Bruce’s Stone at the head of Loch Trool in Galloway overlooks the site where it is said by the poet John Barbour that Robert the Bruce defeated an English force led by Aymer de Valance, Earl of Pembroke. Bruce’s seven-year campaign that culminated in the victory at Bannockburn in 1314 began here but did it begin with a military victory?
A battle in Glen Trool?
Following a series of military defeats at the hands of the English and his Scottish enemies, Robert the Bruce fled to the western highlands and islands in the summer of 1306, just a few months after seizing the vacant Scottish throne. In late January 1307, Bruce returned with a small force of mercenary islesmen to his earldom of Carrick in southwest Scotland where he hoped to bring more men under his banner. After successfully defeating an English force occupying his castle of Turnberry, Bruce and his men moved into the uplands of Galloway and established a base in the Forest of Buchan situated between Glen Trool and Loch Doon.
From here Bruce and his force moved through the hills to raid Nithsdale and launched an attack on a detachment of English troops camped on the banks of the River Dee before returning to Glen Trool.
Aware of Bruce’s return and frustrated at the apparent lack of action to deal with him Edward I of England wrote to his military commander in Scotland, Aymer de Valence, expressing ‘great wonder at having no news of Sir Aymar de Valence and his forces since he went to Ayr, if they have done any exploit or pursued the enemy.’1 He accused de Valence of being over cautious and informed him of his ‘great and not unnatural wonder at hitherto having no news from him how he and other lieges lately despatched to Ayr have succeeded in crushing the Scottish rebels, or following them, or what they purpose doing afterwards.’2
Spurred on by his king’s letter de Valence, a cousin of Bruce, began preparations to move south from Ayr towards Glen Trool with a small cavalry force supported by 700 archers along with 800 highlanders sent by John of Argyll. 1,500 Border foot were mustered at Carlisle and a further 1,000 men from Lancaster and 1,500 from Cumberland and Westmoreland were summoned by Edward I. The highlanders and men from the uplands of northern England would have been well suited to the rugged and mountainous terrain of Galloway.
Sir Robert de Clifford with a small detachment was sent to keep watch at the Water of Cree to the west of Glen Trool and from Carlisle 70 horsemen and 40 archers with 300 Tynedale men under Sir Geoffrey de Mowbray were dispatched by Edward I himself to Glen Trool in a special search for Bruce between 10 April and 3 May. This is generally accepted as the occasion for the ‘battle’ of Glen Trool. However, as the English records show it was de Moubray and not de Valence that raided Glen Trool in April 1307.3 The inscription on Bruce’s Stone incorrectly records that a battle took place there in March.
With a large enemy force moving upon his position the net was certainly tightening around Bruce and it’s likely that he – contrary to the poet John Barbour’s narrative of a military engagement – decided to slip out of Glen Trool making his way north to Ayrshire.
On 10 May, Bruce and his force defeated a mounted force under de Valence at Loudoun Hill on the border of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. This victory, although not decisive, was an important win for Bruce and showed that he was able to take on an English force in an open battle. From Loudoun Hill, Bruce withdrew south and back into the refuge of Glen Trool.
On 30 May, Bruce and his men moved out of Glen Trool and attempted to ambush a goods caravan, possibly carrying supplies or money for the English garrisons in southwest Scotland. The ambush was beaten off and the records state that the English force lost a number of horses ‘in the pursuit of Robert de Brus between Glentruyl and Glenheur, on the army’s last day in Galloway’.4
On 11 June, de Valence led a force out from Ayr into Carrick and on into Glen Trool to hunt Bruce. A.A.M. Duncan in his translation of Barbour’s The Bruce states that de Valence’s raid and fight in Glen Trool can be placed between 12-23 June 1307 and succeeded in forcing Bruce out of the glen. Duncan mentions that Bruce was chased to ‘Glenheur’, but it appears that he has mixed this up with the failed ambush on 30 May.5
In his book A History of Dumfries and Galloway published in 1896, Sir Herbert Maxwell states that de Valence, having ordered his cavalry to dismount, led his force six miles through the glen to the ‘Steps of Trool’ and into the ‘jaws of the trap’ where he then claims Bruce and his men sprang an ambush, firing arrows, throwing rocks, and rolling boulders down on the unsuspecting Englishmen. Barbour mentions none of this but Maxwell’s tale of the battle is one that many people are now familiar with.6
From the English records we can see that there were two raids into Glen Trool. The first in April led by Sir Geoffrey de Mowbray and the second in June led by Aymer de Valence. Neither of these actions appears to have led to a battle in which Bruce and his forces were victorious.
Forced out of Glen Trool by de Valence, Bruce soon found himself being hunted by John of Argyll and his highlanders. By mid-September, with most of his adherents scattered, Bruce left Galloway and headed northward to seek out more support.
While Bruce’s victory in Glen Trool may be another myth in Scottish history, this period did mark the beginning of a successful campaign that would see Bruce secure Scotland internally and lead to victory over Edward II and his army on the fields of Bannockburn.
To commemorate the battle a large boulder was erected on the opposite side of the loch overlooking the supposed battle site mentioned by Maxwell and from where, according to legend, Bruce gave the signal to launch the attack. It was unveiled on 5 June 1929, the 600th anniversary of Bruce’s death. Inscribed on the stone the message reads:
“In loyal remembrance of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, whose victory in this glen over an English force in March, 1307, opened the campaign of independence which he brought to a decisive close at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314”
The inscription is incorrect about a victory for Bruce and it is also incorrect that the battle of Bannockburn brought about a decisive end to the First War of Scottish Independence as the war would continue until 1328.
- Calendar of documents relating to Scotland, vol. 2, no. 1895, 504.
- Calendar of documents relating to Scotland, vol. 2, no. 1896, 504.
- Calendar of documents relating to Scotland, vol. 2, no. 1923, 512.
- Calendar of documents relating to Scotland, vol. 5, no. 490, 208.
- John Barbour, The Bruce, ed, A.A.M. Duncan, (Edinburgh 1997), 283.
- Herbert Maxwell, A History of Dumfries and Galloway, (Edinburgh 1896), 96.