Now 21st century Hollywood technology has been combined with medieval combat techniques to turn the Battle of Bannockburn into Scotland’s newest visitor attraction.
From dramatic cavalry charges to sudden archery attacks, the sights and sounds of the battlefield come out of the walls of the futuristic complex, which has replaced an outdated visitor centre built in the 1960s.
After an animated 3D introduction setting the scene for what proved to be one of the most famous battles fought on British soil, visitors are surrounded by “dream-like” sequences depicting everything from soldiers relaxing and training, to falling in agony to their death.
Centre managers say they have not flinched from depicting the brutality of the two days of warfare which unfolded in June 1314.
The £9.1 million complex, finished ahead of the 700th anniversary of the battle, has been created under the first major joint project between the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland.
Motion-capture technology, similar to the technique deployed to create the character “Gollum” in The Lord of the Rings saga, has been used for the Bannockburn centre, with the help of local battle re-enactment experts who have advised film-makers on blockbusters like Gladiator and Robin Hood.
Accounts from historians, the familiar voices of leading Scottish actors James Cosmo and David Hayman, replica weapons and even the genuine skull of Robert the Bruce have all been used to help create what is said to be a unique visitor experience in the world for the quality of the effects used to recreate the bloody battle sequences.
A highlight for visitors will be the centre’s “Battle Game”, which sees visitors divided up into two groups and charged with leading a division of soldiers from the armies of either Robert the Bruce or Edward II into battle on a huge 3D map of Stirling.
The half-hour game does not aim to recreate the actual battle but is played out on a recreation of the 14th century landscape around Stirling Castle.
Once one of the centre’s regular “battlemasters” receive their orders from visitors, divisions of tiny soldiers can be seen advancing, retreating and clashing violently, while computer-generated images of battle scenes appear and disappear overhead.
Chris Walker, managing director of Yorkshire-based design firm Bright White, who designed both the game and the 3D battle scenes, said: “We really went on the assumption that people coming here would have no previous knowledge of medieval battle and we always wanted to show the brutality and physicality of it.
“We didn’t want to sugar the pill. The underlying point is to say isn’t it good that we have changed since then and that any dispute we might have now is usually solved by words.”
‘Life-size versions of Bruce and Edward’
The centre, which opens to the public on 1 March, also allows visitors to come face-to-face with life-size versions of both Bruce and Edward the night before the battle, as well as interact with real people from their respective camps.
David McAllister, project director for NTS, said the 3D imagery and animation created for the centre had “surpassed all expectations” when the first plans were being developed three years ago.
“There really is nothing like this anywhere, we are breaking new ground in terms of battlefield interpretation and literally putting people in the midst of the action. There is already a huge amount of interest in the museum world in what we have done here.”
Centre manager Scott McMaster described the previous complex as looking like “the function suite of a hotel.”
He said: “Bannockburn was always the kind of place where people would maybe come once, when they were at school. This will change all that.
“The problem with Bannockburn has always been that very little actual evidence of the battle survives. The building gives people the chance to see things they will have never seen before.
“We have set a new benchmark at Bannockburn. I guarantee that all kinds of other industries will be watching and before long will be copying this.
“I can see the technology that has been developed for places like Hadrian’s Wall, or even for football museums.
“There has been a huge amount of work on this project, it really has been a labour of love. Every knight and foot soldier you see is specifically rendered.
“We looked at gravestones and tombs, had endless discussions about armour and even took it down to the pigmentation of the eyes of the characters.”