Battle of Roslin

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Battle of Roslin
Part of the First War of Scottish Independence
Battle of Roslin - geograph.org.uk - 1211243.jpg
Battle of Roslin memorial
Date 24 February 1303
Location Midlothian, Scotland
Result Scottish victory
Belligerents
Royal Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland.svg Kingdom of Scotland England COA.svg Kingdom of England
Commanders and leaders
John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and Guardian of Scotland
Simon Fraser
Sir John Segrave
Strength
~4000 ~10,000
Casualties and losses
~1000[citation needed] ~4000[citation needed]

The Battle of Roslin was one of the most important battles of the First War of Scottish Independence. A monument cairn erected by the Roslin Heritage Society at the end of the 20th century marks the site of the battle which took place on 24 February 1303.

The Scottish historian John of Fordun wrote this description of the battle: "There never was so desperate a struggle, or one in which the stoutness of knightly prowess shone forth so brightly. The commander and leader in this struggle was John Comyn, the son... John Comyn, then guardian of Scotland, and Simon Fraser with their followers, day and night, did their best to harass and to annoy, by their general prowess, the aforesaid kings officers and bailiffs... the aforesaid John Comyn and Simon, with their abettors, hearing of their arrival at Rosslyn and wishing to steal a march rather than have one stolen upon them, came briskly through from Biggar to Rosslyn, in one night, with some chosen men, who chose rather death before unworthy subjection to the English nation; and all of a sudden they fearlessly fell upon the enemy."[1]

Background[edit]

Following the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, the country was occupied by English forces led by Sir John de Segrave. While commander of Edinburgh Castle, de Segrave met and fell in love with a local beauty, Lady Margaret Ramsey of Dalhousie. However, Lady Margaret's choice was for Sir Henry St. Clair of Rosslyn, who had already participated in the first battle of the War of Independence when a Scottish army led by Sir William Wallace annihilated the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297.

When Sir Henry and Lady Margaret were betrothed late in 1302, de Segrave was incensed. From his base in Carlisle he wrote a letter to Edward I requesting permission to invade Scotland, a request immediately granted by the "Hammer of the Scots". In mid-February 1303 an army of 30,000 soldiers crossed the border under the cover of darkness, the Scots only becoming aware of their presence when they descended on Melrose. Segrave then split the army into three: one group was charged with attacking Borthwick Castle near Gorebridge, the second was to besiege Lady Margaret's home of Dalhousie Castle and the third, led by de Segrave himself, was launched against Rosslyn and the object of his jealous rage, Sir Henry St. Clair.

The invaders' progress was swift and it was only thanks to the efforts of Prior Abernathy, a former Templar knight and the Cistercian Prior of Mount Lothian Priory (near Balantradoch, now the village of Temple), who sent monks on horseback to raise the alarm. An 8,000 strong army of common people mustered at Biggar and set off to meet the invaders. Sir William Wallace appears to have refused to take command of the army, perhaps lacking confidence in his own ability to lead after the defeat at the Battle of Falkirk. Sir John Comyn (nephew of the exiled King John Balliol) was elected as overall commander and Sir Simon Fraser as leader of the army. The hastily assembled forces then moved north via Carlops meeting with a large force of Hospitalers from their site at Torphican at Glencorse. By the evening of February 23 the combined army had assembled in Bilston Wood, ready to strike.

The battle[edit]

Prior Abernethy's local knowledge was put to good use as the Scots encircled the first contingent of the English army on an embankment of the River Esk in the early hours of February 24. Segrave was among those captured for ransom. The Scots drove the English knights over the steep sides of Roslin Glen and cut down their English prisoners. Most survivors who escaped into the woods of Roslin Glen were ambushed and slaughtered but a few managed to alert the second group, besieging Dalhousie Castle under the command of Sir Ralph de Confrey.

The second English army group immediately rode to face the Scots, now positioned in a defensive line across the summit of Langhill, the slope immediately to the west of the present-day Roslin BioCentre. Charging up the hill, they were picked off by Scottish archers and driven back across the field towards a ravine and slaughtered, Ralph de Confrey being among the dead. The slaughter was such that the area became known as "Shinbanes Field", five cartloads of bones being removed by farmworkers for reburial as late as the 19th century. The quiet little stream at the foot of the hill that ran red with blood is still known as the Killburn, the forest as Hewan ("Hewing") Wood and a ridge where huge numbers of bodies piled up and were left to rot as "Stinkin' Rig".

This second battle had scarcely ended when news came of the arrival of the third English army group, prompting the murder of all English prisoners too low-born to be ransomed. Exhausted, the Scots army rested on high ground above the River Esk at Montmarle, where the monument to the battle was erected in 1994 (opposite Dryden farm, at the edge of what was the original site of The Roslin Insititute).

After winning two battles in the space of a few hours, the soldiers must have doubted their ability to prevail in a third but once again the ingenuity of Prior Abernethy saved the day. As the finale to a stirring speech he bade the tired soldiers look towards the Pentland Hills where a band of hard-working Cistercian monks under the prior's instructions had erected a huge canvas saltire, a silver cross on a blue background shining in the late afternoon sun to inspire them to one last effort. Approaching along the valley from Borthwick Castle via Rosewell, the remaining English forces under Sir Richard Neville were defeated and the Battle of Rosslyn finally won.

The numerical difference between the two armies had been countered by the Scots' knowledge of the terrain, Wallace's tactical skills and de Segrave's misguided decision to split his huge army into three groups, each about the same size as the Scottish forces. Despite being one of the most decisive victories ever recorded by a Scottish army, featuring the national hero and incited by a romantic contest for the heart of a beautiful woman, the battle rarely features in history books and few residents of the area know anything about it. The Battle of Rosslyn did not decide the outcome of the War of Independence and Scotland faced another 11 years of conflict which could explain such an omission.

Comyn was later stabbed to death by Bruce in Dumfries during a quarrel that led to the latter assuming the leadership of the Scottish resistance and his eventual victory at Bannockburn. Wallace and Simon Fraser were both captured by the English within two years of the battle and hung, drawn and quartered. Despite being the undoubted architect of victory, Prior Abernethy's titanic efforts on that February day were largely forgotten while de Segrave was sent back to England to face the fury of Edward Longshanks and take responsibility for a defeat resulting from his pride, jealousy and poor leadership (he survived and returned to Scotland to fight at the Battle of Bannockburn, where he was captured and ransomed a second time. Sir Henry St. Clair married Lady Margaret Ramsay.

Notes[edit]

The battlefield is currently under research to be inventoried[1] and protected by Historic Scotland under the Scottish Historical Environment Policy of 2009.

The battle was the subject of an entirely fictional account written by Walter Bower in the mid-15th century.

References[edit]

  • "Scottish Battlefields", (tempus/History Press), 2006
  • A.D.M. Barrell, Medieval Scotland, (Cambridge University Press)
  • Peter Traquair Freedom's Sword

Coordinates: 55°51′18″N 3°09′50″W / 55.855°N 3.164°W / 55.855; -3.164