Warfare of Scotland in the High Middle Ages

Warfare of Scotland in the High Middle Ages

The Scottish army of the High Middle Ages for the purposes of this article pertains to the fighting men and military systems that existed in Scotland between the death of Domnall II in 900, and the death of Alexander III in 1286, which fell before and indirectly led to the military conflict known as the Scottish Wars of Independence.

Warriors and warfare

After the "Norman Conquest" of David I, the warriors of Scotland can be classed as of two types. Firstly, the native "exercitus Scoticanus" (i.e. "Scottish army", also 'common army'); and, secondly, the "exercitus militaris" (i.e. "feudal army").

Gaelic army

The Common Army army formed the larger part of all pre-Stewart Scottish armies, but in the wider world of European (i.e. French) chivalry the feudal section was the more prestigious. The native Scots, like all early medieval Europeans, practiced organized slave-raiding, though this would seem to have disappeared by the middle of the 12th century. Presumably, they did so with each other. However, our main record of it comes from when they practised it against their Norman and pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon neighbour. John Gillingham argues that this was one of the things which made the Scots (and other Celts) particularly barbarous in the eyes of their "Frankish" neighbours, because the French had largely abandoned this form of warfare.ref|GillinghamCitation Symeon of Durham writes,

"the youths and girls, and all who seemed fit for work and toil, were bound and driven in front of the enemy, to be maid slaves and handmaids in perpetual exile. When some of the girls among these wearied ... and fell of a sudden to the ground, the place of their fall was their death also. [King] Máel Coluim regarded these things, and was turned to pity by no tears, no groans of the wretched; but instead commanded them to be further hastened on their way. So Scotland was filled with slaves and handmaidens of the English race ... and not a hamlet, not even a hut, can be found without them"ref|SlaveCitation

The Máel Coluim here was King Máel Coluim III, and this raid took place in 1070, the same year he married an Anglo-Hungarian princess called Margaret (later canonised). His saintly, continentalised Saxon wife however did not stop more of these raids against the English people. Both Symeon and the Anglo-Saxon chronicle record future raids, particularly in 1079. However, by the middle of the twelfth century, the Scots had stopped launching slave raids.

Feudal army

As with so many changes in this period, the introduction of the feudal army can be traced primarily to the reign of David I, although French and English knights were used in moderation by his older brothers. The tension which these knights produced is well recorded in contemporary sources. At the Battle of the Standard, the Gaels oppose the positioning of the French soldiers in the van of the king's army. Ailred of Rievaulx attributes this opposition to the Galwegians, but we know it was the Scottish Gaels in general, as the native spokesman is given as Máel Ísu , then the Mormaer of Strathearn and highest ranking noble in the army. Ailred reports a long speech by Robert de Brus, a former vassal of David who berates the King for betraying his people by invading Norman England with a host of Gaelic barbarians. David is nevertheless forced to give the right to the Gaels, and in the account of Ailred, this is the main reason for the Scottish defeat.ref|AilredCitation Despite this, over the next century and a half, the feudal French way of warfare took strong root in Scotland. David uses French soldiers to manage the frontier between his lands in the old Kingdom of Strathclyde and the Norse-Gaelic west, establishing what are essentially marcher lordships in Renfrew (the Stewart Lordship of Strathgryfe), Annandale (granted to Robert de Brus) and Cunningham. In the thirteenth century, French-speaking noble families, especially the Comyns, rose to the top of the Scottish nobility by taking over Mormaerdoms, such as Buchan, Menteith and Angus. By the end of the thirteenth century, such men even became Kings.

The advantage French military culture possessed was manifold. French knights used expensive suits of armour, whereas the Scots were "naked" (of armour, rather than dress). They possessed heavy cavalry, weapons such crossbows, siege engines and fortification techniques far more effective and advanced than anything possessed by the native Scots. Moreover, their culture, particularly their feudal ideology, made them reliable vassals, who because they were foreign, were even more dependent on the king. Over time, the Scots, like the English, themselves became more like the French warriors, and the French warriors adopted many of the Gaelic military practices, so that by the end of the period, a syncretic military culture existed in the kingdom.

It has been suggested that when the feudal army was destroyed at the Battle of Dunbar (1296), the Scots were dependent once again on the Gaelic army. However, Dunbar would seem to have been a clash between Scottish and Englishmen-at-arms. There is little evidence to indicate a general engagement, owing to two centuries of adaptation and the leadership of Robert Bruce, the Scottish army (both Gaelic and English-speakingFact|date=November 2007) was able to defeat the attempted takeover by the English-crown.


#, Gillingham, "The English", (2000).
#, A.O. Anderson, "Scottish Annals", pp. 92-3.
#, "ibid". , pp. 192-200.


* Anderson, Alan Orr, "Early Sources of Scottish History: AD 500-1286", 2 Vols, (Edinburgh, 1922)
* Anderson, Alan Orr, "Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers: AD 500-1286", (London, 1908), republished, Marjorie Anderson (ed.) (Stamford, 1991)
* Barrow, G.W.S., "The Anglo-Norman Era in Scottish History", (Oxford, 1980)
* Barrow, G.W.S., "Feudal Britain", (London, 1956)
* Barrow, G.W.S., "The Kingdom of the Scots", (Edinburgh, 2003)
* Barrow, G.W.S., "Kingship and Unity: Scotland, 1000-1306", (Edinburgh. 1981)
* Barrow, G.W.S., "Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland", (Edinburgh, 1988)
* Bartlett, Robert, "The Making of Europe, Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change: 950-1350", (London, 1993).
* Gillingham, John, "The Angevin Empire", (London, 1984)
* Gillingham, John, "The English in the Twelfth Century: Imperialism, National Identity and Political Values", (Woodbridge, 2000)
* Hudson, Benjamin T., "Kings of Celtic Scotland", (Westport, 1994)
* Kelly, Fergus, "Early Irish Law", (Dublin, 1998)
* Lynch, Michael, "Scotland: A New History", (Edinburgh, 1992)
* Snyder, Edward D., “The Wild Irish: A study of Some English Satires Against the Irish, Scots and Welsh,” in "Modern Philology", Vol. 17, No. 12, (Apr., 1920), p. 687-725
* Stringer, Keith J., "The Emergence of a Nation-State, 1100-1300", in Jenny Wormald (ed.), "Scotland: A History", (Oxford, 2005), pp. 38-76

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