Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton




Bruce, the King

Very early one winter morning, when the first faint breaking of the day showed snow lying on the ground, three men rode forth from one of the least conspicuous of the gates of the Palace of Westminster. The horses shuffled queerly, seemed indeed uncertain of their footing, and once or twice nearly came down. The horsemen, however, rode carefully and not very fast. When they reached the outskirts of London, which were much more accessible then than now, they stopped before a tavern where fresh horses were waiting, and laughing heartily, looked back on their tracks. These were indeed peculiar, because the growing light revealed clearly three tracks, but it seemed as if the three horses had been going toward London, instead of coming from it! The mystery was explained when the ostler, lifting one of the horses' feet, revealed the shoes nailed on backwards. This ruse was to prevent the riders being followed.

The leader of the little group was a finely built, good-looking man of thirty or thereabouts; his name was Robert Bruce, and he was the grandson of the claimant, and destined to play a much larger part in the fortunes of his country than ever did his grandsire. The family of Bruce was descended from a Norman baron, and was by origin no more Scotch than English. The Bruces held lands in both countries, and owed allegiance to King Edward. But in spite of this the third Robert had determined to cut himself free from the ties which bound him to King Edward, and to devote himself to Scotland. Up to this time he had always been Edward's man. He had been present at the siege of Stirling, and had even helped in the search for Wallace, though ideas of revolt were smoldering in him then. It must have been the sudden outburst of a long hidden feeling that made him ride off in the night to seek his fortune in the north, and by doing so without the King's leave, to defy him and disclaim his authority.

The journey, besides being long, must have been difficult in the wintry weather, but the men were hardy, and arrived in Dumfries in fifteen days none the worse. At Dumfries there befell an adventure which made a mark on Bruce's life. The title of the Earl of Comyn to the Scottish throne was only second to Baliol's. He had married Baliol's sister, and their son, the Red Comyn, as he was called, held the right to the Scottish throne now that Baliol was as good as dead. It was this man whom Bruce met at Dumfries. The meeting took place in the church of the Grey Friars, and it can never be definitely known what passed between the two men. The usually accepted story is that Bruce urged his cousin to help him in freeing Scotland, suggesting that either he should take Comyn's estates, and support his claim to the throne, or that Comyn should take his and support his claim. It is said the Red Comyn refused either alternative. Another version tells that Bruce on his flight from London had met a messenger carrying letters to King Edward, betraying him, and that he now accused Comyn of treachery.

However it was, the quarrel grew fierce, and Bruce drew his dagger and struck at the Earl, wounding him, and then ran forth, telling his men that something very serious had happened, and that he believed Comyn was dead. One of his followers thereupon went into the church, and finding Comyn wounded, but not dead, finished him off, crying: "I'll mak' siccar[sure]." This was not only murder, but sacrilege, because it took place in a consecrated building, and it was indeed a serious matter. The knowledge of this, and that they were now marked men, seems to have made the followers of Bruce lose their heads; they attacked the courts where the English judges were sitting, and, capturing them, drove them back into England. When the news spread, as it did immediately, the Scots, who had only needed a leader, rose all around, and set upon the hated English. Bruce went to his own castle of Lochmaben, not far from Dumfries, and hundreds flocked to his standard. As Comyn was dead, there was no one to dispute his right to the throne, and only six weeks after the murder he went to Scone to be crowned.

A strange ceremony it must have been. All the robes and the regalia, besides the sacred stone, had been carried off by Edward, so some of the Bishop's robes were used on the occasion. Ever since the days of Macbeth the right of placing the crown on the king's head had lain with the family of Macduff, who had assisted King Malcolm against Macbeth. The head of the house at this date was a young man who was far away, and who, possibly, was a partisan of the English, so his sister, the Countess of Buchan, volunteered to supply his place. This brave lady had double reason to fear such an action, for her husband was a staunch adherent of King Edward and a member of the family of the slain Comyn. Still, to her honor, she stood forth and crowned King Robert. (The head of the house of Macduff at the present day is the Duke of Fife, who married the eldest daughter of King Edward VII.)

Terrible was the wrath of Edward when this became known; the audacity of the proceeding seems to have almost bereft him of speech.

It was not long before he laid hold of the gallant Countess, and he devised a punishment for her with fiendish cruelty. He had a large wicker cage made, in which the unfortunate lady was confined; this was hung upon the walls of the castle of Berwick, so that she was in public view; and here she endured captivity for six years, while the Earl of Buchan fought for and upheld the English king who had thus wreaked vengeance on his (Buchan's) wife!

But Edward's time was nearing the end. He collected the most mighty host that ever had been seen, and advanced northward, vowing to crush forever the presumptuous Bruce; but he died at Burgh-on-Sands, on the banks of the Solway, within sight of Scotland, at the age of nearly seventy. His son, Edward II., who succeeded him, carried on the war against Scotland, but not in the same whole-hearted manner. Moreover, he was not of the same stamp as his soldier-father, and had not his ability.

The English were not the only enemies Bruce had to fear; the men of Lorn, who were allied to the house of Comyn, had sworn to be revenged on him, and perhaps he had more to dread from their animosity than from the open war of the English. For the next few years Bruce lived the life of a hunted outcast. The anointed King of Scotland lived in caves and fought hand-to-hand with foot-soldiers. Many stories are told of his prowess and hardihood.

On one occasion three men of Lorn, on foot, attacked him when he was alone and in armor on horseback. They tried to throw him by heaving his foot up out of the stirrup; this was a common trick, for once on the ground an armed man could not get up again easily, and was at the mercy of his foes. But Bruce, with his battle-axe, managed to kill all three. One of them, a Macdougall, clutching at him in a death-throe, tore away the great brooch which fastened his plaid, and held it even in death. The brooch is still in the possession of the family of the Macdougalls of Dunollie.

The well-known story of the spider, which has become traditional, though apparently without any foundation in fact, tells how Bruce, discouraged and weary, lay in a cave, and idly watched a spider trying to reach a certain point; six times she tried, and six times fell, but the seventh she succeeded, and encouraged by this exhibition of patience, the king took heart again, and went forth, cheered, to renew the fight.

There is hardly any district below the Caledonian Canal where there are not reminiscences of Bruce's wanderings; the Isle of Arran, being near to the coast of Ayr, where lay his own district of Carrick and his castle of Turnberry, held by the English, was a favorite haunt. All the Southern Highlands, as the wilds of Galloway are called, were often trodden by him. Around Loch Lomond he slept in the open; Loch Awe, with the stern Pass of Brander, where the inky screes fall to the black water precipitously, saw some of his most desperate adventures. Even far Aberdeenshire saw something of him.

It is impossible to tell a tithe of the stories which gathered round the gallant king. However, we have a record of them in a fine epic poem called "The Bruce," written by Archdeacon Barbour, who was a boy of nine when King Robert died, and so was very close to the actual events. Barbour is fairly accurate, yet he confuses the king with his own father and his grandfather, the claimant, so his history must not always be Trusted. The poem is in the style of the Middle Ages and is difficult to follow, though anyone who takes the trouble to master it will be well repaid.

The turning-point of King Robert's career was the celebrated Battle of Bannockburn, the greatest fight in Scottish history.

It arose about the possession of the castle of Stirling, which, as we have repeatedly seen, was the key to so much of Scotland. The ancient name of Stirling was Strivelyng, meaning the Town of Strife and no more appropriate meaning could it have

You will remember that King Edward had captured the castle after a three months' siege, and it had since remained in English hands. It was the last fortress held by the English, as Bruce's men had steadily made their way through the country and been successful everywhere. Sir Thomas Randolph, a nephew of King Robert, began to besiege Stirling before the end of the year 1313, and at length, after much parley, it was agreed with Mowbray, the governor, that the castle should surrender if not relieved by the English before the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which is on the 24th of June. Even the weak King Edward II. felt that a great effort must be made to relieve the castle before that date; accordingly he began to make preparations on a vast scale, and himself came northward with his army to rescue it.

Bruce, realizing how much depended on this fight, chose his ground with great judgment, and thoroughly prepared it. He had pits dug and lightly covered with brushwood, so that they honeycombed the flat ground and made it impossible for cavalry; instruments called calthrops, three-pointed spikes, intended to throw or lame the horses, were freely scattered in the grass. About a mile or two from Stirling stands the bore stone on which the standard of Scotland was planted that day, and the study of the field from this eminence is a matter of undying interest to military men, though, of course, the conditions of a battle were totally different in those days from what they would be now.

On the eve of the battle a strange contest took place between the lines of the two forces, for Bruce himself met Sir Humphry de Bohun in single combat and clove him with his battle-axe.

"High in his stirrups stood the King,

And gave his battle-axe the swing.

Right on De Boune, the whiles he passed,

Fell that stern dint—the first—the last!—

Such strength upon the blow was put,

The helmet crashed like hazel-nut."

This is from Scott's poem, "The Lord of the Isles," which may be read with interest because of the vivid picture it gives of many of Bruce's wanderings, though the author follows Barbour and sacrifices fact to fiction in making King Robert the same man as the claimant his grandfather! Bruce has been blamed for risking his life before the battle thus, as his death would have meant confusion for Scotland; it is said that his courtiers remonstrated with him, and that he appeared sensible of the justice of their rebuke.

The great fight took place on June 23, only the day before the relief had to be effected, and extreme must have been the excitement within the castle walls. It is stated that the Scots under Bruce were about 40,000, while the English were not far short of 100,000.

The real fight was fierce and long; the Scots were armed with claymores, spears, and axes, and fought hand-to-hand with a terrible ferocity. The accuracy of the English archers bothered them terribly, for these men could aim so accurately as to place an arrow even in the joints of mail. At length, however, the worst of them were driven off by cavalry, and the spearmen continued their wild work. The tide was turned and the day was won by the appearance of a number of Scottish camp-followers on the crest of a hill, whom the English, already demoralized, mistook for reinforcements; therefore they fled, leaving 30,000 dead on the field.

Stirling was in the hands of Bruce; he was now King indeed, and Scotland was free.

Peace was not by any means concluded immediately after Bannockburn; the rest of King Robert's reign was full of fighting. Once indeed the invasion of an army from England in the old style had to be met, and once the Scots invaded England, while Border warfare and skirmishes were frequent; but still, after Bannockburn, he was established firmly on the throne, and held his country as a whole.

King Robert's son David succeeded him as David II., and on his death without heirs the throne was inherited by Robert II., grandson of the first King Robert through his daughter Marjory. Marjory had married Walter, the High Steward, and their son was the first of the Stewarts or Stuarts to sit upon the Scottish throne. In this line eventually the two kingdoms of England and Scotland became united as Great Britain.