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.
It is generally accepted 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.
According to folklore, Bruce found himself in a perilous rear guard action as his army retreated. His horse was said to have been in a narrow space where it could not easily manoeuvre and as he became isolated a small group of MacDougalls almost pulled the king from his horse. 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. Despite being almost killed or captured, Bruce used his his skills at arms to fight his way through the 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 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.
According to tradition, there are two other geographical features that may have prominence in relation to the battle. Firstly, Bruce’s men apparently threw their weapons into a loch during the retreat, with the body of water later given the name of Lochan nan Arm, or in English, Loch of the Weapons. Secondly, the crossing point known as Ath Chonachar, or Chonachar’s Ford, is supposedly named after a piper in Bruce’s army who was killed there after being struck by an arrow.
Bruce’s army was basically destroyed as an organised unit after the battle. He became a fugitive and hid in the mountains before receiving assistance from Angus Óg MacDonald of Islay, chief of Clan Donald. Bruce was able to fight back from this near annihilation 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 surmised that either due to direct experience of the battle, or through local folklore, someone who lived in the area thought that Dalrigh was the exact location of the battlefield and gave it that name accordingly. Similarly, the naming of other geographical features after events in the battle suggests that the local population had good reasons to believe that these otherwise unnoteworthy geographic features had special significance.
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. As is so often the case with Scottish history, the conclusive facts remain frustratingly elusive due to the long passage of time.
However, I’d like to highlight two possible interpretations of the battle.
Battle of Dalrigh – Version One – North of the River Fillan
In this interpretation of the battle Bruce’s army approached from the south-east, on the south side of the River Fillan with the MacDougalls laying in wait, blocking the advance further up the glen.
This of course assumes that the road constructed in 1749-1750 was on the same location as the earlier medieval track.
Following the line of the road, Bruce’s men may have crossed the river in the vicinity of Drochaid Bhan or Ath Chonachar before being attacked on the field now known as Dalrigh. Perhaps the MacDougalls waited until just enough of the enemy had crossed the river before attacking, similar to the tactics used by Wallace and de Moray at Stirling Bridge.
For this to be possible the MacDougalls would have needed to use bumps in the land or vegetation to remain hidden. It seems unlikely that Bruce would have crossed his force piecemeal over the river if he knew the MacDougalls were arrayed in line of battle ahead of him.
The MacDougalls would have quickly overrun the unprepared forces loyal to the Bruce. As they retreated, Bruce’s men may have fled back over the river near where they crossed, somewhere around Drochaid Bhan or Ath Chonachar. According to one tradition it was at this point that the piper named Chonachar was killed.
Bruce’s men would then have retreated past Lochan nan Arm and it’s possible that Bruce’s rear guard action, the one in which he could not turn his horse, may have occurred on the bumpy ground near the loch. He later fled and hid on Airidh Mhor, to the west.
Battle of Dalrigh – Version 2 – South of the River Fillan
In this sequence of events, Bruce’s army again approaches from the south-west. However, instead of waiting north of the river, the MacDougalls instead lay in hiding and ambushed Bruce as he reached the narrow corner at Tom na Croiche. At this point the road becomes very narrow between steep knolls and the river itself. It is an ideal ambush location and may explain the restrictive location in which Bruce was unable to turn his horse while being attacked and almost unhorsed.
Again, Bruce’s men would have been quickly defeated and having no where else to go, fled over the river near Drochaid Bhan or Ath Chonachar. The actual field known as Dalrigh would therefore not be the primary battle site, but the terrain in which Bruce’s retreating men were pursued by the victorious MacDougalls.
In this version of events it would be harder to incorporate the folklore of Lochan nan Arm, at least if we understand Lochan nan Arm to be the body of water that is identified on maps as being south of the river. However, local tradition is clear that Lochan nan Arm is in fact the loch north of the river, about 500 metres west of Dalrigh, contrary to what is listed on maps of the area.
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.
In 2015 a team from MacDonald Armouries in Edinburgh undertook metal detecting at the loch marked on maps as Lochan nan Arm, and the other loch identified in local tradition as Lochan nan Arm. While some modern munitions were recovered, they did not find any medieval weaponry. The Forestry Commission later installed an information board, claiming the loch north of the river is the correct Lochan nan Arm.
*Article revised in November 2018*