On 30 November 1335, two armies fought in the forests of Mar. The battle of Culblean was a notable event of the Second Scottish War of Independence (1332-57) as the victories of Robert the Bruce faced being overturned.
While 30 November was the feast day of St Andrew, Scotland’s national saint, it was also the anniversary of a somewhat forgotten battle from the Scottish Wars of Independence. The battle of Culblean took place long after William Wallace, Stirling Bridge, and Bannockburn, and even after the death of Robert the Bruce. Scotland’s status as an independent kingdom, and even the dynasty which ruled over it, was under threat once more. And Culblean was something of a turning point in the conflict taking place at this time.
The Second Scottish War of Independence
The Second Scottish War of Independence (1332-57) commenced only four years after peace between England and Scotland had been agreed in 1328, and three years after the death of Robert I. At its heart were issues which remained unresolved from the previous conflict. Primarily, this was a fight between those Scots who had lost out during the first war (1296-1328), and the supporters of Robert the Bruce’s young son, David II, who succeeded his father. The Disinherited – a group of Scottish, Anglo-Scottish and English nobles who had lost their lands for opposing Bruce – returned to Scotland to seek the return of their possessions.
Led by Edward Balliol – son of King John of Scotland (r. 1292-96) – they were set on a course that would overturn the Bruce settlement, return the Balliol dynasty to the throne, and resume lordship over ancestral territories that had been granted to Bruce supporters. This was a return to civil war in Scotland that had plagued Robert the Bruce’s reign from the point at which he had his political rival, John Comyn, murdered in a church in 1306.
Bruce’s need to defeat his Scottish enemies before attacking the English, and the rebellion against him in 1320 – the same year that the Declaration of Arbroath was written – demonstrates that not all Scots supported him. And those who did not need only await the king’s death to take advantage of the disruption that would follow.
So, in 1332, the Disinherited invaded Scotland by sea. Landing in Fife, they made headway and won a battle at Dupplin Moor, near Perth. Balliol was crowned King Edward of Scotland and he set about making his kingship a reality. But Bruce supporters remained, and while they suffered reverses, they succeeded in ambushing King Edward at Christmas 1332 and chased him from Scotland. Edward fled to England and requested the aid of King Edward III. The English king was happy to oblige, and it is from 1333 that the war once again became an Anglo-Scottish affair. Battlefield success for the two Edwards at Halidon Hill, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, scattered the Bruce opposition, and allowed the Disinherited to reclaim their lands. And much of Southern Scotland was handed over to Edward III as reward for his assistance.
David Strathbogie, the Siege of Kildrummy, and the Battle of Culblean
One of the major figures who returned to his ancestral lands was David Strathbogie. Son of the man who abandoned the Scots on the eve of Bannockburn, young Strathbogie claimed his father’s earldom of Atholl. More than this, however, he claimed the territories of his grandfather, John Comyn of Badenoch, the victim of Bruce’s murderous actions in 1306.
These included Lochaber and Badenoch, as well as territories in northeast Scotland. And Strathbogie appears to have been successful in spreading his influence over this region. Some of this was done at the point of the sword. Some of it was a result of the Bruce collapse and the power vacuum that followed. But he also appealed to those Scots who desired the return of a representative of their ancestral lords.
Although Strathbogie was forced to surrender by the Bruce Scots, and aligned with them from later 1334 to the summer of 1335, his activities either side of these dates were in support of Balliol’s kingship, as well as to advance his own territorial interests. As part of this, in late 1335, he besieged Kildrummy Castle in Mar. Leading its defence was Christina Bruce, wife of Andrew Murray, the Bruce Guardian, and the sister of Robert the Bruce. Murray rode north with an army to relieve the siege and Strathbogie responded by moving south to meet the Bruce forces.
They met in battle in the forest of Culblean. Although Strathbogie had taken up a defensive position, Bruce troops feigned indecision to tempt the Disinherited forces into attacking. This was successful, but Strathbogie’s men floundered as they struggled to cross a burn to get to their opponents. The Bruce forces took advantage of this hindrance to attack, and hand-to-hand fighting commenced.
Murray had an ace up his sleeve, however, and had led a march through the night before the battle to outflank the enemy. It was at this point that Murray and his men emerged from the trees and attacked Strathbogie’s force from the side. Faced by enemies on two sides, the Disinherited troops broke. Many fled south to Loch Kinord and sought shelter in its island castle.
Strathbogie, and those closest to him, remained and fought to the end. They were perhaps not allowed to surrender, and Strathbogie is described by one Scottish source as dying “by an oak”. At least one of his close supporters survived but was executed, presumably for treason. The forces at Loch Kinord surrendered on the following day, and Murray and his men campaigned in the northeast to ensure that this region returned to Bruce lordship. In December, they moved northwest to complete the work begun at Culblean and besieged Strathbogie’s castle of Lochindorb, in which resided his wife and young son. The siege of Lochindorb only ended the following summer when Edward III of England rode north to rescue the dowager countess of Atholl.
The Importance of Culblean
Strathbogie’s death was a major point in the conflict of the 1330s. While Balliol was not the most convincing figure, and other Disinherited lords were at times half-hearted in their attempts to reclaim their lands, the young earl of Atholl was the opposite. He was a vigorous and ultimately successful representative of the Balliol cause, and one who was seen by both sides as a necessary ally in the conflict.
His potential to control a large part of northern and northeast Scotland if he had been allowed to continue his efforts would have posed a major threat to the future of the Bruce kingship. It would also have imperilled Scotland’s independence as the Disinherited recognised English overlordship of Scotland.
The battle of Culblean was, then, an important juncture. Following it, Disinherited and English efforts proved increasingly futile. Those Scots loyal to David II rolled back Disinherited control in key regions and began the process of recapturing English-held castles. The war was far from over – it would not end until 1357 – but the battle on St Andrew’s Day marked the beginning of the Bruce recovery.