Scotland's Story, Ch. 9 - Robert Bruce - history, Chapters 1 & 2

Story of Scotland Chapter Nine: Robert Bruce - the early years, after Wallace's execuation.

by Robert M Gunn© 2011/2012
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and ©Skye-Net, RM Gunn

Chapter Nine

The Story of Scotland's history: Chapter 9 - Robert the Bruce, Chapters 1 & 2. Murder, Coronation and early battles.


[Note: The next four chapters are 2 chapter reproductions from my book, "Robert Bruce, Bannockburn and Beyond" (out of print)at a time to condense the material into 5 parts. You'll only be able to read this here, and on my Facebook page, unless I leave FB!]

The Bruce, Bannockburn and Beyond. - Chapters 1 & 2
By Robert M. Gunn

[Bruce statue]


Seven years after William Wallace's defeat at the hands of Edward I at Falkirk, he was betrayed by a Scot named John Menteith, and Wallace, the hero of the first round in the Scottish War of Independence, was captured by the English and savagely executed on August 23, 1305 at Smithfield, London.

The now aging Edward I must have felt convinced his "Scottish problems" were at last over.

Having mutilated Wallace's body, a north English Lanercost chronicler wrote this of Wallace's execution along with a warning to Scotland:

"Butcher of thousands, threefold death be thine,
So shall the English from thee gain relief.
Scotland, be wise and choose a nobler chief."

Seven months later, that nobler chief chose himself.

The Eighth Robert Bruce

Amongst the Norman-descended nobles who had paid homage to Edward nine years earlier and served him or seemed to serve him more or less loyally in one capacity or another at different times since, was Robert Bruce, the eighth of his name since the Norman Conquest and the son of John Balliol's chief rival for the throne of Scotland at Berwick in 1291.

To put Robert Bruce into perspective, we should perhaps look at him in a little detail. The Bruce family had ties both north and south of the border. The abbey of Guisborough in Northumberland was a Bruce foundation. Bruce "the Competitor" (his father) was involved a great deal with the English court and held extensive lands in England. He acted as a justiciar for Edward in the north of England. His son also was involved in the English court and was keeper of Carlisle Castle for a while. The young Robert Bruce was brought up at Edward's court and had extensive knowledge of it and was also a favorite of Edward. However, he was also an angry young man feeling that his family had been deprived the crown of Scotland.

In the early years of the rebellion, Bruce was in many ways hamstrung by both a desire to fight for Scotland, and also well aware that the fight was being carried out in the name of Balliol. He, along with most Scottish nobles, changed sides on more than one occasion depending upon how the political winds blew. But Bruce was ready to make a move, and it happened sooner than anyone expected.

Despite his long record of service to Edward, (Bruce 'the Younger' as opposed to his father sometimes referred to as "The Elder", and his grandfather, "The Competitor"), for his own various reasons, was growing restive. So, too, was John Balliol's nephew, Red John Comyn, now leader of the rival Balliol faction and, like Bruce, a claimant to the throne. So was another Norman noble, Sir Simon Fraser of Tweeddale, who had already been out with Wallace.

The man behind that rebellion was Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and now Lord of Annandale. The death of Bruce's father had left him the claim to the throne, a claim he now determined to take on forcibly.

What Motivated Robert Bruce to seize the throne for himself?

Resistance to a foreign occupier is by its nature a complex and secret phenomenon. Evidence is hard to come by and often misleading. Personal motives, which appear indecisive and self-serving, are in truth varied and involved. The line of demarcation between collaboration and resistance, between treachery and heroism, is not always clearly drawn. At least it appears that way in the case of Robert the Bruce's change of heart towards Edward and England to Scotland and leadership of Scotland. But, things, in short, are rarely what they seem. Whatever originally motivated the Bruce to begin his movement to secure independence of Scotland from England, the end result and how he got there is a tale of power, struggle, hardship beyond imagination and most of all, a tale of freedom.

The meeting of Bruce and Comym at Greyfriars, in Dumfries

By early 1306, things for Bruce had changed. He was now the head of his family and therefore did not have any ties to prevent him claiming the throne for himself. In addition, he was faced with a crisis. In London, news reached him that John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch somehow informed Edward know of a plot that Bruce was hatching to claim the throne. Bruce received a few minutes warning and hastily fled to Scotland.

In February, 1306, Robert Bruce rode with some men to the church of the Minorite friars in Dumfries for a council with his enemy, John "Red" Comyn. Bruce, now thirty-one, since the death of his father two years before, had been the head of the family and its claimant to the throne of Scotland. He had risen against Edward three times, and all three times, he, for whatever reasons, knelt in humble submission, and he had commanded the great engines which broke down Oliphant's walls at Stirling. About this time the English Parliament had written up a Constitution for Scotland which had failed due to a lack of consent on the part of the Scots who had strong resentment towards the English and their involvement in Scotland.

Bruce's father's debts to the English Crown had been set in abeyance, his own estates had been returned to him, and he asked for at the Westminster Parliament, and been given, the forfeited lands of his neighbor Ingram de Umfraville. He was indebted to Edward. Some historians suggest he was a ‘bought man’ and the joint Guardian of Scotland, but his loyalty was to personal and family ambitions alone at this time. Even as he battered at the stones of Stirling Castle years earlier for his English masters, he and William Lamberton had joined in an clandestine agreement.

They joined in a "treasonable band" against the English Crown, and Edward himself. Even as he served Edward, he had plans for himself and for Scotland in his mind years before they became reality. Edward may have heard of this, for toward the end of 1305 he took away the Umfraville Lands he (Edward) had given Bruce, and gave them back to Ingram de Umfraville. Then Edward removed Bruce from the guardianship, and once more demanded payment of Bruce's father’s questionable debts. It seemed a deliberate action on Edwards’s part: possibly to flush out his enemies? Why would Edward trust Bruce with so much, then suddenly take it all away and demand payment on an old debt that he himself dismissed several years before? Edward rarely did things on pure whim, and this seems to be a plan of some type to push Robert Bruce to check his loyalty which had been in question to Edward in the recent past. It was now a time of caution or boldness on the part of the Bruce. For which choice the cunning and sometimes devious and clever Earl of Carrick chose may explain his fateful meeting with Red Comyn, or make it even more mysterious. It is a noteworthy addition to this old story that the Bruce's lands, originally taken from Bruce, given back, taken away again, ended up in the care of his main rival, Red Comyn.

Bruce was now set on a course of action that would lead into a realm of the unknown, but somehow this cunning and intelligent noble may have planned it all, without the foresight to see the result too clearly....and with deadly and glorious results in the end.

Much of Bruce's exploits come from the works of John Barbour, (c.1320--95). He was a poet, clergyman, and scholar, probably born in Aberdeen, Grampian, known as "the father of Scottish poetry and history". He was Archdeacon of Aberdeen from 1357, or earlier, till his death. His national epic, The Brus (Bruce's original Norman name, De Brus), written in the 1370s, is a narrative poem on the life and deeds of King Robert I, the Bruce, preserving many traditions, if not the absolute truth, of Robert Bruce. It was written much closer, (within a generation), to Bruce's time than was Blind Harry's epic poem about Wallace; which was written nearly 200 years after the death of Wallace. While Blind Harry's epic poem about Wallace is widely suspect of being nothing more than a fanciful tale based on some truth, Barbour's, 'The Bruce', seems to have a factual basis, if somewhat embellished.

Barbour said that Bruce and his men rode to Dumfries "intent that he should speedily avenge the other's treachery", but the suggestion of such an open planned murder seems ridiculous. No man, especially one as cunning as the Bruce, deciding on the removal of a rival would be careless enough to select a church for the place of a murder. On the other hand, the mistrust between the two men was so great that only in the Chapel together would each feel safe, and only there might one be easily betrayed. Exonerated from guilt by his death, the Comyn's intentions have never been adequately examined. Barbour said that Carrick (one of the Bruce's titles) had already secured his support for the band he was forming with Lamberton, and that the Badenoch Lord (Red Comyn) revealed it to Edward, which of course is possible and highly likely in this author's opinion. Comyn had always been a Balliol follower and supporter and Balliol had been forced to pay fealty to Edward, as well as most other Scottish nobles, and Comyn's continued support for Edward throughout the years could explain the Bruce's decision to "rid" himself of the troublesome Comyn. Of course, this is speculation and theories abound as to Robert's motives for the killing.

According to one authority, it is more probable that the meeting in Greyfriars' Chapel was to explain the "Band" to Comyn and command his support. That could be but again it is conjecture.

Just what did pass at the meeting on 10 February, 1306, is not known. It is likely that mutual charges of treachery were made. Bruce, after all, was attempting to go against Edward whilst Comyn seems to have continued his oath to Edward. The ownership of land was also in dispute: that land removed from Bruce and given to Ingram de Umphraville, an ally of Red Comyn's. All that is certain is that there was a quarrel between the two potential leaders with dire results.

Whatever the murky reasons, the outcome was more decisive than Bruce might have imagined.

The chroniclers differ slightly as to the nature of the bargain made between John Comyn and Robert Bruce but the end result was the same. The Scotichronicon (a tome written by John of Fordrun during his imprisonment and which is a fascinating compilation of other works, although much of it unverifiable - as the quote below illustrates), which states that it was John Comyn who started the bargaining:

"I have found elsewhere that John the Red Comyn was the first to persuade the said Robert Bruce to assume royal power, pitifully lamenting thus: 'See how these English kill our people without pretext and occupy our kingdom without reason! Take comfort therefore and be strong, consult your friends and take up arms, and when you have yielded your possessions to me, you will gain the crown with my help. Otherwise let all my lands be yours, exert yourself and rise up supporting me, so that I may rule, and you will be second to me in the kingdom, and everything will be done with your agreement.' Attracted by these hesitant words, the lord de Bruce decided to offer agreement to one or other of his proposals, and said to him: "I thank you, kinsman, for your conciliatory offer, and so long as you match your actions to your words I shall do as you urge. The burden of ruling will be a help to me, since I know that I shall have justice [on my side] for this task, and, as they say, justice usually makes the weak strong. I shall reckon my justice to be the kind under which with the help of the grace of God nothing that belongs to someone else will be claimed, and each will be given his own, and I shall assuredly disregard my own interest in order to maintain fairness for all." When these matters were agreed with the safeguard of oaths on either side, indentures were written the same night and guaranteed by the seals of each of them.

Now, clearly, these words seem to be inventions of Fordrun's imagination. Where they based on actual conversations? Or were these merely a romantic spin on the more seriously troubled relationship between Bruce and Comyn? Though we will never know for certain, it is interesting enough to include here for consideration.

A few days later Sir John Comyn went and revealed the agreement to Edward I, the king of England. As evidence he gave the indenture to the king. Very much disturbed by this, the king called a parliament to which Robert Bruce was summoned along with the other leading men, with no thought in his mind of Comyn's treachery. When Sir Robert Bruce appeared, the king handed him the indenture sealed with his seal, asking if he recognized the indenture and if he had attached his seal to it. Robert responded: "I ask for a respite until tomorrow to allow me to consider this indenture. Tomorrow I will produce it intact at a full meeting of parliament, and in earnest of this I pledge all the lands which I hold from you." The king believed himself to be safe in this matter, until on the following day he realized that he had been deceived. Then a cry was raised because the traitor had escaped in this way; and many were astonished when it was discovered that some tracks of horses in the snow led to the stable, but none led away from it.

What happens next is legend, but presented here as part of the story.

Sir Robert Bruce travelled with such haste that he reached Lochmaben on the seventh day after starting out from London. At Lochmaben he found his brother Edward, who was greatly surprised at his arrival, as sudden as it was secret. Robert told him how treacherously he had been accused before the king of England, and how in the Lord's name he escaped from his clutches.

The legend continues....

On the same day before his arrival at Lochmaben, when the said Robert was approaching the neighborhood of the Borders, he met a man on foot. Seeing him from a distance, he suspected both from his gait and from his dress that he was a Scot. Seizing the man as he turned away, he asked him where he was going to and where he was coming from. When he gave one excuse after another for his sins, Robert's own attendants on his orders investigated the secrets of this messenger whom they had come across. 'Missive letters were at once discovered with the seal of the said John the Red Comyn, addressed to the king of England, concerning the secure confinement or detention of Robert himself or his speedy execution in view of the very serious and dangerous circumstances. These letters were removed, the messenger beheaded, and God greatly praised for guiding this journey'. At that time Sir John the Red Comyn was staying at Dumfries. Bruce too hurried there to pay him back in a way that was fitting for his offence. Robert came upon John in the choir of the friars of Dumfries in front of the high altar. After an animated greeting and an exchange of remarks for a time on lesser topics, the missive letters of the same John were produced and the same John was attacked for his betrayal and breach of faith. But soon the reply was given: "You lie!" A fatal blow was dealt in the same church on this slander; and on being wounded by the said Sir Robert; John was carried behind the altar by the friars. When this happened, Robert Bruce, like a man beyond endurance and beside himself, made for his horses at the entrance to the cemetery. His kinsman Sir James de Lindsay [and Sir Roger] de Kirkpatrick ran up to help him as had been arranged at Lochmaben; and as they attended Robert, faint and beside himself as it were, they asked him how it had gone with him. "Badly," he said, "for I think I have killed John the Red Comyn." "Should so vital an assumption be left in doubt?" said James de Lindsay. And Lindsay himself, entering the vestry with Kirkpatrick, asked if Comyn might live. At once the reply came from Comyn himself: "I can if I have a doctor." A second wound was dealt [him] by these questioners, when the knight Sir Robert Comyn also fell wounded in the defense of his kinsman Sir John Comyn and along with him. And so on 10 February 1306 they were removed from this life, and Edward king of England, it is believed, was cheated of his desire both marvelously and wonderfully.'

There are several problems with this account. We have no evidence, nothing has any ever been discovered, and that would indicate the story of Bruce's actions at Dumfries. Bruce certainly knew how to kill, and it is hard to imagine that he would have struck a blow, intended to be fatal to Comyn, walk away and leave the deed to be completed by his followers. One historian has suggested that this account, very popular in Scottish folklore, is an attempt to remove the stain of 'murder in a church' by Bruce, an action that got him excommunicated from the only Christian church in existence. Bruce was greatly troubled by his excommunication for the murder of Comyn; for it meant that his soul would never go to everlasting life, as it was believed. Also, many Scots have had a rather hard time selling Robert Bruce as a hero to other countries when they hear of the murder; it tends to put some people off. Although considering the times in which Bruce lived, this sort of thing might have been almost commonplace. Considering these problems, and what these issues have meant to Scotland and to the legacy of Bruce over the centuries, this neat little story of Bruce failing to Kill Comyn and having his men finish the job for him, tend to take away the harsh reality. This may have been the intention of this legend from the beginning. Please keep this in mind when reading this aspect of the story.

Bruce had now given himself immense problems, the Comyn's would attempt to take his life under the obligations of blood-feud, and Edward would also be after him as he had committed the murder under the king's peace. His first move on leaving Greyfriars Kirk was to ride to Dumfries Castle, which surrendered. He then provisioned his own castles of Lochmaben and Loch Doon and took the Comyn castles of Dalswinton and Tibbers. In order to receive supplies from Ireland and the Western Isles he also captured the castles at Ayr, Dunaverty and Rothesay.

How did Comyn Die?

There was an angry argument as they stood alone, a dagger was drawn and thrust into Comyn's body. Bruce came out of the church and said to his men that he 'thought' he had killed Comyn. "You think?" asked his friend Roger de Kirkpatrick, "then I'll make sure", and he went into the Chapel with some others. According to some accounts, some of Comyn's men may have been present also outside the door with Bruce's men, (it is hard to imagine that Comyn would have come alone to meet his rival), for it is said that Comyn's uncle at once drew a sword, and was hastily slain when his sword glanced from the armor beneath Bruce's cloak. The friars inside the Chapel, had carried Comyn's dying body to the altar to tend to him, but Bruce's friend, Kirkpatrick and his men, drove away the friars and dispatched the wounded Comyn with their daggers.

There were many partisan accounts of the murder, Scots and English, and if the Minorite friars saw and heard what truly happened their mouths were perhaps stopped by Bruce's generous patronage later. As Barbour said:

"Howsoever the quarrel fell,
He died thereby, I know full well."

The Aftermath of Red Comyn's Murder

By the standards of the day there was nothing unusual or indeed particularly disturbing in one great noble murdering another. What gave it special significance was that it occurred in a church and so amounted to sacrilege. What this meant was that in one blow, Bruce had involved himself not only in a blood-feud with the Comyn's and their powerful Scottish and English allies, but also incurred the immediate excommunication by the Church, an essential ally in any enterprise ; especially of the kind Bruce was contemplating. To say his position was precarious is to state the obvious, his very life was in question now, but Bruce was soon to undertake an even more daring maneuver.

But for now, and very soon, all Europe would know of Bruce's act in Greyfriar's Abbey. The crime was abominable, and sacrilege detestable. For most men, perhaps all men but Bruce at that moment, it would have meant an end to ambition, to life itself if it could not be sustained in an outlaw's miserable and excommunicated existence. There was only a brief moment for decision as he stood outside the church door, listening to the clanking of armor inside, the outraged cries of the Franciscans.

His one powerful rival was dying. There was his secret band with Lamberton, but he could not know what effect the murder would have upon the bishop. The speed with which he acted makes a strong case for premeditation, or perhaps shows a desperate spirit breaking from its dissembling past and grasping the future by the throat. Bruce did not become a patriot above the body of Red Comyn. The liberty of Scotland was now the only cause that might preserve his own.

Acting quickly, Bruce ordered his brothers and men to seize Dumfries Castle, unseating the English justices in session, and as they rode north against other fortresses in Clydesdale he rode straight to Glasgow, falling to his knees before Bishop Wishart, asking for absolution. With a non-judgmental attitude that Wishart often conjured for moments like this, he gave Bruce absolution, and followed it with a rousing sermon of support from his pulpit. A lesser man might have decided to lie low and let the winds of change calm. But Bruce was no ordinary man, as we shall see, and with courage and haughty determination, on Palm Sunday, five weeks after Comyn's murder, Bruce was in Scone and made King of Scotland on 25 March 1306. The sacred stone upon which he should have sat was in Westminster Abbey, stolen by Edward I, but a circle of gold was placed upon his head by Isabel, Countess of Buchan. Her husband, whose horses she had stolen to reach Scone, was the Red Comyn's nearest kinsman, but she was also a MacDuff, and marital loyalty came second to her family's hereditary right to crown the kings of Alba. Her brother the Earl of Fife, who should have performed the ceremony, was likely still in one of Edward's prisons with his sons. The crowning was watched by three bishops, including Lamberton, and by Atholl and Lennox, two of the seven Earls and scarcely enough for a quorum. Bruce's four brilliant but inconsistent brothers were also there -- Edward, Nigel, Alexander and Thomas, who had been taking castles and raising the country for him, and who were now, by this hurried ceremony, elevated to princes of the kingdom of Scotland. The encouragement in all their faces was perhaps more hopeful than reassuring. "It seems to me," said Bruce's wife Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of the Earl of Ulster, "that we are but a summer King and Queen whom the children crown in their sport."

The sport had yet to begin. Bruce knew, said Barbour, that he "would have fight against the king of England's might". Edward was hunting in the New Forest when he heard the news, and it embittered a spirit already soured by ill health.

English courtiers greeted the news with derision. Not Edward, however, he ordered his Lieutenant of Scotland, Sir Aymer de Valence, "to burn and slay and raise the dragon" against all in Scotland who would not acknowledge him as master. The quote, once again, is from John Barbour's epic poem "The Bruce", written about half a century after Bannockburn (1314). The dragon was the dread flag which, when flown, meant that mercy would be replaced with utmost cruelty. Sir Aymer de Valence, let it be said up front, was very different from the evil man he served. A loyal and courageous soldier, he was a worthy adversary for Bruce.

Edward thus sent de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke, who happened to be married to the murdered Red Comyn's sister, and before the Clifford’s and the Percy's came over the border with their levies he had begun to organize an army against Bruce. At the feast of Pentecoast that early summer, Edward knighted the Prince of Wales and three hundred squires, distributing gold and fine linen among them before sending them north to Aymer de Valence. Dead or alive, he said, he would enter Scotland and avenge Comyn's murder. Two swans clothed in gold were brought before Edward, and he swore upon them and by God that he would take no rest "until the Lord has given me victory over the crowned traitor and perjured nation". The murderers of Dumfries, all those found in arms, were to die as Wallace had died, with their estates forfeit, and Bruce's lands were to be given to English border lords like Henry Percy. Following such orders of fire and threat, the old king was carried slowly and painfully northward on his last campaign.

Chapter 2.

Valence moves to intercept Bruce

Before Aymer de Valence and the Prince of Wales moved against him, Bruce had been subduing hostile MacDowell’s in Galloway, and Comyn revolts everywhere. He now retreated to Perth with a small army, mostly spearmen and some knights from his own lands. Since the heady days of Comyn's murder, only a few weeks before, there had been fading support for the Lion Banner of Scotland which Wishart had carefully brought to the coronation. Many lords had drawn back, afraid of Edward's approaching shadow, many more had joined the Comyn's (including the McDowall’s' and MacNab's) with de Valence, and in the Argyll hills John MacDougall of Lorn was gathering an army of Gaels to make what profit he could from Scotland's adversity. The MacDougall’s were descended, like the MacDonald chiefs, from the Viking-Scot Somerled, first Lord of Argyll. The once great power of the MacDougall’s' declined drastically after their opposition to Bruce (they were loyal to Comyn), and passed to Clan Donald. The MacDowalls of Galloway, that also opposed Bruce, were members of the MacDougall clan. Seeing his opposition was too large, Bruce abandoned Perth to de Valence, and then returned to challenge it, but his men were surprised at Methven.

In June, 1306, de Valence routed Bruce's small and poorly disciplined band at Methven near Perth. Bruce fought desperately in nothing but his shirt as the clothes had been ripped from him in the many attempts to grab hold of the Scots King. After a short encounter it was all but over, and Bruce fled practically naked with his remaining men into the hills and hiding. This was probably a blessing in disguise for Bruce, for if he had won at Methven he might well have had to face the armed might of Edward himself long before the iron of Bruce's character had been fully forged by the flames of hardship and struggle. He instead was forced into hiding, biding his time, first in Kintyre and then on Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland.

Bruce rode westward toward Argyll with what men he could gather, many of them from the emerging clan Campbell, though he knew that Lorn (the MacDougall Lord) was out against him. His wife, his brother Nigel, his daughter Marjorie by his first wife, and a northern earl or two rode with him. That was all that was actually supporting the King of Scotland at this moment in time. In early August, at Dalrigh in the dark hills south of Rannoch, the MacDougall’s came upon him and scattered his little army still further. Bruce sent his wife away westward with Nigel and the Earl of Atholl, to the great donjon (fortress) of Kildrummy near Aberdeen, high above a ravine and the valley of the Don. There they were safe only until Pembroke (de Valence) and the Comyn's came up in a cloud of steel and banners. The women fled further north, beyond the Moray Firth to Tain, where a Balliol earl made them his prisoner. At Kildrummy, the keeper prudently surrendered it and his remaining guests to Pembroke.

Edward Unleashes His Fury on the Friends and Relatives of Bruce

Meanwhile Edward had reached the Lanercost priory outside Carlisle, borne there, said its chronicler, "on a litter on the backs of horses because of his age and infirmity". There he would stay for nine months, growing weaker with each, in body if not in spirit, for the news he received some time after the battle at Methven from his lieutenants was joy to his vengeful temper. The old Earl of Atholl, as well as Simon Fraser of Tweeddale, another of Bruce's small force, taken at Kildrummy, were hanged, drawn and quartered, and Fraser's head was put beside Wallace's shriveled skull on London Bridge. Edward did show some type of odd respect or perhaps disgust, for he had the Earl of Atholl's, a man of rank, gallows’ raised thirty feet above the ground. Also taken after Methven was Nigel Bruce, one of Robert's favorite brothers. Nigel was hanged too, cut down while still alive, his entrails burnt before him and then beheaded. Also next to Wallace's decayed skull was his own brother John, who was barbarously dispatched by rope, knife and axe. It was Edward's favorite method of punishing traitorous Scots. Bishop's Wishart and Lamberton, who were "in" with Bruce from the beginning, were imprisoned in chains. Bruce's Queen was locked away in an English manor house, his young daughter was sent to the Tower and then to a nunnery, and his sister Mary and The Countess who crowned Bruce, Isabel of Buchan were hung in wicker-lattice work cages over the sides of castle walls for all to see, in all weather and with no privacy or mercy at Roxburgh and Berwick. Against great men and lesser men, whose allegiance to Bruce was real or suspect, the Plantagenet's vengeance was implacable:

"Burn down all his (Bruce's) manors and houses, destroy all his lands and goods, and strip all his gardens so that nothing is left...."

Lock and chain, rope and axe, evisceration and fire were Edwards answer to traitorous rebellion. The reasonable clemency which Edward had once, on occasion, shown to others but Wallace was now abandoned, revealing his true nature. It was as if Edward, close to death, wished to ascend to heaven by the bones of his enemies.

Robert the Bruce, the Fugitive

Robert Bruce disappeared into the West and the Isles, where loyal help and treacherous friends were always awaiting the fugitive princes of Scotland. He went south to the long peninsula of Kintyre, Clan Donald lands, confident that Angus Og of Islay would help a man so recently abused by his enemies the MacDougall’s. Where he spent that winter cannot be certainly known, but there is popular legend that as he hid in a cave during the colder months, he spent hours watching a spider in the cave attempting, over and over again, even among its failures, to spin a tight web to the wall of the cave. The spider never gave up and repeatedly tied each strand of web together until eventually it had made its web successfully. Tradition has it that this is where Bruce was inspired to "web" together Scotland, one piece at a time until he had the whole of the country. It is doubtful, however, that Bruce actually time for the study of arachnids during this cold and dangerous winter. Barbour said that he went on to the small isle of Rathlin off the Irish coast, but it would have seemed more of a prison than a refuge, though he probably was hoping for help from his father-in-law in Ulster. Wherever he was, before he reappeared in Arran in February, 1307, he secured from Clan Donald (MacDonald) a promise of help that would in time put him squarely on the throne he had taken with his own dagger.

The stories of his wandering lived for centuries in the folk-memory of the Gael, like the brooch that was said to have been torn from his shoulder at Dalrigh and was kept thereafter with pride by the MacDougall Chiefs. He and his few men, said Barbour, lived as ragged outlaws, their clothes torn, their shoes of raw hide, and there is a

curious and romantic similarity between some of the stories told and the adventures of his descendant four centuries later after Culloden, except that his were a prelude to victory and the other's an epilogue to disaster.

There is also some historical and traditional evidence, presented in detail in the book "The Scottish War of Independence" by Evan MacLeod Barron that Bruce spent some time in Orkney, under the protection of King Haakon of Norway.

In the next section we shall look at the years of Bruce's hiding and his slow comeback, and eventual emergence as the champion of Scotland. This did not occur overnight, nor did it occur without the very hard work of Bruce, his brothers and some very loyal allies, such as James Douglas, or "Good Sir James" as he is known to the Scots and "the Black Douglas" to his enemies. In this presentation, we shall stay

away as much as possible from the countless legends of Bruce's folk-tales of hiding, but rather, we shall look at the stories that are more confirmable to a large degree. They alone tell an amazing tale of survival, bravery, determination and a wee bit of luck. Behind it all though, was a very cunning and clever man who, once he saw his situation, formed a plan and had conviction to carry it out. This is what makes heroes like Robert the Bruce -- not simply the fact that he was a king of Scotland or that he won some major battles -- how he got to this position is what is truly amazing. And it appears all to have been planned, although, no doubt, luck played a part early on.

Refuge in Galloway

Early in 1307 Bruce and his followers landed on Arran with a view to re-taking Scotland by popular acclaim. Bruce would of course use force when necessary, but to win the hearts and minds of his subjects was as big a challenge and one to which Bruce applied his determination and cunning brilliantly. This is typical of the long term thinking that would be displayed by Bruce during his entire reign and victory over the English. He was cunning, intelligent, multi-lingual (he spoke Gaelic and English) and strong. Not unbendable as Edward was, Bruce knew when he must bend in order to not break, but he always had a devious if not brilliant plan in mind for the next encounter. The worst thing an enemy of the Bruce could do was to underestimate him, and several did, including Edward I and his son, Edward II.

More Cost to Bruce and His Family

In early 1307, as a diversion, Bruce sent two of his brothers, Thomas and Alexander (a young man of brilliant academic potential) to Loch Ryan in Galloway. They found no local support, were captured by the locals who were loyal to the Comyn's allies (the MacDowalls) and given over to the English.

A year earlier, Edward had proclaimed that those that helped Bruce would, "they will die as Wallace did". Edward seemed to be slipping deeper into a fanatical obsession with capturing the Bruce. As he had with Wallace, he wanted to do more than simply defeat Bruce; he wanted to make another example for his already mounting pile of human skulls. No one dared defy Edward even at the cost of Edwards own questionable judgment at this period in time.

Bruce's plan had been to have his brothers Thomas and Alexander seek support in Galloway. Thomas and Alexander, and a band of Islesmen and Irish, though small in number, were still enough to be divided in two divisions. While Robert sailed with one division to his lands in Carrick across the wide Firth of Clyde, his brothers took the other further south, landing in narrow Loch Ryan on the Galloway coast. They were quickly captured by a MacDowall chief and taken to Lanercost, where Edward I as quickly executed them in the same manner as Wallace and Bruce's other brother Nigel. Alexander, the brilliant scholar of Cambridge, was hanged drawn and quartered. The boy Thomas was also lifted upon a gibbet, but before this he was dragged through Carlisle by a team of horses.

Edward's hatred for any who dared oppose him could not be sated with enough blood. Robert, unaware of this event until later, had now lost all his brothers except his adoptive brother Edward and his wife, daughter, sister and loyal friends were all prisoners of the English or barbarously executed.

Bruce himself narrowly avoided capture. Thinking that the people of Carrick, the earldom of which he had inherited from his Celtic mother would support him, he sent a spy from Arran to Turnberry, his probable birthplace, with orders to light a fire at night if the coast was clear. Twenty miles north of Loch Ryan, Robert and his tall, olive-skinned captain James Douglas took the first division against the coastal keep of Turnberry. The spy who was sent to light the "all clear" signal fire was captured and, by disastrous coincidence or by treachery, a fire was lit on Turnberry Head by a farmer burning heather and the countryside was full of hostile patrols. Nonetheless, before dawn, Bruce's wild Islesmen and Irish raided a village of huts outside the castle, and where most of its garrison was still sleeping, killing without remorse, said Barbour, "like men that had a right good will". They also made so much noise about it that Henry Percy had time to close the castle gates against them. They stayed below the walls for three days, sharing Percy's silver and horses, and then withdrew to the hills in a guerilla war upon Edward's forces between Galloway and Clyde.

Bruce was now forced to take refuge in the glens of Galloway and even there he was far from safe. Most Gallovidians were led by the clans loyal to the Comyn's and Edward. They were still opposed to Bruce and these clans would later suffer the wrath of Bruce.


One bitterly cold night in March, 1307, he came to Polmaddie, a village (the ruins of which can still be seen in 1982) about five miles north of St. John's Town of Dalry. Polmaddie, a staging post for pilgrims walking from Glasgow Cathedral to St. Ninian's Candida Casa in Whithorn, was prosperous by the standards of the time and rarely

visited by any military. Bruce made for the big house which was occupied by the miller and his wife.

Without saying who he was he asked and received hospitality for the night. In the morning while Bruce was taking a walk up the Polmaddie burn, English soldiers arrived and asked the miller, a Comyn supporter, if he had seen or heard anything of the king of Scots who was rumored to be lurking in the vicinity. Before he could speak his wife, who secretly supported Bruce, and had identified him by his fine clothes and commanding manner, interrupted to say they had seen no one remotely resembling the king. The soldiers departed. Later in the day she told her husband, who had taking a liking to Bruce that he was a relation of the Earl of Carrick. Towards evening a second party of English soldiers called at the miller's house. This time he hid Bruce under sacks of corn just as the soldiers began searching the miller's residence. They found nothing and finally departed. Bruce had been lucky, with the help of the miller's, twice that day.

Carlin's Cairn

As an aside to this: After Bannockburn Bruce invited the miller and his wife to a feast in his mother's castle on an island in nearby Loch Doon, and rewarded them both with gold and silver. According to tradition the miller's wife wanted to raise a monument in memory of the guerilla hero and had the huge cairn erected which can still be seen on the summit of Carlin's Cairn, the mountain which overlooks Polmaddie. According to a later tradition (legend) a witch was burned and buried there, hence the name Carlin's Cairn. The obvious suggestion being that the word Carlin means "witch" in Auld Scots, but in reality it can simply mean an old woman, and witches were nearly always burned in public places. But such are legends.

Bruce's Most Able Captain, Good Sir James

A few days after he left Polmaddie, Bruce met with his foster brother Edward -- who was to become Lord of Galloway and who gave his name to Cairn Edward, the hill which overlooks the west shore of Loch Ken. Edward Bruce would eventually go on to become the King of Ireland, if only for a short time. Accompanying Edward was Robert Bruce's greatest friend and companion in arms, James Douglas. ‘Good sir James’ was known to the English and feared as "The Black Douglas".

There are conflicting views on the real nature of Sir James Douglas: some point of view, some of it legend. But one of the things most agree upon is that this was not a man to cross. He was tall, strong and had a fierce loyalty to Robert Bruce. Good Sir James was at times reputed to have killed the enemy savagely, but this is really nothing too surprising for the warriors of this time period. Dark-skinned, tall, reflective, he reputedly had an even temper until angered or until in battle whereupon he became something of a legend for his bravery and fighting skills. He is reputedly to have had a slight lisp, and several wise-cracking men fell after making off-color remarks about said impediment. Douglas was also a brilliant guerilla leader, the perfect man for Bruce. He was almost Native American-like in his ability to scout and ride through enemy lines even when surrounded by troops. He, on more than one occasion, led a small vanguard of Scottish warriors directly through and behind English lines to attack from the rear or to scout enemy positions. He was said to be able to survive on little water and no food for days at a time, and then fight at full strength and fury when the moment was needed. The example of this lisping young warlord, it was said, could turn the worst coward into a leopard, as effectively, perhaps, as legend (English) later turned him from a pathological terrorist into a chivalrous knight (Scottish legend).

The truth? The truth may be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Whatever James Douglas's real nature, he was Bruce's most trusted friend and his most able lieutenant, and he will go down in Scottish history, and especially this author's history, as a hero of nearly unparalleled fighting skill and uncanny ability to confound the enemy. For the English, he was The Black Douglas -- and with good reason.

Next: In chapter three, we will look at Bruce's first victories against the English with the help of his able commander, James Douglas, and Bruce's dramatic ascent to power and acceptance by the Scottish people.

(Author-R.M. Gunn, Material under copyright, please do not copy.) End of Chapter’s One and Two, "The Bruce, Bannockburn and Beyond".

Next, in chapter 10 of "The Story of Scotland's History": Robert the Bruce Chapters 3-4, In Hiding, taking the initiative, war.

  • Chapter 10 -'Early battles, James Douglas, more.' Robert Bruce (excerpted from the book, "Bruce Bannockburn and Beyond" Chapter 3-4

  • Chapter 11 -Bruce at Bannockburn - coming soon

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