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The old Bannockburn Heritage Centre closed on 31 October 2012 for demolition, though the site remains open as before. The old visitor centre has been replaced by a temporary exhibition space nearby, while a new visitor centre is built. This is expected to open to the public in Spring 2014, in time to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the battle. This page will be updated once the new centre is open, but in the meantime remains as written before the old one closed. On the southern edge of Stirling is the Bannockburn Heritage Centre, run by the National Trust for Scotland. Here, and in the neighbouring parkland, Scotland commemorates, and to a degree celebrates, what most people view as the most significant victory won by Scotland over an invading English army.
The general background to the Battle of Bannockburn is clearly established. Robert the Bruce, or Robert I, crowned himself King of Scotland in March 1306. He then spent a number of years seeking to consolidate his hold on power in the face of the largely ineffectual efforts of Edward II of England and, initially at least, the much more dangerous opposition of his Scottish enemies.
By November 1313, Robert's long and brilliant campaign as a guerilla leader meant that the English controlled only one stronghold in Scotland, Stirling Castle, and this was under siege by forces led by Robert's brother, Edward Bruce.
Without Robert's knowledge, Edward made a deal with the English Constable of the castle that if an English army had not arrived to relieve the castle by 24 June 1314, the castle would surrender, so making an aggressive siege unnecessary. Robert was not happy: he was deliberately avoiding the head on confrontation with an English army his brother's deal had now made unavoidable.
Edward II of England hastened to assemble an army of some 20,000: probably the largest English army (of many) to invade Scotland. They gathered in Berwick on 10 June 1314 and headed north. Late in the afternoon of Sunday 23 June the vanguard of the English army arrived at the ford over the Bannock Burn, a couple of miles south of Stirling. On the far side a Scottish army of some 7,000 awaited them.
The English attacked immediately, discovering to their cost that the Scots had placed concealed anti-cavalry spikes across much of the area. But one knight did manage to mount a personal attack on Robert, which he fought off with an axe. A second English attack which tried to flank the Scottish forces was also repulsed.
The main battle took place the following day, on 24 June 1314, and was characterised by English knights charging against Scottish schiltrons, phalanxes of spearmen. The ground underfoot between the Bannock Burn and the River Forth was boggy and ill suited to heavy cavalry and heavily armoured knights. And in the close quarters fighting the English longbowmen were reduced to firing indiscriminately into the melee before they fled in the face of a charge by the Scottish cavalry.
This left the battle finely balanced. The tide was turned when Robert's unit of Highlanders charged, and then Robert's untrained reserves emerged from behind nearby high ground to join in, making Robert's army appear much larger than it was. The English army broke and attempted to flee. Edward II only just escaped after the battle: most of the English knights did not.
The Bannockburn Heritage Centre was built in the late 1960s, close to what was traditionally believed to be the site of the battle. But this, like much else connected with Bannockburn, is subject to a wide range of debate. The rotunda and the statue of Bruce probably do lie within the area of conflict on 23 June 1314. But opinions differ - dramatically - about the exact location of the engagements on June 24.
The Ordnance Survey map marks the battle site a mile and a half north east of the Heritage Centre. Other experts have placed it even further north east, or to the south east, or a little to the east, or... The truth is that no one knows, and the best place to explore the options is through the superb analysis of the battle on the UK Battlefields Resource Centre.
But perhaps most significantly, opinions differ about the true importance of the Battle of Bannockburn. It certainly paved the way for the Treaty of Edinburgh and Northampton in 1328, in which the Regency of Edward III renounced English claims over Scotland: albeit briefly, because Edward III overturned the treaty in 1333. English armies were to invade Scotland at intervals for another two centuries. And whatever might have been gained in 1328 was thrown away in later ill-advised adventures by Scottish kings, most notably James IV's unnecessary foray into England in 1513 in which the Scottish ruling class was effectively annihilated by the English at the Battle of Flodden.
The fact that the exact area of the main battle is so uncertain, and now probably built over by Stirling's southern expansion anyway, should not put you off visiting the Bannockburn Heritage Centre. There's a great deal here about the historical background and the battle itself. And the rotunda, memorial and magnificent statue of Bruce in the neighbouring park are very evocative. They are also in the location that did see the first action on 23 June 1314: an action that probably proved a decisive factor in raising the morale of the Scots and lowering that of the English in the larger scale engagements the following day.