That’s Sir Walter Scott’s description of the battle of Flodden, and you can picture it through two hills. One is Flodden Hill, with the Scottish army of King James IV. They’ve invaded the north of England, to support their ally, France, under attack from King Henry VIII.
King James is married to King Henry’s sister, but sees him as a future threat. And now, with Henry in France, he has the reserve team to deal with.
The reserve team is led by a man James knows and likes –Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Ten years before, when Margaret Tudor came to Scotland to marry James, Surrey led her cavalcade. And when the young princess disliked the Scottish king’s red beard, it was Surrey’s wife and daughter who were permitted to crop it.
But now Surrey is old and arthritic, out of favour with King Henry and left behind to look after home defence, along with his eldest son.
So the two sides have exchanged heralds and agreed to fight on the 9th of September, and the Scots army waits on Flodden Hill.
But Surrey has shown a young man’s briskness and marched his army in a great arc to move towards the second hill – Branxton Hill. Here he can close the Scots’ route back north.
So James now must move quickly and he gets there first; and now the two sides are face to face, with the Scots on the hill and the English below.
Unbroken was the ring
The battle starts with an exchange of artillery fire – something that will become familiar over the next five centuries. When firing downhill you can overshoot, and the Scots come off worst.
So they must move from Branxton Hill, and they advance in four columns. They’re armed with long 18-foot pikes, weapons highly regarded on the continent. For success, pikemen need two things. First, speed, to force the opposition aside by sheer power. And second, they need protection on their flanks, since close-packed pikemen are an easy target for archers.
The Scottish left formed a classic attack and smashed through the English lines. But the Scottish centre hit boggy ground at the foot of the hill and were slowed. Halted and at close quarters, their pikes were useless, so they dropped them and took out swords. That shifted the balance for reach, since the English had eight-foot-long bills, which could thrust like a spear or chop like an axe.
Despite the shift in odds, the column led by the king pushed forward to within a spear’s length of Surrey. But now something terrible happened.
The advance on the left had been stemmed by the English, throwing in their cavalry reserve at just the right time. But on the right, the Scottish force of lightly armed Highlanders had been hit by a withering fire of arrows from the English archers. The collapse of the Scottish right exposed the rear as well, and now they were under attack from three sides.
Volleys from the deadly English longbows poured in from right flank and rear, while the frontline faced the thrusts and axe-blows of the English bills. The Scots fought with desperate courage and somehow held their defensive ring till nightfall. Darkness then provided an opportunity for many to escape.
In the morning, the king’s body was found under a heap of Scots dead. His son Alexander was also dead, along with 21 Scottish noblemen and many of their sons, and around 10,000 others. Of 80 men from Selkirk, only one came back home.
As fearlessly and well
Among those who died was John Reid from the county of Clackmannan, whose son Robert would one day become Bishop of Orkney. Lord Henry Sinclair of Orkney, who was master of artillery for King James, also died at Flodden. But his master gunner, Robert Borthwick, survived, and we later hear of him in Edinburgh Castle casting Bishop Maxwell’s peal of three new bells for St Magnus Cathedral.
Also surviving was Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, first Lord of Branxholme. He was still in his late teens and fought so furiously that the king knighted him on the battlefield. Some years later he would try to rescue the young King James V from the clutches of the powerful Earls of Angus, who then exiled him to Holland in 1526. The boat, possibly off course through weather, ended instead in Orkney, where he stayed for two years until the young king was able to assert his authority and welcome him back.
The evidence for Sir Walter coming to Orkney is a stone found at the farm of Redland by Eoin Scott, many years ago. A coat of arms on the stone was formally confirmed by the Lord Lyon as Sir Walter’s. The Scott family in North Ronaldsay have a story of descent from the Scotts of Buccleuch, and the Redland stone seems to confirm it.
And not only individuals survived – but, somehow, Scotland itself. There were decades of turbulence, first with James’s eighteen-month-old son left as king; and he in turn would die young and leave the infant Mary, Queen of Scots as heir. But still, the Scotland that James IV had created survived.
He built well. One way was through technology. He took the latest ideas in artillery and in ships, and built a fleet that could pound the strongholds of local chiefs like the Lords of the Isles. He commissioned Europe’s largest and most powerful ship, the Great Michael, and Lord Henry Sinclair was the captain. The Michael had twice the displacement of the Mary Rose, and although sold to the French after Flodden, it’s recently been suggested that the Michael may have been, under a new name, part of a later French attack on England which sank the Mary Rose.
James had the money to build ships like this from putting together an able team of ministers, men who could administer well and tax effectively.
He saw the potential of the new invention of printing and brought it to Scotland. He encouraged the writing of histories of Scotland, reinforcing a growing feeling of national identity.
He also encouraged Bishop William Elphinstone to get authority from the Pope – Alexander Borgia – to establish Scotland’s third university at Aberdeen. It included, for the first time in Britain, a faculty of medicine.
Each stepping where his comrade stood
In the Scottish universities in the time of King James were great scholars, men at the very forefront of European thought. One was John Mair, born near North Berwick in 1470 and a graduate of Cambridge and Paris. It was probably at Cambridge that he altered his name to one better known today in another setting – John Major. He taught in Paris at the time of a great intellectual awakening, and later came back to teach at St Andrews.
Major challenged the existing approaches of scholars with a breath of fresh air:
Has not Amerigo Vespucci discovered lands unknown to Ptolemy, Pliny and other geographers up to the present? Why cannot the same happen in other spheres?”
He had the ability to recognise key developments – such as new thinking on motion by a French philosopher, Jean Buridan. Science today tells us that any moving object keeps moving unless something slows it: steady motion is its natural state. But in daily life we’re so used to friction that we think things are more naturally at rest. That was also the classical view, which they extended up into the heavens. Aristotle argued that something had to be continuously pushing the moving planets.
Jean Buridan took a different view. He argued that once an initial impetus started a body moving, that impetus would not drain away, and the motion would only stop when something overpowered it, like air resistance or gravity.
John Major supported this view, and from one of his pupils, George Lockhart, these ideas reached Galileo.
Buridan’s ideas were also championed by another Scot, Laurence of Lindores, through whose writings they travelled on to Cracow in Poland – and Copernicus.
Linked in the serried phalanx tight
King James built the palaces of Holyrood and Falkland. He built the Great Hall of Stirling Castle and the chapel of Linlithgow Palace, where he could wake in the morning to the choir’s singing. He had trumpeters in royal red and gold, their instruments the latest from Italy. And this was the time of Scotland’s greatest composer, Robert Carver.
In 1507, when James planned a pilgrimage to Rome, Carver produced a motet of stunning beauty – in no less than 19 parts, possibly to mark the 19th anniversary of James becoming king. Carver’s music soars, with something Scottish in it like the sound of the wind in the heather.
James himself played the lute and the clarychordes (a keyboard instrument). He spoke Latin, French, German, Flemish, Italian, Spanish – and he also mastered Gaelic, regarded at the time as the language of people in a wilder land.
He loved poetry and this is the time of a great flowering of literature. Gavin Douglas translated the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid – the first translation in northern Europe. William Dunbar wrote poems ranging from elegiac sadness to glorious comedy.
In Lament for the Makaris each verse echoes the sad reflection Timor mortis conturbat me – ‘The fear of death disturbs me’ – as he names and mourns the many poets who death has taken.
He hes Blind Hary and Sandy Traill
slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
quhilk Patrik Johnestoun might nocht fle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.
And elsewhere Dunbar can switch to the gloriously inventive tale of his grandmother, Kynd Kittok, on the road to heaven and stopping at an alehouse just outside the heavenly gates, and then slipping through when St Peter wasn’t noticing. In heaven she likes looking after Our Lady’s hens, but then the sun shining on the sign of the inn tempts her back out, and there she settles down to pour the drinks and brew and bake.
This wonderful mixture of the celestial with the earthy enjoyment of daily life comes through in later poets, most notably with Burns and Tam O’ Shanter. And this ability to switch between scholarly reasoning and down-to-earth examples is something we can also find in the great poet and humanist George Buchanan.
The stubborn spearmen still made good
George Buchanan was born in 1506, in the parish of Killearn where his father, a farmer, died young, leaving the family in poverty. But in 1520 his uncle, James Heriot, sent him to the University of Paris, where he came into contact with the two great forces that were stirring up the thinking of the time – the Renaissance and the Reformation. In the years that followed he would go back and fore several times between Scotland and France.
A native speaker of Gaelic in his childhood, he became a master in Latin, both in prose and verse, and that mastery was part of his probing and critical approach to sources. He criticised the church as well and eventually joined the Protestant reformers, and back in Scotland was installed as tutor of the young Mary, Queen of Scots, and later to her son, James VI.
As professor of Latin at the College de Guyenne in Bordeaux, one of his pupils was a young boy whose father had brought him up speaking Latin as his first language. This was Michel de Montaigne who would go to become a great essayist.
Montaigne writes as a man of the world, illustrating abstract arguments by stories, from the classical or from his own experience. He’s worldly wise, some times cynical, and is regarded as the father of modern scepticism.
This is extremely important in terms of the thinking of the time. The medieval church had such huge authority that it changed the very nature of thought. You sought the truth, not by checking for yourself, but by taking the appropriate book and making the correct interpretation. The authoritative books had originally been those of the Bible, but the canon expanded through time to include various Roman and Greek authors, and particularly Aristotle. Galileo was pretty disparaging about this deference to official texts by the scholars.
These people, as far as I can see, have been brought up and nourished from the very start of their education in this opinion, namely that philosophy is and can be nothing other than continuous study of such texts of Aristotle as can be immediately collected in great numbers from different sources and stuck together to resolve whatever problem is posed. They never want to raise their eyes from these pages as though this great book of the world was not written by nature to be read by others apart from Aristotle, and as though his eyes could see the whole of posterity after him.”
And in France, René Descartes expressed similar views about the failure of the philosophy:
And that is why, as soon as my age permitted me to quit my preceptors, I entirely gave up the study of letters; and resolving to seek no other science than that which I could find in myself or the great book of the world, I employed the remainder of my youth in travel, in seeing courts and camps, in frequenting people of diverse humours and conditions, in collecting varied experience, and above all in endeavouring to draw profitable reflection from what I saw. For it seemed to me that I should meet with more truth in the reasonings which each man makes in his own affairs, and which if wrong would be speedily punished by failure, than in those reasonings which the philosopher makes in his study.”
Notice how these two powerful intellects, both brilliantly capable of abstract reasoning, are seeking to earth their arguments, to find a solid base in real life.
Galileo’s solution was to make practical tests, and for Descartes it was to doubt everything – to start not from authority and assemble the various scraps from on high, but instead build from the basement upwards, with simple and critically tested facts.
On that combined foundation was modern science built.
And where did such thinking come from? One source was the essays of Montaigne – whose own hard-bitten scepticism of authority comes from George Buchanan.
The instant that he fell
And there is another of Buchanan’s pupils who, had he lived longer, might well have anticipated Descartes – and might also have dined at Skaill House following the building of it in 1615.
This was the remarkable James Crichton, later called ‘the Admirable Crichton’, who aged ten when he went to St Andrews University, and fourteen when he graduated – and who was taught there by George Buchanan. He went on to study in Paris, and by the time he was twenty he could debate in twelve languages – from Italian to Arabic, from Slavonic to Hebrew. He went to Venice and then Padua, where he clashed with various scholars over their interpretation of Aristotle and demonstrated flaws in their mathematics.
And as Descartes would do forty years later, he joined the army to learn more of the world, and he was an expert horseman and fencer; also a talented singer and musician. But before he was 22 he was dead, stabbed in the street by a rival in romance.
Ten years later, his half-sister Marion married George Graham, who would become Bishop of Orkney and build Skaill House – which in other circumstances would have echoed to the voice of one of the greatest scholars in Europe.
And indeed, when we look back to that time, we think once more of the flowers that might have bloomed so brightly but were cut down so soon, and the sad songs of loss, at Flodden field and at other Border battles. The sad and haunting sound of The Flooers o’ the Forest is indeed an elegy for the people of a Golden Age.