6 haunting battlefields of Scotland

6 haunting battlefields of Scotland

Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" renditions of Scotland's most famous battles are a sorry substitute; the real stories are far better and far bloodier

Scotland is one of our top travel destinations for 2013, and as the country gears up for its “Year of Natural Scotland” there's a chance to take in some of its more turbulent stories.

Scottish history reads like a real life “Game Of Thrones.”

Here’s a tour of some of Scotland’s most famous battlefields -- and a stirring picture of a people fighting for independence.

1. Stirling Bridge, 1297

Stirling Wallace MonumentThe Wallace Monument -- one of the places to view the Stirling countryside. If you’ve seen “Braveheart,” you’ll know that Stirling was the first great victory for rebellious Scottish landowner William Wallace against the forces of Edward “Longshanks” I of England.

What you likely don’t know is that Wallace was joint commander with Andrew Murray, head of a powerful Scottish family, who had raised the flag of rebellion the previous year.

Stirling was arguably more Murray’s victory than Wallace’s -- but he had no chance to enjoy it, receiving a mortal wound and dying shortly afterward.

Murray isn’t mentioned in “Braveheart,” but that’s not the film’s most ludicrous omission.

The masterstroke that won Stirling was the Scots waiting until the vanguard of the English army had crossed a narrow wooden bridge, then storming forward, trapping the vanguard and cutting it to pieces.

The English commander ordered the bridge destroyed and consigned half his army to oblivion.

In “Braveheart” the battle is won by the convenient invention of the schiltron (cluster of spears) to fend off cavalry. In fact, schiltrons had been around for centuries.

And the film’s version of Stirling? Not a bridge to be seen.

Today

The best place to survey the landscape around Stirling is to climb to the Wallace Monument (pictured), a 19th-century tower commemorating the Guardian of Scotland, a title also given to the tragically overlooked Murray.

The majority of the battlefield is now under modern Stirling.

Stirling Bridge is an hour’s drive west of Edinburgh along the M9. Weir Street, Stirling, FK8 1RN

2. Falkirk, 1298

FalkirkA fearsome sight, even before they start charging. After a year of employing hit-and-run warfare against the increasingly strengthened English army, the Scots stood their ground. Wallace wanted a night-raid, but was overruled -- the battle would take place on open land, in daylight.

Wallace chose a defensive position and arranged his pikemen, archers and knights.

The English mounted knights charged, driving Scottish horses away but failing to penetrate the four great schiltrons of foot soldiers.

In Gibson’s “Braveheart,” the Scots lose because some of their noblemen (including Robert the Bruce himself) betray Wallace. The truth appears to be more prosaic: isolated and unable to escape, the schiltrons were riddled with English arrows until they fell apart.

Wallace fled, resigned as Guardian of Scotland and largely disappeared from historical records until his capture in 1305. Following his trial in August, he was executed in a manner that makes the film look positively restrained.

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Nobody knows exactly where the battle of Falkirk took place -- many sites have been suggested around the modern town, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

It’s possible future archaeological investigations will find remnants of the battle, but for now it’s a mystery.

Beyond hunting for arrowheads, the best reason to visit the town today is the marvel of engineering known as the Falkirk Wheel.

Falkirk is an hour’s drive west of Edinburgh along the M9.

3. Bannockburn, 1314

BannockburnNearing 700 years later, this small village is still remembering. Following Wallace’s defeat at Falkirk, the title of Guardian of Scotland shifted to Robert the Bruce, who in 1306 was crowned King of Scots.

Despite (or because of) this national display of solidarity, the English continued to push for dominance. Robert switched to guerrilla tactics, biding his time until the conditions were right to meet the English head on.

In June 1314, the English garrison in Stirling announced that it would surrender to the Scots if it wasn’t reinforced by the 24th of the month. Edward II sent 13,000 troops marching north and Bruce’s army met them by the Bannock burn (”stream” or “river”).

His schiltrons had learned from Falkirk -- moving in tight formation, they fended off English horsemen on the first day of battle and punched a great hole in Edward’s forces the next day, enough to break English morale and win the day.

It would take another decade for England to formally recognize Scottish independence -- and that treaty would soon crumble into the second Scottish war of Independence beginning in 1332.

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Like Falkirk, the location of the Bannockburn battlefield is lost to us.

The official Heritage Centre is being remodeled as part of the Battle of Bannockburn project, preparing to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the battle in 2014.

Bannockburn is two miles southeast of Stirling. Turn off the M80/M9 at junction 9, on A872.

4. Killiecrankie, 1689

KilliecrankieGreat spot for a historical hike. By the 17th century, England and Scotland were ruled by one king. In 1685, Charles II of England was succeeded by James II, a Roman Catholic.

A new Catholic dynasty for the throne of England and Scotland seemed certain, infuriating the Protestant population, so they implored William of Orange (Netherlands), husband of James’s daughter Mary, to cross the English Channel and take the throne.

By 1689 this “Glorious Revolution” had taken place -- but for many of James’s supporters, the battle was far from over.

Leading the Jacobites in Scotland (”Jacob” is Latin for James) was Viscount Dundee, John Graham of Claverhouse. He gathered a force of 2,400 men including 240 Cameron highlanders, and engaged the government forces of General Hugh Mackay north of the steep wooded gorge of Killiecrankie.

Dundee lined his men up on a ridge and waited for favorable light late in the day, before sending his Camerons rushing down in the famous “highland charge,” too fast for the government troops to fix their bayonets.

It was a rout: 2,000 of Mackay’s 3,500 men were killed, and the rest fled -- but tragically for the Jacobites, Dundee was fatally wounded by a random musket ball.

Without its dynamic leader, the movement lost momentum and never recovered.

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The Pass of Killiecrankie, a great cleft worn through the mountains north of Pitlochry, covered in ancient woodland and defined by a river, is a beautiful part of Scotland and ideally positioned for exploring the highlands.

The Killiecrankie Visitor Centre is open (free entry) from April until October.

Killiecrankie is three miles from well-connected Pitlochry and served by bus, although the area is covered in walking trails.

5. Glencoe, 1692

GlencoeA bloody past, but a promising tourism future. Less a battle than a massacre, the events of February 13, 1692, are among the most infamous in Scottish history.

Following the defeat of the Jacobites, William sought pledges of allegiance from the Scottish clans, ordering them to appear before a magistrate before January 1, 1692.

Due to foul weather and treachery, Alasdair Maclain of Glencoe’s clan MacDonald was nearly a week late in signing. His enemies, including John Dalrymple, Scotland’s secretary of state, and senior members of the clan Campbell, contrived a plot to destroy him.

They announced Maclain’s signature was irregular, proclaimed the MacDonalds untrustworthy, and secretly plotted their execution.

On February 12, secret orders arrived for troops enjoying the hospitality of the MacDonalds: “You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels … and put all to the sword under 70.”

The next day, 38 MacDonalds were killed by their guests.

Under Scots law this was the heinous crime of “murder under trust,” and a subsequent inquiry found Dalrymple to blame.

But thanks to William’s reluctance to pursue the matter, he and all his co-conspirators managed to escape punishment.

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Glencoe is currently enjoying worldwide exposure thanks to “Skyfall.” The spectacular scenes from the James Bond movie in which Daniel Craig drives Judi Dench into Scotland were filmed on the main road through the mountain pass.

Today, it’s a haven for walkers and climbers, and the Glencoe Mountain Resort caters for snow sports and summer activities alike.

It’s also a great place to stop your car, look up at the mountains and let your jaw drop.

In Glencoe, you can stay in the glen itself at the Mountain Resort or in an area hotel, or you can base in nearby Fort William or Fort Augustus, gateways to the Western Isles.

6. Culloden, 1746

culloden battlefieldOne of the last reminders of one of Scotland's bloodiest battles. The events at Glencoe lingered long in the memory of the Scots, and by 1745 they had found a champion for their anti-British dissent: Charles Edward Stuart, better known as “Bonne Prince Charlie.”

After an unsuccessful attempt to seize and hold northern England, Charles took his army north into Scotland, winning a major battle at Falkirk and besieging Stirling Castle before reinforcements arrived.

Running low on money and resources, Charles chose to face the British at Drumossie Moor, near Inverness.

Each side chose different tactics: the Government troops relied on their firearms while the Jacobites used the highland charge -- a brave but inappropriate tactic for open marshy ground.

Within the hour, 1,500-2,000 Jacobites lay dead or wounded and thanks to the order “give no quarter,” those wounded would be put to death in the grim hours and days that followed.

The aftermath of Culloden was tragic: a British campaign of suppression that oppressed Scotland under British rule, stripping Scottish landowners of their rights and banning unregulated use of the tartan.

Today

Culloden is one of Scotland’s most emotionally affecting monuments -- a bleak stretch of scrub moorland 10 minutes out of Inverness, largely bare except for a new Visitor Centre (opened in 2007) and the headstones (pictured) and memorial cairn erected by local landowner Duncan Forbes in 1881.

It serves as a reminder both of the historical wrongs inflicted upon Scottish culture and its ultimate resilience in the face of adversity. 

Culloden is just outside Inverness, a three-hour drive north of Edinburgh and regularly served by a train service that also goes through Pitlochry.

Mike Sowden is an English travel writer and storytelling consultant, rather loosely based in the north of England. He blogs at Fevered Mutterings and is on Twitter as @Mikeachim

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