Robert the Bruce and the Battle of Dalrigh

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.

The sign that perked my curiosity.
The sign that perked my curiosity.

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.

The Background

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.

Roy's Military Survey of Scotland (1747-1755) clearly illustrates the geography of the area. Bruce's force (blue) pushed up Strath Fillan, where they were blocked by the waiting MacDougalls (red).
Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland (1747-1755) clearly illustrates the geography of the area. Bruce’s force (blue) pushed up Strath Fillan while being pursued by the English under de Valence. While making his way up the glen, Bruce was blocked or ambushed by the waiting MacDougalls (red).

The Battle

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.

The field known as Dalrigh (view here). The tree line at the centre of the picture is the approximate location of the river crossing of Ath Chonachar. The small bumpy knolls to the extreme right hand side of the picture make up the banks of Lochan nan Arm.
The River Fillan with Dalrigh on the left hand side of the photo, as seen looking south from the slopes of Lochan nan Arm. (Photo by Colin MacDougall)
There are a number of shallow fords along the Fillan, including this one which is located to the south-west of Dalrigh. (Photo by Colin MacDougall)

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.

Lochan nan Arm with Dalrigh in the distance, on the right hand side of the photo. (Photo by Colin MacDougall)
The River Fillan near Ath Chonachar. Bruce's army may have retreated over the river at this location. (Photo by Richard Webb)
The River Fillan near Ath Chonachar, looking back towards the bumpy terrain around Lochan nan Arm. Bruce may have retreated at, or near, this shallow ford. (photo by Richard Webb)

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.

Interpretation

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 terrain to the west of Dalrigh. The MacDougalls may have been hidden near this location before attacking Bruce’s force as they approached from the right hand side of the photo. (Photo by Colin MacDougall)

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.

The bend in the road at Tom na Croiche, showing the steep knolls that make the location ideal for an ambush.

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.

Paul MacDonald undertaking metal detecting work at Lochan nan Arm. (Photo by Colin MacDougall)

Useful Sources

Wikipedia – The Battle of Dalrigh

The Scottish Historical Review (1905), pages 112-113.

The Celtic Magazine (1885). Alexander McBain, pages 483-488.

*Article revised in November 2018*

8 thoughts on “Robert the Bruce and the Battle of Dalrigh

Add yours

  1. Wow, this is fascinating! I have passed this signpost and driven past it many times. I have got to say that even with my little knowledge of place names, the penny should have dropped! I had heard of the Brooch of Lorn – it’s a great story, even if the present brooch may be not be the original one. I so often wish I could just glimpse the landscape as it was then. This is one of my favourite areas of Scotland, and knowing a bit more about its history makes it even more special. Great post, I really enjoyed it! 🙂

    1. Thanks Jo, I think we both have a shared appreciation of this kind of history. Shame on me for not knowing about Dalrigh sooner though. It’s an important point regarding the landscape, because it can change quite a lot even in a generation and if we could see how it was then, the battlefield location might be a little more obvious to us.

      Mrs MacDonald and I are just back from a holiday up north at Skye, Craignish and Inveraray… we managed to spot quite a few of these little hidden gems along the way. We are very lucky to live in a place like Scotland.

  2. Not in any way wishing to be pedantic, but the site of the battle is not in Argyll. The county march between Argyll and Perthshire, (or what was Perthshire until 1975), is about 2 miles to the north passed the village of Tyndrum. Dalrigh is in what was used to be Perthshire and now Central Region.

    I grew up in Tyndrum and went to Strathfillan primary school which was a corrugated iron structure on the original road and just metres to the left from the Dalrigh signpost shown on your photograph. (I suspect that it had been built in around 1872 to comply with the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 which required all children between the ages of 5 and 14 to attend school.

    Anyway, my ancestors had lived continuously in the village of Tyndrum since at least 1751 and the story that was passed down through the generations was that the McDougals ambushed Bruce near the White Bridge.

    The White Bridge crosses the river Fillan at the bottom of Dalrigh and was built in about 1749/50 as part of the scheme of road building that you mention by Major William Caulfeild who followed the trace of the existing tracks and did not spend money making even the most obvious improvements to the routes.

    That scheme of road building, first started by General Wade, was the first road building in the Highlands. Up until then, roads were where they were and where they always had been. Therefore, it is reasonably safe to say that the road Major Caulfeild built followed the route that would have existed 700 years ago.

    The trace of Major Caulfield’s road was altered between Crianlarich and Auchreoch farm which is just south of the Strathfillan church in the early 1960’s. The stretch between Auchreoch farm and Tyndrum was still in use until the new road was built in the early 1980’s. It is the new road that you have shown in your post.

    A stretch of original route remains, from just south of what was Strathfillan Church (now Strathfillan House) along to the White Bridge and then up to meet where the new road is at the Dalrigh Sign shown in you photograph,

    We know what army Bruce originally had, was routed at the Battle of Methven Methven on19 June 1306 by Aymer de Valence, who was the brother-in-law of Comyn who Bruce had stabbed to death in Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. Apparently, Bruce thought de Valence would follow the code of chivalry and not attack at night. However, after having stabbed his rival to death in a church Bruce was to be given no quarter and he was lucky to have escaped with his life.

    We also know that Bruce was fleeing with his wife and daughter, and sister and a few other ladies and it is probable that the party could have only been around twenty to thirty. Whatever, the actual number may have been, the presence of ladies would not have made for speed and it was obviously possible for word to have travelled ahead in sufficient time for the MacDougall’s to mobilise.

    At that time, the chief of the MacNabs was Angus Macnab who was also a brother-in-law of John Comyn whom Bruce had murdered. The MacNab’s controlled Glen Ogle and Glen Dochart and no doubt Bruce’s progress was well reported to the MacDougalls.

    The one consistent thing that we know about the battle, both from Bruce and the MacDouglls’) is that Bruce was trapped in narrow area in which he couldn’t turn his horse. (I note that you have added that it was between a hill and a loch which is probably an unintentional embellishment).

    If Bruce and his party were following the existing road, there is only one place where the road is so narrow that he wouldn’t have been able to turn a horse. That is what used to be called the church corner and is about 350 metres down from Dalrigh field.

    There, a steep tree covered knoll meets the river Fillan creating a narrow pass that is concealed by a bend in the road. There is then about 350 metres where the road is hemmed in by high ground on one side and by the river on the other and forms a perfect place for an ambush.

    Anyone, fleeing from an ambush on that spot would have been forced to either follow the river or head for higher ground. If they fled along the river bank they would have been forced by the extremely steep and unstable banks to cross the river onto the flat field which is now called Dalrigh.

    It is a natural reaction of people in danger to flee upwards. If they done that, the lay of the terrain leads about 500 metres to Lochan nan Arm where Bruce was supposed to have ditched his sword and heavy armour.

    History is nearly always written by the victors and although the MacDougalls won on the day they were not the eventual winners. I therefore don’t think that the number of MacDougall’s would have been as high as 1000.

    Bruce and his party had travelled 14 miles up the whole of Strathfillan which is fairly wide from the head of Glen Ogle all the way up to Tyndrum. Highland clansmen were renowned for stealth and ambush tactics and I cannot believe they would have then allowed Bruce to pass a perfect spot for ambush and cross the river onto the flat open ground at Dalrigh for a square fight.

    What is more, if that did happen, no one can explain how anyone could have escaped the battlefield and end up at Loch nan Arm because, quite apart from having to cross the wide river bed, the banks on the other side are almost unclimbable.

    As you say the conclusive facts remain frustratingly elusive due to the long passage of time.

    However, things are not helped by setting up stone benches at the wrong location to where the battle was reputedly fought. Also, another stone bench has been set up a wrong lochan, which about a mile away from Loch nan Arm,saying that is where Bruce was supposedly thrown his sword..

    I was also interested to read the sad account of Duncan McLean and the removal of the stone obelisks from Auchreoch. I had read a similar account (I think in the book: In Famed Breadalbane: by Rev William A. Gillies) but had thought it was from Auchtertyre farm.

    Nevertheless, we now know today that these stones were standing stones and were probably put there 3 or 4000 years ago. There are a few surviving stones at Auchtertyre farm with pot marks.

    Kind regards

    Grant McCormack
    .

    1. Thanks for your very interesting contribution. I see that you are right to point out the border between Argyll and Perthshire, I will amend the article accordingly to reflect that. I’m grateful for the correction.

      I am particularly fascinated to hear of the oral tradition passed down to you as a local of the area.

      I’ve had a look at an old NLS map and see the alteration on the road as you suggested. I’ve also had a good look at ‘church corner’ and I agree that it is a plausible location in which to launch an ambush. I think you could construct a very convincing case for that particular location being the site of an ambush.

      As you’ve pointed out, if the traditions associated with Lochan nan Arm and Ath Chonachar are true then it is difficult to fit those events into the context of the the ‘church corner’ theory. To my mind it seems more probable that the ‘church corner’ idea is true, and the stories of Loch nan Arm and Ath Chonachar are later embellishments. I just can’t quite figure out how you get Bruce from church corner to Lochan nan Arm unless he fought his way through whatever force was preventing his further advance along the river. If we are to accept that scenario then Ath Chonachar makes even less sense and I’m not sure we would be able to fit all of the traditions into a realistic account of the battle.

      Sadly it’s pretty much impossible to confirm any of these theories, any number of combinations might be true.

      I agree that any monuments or graves related to the battle were probably older markers that have been appropriated by later traditions. The same has happened at many battlefields, you need only look at the Claverhouse Stone at Killicrankie or Olaf’s Mound at Barbreck in Craignish.

      Thanks again for commenting, I’m really pleased to have heard from someone who was taught the local oral tradition as it relates to the battle.

  3. Colin, I don’t believe at this point King Robert was fleeing with women. After the Battle of Methven he lost to Sir Aymer de Valence, Robert sent his wife, Elizabeth, his daughter Marjorie by his first marriage, and his sisters Mary and Christina to Kildrummy Castle, under the protection of his brother Niall. They were not with him at Dalrigh.

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