructions were converted into stone "keep-and-bailey" castles in the twelfth century, but in Scotland most of those that were in continued occupation became stone castles of "enceinte", with a high embattled curtain wall. <ref>T. W. West, Discovering Scottish Architecture (Botley: Osprey, 1985) 21</ref> In addition to the baronial castles there were royal castles, often larger and providing defence, lodging for the itinerant Scottish court and a local administrative centre. By 1200 these included fortifications at Ayr and Berwick.

In the wars of Scottish Independence Robert I adopted a policy of castle destruction, rather than allow fortresses to be easily taken or retaken by the English and held against him, beginning with his own castles at Ayr and Dumfries, and including Roxburgh and Edinburgh.<ref>D. Cornell, Bannockburn: the Triumph of Robert the Bruce (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009) 124</ref>

Naval Warfare

A carving of a birlinn from a sixteenth-century tombstone in MacDufie's Chapel, Oronsay, as engraved in 1772

In the Highlands and Islands, the longship was gradually succeeded by (in ascending order of size) the birlinn, highland galley and lymphad, which, were clinker-built ships, usually with a centrally-stepped mast, but also with oars that allowed them to be rowed. <ref>S. Murdoch, The Terror of the Seas?: Scottish Maritime Warfare, 1513-1713 (Leiden: Brill, 2010) 2,3</ref> Like the longship, they had a high stem and stern, and were still small and light enough to be dragged across portages, but they replaced the steering-board with a stern-rudder from the late twelfth century.<ref>Highland Galleys" Mallaig Heritage Centre, (accessed 19th June 2014)</ref>

They could fight at sea, but rarely were able to match armed ships of the Scottish or English navies. However, they could usually outrun larger vessels and were extremely useful in quick raids and in aiding escape.<ref>J. E. A. Dawson, The Politics of Religion in the Age of Mary, Queen of Scots: The Earl of Argyll and the Struggle for Britain and Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 34</ref>

Forces of ships were raised through obligations of a ship-levy through the system of ouncelands and pennylands, which have been argued to date back to the muster system of Dál Riata, but were probably introduced by Scandinavian settlers. Later evidence suggests that the supply of ships for war became linked to feudal obligations, with Celtic-Scandinavian lords, who had previously contributed as a result of a general levy on landholding, coming to hold their lands in exchange for specified numbers and sizes of ships supplied to the king. This process probably began in the thirteenth century, but would be intensified under Robert I.

The importance of these ships was underlined by their becoming common in depictions on grave markers and in heraldry throughout the Highlands and Islands.<ref>J. E. A. Dawson, The Politics of Religion in the Age of Mary, Queen of Scots: The Earl of Argyll and the Struggle for Britain and Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 112</ref>

There are mentions in Medieval records of fleets commanded by Scottish kings including William the Lion and Alexander II. The latter took personal command of a large naval force which sailed from the Firth of Clyde and anchored off the island of Kerrera in 1249, intended to transport his army in a campaign against the Kingdom of the Isles, but he died before the campaign could begin. <ref>A. Macquarrie, Medieval Scotland: Kinship and Nation (Thrupp: Sutton, 2004) 147</ref>

Viking naval power was disrupted by conflicts between the Scandinavian kingdoms, but entered a period of resurgence in the thirteenth century when Norwegian kings began to build some of the largest ships seen in Northern European waters. These included king Hakon Hakonsson's Kristsúðin, built at Bergen from 1262-3, which was 260 feet (79 m) long, of 37 rooms.<ref>N. A. M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain 660-1649 (London: Penguin UK, 2004) 74-5</ref> In 1263 Hakon responded to Alexander III's designs on the Hebrides by personally leading a major fleet of forty vessels, including the Kristsúðin, to the islands, where they were swelled by local allies to as many as 200 ships.<ref>P. J. Potter, Gothic Kings of Britain: the Lives of 31 Medieval Rulers, 1016-1399 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008)157</ref>

Records indicate that Alexander had several large oared ships built at Ayr, but he avoided a sea battle.<ref>P. F. Tytler, History of Scotland, Volume 2 (London: Black, 1829), 309-10</ref>Defeat on land at the Battle of Largs and winter storms forced the Norwegian fleet to return home, leaving the Scottish crown as the major power in the region and leading to the ceding of the Western Isles to Alexander in 1266.

Late Middle Ages

Scottish victories in the late 13th and early 14th centuries have been seen as part of a wider "infantry revolution", that saw a decline in the primacy of the mounted knight on the battlefield. However, it has been pointed out that Scottish medieval armies had probably always been dependent on infantry forces.<ref>R. W. Kaeuper, Violence in Medieval Society (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2000) 42</ref>

In the late medieval period Scottish men-at-arms often dismounted to fight beside the infantry, with perhaps a small mounted reserve, and it has been suggested that these tactics were copied and refined by the English, leading to their successes in the Hundred Years' War.<ref>H.-Henning Kortüm, Transcultural Wars from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2006), 51</ref>Like the English, the Scots deployed mounted archers, and even spearmen, who were particularly useful in the mobile raids that characterised border warfare, but like the English they fought on foot.

By the second half of the fourteenth century, in addition to forces raised on the basis of common service and feudal obligations, money contracts of bonds or bands of manrent, similar to English indentures of the same period, were being used to retain more professional troops, particular men-at-arms and archers.<ref> M. Brown, The Wars of Scotland, 1214-1371 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 58</ref> In practice, forms of service tended to blur and overlap, and several major Scottish lords brought contingents from their kindred. These systems produced relatively large numbers of poorly armoured infantry, usually armed with 12-14 foot spears. They often formed the large close order defensive formations of shiltrons, able to counter mounted knights as they did at Bannockburn, or infantry assault as at Otterburn in 1388, but vulnerable to arrows (and later artillery fire) and relatively immobile, as they proved at Halidon Hill in 1333 and Humbleton Hill in 1402.

References

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