History | Culture | Ancestry
One thing that is always so striking about Scotland is that you can barely turn a stone without finding an interesting story. It really is apparent that Scotland’s landscape is full of rich history and we often pass over it without realising everything that came before us on that exact location.
I mention this because during a recent weekend drive into Argyll I noticed a sign pointing to a place named ‘Dalrigh’. Now, knowing a tiny bit of the old language, I realised that this name means ‘Field of the King’. The Gaels rarely let you down when it comes to naming conventions and I thought there must be some significance to the location. There is, for example, another ‘Dail Righ’ on the island of Kerrera, near Oban, which refers to the location in which Alexander II is said to a have died while travelling North to attack the Norwegians.
On investigating the location further it turns out that Dalrigh was not always an isolated and uneventful corner of Argyll. More than 700 years ago it was the location of the Battle of Dalrigh, one of the major battles of the Wars of Scottish Independence. The battle took place in 1306, between Robert the Bruce and John MacDougall, who had allied his clan to Bruce’s rival, John Comyn.
In the years leading up to 1306, Scotland had been experiencing a civil war and repeated English invasions over who had the right to rule the kingdom. Aside from King Edward I of England, who claimed authority over Scotland, John Comyn and Robert Bruce were the figureheads of the two competing families for the crown within Scotland itself. After an uneasy truce between the factions, Bruce murdered Comyn in 1306 and soon afterwards crowned himself King of Scotland. This in turn led to the resumption of the civil war, with Clan MacDougall coming to the aid of the Comyn family, who they were bound to by marriage.
Later in 1306, Bruce’s army was almost entirely destroyed by an English force at the Battle of Methven, near Perth. The few hundred survivors retreated towards Comrie, then into the hills toward Crianlarich, all the while being pursued by Aymer de Valence and his English Army.
Bruce and his army made their way through the narrow pass at Strath Fillan, where they were met just south of Tyndrum by a force of MacDougalls. Unable to retreat back down the glen because of the pursuing English, Bruce’s unprepared and outnumbered army had no choice but to fight the MacDougalls and to hope they could escape the trap.
Little is known about how the battle played out, with available sources such as John Barbour’s epic narrative poem ‘The Brus’ providing an unashamedly one sided interpretation of Robert the Bruce’s actions.
The generally accepted version of the battle states that the two armies met somewhere on, or near, what is now the field at Dail Righ. What we do know with certainty is that Bruce’s force was quickly defeated and Barbour’s account claims that both Gilbert Hay and Sir James Douglas, two of Bruce’s most loyal commanders, were wounded during the fighting. A retreat ensued amongst Bruce’s army, and they were pushed back across the river Fillan at a point named Ath Chonachar (Chonachar’s Ford), supposedly named after a piper named Chonachar who was killed at that location during the retreat.
At one point during the retreat, Bruce found himself in a perilous rear guard action, isolated and attacked by three MacDougalls. The fact that Bruce even found himself confronted alone in this way alludes to a desperately serious situation, not only for Bruce and his immediate followers, but the entire cause of Scottish Independence. It was recorded that Bruce was trapped in a narrow location, an area in which he couldn’t turn his horse. This location is generally assumed to be near Lochan nan Arm. However, due to his skills at arms, Bruce managed to kill his three attackers and join the remnants of his army in escaping.
As an interesting side note this incident, Clan MacDougall is currently in possession of the Brooch of Lorn, which they claim was ripped from Bruce’s cloak when he was confronted by the three MacDougalls at the Battle of Dalrigh. It’s certainly a nice folk story but it doesn’t necessarily match the available evidence. Subsequent studies have shown that the Brooch of Lorn can be accurately dated to between 1550-1575, but may still have been a replacement for the previous brooch that was taken from from Bruce in 1306.
Barbour describes Bruce as directing a relatively organised and ordered withdrawal of his forces, thus preventing a total rout and slaughter of his men. This may or may not have been true, but as Barbour’s far from impartial account of the battle is basically our only source of information, we will never know with certainty. A slightly contradictory piece of folklore relating to the battle states that in the rush to retreat from the oncoming MacDougalls, Bruce’s men threw their weapons into a nearby loch, hence the loch receiving the name of Lochan nan Arm or in English, Loch of the Weapons.
Bruce’s army was basically destroyed as an organised unit after the battle. He became a fugitive hiding in the mountains before he received assistance from Angus Óg MacDonald of Islay, chief of Clan Donald. However, Bruce had an astonishing turn in fortunes and just two years after the catastrophe at Dalrigh, he managed to reassemble an army and defeat the MacDougalls at the Battle of the Pass of Brander in 1308. He continued the war against England and managed to secure a peace treaty 20 years later, just one year before he died in 1329.
The major caveat to this entire post is that none of the details of the battle are confirmed by primary sources. Nothing is known for certain and all of the interpretation relies on what has survived though local place names, folklore, and histories written decades, and even centuries after the battle. John Barbour’s poem ‘The Brus’ is the main source of information on the battle but it was written some 70 years after it took place. Barbour is also known for his creative license in describing historical events and unfortunately he had a habit of never outlining specific information regarding the locations of battlefields.
With that in mind we can at least surmise roughly where the battle took place using what descriptions we do have, and the survival of Gaelic place names in the area. Gaelic is important in this regard because Gaelic place names generally describe the location to which they have been attached. It can therefore be concluded that either due to direct experience of the battle, or through local folklore, someone who lived in the area was certain that Dalrigh was the exact location of the battlefield and gave it that name accordingly. Similarly, the naming of Lochan nan Arm and Ath Chonachar after events that took place during the battle suggests that the local population had good reasons to believe that these otherwise unnoteworthy geographic features had significance in relation to the battle.
In terms of the more specific movements of the battle, any number of variations could be correct. The battle may have been an ambush rather than beginning in neat lines of battle, it may have been fought further up or down the glen and may have started north or south of the river Fillan – we can never know with certainty. The account traditionally accepted from folklore is certainly plausible and there are plenty of good reasons to accept that the battle happened in more or less the way described above. As is so often the case with Scottish history, the conclusive facts remain frustratingly elusive due to the long passage of time.
The Battlefield Since 1306
The Battle of Dalrigh may not have been the last time in which a Bruce Army was at Dalrigh, his forces may have gone over the same ground on their way to the Battle of the Pass of Brander, which took place about 20km to the West, near Ben Cruachan in 1308.
In more recent centuries, Rob Roy McGregor, dressed as a beggar, was said to have helped a party of Englishman across the ford of Ath Chonachar before ambushing them and stealing their weapons at Crianlarich. Following the Jacobite uprisings, a British Government military road was constructed near Dalrigh by the Anglo-Irish soldier Major William Caulfield between 1749-1750.
In 1884, an article appeared in the monthly periodical ‘The Celtic Magazine’ in which the author, Alexander McBain recounts his conversations with a former resident of the Strath Fillan area, Duncan McLean. As a boy McLean had been a shepherd at the farm of Auchreoch near to the battlefield and had seen a number of stone obelisks on Dail nan Geoichein (see map above). McLean claimed that the obelisks were removed around 1840 when improvements were made to the farmland by a local tenant named Hugh Christie. One obelisk was described as being as tall as a man, while there were a number of other small stone markers. McBain theorised that the obelisks were burial markers of some sort, erected by the MacDougalls at an unspecified point in time to mark the location of mass graves related to the battle.
McBain was curious to know what had happened to the stone obelisks and he visited Dail nan Geoichein with McLean, who showed him the exact location that they once stood. True to the story, McBain and McLean found two of the stone markers dumped in the nearby River Fillan. The largest of the obelisks was never found and was possibly destroyed.
The Battlefield Today
Dalrigh is easily accessible today and most of the locations associated with the battle are still identifiable, even after the passage of more than 700 years. The West Highland Way passes literally over the battlefield, while Dalrigh is also accessible by car from the A82 between Crianlarich and Tyndrum, about 1.5 hours from Glasgow. There is a small car park and bed-and-breakfast nearby.
As one final point, why is there barely a sign, marker or commemorative cairn to mark what was one of the most important battles of the Wars of Independence? We have to settle for a rather drab stone seat that doesn’t exactly remind you that two important figures of Scottish history, King Robert I and The Black Douglas, had fought a major battle at that location. I appreciate that because of finite resources, money is poured into the ‘big ticket’ visitor centres like Culloden and Bannockburn, but at the very least I think all other battlefields deserve at least sort of basic recognition and much more comprehensive legislation that protects them from development.