Does a mystery site at Mumrills hold the answer to Falkirk’s most tragic secret?

The Society Of William Wallace in last year's commemoration parade through Falkirk town centre.
The Society Of William Wallace in last year's commemoration parade through Falkirk town centre.

One of Falkirk’s greatest historic enigmas could finally be solved, if the resources for a full archaeological excavation are ever committed.

Thirty years ago local historian John Walker wrote his first article in the Falkirk Herald about the 1298 Battle of Falkirk.

Are William Wallace's slain spearmen buried at this site in Mumrills?

Are William Wallace's slain spearmen buried at this site in Mumrills?

The result was a disaster for the Scottish army of Sir William Wallace in which thousands of Scots are known to have died.

But as we approach the 720th anniversary of the disaster, are we any nearer to finding where those countless, nameless victims - shot down by Welsh longbowmen or trampled underfoot by mounted men-at-arms - are buried?

John, whose fascination with the subject is as strong as ever, reckons a likely solution could finally be - literally - in sight.

Recent years have seen some remarkable discoveries down south - for example the buried remains of Richard, Duke of York under a car park, and the gruesome remains of soldiers slain at the Battle of Towton during the epic conflict known as the Wars of the Roses.

Secrets which have lain hidden for centuries can suddenly be uncovered, throwing new light on our nations’ stormy histories.

John says: “Interest in the Wars of Independence has blossomed, due in no small part to a certain feature film from 1995 which took the story of William Wallace and his epic struggle against Edward I of England to a worldwide audience.

“The 700th anniversary of Stirling Bridge, Falkirk, Wallace’s execution and the ultimate success of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn also encouraged a wider interest in the period and its personalities with huge amounts of research leading to numerous publications both in hard copy print and on the internet”.

John, however, wanted the answer to one apparently simple question - where was the first Battle of Falkirk fought?

He says: “We didn’t know back then and, perhaps surprisingly, we don’t know now.

“I recall making a confident prediction in my article that the site would be identified by the time of the 700th anniversary in 1998.

“I was wrong about that and even a further 20 years on we’re still none the wiser”.

Much as with the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn - another major historical event shrouded in controversy - arguments still rage about exactly where and how it all happened.

However John considers there are three main contenders for the Falkirk site - a “traditional” one around the Central Retail Park (still marked on Ordnance Survey maps), a site south of Callendar Woods around Woodend Farm (which some think is supported by aerial photo evidenced) and, more recently, a site near the old Roman fort at Mumrills.

John says: “The Central Retail Park was built at the traditional site, and Hallglen and Callendar Rise have extended over the Back of the Woods (Woodend) site, but nothing of interest had been found, and certainly no bodies.”

He makes the point that despite the carnage back in 1298 the field - wherever it was - would have been picked clean.

Nothing of any value would have been left behind by medieval foragers.

“Horses would be butchered and eaten”, says John, “and weapons would either be kept for

their original purpose or converted into agricultural implements”.

The dead would be stripped of their clothing and any possessions and they would then be buried”.

He adds: “Remember that the battle was fought in high summer, so bodies would have to be disposed of before they began to smell and attract large numbers of flies, not to mention predators”.

Mass graves - as at that 15th century Towton site in England - were “highly likely”.

The threat of plague was ever present.

Yet apart from some intriguing finds near Falkirk - coins of the period, some pieces of horse bridles - they are from around the district and not linked to a specific site.

Edward I was so thrilled to have seen off Scots attempts at independence (or so he thought) that he returned to the scene of the slaughter to stage a tournament a year later, but again we don’t know where that was held.

But John still thinks we are closer to finding the answer to the mystery than when he first wrote that initial Falkirk Herald article 30 years ago.

“I’ve been looking closely at the Mumrills site for a number of years”, he explains.

“For me it ticks all the necessary boxes except one - there haven’t been any mass graves uncovered.

“It could be that they are there, and under our noses, but we haven’t looked closely enough.

“If you walk along Polmont Road from Laurieston towards Grandsable you come to a point where the Westquarter Burn flows through a culvert under the road and follows a course along the bottom of the Mumrills Braes.

“There’s a more or less triangular field between the burn and the foot of the hill.

“Right at the bottom of the hill there are three sizeable irregular patches of disturbed ground that have vegetation markedly different from the rest of the field.

“You can see them clearly on Google Maps.

“Could these be the missing mass graves? I think they might be.

“It would be interesting to have them investigated - we might just be able to solve one of medieval Scotland’s abiding mysteries”.