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Late in the afternoon of June 24 1314, Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, made his last stand not far from the walls of Stirling Castle. There, Bruce’s surviving followers desperately tried to shield him from a hail of arrows from English longbows and from the charging knights of King Edward II. But before long, it was all over. Bruce fell, mortally wounded, and the dream of an independent Scottish kingdom was extinguished.
Actually, that is not what really happened that day 700 years ago. As innumerable Scottish poems, songs and stories recount, it was Bruce’s small and poorly equipped force that prevailed in the Battle of Bannockburn over a much mightier English invasion force. Full political union between England and Scotland would only be sealed four centuries later – and then not by conquest, but through the treaty, agreed by the parliaments of both nations, that created Great Britain.
History, however, was decisively rewritten when I visited Bannockburn with my 13-year-old daughter and a gaggle of her school friends for a look at the battlefield’s new visitor centre, which opened last month. One of the top attractions created by a £9m redevelopment of the centre and the nearby battlefield memorial is a computerised multiplayer game – and when we played it, joined by two middle-aged ladies on a quiet afternoon, it was Edward’s English invaders who prevailed.
This is a good time to be visiting Bannockburn. The redevelopment of the site was timed to be finished before June’s 700th anniversary of the battle. And the September 18 referendum on independence from the United Kingdom is sparking renewed interest in Scotland’s long and tangled history with England, its “auld enemy” to the south.
As the battle that more than any other secured Scottish independence, Bannockburn has long been a site of pilgrimage for the more romantic sort of nationalist. The governing Scottish National party still closes its conferences with a rousing rendition of “Scots Wha Hae” by 18th-century poet Robert Burns, an anthem that celebrates the battle as a do-or-die struggle for liberty.
Yet Bannockburn’s symbolism is not unambiguously nationalist. The campaign for independence by a now highly cosmopolitan SNP is based not on medieval memories but on promises that leaving the UK would allow the creation of a more prosperous and equitable state. Meanwhile, unionists too can point to Robert the Bruce’s victory as paving the way for the union of equals that they say has served Scotland well since 1707. Queen Elizabeth herself marked the 650th Bannockburn anniversary by unveiling the giant bronze statue of Bruce that still dominates the site.
My daughter’s friends certainly don’t seem to have fallen victim to any Bannockburn brainwashing – indeed most were worryingly vague about the details of a battle that from any perspective was a key moment in Scotland’s history. This was partly put right by the visitor centre’s introductory video, which offered an admirably neutral explanation of the battle’s context.
The rest of the displays – all in computer-generated 3D – also seemed carefully un-ideological, commemorating combatants of all ranks and highlighting the presence in Edward’s army of a rival Scottish claimant to the throne whose father had been murdered by Bruce.
The teenagers found the 3D displays impressive. A basic lesson in medieval warfare is delivered through scenes acted out by life-size figures, some firing arrows directly the visitors’ way. Anyone planning to play the battle game should pay careful attention to the relative weaknesses and strengths of cavalry and archers against the “schiltrons” of spearmen on which Bruce depended.
The game, played around a large circular screen, was the clear highlight of the trip. Players are assigned control of units from one of the armies. A battle master sets the scene and offers tactical choices. Then the players give their orders and their animated unit tries to carry them out.
Even some of our computer-savvy group found parts of the process confusing and the fog of war soon descended on the two middle-aged ladies when they found themselves leading sections of Edward’s vanguard. But it certainly gave a visceral sense of the odds against the Scots and the importance to their victory of astute tactics and inspired use of terrain.
The new centre’s focus on technology will not be to everyone’s taste. Most of the centre has to be experienced in a cinema-esque gloom through 3D glasses and there is little in the way of traditional displays. Some locals say they wish more of the £9m had been spent outside to develop and explain the wider battlefield site.
My little test group gave a firm thumbs-up, however. On the way home Benjamin, who had been cast in the role of the unfortunate Bruce, was still mulling over what could have gone wrong . . .
Mure Dickie is the FT’s Scotland correspondent.
Tickets cost £8 for children, £11 for adults; see battleofbannockburn.com