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The Battle of Dunbar 1650

The First Battle of Dunbar

27 April 1296

Although the battle of 1650 is the most famous, it was not the first battle to be fought near Dunbar. Nor was it the only time a Scottish army faced defeat beneath the shadow of Doon Hill. That dubious honour falls to the First Battle of Dunbar in 1296, also known as the Battle of Spottismuir.


Spottismuir was a very significant encounter, although the documentary evidence for the detail of what took place is fairly poor. It was the first battle of what became known as the Scottish Wars of Independence, and the disastrous outcome had important consequences.


After the unexpected death of King Alexander III in 1286, the Scottish leadership had eventually invited Edward I of England to arbitrate between competing claims to the throne. He ruled in favour of John Balliol, but support came at a prince: Balliol was expected to acknowledge Edward as his feudal overlord.


King John of Scotland's reign was no happier than his namesake of England's had been, and his nobles chafed when Edward began asserting his feudal rights. Eventually they obliged John to disobey his assertive neighbour, leading to an irreperable breach. Edward invaded Scotland, sacking the prosperous border burgh of Berwick. He then sent around a third of his army ahead to lay siege to Dunbar Castle, which lay on the line of march to Edinburgh.


The Scottish nobles, effectively taking control from their king, seized upon the opportunity to attack the English force at Dunbar whilst Edward and the rest of the army was still in Berwick. They rushed out of Haddington and seized the high ground at Brunt Hill, overlooking the valley of the Spott Burn.


The English force beseiging Dunbar Castle was heavily outnumbered, but included formidable heavy cavalry and in John de Warrenne, Earl of Surrey, it had an experienced commander. Surrey led his force south from Dunbar, confidently confronting the larger enemy army. For reasons which remain unclear, possibly because they misinterpreted the English movements as they crossed the Spott Burn and suspected a retreat, the Scottish army launched an indisciplined attack down the broken and uneven slope. Seeing the Scots lines disordered and uncontrolled, the English forces counter-charged over Spott moor and smashed them. The small Scots cavalry force was overwhelmed, the knights and lords captured. Leaderless and at the mercy of the enemy horse, the Scots foot broke and fled. When King Edward arrived in person the next day Dunbar Castle surrendered.


Although casualties at the battle were probably fairly light, the decisive encounter ended serious formal resistance to Edward's campaign. King John was soon captured and de-throned, and the Stone of Scone seized.


But the most important outcome of Spottismuir was the discrediting or capturing of Scotland's natural leadership. Into the void emerged new heroes, at least one of which had been at Dunbar: Andrew de Moray and William Wallace.

The First Battle of Dunbar. The English army enter

The First Battle of Dunbar is not currently marked with any interpretation or monument, but it is registered on the list of Historic Scottish Battlefields. The Trust held a family day to mark the 720th anniversary in 2016, and hopes to install a plaque in the coming years. The image below shows the narrow confines of the Spott Burn valley, where some of the fighting may have occurred.