At the battle of Falkirk in 1298, William Wallace (aka "Brave Heart") abandoned the guerrilla tactics that served him so well at Stirling Bridge, and adopted a strong, but "conventional" defensive position featuring formations of spearmen. The Scots were outnumbered two to one, and were badly beaten by the English "combined arms" of cavalry, archers, and pikemen.

One can dismiss this as a "mistake" except that Robert Bruce adopted (superficially, at least) somewhat similar tactics against similar two to one odds at Bannockburn in 1314 and won.

Was there something in the terrain at Bannockburn that made a decisive difference compared to Falkirk? For instance, the marshy ground around Bannockburn (and Stirling Bridge) may have proved more of an obstacle to English cavalry than at Falkirk?

Also, long bowmen apparently made the difference in favor of the English at Falkirk (and later against France in the 100 Years' War), but not at Bannockburn. Why would that be?

Finally, is it true that the Scottish "camp followers" that the English despoiled on their way to Bannockburn formed an "army" of sorts (Pat Buchanan's "peasants with pitchforks"), and hit the English from behind, or at least threatened their supply train while they were facing main the Scots army under Bruce?

  • Bowmen quality varied and weather could well have played a part. Dec 12, 2011 at 16:07
  • @Sardathrion: That's a good start. Can you expand that into an answer?
    – Tom Au
    Dec 12, 2011 at 16:27
  • Swamp theory definitely sounds plausible. As Sun Tzu said, "location, location, location". Or his real estate agent said it.
    – DVK
    Dec 12, 2011 at 16:34
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    Given the first half of that sentence, "took the English in the rear" may not be the best way to phrase things...
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 19, 2013 at 14:52
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    @PieterGeerkens: Why don't you post an answer based around that relevant observation? Comments are "second class citizens" on this site.
    – Tom Au
    Dec 3, 2013 at 2:33

2 Answers 2


Like most battles, the results of those at Falkirk and Bannockburn depended on the fortunes and momentum of war.

At Falkirk, for instance, the initial English cavalry charge didn't do much against the schiltrons (circles) of spearmen, but it slaughtered Scots archers placed wrongly between (instead of inside) the schiltrons. Thus, the Welch archers, which deployed IMMEDIATELY after the cavalry, could do so without interference from Scots archery.

The archers caused relatively few casualties, but in doing so, they administered "shock" to the Scottish schiltrons. The English cavalry reformed IMMEDIATELY after their first repulse and led the charge, thirsting for revenge, with the English infantry right behind. Because of their 2- to-1 numerical advantage, plus everything that had gone on before, the English were (barely) able to break the Scots schiltrons.

In the end, both sides suffered 2,000 physical casualties, but the more numerous English could absorb them better in what had become a battle of attrition. Does Grant's use of attrition tactic support his reputation as a general?

At what point do armies tend to break?

At Bannockburn, the English attack did NOT go like clockwork. The first cavalry charge was ineffective, the English archers in the second wave deployed slowly and piecemeal (and were ultimately scattered by a Scots cavalry charge), and the Scots counterattacked downhill against the crowded English army on a narrow front. This occurred because the Scots had "mined" the better terrain around Bannockburn (by digging potholes), thereby forcing the English to use marshy ground unsuited for cavalry, and also did a better job of protecting their archers than at Falkirk. Finally, an attack on the English rear by despoiled camp followers was wholly unexpected by either the English or the Scots.

Put another way, the English were at the "top of their game" at Falkirk, while the Scots were at the "top of their game" at Bannockburn. The Scots had learned a few lessons from Falkirk, the English had "unlearned" everything that had brought them victory earlier. In a sense, the result at Falkirk had paved the way for Bannockburn. Therefore, two (superficially) similar battles at similar odds and two very different results.

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    @Sardathrion: "Combined arms" is tricky. That's why I had trouble getting the answer the "first time."
    – Tom Au
    Dec 15, 2011 at 14:09
  • And Scottish cavalry left Falkirk without much fighting, while in Bannockburn they defended the flank against British archers. That's a HUGE difference.
    – Brasidas
    Oct 4, 2016 at 22:22

Note just bowmen...

The quality of archers, their training, and their equipment did vary. Inexperienced bowmen would be of very little use on the battle field and could even be a hindrance to the side employing them -- friendly "fire" really is not.

Bows, as anything made of wood, is sensitive to the weather. Scotland is well known for their rains, cold winds and general miserable weather. It is possible (although I have no real references) that leading to the battle of Bannockburn, the weather was so bad that the bows were of little use.

As is true of many battles, the morale of the troupes, their training and supplies did play a major role. However, I am no expert in those particular battles so could be wrong.

  • +1 for hypothesizing that the effectiveness of bowmen varied from battle to battle. May explain why the Mongol bowmen were so effective in dry central Asian territory, less so once they reached Europe.
    – Tom Au
    Dec 12, 2011 at 17:02
  • @Tom - Compound hide-sinew bows are much more efficent than yew long bows - but they stop working when they get cold or wet.
    – none
    Dec 13, 2011 at 4:20
  • Don't the strings also become less effective in the rain or cold? I forget when they were made of catgut, or what the English used, but much of what I read about archers is that the strings were also affected by weather conditions.
    – MichaelF
    Dec 14, 2011 at 15:12
  • Eastern bows used sinew north/western european bows used hemp or flax. Again sinew works best nearer body temperature than at a cold wet scottish battle
    – none
    Dec 14, 2011 at 17:04
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    @mgb I think you've got that the wrong way round. Yew long bows are more efficient that hide sinew bows but stop working when the string gets wet. Dec 11, 2012 at 12:46

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