Inventory Battlefield

Battle of SarkBTL40

Date of Battle: 23 October 1448

Status: Designated


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Designation Record and Full Report Contents

  • Name
  • Summary Information
  • Overview and Statement of Significance
  • Inventory Boundary
  • Historical Background to the Battle
    • The Armies
    • Numbers
    • Losses
    • Action
    • Aftermath and Consequences
  • Events and Participants
    • Context
  • Battlefield Landscape
    • Location
    • Terrain
    • Condition
  • Archaeological and Physical Remains and Potential
  • Cultural Association
    • Commemoration and Interpretation
  • References


Date Added
Local Authority
Dumfries And Galloway
NY 31400 66200
331400, 566200

Overview and Statement of Significance

The Battle of Sark occurred in 1448 and is the final pitched battle fought between Scotland and England during the period of the Hundred Years War, and also the last battle of the Medieval period between the two countries. It was the first Scottish victory in battle over the English since the Battle of Otterburn over 60 years earlier. Sark is also significant because it clearly demonstrated the weakened authority of the kings of both Scotland and England in the mid-15th century. At this time, increasingly powerful members of the nobility were ignoring the authority of the monarchy and striving to control it for their own ends. Noble houses of the highest echelons in Scotland and England were engaged in dynastic manoeuvring, and political and sometimes physical conflict, and these internal struggles would overtake both countries for the remainder of the 15th century, leaving little capacity for major cross-border warfare.

In late 1448, the Earl of Northumberland led an army into Scotland, with the support of King Henry VI, breaking a truce between the two nations. Northumberland's army was met by a Scottish force under the Earl of Ormonde to the south-west of modern Gretna, on the north shore of the River Esk. The battle was a decisive victory for the Scots, with many of Northumberland's force captured or killed, and apparently very few Scottish casualties in return. The victory of the Douglases raised their profile in the Scottish power struggles at the time, while simultaneously damaging the Earl of Northumberland's in England.

Inventory Boundary

The Inventory boundary defines the area in which the main events of the battle are considered to have taken place (landscape context) and where associated physical remains and archaeological evidence occur or may be expected (specific qualities). The landscape context is described under battlefield landscape: it encompasses areas of fighting, key movements of troops across the landscape and other important locations, such as the position of camps or vantage points. Although the landscape has changed since the time of the battle, key characteristics of the terrain at the time of the battle can still be identified, enabling events to be more fully understood and interpreted in their landscape context.  Specific qualities are described under physical remains and potential: these include landscape features that played a significant role in the battle, other physical remains, such as enclosures or built structures, and areas of known or potential archaeological sensitivity.

The Inventory boundary for the Battle of Sark is defined on the accompanying map and includes the following areas:

  • The north bank of the River Esk, as the documentary sources are clear about the English being pushed back into the high tide, resulting in many of them being drowned.
  • The flat, low-lying ground between the River Sark and the Kirtle Water, encompassing the Lochmaben Stone, where the English were encamped, the fields around Old Graitney where the Scots deployed into formation and advanced into the battle and the area between where the majority of the fighting occurred.
  • The field to the west of the Kirtle Water, to include the former course of the river at the time of the battle, and its western bank, as the route by which some of the English force attempted to flee during the rout and where significant archaeological remains may be found.

Historical Background

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, led around 6,000 men into Scotland in October 1448. His plan was to ransack Douglas lands, and to this end he made camp adjacent to modern Gretna, just inside Scotland, and dispatched scouting and raiding parties around the surrounding area. Word of Northumberland's invasion soon reached Hugh Douglas, Earl of Ormonde, who gathered an army of 4,000 men before marching to meet the invader.

The two armies met near the end of October at Northumberland's camp. Although the English force was warned of Ormonde's advance and was able to deploy for battle ready to meet the Scots, it would be in vain. At first Northumberland's archers pinned Ormonde's army down with a hail of arrows, but the Scottish right flank was then ordered to charge by their commander. The Scottish force was able to advance rapidly across the firm, flat ground, swiftly neutralising Northumberland's archers. With the bowmen out of the picture, the remainder of the Scottish force was able to rush forward as well and engage the main English force.

At this point the three watercourses, the Esk, the Sark and the Kirtle Water, which Northumberland had relied on to protect his flanks and rear, now became a deadly hindrance to his force. Hemmed in on three sides, the English were unable to retreat and the battle swiftly became a rout, with men fleeing both east and west, struggling past the rivers, and with many reported drowned in the Esk to the south. The Scots had won a crucial victory, with Northumberland's army destroyed. The Earl himself was able to escape, however, and the battle did little to alter the tumultuous landscape of internal conflict in the kingdoms on both sides of the border.

The Armies

The English army was commanded by Henry Percy, the 2nd Earl of Northumberland, with Magnus Reidman and John Penneyton as sub-commanders. Hugh Douglas, Earl of Ormonde, brother of William, the 8th Earl of Douglas, was the commander of the Scots. The Scottish force was mainly spear infantry, though it most likely would have included some archers, while Northumberland had a slightly larger force, including an entire battle of archers.


The numbers of combatants are generally agreed upon in the historical sources, with the anonymous mid-15th century Auchinleck Chronicle and the mid-16th century work by Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie giving the same figures, although this could mean that Pitscottie is itself based on material from the Auchinleck. Secondary sources generally follow the numbers suggested by these accounts, as these are the only roughly contemporaneous accounts that mention the 'Battle of Sark' as it is called in the primary source material.


The Auchinleck Chronicle states that the English force consisted of 6,000 men, but provides no further breakdown in terms of force composition. It lists the younger Percy, Sir John of Pennington and Sir John Harrington as commanders or 'chieftains' within the army.


The Auchinleck Chronicle says that Earl Hugh Ormonde, with Sir John Wallace, lord of Craigie and Sheriff of Ayr, the Lord of Johnstone—who may have had lands and adherents in Gretna (RPS,1585/12/38), and the son and heir of the Lord of Sommerville, along with other Douglas adherents such as David Stewart of Castlemilk, brought together 4,000 men of the 'westlands'—seemingly the men of Annandale, Nithsdale, Carrick and Kyle. Presumably the army would also have included the Crown levy that Wallace would have been able to raise as the Sheriff of Ayr. Scott (1815) asserts that John Somerville, Baron of Carnwath and the heir of Lord Sommerville, led the Scottish right, a force of cavalry from Clydesdale, and was wounded during the battle by a lance in his right thigh. However, there is no other evidence for the presence of heavy cavalry at Sark in the Scottish forces, and this may simply be mythologizing for a family history.


There is specific information on the number of losses in the source material, but its accuracy is unclear. The Auchinleck Chronicle, which is roughly contemporary, says 1,500 English were slain, and 500 drowned, but only 26 Scots were slain. George Buchanan's History of Scotland gives the much higher figures of 3,000 English and 600 Scots slain. Pitscottie suggests the same numbers, but he seems to be basing his figures on Buchanan. The figures given by the Auchinleck Chronicle seem slightly too high for the English and far too low for the Scottish, given the circumstances, but as Buchanan provides no information on his sources, it is impossible to determine which numbers are closer to the true figure.


The action took place on the level ground SW of the modern village of Gretna, enclosed by the River Sark to the east, the Kirtle Water to the west and the River Esk to the south. It seems likely that it took place on the westward portion of this enclosed land, as the earliest sources locate the action as occurring in the vicinity of the Lochmaben Stone. The 'Battle of Sark' is a later appellation, of uncertain origin. The documentary sources are vague in describing the precise phases of the action, or the overall length of the engagement, but it seems clear that the charge of the Scottish right into the English left, combined with the restricted nature of the battlefield terrain, limited as it was by the River Esk to the south, was critical to the Scottish success in flanking and routing the English force.

Northumberland chose to bivouac his forces here, and was making wide-ranging sorties throughout the surrounding countryside, ransacking, looting, and causing havoc. On discovering the Scottish forces were approaching, he marshalled his forces in three groups, or battles, forward of the English camp, with John Harrington and John Pennington each commanding one of the  battles on either side and Northumberland taking the central position. It seems that the English archers were positioned in front of each battle they were drawn from, in the English fashion that had become standard since the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt.

Ormonde approached from the north and, while he was still out of range of the English archers, he formed his men into three battles as well, with Sir John Wallace of Craigie leading the right battle, Ormonde taking the centre, and Lord Johnston taking the left. The Scots advanced in this fashion towards the English battle line. As they came within longbow range, the Scottish forces were halted by a punishing rain of iron from Northumberland's archers, following the tactics of Crecy and Agincourt. On the Scottish right, however, Wallace exhorted his spearmen to charge. By rapidly closing the distance, the Scottish infantry would have been able to quickly scatter the archers, who seem to have been deployed without the benefit of obstacles, cavalry or infantry to protect their positions. As the archers melted away, the Scottish forces cleaved deep into the English line. The English left crumpled under the onslaught, as Wallace's battle drove deep enough into the ranks to capture the standard. As Wallace and the Scottish right flank began to turn the left flank of the English force, the Scottish left charged forward and drove into the right flank of the English line, and the whole English line began to collapse. Constrained on their right and left flanks, the fleeing men blundered into the rising tide of the Solway Firth and many drowned. Others paused at the banks of the Esk and the Kirtle and were slain there as they tried to decide whether or not to swim for it. The number of captives taken, including many from the English nobility, such as Henry Percy, the son and heir of the Earl of Northumberland, emphasises how constrained was the terrain of the battlefield: avenues of withdrawal seem to have been almost non-existent. Northumberland himself was able to find a horse and escape, though he left behind a decimated army. The tidal nature of the Esk seems to have played quite a large role in further constraining the battlefield. The lack of manoeuvrable ground almost certainly contributed to, if it was not directly responsible for, the collapse of the English line. Without the ability to regroup and firm up battle lines, the English forces were incapable of responding dynamically to the changing tactical situation of the battlefield. Ultimately, it resulted in the first field victory of the Scots over the English since the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, several generations before (Lindsay 1778; Paterson 1997; Rose 2002; Thomson 1819).

Aftermath & Consequences

While the Battle of Sark was at first glance a relatively unimportant Borders conflict, it had several important tangential consequences. Indeed, it was the first Scottish field battle to have been won against the English since the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. It also erased, for the Douglases, the humiliating defeat suffered at the hands of the English by Archibald, the 4th Earl of Douglas, at Homildon Hill in 1402. On the back of their success at Sark, the Douglases were able to kick their propaganda machine into high gear – promoting themselves and their ancestors, back to Sir James the Good, as the protectors and defenders of the realm of Scotland from English invasion and aggression. This provided them with ample political capital to justify their increasingly large swathes of landholdings in the Borders, and their armed retinues as being necessary as marcher lords responsible for protecting the Scots against the depredations of English reivers. For the Earl of Northumberland, the humiliating defeat was damaging in several ways. His prestige and reputation as a Warden of the March was certainly affected, but he would also have had to pay a ransom for his son and heir, who was now languishing in captivity in Lochmaben Castle.  Furthermore, he had also suffered a loss of men and supporters that would place him at a disadvantage in his burgeoning feud with his northern neighbour and rival, Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and the coming Wars of the Roses.

Events & Participants

Although the wider context of the cross-border warfare in 1448 and 1449 is widely documented, the precise series of raids and attacks, of which Sark was the most significant battle, is less certain. The uncertainty arises from one of the primary sources, the Auchinleck Chronicle, and the existence of different versions of this work. The older version of the Auchinleck has the conflict beginning with Henry Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland, sacking and razing the town of Dunbar in May of 1448. In June, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and the Warden of the West March, sacked and razed the castle and town at Dumfries. The marcher Earl of Douglas, with the Earls of Angus, Orkney, and Ormonde, retaliated promptly and brutally, marching south and burning Warkworth and Alnwick, both situated deep in Percy lands, and ripped a path of destruction through Cumberland and southern Northumberland. These raids then spurred Northumberland to retaliate with a major invasion, culminating in the Battle of Sark. This version of the sequence of events is also given by Buchanan, Pitscottie and others. However, the alternative version of Auchinleck gives a very different sequence, in which the invasion which ends at Sark is the opening event of the war in October 1448, and the raids and the destruction of Dunbar, Dumfries, Warkworth and Alnmouth all take place in 1449 instead of 1448. This second version of events appears to be the correct one, as it fits with English sources that they sought to restore the truce between the two nations in 1449 in order to end the conflict. This coincided with renewed hostilities between England and France, with whom the Scots had renewed their alliance in late 1448. This suggests that all the other historic sources, such as Buchanan and Pitscottie, may have based their version of events on the incorrect version of the Auchinleck, as they all report the former sequence of events.

Regardless of the precise sequence of events, we know that in autumn 1448 Northumberland led an army into Scotland, and this incursion ended in the Battle of Sark. Shortly before this, Henry VI travelled north to Durham, partly as a show of strength in the hope this would deter further trouble along the border, and at the same time seemingly to endorse Northumberland's planned invasion. Northumberland subsequently marched through the Western March to enter Scotland in October that year, following one of the same invasion routes used by English armies since time immemorial. Percy marched north with approximately 6,000 men, bivouacked on the river plain of the Esk, south of Gretna, and immediately began raiding, burning and pillaging the local area, probably intending to provoke the Scottish forces to engage. Hugh Douglas, the Earl of Ormonde, seems to have been well informed of Northumberland's movements, and was already marching south to engage the English raiding party. One of Northumberland's raiding parties or patrols—which certainly implies he had some cavalry—spotted the Scottish forces, and withdrew to their campsite on the plain of the Esk, close to the Lochmaben Stone. It seems likely that Northumberland had deliberately chosen this terrain because of its constrained approach, which would have allowed him to hammer the Scottish forces with archery as they were funnelled towards his battle lines. Northumberland would have been able to anchor his flanks from any sweeping encirclement tactics, and punish any approaching forces with his quite likely high numbers of archers. However, he failed to account for the likelihood of a Scottish charge into his archers, and did not provide his archers – who appear to have been thrown ahead of his main battle line similar to skirmishers – with adequate support from heavy infantry or cavalry. Consequently, things very quickly began to go badly wrong on the 23rd of October on the banks of the Esk and the Kirtle Water.

Henry Percy was the second Earl of Northumberland, and the Warden of the Eastern March at the time of the Battle of Sark. Percy was the son of Henry 'Hotspur' Percy, who was an initial supporter of Henry Bolingbroke—who would become Henry IV. However, by AD 1403 Hotspur was in rebellion against Henry IV over a host of grievances, including lack of payment for serving as Warden of the Marches. He died at the Battle of Shrewsbury on the 21st of July 1403, was subsequently declared a traitor, and his lands were forfeited to the Crown. As a result of his father's rebellion, Henry Percy spent much of his life trying to reclaim the lands and authority that had been his family's ancestral holdings until they were stripped by the Crown.

Percy reconciled with Henry V and was made the second Earl of Northumberland in 1416. He served Henry V well and faithfully, acting as Warden of the East March, and was raised to a host of other Crown offices and served in wars on the Continent and against Scotland. With the accession of Henry VI in 1422, Northumberland became a member of the ruling council during the young king's minority, but his family and political fortunes quickly began to slide. He provided troops and aid to the Scottish rebel George de Dunbar in 1436 in an attempt to regain the latter's forfeited castle of Dunbar. This ended in military and political disaster at the rout of Piperdean, when Dunbar's expedition was ambushed en route to the castle by William Douglas, second Earl of Angus and Warden of the Scottish Marches, and resulted in high English casualties and the imprisonment of numerous Percy liegemen. Northumberland retained his wardenship after this misadventure, and indeed, after the Battle of Sark, but the Percys' position on the border was quickly becoming precarious, as Northumberland's never-ceasing ambition to regain the lands of his father and grandfather began to conflict with the ambitions of his northern neighbour, Richard Neville, the Earl of Salisbury. Through a combination of influence at court and smart marriages, the Nevilles were eclipsing the Percys in power and influence, and the conflict of interests and ambitions between the two houses quickly turned into physical conflict between the hot-tempered scions of both houses in the 1450s, as armed and liveried retainers waged a blood feud across the north. The weakness of Henry VI allowed these northern houses essentially to wage war against each other. Furthermore, Henry VI's recurring bouts of incapacitation allowed for powerful magnates to jockey for power and position in influencing the Crown, specifically the Yorkist contingent led by Richard, Duke of York, and the Lancastrian contingent led by the Duke of Somerset, who had great control and influence over Henry VI. As the Nevilles tied themselves through marriages and alliances to the Yorkists, the Percys chose the Crown and the Lancastrians. This flashpoint of feuding allies roared to life with a vengeance on 22 May 1455 in St Albans, where the Yorkist party intercepted Henry VI's procession to a great council at Leicester. The personal grudges, rivalries and hatreds flared into a sudden, violent and deadly conflagration. By the end of the day, the intensive rivalry between the Nevilles and the Percys ended in the death of Northumberland by the sword of the Earl of Salisbury, and saw the start of the War of the Roses.

Sir John Pennington and Sir John Harrington were both English commanders at the Battle of Sark, each leading one of the three battles of the army. They were both captured by the Scots in the battle and removed to Lochmaben Castle. The few available sources provide no further information as to either's fate after capture, though presumably they were ransomed during the peace negotiations that occurred in 1449.

Hugh Douglas, the Earl of Ormonde, was one of the leading magnates of the Black Douglases. A fourth son of James the Gross, seventh Earl of Douglas, he was tied by blood or marriage to some of the most powerful families in Scotland during the mid-15th century. Ormonde, who was the younger brother of Archibald Douglas, Earl of Moray, and the nephew of Henry Sinclair, second Earl of Orkney, represented a portion of the massive hegemony of Douglas power and influence in the community of the realm of Scotland during the reign of James I and II. After the Battle of Sark, as James II came into his authority as king after the end of his minority in 1449, he began to do everything in his power to shatter the incredible power and influence on the Crown that had been accumulated by the Black Douglases, which by this point represented a growing threat to the authority of James II's kingship. Ormonde was among the Douglases who rose in rebellion against James in 1452, and he was captured after the Battle of Arkinholm in 1455 and executed. His lands were forfeited to the Crown, the same fate as his brothers and the rest of the Black Douglases, and his victory over the English at Sark was overshadowed by this subsequent taint of rebellion and treason.

Sir John Wallace of Craigie was another of the Scottish nobles at the Battle of Sark. He was the Lord of Craigie Castle in South Ayrshire, and served as Lieutenant – General to James II. He also seems to have served as the Sheriff of Ayr. He died at Craigie around 3 months after Sark, as a result of wounds taken at the battle.


Scotland in the 15th century was a country suffering from the reigns of several relatively weak kings, who were unable to centralize royal power effectively. As a result, the realm had been ruled by several assemblies composed of noblemen from relatively few noble houses. Consequently, the magnates of these noble houses began to amass vast amounts of land, power and influence over Scotland, and over the Crown itself. The death of Robert III in 1406 saw his eleven year old son, James I, ascend to the throne. James I, however, had already been taken prisoner by the English that same year, as loyal Crown adherents attempted to send him to France for safety. This was in response to the political uncertainty created by James I's uncle, the Duke of Albany, and his Black Douglas allies, as they vied with the Crown for control of Scotland.  James I would not return to Scotland until 1424 after he was released by the English; in his absence, his uncle the Duke of Albany, who had been king in all but name under Robert III, continued to rule Scotland. James I's return to Scotland was deliberately and intentionally obstructed by the Albany Stewarts, to the extent that James was forced to negotiate a deal with Archibald, the Earl of Douglas, for his support in ensuring the absentee king could return.  Upon his return, James I was faced with a circle of powerful magnates and nobles, whose power, privilege, and usurpation of aspects of royal power he now attempted to curtail. He imprisoned the leaders of the Albany Stewarts, though the youngest son of the family, James the Fat, escaped and rose in rebellion against the Crown. James I ruthlessly put down the rebellion, destroying the Albany Stewarts in the process. James I's attempts to rein in the power of the Gaelic kindreds of the Highlands and Islands saw them rise in rebellion as well, in 1429 and 1431. In 1436, Scotland went to war on behalf of its alliance with France, and James I ineffectually besieged Roxburgh Castle. During this campaign, James I clashed with his powerful Douglas March Wardens, and was forced to retreat from a large English force, leaving his artillery train at Roxburgh. His attempt to raise further funds for warfare were met with hostility from his nobles, and he was assassinated in 1437 at Blackfriars in Perth by former liegemen of the now-destroyed Albany Stewarts.

It was into this context of feuding magnates, with enough power to challenge the Crown, that James II became king at the age of six. During his minority, various large houses, predominantly the Black Douglas faction and the Livingston and Crichton families, jockeyed for control over James II and governance of the realm. The events of the Black Dinner—where William Douglas, the sixth Earl of Douglas and his younger brother were captured and executed by leaders of the Crichton family in Edinburgh Castle, with the support of Livingston—are a clear example of how quickly James I's attempts at restricting the power of the nobility against the Crown were quashed by a minority kingship. By the time of Sark in 1448, James II was still in his minority, though he was attempting to enforce the laws and restrictions of noble privilege promulgated by his father onto the noble houses. The actions of the Douglases in 1448-9 is a good example of how independent and unrestrained some houses had become during the king's minority. They had even begun to usurp large portions of royal authority, such as the right to wage war across the border into England, unto themselves. Following the victory at Sark, the Douglases even went so far as to establish the 'Lincluden Statutes' in December 1448, a series of ordinances regarding the governance of the Marches, without any royal approval, even though such legislation remained the prerogative of the king. As such, the period of cross-border warfare that included the Battle of Sark, should not be considered as a conflict waged on behalf of either Crown or country, although Northumberland's advance across the border before Sark was almost certainly at the direction of Henry VI. Rather, it seems that the retribution and raiding that included the battle were targeted, personal strikes against the lands and holdings of Northumberland and Douglas by the March Wardens on both sides. Neither of them could afford to give any hint of weakness, given that large portions of their political clout rested with their reputation as Wardens of the March, and royal authority both north and south of the border was constrained and influenced by potentially hostile groups and individuals.

A noble house with enough power and influence to compete with the authority of the Crown was simply too powerful to have guarding the realm's boundaries, especially as any confrontation between Crown and aristocracy could open the country to a hostile invader. Consequently, after James II came into his majority in 1449, he began to move against the major houses in an attempt to break their power and secure his position. From 1451 onwards he made a major effort to break the power centre in the Lothians and Borders created by the Black Douglases, and to sever their nebulous alliance with the Lords of the Isles, who had already risen in rebellion against James I. In 1452, after granting him safe passage to Stirling Castle, James II personally murdered William, the eighth Earl of Douglas at Stirling Castle, after William refused to repudiate an alliance with the Lord of the Isles. This episode resulted in the entire might and force of the Douglases rising in rebellion and civil war against the Crown of Scotland, led by William's brother James, now the ninth Earl of Douglas, and assisted by his brothers Ormonde, the Earl of Moray, and the Lord of Balvenie with their adherents. The war between the King and the rebels continued until the final Douglas defeat at the Battle of Arkinholm in 1455.

The wider context of the Battle of Sark is centred in this swirling maelstrom of competing ambitions and desires; extremely powerful magnates in both England and Scotland were able to compete with, and ignore the authority of, their respective Crown to suit their own desires. With the kingships of both Henry VI and James II so fragile, and their authority so tenuous, it is not surprising that Henry VI saw the Scottish raids into Northumberland as a direct assault on the sovereignty of his kingship, and the Douglases saw the English incursion not as an assault on Scotland, but on the gravitas and power of their own house and on their positions as Wardens of the Marches.

Battlefield Landscape

The landscape of a battlefield usually plays a significant role in the events of the battle itself. Seemingly small features of the terrain can have a substantial impact upon the deployment, movement and cohesion of a military force. Making best use of  the landscape can often mean the difference between victory and defeat in battle. Understanding the battlefield landscape can help us analyse what happened during the conflict and inform our assessment of the archaeological potential of the battlefield.

Features in the terrain which may affect the course of a battle can be divided into five main categories: Observation and fields of fire; avenues of approach and retreat; cover and concealment; obstacles; and key terrain.

  • Observation and fields of fire: Observation refers to places in the landscape from where the enemy force(s) can be seen; while fields of fire is the area or areas where an enemy can be fired upon by your weapons. Features which can provide good observation include hills, level ground, open fields and landscapes.
  • Avenues of approach and retreat: These are the routes by which an army can advance and retreat to, from and around a battlefield, some more effective than others. These may be man-made or natural features, such as tracks and roadways, river valleys and open ground. Most battlefields would have had a combination of types of avenues of approach.
  • Cover and concealment: These are features which can hide you from the enemy (concealment) or provide protection from their weapons (cover). Often, a feature can provide both cover and concealment, such as a wall. Other features which may provide cover and / or concealment include trees, bushes and ditches, while larger landscape features, such as valleys, hills and forests, can help cover or conceal a large force .
  • Obstacles: Obstacles are landscape features which can slow or stop the movement of an army, break its cohesion, or force it to change route. Obstacles to an army can often be relatively small landscape features from the perspective of an individual, but can have a significant impact on the rate of advance or retreat of an army. Common examples of obstacles include rivers and streams, marshes, cliffs and steep or high hills, and walls and buildings.
  • Key terrain: Certain areas of a battlefield can have a very significant effect upon the outcome of the conflict. These areas are considered key terrain and  include areas of high ground, bridges and river crossings, junctions of roads and tracks, and fortifications. In some cases, the key terrain is so important that it can determine the outcome of the battle: it is then known as decisive terrain.

The Landscape of the Battle of Sark

The Battle of Sark took place in the flat terrain SW of the modern village of Gretna. The open, level nature of the landscape of the battlefield and surrounding area would have provided clear observation and fields of fire for both armies, and seems to have offered nothing in the way of cover or concealment. The battle occurred in the area around the Lochmaben Stone (scheduled monument 3378), a remnant of a prehistoric stone circle which has been mostly ploughed away. This 2.3m tall standing stone was one of the traditional meeting and muster points on the West March  and made a widely known and easily identifiable location for Northumberland to base his force. This was also a strong defensive position as it was protected by obstacles to its west, east and south – namely, the River Sark, the Kirtle Water and the River Esk. The River Sark and the Kirtle Water protected the flanks of the English army and the Esk protected its rear from any Scottish attempt to manoeuvre around them. The English army's avenue of approach brought them across the English-Scottish border, either by fording the River Esk at low tide or by crossing the Sark to the east. The Scots avenue of approach to the battlefield was from the north, where the gently rolling ground prevented any effort at surprise on their part and gave Northumberland ample time to deploy his force.

Advancing from the north, the Scots' avoided the serious obstacles presented by the rivers, and the lack of any other significant obstacles in this direction allowed them to advance rapidly along their avenue of approach towards the English force. Ormonde deployed his force into three battles while outside of the field of fire of the English force before advancing into range. At first Northumberland's archers held the Scots back, but before long they were able to charge rapidly forward across the good ground and nullify this disadvantage. Once the Scots had gained the upper hand in the fighting and the English had begun to break, Northumberland's formerly strong position became a deadly site for his troops. As they broke and tried to escape, the Rivers Sark, Kirtle and Esk proved lethal obstacles for them instead of the Scots. There were heavy English casualties as they attempted to cross the rivers as the Scots pursued and attacked the fleeing men.


No further information.


There is little information in the primary sources concerning the nature of the terrain at the time of the battle, but it seems likely to have been a combination of arable and grazing land, with a small terrace of higher ground situated approximately at the mouth of the enclosure formed by the courses of the Esk and the Kirtle Water. The superficial geology of the area is well-draining sand and gravel, transitioning on the banks of the Esk and the Kirtle Water to an alluvium mix of sand, gravel and silt. This would have made the gentle slopes down to the Esk and the Kirtle soft and treacherous, easily trapping armed and armoured men and horses in the sucking tidal mud and incoming water.


The area is relatively unaffected by modern development. The area of the battlefield is still predominantly rural in character, and has probably benefited from its proximity to the flood plains of the River Esk, with the flood risk limiting development on the site. The area has also remained clear of forestry since the battle, which has undoubtedly benefited the soil PH and, therefore, the preservation of any battle-related artefacts. The most obvious visual impact is from the 132kV power line which crosses the site running west-east, however this does not significantly impede understanding of the landscape. The northern periphery of the battlefield may have been impacted by the expansion southwards of the village of Gretna, but this and the few houses and structures built since the battle —such as the farms at Old Graitney and Stormont, and the sewage works and refuse collection centre—have also had a minimal effect on the understanding of the battlefield landscape.

Archaeological & Physical Remains and Potential

No artefacts relating to the battle have yet been reported, though it is important to note that it is clear metal detecting has occurred in the area of the battlefield and the battle site may already have been impacted by this. (A flanged axe-head was found in the area of the battlefield in 2006 and is believed to have been associated with a mound which was levelled in 1851. This mound was suspected to be a Viking boat burial, but no evidence of this was found during its removal, and it also does not have any known connection to the battle.) Small scale archaeological investigations were conducted around the Lochmaben Stone in 1983, in advance of its re-erection after collapsing the previous year. No archaeological evidence related to the battle was noted in the report of this work.

Given that the primary sources specifically mention heavy archery being used by the English, it is highly likely that remnants of archers' equipment and arrows survive in the soil. Additionally, as mentioned in the primary sources, the charge and subsequent heavy hand-to-hand combat that occurred as the Scottish right flank drove into the English on the left is also likely to have left a substantial archaeological signature. The archaeological assemblage from the site would probably be quite similar to the slightly later Battle of Towton in England in 1461, though obviously on a much smaller scale.

The supposedly high number of drowned men on the English side would be expected to leave a variety of material culture littering the banks and bottom of the Esk, even if the bodies were removed for burial. To the west of the area, the troops fleeing across the Kirtle Water are likely to have deposited a wide range of equipment and material on the banks and the river bed during their escape. As the line of the Kirtle Water has significantly shifted since the battle, these remains may well survive within and around the former line of the river, and remains such as organic material may have been protected particularly well by these conditions. In addition, the rout of some of Northumberland's force to the east across the River Sark, which today marks the border of Scotland and England, is likely to have resulted in similar archaeological remains existing on the English side of the river. As this area lies outside Scotland, it is beyond the remit of Scotland's Inventory of Historic Battlefields, but it is important to note that remains of the Battle of Sark may also be located on the English side of the border.

There is no information in the primary sources as to the burial site or sites of the battlefield dead, of whom there may have been as many as 2,000. However, as there is evidence that medieval battlefield casualties were sometimes buried in nearby areas of consecrated ground, there are several possible locations nearby. Firstly, the parish church at Gretna may have already been the location of a church at the time of the battle and, if so, is a likely candidate for burials. Other possibilities include the deserted medieval settlement of Solum, presumed to be in the area of the modern farm at Floshend, or the lost church and burial ground to the west at Redkirk, which was washed into the sea in AD 1675 due to coastal erosion.

Alluvial accumulation from flooding and high tides from the Solway Firth may prove a 'double-edged sword' for the archaeological potential of the battlefield: it may be preserving a considerable quantity of material, but there may also be a significant overburden of accumulated silt which would inhibit the efficacy of a metal-detecting or other survey in the vicinity of the banks of the Kirtle and Esk.

Cultural Association

There currently exists no on-site commemoration or interpretation relating to the battle. There is also no known contemporary commemoration in song or verse, though Robert Burns references the Battle of Sark, and the death of Sir John Wallace of Craigie, in his 1786 poem "The Vision".

"His Country's Saviour, mark him well!
Bold Richardton's heroic swell,;
The chief, on Sark who glorious fell,
In high command;
And he whom ruthless fates expel
His native land."

Commemoration & Interpretation

No further information.



Select Bibliography

Brown, M. 2005, The Black Douglases: War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland, 1300-1455. Birlinn: Edinburgh.

Paterson, R.C. 1997, My Wound Is Deep: A History Of The Later Anglo-Scots Wars, 1380-1560. J. Donald Publishers: Edinburgh.

Rose, A. 2002, Kings in the North: the House of Percy in British history. Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London.

Full Bibliography

Information on Sources and Publications

The Battle of Sark is not well documented, with only one truly primary source in existence. The Auchinleck Chronicle was written in Scots by an unknown Scottish author, and is a very short and general history of the reign of James II. Bundled into the early 16th-century Asloan Manuscript, it is presumed to be contemporary, or near contemporary, with the events it is describing. Successive histories seem to be based heavily on it, and it is strictly narrative in form, with little to no editorialising. It inevitably leans on the Scottish side in discussing cross-border raiding, but the fact that it mainly reports events without transforming them into a story tends to lend it credence and it is by far the most detailed and thorough account. Near-contemporary accounts are Scottish as well; the Battle of Sark is not mentioned or discussed in any of the English chronicles consulted, but it is mentioned in some secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Buchanan, G. 1852, The history of Scotland from the earliest period to the present time. Blackie and son: Glasgow.

Lindsay, R. 1778, The history of Scotland from February 21. 1436, to March 1565.( Last Accessed: 28/02/2013

The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al eds.(St Andrews, 2007-2013), 1585/12/38.

Thomson, T. 1819, The Auchinleck chronicle : ane schort memoriale of the Scottis corniklis for addicioun : to which is added A short chronicle of the reign of James the Second, King of Scots, MCCCCXXXVI-MCCCCLXI. Printed for private circulation: Edinburgh. (Available online at: Last Accessed: 28/05/2014)

Cartographic and Illustrative Sources

Blaeu, J. 1654. Blaeu Atlas of Scotland: Annandiae praefectura,Vulgo,The Stewartrie of Annandail. Available digitally at [Last accessed: 01/03/2013]

Ordnance Survey. 1875. First edition county series 1:10560.

Ordnance Survey. 1905. First revision county series 1:10560.

Roy, W. 1747-55. Roy Military Survey of Scotland: Lowlands. Available digitally at [Last accessed: 27/05/2014]

Secondary Sources

Brown, M. 2005 The Black Douglases: War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland, 1300-1455. Birlinn: Edinburgh.

Crone, A. 1983.'The Clochmabenstane, Gretna' in Trans Dumfriesshire Galloway Natur Hist Antiq Soc, 3rd, vol.58. Page(s): 16-20

Griffiths, R A 2004, The Reign of Henry VI, Sutton Publishing: Stroud

King, A and Simpkin, D (eds.) 2012, England and Scotland at War, c. 1296 – 1513, Brill: Leiden

Maxwell, Sir Herbert. 1896, A History of Dumfries and Galloway. Edinburgh: William 1896 Blackwood & Sons. (Available online at: Last Accessed: 28/05/2014)

Paterson, R.C. 1997, My Wound Is Deep: A History Of The Later Anglo-Scots Wars, 1380-1560. J.Donald Publishers: Edinburgh.

Pollard, A J 1990, North-Eastern England During the Wars of the Roses: Lay Society, War and Politics 1450-1500, Oxford University Press: Oxford

RCAHMS 2014, CANMORE. Last Accessed: 28/05/2014

RCAHMS 2014, CANMORE. Last Accessed: 28/05/2014

Rose, A. 2002, Kings in the North: the House of Percy in British history. Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London.

Somerville, J.S. and W. Scott 1815, Memorie of the Somervilles: being a history of the baronial house of Somerville. Printed by James Ballantyne and Co. for Archibald Constable and Company, Edinburgh; and Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London: Edinburgh.

Storey, R L 1999, The End of the House of Lancaster, Sutton Publishing: Stroud

About the Inventory of Historic Battlefields

Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for designating sites and places at the national level. These designations are Scheduled monuments, Listed buildings, Inventory of gardens and designed landscapes and Inventory of historic battlefields.

We make recommendations to the Scottish Government about historic marine protected areas, and the Scottish Ministers decide whether to designate.

The inventory is a list of Scotland's most important historic battlefields. Battlefields are landscapes over which a battle was fought. We maintain the inventory under the terms of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

We add sites of national importance to the inventory using the selection guidance published in Designation Policy and Selection Guidance (2019)

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