The Battle of Barra was fought on the 23rd of May, 1308.
Here is a battle, the name of which might cause some confusion as does the date. The Battle of Barra is variously known as the Battle of Inverurie, the Battle of Meldrum or the Battle of Old Meldrum (Oldmeldrum). It was fought in the vicinity of all of those places, but closest to the hill from which it takes it proper name; the Hill of Barra or Barra Hill. Even the hill has two names! The battle should not be confused with a skirmish at Slioch, near Huntly, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, 1307, nor with another confrontation at Slioch on the 31st of December. Barra was definitely a later event, although how much later is in dispute and not just because Barbour, obviously confused by Slioch, makes the date Christmas. According to the Scotichronicon, the Battle of Barra was fought on Ascension Day; the 23rd of May, 1308. According to the chronicle of John of Fordun, it was the 22nd of May.
Caroline Bingham, in her eponymous biography ‘Robert the Bruce’, has the battle in late January or early February of 1308. Bingham’s argument centres on the unlikelihood of ‘the Bruce’ having captured several castles in the north and besieged Elgin for a second time “before settling with [John Comyn] the Earl of Buchan.” As that unsuccessful attack on Elgin occurred in April, Bingham maintains that the Battle of Barra must have been fought earlier. Ignoring Bruce’s physical state, the idea of ‘settling’ with Comyn before tackling any of those motte and bailey castles doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The way to tackle Comyn power in the north was precisely to attack his strongholds and those of his supporters and kin. Taking and destroying castles was a modus operandi the Bruce used throughout the First War of Independence. When Comyn came to battle, it was on Bruce’s terms, with Buchan’s power bases, vital lines of support and supply damaged.
Bingham makes another point, which is that having fallen ill near Inverurie and retreated to some form of refuge at Slioch before the New Year, and still suffering from his illness at the time of the Battle of Barra, had the battle occurred in May, Bruce surely would have been too ill to have captured all those castles in the spring. As all accounts seem to agree that Bruce needed the help of two of his men to sit on his horse during the battle, there’s no argument that he was incapacitated. If the battle was earlier than commonly agreed, the assumption is that Bruce had time to recover after Slioch, but before the assault on the castles. However, that same assumption means it is not unreasonable to argue that if Bruce was in robust health, enough to have attacked castles in March and April, he could have suffered a relapse prior to Barra in May.
What’s more worthy of investigation is whether indeed Bruce’s army, which began as a force of around three thousand men, would have marched up the Great Glen; taken Castle Urquhart and Inverness; attacked Elgin and Banff; marched east through the Garioch to Inverurie (where and when Bruce fell ill); diverted to Slioch; moved on to Strathbogie; moved west to attack the castles of Balvenie, Duffus, and Tarradale in the Black Isle; headed back east and attacked Elgin for a second time in April; before arriving back in the neighbourhood of Inverurie in May, ready for a battle, albeit having dwindled to a mere seven hundred, but only after mopping up the castles of Slains, Kinedar, Rattray, Dundarg, Kelly, Fyvie, Kintore, and Aboyne on route.
That seems like a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and is less likely if Bruce was indeed ill for the duration. The question is whether that circuitous route from east to west and up and around and back again is reasonable for Bruce to have undertaken, regardless of his physical state. Only the diversions to Balvenie, perhaps to a small extent, and Tarradale, for certain, are somewhat illogical. It may be the case that Bruce didn’t go as far as Tarradale. It’s reasonable to suggest that castle could’ve been taken by the same Sir William Wiseman who captured Skelbo, in Sutherland, on behalf of ‘the Bruce’. However, the acid test is Fyvie, in that if it’d been captured by Bruce in the spring, those escaping from the rout of Inverurie (Barra in May) wouldn’t have been able to flee “for twelve leagues as far as Fyvie” as the Scotichronicon claims.
The Battle of Barra was fought in the lee of Barra Hill, between the armies of the Scottish King, Robert Bruce, and his chief domestic ‘enemy’ John Comyn, the 3rd Earl of Buchan. Though part of the First War of Scottish Independence, Barra was more realistically just one battle in the long running Scottish Civil War, which lasted for seventy years between 1286 and 1356. On the day preceding the battle, Comyn, David de Brechin, and the rest of Buchan’s makeshift army, made camp at Meldrum. Bruce’s main force occupied a position to the south west, on the Meldrum side of the township of Inverurie.
At dawn, let’s say on the 23rd of May, de Brechin launched a surprise attack, most likely by Souterford. Not only did the errant de Brechin surprise the King’s men, he took Buchan by surprise as the Earl’s main contingent was too far behind to back up any advantage he’d gained. As Buchan sensibly drew up his army between the Hill of Barra and the marshes of the Lochter Burn, two of Bruce’s faithful lieutenants got him out of bed, propped him on his horse and rode out to challenge the enemy. Legend has it that the Earl of Buchan’s feudal levies were so shocked at the appearance of Bruce, whom they’d been told was ill and no doubt dying, that they turned and fled “as far as Fyvie.” In any event, the battle was a bit of a rout and it was all over by coffee break.
Another legend concerns the so-called ‘Bruce’s Seat’; a stone that King Robert is said to have sat upon as he directed the battle. That stone is now established by the roundabout on the Oldmeldrum by-pass, having been moved from Barra Hill. There is another stone associated with the battle, which is known as the ‘Grenago Stane’ or the ‘Groaning Stone’. The ‘Groaner’ can be found on the 14th fairway of the Oldmeldrum golf course – and on the club’s emblem or logo. The legend of the ‘Groaner’, which is really part of a long gone stone circle, has it that the Earl of Buchan lay down behind the stone, groaning and moaning about the loss of his troops.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Barra, Robert the Bruce took no chances of leaving a hostile territory in his rear as he turned to head south and west to deal with Galloway. Before he left Buchan, Bruce carried out the drastic action that came to be known as the ‘Herschip of Buchan’. The violent and bloody devastation Bruce inflicted on the north east, burning and ravaging the houses and farms of the local population, and the strongholds of its Comyn lords and masters, remained in living memory for generations after the event. It was a spiteful act of vengeance against his own people, akin to the terrible examples of terrorism inflicted in the borders by his erstwhile overlord, Edward Longshanks.