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11 Oct 2017

Battling at Bannockburn

Bannockburn battle room
It can be hard getting kids excited about history. Take it from me – I have two wee girls.

So when I heard my nine-year-old, Tara, was about to study Bannockburn at school I seized the opportunity to spice up her learning with some hands-on education. We grabbed our plastic swords and headed off up the M9. As we went we delved back seven centuries and soon lost ourselves in an immersive 3D experience that culminated in actually having to fight the battle ourselves!

My girls – six year old Emma was with us too – love castles and historic houses, but I’d feared getting them excited about a battlefield might be as daunting a task as the heavily outnumbered Scottish forces faced on that fateful day back in 1314. I was not sure too how my English wife would find visiting the scene of arguably Scotland’s greatest ever victory over the Auld Enemy. I needn’t have worried on either account.

After parking up right next to the slick modern visitor centre (which opened in 2014) we were soon in their excellent café fortifying ourselves for the task ahead with kids lunch boxes and hearty pea soup for the grown ups. Through the windows we could see where the Scots camped out on the eve of battle and Robert the Bruce gathered both his forces and his thoughts.

The new visitor experience could not be any more different than the old world of staid Victorian-style museums stuffed with dusty old exhibits that wee ones are forbidden from touching. At Bannockburn you are very much encouraged to touch, engage and interact.

First we entered a room that was awash with period costumes and a gloriously gory collection of medieval weapons. Two National Trust for Scotland ‘squires’ were are on hand to help daddy into his chain mail and hulking metal helmet so he could play the part of Robert the Bruce himself. My girls tried on a zillion different costumes to accompany me on my road to battle. They could have stayed in here for hours and loved the idea of not just hearing about history, but literally stepping into the clothes of people who were part of the story.

Robin McKelvie at Bannockburn
Daddy the Bruce

It was time now to get down to business. We had pre-booked our slot at the 3D Experience. Booking ahead is strongly recommended as it is so popular. It has won a string of awards and it’s popular for good reason we realised as soon as our colourful guide boomed a welcome and we donned our 3D glasses to enter the spectacular first room.

My wife appreciated that from the outset this was a battlefield visitor centre that would very much look at things from both sides. The 3D films showed the points of view of England and Scotland and their rationale behind edging towards this pivotal showdown. As we learned more about the background to the fighting we could feel ourselves, like the soldiers of the day, edging closer and closer to the looming battle.

This sense of anticipation reached fever pitch once inside the main 3D room. Here we learned all about the myriad weapons and some of the tactics that would have been crucial to the chance of victory back in the fourteenth century. It really made a difference that the girls would have to use these skills later when we entered the Battle Room. With our guide teasing and cajoling in equal measure with his booming Scots brogue the girls really were immersed in the experience.

The 3D Experience works on so many levels. I liked that you could walk around the room hearing the stories of various protagonists, like English and Scottish knights. My wife found hearing the stories of the ‘commoners’ fascinating. These untrained poorly armed citizens, such as cooks and servants, helped sway the course of history on the second day when they joined they fray with Edward II’s forces reportedly fleeing thinking they were in fact proper reinforcements.

Inside the 3D Experience - coming face to face with the characters who fought in 1314
Inside the 3D Experience - coming face to face with the characters who fought in 1314

We were split into teams now and brilliantly the guide purposely separated the girls. Bannockburn did pitch some Scots against their fellow Scots and this mirrored that. My two girls would be doing what they do all too often at home – squabbling from opposing sides! This time the future of Scotland would be at stake. As we headed for the Battle Room our guide reiterated that history was up for grabs and the battle could go either way.

We filed into the high tech Battle Room and took our stations as the lights dimmed. It felt like we were in some high stakes game show with Scotland’s future tantalisingly in the balance I liked that instead of kings two opposing queens were appointed. I ended up fighting for the English along with my eldest, with my wife and wee Emma excitedly staring back at us from the Scottish positions across the battlefield that lay between us.

After setting the scene and patiently explaining how it all worked we were off. Everyone was in charge of their own troops, whether they be footsoldiers, archers or cavalry. Learning from what I know about the history of the battle I urged we take the high ground to the west away from the bogs of Bannockburn. Some of our more ambitious leaders took a more direct route for Stirling Castle and were decimated on the old Roman road. Undeterred England battled on, at one point coming within sight of the Queen of Scotland. Capturing her would have brought the English a famous victory.

The Battle Room - the McKelvie family get ready for battle
The Battle Room - the McKelvie family get ready for battle

Sadly, although Tara and my cavalry and archers did not suffer a single casualty, and my wife and Emma’s troops were all routed, Scotland pulled off yet another against the odds victory. They may have been outnumbered and outgunned, but the canny Scots and their young Queen for the day outfoxed us to counter our advance to Ghillie’s Hill and capture the Queen of England at St Ninian’s, hence winning what we all agreed would now be called the ‘Battle of St. Ninian’s’.

We had one last thing to do and that was to pay homage to the great man himself. We eked up through an avenue of trees to the monumental bronze statue of Robert the Bruce. Approaching his mighty figure it all came together with the prize of Stirling Castle lying in the distance and Bruce dominating the battlefield that sprawled before us from his lofty perch.

Walking through history - paying respects to Robert the Bruce
Walking through history - paying respects to Robert the Bruce

Although Scotland won our battle too we had changed history with the main action unfolding far from where it did back in 1314. We had learned about the tactics and the weapons used that day and, learning more from the characters who fought on all sides, employed our education where it mattered most – on the battlefield. Tara was delighted. “That was so cool, even better than school!” she skipped. She was right and I was proud that she would be marching off to school armed with a hands-on experience of one of the most crucial battles in Scotland’s tumultuous history.

Tara checks out the terrain at Bannockburn
Tara checks out the terrain at Bannockburn

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