Roslin 1303: Scotland’s forgotten battle

Roslin Glen in autumn with chapel visible (left). Picture: Tom Duffin/WeePhotos

Roslin Glen in autumn with chapel visible (left). Picture: Tom Duffin/WeePhotos

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ON THIS DAY in 1303, a Scots army defied all the odds to defeat the English at the battle of Roslin. It ended as the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil, but remains largely forgotten.

The Midlothian village of Roslin has one very obvious claim to fame with its chapel and the links to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Tourists also visit the ruins of nearby Roslin Castle in large numbers every year. But the area bears an even greater historical distinction.

Battle of Roslin Memorial. Picture: TSPL

Battle of Roslin Memorial. Picture: TSPL

Precisely 714 years ago today, Roslin witnessed a Scots force of 8,000 clash with an English army almost four times its size, and, astonishingly, the Scots emerged victorious. It is estimated that 35,000 men lost their lives, which, if accurate, would make Roslin the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil. Despite the huge death toll, the battle appears to have faded into obscurity and is often omitted from school textbooks.

“There are important parts of Scottish history which have been completely ignored or have been treated as irrelevant,” says Scots history expert and political activist, James Scott, “The Scots were led by Sir John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, and Simon Fraser. They had caught wind of the English advance and took on their forces one by one. They were split into three divisions, but the Scots were victorious on each occasion.”

Background

In the aftermath of the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, Scotland was occupied by the English under the governance of Sir John de Segrave, a knight of Edward I.

If you were to sit down and write it as a film script, they’d tell you to go back and re-write it with a more believable storyline

Tom Duffin, Weephotos of Edinburgh

Sir John had fallen in love with Lady Margaret Ramsey of Dalhousie. But when he discovered that she had run off to marry Henry St Clair, Lord of Rosslyn, de Segrave was furious. He responded by obtaining permission from Edward I to organise an invasion to eliminate St Clair, on the basis that the marriage with Lady Margaret would further cement ties between Scotland and France.

READ MORE: Map: Scotland key battle sites throughout the ages

Sir John de Segrave’s forces arrived in the Scottish Borders in mid-February, and from here the Scots began to track their advance north. De Segrave split his 30,000-strong army into three divisions, sending one group to attack Borthwick Castle near Gorebridge, the second group towards Lady Margaret’s Dalhousie Castle, and the third, led by Sir John himself, to Henry St Clair at Roslin. It is worth mentioning that Roslin at this time was a small hamlet surrounded by woods and open fields. No castle had been built and there wouldn’t be a chapel on the site for another 150 years.

The battle

Battle of Roslin Memorial. Picture: TSPL

Battle of Roslin Memorial. Picture: TSPL

On the eve of the battle John Comyn’s Scots army set up camp in the woods at Bilston to prepare themselves for attack.

The men launched their surprise offence under the cover of darkness the next morning and met with de Segrave’s forces as they slept by the River Esk. It was a slaughter. The English who fled were picked off by smaller groups of Scots positioned around the local area.

Comyn’s troops then laid siege to de Segrave’s second army holed up at Dalhousie Castle. Sir Ralph de Confrey, leader of the second division ordered his men to march towards the summit of Langhill to meet the Scots, but his forces were decimated by Comyn’s archers and pikemen. Again, the Scots spared no one.

Looking west towards the Pentland Hills, the Scots were roused by the sight of a huge canvas Saltire cross gleaming in the evening sun. It had been laid by a group of Cistercian monks under the order of Prior Abernethy in a bid to spur the exhausted Scottish forces on for their final test with the third English division at Mountmarle above the Esk Valley.

A contemporary 19th century depiction of the killing of John Comyn in the Greyfriars church in Dumfries. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

A contemporary 19th century depiction of the killing of John Comyn in the Greyfriars church in Dumfries. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

As they charged from Borthwick Castle, the English, led by Sir Richard Neville, were ambushed and crushed by hordes of Scots located on the higher ground of the valley. The long battle was finally won. It is thought that fewer than 2,000 English out of 30,000 survived. The Scots’ knowledge and use of the Roslin terrain had proved crucial in delivering a decisive, but wholly-unexpected victory. Defeated and heartbroken, de Segrave was captured and thrown in a dungeon with a hefty ransom on his head. Lady Margaret’s new husband Sir Henry St Clair would later go on to sign the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath.

READ MORE: Walk of the Week: Roslin Glen, Midlothian

Quite a tale. Why, then, have so few people in Scotland heard of the battle?

A bitter feud had existed between Sir John Comyn and Robert the Bruce for a number of years. Things came to a head in 1306 when, after a quarrel at Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, Bruce stabbed Comyn to death. It is therefore very possible that Bruce played a part in starving his rival of his rightful place in history, though this obviously doesn’t explain why the event continues to be so universally-ignored 700 years later - even by Roslin locals.

“It’s an incredible story,” says Edinburgh photographer and history aficionado, Tom Duffin, “I usually like to add a bit of background to my landscape photos for my Facebook followers, so when I researched Roslin after a shoot there I was blown away by how little I knew about the battle... Namely nothing at all.

“Considering it is arguably the most epic story of any battle between Scotland and the Auld Enemy, its obscurity is really quite astonishing. If you were to sit down and write it as a film script: ‘Haughty, posh Englishman rejected by flame-haired Scottish beauty, takes revenge by persuading the English king to lend his army to seek revenge on her new boyfriend, then gets bum kicked by a Scottish rabble to the resounding cheers and home-made banners of the local monks’... Well, frankly, you’ld be laughed at.

“They’d tell you to go back and re-write it with a more believable storyline.”

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