A view of the Bishop's Castle from the south west just before the Reformation in 1560. The Cathedral is in the background.

There isn't a great deal known of this alleged encounter but here we attempt to discover the facts about the ‘Battle of the Bell o’ the Brae’ and the history of the bridge over the Molendinar Burn to Glasgow Cathedral. 

Early Glasgow  by Sir James D. Marwick  (1911)
Blind Harry’s account of Wallace’s battle against the English in Glasgow at the end of the 13th century was retold in a book by Andrew Brown in 1795 and again in 1804 by Andrew Denholm and they had accepted it as fact.  It is also mentioned by Dr. Cleland in his “Annals of the Town” referring to it as ‘The Battle of the Bell of the Brae’.

Medieval Glasgow  by Rev. James Primrose (1913)

Primrose says that when Bishop Wishart, James the Steward, Robert Bruce and the rest of the Scottish nobility capitulated to the English army at Irvine on 9th July 1297, Wallace was infuriated, and according to King Edward I’s secretary, “proceeded to the bishop’s house” generally thought to mean Glasgow Castle, “and carried off all his furniture, arms and horses”

This is possibly the same event referred to by Blind Harry, who has Wallace ride from Ayr to Glasgow and divide his force into two.  He headed one half of his men and advanced up the “playne street”, understood to be present day High Street, near where it joins Rottenrow, where “for many a day was a steep and rocky ascent known as The Bell O’ the Brae”.

Here Wallace clashed with the English, while the second section of Wallace’s men came up the Drygate and attacked the English rearguard.  This surprise appearance of a second force had the effect of demoralising the English and resulted in a complete victory for the Scots and left Wallace in command of Glasgow Castle.

Primrose says that the bridge that Blind Harry mentions which Wallace crossed is now known as (in 1913) Ladywell Street and was once known as ‘Wallace’s Brig’

One historian, a Mr. Pagan, in his “Sketches of Glasgow” in 1847, rejects the whole thing as a fable.

From a personal viewpoint, although it must be understood that descriptions of events from so long ago have gone through many changes and embellishments, it is often the case that these embroidered tales usually evolve around a grain of fact, and as such, are worthwhile recording.

Glasgow Castle was first mentioned in 1258 and its ruins were demolished in 1792 when the Royal Infirmary was built.   The bridge replacing ‘Wallace’s Brig’ was built over the Molendinar Burn in 1833 and became known as ‘The Bridge of Sighs’.  The burn itself was later culverted in 1873.

Glasgow Cathedral, with the so called Wallace Bridge over the Molendinar. From watercolour by Thomas Hearn circa 1775.

Andrew Aird 1894
Among the many places made sacred by the deeds of Sir William Wallace is the Bell o' the Brae in High Street. Wallace had vowed unceasing enmity to the English invaders of his native land, and his mighty sword had cleared a considerable part of Scotland from under their sway. In 1297, accompanied by 300 horsemen, he rode from Ayr to Glasgow, and, reaching the town, divided his small force into two companies, one of which marched up the High Street, the other making a circuit so that the two bodies would meet near the head of the street.

Here the English, 1,000 strong, under Earl Percy, were attacked front and rear, and fled discomfited after their leader had fallen by the sword of the Scottish patriot. Wallace pursued them, and encountering another party of English near Bothwell routed them. Two months afterwards he fought and won the battle of Stirling Bridge.

Extract from The History of Glasgow
By Robert Renwick LL.D. and Sir John Lindsay L.D. in 3 volumes (1921)
Engraving by William Byrne from drawing by Thomas Hearne of the Cathedral Church of Glasgow and Episcopal Palace.

To about this time may be assigned the encounter known as the battle of the Bell o' the Brae. An animated passage in the metrical narrative of Harry the Minstrel describes how Wallace overcame a body of English troops in the streets of Glasgow.

The story is circumstantially told and vouched by the expression "as weyll witnes the buk," suggesting that the minstrel was proceeding on something more substantial than oral tradition.

Starting from Ayr one evening, Wallace and his band rode "to Glasgow bryg, that byggit was of tre," which they reached next morning at nine. Here the attacking party was formed into two divisions. One division, under the laird of Auchinleck, "for he the pasage kend," made a detour, and seems to have crossed the Clyde above the town, while the other division, headed by Wallace, marched up the "playne streyt" leading to the castle, and attacked the garrison in front.

Then at the opportune moment Auchinleck's division rushed in by "the north east raw" (i.e. the modern Drygait), " and partyt Sotheron rycht sodeynly in twvn." Thus pressed in front and surprised in rear, the garrison forces were completely routed,and fled to Bothwell, there joining another English army, who checked the further pursuit of Wallace and his men. The retreat is thus described:

"Out off the gait die byschope Beik thai lede,
For than thaim thocht it was no tyme to bide,
By the Frer Kyrk, til a worde fast besyde.
In that forest, forsuth, thai taryit nocht;
On fresche horss to Bothwell sone thai socht.
Wallace followed with worthie men and wicht."
[The Wallace, book vii. lines 515-616]

At that time, the open ground cast of the Blackfriars' Kirk and the woods and fields beyond, would afford the readiest route in the retreat to Bothwell. The narrative is true to the locality in outstanding features; and, keeping in mind that Wallace, from his early days, was well acquainted with the district, that he had the co-operation of the bishop, and was on intimate terms with his co-patriots, the monks of Paisley, [See The Abbey of Paisley, by Dr. J. Cameron Lees (1878), chap. x.] As a reward for the patriotism of the monks during the wars of Wallace and Bruce, the English burned their monastery in 1307 [Glasgow Memorials, pp. 28, 29).] who had dwellings and dependents in Glasgow, and that these dependents had the opportunity of knowing and communicating to Wallace the most favourable time and place of attack, it would have been strange if some attempt had not been made to molest the English garrison.

Notwithstanding the absence of notice in the scant remains of contemporary chronicles, and though some of the details are erroneous or exaggerated, there is reason to believe that the account of the battle of the "Bell o' the Brae was founded on a real incident in the career of our national hero.

Bell O' the Brae, High Street Glasgow, looking North.

All the chief writers regarding the history of Glasgow, as a matter of course, give an account of the Battle of the High Street; in which the patriot Wallace fought and defeated the Southerns at the Bell o’ the Brae. Such accounts are derived, of necessity, with more or less accuracy, from the narrative given by Blind Harry in his national heroic poem of Wallace. MacGregor (History of Glasgow) furnishes two accounts, one from Brown’s History of Glasgowand the other from Carrick’s Life of Sir William Wallace.

Both of these versions are in prose, whereas, of course, the original is in verse. Blind Harry’s account is manifestly taken from tradition, and although it is probably right in the main, it is certainly mixed up with some apocryphal details. However, Wallace certainly captured the Bishop’s Castle, or palace, in Glasgow in 1297, and King Edward I., with reference to Bishop Beck’s flight, sneeringly wrote: "Anthony is on his travels."  Blind Harry places the Battle of the High Street on the morning after the Burning of the Barns of Ayr.

The account which follows is from Blind Harry’s original, here rendered into modern English:

"When Wallace men were all together met,
‘Good friends,’ he said, ‘you know an ayre was set,
That Olydesdale men to Glasgow should repair
To Bishop Beck and the Lord Percy there.
Then let us now in all haste thither go,
Lest our friends there be done to death also.’
Then meat was brought, with which they broke their fast,
Before from Ayr to Glasgow on they pass’d.
Horses they chose, from those Southrons had there,
Of such there were both plenty and to spare.
This company, three hundred men in all,
Most eagerly obey’d their leader’s call;
And pass’d o’er Glasgow bridge, that was of tree,
Before the Southrons could their coming see:
But Percy thereof soon was made aware;
And to oppose them quickly did prepare.
He deem’d the leader must brave Wallace be,
As no one else would dare such deed but he.
The Bishop Beck, and Lord Percy so wight,
Led out a thousand men in armour bright.
Wallace saw well what number there did ride,
And in two parties did his men divide;
Marshall’d them well, without, at the town end,
And for his uncle Auchinleck did send.
‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘ere we these men assail,
Whither will ye bear up the bishop’s tail;
Or, right before him will ye gallop on,
And thus receive the bishop’s benison?’
Quoth Auchinleck ;—‘Unbishop'd yet are ye,
So you may take his blessing first for me
For certainly, you earn’d it well this night ;— 
His tail I will bear up with all my might.’
Wallace then said :—‘ Since I must face that throng,
Peril there is, if you bide from us long;
For yon are men who will no parley make,
From time we meet ;—make haste then for God’s sake!
I would not Southrons should our parting know;
Behind them come, in through the north-east row.
Good men of war are all Northumberland,’
So said, and parting took his uncle’s hand
Who bravely said: ‘We shall do best we may,
I would like ill to bide too long away;
A powerful band will soon between us be,
Almighty God, watch over thee, and me!’
Adam Wallace with Auchinleck did ride
With seven score men round by the Drygate side:
Right, fast they went, and soon were out of sight,
Leaving the rest to face the foe’s full might.
Wallace with them did up the plain street go,
So few they were, that it surprised the foe.
The warcry rose upon the Percy side,
Who forward rode with confidence and pride.
A sore greeting was at that meeting seen,
As fire from flint the conflict them between.
The hardy Scots right stoutly there abade,
And in the English ranks great gaps they made;
Pierced through mail’d armour with sharp points of steel,
Till dead to earth full many foes did reel.
Great clouds of dust, like dense smoke round them rose,
Or, misty vapour, shrouding friends and foes;
To help himself each Scot had utmost need,
As circling foes charged them with headlohg speed.
Yet each true Scot did strive to do his best,
As if the fate of all on each did rest.
The Percy’s men in war had full great skill,
And fiercely fought their foemen’s blood to spill.
Then Auchinleck appear’d upon the scene,
And fiercer wax’d the combat them between.
The English now in turn were rent in twain,
And many fell, no more to rise again.
The Scots got room, and many down did bear,
Each fighting like a noble hero there:
And on the English laid their blows so fast,
That they began to give way at the last.
Wallace press’d forward in the fearful throng,
With his good sword, so heavy, sharp, and long;
At the Lord Percy such a stroke he drew,
That helm and head at once were shorn in two.
Four hundred men, when Lord Percy was dead,
Out of harm’s way the Bishop Beck they led;
And as they thought it was no time to bide
By Friars Kirk, fled to a wood beside,
Yet in that place, forsooth, they tarried not,
But on to Bothwell with all speed they got.
Wallace pursued with worthy men and wight,
Though worn with war and travel all that night
Yet they slew many in the chase that day;
But Bishop Beck and some more got away.
The Scots began at ten of night at Ayr,
By nine next morning they at Glasgow were;
By one past noon they were at Bothwell gate,
So quickly pass’d events both dire and great.
The Scots then turn’d, and to Dundaff they made,
And there for needed rest awhile abade.
Wallace told Graham of all was done at Ayr,
\Vho made lament lie was not with him there."

We'd like to thank ELECTRIC SCOTLAND for the above article

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