We hear a lot about Scottish independence today. There had been a Kingdom of the Scots since Kenneth MacAlpin (Cionnaith mac Ailpin) in the 9th century. But Scotland in the 12th century did not exist as we would know it and was certainly not a unified state. Lowland Scotland was very much part of the Norman world. Many of its aristocrats were of Norman descent and some, including the King of the Scots, had lands in England. The French-speaking elite squabbled amongst themselves and theoretically ruled over a population that spoke Scots in the Lowlands and Gaelic in the Highlands. Government of the Highlands, however, still relied on kinship and the rule of the clan chiefs. The Western Isles, Orkneys and Shetland were ruled by the King of Norway. The Scots held the Norwegians off at the Battle of Largs (nice little town, good ice-cream parlour) in 1263 and, three years later, the Western Isles (and the Isle of Mann) became Scottish. Meanwhile, to the south lay a larger and very powerful neighbour – England.
In theory, the boundaries between England and Scotland had been settled in 1237 by the Treaty of York. This didn’t stop both sides raiding each other’s border areas. But the stakes were raised, far beyond a bit of sheep stealing, by Edward I of England – because he had a dream of a unified island of Britain which, naturally, would be ruled by the King of England. You could say that Edward was the father of Scottish (and Welsh) nationalism; he became known as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’. However, a total absence of unity and purpose amongst the Scots helped a lot too.
Edward had managed to engage his son (the future Edward II) to the infant heiress to the Scottish throne, Margaret. This would have joined the two kingdoms by marriage. But Edward’s plans were thwarted when Margaret, known to history as ‘the Maid of Norway’ (because she was the daughter of the King of Norway and the last of the Scots House of Canmore), died in 1290 at the age of four. This put the Scots nobility into a bit of a fankle: who should rule? It boiled down to two main contenders – Robert Bruce of Annandale and John Balliol (both of whom were aristocratic Normans, incidentally). The Scots asked Edward, as the most powerful lord in Britain, to arbitrate; and, in 1292, he chose Balliol.
Some say that Balliol was a mere puppet of Edward’s. But when Edward made it clear that he expected Scots support for his wars in France (he was a busy chap, was Edward), Balliol allied himself with the French. Furious, Edward invaded in 1296, massacred the inhabitants of Berwick, decisively defeated Balliol in battle at Dunbar, took him prisoner and, for good measure, pinched the Stone of Destiny on which the Kings of the Scots had been traditionally crowned (it was returned 700 years later). There was no King of Scotland, the Scottish nobility paid homage to Edward and the Scots were for all practical purposes under English rule.
Mel Gibson, famously played by Sir William Wallace in the movie, led a rebellion and defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. But his army was routed a year later at Falkirk and Wallace (or Gibson) went into hiding. Eventually, he was betrayed and captured in 1305. Taken to London, he was found guilty of treason (despite having no allegiance to the English crown) and hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield. A memorial stands near the spot today.
The Bruce family (de Bruis) had supported Edward’s invasion of 1296. But young Robert the Bruce allied himself to Wallace and, murdering his rival, John Comyn, along the way, managed to get himself crowned King of Scotland in 1306. Death near Carlisle thwarted Edward’s personal ambitions (well it would, wouldn’t it?) and the mantle passed to his somewhat disengaged and allegedly damp son, Edward II. For years, Bruce fought a guerrilla campaign against the English and other Scots, gradually building his power base until Edward II couldn’t ignore him any longer. A massive English army was assembled to relieve the garrison at Stirling Castle, which Bruce’s brother (another Edward) had under siege. In the shadow of the castle, close to the Bannock Burn, Robert the Bruce’s force roundly defeated the much larger English army on a June day in 1314. Rumour has it that the English didn’t stop running until they got to Dunbar.
Bannockburn effectively sealed Scottish independence, but Bruce drove the point home by a series of raids into northern England. Scottish independence was recognised by the Pope through the Declaration of Arbroath in 1324 and by the new English King Edward III under the Treaty of Northampton in 1328. Subsequently, Edward III decided he’d signed the treaty under duress and invaded Scotland in 1333. And the Scots and English were frequently at odds over the centuries; but the fact is that under Bruce Scotland became “separate in all things from the Kingdom of England.” And it stayed that way until a Scottish King became King of England in 1603.