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Biggar and the House of Fleming
Chapter XXI.- The Battle of Biggar


THE Battle of Biggar is a theme well known to all readers of (HI , Blind Harry’s renowned poem, 4 Ye Actis and Deidis of ye illuster and vaikeand Campioun, Shyr Wilham Wallace, Knycht off Elriale,’ and of the metrical abridgment of it by Hamilton of GilbertfielcL Much discussion has taken place regarding the actual occurrence of this battle; but whatever opinion may be entertained regarding the veracity of the Minstrel, it nevertheless becomes us, in a work of this kind, to give a detail of the incidents of the conflict as he has recorded them.

In 1297, Sir William Wallace, to revenge the murder of his wife, attacked the garrison of Lanark under cloud of night, and by fire and sword put almost every one of the English who composed it to death. This notable exploit soon resounded over the country, and brought together a large number of men who were desirous of striking a blow for the freedom of their country. Wallace was unanimously chosen their leader. The English garrisons who had been left to keep the country in subjection, were of course much alarmed by these warlike demonstrations, and Aymer de Vallance, then dwelling at Bothwell, despatched a courier with intelligence of them to Edward. The king having set his heart on the entire subjugation of Scotland, and having been at infinite pains to effect this object by artful schemes of diplomacy, as well as by several military inroads, was excessively grieved and enraged at this intelligence, and instantly resolved to march again into Scotland, to chastise the insolence and audacity of the Scots, and put them under more rigorous bondage than ever. The queen vainly endeavoured to persuade him against this expedition, representing the outrage and injustice he was attempting to perpetrate on Scotland, by depriving it of its ancient sovereign power, and reducing its people to slavery. Deaf to all remonstrances, the king despatched his heralds over the country to summon his vassals to meet him in warlike array, and to follow him to Scotland. One of Edward’s pursuivants, by birth a Scotsman, and well known in Scotland afterwards by the name of Jop, on learning the intentions of the English king, left the court and hastened to Scotland to give information of them to Wallace, whom he found in Ayrshire. Wallace lost no time in setting up his standard at Lanark, and sending notice to his friends, especially in Ayrshire and Clydesdale, to join him without delay. Adam Wallace, the young laird of Richardtown, Sir Robert Boyd, the ancestor of the , Earls of Kilmarnock and Errol, Sir John Graham, Sir John Tinto of Ciympcramp, Sir Thomas Sommerville of Linton and Carnwath, Sir Walter Newbigging of Newbigging, near Biggar, Nichol Auchinleck, and other men of note, hastened with their followers to obey the summons. On mustering their united forces, they were found to amount to 8000 horsemen, well equipped, and a considerable number of foot; but these were in a great measure destitute of arms. The Scots, learning that Edward was approaching with a powerful and well-appointed army, and being aware that they could not cope with him in the open field, betook themselves to a strong position on the hill of Tinto, about four miles from the town of Biggar.

The English army marched up the Tweed from Berwick, and after winding among the hills of Peeblesshire, desoended on the plains of the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire, by the ancient pass of Orosscryne. The Scots, from their elevated encampment, no doubt beheld this ‘awful oet,' as the Minstrel calls it, defile over the mountain's bitow. It amounted to 60,000 warriors, clad in complete armour, led 'on by the most warlike and politic monarch of the age, and supplied with everything that could contribute to their comfort, or inspire them with confidence and courage. Still the little patriotic band on the side of Tinto manifested no symptoms of fear, nor thought for a moment of dispersing themselves and providing for their safety. The English pitched their camp near Biggar, on a piece of ground rising gently from the valley traversed by Biggar Water, and having a deep and inaccessible morass on the south and east. Here

'Yai planytyt yar feild with tents and pailzooia,
Quhar claryouns blew full mony mychty sonis:
Plenyst yat place with gad wittaill and wyne,
In carta brocht yair purwiance dewine.'

From this place Edward despatched two heralds- to Wallace, commanding him to submit to his authority, and. promising if he should do so to take him into his service and favour, and to confer upon him the most ample rewards; but in case of disobedience, he threatened to hang him the first time he should fall into his hands. Wallace, after consulting his friends, wrote back to the king that he rejected his offers with disdain; and that, so far from being intimidated by his threats, he was determined to contend against him until he was driven from the kingdom; that the Scots would sacrifice him without mercy should he ever become their prisoner; and that they would be prepared to offer him battle at no distant period.

A young knight, the king’s nephew, either out of curiosity, or for the purpose of ascertaining the numbers and reconnoitering the position of the Scots, had accompanied the heralds in disguise; but Jop recognising this youth, having often seen him before while living at the English court, gaye intimation of his rank and condition to Wallace. In these chivalrous times, it was considered highly dishonourable for a true knight to act as a spy, or for any one to assume the character of a herald who did not belong to that order; and the person who did so was held to have forfeited all claim to be treated with mercy. The Scots, smarting under the wrongs inflicted on them by the English, indignant at the haughty and imperious message sent by the king, and especially enraged at the duplicity of the young warrior and his companions, instantly resolved to punish them in a most severe and summary manner. The knight was conducted to an eminence above the camp, and had his head struck from his body; the tongue of one of the heralds was cut out, and the eyes of the other extracted with a pair of pincers. The two heralds, in this dreadful plight, were ordered to return to the English camp with the head of the knight, and to inform the king that he might regard what the Scots had done as a proof that his threats and his powerful army had not been able to strike them with terror, or bring them to submission. When Edward learned what had taken place, he was for some time struck dumb with sorrow and indignation; and at length, when his feelings were somewhat tranquillized, he vowed not to leave Scotland till he had taken the most ample vengeance on Wallace and the Scots for the outrage they had perpetrated.

Wallace had now resolved to take a very daring step. He was quite well aware that his small army was no match for Edward's in a fair field, and that his only chance of success lay in some well-concerted and vigorously-executed stratagem. To carry out such an object, he was convinced that it would be of great advantage were he to visit the English camp in disguise, and thus ascertain its means of defence, and the positions occupied by the king and his generals. He communicated his design only to Sir John Tinto, and enjoined him to observe the strictest secrecy. He accordingly disguised himself, and left the camp unnoticed. On his way between Coulter and Biggar, he met a poor man driving a horse laden with pitchers of earthenware. Wallace entered into conversation with him, and finding him to be an itinerant merchant, instantly entertained the idea that he might gain admission into the interior of the English camp by pretending to be a hawker of earthenware. He accordingly purchased the man’s horse and his stock in trade; and still thinking his disguise not sufficiently complete, proposed an exchange of garments—a proposal which greatly increased the man’s astonishment, but to which he readily assented. Equipped in the hawker’s habiliments, consisting of a threadbare hood, a grey doublet, and hose daubed, or, as Harry says, ‘claggit’ with clay, closing one of his eyes as if it had been deprived of vision, and driving the mare, he set forward, to the great amusement of the old hawkter, towards the town of Biggar. In this guise, tradition says that he passed along the old narrow bridge which crosses Biggar Burn; and that from this circumstance, as we have already stated, it first got the name of the ‘Cadger's Brig,' which it still retains.

About twilight he entered the English camp, and while seemingly intent on the sale of his commodities, he was, at the same time, carefully observing the arrangement of the encampment,

‘Quhar lords lay and had yair lugyng maid,
Ze kings palzone quharon ye libards baid,
Spyand full fast quhar aw&ill suld be,
And couth weyll luk and wynk with ye ta e.’

The soldiers, no doubt struck with his singular appearance, soon began to treat him with considerable freedom. Some of them broke his pots, while others indulged in jokes upon his blind eye. It is a tradition, that one man declared that if the hawker had not been blind of an eye and lame of a leg, he was certain that he was Wallace himself. This declaration was afterwards put into rhyme, and is still well known at Biggar. It is as follows:—

'Had ye not been cripple o’ a leg, and blind o’ an ee,
Ye are as like William Wallace as ever I did see.'

Wallace finding his situation becoming perilous, made haste to retire without exciting further suspicion.

He returned to his own camp just in time to save the life of his friend, Sir John Tinto. A great discontent had arisen among the Scots when it was known that Wallace had secretly left the camp, as it was conjectured that he had, after all, deserted his friends, and might betray them to the enemy. As he had been last seen in communication with Sir John Tinto, that knight was called on to disclose what he knew regarding the movements of their leader; but as he positively refused to do this, he was put under restraint, and a cry was raised that he should forfeit his life for his obstinacy. When the excitement was at the very height, and Tinto was expecting nothing else than that he would fall a victim to the general indignation, Wallace made his appearance, ordered him to be set at liberty, and commended him highly for his unflinching fidelity to his obligation. The chiefs gathered round Wallace to hear an account of his adventures, the recital of which afforded them much amusement; but it called forth a strong expression of dissatisfaction from Sir John Graham, who maintained that such conduct was unchieftainlike, and altogether unbecoming the commander of an army. Wallace, in reply, said that before Scotland was free, it would be necessary for them all to subject themselves to far greater hazards, and to perform still more daring exploits.

The Scottish army retired to rest, but with instructions that every man should be on foot before daybreak, and ready for the march.

When the trumpet, at the appointed time, blew a rallying blast, they all sprang up, ready armed, and eager for the fray. They were immediately drawn up in three divisions. The first was led by Wallace himself, and under him were Sir Robert Boyd and Nicol Auchinleck; the second by Sir John Graham, and under him were Adam Wallace, younger of Riccarton, and Sir Thomas Sommerville of Carnwath; and the third by Sir Walter of Newbigging, and under him were Sir John Tinto, and David, son of Sir Walter. The foot, being badly armed, were drawn up in the rear, and received orders not to engage rashly, but reserve themselves till a fitting opportunity, or till they were properly supplied with arms. Wallace then summoned the chieftains around him, and strictly enjoined them to prevent their followers from being allured from the combat by the pillage which the English camp might present. He reminded them, that those who betook themselves to plunder before the victory was gained, generally lost both their life and their booty. He expressed the utmost confidence that they would, on this occasion, strike a blow worthy of freemen, and exert themselves with all their might to inflict punishment on a false tyrant who had come to wreathe fresh chains on the necks of their countrymen. All of them readily consented to attend to his orders.

They had scarcely commenced their march, when, through the feint gloom of the summer's morning, they beheld a body of armed men approaching from the south, which naturally filled diem with alarm. These, however, turned out to be a party of three hundred hardy and stalwart borderers, under the command of Thomas Halliday and his two sons, Wallace and Rutherford; and with them also came Jardine of Applegirth, and Rodger Kirkpatrick, Lord of Torthorald; the whole being on their way to join the Scottish patriots who had taken up arms in defence of their country. This welcome accession of strength was hailed with great satisfaction, and still further raised the spirits of the Scots.

The combined force now proceeded with the greatest celerity towards Biggar. The English, to prevent surprise during the night, had posted pickets at some distance from their camp; but as dawn began to appear, these had been withdrawn. The English, being aware of the comparatively small number of the Scots, entertained no suspicion that an attack would be made upon them by day. When the first division of the Scottish horsemen, led on by Wallace himself, therefore, rushed upon them, they were taken somewhat by surprise. The knowledge which Wallace had acquired by his visit to the English camp, was of the greatest use, as he knew the ground, the disposition of the tents, and the best mode of conducting the assault. He therefore rushed with his division into the very heart of the camp, with the view of reaching the tent of the king; but he found this was impossible, as the English soldiers in great numbers rallied round it, particularly the Earl of Kent, with a detachment of 5000 men. The Scots, finding themselves encumbered with their horses, dismounted, and carried on the affray on foot. As they were all stalwart men, expert in war, and animated with a deadly resentment to the English, they fought with the most desperate valour, and made a prodigious havoc among their terrified, disordered, and half-armed antagonists.

Graham and Newbigging, with their divisions, followed by the foot, who had now obtained an abundant supply of weapons, also pressed hastily forward, overturning the tents in their way, and slaughtering every opponent they could reach. The battle still raged round the king's person with great obstinacy; and the Scots, having joined their forces* began to drive the English' back towards the valley, covered with deep marshes on the south, and in the confusion the royal tent was overturned. The Earl of Kent,' proud of displaying his martial skill and prowess in the presence of his sovereign, rallied his troops once and again; and, with a ponderous battle-axe, committed great havoc among the Scots. Wallace, finding the course of victory arrested by the powerful arm of this intrepid and indomitable warrior, sought him out amid the throng, and engaged him in single combat When these two distinguished champions had fairly encountered, the surrounding warriors, on both sides, almost suspended the work of death, to watch the issue of a conflict so tremendous and heart-stirring. Both fought with great fury, but with admirable courage and dexterity, till, at length, Wallace, with an irresistible stroke, smote him lifeless to the ground. At this sight the English were discouraged, and mounting the king on horseback, forced him, much against his inclination, to quit the field. In this encounter 4000 of the English were cut down, and the remainder, in terror and confusion, fled from Biggar, taking the direction of Coulter by the Causeway, which crossed the moss on the west The Scots pursued them to Coulter Hope, about four miles distant. Here the English rallied in great force, and Wallace, knowing that he was no match for them in the open field, withdrew his followers to Biggar, after they had slain 7000 men in the pursuit, as no quarter was given. Here, finding provisions and valuable commodities in abundance, and being exceedingly hungry and fatigued, they sat down to a sumptuous repast ; and after regaling themselves with bumpers of wine, proceeded to take some repose. Their rest, however, was of short duration, as Wallace was afraid that the English, apprised of the smallness of their numbers, would return, for die purpose of recovering their camp, and therefore deemed it prudent to draw off his forces to a place of strength and security, called Davis Shaw, and to convey the booty obtained in the camp to AEsops’s Bog.

The English were now drawn up in Coulter Hope, on a place called John's Green, and were lamenting the disaster that had befallen them, and the loss of their comrades and commanders, among the latter of whom were the king’s son, his two uncles, and the Earl of Kent, when two cooks, who had concealed themselves in the camp, and skulked off after they saw the Scots indulging in repose, came and informed them that the Scots were lying in the camp, overcome with sleep and intoxication, and might easily be overpowered. The king was unwilling to credit this story, as he considered it unlikely that Wallace would be so remiss and unguarded in such circumstances. He therefore declared it to be his determination to retreat, as there was little hope of recovering their provisions at Biggar, and no adequate supplies could be obtained amid the mountains by which they were surrounded. The Duke of Lancaster urged, that the circumstances in which they were placed rendered it imperative that an effort should be made to regain the camp ; and though the king himself would not return, he requested to be furnished with a strong detachment, with which he hoped to recover the supplies, of which they would soon stand so much in need. The king was prevailed on to allow him to take 10,000 men, and promised to wait on him till next day, expecting to be able to supply the wants of his troops with such bestial as he might find among the hills. The Governor of Calais and the Lord of Westmoreland resolved to accompany the Duke, and each of them obtained the command of 1000 men; Sir Aymer de Vallance also joined them with a considerable reinforcement. These united parties marched back to Biggar, but found the camp plundered and deserted, and strewed with dead bodies that had been stripped bare. For some time they were at a loss to conceive what place the Scots had retired to, but some scouts soon brought intelligence that they were posted at Davis Shaw, which is supposed to have been situated on the sloping sides of the hill of Bizzyberry, little more than a mile from Biggar. They accordingly marched in that direction, but were descried by the Scottish videttes, who gave the alarm. Leaving their horses in the Shaw, the Scots passed on foot into Hop's Bog, as a place of greater security from the attacks of the English division, which consisted principally of cavalry. The 'English seeing them pass into the bog, and being deceived by its fair and solid appearance, rode towards them with great impetuosity. The consequence was, that the front line of horse was soon embogued in the morass, and overborne by those that pressed on behind. In this state of confusion the soldiers were assailed by the Scots, and, being unable to extricate themselves, were slaughtered almost to a man. The Scots, emboldened by this success, crossed the bog and fell upon the English, who were bewildered and intimidated by the fate of their comrades, and the boldness and success of their opponents. The conflict, however, was sharp and long-continued, and great valour was displayed on both sides. The mode of fighting at that time generally rendered a battle a series of single combats. Some notable encounters of this kind took place during the engagement. The Governor of Calais, clad in complete armour, and expert in all warlike exercises, assailed Sir John Graham, who, with his trusty blade, warded off his attacks, and, at length, struck him such a blow as pierced his harness, and laid him lifeless on the spot. Wallace, espying Aymer de Vallance, one of Edward’s most active and resolute captains, and noted for his cruel oppression of the Scots, was anxious to engage with him; but the Earl of Westmoreland, coming between them, received a stroke from Wallace on his steel basinet, which instantly deprived him of life. Bobert Boyd encountered the Governor of Berwick, and, after an obstinate combat, also succeeded in slaying him by a ‘straik awk-wart ye crag,’ which cutting

'Throuch all hya weid in sondyr straik ye bane.’

The English, now panic-struck, left the field to the victorious Scots, and fled back to John’s Green.

Such was the Battle of Biggar; and if Harry is at all to be credited, it was productive of most important consequences. Edward considered it prudent to return to England, without gaining the object of his expedition. Many persons of distinction came and ranked themselves under the banner of Wallace, and, in a short time after, that undaunted and inflexible patriot was chosen Warden of Scotland, at an assembly of his countrymen held at Carluke Church, then called Forest Kirk.

The spot on which the English are supposed to have had their encampment, and on which the Battle of Biggar was fought, lies to the east of the town, and comprehends what are now called the Back Well Park, the Stanehead, Guildie’s Oxgait, and the Borrow Muir. A little farther to the east is the extensive morass, then called (Bop’s Bog,’ and now Biggar Moss, a right to it having, at a later period, been conferred on the town. A small stream, which runs out of this bog, is said to have been dyed with blood on the day of the battle, and, therefore, got the name of the 1 Red Syke,’ by which it is still known. A little to the north is the hill of Bizzyberry, on which the wood called Davis Shaw is said to have been situated, on which evident traces of military works are still to be seen, and which has some parts of it associated with the name of Wallace to this day.

The story of the Battle of Biggar, as is well known, has been regarded by historians as a mere fable, and has brought down on the head of the poor Minstrel a perfect torrent of contempt and abuse. The main cause of this is, that no historian or state document of the period mentions the expedition of Edward I. which ended in the Battle of Biggar. It is stated, too, by some historians, and among others by HoLLnshed, that Edward was in France in 1297, the year in which Harry says the Battle of Biggar was fought. Now, all these circumstances do not put the Battle beyond the bounds of probability. Documents of that period, whether written by statesmen or historians, were neither very detailed nor accurate, and were often, in the course of a few years, destroyed or lost. Supposing Blind Harry's narrative to be correct, it is far from unlikely that the king was at pains, so far as he possibly could, to obliterate every trace of an expedition so disappointing to his hopes, and so damaging to his military reputation. It is not a decisive statement to say that Edward was that same year in France, because he may have gone to that country shortly after the battle was fought; and even supposing that he was the wljaoie of the year there, the details given by Harry may be perfectly correct, although he may have made a mistake as to the exact date. Several reasons might be assigned in favour of attaching credit to the Minstrel's story. The causes which are said to have led to the battle, viz., the sanguinary proceedings at Lanark, do not rest on the testimony of Harry alone. They are recorded by Fordun in his ‘Scotichronicon*’ and by Wyntoun in his 'Ckronykill of Scotland;' and are generally regarded as facts beyond all cavil or dispute.. The slaughter of Hesi-rig, Thorn, and the English garrison at Lanark, and the gathering together of the Scots, under Wallace and other competent leaders, were certainly events sufficient to rouse Edward to make a fresh inroad into Scotland. The complete subjugation of this country was regarded by that monarch as a matter of the last importance. For the attainment of this object he had plotted and contended for years; he had held important national assemblies; he had overrun the greater part of Scotland; he had vanquished its armies.;' he had destroyed or carried off the memorials of its national independence.;, he had filled its strongholds with his troops; and he had foraed its king and its barons to submit to the most bitter mortifications, and to bend before him as their lord superior. Though detachments of English troops were stationed in different parts of Scotland, it does not appear that there was at that time any concentrated force that oould effectually cope with the patriots who had banded themselves together^ In these circumstances, nothing was more likely than that Edward should again march into Scotland at the head of a large army.

It serves somewhat to confirm the statement that Edward was at Biggar, and fought a battle there* that fragments of ancient, armour, according to report,'have been repeatedly dug up in the neighbourhood of the town; and coins of his reign have been found in the adjoining fields. One of these, found on Gum's Meadow, by Adam Wyld, Esq., Biggar, is still, in .the possession of that gentleman; and another, found some forty years ago by Mr Peter Williamson on the Borrow Muir, is now in the possession of William Ballantyne, Esq:, manufacturer, Glasgow, a native of Biggar. A few years ago, aA immense number of these coins were dug up at a spot on the sodth side of Crosscryne, about three miles from Biggar, which tradition points out as lying on the exact line of the march of the English army. That zealous antiquary, Mr Sim of Coulter, visited the spot, and he found the coins scattered about in such abundance, that he was led to entertain the opinio* that a portion of Edward’s military chest had been there deposited, either from the circumstance of a waggon breaking down, or for the purpose of concealment. As might be expected, Mr Sim has in his repositories a number of these coins, which he delights to show to his friends, as forming, it may be, a slight corroboration of the old Minstrel's narrative of the Battle of Biggar.

The details given by Blind Harry are by no means improbable. The visit of Wallace to the English camp cannot be a matter of great surprise, when we know that the Duke of Wellington, one of the most cautious of generals, was in the habit, both in Spain and France, of going alone, and in disguise, almost dose to the pickets of the enemy, to ascertain, with his own eyes, the nature of the ground, and the best modes of carrying out his movements. The disparity of numbers is, no doubt, very great; but the battle is not described as a regular engagement in the fields, but as, in the first place, an unexpected assault on the enemy’s camp, and in the second, a stand against an attack of cavalry in a bog, in both of which a small body of powerful and intrepid men might successfully oppose and overcome five or six times their own number. The removal of the booty by the Scots to a place of security, the return of the English to Biggar, and the position taken up by the Scots on a piece of ground defended by a morass, are all circumstances most likely to occur; while the nature of the ground, and the relative position of the places mentioned, are accurately described, and lend additional confirmation to the Minstrel's tale.

It is not to be denied that there is much confusion of dates, and even of statement, in Blind Harry's book. In the end he dispenses with dates altogether. His narrative, however, agrees in many points with that given by old historians, particularly by Fordun and Wyn-town; and recent researches have tended rather to establish than invalidate the events which he describes. If he tells the truth in very many respects, it is rather surprising that he should be guilty of an entire fabrication in regard to the Battle of Biggar. Harry lived at a time when, no doubt, much authentic information, both written and oral, existed regarding the career of Wallace. He refers to various works as his authorities, which unfortunately do not now exist, such as ‘ The First Line of the First Stewarts,1 ‘ Con’s Cronykle,’ and, above all, a Life of Wallace, written in Latin by his chaplain, Robert Blair, and Thomas Gray, parson of Libberton, in the neighbourhood of Biggar, and confirmed for truth by Sinclair, Bishop of Dunk eld, who had himself been a witness of many of the exploits of Wallace. These works may have borne out the Minstrel’s narrative in very many particulars. As it is evident that he was an enthusiast in the cause of his hero, he would spare no pains in collecting the stories

then current regarding his achievements. He mentions several parties who had supplied him with facts, particularly Wallace of Craigie, and the Laird of Iiddle. His own declaration regarding his book bears such an appearance of simplicity and candour, that it would almost satisfy an inveterate sceptic of his entire sincerity in the narrative which he has given.

‘All worthy men yat redys yis rurall dyt,
Blaym nocht ye buk set I be unperfyt.
I suld haive thank, sen I nocht trawaill spard,
For my labour na man hecht me reward.
Na charge I had off king or oyir lord,
Gret harm I thocht hyB gud deid sold be smored.
I haiff said her ner as ye process gais,
And fenzied nocht for freindschip nor for fais.’

We have no intention to stand up and implicitly maintain that a battle, with all the incidents detailed by Blind Harry, actually took place at Biggar; but, at the same time, we have little doubt that in these unsettled times some engagement or another was fought at this place, on which the narrative of the Minstrel was, in a great measure, founded.


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