Culture

The Orcadians Who Fought At Bannockburn

By Fiona Grahame Art Work by Martin Laird

From the field at Bannockburn, a knight, clad in shining armour, rode with great haste, bringing the news of the victory to the north and onwards to the islands of Orkney.

The knight was St Magnus who appeared at times of national crisis and whose relics had been carried into the battle ahead of Bruce’s men.

In Medieval Scotland, the Orkney saint, whose self sacrifice today is seen as being that of a peacemaker, was then a figure of martial importance.

Orkney had sent upwards of 300 men to fight alongside the King of Scots, Robert Bruce.  Many of them would never see their homeland again.

For the Scots, it is estimated that 2,000 were killed but more devastating was the death toll for England with 6,000 lives lost, perhaps a third of Edward’s forces. The foot soldiers in England’s army were mainly from Wales and the North of England. For the Scots, Bruce called upon not only men from Scotland but from the alliance he had made with King Eric of Norway.  

In 1314 Orkney was ruled by Earl Magnus V as part of the Kingdom of Norway. Magnus was to be the last in the line of Angus Earls in the islands. Due to their geographical location, on a vital sea route, the islands have always had strategic importance both militarily and for trade.

Treaties and international agreements were cemented with marriages and so it was that Scotland, England and Norway were linked.

The sudden death of King Alexander III, plunging off a cliff during a late night ride eager to reach the bed of his young wife, had left Scotland in crisis. Alexander’s first wife, daughter of the English King Henry III, had borne him 2 sons but they had predeceased their father. Alexander’s daughter, Margaret, married to King Eric II of Norway, had also died, but her daughter, another Margaret, ‘The Maid of Norway’, was to become  Queen of Scots.

The tragic story of the Maid of Norway concludes when she dies in Orkney on her way to Scotland, at the tender age of 7. England’s powerful King Edward I had intended the Maid to marry his heir. This would have tightened Edward’s iron grip over the Scots even more than it already was.  The young Margaret’s body was taken back to Norway and interred in Bergen Cathedral.

King Eric married for a second time and this was to Isabella Bruce, Robert’s older sister. The Bruce’s were a powerful and influential family.  Marrying into the Norwegian royal line is indicative of their high status in Medieval Scotland and of the importance of forging those links with northern neighbours.

Robert Bruce was crowned King of Scots in 1306 and just over a year later, Edward I died. England was an extremely powerful neighbour and Edward II continued to control much of Scotland. Bruce had been weakening that stranglehold starting with victory at Glentrool in 1307, gathering support, negotiating alliances and reaping punishment on others.

Bruce defeats de Bohun on the eve of Bannockburn

The future of Bruce and the independence of Scotland was decided on the field at Bannockburn. A bloody slaughter of men:  slain on the day, mortally wounded, captured, or if they were a knight of monetary value, ransomed off.

The field was littered with the dead and dying – of men and horses. The bloody consequences and price of the battle in lives lost or maimed was captured in the fictional account by Orkney’s George McKay Brown in ‘Beside the Ocean of Time’. In his dream, young Thorfinn, experiences the aftermath of Bannockburn:

“What did it mean, this silence? The reek of blood came on the wind.”

This was no battle fought at a distance but hand to hand fighting with the English force packed so tightly together they could not manoeuvre to counteract the onward pressure of the Scots’ disciplined schiltrons. Edward’s horse was killed from under him and with their King in great danger he was escorted from the field. Seeing the battle was lost, those who could, fled.

The scavenging of the dead and dying began.

“Thorfinn had never known a silence like this…this silence was terrible, and ominous and dangerous.”

The Orkney men had answered the call of the King of Norway to honour his treaty with the Scots. They were not mercenaries or soldiers of fortune, but men bound by a treaty to the cause of the Scots and their King.

Earl Magnus V of Orkney was a signatory to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 underlining the continuing strength of the bond between Norway and Scotland.

Scotland’s confidence and growth as a nation continued. Its influence in Orkney grew too, expanding ever further into the life of the islands.

St Magnus beholds the burning bannock

This story first appeared in iScot Magazine.

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