The Battle of the River Dee took place on the 29th of June, 1308.
Despite being described by the Romans as the ‘Last Frontier’, Scotland wasn’t such a backwater as not to have been known to the Greeks. Indeed, the River Dee was referred to as the River Deva, by no less a personage than Ptolemy and in his 2nd Century work, ‘Geography’. Not knowing too much about geography, but able to read the lie of the land, Robert the Bruce’s brother, Edward, fought a battle near the River Dee in 1308. After defeat and flight following the Battle of Methven, Robert Bruce and his band of guerillas made their reappearance in Scotland, in April of 1307, landing in the south-west, in Bruce’s Earldom of Carrick. He was close to the English border, where many of the local castles were still held by the forces of Edward I of England. In addition, the Balliol Lordship of Galloway, Balliol’s allies in Argyll and the Comyn lands in the north-east were all hostile to Bruce and his cause.
Whilst the Bruce landed in Carrick, his brothers, Thomas and Alexander, attempted a landing on the shores of Loch Ryan. There, they met with disaster at the hands of Dungal MacDouall (Dungall MacDubhgall), the principal Balliol supporter in Galloway. Thomas and Alexander’s small army recruited from Ireland and the Isles was destroyed, and MacDouall sent the Bruce brothers to Carlisle, where they were later executed on the orders of Edward I. This left Robert and Edward Bruce with a score to settle.
Bruce’s early misfortunes and setbacks provided him with a valuable lesson in tactics. He knew that the limitations in manpower, weapons and equipment meant that the Scots would always be at a disadvantage in conventional medieval warfare. By the time hostilities were rejoined, in that spring of 1307, Bruce and his men had learnt the value of guerrilla warfare. This became known at the time as the ‘secret war’ and involved the use of fast moving, lightly equipped forces against an enemy often locked in to static defensive positions.
Robert the Bruce and his men managed to establish a base in the hill country of Carrick and Galloway. They had enemies all around, but managed to evade them and won some small victories, including at Glen Trool, where he ambushed an English cavalry force led by John Mowbray. The following month, Bruce went on to win his first important engagement at the Battle of Loudon Hill. His old enemy, Aymer de Valence, was in command of the main English force and in May, the Bruce got his revenge for Methven. The English Knight managed to escape, fleeing to the safety of Bothwell Castle. Three days later, the Bruce defeated another English force under the Earl of Gloucester.
The greatest boost to his cause came two months afterwards, at Burgh-on-Sands. King Edward I of England, known variously as ‘Longshanks’ and ‘The Hammer of the Scots’, died on the 7th of July, 1307, within sight of a Scotland he had resolved to conquer once and for all. He had raised a great army, which marched north against Robert the Bruce, but he never reached the border. He was bedridden before the army was raised and didn’t do any marching north, for he was carried in wagons or on a litter. As Bruce’s scouts watched from their vantage points across the border, Edward’s simpering son disbanded the army and returned to London. Bruce breathed a sigh of relief.
Robert the Bruce needed the breathing space. He had recognised the seasonal nature of English invasions, which swept over the country during the summer months, only to withdraw before the onset of winter. That summer of 1307 gave him an opportunity as Edward II was preoccupied with his own affairs. Bruce’s strategy was to use the time to secure a hold throughout Scotland, by destroying the power of those Scottish opponents who had allied themselves with England. After he had effective control of Scotland, he could turn his attention to expelling the English from their castle strongholds.
Within a year, King Robert I was in possession of a huge belt of Scottish territory. Leaving his brother Edward in command in Galloway, Bruce had first gone north-east to deal with John Comyn. By late 1307, he had captured several castles in a sweeping campaign and had swung back to threaten Elgin. His activities finally tempted the Comyn into battle and Bruce was able to destroy the Earl’s army at the Battle of Inverurie. After that victory, the Bruce defeated the English garrison at Aberdeen then set about laying waste the Comyn lands in what became known as ‘The Herschip of Buchan’.
Then, in the early summer of 1308, Bruce crossed over to the west to deal with Argyll, where his truce with John (Eóin) MacDougall, also known as John Bacach or Lame John of Lorne, had expired. John MacDougall was a Balliol supporter and was in communication with Edward II, to whom he had sent a letter stating that Robert the Bruce’s power was becoming increasingly difficult to live with. He wasn’t wrong.
Bruce’s large force encountered the Argyll men in the lee of Ben Cruachan, but MacDougall’s planned ambush was foiled by a counter ambush led by James Douglas and a troop of Highlanders. The Battle of the Pass of Brander, in August, 1308, was another victory for Robert the Bruce. He then went on to take Dunstaffnage Castle, the main MacDougall seat and last major stronghold of the Comyns. Lame John fled into England, leaving his father to make peace with King Robert I.
During the Bruce’s foray into Argyll, his only surviving brother Edward was actively pursuing a campaign on his behalf in the south-west; in Galloway and Douglasdale. Edward had his own successes in 1308, including the Battle of Kirroughtree, and his activities in Galloway were noted for their savagery. That campaign was a brief whirlwind of destruction. One of the key strongholds in the south-west was Buittle Castle, the seat of Devorguilla (Devorgilla), wife and widow of John Balliol, and mother of King John Balliol.
The crucial battle of Edward Bruce’s campaign through Dumfries and Galloway took place on the 29th of June, 1308. In that battle, Sir Edward Bruce defeated a mixed force commanded by Dungal MacDouall of Galloway and the English Knights, Sir Ingram de Umfraville and Sir Aymer de St John, on the banks of the River Dee. The battle took place near Buittle Castle, at a ford on the River, by which means the routed Balliol and Comyn supporters, together with their English paymasters, made their escape.
Dungal MacDouall was driven out with all his kin and many other local chiefs were slain. However, MacDouall, the man responsible for the capture of Thomas and Alexander Bruce wasn’t one of those captured. He fled to England, and when John of Lorne died there, in 1316, he left Dungal MacDowall of Galloway in charge of his will.
By mid-summer of 1308, the three districts where Comyn and Balliol loyalty was strongest, namely Buchan, Argyll and Galloway, were under the control of the King. He then set out to retake all of the English held castles and, with the surrender of Buittle in March, 1313, Stirling Castle became the last English stronghold remaining in Scotland. Every other castle had been captured and destroyed, and every enemy soldier either slaughtered or driven out.