In April 1307, Robert the Bruce won a small but important victory at the Battle of Glen Trool on the shores of Loch Trool in Galloway. It was the beginning of a seven-year campaign in Scotland that would culminate with his victory over Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 – although the war would continue until 1328. This period was however not just a struggle against the English Crown, it was also one of civil war.
When Alexander III of Scotland – the last of the Celtic line of kings – died in 1286 the crown passed to his only surviving descendant, his granddaughter, Margaret, known as the Maid of Norway. In 1290, on her way to Scotland, Margaret died in the Orkney Islands, at the age of 7. This triggered a succession crisis and to avoid civil war the nobles of Scotland invited Edward I of England – a close friend of the late king – to intervene and help choose the strongest claimant. The man he picked was John Balliol. King John ruled Scotland with Edward I as his feudal superior.
Since the Treaty of Falaise in 1174, Scottish Kings had recognized the English Crown as overlord, although English monarchs had never tried to enforce this position. Edward, however, changed things and began interfering in Scottish affairs, undermining King John. The final straw came in 1294 when King Edward requested that Scotland provide troops and funds for his campaign against France. A number of powerful Scottish lords persuaded John to refuse. Edward responded by invading Scotland at the head of a large army. The Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar in April of 1296. This brought to an end almost a century of a close and stable relationship between the two kingdoms.
In July, King John was deposed and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Edward convened a parliament at Berwick, where the Scottish nobles (Robert the Bruce among them) paid homage to him. Scotland had been effectively placed under Edward’s rule.
The Outlaw King
In February 1306, Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, seized the vacant Scottish throne in rather dramatic fashion when he murdered (or killed in a scuffle) his rival, John ‘The Red’ Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, before the high altar inside Greyfriars church in Dumfries. Bruce was – unsurprisingly – excommunicated for this crime. Bruce was now in open rebellion against King Edward. When the news reached Edward he appointed Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, to take care of matters in Scotland. Valence was the murdered Comyn’s brother-in-law.
Six weeks later, on 25 March (New Years Day in Scotland at that time), in the abbey of Scone, Bruce was crowned King of Scots by William Lamberton, the Bishop of St Andrews.
In June, Valence moved to Perth where he established a base. Here his English army was joined by a large number of Comyn supporters.
King Robert came to the walls of Perth and offered battle, however, Valence declined and Bruce withdrew a short distance to make camp at Methven, just to the west of Perth. Bruce had wrongly assumed that since Valence had declined a fight he must be in no position to give battle. Just before sunrise on the 19th June, Valence surprised Bruce by moving his army out of Perth to attack him – Bruce was lucky to escape.
Fleeing into the Western Highlands with the small number of troops that he had left, Bruce suffered another military setback, inflicted by the leading Comyn supporters in Argyll, the MacDougalls of Lorne, at the Battle of Dalrigh, just outside Tyndrum in Argyll. Bruce was again lucky to escape. King Robert, no more than a fugitive at this point, fled – it is believed – into the lands of the Lord of the Isles, before returning to his earldom of Carrick, in south-west Scotland, via Kintyre and the Isle of Arran in early 1307.
The Return of Bruce
In south-west Scotland Bruce was back in territory he knew well and was determined that he would not be caught off-guard again. To bring more men under his banner, a military success, no matter how small, was essential for Bruce at this point – not many were willing to risk their lives in what was seen as a failed cause. For King Robert, pitched battles were not an option; he would have to use tactics that suited a small and irregular army if he was to succeed. Bruce’s first success in this new campaign came in March when he attacked English troops camped near his now-occupied castle of Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast. The English survivors took refuge behind Turnberry’s walls before they and the garrison withdrew, abandoning the castle. Afterward, Bruce made his way into Galloway and launched a successful surprise attack on a small English detachment camped on the eastern shore of Clatteringshaws Loch. This is also the site of another ‘Bruce’s Stone’.
On hearing of Bruce’s return, Valence (possibly now based at Ayr) began to move against him, with around two thousand troops. He soon received reports that Bruce and his small army (about a few hundred) were camped at the eastern end of Loch Trool in Glen Trool.
The Battle of Glen Trool
The approach to Bruce’s camp was not easy. Valence appears to have been approaching from the west along the southern shore of the loch, and the narrow track that he was following was bordered by a steep slope on his right, with Loch Trool to his left. This forced Valence’s army – which contained a few hundred cavalry – almost into a single file as they made their way towards the objective. It is possible that the English horsemen dismounted for the final approach, as the terrain would not be suitable for the cavalry to effectively operate, however, an English account mentions the loss of a number of horses in the engagement.
As Valence’s force reached the head of the loch, Bruce gave the order to attack, his men rolling boulders, hurling rocks and firing arrows down on the enemy before charging from their elevated positions up on the steep slopes, known locally as the ‘Steps of Trool’. Bruce’s men charged into the centre of the English line, cutting the force in half. With little room to manoeuvre on the rough, broken ground, the English forces were unable to form, let alone maintain, any military formation and were cut down with heavy losses. With this and the earlier victory on the shores of Clatteringshaws, Bruce had won a small but nonetheless important victory, greatly boosting morale and gaining more support.
Some sources say that following the Battle of Glen Trool, Aymer de Valence advanced again on Bruce’s position, this time from the north, with a force containing some eight hundred highlanders that John MacDougall of Lorne had sent. MacDougall himself was advancing from the south and both he and Valence were most likely aiming to trap Bruce between their armies. Bruce saw the danger and withdrew over the hills, making his way towards Lothian before heading into Ayrshire.
The Battle of Glen Trool laid the foundation for Robert the Bruce’s next victory on the 10th of May, at the Battle of Loudoun Hill in Ayrshire, against a much larger English army, again led by Valence. It would, however, be a number of years before his crown – and Scotland – was secure. In 1307 the campaign against the English forces, as well as the Comyns and their supporters the MacDougalls, was just beginning.
The soldiers that were killed in the battle are believed to be buried not far from the battle site in an area known as ‘Soldiers’ Holm’.
To commemorate the battle, a large boulder (a fitting tribute) was erected on the opposite side of the loch, overlooking the battle site and from where, according to legend, Bruce gave the signal to launch the attack. It was unveiled on the 5th June 1929, the 600th anniversary of Bruce’s death.
The battlefield is currently under research to be inventoried and protected by Historic Environment Scotland (formerly Historic Scotland) under the Scottish Historical Environment Policy of 2009.
Barbour’s Bruce and its Cultural Contexts: Politics, Chivalry and Literature in Late Medieval Scotland, (2015), Steve Boardman & Susan Foran, Boydell & Brewer
Robert the Bruce: A Life Chronicled, (2004), Chris Brown, The History Press
The Wars of Scotland: 1214-1371, (2004), Micheal Brown, Edinburgh University Press
The Scottish Civil War: The Bruces and Balliols and the War for Control of Scotland 1286-1356, (2002), Michael Penman, The History Press
Robert the Bruce’s Rivals, the Comyns: 1212-1314, (1998), Alan Young, Tuckwell Press Ltd