Battles of the Scottish Lowlands
Battlefield Britain series (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2004). 160 pp. £11.99. ISBN 184415078X.
In Battles of the Scottish Lowlands, Stuart Reid offers a sweeping survey of battles and campaigns occurring around Stirling over a period of nearly 450 years (1297-1746). The focus and selection of events is purely geographical and the Reid freely admits that readers may immediately criticize the lack of some significant Scotland battlefields (e.g., Culloden), but he believes this allows him to deal with each “properly” and “provide greater detail than has been possible before” (p. 7). However, this is not the strength of the book. Finding detailed treatments of these battles is not difficult, but finding a consolidated work focusing on this region is impossible, and this is Reid’s real achievement with Battles of the Scottish Lowlands. Still, the work is not without its issues, as it lacks a cohesive thesis, suffers from over analysis minute topics such as troop numbers, and lacks detailed analysis where necessary for some of the unique conclusions.
Reid divides his work into three chapters, each grouping battles into period—medieval, Civil War, and Jacobite Rebellion. Each chapter has the same format with several pages dedicated to the tactics of the day, followed by three sections on three different battles. The first chapter focuses on “Medieval Battles” and brings schiltrons into focus. However, Reid does not use the term to refer to a formation, as many historians—medieval and modern—have done, but he instead uses them to refer to a group of spearmen, arguing that “contemporary writers in fact us the term indiscriminately to describe any formation of infantry drawn up in close order” (p. 10). As such, he uses the term just as loosely, referring to schiltrons at Stirling Bridge (1297), Falkirk (1298), Bannockburn (1314), and Pinkie (1547). The format of each battle description involves an overview of the preceding events and campaign, a discussion on the numbers, and eventually the battle. The second chapter focuses on “Civil War Battles,” with analysis of Kilsyth (1645), Dunbar (1650), and Inverkeithing (1651). The third chapter focuses on “Jacobite Battles,” with analysis of Sheriffmuir (1715), Prestonpans (1745), and Falkirk (1746).
It is difficult to determine the goal of the book (and thus to review it) as there is no overarching thesis. Those familiar with Scottish warfare will recognize some other battles from the region excluded such as Dunbar (1296). Still, the book is image intensive with more than 90 maps, flags photos, drawing, and paintings spread throughout the text, ensure there are rarely two pages without an image. All of the battles, except for Falkirk include a map. Most useful are Reid’s photos of terrain with superimposed lines and text to depict troop positions and movements (pp. 32-33, 48, 49, 67, 68, 82, 85, 111, and 129). It is also clear that Reid has visited the sites and his analysis of terrain of Pinkie is exceptional (p. 45). Although his analysis is far from consistent, as the Callendar Wood at Falkirk (1298) provided “no real line of retreat” (p. 20) and it “would have covered their retreat from the oustset” (p. 25). Still, the book provides enough photos, maps, and directions (pp. 156-157) to find and trek the battlefields with some useful knowledge.
Thus, the book excels as an incomplete battlefield tour guide to the region, but it also suffers as an unbalanced historical analysis of the battles. For example, analysis of figures can at times be extremely academic, dedicating nearly an entire page debating the troop numbers at Falkirk (23). Likewise, Reid dedicates a page determining whether there were three or four schiltrons at Bannockburn (30-31). This sort of analysis typically involves historiography with a heavy dose of footnotes, but little of the former and none of the latter are in this book. Thus, those who would be interested in these sorts of discussions—historians, history buffs, and military professionals—have little to work with when determining the credibility of Reid’s conclusions.
This problem is expounded when Reid clearly has axes to grind. For example, Reid is convinced that William Wallace was not the leader, or even co-leader at Stirling Bridge. Instead, he gives all the credit of leadership to Andrew Murray, a theory among Scottish historians. However, Reid pushes past theorizing and insists Wallace was merely along for the ride at Stirling Bridge and Wallace’s failure at Falkirk demonstrates he was “simply not up to the job of organizing, training and leading a conventional military force” (p. 23). Going against 700 years of nationalistic promotion and modern historiography of Wallace is gutsy, but Reid only offers the following evidence to make his case,
Whilst it is common to credit Wallace with victory at Stirling Bridge, Moray had the greater number of men and was the leader of a successful uprising. Wallace only became prominent after the battle and in later years became credited with a great many of Moray’s achievements. In all the documents jointly sealed by the two men, Moray took precedence. Wallace now accompanied Moray as he marched on Stirling… (p. 14)
The problem of course is that Reid is relying on three documents with the seals of Murray and Wallace. He never addresses the fact that every medieval chronicle describing the events of Stirling Bridge lists Wallace as the leader. Only one chronicle, Fordun, even mentions Murray by name and then only as a casualty, not as the leader of the Scots. Remarkably, Reid quotes heavily from these chronicles to describe the events of the battles, the only success of which he attributes to Murray’s leadership, not Wallace. In some instances, he provides just enough medieval text to describe the events, but he adds Murray’s name where there was only Wallace’s name (p. 16). The charade becomes almost comical in Reid’s narrative on Bannockburn when he refers to “a reprise of Moray’s great victory seventeen years before” (p. 34), referring of course to Stirling Bridge.
The issue is not that Reid has a less than common view of Wallace; the issue is that Reid has taken only what some historians treat as a possibility and he treats it as fact, aggressively. He has an uphill battle, as the he draws the conclusion only from the appearance of Murray’s name on several letters from Murray and Wallace. In short, the evidence is thin and full of conjecture for Murray as the tactical mind at Stirling Bridge. If Reid wants anyone to take this thesis serious, he needs to dedicate much more to it.
With all that said, the book is still useful. In fact, there is none like it on the market. No one traveling to the Stirling region will find another single volume covering the battlefields of the regions. This reviewer wish he had known of it during his excursions to Scotland in 2011. Reid’s strengths are in his photographs and terrain analysis. However, the book is neither a battlefield tour guide nor a full-blown academic analysis of sources to support some of his conclusions. The in between approach leaves to the core audience of military history—historians, history buffs, and military professionals—unsatisfied, but still overwhelms the casual reader. Regardless, anyone seeking a guidebook of battlefields around Stirling can do no better than Battles of the Scottish Lowlands.
 A. A. M. Duncan, “William, Son of Alan Wallace: The Documents,” in The Wallace Book, edited by Edward J. Cowan, 42-63 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2007), 43-44.