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A memorial to military battles lost and won

Over the next 18 months Scots will have a considerable test of our collective maturity as we commemorate two important and emotive battles, Flodden and Bannockburn.

The 500th anniversary of Flodden falls this September, and the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn will be celebrated in June next year.

The celebration of Bannockburn should be restrained rather than raucous. The anniversary will come at a sensitive time, when the independence referendum will be imminent. A great victory over the English must not be used as an excuse for an explosion of anti–English bombast and vainglory. Politicians on all sides will have a responsibility to behave with modesty and dignity.

It would be pitiful to ignore Flodden, and then less than a year later indulge in an orgy of commemoration as we remember Bannockburn. Flodden was a disaster on several counts; it was an unnecessary battle, precipitated by an ill-judged incursion into England (Flodden Field is just over the Border, a few miles south of Coldstream) by one of Scotland's supposedly better monarchs, James IV.

Our king and his troops were not even beaten by Henry VIII's first army, which was fighting in France at the time, led by the English king himself. The army that humiliated the Scots was very much a secondary force, and its general was an old and weary man. Even so, the king and most of Scotland's other leaders were wiped out, and about 10,000 Scots fell.

Despite the emotion that attaches to these two famous battles, neither can muster the extraordinarily strong sentiment that still sticks to the last pitched battle fought on British soil: Culloden in 1746. Neither Bannockburn nor Flodden apparently features in a list of Britain's "greatest" land battles which has been drawn up for the National Army Museum, but Culloden does.

It was not so much the Battle of Culloden that caused lingering controversy; it was the aftermath. The battle, between the Hanoverian Army led by the portly and unprepossessing Duke of Cumberland, and the Jacobites, mainly members of the Highland clans, led by the charismatic but inept "Bonnie" Prince Charlie Stewart, lasted little more than an hour. The Highlanders were routed.

There followed a brutal and unforgivable campaign of terror, marked by a crazed bloodlust and a systematic attempt to obliterate the culture of the Highlanders. While it's probably true most Scots had wanted Cumberland's troops to win, they certainly did not want the ensuing and utterly pitiless hunting down of starving and desperate fugitives, and the burning and destruction of cottages and other buildings. There was an extended period of vicious reprisal in which several Lowland Scots regiments took part.

Meanwhile the National Army Museum list of 20 battles is controversial; such lists usually are. It includes only two fought on British ground: Culloden, and Naseby, the key battle in the English Civil War. Battles in the list must have been fought on land and involve armies, so the Battle of Britain cannot be included, which is a pity, for in terms of outcome and overall significance it was surely by far the greatest victory in British history.

Some of the choices seem eccentric: for example the failed Gallipoli campaign in the First World War (just that – a campaign rather than a battle) and a much more recent, and small scale, engagement in Afghanistan, Musa Quala in 2006.

The National Army Museum is in London, not too far from the Imperial War Museum, though the latter is situated south of the Thames. Neither museum attracts as many visitors as other London museums such as the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Maritime Museum. There is almost too much choice for the visitor to London.

So why is the National Army Museum in London? Britain's military history deserves a popular museum, and it might be better to re-site the National Army Museum where there are fewer competing attractions. I suggest moving it further north, possibly even to Scotland.

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