The seven bloodiest battles in Scottish history

In the days when Scotland was an independent nation, pitched conflict was a regular occurrence, with scores of bloody wars, major battles and minor skirmishes taking place prior to and after the Act of Union in 1707.
The Battle of Culloden, 1746. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsThe Battle of Culloden, 1746. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
The Battle of Culloden, 1746. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

As you might expect, while the vast majority of battles fought by Scotland over the centuries have involved England, there have been a great number contested on home soil with various Nordic kingdoms, the Roman Empire, and even ourselves.

In a chronological order, we take a quick look at some of the bloodiest battles throughout Scotland’s long history.

Mons Graupius, AD 83

The Battle of Culloden, 1746. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsThe Battle of Culloden, 1746. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
The Battle of Culloden, 1746. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
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If not for a set of biased scribblings by a Roman historian, Tacitus, we would know nothing of this ancient battle.

There is of course no ‘Scottish’ record of the event as the country did not yet exist and at any rate did not possess the scholars at that time to create a written account to survive the centuries.

Nevertheless, it is widely-accepted that Tacitus’ version of events at least partially accurate to the point that it took place in the year 83 and was won by his father-in-law, the General Agricola.

Mons Graupius, as the name suggests, was pitched somewhere in the foothills of the Grampians.

The Battle Stirling Bridge. 1297. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsThe Battle Stirling Bridge. 1297. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
The Battle Stirling Bridge. 1297. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Tacitus’ tells the tale of the heroic opposing leader, whose name, Calgacus, sounds suspiciously Roman but actually translates loosely into Old Celtic as ‘he who bears a blade’.

Calgacus’ speech on the eve of the battle in which he tells his men that the Romans ‘make a desert, and call it peace’, though probably the stuff of complete fiction, has achieved legendary status.

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If the death toll estimates are accurate, the merciless Roman legionnaires absolutely wiped the floor with their Caledonian counterparts.

Calgacus reputedly lost around 10,000, compared with Roman losses of just 360.

Site of the Battle of Flodden Field. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsSite of the Battle of Flodden Field. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Site of the Battle of Flodden Field. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Largs, 1263

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It was their own wounds rather than ice creams the Scots were licking on the Firth of Clyde back in October 1263.

Despite boasting far greater numbers, King Alexander III’s Scots struggled to gain the upper hand over the Norwegian King Haakon IV’s 800 maritime marauders.

King Haakon’s flotilla ended up at Largs as the result of poor weather encountered while negotiating the Ayrshire coast. Some reckon they were outnumbered by ten to one, but they managed to survive a Scottish onslaught and patch up their longships.

The Caledonian warrior Calgacus addresses his troops. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsThe Caledonian warrior Calgacus addresses his troops. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
The Caledonian warrior Calgacus addresses his troops. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

It is not known how many perished in the battle, but scholars estimate that many hundreds would have been slain.

One legend goes that the Norwegians revealed their location to the Scots by yelping in pain after stepping on a field of thistles, and this was the moment responsible for the thistle becoming a national emblem.

The result of Largs is given as ‘inconclusive’. Had the Scots decisively lost the battle, history may have been very different - Scotland gained control of the Hebridean isles back from Norwegian hands just two years later.

Stirling Bridge, 1297

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The Scottish Wars of Independence brought one of Scotland’s greatest ever tactical victories, was also one of the bloodiest.

Fought in early September 1297, the Battle of Stirling Bridge witnessed Andrew de Moray and William Wallace triumph in emphatic fashion over the Earl of Surrey-led English, who had been in high spirits following victory at Dunbar.

Loch Lochy. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsLoch Lochy. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Loch Lochy. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
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Stirling was a strategic entrance to the north of Scotland and the royal town of Scone. It was of enormous importance to the kingdom’s future that Scotland emerged victorious.

The Early of Surrey’s over-confident English made a big mistake as they advanced to meet their Scottish counterparts.

To do so, around half of the 7,000-strong English army were ordered to cross the River Forth via the exceptionally-narrow Stirling Bridge - an important point inexplicably omitted from Mel Gibson’s 1995 blockbuster Braveheart. The Scots lunged forward and cut the fleeing English in two.

In the region of 5,000 English and Welsh soldiers died in the battle. The river must have run red with the blood of the invaders.

Bannockburn, 1314

Against all the odds, the Scots felled the English at Bannockburn, Stirling. It is widely-regarded as the most important victory in Scottish history.

Led by Edward II, the English were heavy favourites who, with around 25,000 cavalry and infantry, outnumbered the Scots by at least two to one.

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But the Scots, fronted by Robert the Bruce, would go on to stage an Auld Enemy upset not equalled in any sphere, militaristic or otherwise, until 1967 and Wembley Stadium.

Bannockburn was fought decisively by Bruce’s Scots. At its conclusion, as many as 11,000 English soldiers lay dead on the battlefield.

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If not for the victory at Bannockburn, us Scots would be speaking En... Oh, never mind.

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Flodden, 1513

Two hundred years after Bannockburn, fortunes for the Scots had shifted somewhat. After the Battle of Towton during the War of the Roses, the Battle of Flodden incurred more casualties than any battle fought on British soil and it involved the largest ever number of combatants in any armed clash between Scotland and England.

James IV’s Scots were cut apart by the English, despite occupying high ground on Flodden Hill. The English Earl of Surrey ordered his men to block the Scottish retreat in an ambush attack, a tactical masterstroke that brought about the end of an estimated 17,000 Scottish lives - including that of the king, James IV.

Flodden was more than just the bloodiest battle ever fought; it was one of the most disastrous moments in Scottish history and our greatest military defeat.

Battle of the Shirts, 1544

It’s not always been against a foreign invader that Scotland has fought; there have been numerous occasions where we have battled against ourselves. The Battle of the Shirts was one of the bloodiest.

In what was a clan conflict of the highest order, the Battle of the Shirts, so-named, it is believed, because both sides threw off their heavy filleadh mòr plaids to fight efficiently in the warm July sunshine, was contested between Clan Fraser (assisted by Clan Grant) and an alliance of Clan Macdonald of Clanranalds, Camerons and Donalds. The dispute arose when Hugh Fraser, the Lord Lovat, levied a claim for the chiefship of Clanranald.

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The battle was pitched at Loch Lochy and witnessed utterly disastrous losses on both sides, with just 13 survivors out of an estimated 800 men. It was quite possibly the bloodiest stalemate ever fought in Scottish history.

Culloden, 1746

The Battle of Culloden was a defining moment in British history, the result of which ensured the continuance of the Hanoverian throne and the United Kingdom far into the future.

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For Jacobite Scots and the Stuart dynasty, it was an unmitigated disaster.

Just months prior to Culloden, such a crushing defeat had seemed incredibly unlikely. In December 1745, Charles Edward Stuart’s fevered rebellion had managed to occupy England as far south as Derby, but that would be as good as it got for the Jacobites.

Fast forward to 16 April 1746, the beleaguered Jacobite troops were ruthlessly scythed down by a British Army made up of 8,000 redcoats and those loyal to the House of Hanover.

Fit and rested, the Duke of Cumberland’s redcoats operated under the ‘no quarter given’ mantra that day.

In all, more than 2,000 Jacobites were slaughtered compared with just 400 government forces in a decisive victory that marked the end of the final Jacobite uprising.

• For more information on Scotland’s bloodiest battles, readers should refer to Scotland: 1001 Things You Need To Know (2012) by Edwin Moore.

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