The sombre and brooding site of a deep national tragedy

Friday 9th September 1513 is a day that will live forever in infamy in the psyche of the Scottish nation. On that day five hundred years ago, Scotland lost not only its King but the elite of its aristocracy and church too. It was a loss that plunged the land into turmoil and chaos for many decades afterwards, allowing the border region to become even more lawless and wild as the Border Reivers plied their craft unhindered.

By 1513 after many raids and border incursions, relations between England and Scotland had reached crisis point. Sometime in August of that year, King James of Scotland against the advice of his close advisors crossed the border with an army estimated to contain between 60,000 - 100,000 men. He attacked and took various English strongholds, demolishing them in the process.

The culmination of this invasion of England was the Battle of Flodden, which took place just outside the English village of Branxton in modern day Northumberland. It proved to be a devastating and crushing defeat for the Scots who lost around 10,000 men, compared to the English losses of around 1,000.

Today the battlefield is well preserved and much as it was back then. It is now peaceful and exists amongst cropland in a beautiful rural setting. In 1910, a large granite monument, a lonely brooding sentinel, was erected to the dead of both sides on the spot that would have formed the middle of the English lines.

I visited Flodden on Saturday 7th July 2012, during what has been one of the wettest British summers on record. Fortunately on the day of my visit, despite tumbling, leaden skies and occasional bursts of sunshine, the rain held off. The ground was sodden and boggy though from previous heavy rainfall, much as it had been on the day of the actual battle itself. I and my wife were the only people at Flodden at the time we visited, and seeing the silent battlefield laid out before us was a deeply thought provoking vista.

I could look straight down the hill from the English lines to the bottom, where most of the dreadful killing on the day of battle took place, and back up to the Scots positions on the hill opposite. It was sobering to know that so many thousands of men had died in such a confined space, all hacked to death in a frenzy of butchery and suffering. It was said that so great was the killing that the brook which runs through the low ground ran thick with blood.

Standing at the centre of the killing ground is a very reflective and sombre experience and leaves one with an immense feeling of sadness at the waste of so many lives. The nobles were fighting for their own advantage, power and potential gain. The poor ordinary foot soldier on both sides was there because he had to be and died horribly for no benefit to himself or his family. All too often in the yellowed pages of history the poor die for the benefit of the rich and powerful, and it is still as true today as it was back then.

The Scots pipe tune ‘Flowers of the Forest’ was written to commemorate the dead of Flodden and it is usually only played at funerals, being considered bad form to be played on lighter occasions. The Scottish 1513 Club from the border town of Coldstream in Scotland remember the Scots dead each year on the anniversary of the battle, their flying of the Saltire and Royal Standard at Flodden has raised some hackles, not least amongst the English. To date I have not attended on that day but I do hope there is no hint of jingoism involved from any quarter.

The anniversary of Flodden should be a respectful remembrance of the dead of both sides, who more than anything fought for their lives during what must have been a horrific, bloody and utterly terrifying experience. No war is ever glorious to those fighting and dying in the filth and squalor of battle.

There is no place for petty modern politicking, nationalism and point-scoring at the site of so much bloodshed, suffering and human tragedy, all that is required is reflection, prayer and a pipers lament for the dead.

Below are pictures of the battlefield I took on the day of my visit. Please click on the thumbnails for the larger images. For those into photography, all the images below were taken on my trusty little 14 megapixel Nikon Coolpix camera and resized in a photo editor.

The Battlefield at Flodden Field
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Arrival Arrival Monument Inscription
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Branxton Battlefield Left Battlefield Centre Battlefield Right
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Killing Ground Monument Ruins Thistles

'Flowers of the Forest'
Written for the Scots dead at Flodden Field

I've heard them liltin', at the ewe milkin,'

Lasses a-liltin' before dawn of day.

Now there's a moanin', on ilka green loanin'.

The flowers of the forest are a' wede away.

As boughts in the mornin', nae blithe lads are scornin',

Lasses are lonely and dowie and wae.

Nae daffin', nae gabbin', but sighin' and sobbin',

Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.

At e'en in the gloamin', nae swankies are roamin',

'Mang stacks wi' the lasses at bogle to play.

But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin' her dearie,

The flowers of the forest are a' wede away.

In har'st at the shearin' nae youths now are jeerin'

Bandsters are runkled, and lyart, or grey.

At fair or at preachin', nae wooin', nae fleecin',

The flowers of the forest are a' wede away.

Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,

the English for ance by guile wan the day.

The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,

The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.

We'll hae nae mair liltin', at the ewe milkin',

Women and bairns are dowie and wae.

Sighin' and moanin' on ilka green loanin',

The flowers of the forest are a wede away.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr