New Laws Are Required to Protect Scotland’s Historic Battlefields

Earlier this year my small branch of the clan packed its bags and headed to Skye for a holiday. On the way through Fort William we stopped off at Inverlochy to see the battlefield given that I had passed it many times before without taking the time to explore the site. When we arrived I was shocked to see a brand new retail development, very close to Tom na Faire, a small hill that played a role during the battle.

Now regardless of which interpretation of the battle you believe is correct, it’s fairly safe to assume that Tom na Faire was an important geographical feature during the battle. It’s mentioned specifically in a poem by Ian Lom MacDonald, who was an eye witness to the 1645 battle alongside Alasdair MacColla.

As I walked around the hill I saw a battlefield covered in development – a new retail park, an aluminium plant which is soon to be expanded, a coal merchants yard, timber works, petrol station and land that is criss-crossed with railways and roads. Obviously these developments were built over a long period of time, from the Victorian era until very recently, but what it demonstrates is the shocking state of affairs we have in Scotland where our historic battlefields have been unprotected and remain unprotected.

A view of the Inverlochy battlefield looking towards Tom na Faire which is approximately 100 metres away.
The view in the opposite direction, towards the land in which Montrose and MacColla formed their army in 1645. It is now aisle 4 of an M&S Foodhall.

Anyone interested in this subject cannot help but have noticed just how many battlefields are currently under threat or have been recently subject to development. These include,


Heritage chiefs do not object to holiday park at Culloden

Culloden Battlefield row homes granted permission

Culloden graves eroded by Outlander fans taking selfies


Killiecrankie road protesters win battle for public inquiry

National Trust defends silence over Killiecrankie

Heritage chiefs slam A9 upgrade at Killiecrankie battlefield


Row brews over draft plans to build over historic battlefield

Battle of Prestonpans windfarm plan sparks anger

Inch Cape substation bid on part of historic Battle of Prestonpans site labelled ‘very real danger’


Plans for 250 homes on Bannockburn battlefield site

Second battle of Bannockburn to beat developers


Wheels factory’s impact on Inverlochy battlefield studied

Councillors approve Lochaber alloy wheels factory


Battle of Renfrew field must be saved, MP demands

Residents lose fight against house plan


Revolt sparked as forest on Sheriffmuir battlefield approved

Roadworks spark fears for historic Battle of Sheriffmuir Site


Developer goes to war after losing fight over plan for historic Perthshire battleground

Battle lines: Bid to build homes at site of famous 1644 clash

As you will read, all of these developments have been put forward in the last few years and although 2017 was supposed to be the year of ‘history, heritage and archaeology’ it feels rather that our historic battlefields are under an unprecedented level of pressure.

Of course, this is without even considering the many projects which have already destroyed other battlefields across Scotland. On the Glen Fruin site there is an army firing range, while Bannockburn has been covered in housing, Pinkie Cleugh has a sewage works on it, as does Bothwell Bridge.

Those that have survived relatively unscathed have done so usually because of their remote location, such as Glen Shiel, Mulroy, Coire na Crieche, Ancrum Moor and Dalrigh.

Another category of battlefields are those that remain partially intact, but are under threat from encroaching housing or industry such as Falkirk (1746).

Some of the key geographical features of the Bannockburn battlefield were still observable a century ago, but have since succumbed to widespread development.

In 2010 the Scottish Government announced the creation of an Inventory of Historic Battlefields with the support of Dr Tony Pollard and the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University. The BBC headline boldy stated that “Scotland’s famous battlefields protected“, while the Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop said, “We want to make sure that these important battlefields are looked after now and for future generations.”

The inventory was undoubtedly a positive step forward, but claims that it protects battlefields has not been born out by what has happened across Scotland since 2010.

Instead, we’ve essentially seen the same scenario played out across the country every time a new development threatens a battlefield. A company or organisation comes forward with a proposal and it usually sneaks along the planning process before anyone becomes aware of it. When the proposal is eventually noticed, small campaigns are established to fight it, manned by people with a wealth of local knowledge but without experience of lobbying or campaigning. A small skirmish takes place in the local paper with councillors making some noises but it’s usually too late and the development ploughs ahead. A token archaeological assessment is sometimes undertaken with a handful of relics being saved before the destruction begins.

An archaeology assessment undertaken on the Sheriffmuir battlefield by Jim Crombie and other volunteers ahead of the planting of forestry on the site. Musket balls, coins, a possible bayonet tip and an ancient arrow head were amongst the relics unearthed.

Obviously there can be variants on this general theme. The relatively minor development proposed at Culloden received international attention because of the preeminent position the battlefield has within the psyche of Scots both at home and abroad. The forestry plantation at Sheriffmuir on the other hand, while causing much more destruction than the Culloden proposal, received very little media coverage in Scotland and probably nothing internationally. Sometimes campaigns can be successful but only because of the herculean efforts of local volunteers and some luck.

My impression is that local campaigns usually begin life flat footed, without much knowledge of political lobbying or how to use the press effectively. In fairness, this is not always the case, with the Killiecrankie1689 campaign being an example of a well managed, effective campaign that not only lobbies for battlefield protection, but also provides useful educational resources. Nonetheless Scotland’s battlefields can’t rely on a patchwork of local campaigners acting independently across the country and we desperately need something more overarching.

This is why we need an equivalent of the American Battlefield Trust (formally known as the Civil War Trust), a public-private partnership with over 200,000 members that purchases land to ensure that historic American battlefields are protected. Between 2011 and 2015 they raised over $52 million and to date they’ve saved 50,000 acres of historic land across 24 states. Indeed in some instances they have demolished existing developments to restore historic battlefields to their original condition.

The advantages of having a national organisation such as the American Battlefield Trust is that any time a development is proposed, they can react quickly with established media contacts, pre-prepared press releases, active social media accounts and a large membership to draw upon for support. National organisations also accrue an understanding of planning procedures, campaign management and how to effectively lobby policy makers. Local campaigns have some benefits, such as indispensable local knowledge, but they lack the considerable advantages that a national organisation can bring to the table.

I had hoped the recent creation of the Scottish Battlefields Trust would perhaps herald a new era for battlefield protection but sadly this has not yet materialised. The social media accounts of the Scottish Battlefields Trust shows a strong inclination towards the educational aspect of his organisation’s objectives with a particular focus on reenactments. Educational work is important in fostering an appreciation for the value of historic sites but I see something lacking in terms of the organisations ability to take the lead as an effective lobbying body for Scotland’s battlefields.

As a volunteer organisation there well may be very understandable reasons as to why this is the case, including a lack of manpower or finance. The charity register for example shows that the trust is not exactly a wealth of financial resources but if the Scottish Battlefields Trust is going to primarily focus on education and reenactments then someone else needs to take the lead on conservation and lobbying.

While some people view battle reenactments as important educational tools, a senior cultural figure in Scotland once told me that the “antics” of reenactors trivialised the great military struggles of the nation’s past and amounted to nothing more than the “gleeful rehearsal of violence”. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

There are a number of barriers that will prevent us from achieving the goal of preserving our battlefields. One of which is the very low understanding and appreciation of historic battlefields amongst policymakers, whether that is councillors, MSPs or MPs. With a few notable exceptions most elected members are not interested in historic battlefields and don’t understand or appreciate their cultural and economic importance.

The American Battlefield Trust previously commissioned a study on the impact of historic battlefields on the tourism industry in the United States. They found that in 2010, visitors to Civil War battlefields supported 5,150 jobs and spent $442 million in communities close to battlefield national parks in just five states (MO, PA, SC, TN, VA).

They also found that battlefield tourists in Virginia were ‘high value’ visitors who were better educated, more affluent and spent more than double what an average tourist would usually spend. The report goes on to highlight the many economic and employment benefits of historic battlefields.

Battlefield tourism is big business in the United States but it too can have a negative conservation impact if not managed correctly.

In my experience if we want to preserve battlefields it won’t be enough to convince policy makers in Scotland that the sites have intrinsic cultural and historical value – we also need to convince them that Scottish communities can benefit financially from these sites as the Americans have already demonstrated.

It does make me wonder whether Historic Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland or any other body managed by the Scottish Government have commissioned research into the potential economic impact of preserving battlefields, developing more visitor centres or introducing and promoting a ‘battlefield trail’. Perhaps research would show that such proposals are unfeasible, maybe we might determine that significantly increased visitor numbers might be detrimental to conservation efforts, but until we’ve commissioned some actual research we are merely speculating on the potential.

Scotland’s uneasy relationship with the issue of land ownership may also be a factor in our laissez faire styled management of historic battlefields. In the case of Sheriffmuir the land is owned by Richard Stirling-Aird, whose family have been major landowners in the area since 1594. It seems unlikely that a landowner of his ilk would be prepared to sell long held family lands to an American Battlefield Trust-styled organisation.

Ideally I would like to see legislation brought forward by the Scottish Parliament that would give legal protections for our historic battlefields. I’m pleased that the eminent Historian Sir Tom Devine has expressed support for the introduction of new protective legislation. Earlier this month he said,

“It goes without saying that battlefields are an important part of Scotland’s national heritage and of course several key battles have been turning points in Scottish political and religious history.

“Some also contain the last resting places of the fallen. Even those which are lesser known mean much to local communities which neighbour them.

“There have been cases recently of developers threatening the integrity of two very significant sites, Culloden Moor and Bothwell Bridge, where the last bloody stand of the Covenanters took place in 1679.

“Local people often resist these incursions but are not always successful in their efforts. More protection for the battlefields would do much to strengthen their cause.”

I’m by no means arguing that legislation is an easy option and one that will simply solve all of our problems with minimal effort. Legislation will bring with it some difficult questions but the Inventory of Historic Battlefields may prove to be a useful starting point in which to create and expand genuine legal protections.

At the very least we need to start having a debate about the feasibility of legislation, otherwise our battlefields will simply be incrementally devoured by developers who see only profit and don’t care if your ancestor’s shin bone is buried under some muddy field.

So if I can summarise my argument it would be as follows; our battlefields are under unprecedented pressure from development and without action they will be lost forever. A national organisation, independent of government, is needed to lobby on behalf of the battlefields and the local volunteer groups that watch over them. Battlefields have educational, cultural and economic value and if we cannot convince policy makers of this fact then they will remain under threat. Legislation should be brought forward in the Scottish Parliament so that developments cannot be undertaken on any historic battlefield, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Personally I don’t care whether battlefields have economic value or not. In my view they are hallowed ground, the great stages in which the course of the nation was determined. That alone makes them worthy of protection. We’ve already lost so much but the current wave of cultural vandalism is taking place on our watch. It’s time for that to end and for new laws to be introduced to protect our historic battlefields.

Further Reading

Scottish Battlefields Trust

American Battlefield Trust

Inventory of Historic Battlefields

Sir Tom Devine calls for battlefields to be protected in law

Forestry Threatens the Battlefield of Sheriffmuir


2 thoughts on “New Laws Are Required to Protect Scotland’s Historic Battlefields

Add yours

  1. I agree that we should preserve our battle fields – I guess the problem is that there’s nothing tangible there to attract visitors, and you don’t want a visitor centre at all of them – they are best left in peace. Preservation and respect without over-development. Too much of an ideal?

    1. Yes I certainly would not want all of them to have visitor centres, but I suppose I’m conceding that unless we make that argument then a great many people will not be convinced of the value of historic battlefields.

      In an ideal world I imagine preserved battlefields as places of quiet contemplation. We can dare to dream.

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