Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton

An Empty Throne

Along the coast of Fife there are steep cliffs, some of which have broken away and lie in fragments on the coast below, so that the whole scene looks wild and desolate. It is probable that all this looks very much the same now as it did in 1286, when the King of Scotland, Alexander III., came riding along one cold day in March. He had been holding a council in Edinburgh, and there was not then—or, indeed, until quite modern times—a bridge over the Firth of Forth, at that time called Scots Water. The King had been ferried across the blusterous firth against the advice of his counselors, for he was anxious to join his queen, Joleta, his second wife, whom he had married only a few months before. In those days journeys were made on horseback, even by kings, and only women and weaklings went in litters. The darkness was growing, and the courtiers who had urged their master to wait were very anxious for his safety. They had reason indeed to fear, for, as the King rode along the cliffs, his horse gave a heavy stumble, throwing its rider over its head; he pitched over the cliffs, and, falling on the stones below, was instantly killed. With dismay his followers scrambled down and held up his head; it was evident to all that he would never speak again.

As they looked at each other, realizing the truth, there was more even than sorrow for a good King and a fine man in their hearts, for this terrible disaster meant not only a loss, but confusion, to Scotland. The King had had three children by his first wife, but they were all dead. A son and daughter had grown up and married, but the son had left no children; and the daughter, who had been wife to the King of Norway, only one little girl. This child, therefore, was the heir to the throne; but what was one small girl across so many leagues of stormy water? Who would reign in Scotland?

When the news was brought to the King's council they realized that unless the little Maid of Norway, as she was called, was brought soon to Scotland there would be civil war among the many other claimants to the throne; but there were no steamers or telegraph wires to carry news quickly in those days, and many months passed before the little girl started from Norway.

The Norwegians landed in Orkney, which was at that time part of the dominions of the King of Norway, and then came the news that the child-queen was dead.

With the death of the Maid of Norway in the Orkneys arose a host of claimants for the Scottish crown, but the only two who had any real right were Robert Bruce and John Baliol. These two were descended from sister princesses, the nearest in the line of succession. Baliol was grandson of the elder sister, and Bruce the son of the younger one. Therefore, according to our ideas, the claim of Baliol was certainly the best.

The competitors agreed to submit their claims to King Edward I. of England, which was a risky thing to do, as Edward asserted that he himself was overlord of Scotland. It was rather as if an eagle had been called in to judge to which of two hawks a piece of meat belonged! Edward was only too glad of the opportunity, so he came up to Berwick with a mighty array of followers, who entered as eagerly as he did into the business. There were a great many meetings held at various places on the Border, and an immense amount of talking, and in the end the crown was adjudged to Baliol, but with the condition that he should acknowledge the King of England as his overlord. At this time Baliol was in the prime of life, while Bruce was a very old man of eighty-one; he was, indeed, too old to care to dispute the succession, but he had a son, Robert, who carried on the claim, and it was his son Robert, the grandson of the claimant, who eventually played so great a part in Scottish history.

John Baliol, who was a weak man, granted all that Edward asked, and by his leave was crowned at Scone on the Stone of Destiny. There was a legend which said that this stone was part of the pillow of stones on which Jacob rested when he saw the ladder of angels, and it was foretold that where ever that stone should be found there should Scottish kings reign. Baliol was the last King to be crowned on it in Scotland, though the legend was strangely fulfilled in later years. After the coronation, on November 30, 1292, troubles soon began. King Edward had made it quite clear that any persons who were disappointed in the judgments of Scottish courts might appeal to him, and a great many discontented applicants did so. Then Edward, who seemed bent on humiliating King John, went a step farther, and said that the Scottish King must appear in the English law-courts as a witness in such cases. This John refused to do, as he did not feel at all safe in going into England. However, Edward insisted, and put such pressure on him that at last he yielded, and traveled up to London. When he was there he was browbeaten and humiliated by the judges, and finally ordered to give up three of his strongest castles to the English King. Baliol was a mild and amiable man, and he dared not refuse definitely, so he said he must go back to Scotland to consult his own Parliament.

Just at this time Philip of France, who claimed to be overlord to King Edward in respect of the land he held in France, summoned Edward, as Edward had summoned Baliol, and threatened if he did not appear he would seize his French dominions. Edward, who was not at all like King John in disposition, went over wrathfully to France to fight the question out, and Baliol was allowed to return to Scotland.

When he reached home, he and his Parliament sent over a message to France, and offered to enter into alliance with the French people against England. This was gladly accepted; King Philip promised to assist Scotland in case of an invasion by England, and meantime asked the Scots to harass the English on the Border and annoy them in every way while Edward was away in France. The Scots never needed much urging to do this, and they set to work gleefully, whereupon Edward, as soon as he could get away from France, collected a large army, and swept northward. In Berwick every Scot was put to the sword, women and children as well as men; it is said that about 7,000 people were slaughtered and that the streets ran with blood. Then Edward passed on to Dunbar and took that also. There was no one to resist him, and so he went to Scone, and seized the Stone of Destiny, and sent it back to Westminster to be enclosed in the throne on which the Kings of England were crowned; he also took the Holy Rood from which Holyrood gains its name. At length he got as far north as Brechin, and here the poor-spirited Baliol humbly came to him, and gave in on every point. He was sent a prisoner to England, and afterwards allowed to live on his lands in Normandy; from henceforth he played no part in Scottish history.

It was not long before another name rose to prominence in Scotland—that of William Wallace. He was the son of a knight and landed gentle man, and was by birth and education of the upper classes. He was of gigantic stature and fine appearance; it is said that none could wield his sword. His wrath against the English first burst into flame at Lanark. His wife was living there, and there he visited her, though he had to do so secretly, for Lanark was garrisoned by English soldiers, and Wallace had already, by his haughty defiance of his country's enemies, drawn attention to himself. Unfortunately, on one of these visits he came in contact with the soldiers, and a brawl followed. His wife, seeing him in danger, opened the door of her house, through which he escaped by the back way into safety. Then the dastards fell upon the woman and killed her. Little wonder was it that Wallace returned by night, and set fire to the place, killing all whom he could reach, among them William Hazelrigg, the English sheriff. Wallace was now an outlaw. He gathered together men as brave and desperate as himself, and in the name of King John, still nominally King of Scotland, he defied King Edward. His first great fight with the English took place at Stirling.

Perhaps you know the main features of Stirling, how the castle stands high on its crag above the winding Forth, which was then crossed just by the one old bridge. Wallace took up a strong position beneath a steep hill called the Abbey Craig, a little distance from the town. On three sides was the Forth, which here loops round, almost doubling on itself, and on the fourth this crag. The English, under the Earl of Surrey, came up with the Scots at this point, but to reach them had to cross the river. Wallace, who was a born general, allowed some of them to come over, and when he thought that it was time to make a move, he sent men to guard the bridge and cut the English army in half. A scene of wild confusion followed. Many of the English were driven into the river, others crushed back upon their comrades behind, breaking their ranks, and the defeat was complete. After this victory Wallace was elected Governor of Scotland, and was knighted.

The wrath of Edward of England may be imagined when he heard of this presumption! He had not been in Scotland himself at the time of the disaster, but though an old man of over sixty, he quickly advanced with one of his wonderful swoops northward. The Scots, hearing of his coming, laid their own country waste south of the Forth, in order that he should not find any food or any man to give him directions. However, in spite of this, the English came up with Wallace at Falkirk, and in spite of a brave resistance they beat his forces completely and dispersed them. Then Edward went back to Carlisle.

[William Wallace] from Peeps at History - Scotland  by G. E. Mitton


From this time there was a change in the position of Wallace—perhaps the other leading Scots were jealous of him—and he seems to have lost his hold on his countrymen. It is even said by some that he was forced to leave his country for a time, and that he went over to France. Meantime Edward made another sortie into Scotland, and besieged Caerlaverock, one of the most picturesque of all the Scottish castles, standing close to the Solway, just where the River Nith runs in. Vessels came up the Solway to bear food to the English army; doubtless some of them stuck on the sandbanks when the tide ran out, as it does here very far and very fast. Huts were built to house the soldiers and great engines were pushed forward to the edge of the moat. These flung stones to batter down the walls, and at every great hit, while the splinters and the dust flew, there was a roar of triumph. After several days superior force told, and the garrison had to give in. When they came out, behold, there were only sixty of them, to the amazement of the English, who had expected far more judging from the resistance which had been offered.

But a greater siege than Caerlaverock was that of Stirling. This was in the spring of 1303, when Edward, having completed peace with France, was free to deal with Scotland in the full power of his might. He came north and ranged about the country almost unresisted, except by Stirling Castle, which he passed on his march northward, and also in returning. Then he made his attack.

For more than three months the castle stood against every engine of war then devised. Battering-rams were brought into play, missiles flung by engines, even lumps of lead were employed, as well as stones, and it is said Edward had the lead stripped from the church roofs for use, a deed which afterwards caused him great remorse. But all this had little effect on the strong walls. It was to starvation at last that the garrison, under Olifant the governor, capitulated. One hundred and forty men came forth in their shirts, with ropes round their necks, to kneel before the victor. Edward was not always cruel, though strong and ambitious, and in this case he spared their lives; but there was one man he would not spare, and that was Wallace, now back in Scotland. His great victory at Stirling had inflicted a blow on the pride of England that such a soldier at heart as Edward could never forgive.

Proclamations and rewards were offered for his capture, and though he evaded danger for some time, he was caught at last in Glasgow, and carried off captive to England.

In regard to him Edward was ruthless. Wallace, it is true, went through the mockery of a trial at Westminster, but his fate was sealed before the trial. He was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and when the sentence had been carried out, his head was set up on London Bridge, and his arms and legs distributed to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth, to strike terror into all who might be tempted to defy King Edward.

Aberdeen has the finest statue of Wallace existing, a huge monument in bronze, a splendid piece of work, and beneath it are inscribed the proud words of the patriot in his message to Edward: "Tell your master we are not come to treat, but to fight, and make Scotland free."