Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe © 2007
The Bannock BurnWhether we believe in the spider story or not, The Battle of Bannockburn is the culmination of Robert the Bruce’s campaign to wrestle Scotland from the influence of the English, which he achieved at the famous battle in 1314.
Beset by betrayal, and the shifting loyalties of clan support he finally established himself as rightful ruler of Scotland in this tactical masterpiece. It is a copybook exercise in clear leadership and how to make the terrain work in your favour, thereby defeating an army which was much stronger on paper.
The battle is of course named after the burn which winds through the lowlands to the South & West of Stirling and entwines itself in the events of the conflict. The present day topography provides an interesting insight into where we are now in relation to this pivotal event in Scotland’s history.
The location of the river’s source is an enigma in itself. If you want a map making puzzle then look at squares 8871 & 8971 on the OS 1:25000 map No. 348 and try and work out just what is happening to the drainage in that area. A visit is necessary to establish the reality. This takes place on a bright clear February day with very little flow in the burn and some frozen cascades as I follow the quad track & sheep walk beside the stream. It is fortunate that it is frozen because the area would be a nightmare of bog & reed otherwise. Frozen Sphagnum held my weight easily as I advanced uphill.
The riddle of the source is eventually solved as I reach the watershed at point 398. This is situated on a small break in between two areas of young plantation. On each side of the break there is a ditch which accounts for the two parallel lines of blue on the map. Although it is frozen with no flow to prove the theory it appears that the southerly ditch drains to the west & the Earlsburn reservoir whereas the northerly ditch drains east to become part of the Bannockburn. I identify a point where the stream looks most natural amongst a clump of tussocks, photograph it and declare it to be the source of the stream.
A hundred metres further downstream is the first natural feature that defines it as a stream rather than a bog. A small cascade over a rock outcrop bubbles gently amidst some delicate icicles – from here on it is clearly a watercourse.
Before it enters the North Third reservoir it is a lively stream, often heavily peat laden and apt to flood the road which crosses it here. It languishes in the reservoir being massaged a little by ducks, geese & fishermen and having given its share to the petro-chemical plant at Grangemouth, for which the storage was created, it escapes north.
It expends its potential energy into a kinetic rush through the woodland below Sauchie Craig - close to the Gillies Hill quarry which is currently the subject of much local controversy. The hill reputedly got it's name from the Gillies who were Bruce's camp followers. Their orchestrated appearance on the hill top at a crucial stage in the first day's action fooled the English army into thinking that they were reinforcements and caused them to retreat. In Summer 2007 a group of quarrying companies who have a license to operate there plan to re-open work and virtually destroy an area that has become widely used for recreation during the quarry's dormant period. A local campaign is under way to oppose the development - locally billed as the second Battle of Bannockburn.
Ignorant of this turmoil the stream then shuffles under the road and on towards the wetlands of Halbert’s & Milton bogs. This area was once the site of much industry driven by water and one estimate suggests that by the time it reached the Forth the burn water had provided power for six mills. The old mill lade is still visible amongst the houses to the East of the A872 near Pirnhall.
The Bannockburn Heritage centre is established on an area of land owned by National Trust for Scotland around Borestone Brae. It is of particular significance because it is thought to be the spot where Bruce raised his standard on the first day of the Battle. I am not a fan of the type of popular interpretation that you get at such places so I make straight for something that I can be left alone to interpret – the statue. The Bruce is portrayed in full armour on a similarly protected horse in what is the most frequently published image of the great man. Looking up at him there is a great sense of pride & courage in that face. His horse is suitably menacing. The engineer who came to service our boiler recently pointed out that it seems strange after the success of the “Braveheart” film that no-one has turned their attention to Robert the Bruce – as he said, “It would make a great movie”.
The river proceeds under the old Roman Road into Stirling then the A9 via the Thomas Telford bridge – an unusual structure employing a circular arch design. At last we reach the battlefield itself – possibly The Bruce’s own sentiments in 1314 for he had many frustrations in getting to grips with the task in hand. The now accepted most likely scene of the battle is bisected by the A91 Road –other possible sites are closer to Balquhidderoch Wood or near to the Heritage Centre. There is no recognition of the exact site on the ground so you chose your own point in one of the two main fields that are near the OS map symbol. The two days of the encounter took place over quite a wide area and the modern site recognised by the historians is believed to be where the Scots attack on the camped English army proved to be the decisive action.
The burn is now more of an uncertainly meandering river which beats to the rhythmn of the daily ebb and low of tide. It has quite steep sides with deep soft mud and lots of tree debris. It eventually spills its contents into the silt laden tidal estuary of the Forth at a point where you have to fight through 3 metre tall reeds to get to the river’s edge. Luckily this visit took place at a time after low rainfall, indeed it was a cold clear frozen day in February when the mat of grasses that would otherwise have been impassable were solid enough to hold my weight. The reeds fight back and if anyone finds a lenshood for a Nikon D70 then I would like it back please.
The great mudflats are home to Heron, ducks, geese & waders and are overlooked by a poultry farm and what must be one of the largest density of bonded warehouses in Scotland. It is almost with relief – another feeling shared with King Robert - that the burn finally mingles with the salty Forth and is sucked out to the North Sea.
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