Excerpted from Chapter 15 of The History of the Burgh of Dumfries, by C L Johnstone, published in 1878
After the burning of Alnwick, a truce for seven years was agreed upon between the two kingdoms; but, owing to the commotions in both, resulting from the weakness of their respective Governments, it was soon broken, the English in this instance being the aggressors. A large body of them, under the command of the younger Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, made an incursion into Annandale, burning several villages, and carrying off all the goods they could lay hands upon. Luckily, Douglas was not far distant from the post of duty and danger. Falling upon the retiring Southrons, he made them accelerate their retreat, and yield up all the spoil with which they were burdened. So far, so well; but Douglas, for reasons of his own, wished to widen the area of the war-field, in order to counteract the coalition formed against him by King James, now aged seventeen, the questionable Crichton, and Kennedy, the patriotic Bishop of St. Andrews. He therefore mustered a large army, and, under the plea of revenging a wrong for which he had already exacted a heavy penalty, entered Cumberland. Not contented with imposing upon it an ordinary amount of punishment, he acted with such merciless severity that it was reduced to the condition of a desert. Not only the barons on the English side of the Border, but the whole nation, felt aggrieved and indignant on account of this ferocious Douglas raid: forgetting how often Dumfriesshire had been gratuitously pillaged by them, and that for one complaint against the Scots, the latter could have preferred fifty against those who were loudly crying for vengeance, and busy preparing to exact it with their might.
Early in 1449, an army, that has been variously estimated at from 14,000 to 40,000, entered the County by the ordinary passage, and encamped on the banks of the Sark – the little stream that, after forming the boundary line between the kingdoms for a few miles, flows into the Solway. The force, which probably did not exceed 20,000 men in number, was commanded by the Earl of Northumberland and his son, the later anxious to wipe out the disgrace of his defeat in the preceding year. Not encountering any opposition, the invaders began forthwith to pillage and destroy. Whilst so employed, news was brought by their scouts that a Scottish army was advancing, as if for the purpose of giving them battle - information which proved strictly correct, the force from the north being about 12,000 strong, under the leadership of Douglas’s brother, George, Earl of Ormond. The conflict that ensued was, says Chalmers, “one of the greatest fought between two spirited nations, from the engagement at Homildon, in 1402, till the battle fought in Dumfriesshire since the formation of the Scottish monarchy.
As the Scots drew near, the English recalled their marauding parties, and prepared for the threatened encounter. They had the advantage of choosing their own ground; and, having selected what seemed to be a favorable spot, adjoining their tents, they calmly waited the coming onset. The centre was commanded by the two Percys; the right by one whose valour, bodily strength, and implacable hatred of the Scots, gained for him that distinction – a warrior whom the chroniclers of the period call Magnus Redbeard; while the left, composed chiefly of Welshmen, was entrusted to Sir John Pennington. [Pitscottie.] The centre of Ormond’s force was directed by himself; Herbert, the first Lord Maxwell of Carlaverock [He was twice married: first to a daughter of Sir Herbert Herries of Terregles, by whom he had two sons, Robert, second Lord Maxwell, and Sir Edward Maxwell, from the latter of whom are descended the Maxwells of Linwood and Monteith; and secondly to a daughter of Sir William Seton of Seton, by whom he had, with other issue, George, ancestor of the Maxwells of Carnsalloch, and Adam, of the Maxwells of Southbar.], and Sir Adam Johnstone of Lochwood, led the right wing, in opposition to Sir John Pennington; while Wallace of Craigie, a lineal descendant of the great patriot, conducted the left against the redoubtable Magnus.
Ormond, we are told, delivered a spirited address to his countrymen, based chiefly on the idea that “thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.” He prudently said nothing about his brother’s excesses, but dwelt strongly on the fact that the guilt of first breaking the truce lay with their old enemies the English. Justice was on the side of his countrymen; and they might therefore, he said, expect victory to smile upon their efforts. They had their homes to protect, their country’s honour to maintain – considerations which ought to stimulate their valour; and then, if success crowned their bravery, they would cover themselves with glory, and purchase a lengthened peace for the district and the nation. If the leader of the invaders said anything to them, the burden of it would doubtless be revenge for the cruel Douglas raid; but he either was silent, wishing to speak by deeds, and not by words, or there was no reporter in the camp to take down his eloquent address, or chronicler to put one into his mouth worthy of the occasion.
As usual, most of the Scots were armed with the national weapon – a pike or spear – the length of which was fixed by Parliament at six ells, or eighteen feet six inches. A phalanx so armed was all but invincible. “Standing at defence,” says the author of the “Journal of Somerset’s Expedition,” “they thrust shoulders likewise so nigh together, the fore ranks well nigh kneeling stoop low before, their fellows behind holding their pikes with both hands, and therewith in their left their bucklers, the one end of their pike against their right foot, and the other against the enemy, breast high, their followers crossing their pike’s point with them forward; and thus each with other so nigh as space and place will suffer, through the whole ward, so thick, that as easily shall a bare finger pierce through the skin of an angry hedgehog as any encounter the front of their pikes.”
Had the Scots at Sark been on the defensive, and attacked hand to hand by the enemy, the pikes would have vindicated the truth of the national motto, as they had often done on former fields: but when Wallace of Craigie marshaled his spearmen, there was no foe within reach; and a shower of missiles was rained down upon them from a distant eminence with irresistible effect. In this ominous way the battle was initiated, and seemed almost on the point of being decided against the Scots. Great gaps were formed in their left wing, which wavered in consequence, and appeared on the verge of being thrown into inextricable confusion – the sure prelude of a general panic and flight.
It is at a crisis such as this that generalship is invaluable. Wallace possessed military genius worthy of his great ancestor: he apprehended at once the full import of the danger in which, not only his own division, but the whole army, was placed; and he was not slow in devising relief. Addressing his soldiers, he said, “Why do we stand for thus, to be wounded afar off? Follow me, and let us join in hand-strokes, where true valour is only to be seen!” His men were reanimated by this appeal. They had not the passive endurance to enable them to stand much longer the arrow flights that were drinking their hearts’ blood; but they had courage sufficient to assail a host, however numerous or strongly posted.
The leader’s words were followed by corresponding action. What avail bow and arrow to the gallant English archers, who had so nearly decided the day, now that two thousand Scottish spearmen have crossed the intervening ground, and are grappling in close quarters with their assailants! Magnus the Redbearded stands aghast as he sees his ranks thinned and reeling. Why, when the right wing is decimated and threatened with total ruin, does no supporting force come to it from the centre? Whether it was that the nature of the ground forbade such a movement, or that Northumberland was so engaged in baffling Ormond that he had no men to spare, certain it is the leader of the English right found, to his dismay, that it was doomed to fight and suffer unaided. If the prowess of an individual could have redeemed the fortunes of the field, the superhuman exertions made by Magnus would have accomplished that result. He could not revive the courage of his followers, nor arrest the merciless march of their assailants; but he could die in harness like a dauntless warrior as he was. Surrounded by a few personal adherents, he kept his ground, nay, actually advanced in face of that bristling forest of spears, anxious, it is supposed, to engage in a personal combat with the Scottish chief – a fate which was not vouchsafed to him, as he fell, by some unknown hand, among heaps of slain.
The overthrow of the right division of the English might not in itself have led to their entire defeat; but when that disaster was followed by the death of Magnus, and both events became known over the entire army, a sore discouragement was the result. It would seem that the fighting on other parts of the field was mere child’s play, as compared with that in which the divisions led by Magnus and Wallace were engaged. The English fully anticipated that their archers would decide the battle in their favour; and being disappointed in this respect, they appear to have lost heart. At all events, they made no adequate effort, in the centre and left, to atone for the loss of the right division and its leader. They fought on doggedly, however, for a while – hopeless of success, yet loath to retire – till, pressed on all sides by the impetuous and exulting enemy, they at length gave way along their whole line. When the general retreat took place, the slaughter in their ranks was terrific. Three thousand of their numbers fell whilst the battle raged, and more than that number perished by the sword of the pursuer, or in the blood-dyed waters of the Sark, on whose banks they had the day before indulged in merry wassail. The Sark, as has been mentioned, is only a small river, but the retreating English found it swollen by the tide, and rushing fierce, like the conquering Scots, as if the latter had been in league with the Solway against the enemies of their nation.
Many men of rank, including the younger Percy and Sir John Pennington, were made prisoners, together with hundreds of gentlemen and common soldiers. According to Buchanan, the spoil in money, arms, and equipments that rewarded the victors “was greater than ever had been known in any former battle;” and a tradition, still current in the locality, tells of fabulous heaps of gold pieces being found by fortunate rustics on the banks of the Sark, generations after their luckless owners perished by flood or field. In this memorable battle the Scots lost only six hundred men, in addition to the wounded, who may be estimated at three times that number. There was, however, on sad drawback to their triumph – the brave Wallace of Craigie, to whose skill it was chiefly due, having died three months afterwards of wound he received during the heat of the conflict.
[The authorities relied on for the account given of this battle are chiefly Pitscottie and Buchanan.]