Battle of Culblean


Map from Marrens or Wyness book illustrates the Culblean (Kulblane) battle ground.

In the autumn of 1335, Strathbogie raised an army of 3,000 and with some siege engines, set out to conquer the north-east of Scotland in Balliol’s name. His plan was simple – to eject the Bruce following there and replace it with the Disinherited nobles or their heirs from that region. Being autumn, every knight-tenant, landowner and humble cottar (crofter) was engaged in bringing in the harvest. Strathbogie’s campaign was marked by the smoke from burning hayricks, his men feasting off slaughtered livestock. Then Strathbogie laid siege to Kildrummy Castle, east of Aviemore, where David II’s aunt Christian Bruce was sheltering. (Christian Bruce was the wife of the Guardian, Sir Andrew Murray.) Strathbogie extracted a promise from Sir John Craig, commander of Kildrummy that unless a relief force arrived by 30 November (St Andrew’s Day), the castle would surrender to him.

Sir Andrew Murray was in Bathgate engaged in negotiations with Balliol’s commissioners when the news of Kildrummy reached him. Murray immediately broke off the talks and marched north with 800 knights and gentry including the Earl of Dunbar, Douglas of Liddesdale and Sir Alexander Seton along with about 3,000 infantry.8 Learning of the approach of the relief column, Strathbogie withdrew from Kildrummy and bivouacked in the Forest of Culblean, near Ballater on Deeside. Sir John Craig, Kildrummy Castle’s commander and his 300-strong garrison shadowed Strathbogie, linking with Sir Andrew Murray and his force on St Andrew’s Day.

Early in the morning of 30 November, Murray split his force into two divisions, himself commanding one, Douglas of Liddesdale the other. A half-asleep sentry in Strathbogie’s camp heard the sounds of the approaching army. In the growing light, Strathbogie readied his men for an attack he expected to come from the rear of his camp. On that grey autumn morning nearly 4,000 men from the Lothians, the Merse and elsewhere stood in ordered lines among the trees of the Forest of Culblean; perhaps that November morning there was a mist which offered some protection from Strathbogie’s archers. Strathbogie attacked Douglas of Liddesdale in a headlong frontal assault, charging in force to disable the Scottish wing. As the two groups clashed, Murray pressed forward with his division. In the ensuing melee Murray’s men chased Strathbogie deeper into the wood. The battle was soon over; attended by five of his knights Strathbogie placed his back against a tree, fighting bravely until he was cut down, his body pierced by several swords.

Culblean was no Bannockburn but it brought back shades of Bruce’s victories, giving Sir Andrew Murray the courage to continue the struggle. In many ways Culblean was the turning point in this, the second war of independence. The struggle was no longer one of loyalty to David Bruce or Edward Balliol but to the realm of Scotland. Culblean, a minor battle in the north, was won by men from the Lothians and the Merse, Lowlanders who had long been accused of being in the pocket of three English Kings – Edward I, II and III. The Lowlanders’ victory at Culblean restored their honour. Even the chronicles of later years would look back on Culblean as a deciding factor in the struggle for Scotland’s independence.

As mentioned earlier, by 1337 Edward III had lost interest in Scotland, the year he arrogantly declared himself King of France, which began the conflict known to history as the Hundred Years’ War. Thereafter, Edward limited his intervention in Scotland’s affairs intermittently and half-heartely. Although the war between England and Scotland continued, it was no longer prosecuted with the same impetus and enthusiasm and scale as it had been in the days of Edward I.

In a succession of skirmishes and sieges, the Scots gradually cleared the English out of most of Scotland, although the south-east still remained in their possession. By mid-1337, the disinherited nobles had been forced into a small corner of south-west Scotland. Edward III was increasingly absent from England on the Continent, eager to pursue his ambitions in France which offered better rewards than a Scotland impoverished by years of warfare. He paid Scotland little interest, knowing that Edward Balliol was now a spent force on whom he could no longer rely. But the English still occupied the Merse and Roxburghshire, reaping rich rewards from the fertile agricultural lands and lording it over the rural population.

And then came a minor but significantly morale-boosting event in January 1338. After Edward III rebuilt Edinburgh Castle in 1337, he was content to rest on his laurels, losing interest in the subordinate or satellite castles in the south-east – Berwick, Roxburgh and Dunbar – as he considered Edinburgh the key to controlling the area and allowing his forces to continue their occupation of a rich agricultural region where his troops could subsist at little cost to the English Treasury. With Edinburgh Castle in English hands, Dunbar Castle assumed an importance for the Scots as it kept open lines of communication with France, Scotland’s ally. To allow him to further his ambitions in France, Edward appointed Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick as his lieutenant in Scotland.

John of Fordun’s Chronicle tells us that in the summer of 1337, Lothian suffered wholesale destruction while Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March, was campaigning with Sir Andrew Murray in Fife and Lanarkshire, reducing every castle in those counties which still held out for Edward III or Balliol. In Lothian, the ineffective Earl of Warwick was replaced by Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and William Montague, Earl of Salisbury; Arundel and Salisbury were appointed joint commanders of south-east Scotland. Salisbury would become the dominant partner in the events which took place in the first half of 1338.

The centre of resistance in south-east Scotland was Dunbar, East Lothian, where its virtually impregnable castle was left in charge of Agnes Randolph, Patrick 9th Earl of Dunbar’s Countess. Because of the unrest in the south-east, Salisbury and Arundel decided that Dunbar Castle must be taken as it posed a threat to stability in the remaining English-held territory. Their strategy was also aimed at relieving pressure on castles in the vicinity still occupied by English or pro-English garrisons. While the siege of Dunbar Castle was in no sense a set-piece battle which qualifies as a Scottish ‘killing field’, it deserves a brief mention in this account because its successful defence prevented the need for a pitched battle by the Scots to regain control of the south-east of Scotland.

The siege of Dunbar began on 13 January 1338 it would last for twenty-two weeks. ‘Black’ Agnes successfully withstood every attempt made by Salisbury and Arundel to capture the castle, by both fair means or foul; Salisbury tried bribery and blackmail to no avail. (Agnes’s sole surviving brother John was brought from the Tower of London and displayed before her, Salisbury threatening to execute him if she did not surrender. Agnes simply replied that were he to do so, she would inherit the earldom of Moray!) In June 1338, Agnes was relieved by Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, much to the annoyance of Edward III.

The elation of the Scots occasioned by the successful outcome at Dunbar was marred by the death of the regent, Sir Andrew Murray of Bothwell; he was replaced by Robert the Steward. The town of Perth remained in the hands of the English, so the new regent concentrated his resources into recovering it. For some unknown reason, Edward III recalled Edward Balliol to England before Robert the Steward began the siege of Perth; perhaps the English king had lost any residual confidence in Balliol, or he wished to spare him the embarrassment of possible defeat. Perth had been placed in the charge of a Thomas Ughtred, who may have been a Northumbrian, given his surname; Ughtred was a common name in that region of northern England during the time of the Bernician Angles.

Perth was a strongly fortified and walled town; however, the Scots aided by some French auxiliaries experienced little difficulty in bringing the pro-English garrison to the negotiating table. In August 1339, Ughtred capitulated and was permitted to march out of Perth with his force intact and return to England. The subsequent re-capture of the castles of Stirling and Edinburgh meant that by 1341, it was deemed safe for David II and his Queen Joan to end their exile in France. David Bruce was hampered by two incompatible political ends when he began his reign in 1341 at the age of seventeen. Scotland’s ties with France through the Auld Alliance remained an obstacle to possible peace with England. David II could not feel secure on the throne of Scotland until England’s claims to overlordship of the country were rescinded, which Edward III would not abandon until Scotland’s alliance with France was terminated.

In 1346, Philip VI of France called upon David to relieve the pressure on France by Edward III who in August 1346 had scored a spectacular victory against the French at Crécy. David responded by raising an army and invading England with a formidable army in the autumn of 1346. He engaged the forces of Edward III at Neville’s Cross, near Durham, on 17 October; decisively beaten, David was taken prisoner along with four of his senior earls and the Bishop of St Andrews. In addition, fifty barons were taken into captivity. Among the fatal casualties was John Randolph, 4th Earl of Moray who had been unceremoniously dragged before his sister Agnes during the siege of Dunbar in 1338. David II would spend the next eleven years in English captivity; in his place, Scotland was ruled by the weak Robert the Steward. Ironically, it was the battle of Neville’s Cross which brought hostilities between Scotland and England to an end.

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