The Battle of Rosslyn

One of Scotland's best-known visitor attractions is the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel.

Bruce Alexander, CEO of Xeroshield and a tenant at Roslin BioCentre recently conducted research on another significant site in Roslin of which few of us were aware The Battle of Rosslyn.

Roslin is the site of one of the most important battles of the Scottish War of Independence and a pleasant walk from the science park with some of our labs overlooking the site of the battlefield itself. A monument cairn erected by the Roslin Heritage Society at the end of last century, marks the site of the Battle of Roslin which took place on February 24th, 1303.

Following the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Falkirk, the country was occupied by English forces led by Sir John de Segrave. While commander of Edinburgh Castle, de Segrave met and fell in love with a local beauty, Lady Margaret Ramsey of Dalhousie. Unfortunately for him, Lady Margaret's choice was Sir Henry St. Clair of Rosslyn, who had already participated in the first battle of the War of Independence when a Scottish army led by William Wallace annihilated the English at Stirling Bridge.

When Sir Henry and Lady Margaret were betrothed late in 1302, de Segrave was incensed. From his base in Carlisle he wrote a letter to Edward I requesting permission to invade Scotland, a request quickly and no doubt happily granted by the "Hammer of the Scots". In mid-February 1303 an army of 30,000 soldiers crossed the border under the cover of darkness, the Scots only becoming aware of their presence when they descended on Melrose. Segrave then split the army into three: one group was charged with attacking Borthwick Castle near Gorebridge, the second was to besiege Lady Margaret's home of Dalhousie Castle and the third, led by de Segrave himself, was launched against Rosslyn and the object of his jealous rage, Sir Henry St. Clair.

The invaders' progress was swift and it was only thanks to the efforts of Abernethy, the Cistercian prior of Mount Lothian (at Balantradoch, now the village of Temple), that the alarm was raised and a Scottish army assembled. A former Templar knight himself, Prior Abernethy sent monks on horseback to find the men who led the resistance at the time. Together they mustered an army of common people 8,000 strong at Biggar and set off to meet the invaders. Sir William Wallace appears to have refused to take command of the army, perhaps lacking confidence in his own ability to lead after the defeat at Falkirk. Sir John Comyn (a leading contender for the vacant throne of Scotland) was elected as overall commander and Sir Symon Fraser as leader of the army. The hastily-assembled forces then moved north via Carlops and by the evening of February 23rd had assembled in Bilston Wood, ready to strike.

Prior Abernethy's local knowledge was put to good use as the Scots encircled the first contingent of the English army on an embankment of the River Esk in the early hours of February 24th. Segrave was among those captured for ransom. Most survivors who escaped into the woods of Roslin Glen were ambushed and slaughtered but a few managed to alert the second group, besieging Dalhousie Castle under the command of Sir Ralph de Confrey.

The English army immediately rode to face the Scots, now positioned in a defensive line across the summit of Langhill, the slope immediately to the west of the present-day Roslin BioCentre. Charging up the hill, they were picked off by Scottish archers and driven back across the field towards a ravine. The slaughter was such that the area became known as "Shinbanes Field", five cartloads of bones being removed by farmworkers for reburial as late as the 19th century. The quiet little stream at the foot of the hill that ran red with blood is still known as the Killburn, the forest as Hewan ("Hewing") Wood and a ridge where huge numbers of bodies piled up and were left to rot as "Stinkin' Rig". The English army was driven towards a precipice and slaughtered, Ralph de Confrey being among the dead.

This second battle had scarcely ended when news came of the arrival of the third contingent, prompting the murder of all English prisoners too low-born to be ransomed. Exhausted, the Scots army rested on high ground above the River Esk at Montmarle, where a monument to the battle was erected in 1994 (opposite Dryden farm, at the edge of what was the original site of The Roslin Insititute).

After winning two battles in the space of a few hours, the soldiers must have doubted their ability to prevail in a third but once again the ingenuity of Prior Abernethy saved the day. As the finale to a stirring speech he bade the tired soldiers look towards the Pentland Hills where a band of hard-working Cistercian monks under the prior's instructions had erected a huge canvas saltire, a silver cross on a blue background shining in the late afternoon sun to inspire them to one last effort. Approaching along the valley from Borthwick Castle via Rosewell, the remaining English forces under Sir Richard Neville were defeated and the Battle of Rosslyn finally won.

The numerical difference between the two armies had been countered by the Scots' knowledge of the terrain, Wallace's tactical skills and de Segrave's misguided decision to split his huge army into three groups, each about the same size as the Scottish forces.

Despite being one of the most decisive victories ever recorded by a Scottish army, featuring our national hero and incited by a romantic contest for the heart of a beautiful woman, the battle rarely features in history books and few residents of this area know anything about it. Rosslyn did not decide the outcome of the War of Independence and Scotland faced another 11 years of conflict which could explain such an omission.

Comyn was later stabbed to death by Bruce in Dumfries during a quarrel that led to the latter assuming the leadership of the Scottish resistance and his eventual victory at Bannockburn. Wallace and Symon Fraser were both captured by the English within two years of the battle and hung, drawn and quartered. Despite being the undoubted architect of victory, Prior Abernethy's titanic efforts on that February day were largely forgotten while de Segrave was sent back to England to face the fury of Edward Longshanks and take responsibility for a defeat resulting from his pride, jealousy and poor leadership (he survived and returned to Scotland to fight at the Battle of Bannockburn, where he was captured and ransomed a second time). And Sir William St. Clair got the girl!

By Bruce Alexander (Xeroshield), tenant at Roslin BioCentre