IT was in this week in 1307 that one of the most important battles in Scottish history was fought. The Battle of Loudoun Hill should be much more famous than it is, because it marked a huge development in Scotland’s road to independence that was finally secured militarily at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

If you allow for the fact that he was writing many decades later, John Barbour in The Brus actually gives a good account of what happened at Loudoun Hill 715 years ago this week.

It should be noted that the run-up to the battle was not always good news for Scotland. No sooner had Robert the Bruce been crowned King of Scots at Scone on March 25, 1306, than his small army was surprised and defeated at Methven on June 19 by an English force led by Edward Longshanks’ Scottish commander Aymer de Valence, Second Earl of Pembroke, who just happened to be the brother-in-law of John Comyn who had been killed by Bruce in Dumfries in February that year.

Bruce escaped from the defeats at Methven and the Battle of Dalrigh shortly afterwards in which Clan MacDougall, allies of the Comyns, inflicted losses on what was left of Bruce’s army. The king fled to the Hebrides and then probably to Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland, while his brother Nigel was captured along with Bruce’s wife and sisters at Kildrummy Castle on September 13 – Nigel was brutally executed while the Bruce womenfolk were imprisoned.

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In February 1307, Bruce, inspired or not by a spider, returned to the Scottish mainland with two groups of followers. His brothers Thomas and Alexander landed in Galloway but were soon captured and executed. Bruce and his remaining brother Edward landed at Turnberry and began to gather a small but deadly force. They attacked the local English garrison and drove them out, looting a great deal of money and supplies.

Just as Sir William Wallace had done 10 years previously, Bruce avoided pitched battles until he had to and carried out a campaign of guerrilla warfare in south-west Scotland. His first successful raid was on the English camp that was situated beside what is now the Clatteringshaws Loch reservoir in Dumfries and Galloway. Bruce then established his base at the head of Glen Trool and his old enemy Aymer de Valence brought his cavalry north in pursuit of the king.

Though some call it a battle, it was more of a skirmish that took place in Glen Trool in April that year, with Bruce showing his future mastery of terrain and tactics to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Earl of Pembroke.

So enraged was Pembroke that he decided to challenge Bruce to come out and fight like a knight on the plain beside Loudoun Hill. John Barbour in The Brus described what happened:

Quhen Schyr Aymer and his menye

Hard how he ryotyt the land

And how that nane durst him withstand

He wes intill his hart angry,

And with ane off his cumpany

He send him word and said giff he

Durst him into the planys se

He suld the tend day of May

Cum under Loudoun hill away,

And giff that he wald meyt him thar

He said his worschip suld be mar,

And mar be turnyt in nobillay,

To wyn him in the playne away

With hard dintis in evyn fechtyng

Then to do fer mar with skulking.

Barbour emphasises that Bruce accepted the challenge and prepared his ground very carefully. He chose an area south of the hill which was about 500 yards wide and marked by heavy marshes on both sides. With 600 fighting men he prepared three deep ditches leaving occasional spaces into which he placed his trained spearmen. Pembroke had perhaps three or four times Bruce’s numbers, mostly mounted cavalry, who advanced to confront the Scots on May 10, 1307.

According to Barbour, Pembroke sent his cavalry forward but the marshy areas confined them to a narrow front and it was here that Bruce’s tactics and preparations paid off as the onrushing English tumbled into the ditches and were slaughtered where they fell.

Barbour states: “The feild wes ner coveryt all

Bath with the slane hors and with men,

For the gud king thar folowit then

With fyve hunder that wapnys bar

That wald thar fayis na thing spar.

Thai dang on thaim sa hardely

That in schort tyme men mycht se ly

At erd ane hunder and wele mar.

The remanand sa fleyit war

That thai begouth thaim to withdraw,

And quhen thai off the rerward saw

Thar vaward be sa discumfyt

Thai fled foroutyn mar respyt.

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In other words, having stopped the English at the ditches, Bruce’s men began to press forward and the rear of Pembroke’s army, seeing their vanguard being killed, turned tail and ran away. It was Bruce’s first victory in a pitched battle, and he learned a great deal from it. Having lost two battles the previous year, Loudon Hill gave Bruce what he needed – a win. The king was now attracting more support by the day as the victory encouraged Scots to rally to his flag.

Pembroke went south to resign but Edward I had already decided to sack him and fight Robert the Bruce himself. Fortunately for Scotland, Longshanks died on the journey north at Burgh-by-Sands near Carlisle on July 7, 1307, leaving Bruce to consolidate his power in Scotland.

The film Outlaw King shows Edward II fighting Bruce at Loudoun Hill, but he was nowhere near it, not least because his father was still alive at the time the battle was fought. What is true is that Edward II had seven years of internal strife before he could lead an army north to subdue the Scots, only to be sent home to think again at a place called Bannockburn.