The Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre is perhaps one of the more unusual heritage sites, not only in Scotland but in the world. Although it commemorates an event that took place more than seven centuries ago, it offers visitors a state-of-the-art 3D immersive experience, concluding with an opportunity to put the lessons they have learned about the battle to the test by participating in an interactive battle game.
For those unfamiliar with the event itself, the Battle of Bannockburn was fought over the course of two days – 23rd and 24th June 1314 – between an English army led by King Edward II and a smaller Scottish army led by King Robert I, probably better known to most as Robert the Bruce. Despite being outnumbered at least two-to-one, the Scots managed to lure the English in a narrow space between two streams (where superior English numbers counted for nothing) and defeat them. While not decisive enough to bring about peace, Bannockburn did enable Bruce to begin the process of carving Scotland up among his most faithful supporters and rebuilding the Scottish political community in such a way that it relied on continued Scottish independence to ensure its prosperity. In doing so, he ensured that while peace remained elusive between England and Scotland for the next two centuries or more, the majority of Scots would tend to favour independence over acceptance of English control of the kingdom. Thus the battle played a crucial role in shaping centuries of Scottish history.
Located just south of Stirling in Central Scotland, the Centre was opened in March 2014, just ahead of the battle’s 700th anniversary. A smaller, more straightforward heritage centre had existed on the site prior to this, but in anticipation of such an auspicious anniversary the National Trust for Scotland received a sizeable sum of money to build a new, high-tech exhibition. One immediate benefit of this is that the Centre has been built with accessibility in mind. Those visitors with limited mobility or in wheelchairs will no doubt be pleased to learn that there is not a square inch of the Centre that cannot be accessed via ramp. The same is true for anyone wanting to visit the monuments commemorating the battle, which are located in an area of parkland just to the east of the Centre itself. The most impressive of these monuments is a statue of Bruce himself on horseback, designed by Charles Pilkington Jackson and unveiled to celebrate the battle’s 650th anniversary in 1964.
On arriving at the Centre, visitors wishing to participate in the experience will be given a pair of 3D glasses that serve as their tickets. When the tour begins, visitors will first watch two short films – both in 3D – providing insights into the build-up to the battle. The first film will be narrated by James Douglas – known as ‘the Good’ Sir James to the Scots or ‘the Black Douglas’ by the English, in both cases due to his ferocity in battle – who will present the Scottish point-of-view. Visitors will then be introduced to Isabella of France, wife of Edward II and Queen of England, who will present the English point-of-view. The guide will then take visitors into the main exhibition space, where they will talk the visitors through a series of 3D images projected onto screens around them, depicting episodes from the battle as well as illustrating the different tactics and troops employed by the two sides. Due to the subject matter, a degree of parental discretion is advised when bringing children to the Centre, and on entry to the Centre staff will warn visitors that children under the age of seven may find some of the images distressing. Visitors will then be allowed fifteen minutes to explore the exhibition space itself before beginning their battle game (although they are also welcome to explore the exhibition space as much as they like after the game is concluded, so that no one misses out on seeing everything the exhibition has to offer). In the exhibition space, visitors will find replica arms and armour to handle, all of which is intended to give an impression of the equipment used by both sides at the battle. They can also interact with various characters – five English and five Scottish – who were present at the battle and will offer more personal insights into what the two sides were fighting for and what their expectations on the eve of battle may have been.
When this fifteen minutes is up, a guide will gather visitors up ready to head through for their battle game. As daunting as this may sound, the battle game mercifully involves no physical fighting and is in effect an interactive video game, played on a relief map of the area as it would have looked in 1314. Before the game begins, the guide talk visitors through the battle as it actually happened on this map and answer any questions they have about the relevant history. Once this is done, visitors will be given a number, which will correspond to a position around the map, which will determine what side the visitor will be fighting for. This is decided randomly, with more people ending up on the English side than the Scottish side so as to reflect the fact that at the real battle the Scots were significantly outnumbered. The armies as they were in 1314 will be projected down onto the map and visitors will take turns to move these troops around on the map by giving verbal commands to the guide, known evocatively as the ‘Battle Master’! Once the game is over, the guide will overlay the battlefield with a modern-day map of the area, and allow the winning side to choose a name for the battle they have just fought.
Due to the somewhat unique nature of the experience at the Centre, entry to the exhibition is by timed ticket only. Tickets can be purchased on entry to the Centre, but booking ahead via their website – https://battleofbannockburn.com/tickets/ – is recommended. Standard admission is £11.50 ($19.63), but a concession ticket – for children aged 7 to 16, students, or over 60s – is £8.50 ($14.51). The Centre also offers family tickets, which cover two adults and up to four children, or single parent family tickets for £30.50 or £25.50 respectively ($52.05/$43.52). Members of the National Trust for Scotland get free entry, and pleasingly the Trust has establish reciprocal arrangements with a number of similar organisations around the world including the National Trust for Canada, meaning if you are a member of this you will also get in for free. The tickets are for the tours only, so if you simply want to use the facilities such as the café or the gift shop, or visit the monuments such as the Pilkington-Jackson statue, you can do so without paying. Tours start at 10am every day and run every forty-five minutes from then, with the last tour starting at 3:15pm during winter opening (October-February) or 4pm during summer opening (March-September). The Centre truly is a one-of-a-kind heritage experience, so I do hope you’ll consider paying a visit – and perhaps changing the course of Scottish history – if you find yourself in the Stirling area!