William Wallace and the siege of Dunnottar Castle

On a presumed chilly and misty morning, 4,000 English soldiers took refuge in the wooden walls and church of Dunnottar Castle off the north east coast of Scotland. Within hours all had been slain, roasted within or had leapt off the steep cliffs to their deaths.

Dunnottar Castle sits atop a rocky peninsular on the ancient road north to Aberdeen. It has been a stronghold “well fortified by nature and art” since the Early Middle Ages. So strong was the castle considered that in the 17th century it would be chosen to house the Scottish Crown Jewels.

In 1297, William Wallace, recently risen to leader of the southern rebels as the Scottish Wars of Independence raged, swept northwards in a bid to rid the lands of the forces of King Edward I. Wallace and his band of followers were intent on reaching Aberdeen whose townsfolk were suffering at the hands of the English garrison stationed there.

Wallace had already taken Forfar, Brechin and Montrose by the time they reached Dunnottar so a surprise assault was unlikely as word spread of his successes. Instead, the castle was laid under siege and sheer ruthlessness would destroy the garrison within. Some say that nobles loyal to the English cause had been summoned to Dunnottar to debate the rise of the rebels.

Dunnottar Castle
Photo by @Connormollison

The Scots troop had ridden through the Mearns (now Kincardineshire) under the ‘Banner of Scotland’ before they reached Dunnottar. The only access to the fortification was (and still is) a narrow road across a strip of land joining the headland to the mainland.

The rebellion force showed no mercy, and despite protestations from the Bishop of Dunkeld to spare the lives of those at Dunnottar, Wallace and his troop burned the fortification and its church to the ground. Many had taken refuge within the chapel in the hope no destruction would take place upon the consecrated ground.

Why was there such devastation of an English garrison who had taken the castle just a year earlier? Dunnottar was the strongest fortification in the land after all. Perhaps the troops stationed there were unfamiliar with the best way to defend this rocky outpost. It was said that Dunnottar housed hidden escape tunnels. Perhaps they were too concealed for the besieged to locate them. Or perhaps the English simply became trapped and overwhelmed by a Scottish force said to be out to avenge the atrocities of the Barns of Ayr.

Perhaps though, there never was such a number of Plantagenet men there in the first place. The accounts of the siege of Dunnottar rely much on the later musings of poet Blind Harry who did much for the romantic legend of William Wallace.

Dunnottar Castle
Photo by @Connormollison
Dunnottar Castle
Photo by @Connormollison

Nevertheless, in his 15th-century epic, and perhaps inventive poem, “The Wallace”, Blind Harry writes this wonderfully emotive account:

Therefore a fire was brought speedily

Which burnt the church, and all those South’ron boys

Out o’er the rock the rest rush’d great noise

Some hung on craigs, and loath were to die

Some lap, some fell, some flutter’d in the sea

And perish’d all, not one remain’d alive.

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