Following the death of King Robert I, those previously disinherited by their failure to swear fealty to him (namely the Balliols and Beaumonts) decided the time was ripe for their return to Scotland. In 1332, Edward Balliol and Henry Beaumont, 4th Earl of Buchan struck north, defeating Bruce loyalists at the Battle of Dupplin Moor. The following year, with the full support of King Edward III of England, the pair returned, marching upon, and besieging the strategically important port town of Berwick (now Berwick-Upon-Tweed).
The siege lasted months, with Guardian of Scotland Archibald Douglas (brother of Sir James ‘the Good’ and ‘the Black’) taking his time to muster an army, rather than leaping to Berwick’s defence. Whilst the siege went unchallenged, soldiers under Balliol, Beaumont, and Edward III’s command ransacked the Borders, taking whatever they wanted or needed in order to supply the besieging army at Berwick. With the presence of the English king at Berwick, however, Archibald Douglas was finally compelled to enter the fray, taking his (now-considerable) army south across the border. Anticipating the arrival of the Scots, Edward III’s army took up position on Halidon Hill – a commanding viewpoint from which any approach on Berwick could be sighted and moved against. (Any attempt by Douglas to by-pass the hill and march directly on Berwick would have been quickly overwhelmed.) Crossing the Tweed to the west of the English position, Scotland’s Guardian reached the town of Duns on 19th July 1333. The following day, he drew his forces into position on a hill facing Halidon.
The ground between Scotland’s and England’s armies, positioned atop the two hills, was low and boggy. Edward III had not budged in over a week, despite Scottish forays against English-held Tweedmouth and Bamburgh; and they were not about to move now. Whilst Scottish schiltrons had been effective against cavalry in the battles of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn, it should have been obvious to Douglas that the battlefield at Halidon Hill was such that the day would not be determined by horseback warfare. Knowing how devastating English archers were against Scotland’s schiltrons, the sensible decision would have been to withdraw and fight another day, at some other location. Archibald Douglas, however, would not back down, and so despite all common sense, he attacked.
Descending from their position into the marshy hollow below Halidon Hill, the Scottish forces became embogged, and were easily picked apart by English archers. In fact, the battle was a catastrophe for Scotland, incurring heavy losses among their ranks, with relatively few suffered by the English. When fighting stopped, the battlefield was a grim place; the Guardian Archibald lay dead, alongside five other earls, thousands of commoners, and perhaps as many as ninety knights. In the battle’s aftermath, most of the country’s natural leaders were dead, and the few who remained had gone into hiding. Scotland was prostrate. The English victory was so complete, that it was believed at the time to have brought a final end to the war with Scotland.
One of the few Borderers to survive the battle was Sir Michael Scott of Rankilburn, and according to Turnbull tradition, it is said that the fight was preceded by hand-to-hand combat. William Turnebull apparently stood before the English army, a mastiff dog by his side, challenging any of the English to single combat. English knight Sir Robert Benhale accepted, slaying Turnebull’s dog, and removing one of William’s arms, before severing his head. The gory defeat of Turnbull was observed by both sides before the Scots ordered their advance – surely an ill omen, which unfortunately for Scotland went unheeded.