The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 11th September 1297, was the first major victory of the Scottish Wars of Independence. It cemented William Wallace’s reputation, demonstrated that the Scots could beat the English and also at European level was the first time foot soldiers ever defeated mounted knights.
However, it has never been precisely clear why the Scots won as Scottish armies were beaten by the English at Dunbar in 1296 and again at Falkirk in 1298. Traditional explanations focus on the English leadership: the English were led at Dunbar and Falkirk by Edward I but not at Stirling Bridge, where Warrene is portrayed as a dithering incompetent, first ordering the troops to cross then recalling them. Another tactical mistake was to assemble the English troops at the base of the teardrop of a meander in the Forth on low lying boggy ground, surrounded by water on three sides, crossing a narrow bridge that could only take two horses at a time. When half the army had crossed the Scots attacked, rapidly moving from the Abbey Craig along the raised causeway, blocking the bridge and the meander and resulting in a famous victory. Medieval chroniclers found this unfair as the English were not ready.
Lots of this appears to be mythical: why would there be such a narrow bridge when the causeway was more expensive to build; how could the Scots maintain any sense of order charging from Abbey Craig to the Bridge (a distance of around 1.5 kilometres), when they could not yet march? The English controlled Stirling Castle, why not simply maintain good order and march back?
Recent excavation by Guard Archaeology on Cambuskenneth Abbey’s water gate (organised by the Stirling Council’s Archaeologist Dr Murray Cook) reveal that that the harbour/wharf structure could not have functioned without a 1 – 2 metre higher tidal range. This indicates that the tidal range at the time of the battle of Stirling Bridge was considerably higher and its likely that a much larger portion of the battlefield was under water at high tide than is currently the case.
It is argued in a new book by Dr Cook, Digging into Stirling’s Past, that this higher tide was the critical factor. If the English troops assembled at low tide, too close to the river, troops at the back would have water lapping at their heels without any knowledge of how far the river would rise, by contrast troops at the front were being attacked by the Scots. These twin pressures would lead to a panicky crushing crowd rather than a disciplined army and so the English defeated themselves, albeit with a little help from Wallace, De Moray and the River Forth.
You can read more about the archaeological research in the report, Abbots, Kings and Lost Harbours: Looking for Cambuskenneth’s Watergate, Stirling, available from Archaeology Reports Online.
Top Image: The present-day Stirling Bridge. (Stirling, Scotland). Photo taken by Davidmeisner / Wikimedia Commons