MANY lay observers think historians are too obsessed with kings and battles, and there is some truth in that, though Sir Tom Devine and his ilk long ago proved that history is as much about ordinary people and their doings as monarchs and conflicts.

The point about kings and battles is that while Mediaeval history is pretty short on details of the general populace, we know a lot about Scotland’s kings from, say, Malcolm III, known as Canmore, onwards, i.e. from the mid-11th century we can tell when they lived and died and summarise the major achievements, or lack of them, from their reigns.

We also know a lot about early battles involving the kingdom of Scotland. For instance we know that Malcolm Canmore lost the first Battle of Alnwick in 1093 and was killed during it along with his son and heir Edward, which effectively began a civil war in Scotland.

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Moving forward to the Wars of Independence we think we know about all the main battles such as Stirling Bridge, Falkirk, Roslin and Bannockburn – ah, I hear you say, what’s that about Roslin? That’s the place in the Da Vinci Code but what’s that about a battle?

Battles are important because they change things, they shape events, and that’s why the Battle of Roslin in 1303 should be much better known than it is. We’re about to try and explain why.

The village of Roslin in Midlothian contains the extraordinary Rosslyn Chapel, which itself will be the subject of a future item in this column. It was at the chapel’s lovely visitor centre that more than 60 people and several experts on history and battles gathered last Wednesday, filling the learning and interpretation area to try to make more sense of the Battle of Roslin. It was proof yet again that Scots are desperate for knowledge about their history having mainly been taught British – i.e. English – history at school.

Roslin is the first of three forgotten victories in Scottish history that we will tackle in this short series. The others are Sark/Lochmaben Stone and Baugé. The latter battle is particularly unknown because it took place in France.

The point about Roslin in 1303 is that it was the first victory for the Scots over any sort of major English force in the field since the disaster at Falkirk in 1298, and it showed Edward Longshanks that Scotland was not utterly defeated – that’s why he came north in a fiercely punitive months-long raid of savagery and sieges not long after Roslin. Many of those in the gathering at Roslin all seemed to know the legend: that for the love of Lady Margaret Ramsay of Dalhousie, Sir John Segrave, the English commander in Scotland, came north to attack Roslin Castle, the home of her lover Sir Henry St Clair or Sinclair in early 1303. Segrave’s army of 30,000 men was slaughtered by 8000 Scottish solders in a day-long battle in which the Scots three times overcame English divisions in a one-sided encounter that left rivers running red with blood and fields full of bones – there is a Shinbanes field near Roslin to this day.

Allegedly we know so little about the battle because one of the Scottish leaders was Sir John Comyn, the then contender for the Scottish throne who would be murdered three years later by Robert the Bruce in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries – and Bruce’s people are supposed to have ordered that Comyn and “his” victory at Roslin were not to be extolled in the slightest.

It did not take long for the experts gathered last Wednesday to cast serious doubts on the “legendary” version of the Battle of Roslin that has come down to us.

Dr David Caldwell, president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, did say straightaway that Roslin should be better known: “We all know about the big boys, about Wallace and Bruce and their great battles, but what about Roslin? Did it matter?”

He introduced Fiona Rogan, learning and outreach manager of Rosslyn Chapel, who has made a comprehensive study of the battle.

She outlined the legend of Lady Ramsay, Sinclair and Segrave, described the usual “three battles in one” account of the battle on February 24, 1303, and added the detail of the Prior of Carlops who, seeing the tiredness of the Scottish troops before their third clash, set up a huge fiery cross on the Pentland Hills and preached a sermon that God’s angel would be on hand to help the Scots, who duly fired themselves up and completed the victory. Rogan added that Lady Margaret and Henry Sinclair, according to the story, got married and had two sons who fought with their father alongside Bruce.

“It is essentially a love story about Henry Sinclair and Margaret Ramsay and the evil Sir John Segrave. But is it true?”

Rogan then revealed that the legendary story was the creation of one James Jackson of nearby Penicuik, the writer of a book on animal husbandry that was acclaimed in 1839.

Jackson may have been basing his work on the genealogy produced by Father Augustine Hay, the Sinclair family’s cleric in the 1690s, but in any case he published two works of historical fiction in 1835 written “very much in the style of Sir Walter Scott”, as Rogan said.

She went on: “He lifted the tale of two lovers from Scott’s Lay Of The Last Minstrel and inserted the names of Henry and Margaret to make it seem more accurate.”

It has come down to us as fact but the only trouble for Jackson’s account is that Henry Sinclair by all accounts was aged 47 at the time of the Battle of Roslin – “hardly ‘young Henry’ falling in love with Lady Margaret.”

The real problem, said Rogan, was that there never was any Lady Margaret Ramsay, daughter of the Baron of Dalhousie, and it is well documented that Henry Sinclair married one Alicia de Fenton who gave birth to two sons, William and John Sinclair.

“Does that mean that nothing is true, that the battle never happened?” asked Rogan.

There is no account of the battle by anyone who was there, but Mediaeval chronicles written somewhat later mention the 30,000 English versus 8000 victorious Scots – “we know chroniclers exaggerated numbers all the time, it depended on whose side they were on,” explained Rogan.

They also disagreed – John of Fordun’s late 14th-century chronicle has the battle taking place in July, not February, but every other chronicler agrees on February.

At that point in the proceedings, weapons expert Ally Strachan gave an entertaining but very factual display of what troops and knights would wear for battles in the 1300s. The fearsome weapons he wielded left no doubt that Mediaeval warfare was not for the faint-hearted. His point was well made that all the padding and armour was very heavy and everyone involved must have been exhausted long before the end of the day-long battle.

It was Arran Johnston, battlefield historian and consultant, who provided the clinching evidence that while the Battle of Roslin took place and may even have happened on the sites of legend, it was not on the scale of legend.

“The more you look into the Battle of Roslin,” he said, “the more questions you find unanswered rather than answered.”

Johnston put the battle in context: “In view of Edward of England, Scotland is occupied land.”

Longshanks cannot stomach Scottish resistance but February was not suitable for large-scale military operations and Johnston comprehensively demonstrated that moving such an English army was all but impossible at that time of the year.

He said: “I have big problems with the idea of 30,000 men operating in the vicinity of Roslin in 1303.”

Johnston revealed from documentation that Segrave, a genuine historical figure and the man who took William Wallace south to his death in 1305, had a strike force of 53 men at arms (knights and retainers), and his colleague William Latimer had a standing force of 38 men at arms, while another of Edward’s officers, Ralph Manton, had rounded up men from the North of England. In all, from the records he concludes there were 119 mounted men at arms and perhaps 2000 infantry.

“If 30,000 was true, then it would be bigger than Bannockburn,” said Johnston.

The Scottish army, such as it was, operated under Sir John Comyn and Simon Fraser, Lord of Neidpath Castle, and newly built Selkirk Castle had fallen to them early in 1303, infuriating Longshanks.

Johnston’s theory is that Segrave came to Midlothian to “stiffen the resolve of the English garrisons”, as testified to by English correspondence of the time.

Edward I was already planning to come north in summer, and Johnston suggested that Segrave and his fellow officers tried and failed to suppress the Scottish resistance with an early attack.

The English were in three divisions as was common in armies at the time, and Johnston quite comprehensively showed how the battle might well have raged across the landscape even though it has changed considerably. He also showed how the battle site was marked on maps as far back as 1750, and that there were sites traditionally associated with the Scottish victory including the ravine in which so many English soldiers perished.

He concluded that the Battle of Roslin might well have happened in three stages, and showed sites for the three clashes with the Scottish tactics of a surprise early-morning attack – Segrave was undoubtedly wounded at that point and Manton was later killed – starting off the long day’s march to victory.

During the discussion with the audience afterwards it was clear that the majority were sure the battle took place, but the arguments about numbers made by the experts were convincing.

Interestingly, more than one person made the point that it was as much of a psychological victory as a military win.

Johnston summed it up: “What is important about this battle is that psychologically it is a major blow. It is a reverse, and a reverse for a senior commander [Segrave] who comes close to losing his life, and who then writes that he needs more support.”

The Scots were not done for, not by a long chalk, and thus Edward I never really destroyed Scottish resistance. Yes, the pro-Bruce faction may have played down the battle’s importance, though the evidence of that is not conclusive, but that’s no reason why the rest of us should do so. Roslin in 1303 was a Scottish victory against the forces of a cruel and tyrannical English king and thus should never be forgotten.