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on 22 May 2011
I've read many, many books on our King Robert Bruce and this is by far the finest. Everything, and I mean everything you would want to know about our most famous monarch is in here (and more).
As Mr MacDonald (fellow reviewer) put it, 'this book is not an easy read'. It's worth it though. Big time!
I read it from cover to cover (not a task for the feint hearted).
This is THE outstanding biography of any historical figure, just pipping Adrian Goldsworthy's 'Caesar' to the post.
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on 2 March 2012
Although an academic book, this is the most authoritative book on the subject I have read. It was written by an academic, and therefore is not written in a racy style. This is a book that will require some attention from the reader if you want to read it from cover to cover; or you can dip in and out of it. Use it as a source for further reading too: it has an excellent bibliography. It treats the period with the depth it deserves, so it has a lot of information in it. Having studied under GWS Barrow as an undergraduate, I can honestly say that the book is merely an extension of the incredible knowledge and passion of the author for the Medieval world.
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on 11 November 2009
Geoffrey Wallis Steuart Barrow is widely considered to be the most prominent Scottish historian of the 21st century, and what is possibly his best known book only adds to the legitimacy of this view.

Covering the time period from the death of Alexander III to the death of Robert I in 1329, Barrow has released four editions to this book, each time adding to and refining the text. Reading it, it is obvious why Barrow is considered the leading authority on medieval Scottish history, and specifically the wars of independence.

It is ill advised that this book be read cover-to-cover; Barrow does not write in a style that is easily read, cramming as much information as possible into each page and often stemming off into tagents that may not have anything to do with the topic he was writing about a moment before.

However, for students studying the wars of independence and other areas linked to this period of Scottish history or for those extremely interested in the period(and I mean 'extremely' interested; this book is not an easy read), this book is an invaluable asset. As the leading historian in this period of history, the opinion that Barrow provides within this book is extremely useful in essay writing.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone studying Scottish History at Advanced Higher or University level.
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on 15 August 2012
Before reading this I knew little about Bruce other than the semi-myths of Scottish education and popular culture.

I know a lot more now but found the book unsatisfactory and quite difficult to get through. The scholarship is impressive, but the general reader surely can't gain much from the long lists of unknown names and titles (and localities) of those who at various times supported or opposed Bruce, which take up so much space. I suppose the author is hampered in "bringing Bruce to life" by the little contemporary hard evidence of what he was like, but the picture of Bruce the man is a fuzzy and incomplete.

It is, despite this, an interesting glimpse into the Scotland of the times, but however distasteful from a historian's perspective, a bit more imagination and a few more leaps of faith in story-telling would make for a more absorbing biography.
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on 1 May 2014
Soon after the first appearance of Barrow’s book on Bannockburn an article was printed by him about it in, I think, the Scotsman. The limits of his insight were immediately obvious. Bruce’s strategy was, he thought, to fight a token battle when the English arrived to relieve the Castle and then retreat into the wilderness to the west and disperse. The decision to fight on the second day was taken when he heard (from Seaton) that English morale was low. In fact, this is mistaken and it has been conclusively proved. A quarter century elapsed before I got involved and it took another quarter century to understand and establish everything properly. By then Barrow’s book had become the received wisdom. What was wrong with it?
Barrow did not believe anything could be proved because it was too long ago, the sources were inadequate and too many changes had taken place in the ground over the centuries. In consequence, he never got to know the ground or the available written sources. Some elementary details he got right. The battle was fought in 1314 and on two days for example, but where it was fought and why and how were beyond his reach. He scoured documents for references to ‘the battle’ and used them to try to show that it took its name from the place, not the stream, failing to realise that none of them existed before the battle; that most occurred many years, even centuries, later. So none of them showed anything. Believing the ground too much changed to understand, he spent only two days there and made little use of the many old maps. Roy’s two maps of the area, though without the benefit of triangulation, made about 1754, are brilliant as to details but they have to be studied for years and in relation to all the other maps and the ground to see this. In fact, Roy showed with dazzling clarity that Bannockburn was not even a place in 1754. The place, was half a mile away at Newmarket. Where Bannockburn would form were but 3 houses 150 yards apart, one of them out of sight down a very steep brae beside the burn in a different world. Newmarket then had a whole street of houses on both sides. By 1516 a bridge (Robert Spitall’s bridge) had been built across the burn, yet no village had formed near it because the brae was too steep, the bridge too narrow and Milton Ford was the preferred route, being much shorter, as Jeffries map of 1746 reveals until 1819, when Telford built a bridge that spanned the steep escarpment just 80 yards downstream of the 1516 bridge.
The question: when was the first bridge? had never occurred to Barrow to be significant. Of course it is: In 1314 because there was no bridge, there was only one road from Falkirk to Stirling and it had to cross the Bannock burn at Milton Ford. That insight is crucial because the only bottleneck is at the ford and that is where Bruce had to defend the Dryfield and the Castle. Two sources, Barbour (BK XI 453) and Scalacronica (Maxw. p53), confirm this for that is the entry to the Dryfield and the New Park. Most critically of all, St Ninians Kirk was built in 1242 beside the road which went along St Ninians Main Street (Stirlingshire, Royal Comm, 1963, Vol 1 p140) So that was the road in 1314. Also, Bruce killed de Bohun on the north bank of Milton Ford. The failure to understand these things led to buildings being erected within yards of this sacred place.
One of the failures observable in all the historians of this period is the inability to deal with the events in time and space. For this an accurate estimate of the map is necessary. Barrow never had this. Indeed his maps have important errors which preclude understanding. The essential ingredient is that the map should be fully justified: every decision should be explained. Starting with Roy’s maps you make a single map and then excise everything which has occurred between 1314 and 1754 and write it up like a lab experiment. The work involved hundreds of days at the ground and about 3 years full time. The justification occupies about 150,000 words in the several books of my research.
Barrow’s maps have no woodland, no elevations, no bogs, no ridges or depressions, no pools of water and the lines of streams are wrong. He believed that the battle site was the Dryfield. As soon as the elevations and ridges are shown this is instantly seen to be impossible. There are two great depressions of 75 ft and 54 ft apart from the steep ridges which make a cavalry charge impossible. The Dryfield is a natural Fortress protected by a steep, wooded, escarpment no medieval invader would ever have penetrated when defended, as here, by an army determined to win. The Ford is the Scottish Thermopylae where 300 could defend it for days against thousands. Since, NE of the Ford, the escarpment is soon only 34 ft high and Barrow’s (and Christison’s) maps show contours at fifty foot intervals it has no significance therein. So even Christison, whose 12 page work on the battle was far better than Barrow’s, missed this basic fact. This is why elevations matter, not contours. That 34 ft is nearly vertical and utterly impassable. The failure to draw the Pelstream properly and the bogs meant he never understood what a powerful stream it was after rain or how an army camping in the Carse could be imprisoned between it and the Bannock burn, the fundamental idea in the Scottish strategy.
What Barrow chose to do was ‘read all the sources and forget most of them’ (fail to deal with the important questions they raise which demand original thought, effort and even procedures for comparing them) and give an opinion, with a reference or two. That is why he made so many bad mistakes. You need to have all the relevant sources printed together in one volume where you can analyse them for the same issue by counting statements. That the Scots were all on foot at the main battle is instantly clear by this procedure. When six sources, most of them written within days of the battle tell us this repeatedly, to one written 63 years later, you know what happened. The truth is obvious, clear and immediate. Once you know this you can ask why and, with the aid of the justified map of 1314 and the sources, you will discover the entire strategy and tactics. Despite this advance which many people now know is obvious, Barrow continued to believe that there was a Scottish cavalry charge and that Barbour’s invention 63 years later had credence. Why? He had read BR, so he said, where it is fully established [p254 et prior]. This was not how he was accustomed to proceed. He put his opinion on a higher level than counting statements. This, I think, is because for him the primary factor in historical scholarship of a medieval issue was authority and he saw himself as the authority. Because he thought opinion was all that is possible, he thought his authority should count more than anything. This is an obvious mistake. What counts most in any scholarship is getting it right. And when some unknown gets it right, you have a duty to promote it. Prof Gotlob Frege was about to publish a tome on philosophy when Russell wrote to him about the paradoxes he had discovered. Frege was shocked, for his work was instantly demolished by them. But he did not pretend that it had not happened. Russell (an FRS and Fellow of Trinity) had clout even then and could not be buried or ignored. Maybe he would not have been even then. We will never know.
Barrow had nothing to say whatever about this procedure in BR. The same obtuseness could be seen in his attitude to woodland in the Bannockburn Area in 1314. His maps showed no woodland. The only criticism he made of mine in BR was that I had ‘misunderstood’ the Roy maps which, he believed showed high ground by shading. Since there is no high ground that was clearly false. I wrote an analysis of the battle area pointing out all the places which were clearly woodland, some of them still apparent today and in all the old maps. There was no reply. In my view, Barrow did not know enough about the ground or the maps to make one. The first 18 pages of BP (2005) were devoted to this. Barrow did grudgingly admit that the honeycombe effect on Balquhiderock Wood in Roy (1754) meant woodland but he refused to admit that it would be like that in 1314. He refused to admit any other woodland in the area in 1750. He said he had looked at the Roy maps in the National Library (B&W then!) and pronounced that shading high ground: he refused to look at the ground today. He was unable to see that if all the old maps and the ground now (it is still like that) have woodland from 1754 to 2014, then, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it is very likely to be the same in 1314, if only because there were far fewer people in the area with worse tools for cutting it. Nor was the argument improved for him by the recognition that the reports of the battle (most of them written within days of it) mention woodland on at least 18 occasions. Of course it never occurred to him to count them or that the number was significant. Or that, as Miller showed [1923 p61; 1933, p35] the New Park was wooded until after 1369. Meaning: it was seeding everywhere around even then. Barrow knew that compared to his two days at the battle area (‘mainly on the 100 and 200 ft contours’) I had spent hundreds of days. That made no difference to his belief in his authority. He wanted to play at being the God of History and refused to listen to objections from underlings.
There is in BP and GB a beautiful argument proving that shading in these maps of Roy means woodland. On the Dryfield, the lines of slope remain parallel as they pass through two distinct areas of shading. This is only possible because the shading is woodland. Lines of slope would have to change through different areas of high ground. Too subtle for Barrow. Numerous simple cases were given. Eg the top of Coxet Hill is the highest in that region yet it is unshaded. Why? Because it had no woodland. It would have been shaded had shading meant high ground! Map making in 1754 was experimental and these were Roy’s last and best.
One of Barrow’s mistakes was the line of the Pelstream which is defined by the wedge cut out of the land originally: about 80 yards wide and 100ft deep which heads NE into the Carse: BR p401,402; BGB p76: the blue line. He forgot Livilands Bog which made his drawing badly wrong. He even took P1 (the southern tributary) to be a major one when it is out of a spring on Coxet Hill a few hundred yards away with only a quarter of the downfall: the rest goes into the main Pelstream. So Barrow’s failure to understand the Pelstream in 1314 (or 1750) made it impossible for him to see what an important barrier it was in confining the English within their camp. The direction in 1314 is given by the elevations. Barrow guessed it, wrongly. All Bruce had to do was close off the Carse, having got his men very close to the enemy camp which was on and around the Knoll. Then have them kneel with the pike butts in the ground to take the inevitable cavalry charge. The pikes projected over the shoulders of the men in front and 14 of them hit each equine tank before the lance hit the front row. It is all worked out in GB Ch XII.
The most disastrous mistake Barrow made was his notion that the Carse was an area of streams in 1314. That the word ‘polles’ from which the modern words pows, puls, pols are derived meant streams. [Barrow p212]. Why did he think this? No maps show streams in the Carse, not Roy’s, not any maps since 1750 (the first of any value) and Roy’s is by far the best of the older ones. So there was no reason to think this at all. Barrow never spent any time with old maps or the ground, that least of all. His activities were mainly confined to libraries and the effort of asking questions and pursuing the answers to exhaustion never occurred to him as necessary. His ‘work’ is all mere speculation, easily demolished. GB Ch VI does this. In fact, all these words mean ‘pool’. Why should a word like ‘polles’ mean stream? Why should the initial syllable change in sound? No reason! Barrow’s suggestion (in his article in The Uses of Place names in Scottish History ed S. Taylor) is that there were two versions of Celtic and this caused it. This idea is demolished in GB p412,413. Briefly, the existence of the syllable pol or pul or po, means ‘pool’. It is applied to streams because they cease to flow (in hot weather, for example). Polmoodie burn (near Moffat) starts in a col between high mountains. When the water table falls below the col, the stream ceases to flow and you get pools. Polharrow burn comes out of a loch, Loch Harrow. When the level of the loch falls below the exit from the loch, the stream ceases to flow and it becomes pools. Pulwhinrick burn (Kilstay, Galloway) has low water pressure because there are no hills to provide it. In ordinary weather it does not even cross the shore. The burn is often just a line of pools of water: hence the ‘pul’. The area ‘Les Polles’ is not an area of streams but an area of pools and if Barrow had spent any time at the Carse in all weathers he would have understood why: it is often full of pools of water and the property is unique to that Carse. Why? Because unusually this carse is enclosed by the bounding streams: the water table is uniformly high and when rain falls, the underground water from the escarpment (unseen) has to escape to the R. Forth first. Until it does, the undulations in the flat ground fill with rainwater. These pools, some 100 yards long and a yard deep, are photographed in BR, BP, GB, BGB and they show clearly that this is an area of pools. See GB p 146. Moreover, they are of such antiquity that the road across the Carse (Millhall Rd) has had to zigzag around them GB p141-143. So they were present in 1314. But we do know this! For Barbour [BK XII p467, l 391-394] tells us that the English camped in the Carse partly because of the pools of water there that day! And the Brut y Tywysogyon [Peniarth MS 20, p123 trans Prof T. Jones, Univ of Wales Press, 1952; GB 159, BGB p169] actually tells us that the battle was fought among the pools of water!
So the battle site is exactly and completely determined. -All it took was the avoidance of speculation and the correct translation. And Jones had already translated ‘polles’ correctly in 1952, 13 years before Barrow published his Robert Bruce....!
Why is the equivalent word in Barbour, ‘pulis’, translated as pools? Of course it must be. Any native Scot can see it instantly. Had it meant streams Barbour would have used the word ‘burns’, which he does many times. The word ‘pulis’ is simply the ordinary 14th century plural of pul, meaning pool. So in Barbour we find words like sheildis =shields, bassynetis = basnets, baneris = banners, standardis = standards, speris = spears etc. [GB p135]. Duncan was the culprit who mistranslated ‘pulis’ as streams. This word was correctly translated by WW Skeat, Prof of Anglo Saxon at Cambridge in 1870! GB p187. Duncan gave no reason for his change and it was false.
So there we have it, Barrow and Duncan, professors of Scottish History, translate two words incorrectly that had been correctly translated many years before, one of them 128 years before! And not one reason was given!
How do we explain this? We have to try because the effect has been disastrous: the battle area has been built all over in concrete this last half century because of their mistakes in translation. And the desecration continues even after these books of mine because the authors would not admit their mistakes. Barrow and Duncan have both ‘revised and corrected’ their editions in 2005 but changed nothing. Before doing this it would help to reveal another mistake of Barrow’s.
Numbers at the Battle. For centuries, Scottish historians have believed that about six thousand Scots defeated about twenty thousand English. They argue (Duncan in a letter to me dated 1991) that Barbour says 30,000 Scots defeated 100,000 English, a ratio of about one to three. Since an English army a few years later (taken to be similar) was about 20,000, this ‘means’ that there should be about 6,000 Scots at Bannockburn.
This is demolished by the Charisma-Population Argument in BR (published in the year 2000) on p157,158; BP p95 et seq; GB p41 et seq, BGB p187. It says this: if the population of Scotland in 1314 was 400,000 (Barrow’s figure) it means that about half were men and half women. Of the 200,000 men, half were too old or too young to fight. So the number of men of fighting age was 100,000.
But Bruce was a charismatic leader. Why was it that only 6,000 appeared at Bannockburn? Where were the other 94,000 Scots that day?
In fact, some modern historians think that the population was a million in 1314. In that case, there were 250,000 Scots of fighting age. The question then becomes: where were the other 244,000 Scots? Impossible.
What the argument shows is that the number of Scots at the battle had to be a decent fraction of the population (history is full of examples: when the country is threatened). The only way to resolve the contradiction is to reduce the population to about 320,000 (due to 15 years of warfare, external and internal), recognise that some Scots were anti Bruce (even fought on the other side) and, most of all, that the Scottish numbers were about 25,000. Even then, as Vita, Barbour and Trokelowe tell us there were a lot of Scots and they were hand picked BGB p187. So some were left out. Barbour’s figure was not so far off.
Barrow had nothing to say about this argument! He even put of off others from being aware of it. Why is this? Because his basic premise was that nothing could be determined, opinion was all that was possible. He saw himself as the authority. So his opinion mattered more than anything. Only if a development helped his work would he say anything to support it. The only praise he had for BR was for the population: because, like his own, it was low. The reason why it had to be low was of no interest to him.
Thus Barrow’s many failures had to do with this basic premise: that history can only be a matter of opinion. Since his is the most authoritative, only his counts.
So faced with a more scientific approach wherein sources are examined exhaustively, and maps of the area in 1314 are made the same way after huge effort and written up like a lab experiment, he dismissed it without consideration. This is awful, of course. Scholarship is about getting things right. No one should ever assume that things cannot be proved or even that better ways of proceeding will not be found, as in my case. What Barrow should have done continuously was to scrutinise what he believed in the light of every development. From the very beginning questions should have occurred to him but did not. How could 6,000 Scots beat 20,000 English, far better equipped and experienced? The very idea was ridiculous. How could Small Folk on Gillies Hill be seen from any possible battle site? There was woodland everywhere. Of course he forgot about woodland: treated it like a modern invention. The woodland in the Bannock valley, even today with 25,000 living lose by, still has control. It could never have been cut at any time. It would have seeded everywhere, even while cutting. Why would Bruce even think of fighting a token battle and then disperse into the western wilderness? It was nonsense. If you are not going to fight you get away before you can be captured as his army must have been by the superior enemy cavalry. Why should there have been streams in the Carse when no map has ever shown such a thing? Why assume that there ever was a peat bog there and it had been cleared?
If you want the truth you must make no assumptions whatever and then carefully work very hard to discover what is true. The problems cannot be solved by history alone. It has taken cartography, hundreds of visits to the ground, mathematics (for population), physics (for the cavalry charge and the lance and pike), philosophy (for arguments, my research is nothing else) and even psychology (for the reliability of sources: how to date them, and fix discrepancies {very few, very revealing!} and the philosophy of science {which I once taught} for the status of the results produced; as well as history, of course.
It is easy to see that Barrow (and Duncan) have failed the country and the History Community. Between them they have forced their mistaken ‘views’ on many people some of whom knew they would fail to graduate unless they adopted similar positions.
Look at this. Barrow’s maps on p205 3rd, p270 4th ed. Notice the many gaps in the streams. Now look at p213 3rd, 277 4th. Where are the gaps in the streams? They have all disappeared. What has Barrow been developing? His theory that there is an area known as ‘Les Polles’ which is an area of streams. [So polles = streams, he thinks]. That is what the many gaps are for: to multiply the number of streams and, with the aid of contours, to make it look like an area of streams. The second map has no gaps in those places. So that first map is wonderfully persuasive in telling us that the area is an area of streams. But it is untrue! The area is unusually free of streams GB p165-167. The gaps are too many and too carefully made not to be deliberate. Barrow had 40 years and 4 editions to correct this and never did. More to the point, his belief has been demolished in BR, BP and GB (Ch VI). How is it that no historian ever pointed out this obvious mistake, or set of mistakes? At least five and they could not be accidental.
The fact is that The Carse of Balquhidderock is and always has been an area regularly full of pools of water. That is the site of ‘Les polles’ and les polles = the pools. The numerous photos of the pools in BR in the year 2000 should have told him this. The road across the Carse has always had to zig zag to get around them [GB 2,5, 141-146; BGB p166-168, p174,5]. Streams have never been seen on any map at any time (except for Barrow’s with the gaps).
Why did Barrow not recover this position? Admit his errors? Because he did not think he needed to. His thought his authority was enough. He tried to bury the work, got my papers rejected for no reason worth mentioning. That my work received high praise from other historians (one a QC) cut no ice with him. He thought that with Duncan’s support et al his authority was enough to keep progress at bay: except he did not regard it as progress. How could it be? When it contradicted his work? When your main concern is not the pursuit of the truth but the advancement (and maintenance) of your own authority, what else could be expected? Why did no historian in forty years ever question that silly speculative theory? Some dictionaries have actually taken on board Barrow’s ideas as if they are correct! The battle area has been built up by the Council because of Barrow’s bad work. And it has continued these last 15 years since the publication of BR. It would have stopped if Barrow had said anything positive about BR or my later books.
Duncan is part of this obstruction. In 1997 he published his translation of Barbour’s Bruce and was on the committee for the Dictionary of the old Scottish Tongue. Yet when produced circa 2002 there were no quotes from it about ‘pulis’ as there should have been, as it was viewed as a sacred text by the editor who was surprised and apologetic. Why were they missing? Because he translated ‘pulis’ as streams and BR (2000) showed him that it should be pools, for the photos which proved it were there abundantly. Duncan took out the quotes that would have damaged him. A colleague on that committee volunteered the information to me that ‘Duncan is eccentric.’
So what has happened here is that Barrow and Duncan both believed history was a matter of opinion, their own carried most authority so how could they leave their marks on the subject? Because they had no aptitude for making the novel moves that would solve the problems (did not believe they could be solved), they changed the translations that had been available for many years before which were correct (as I have proved). And their reasons were spurious, non existent!
What needs to be changed are the procedures within the History Community which is ruled by names, titles, authority, everything except originality, insight, questioning, effort and intelligence. Plainly, you are not allowed to question those in control. If you do, you do not graduate. Look at Chris Brown whose Phd was got by his adoption of all Barrow’s daft ideas. They have infected a whole generation. That must be changed.
Historians are not the only people who view themselves as authorities. Most people do. They expect historians, especially professors, to know and since the reason that folk like Barrow and Duncan became historians was a desire to be an authority, of course they promote the idea by any means. It is enough for the historians to pronounce and the world accepts their obiter dicta as holy writ.
Barrow’s book on Bruce looks like high scholarship. It has many references which alone impress the multitude. But it is a dreadful, failed work for it lacks questioning and a determination to find the answers. Barrow never wanted questions. He wanted to make pronouncements. To be the fellow in charge. His legacy, is a generation who have the same mindset. They look to authorities; they do not question, they do not make great efforts to find the right answers, they do not act to see that everything must fit. They do not even collect and study all the sources! They do not value insight or proof or even curiosity because they were never encouraged to develop these. What they were brought up to do is follow their leader, share his presumptions and his style. This is why there are no copies of my works of scholarship in the Heritage Centre. When the current manager was appointed, the Chairman assumed he was her expert. He was given a copy of BR and promised to read it. Nine months later he had still not managed it: it was too much for him. He had never been taught to read a book like that. When I took him and the Chairman round the battle area and showed him the vital page in the Brut y Tywysogyon (p123) his response was: ‘Did you buy that?’ He was astonished that I should have bought such a rare and expensive book. That and thousands of others, was the answer. Any of my supporters could set him an exam on the battle and he would score zero out of a hundred. That is the true value of a degree in history after Barrow and Duncan’s legacy. All he is interested in is authorities, names and titles. Insight, intelligence and originality are outside his mindset. He prefers Barrow’s well demonstrated falsehoods to the truths I have discovered. He has read GB p3 and p31, 32 which proves it. He does not want to stock this book. It means nothing to him. He has never been taught to think for himself, only to follow the prof. That page in the Brut shows that the Battle was fought among pools of water. It is marvellous. That man is still unaware of its significance. What I showed him that day he never even registered.
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on 11 March 2011
Despatch and receipt of the book excellent.However quality of book not as expected even for second hand book.Pages very brown and in bad condition,perhaps review of book before bying was over generous.Quite disappointing really.
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