Iain A. MacInnes, Scotland’s Second War of Independence (Ditcham)

Iain A. MacInnes

Scotland’s Second War of Independence

(Boydell & Brewer, 2016) 275 pp. $99.00/£60.00


The Second Scottish War of Independence has long been something of a historical stepchild. In English historiography it tends to be remembered, if at all, as a faintly unsatisfactory prologue to the main event of the Hundred Years War, significant mainly as the test bed on which the archery based tactics which triumphed in France were refined. In Scotland the war has left virtually no trace in collective memory- in contrast to the First War, which generated so many Scottish lieux de mémoire. This absence is understandable. The second conflict failed to generate any intellectual assertions of national independence like the Declaration of Arbroath, available to stir the blood of patriots years after the political context in which it was created had faded from memory. There was no military triumph like Bannockburn to transfigure and retrospectively legitimize the violent (re)imposition of Bruce control against mostly Scottish enemies which formed the core of both wars. King David II, for all his undoubted personal courage at Neville’s Cross, was a problematic figure. An absentee monarch for much of the war (in French protective exile for much of the 1330’s, in English captivity after 1346), his period of personal rule was marked by deep political divisions within the Bruce establishment and, unlike his equally divisive father, he failed to achieve the battlefield success which might have put his position beyond challenge. None of the shifting cast of Guardians who ruled in his name established a personal profile to match William Wallace; the one who might have done so, Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, was murdered in a feud while still consolidating his reputation. From the perspective of a predominantly nationalist (with small and sometimes large N) popular historiography, the speed with which the Bruce government collapsed in the face of military defeat and the widespread if ephemeral acceptance of Edward Balliol’s rule in the mid 1330’s was something of an embarrassment. The later phases of the war came to look like a minor sub-theatre of the Anglo-French confrontation, with violence switched on and off following truces proclaimed as a result of developments in Flanders or Gascony with little Scottish input until the conflict fizzled out in 1357 with the ransom of David II.

There has been a welcome reconsideration of the Scottish fourteenth century in the past quarter century (for instance Michael Penman’s 2004 re-evaluation of David II and Amanda Beam’s consideration of the House of Balliol). Iain MacInnes’ study of the war takes this further. In addition to recounting the military progress of the conflict, he considers issues round Scottish military organisation, military careers, the conduct of war and how war was perceived by literate elites and by participants.

This is very much a military history; the role of groups such as the Scottish clergy in upholding the Bruce or Balliol causes gets little attention. MacInnes tends to take a resolutely “glass half full” view of the effectiveness of Bruce military endeavours and plays down the fragmentation of these efforts in the hands of localist leaders which others have identified as a major characteristic of the war. It is perhaps unfortunate that the way in which he chooses to analyse the participation of the Scottish elites in the war (taking each earl and his house in turn and then working through the activities of lesser lineages), while providing a valuable prosopography of militarily active members of the Scottish nobility rather reinforces the impression of fragmentation by isolating individuals. Intriguingly the one senior Scottish noble whose military reputation emerges diminished from this exercise is Robert the Steward, David II’s unloved heir apparent and the later King Robert II- though one feels MacInnes is excessively generous in his evaluation of that multiple turncoat Earl Duncan of Fife (even granted a context where very few leading figures had stood resolutely on one side or the other and where loyalties often seem to have been very shallowly rooted).

At times one senses MacInnes’ frustration with the limitations of his sources. This is particularly clear in his section on Scottish military organisation, where almost no administrative documentation survives from the Bruce side and he has little alternative to looking at Scottish units in English pay in order to get some sense of how the followings of Scottish leaders may have been structured. While one can only agree with his conclusion that by the 1350’s a section of Scottish society had come to see paid participation in warfare as a full time trade rather than an activity incidentally linked to social status, it is almost impossible to say who was doing the paying and under what conditions or indeed assess just how large that section of the Scottish population might have been. Nor is it possible to trace the process by which Scottish armies moved from being based on infantry spearmen in the early fourteenth century towards the archery-oriented forces which served as the Army of Scotland in French pay a century later. There are many, probably unanswerable, questions buried in this story. For instance, how far was raiding the far north of England almost a structural necessity for keeping men in the field in the absence of regular taxation and payment systems within Scotland? MacInnes sees such raids as an attempt to resurrect the successful tactics of Robert I in levying protection money on enemy territory and suggests that they imply a degree of discipline in Scottish armies (to ensure that they did not ravage those who had bought the invaders off); perhaps they should also be put in a context of military professionalisation in which even border ravaging was a war fought (mostly) by the accepted rules of chivalry with surrenders accepted and ransom payments on both sides set at generally realistic levels.

Perhaps in response to this “normalisation” of conflict, MacInnes notes a dialing back in anti-Scottish atrocity propaganda amongst English chronicles, replaced by negative stereotypes of cunning, perfidy and untrustworthiness (naturally mirrored on the other side of the border). Perhaps more could have been made of the inherent tensions between an implicitly trans-national and status- linked ideology like chivalry and the growing appeals to explicitly “national” sentiment in both England and Scotland (and indeed beyond) to justify warfare to a wider audience than the traditional chivalric elites. Just how far could/should a writer applaud a victory for “their” side gained by cutting chivalric corners (say by staging a surprise attack during a truce) or advocate ravaging the other side’s civilian populations? The rather wavering and inconsistent approaches noted by MacInnes, willing to recognise the courage of an enemy (preferably after he was safely dead) but often tolerant of what might be seen as underhand tricks suggest that these issues might give rise to genuine debate and uncertainties over just what constituted “good” war.

MacInnes has brought the Second War of Scottish Independence out of historiographical limbo and restored it to its proper place not just in Scottish history but in the wider history of late medieval warfare- and at the same time placed those who fought in it firmly in the mainstream of European military society. This is very much to be welcomed.

Brian Ditcham

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