Arran Johnston: Fight to save Scotland’s battlefields

Scottish soldiers crossing the old bridge in Musselburgh during a re-enactment of the Battle of Pinkie
Scottish soldiers crossing the old bridge in Musselburgh during a re-enactment of the Battle of Pinkie
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Over the next two weeks one of the biggest and bloodiest battles ever fought in this country is being commemorated in East Lothian. The Battle of Pinkie saw the loss of thousands of lives and ushered in a brutal and costly three years of conflict, driving the infant Mary Queen of Scots into the arms of France. Supported by EventScotland, there will be a range of events, from a battlefield tour to a wreath-laying ceremony.

Then, on 16-17 September, there will be a major reenactment event at Newhailes House near Musselburgh, where visitors will be able to listen in on councils of war, see and touch the armour and weapons of the age, and witness the ferocity of a cavalry charge. There will be activities for all ages, including children’s crafts and a chance to loose a longbow. But this is much more than a colourful historic pageant: by bringing together some of Britain’s finest living history societies, its purpose is to present a visible, tangible, memorable tableau of the events of 1547. It is designed to inspire a long overdue surge in popular interest. On the historic battlefield itself, meanwhile, a housing estate is rising.

Arran Johnston, director of the Scottish Battlefields Trust

Arran Johnston, director of the Scottish Battlefields Trust

Scotland’s battlefields are under threat, and high-profile sites are far from immune. From houses at Culloden to industrial substations proposed at Prestonpans and, most recently of all, yet more commercial plantation on Sheriffmuir, the vulnerability of our battlefield heritage has rarely been in sharper focus. Scotland’s principal battlefields are registered on a national inventory of which Historic Environment Scotland are guardians, but it falls far short of providing meaningful protection. It is usually left to interested citizens, historical societies and charities such as the Scottish Battlefields Trust to highlight threats and campaign against insensitive developments. Too often such voices are not being heard.

But why should this cause concern? Because battlefields are irreplaceable assets. To communities they can provide a sense of place, a direct connection to the wider national experience. They can provide valuable green space too, harnessed for their natural outdoors potential. They also have a powerful capacity to attract visitors. Battlefield management is not about commercialising or stagnating these landscapes, but rather, opening them up for sensitive use, appropriate access and meaningful interpretation. Not every battlefield needs a multimillion-pound visitor centre, but well-presented and accessible sites that are free to explore can still contribute directly to the local economy. In a country so committed to tourism and aware of its heritage as Scotland, it is extraordinary that the nation’s approach to harnessing and protecting battlefields is not more robust.

Battlefields are the scenes of remarkable and defining moments in our history, witnessing great courage and great suffering in order to determine the course of the national story. The remains of those who gave their lives lie at rest upon the field, their unmarked graves forever binding them to the landscape. Battlefield landscapes therefore connect us directly to the past, and our history never seems so alive to us as when we can stand in the footsteps of our ancestors. We are blessed that so much of our history has survived and it would be arrogant indeed to squander such an inheritance.

The nation has long since lost the fields of Bannockburn, and we are left to imagine the great deeds of the Bruce through the gloss of digital animation which, however vibrant and dynamic, bring us no closer to our ancestors or their experience. Our generation will be judged one day on the legacy it leaves behind, and even if we cannot interpret every battlefield ourselves we have no right to consciously prevent another generation from doing so. They are assets and we are not doing enough to accept that or harness it. Whether a soldier’s life is given in the medieval period or the present day, the sacrifice matters the same. Caring for our battlefields is something we owe to ourselves, to those who have gone before us, and to those who will follow.

Arran Johnston, director of the Scottish Battlefields Trust

Arran Johnston, director of the Scottish Battlefields Trust

Arran Johnston, director, Scottish Battlefields Trust. For details, tickets to the reenactment and full programme, visit: www.eastlothianbattles.com