Sunday, 10 February 2019


A pretty significant thing happened in Musselburgh, a coastal town near to where I live, in 1547. And I don't mean at around 10 to 4 in the afternoon.

But first, let me digress.

A couple of years ago I was filming with a large bunch of teenagers, an abridged version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in and around Craigmillar Castle, about a half hour walk from my apartment in Portobello. It was there that Mary Queen of Scots convalesced after the difficult birth of her son James at Edinburgh Castle in June 1566. She was just 22 years old, and when she was born in late 1542, England and Scotland were two separate countries very much at each others throat.

Henry VIII, who Mary was a great-niece to, had tried to secure an alliance with the Scots by marrying her to his young son, the future Edward VI. But when that failed he tried to do so by force. Scotland entered into an alliance with France in response to Henry VIII declaration of war, which became known as the Rough Wooing.

Though Henry died in early 1547, his successors continued on to try to force Scotland to unite, and in September 1547, they clashed at Pinkie Cleugh, just a half hour walk east from my home now.

The skirmish would become known as the first modern battle, when newly invented artillery and hand held guns were used, in conjunction with traditional bows and arrows.

On a cold but clear February afternoon, Pauline and I set off on a marked path we had no idea even existed, starting at the Roman Bridge in Musselburgh.

To walk across this bridge is to walk in the footsteps of ancient history. 2,000 years ago, the Romans built a bridge here. It was rebuilt on these original foundations in the 1300s, and on an autumn day in 1547, the Scots army would use that bridge, the one we now stood on, to cross the River Esk, and reposition themselves at a higher elevation, during what is known as the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh.

The path we were following led us up old stone steps to the graveyard of St Michael's Church, which commands a breathtaking view, uninterrupted across the Firth of Forth, though the Scots army were not particularly interested in the view in the same way we were. It was clear to see why both armies wanted this position in the battle. Though the Scots reached this position first, the English army were dominant in their superior fire power, and quite literally blew the Scots away, who fled toward the south.

As we left the church grounds we headed east and through the historic village of Inveresk, with it's 18th century buildings, but even in 1547 there would have been a village here, which sits on the edge of the south side of Musselburgh. The path then leaves the now busy road and heads out to farm land, with clear views across and up to Fa'side Castle, which sits atop the faraway ridge.

It was on the slopes of this hill, and the fields in front of us, that 10,000 Scots would meet their deaths at the hands of the superior force of the English, in what was the bloodiest battle of all time up to that point.

It was a devastating defeat to the Scots, but within two years the alliance with France drove the English out of Scotland. The marriage of Mary to Edward had failed to unite the two countries, which would not happen for another 53 years.

The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh would be the last major battle between the two countries. Mary's son James, born just the year before, would go on to be crowned James VI of Scotland, and James I of England, inheriting the throne from Elizabeth I, and thus uniting the crowns, and creating the United Kingdom.

It astonishes me to know that this piece of history is so close to my home, and I've never given it any attention, until now.

With the light failing we cut short our walk through history and turned back toward Musselburgh and coffee and cake, and to plan our return another day soon.

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