The Black Douglas


The Black Douglas


The Black Douglas reviews and reconsiders history and evidence from the First Scottish War of Independence (1296 – 1328).

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The narrative follows events throughout the conflict and highlights areas where misunderstandings often arise. The overall events are set out as they happened, but battles in particular include accounts from closer to the time and there are different opinions on whether or not some of the details are as dramatic as stated. Having said that acts of gallantry; private armies safeguarding relics; and bishops leading sieges, were very much part of a medieval world where both sides blurred the realities.

The account presents coverage of William Wallace’s often forgotten final battles and of the role played by Robert the Bruce’s most trusted aide the Good Sir James Douglas aka the Black Douglas. There is also an investigation of the nature of the underlying network of leadership and support within the Scottish war effort.

Questions covered include:

Did Robert I and William Wallace work together?

Was Wallace really finished after the Battle of Falkirk?

Was Robert I a killer or a king?

How effective were the Scots’ in taking the war to England?

Who really helped to win the Battle of Bannockburn?

How were the Scots able to win the war against impossible odds?

Was the Scottish nation built on a unique culture and identity?


Rosslyn (1303)

The ‘battle’ of Rosslyn itself is said to have resulted from the actions of Sir John de Segrave, who had been given control of English troops in Scotland after Falkirk. De Segrave apparently fell in love with Lady Margaret Ramsey of Dalhousie while commander of Edinburgh Castle. However, Lady Margaret was already romantically entangled with Sir Henry St. Clair of Rosslyn and disinterested in de Segrave.

According to the account Sir Henry and Lady Margaret were betrothed late in 1302 and instead of taking the news on the chin de Segrave asked Edward I to allow him to march an army of 30,000 soldiers off to invade Scotland. In February 1303 30,000 soldiers crossed the border under the cover of darkness and descended upon Melrose. From there they split into three forces with one attacking Borthwick Castle near Gorebridge; the second besieging Lady Margaret's home at Dalhousie Castle; and the third, under de Segrave, assaulting Sir Henry St. Clair at Rosslyn.

Fortunately, Prior Abernathy, at Mount Lothian Priory (near Balantradoch), sent monks on horseback to raise the alarm. Sir William Wallace, Sir John Comyn, Sir Symon Fraser, Somerfield of Carnwarth, Simon of the Lee, Flemming of Cumbernauld and Sir Henry St. Clair were all within reach.

An army of 8,000 local people mustered at Biggar where what one commentator describes as a collegiate system of command was introduced. Wallace was apparently offered overall command, but suggested Sir Symon Fraser lead the army; Prior Abernethy brought vital knowledge of the local area; and, as a Guardian of the Realm, Sir John Comyn is said to have been elected nominal Commander.

The Scots moved north and by the evening of February 23rd the army had assembled in Bilston Wood. What then followed were three battles in rapid succession. The Scots encircled the first part of the English army at camp on an embankment of the River Esk in the early hours of February 24th. Comyn took command of 3,000 troops hidden in a wood to the west of the English camp, while Fraser led 5,000 Scots from the east in a crescent formation. Darkness allowed the Scots the advantage of surprise and English soldiers fleeing to the west ran straight into Comyn’s detachment.

The second English force at Dalhousie Castle heard about the on-going battle and rode to face the Scots unaccompanied by the third force. Using Prior Abernethy’s knowledge of the terrain, Wallace instructed that the Scots deploy along the ridge of the summit of Langhill above Rosslyn, which had a precipice at its north end.

When the English closed as anticipated, their uphill charge was broken by volleys of Scottish arrows causing them to wheeled northwards unaware of the precipice. The Scots then closed on their southern flank and drove them towards it. A direct uphill assault into the face of Scottish archers was disastrous and the Scots descended upon the survivors, driving many into a ravine.

The appearance of the third English force was not far behind and English prisoners without the rank to be ransomed were slaughtered by the exhausted Scots. A force of 8,000, already reduced by two battles, faced a fresh enemy force and it is believed many doubted they could manage a third victory on the same day.

However, Prior Abernethy is claimed to have set off on an inspiring speech reminding the Scots of everything inflicted upon their nation in recent years and topped this off by directing the troops to gaze upon the Pentland Hills. The Scottish troops saw a vast gleaming saltire set upon a hillside and illuminated by the afternoon sun. They then promptly set about defeating the remaining English army with another ambush from high ground and a charge, which drove many more into another ravine.

Many Scottish troops may never have known that Prior Abernethy had instructed Cistercian monks to construct the canvas saltire during the day. It is anyone’s guess just how much of the saltire episode is true or its actual effect, but offering ‘supernatural’ support to Scottish troops on the battlefield does seem to have been considered a vital role.

Overall, the Scots' knowledge of the terrain, Wallace's tactical skills and de Segrave's decision to split his army into three groups largely settled the outcome. St Clair married Lady Margaret Ramsay, de Segrave was ransomed and the other Scots had to concern themselves with Edward’s now customary summer invasion.

Notably, at Rosslyn we find Wallace’s troops, tactics and influence underpinning the extraordinary feat of conjuring up an effective militia and destroying three larger enemy forces within a single day. Wallace clearly remained the lynchpin of Scottish military resistance even after Falkirk and in keeping with that De Segrave is said to have thrown himself upon Wallace’s mercy.

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