By the dawn of 1307, the 32-year-old Robert Bruce, this near mythical figure of 14th century kingship, was a desperate man.
He had committed sacrilegious murder by dispatching his principal rival, John Comyn Lord of Badenoch, a year earlier at the high altar of Greyfriars Kirk, Dumfries.
Then, Robert ensconced himself as King of Scots during a rushed inauguration ceremony at Scone Abbey with the blessing of the Scottish Kirk.
Yet, despite his desperate bid and blood right to this ancient kingdom, Bruce’s immediate luck was somewhat short-lived. Within three months, dangerously caught off guard, he was defeated at the Battle of Methven by Aymer de Valence and forced to flee.
His enemies – English and Scottish alike – were closing in on all sides.
A fugitive in his own kingdom
Taking ship in the late autumn of 1306, the new king disappeared from the records, a fugitive in his own kingdom. From his temporary self-imposed exile to the Island of Rathlin and the Western Isles, he awaited his apparent golden ticket to recovering his crown.
If Robert was now an outcast, he had no intention of staying that way for long. He had come too far and lost too much to turn back now.
Determined to overthrow the English under the leadership of the mighty and irascible King Edward I, whose claim over Scotland since 1296 was now unrelenting and near all-consuming, King Robert’s task was both mighty and seemingly impossible.
With the English in command of large parts of Scotland following years of war – including all the strategic castles, trading ports and borders – the hope of sustained Scottish resistance and determination to restore independence was fast fading.
Yet just when fickle fortune appeared to be conspiring against him, a flicker of hope lay on the murky horizon. Even in exile, King Robert would continue to inspire loyalty.
The comeback king
The comeback would begin in earnest, but only after first redrawing the chessboard.
By deciding to overthrow the traditional and highly entrenched social rules of medieval chivalry, that famous code that tightly bound men of his noble and knightly class together both on and off the battlefield, King Robert had decided to meet fire with fire.
He was prepared to set aside his values for the greater benefit of his wider cause. After all, he had a precedent from only the year earlier, when Edward I had raised the fearful dragon banner, heralding to his knights not to give quarter to the English king’s enemy.
It was an unusual and highly controversial command and one designed to overawe. The King of Scots, desperate and in need of changing the odds in his favour, had little choice if he was to prevail.
A combination of guerrilla warfare, scorched earth and lighting raids on his enemies, both English and Scottish, would now become Robert’s long-term devoted modus operandi, employed to ruthless affect.
A catalytic presence
With the game plan set, he and his modest yet loyal band of brothers set sail in rough winter seas, the king landing at the Isle of Arran that February.
His mere presence proved catalytic.
It was not long before other disgruntled Scots, despite their fear of English retribution, began to join his banner. By April he had won a small victory in a skirmish at the steep sided loch at Glen Trool, which bolstered his reputation as well as his numbers.
By May, buoyed by the fruits of his new policy, Robert decided to take the fight to one of the King of England’s key commanders in Scotland, Aymer de Valence, who was soon to be Earl of Pembroke and later a pivotal character in the troubled reign of Edward II.
It was to be a showdown between Titans; a fugitive king bent on reclaiming Scotland’s right to govern herself, and the commander who had in recent years fought bitterly against it.
Valence had won at Methven, and to boot, was a Comyn relative by marriage: he wanted revenge for his murdered brother-in-law.
The Battle of the Titans
King Robert, now with 600 men, moved a few miles east of Kilmarnock, selecting the advantageous position at Loudoun Hill, where he positioned his troops on the side of the valley below a jagged tooth-like crag of rock that dominated the area.
He of course chose wisely, for below his position, on either side of the hill, the land was boggy, negating the possibility of a cavalry charge aimed at encircling his men.
English cavalry had time and again proven their value in battle dominating the field, and with Robert’s men constrained to foot soldiers, lightly armoured and fleet of foot, they faced the very real danger of being trodden under the hooves and cut down by the lances of the highly-skilled English war machine.
If Valence and his knights were to reach them, Robert having no cavalry himself, the English horse would have to narrow their charge and funnel into the Scottish lines in order to avoid becoming swamped in the marshy ground – if they knew it was marshy at all.
By using the terrain to his advantage, Robert immediately took the advantage over the superior numbers of his enemy. It was a shrewd and calculated move, which highlighted his finely tuned and astute strategic mind.
The trap was set, all it now needed was a spring. To further combat the cavalry risk, the king and his captains ordered that three trenches be dug and camouflaged, while they themselves would muster their men just behind the lines, acting as bait.
They did not have to wait long.
The trap was sprung
When Valence arrived, sensing the possibility of a quick and complete victory, he deployed his vanguard cavalry in the expected way. Their horses thundered across the field only to flounder in the marshes and the deep dug trenches, allowing the Scots to pile in and slaughter them en-masse.
The trap was sprung. Seeing the unfolding massacre of the vanguard, the rear lines, not yet engaged in the meleé, took flight, instantly depriving Aymer of the opportunity to regroup.
Highly frustrated, Valence had no alternative but to flee himself, heading for the safety of Bothwell Castle, leaving up to 100 knights dead in the field and many foot soldiers.
Through strategic planning and knowledge of the terrain, King Robert had taken a huge gamble and secured a telling victory, while at the same time breaking the perceived invincibility of the English regime.
The following month, the great aged leopard himself, King Edward I, was dead at Burgh-by-Sands, killed by dysentery. He left a troubled kingdom both itching for reform and heavily in debt to his son, King Edward II.
The onward struggle
It would be a further seven years before King Robert would commit to another open battle with the English, fighting and winning the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
He still preferred years of guerrilla warfare, which obscured his numbers and amplified his efforts. It remained his most successful military tactic.
Yet, despite defeating Edward II in the field, Robert did not secure his kingdom, the King of England instead successfully labouring for Robert’s spiritual excommunication, while his lands were placed under the harsh penalty of Interdict.
It would take a full 21 years after Robert’s victory at Loudoun Hill for him to secure English recognition of the legitimacy of his rule and the independence of the Scottish nation.
This would only happen after the deposition of Edward II himself, so doggedly determined was the King of England to prevent it.
It is perhaps unsurprising, that throughout and because of this very journey, Robert rightly remains champion of that nation to this very day.
Stephen Spinks is the author of Robert the Bruce: Champion of the Nation, a work which assesses the complexities of Robert’s character. This is Stephen’s latest book and will be published on 15 December 2019, by Amberley Books.