The Bruce Story
The articles below are taken from the serialisation in "The Ulster-Scot" newspaper during 2007.
Whilst the Hamilton & Montgomery story was quite rightly described as “The Dawn of the Ulster-Scots” because it was the first permanent Scottish settlement in Ulster, connections across the North Channel have been going on for thousands of years. One of the most famous of these is exactly 700 years old this year. The story of an Ulster island, a King in exile, a determined spider ... and the greatest military triumph in Scotland’s history
PART ONE: The Battle of Bannockburn – it was the moment when Scotland won her independence, led by King Robert the Bruce. Exactly 700 years ago this year, Bruce was in hiding on Rathlin Island before returning to Scotland to do battle with the forces of King Edward “Longshanks” of England. So what is the story of Scotland’s most famous king, and what were his Ulster connections? We’ll be looking at the “Bruce 700” story in this and the next few editions of The Ulster-Scot.
Birth and Background
Robert the Bruce was born on 11th July 1274 at Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire, overlooking the famous Ailsa Craig rock. Turnberry Castle is now the site of a lighthouse (above), just between Girvan and Ayr, and is today better known as the location of one of the world’s finest golf courses.
The Norman Conquest (led by William the Conqueror and his famous victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066) saw the arrival of many Norman families who would have a great impact on Scottish and Ulster history – the de Clares, the de Lacys, the de Burghs, the de Hamiltons and the de Montgomeries.
The Bruces – or de Brus – came to Britain from a small town near Cherbourg. The first of their line arrived in Scotland with King David I in 1124 and was given the lands of Annandale in Dumfries and Galloway. Here is a timetable of key dates and events:
1172: The Normans arrive in Ireland and Ulster
Lord Richard “Strongbow” de Clare arrived near Dublin in 1172 with an army of Welsh and Norman soldiers. He was soon followed by King Henry II of England, who declared himself Lord of Ireland. John de Courcy stormed Ulster in 1177, and built Carrickfergus Castle as his fortress. Then in 1205, Hugh de Lacy founded the Earldom of Ulster (essentially Antrim and Down, with part of Co Louth around Carlingford Lough and east of Co Londonderry).
1263: The Vikings are defeated in Scotland
The Mull of Kintyre and the surrounding islands had been under Norwegian control since the 1100s. King Haakon IV of Norway refused King Alexander III of Scotland’s (also of Norman descent) attempts to buy the territory. A Scottish army invaded the Isle of Skye, and the Norwegians responded by sending 20 ships and 20,000 men.
An army of Scottish knights defeated the Vikings at Largs on the Ayrshire coast. The Treaty of Perth in 1266 returned all of the territories back to Scotland, except the Orkneys. You can find out more about this historic victory at the “Vikingar” family visitor centre in Largs.
1264: Walter de Burgh, the first Earl of Ulster
Walter de Burgh succeeded Hugh de Lacy to become the first Earl of Ulster in 1264. Walter was in turn succeeded by his son Richard de Burgh, known as “The Red Earl” in 1271, only 12 years old. Richard de Burgh later built the spectacular Dunluce Castle near Portrush in Co. Antrim.
1272: Edward I becomes King of England
Edward I, also known as “Longshanks” and “Hammer of the Scots” became King of England, aged 35. His wife and Richard de Burgh’s wife were cousins! This connection would complicate Bruce’s plans in later life.
1274: Robert the Bruce is born
On the 11th July, Robert the Bruce was born at Turnberry Castle on the Ayrshire coast.
1286: Scottish Throne becomes Vacant; the “Maid of Norway” dies.
King Alexander III of Scotland died aged 44, and only 23 years after his mighty victory against the Vikings at Largs – but all of his children were already dead. He had one surviving grandchild, Margaret, the daughter and namesake of his own daughter Margaret. The daughter of King Alexander III had married the grandson of his arch-enemy King Haakon IV to become Queen of Norway, but she died in childbirth.
King Alexander III summoned the nobles of Scotland to a meeting in Scone where they agreed to recognise the 8 year old Margaret – “The Maid of Norway” – as Alexander’s successor. However, when Alexander died, Margaret died en route to Scotland. She had neither been inaugurated or crowned and had never set foot in Scotland. Scotland was a nation without a monarch, and a nation in crisis.
1289: Elizabeth de Burgh is born
Elizabeth de Burgh, daugher of Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, was born in Dunfermline.
Two Claims to the Scottish Crown
The throne of Scotland was available, and two prime claimants emerged – John Balliol and Robert the Bruce, 5th Lord Annandale (King Robert the Bruce’s grandfather, also known as “The Competitor) – both claiming to be descendants of King David I (1124–1153) the first Anglo-Norman King of Scotland.
“Longshanks” was invited by some Scottish magnates to be an independent arbiter in the dispute (he had been close to King Alexander III). Edward arbitrated among as many as 13 claimants or “competitors” for the throne; he held a great Court at Berwick-upon-Tweed where he demanded the loyalty of the Scottish Lords (including Bruce), and then declared his support for John Balliol.
Balliol was the last King of Scotland to be crowned upon the infamous Stone of Destiny (also know as the Stone of Scone, the Coronation Stone or Jacob’s Pillow) in 1292.
However Balliol rebelled against Edward in March 1296 and revoked his pledge of loyalty. Edward retaliated by sacking the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed and then advanced to Dunbar in April where he defeated the Scots. Balliol was forced to abdicate in July.
Edward then seized the coveted Stone of Destiny from Scone Palace and had it taken to Westminster Abbey in London.
1297: The Rise of William Wallace
Bruce now began to play a clever political game, “riding two horses” – patriotism and personal ambition. However it’s important to point out that at this stage in history, loyalty was to the family not the country and our modern notions of “nationhood” either did not exist or were only beginning to develop.
Bruce would have been obliged to follow his father’s instructions, who as 6th Lord Annandale (and by marriage also Earl of Carrick in Ayrshire) was the head of the family, and he sided with Longshanks. Bruce swore allegiance to Longshanks at Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1296, but joined the Scottish revolt in Ayrshire in 1297. In the summer of 1297 he once again swore allegiance to Longshanks, this time at Irvine. After William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) won a spectacular victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11th 1297, Wallace was knighted, possibly by Robert the Bruce, and was named “Guardian of Scotland”.
Yet the following year Wallace was defeated by Longshanks at the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298. He resigned as Guardian, and was replaced by Robert the Bruce and Bruce’s cousin Sir John Comyn, “the Red Comyn”, who was also the nephew of the abdicated Balliol. Wallace left Scotland to visit King Philip IV of France, to appeal to him to support Scotland’s quest for independence.
Bruce and Comyn, the new Guardians of Scotland
However, Robert the Bruce and John Comyn were long-standing enemies. Some years earlier at a parliament in Peebles, Comyn had to be dragged away from Bruce after seizing him by the throat in an argument over Sir William Wallace’s lands. Their personal differences were too great to overcome, and Bruce resigned.
The English attacks continued, but in January 1302 a nine-month truce was agreed between England and Scotland, amid rumours that Balliol was to be restored as King of Scotland.
1302: Bruce marries Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of the Earl of Ulster
Late in 1302, the Ulster-Scots connection was strengthened when Robert the Bruce married Elizabeth de Burgh at Writtle near Chelmsford in Essex. Through his marriage, Bruce may have been able to claim the title “Earl of Ulster” (as his father had done when he married the daughter of the Earl of Carrick), but there is no evidence that he ever did so.
Scotland in Turmoil
King Edward I of England invaded Scotland again and again, and set about absorbing Scotland into England by setting up a puppet parliament. Sir William Wallace was finally captured in 1305 and was executed on August 23rd at Westminster. The following year, 1306, brought events that would shake Scotland and would change the country’s history for ever.
What is The Stone of Destiny?
The Stone of Destiny is also known as the Coronation Stone or Jacob’s Pillow. Its origins are uncertain and are surrounded in much myth and legend. Some ancient accounts claim that it was the stone which Jacob used as his pillow in the Old Testament. Another account claims that it later became the travelling altar of St Columba during his missionary work in Scotland.
It is said to have been kept at the ancient seat of the Kings of Ireland, the Hill of Tara, for around 300 years. It was taken from Ireland to Scotland about 847 AD and was described in Andrew of Wynton’s Chronykil of Scotland as “... a gret stane ... broucht thie stane wyhtt-in Scotland ...”. From then it was used to crown the Kings of Scotland from Fergus I to John Balliol in 1292.
When King Edward I of England seized it in 1296, it was taken to Westminster Abbey and was placed below St Edward’s Chair, where English monarchs were crowned. It was stolen by four Scottish students in 1950, but it was returned in 1951. When the UK Government arranged for the Stone to be returned to Scotland (to Edinburgh Castle) on St Andrew’s Day in 1996, tens of thousands of people lined the route. It is now on public display in the Castle. A replica of the stone can be seen at Scone Palace, and a commemorative stone is at the site of the Hill of Tara. At any future Coronation, the Stone will be brought to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony.
It was now the year 1305, and a story almost too dramatic to be believed was about to unfold. A tale of daggers drawn in the sacred precincts of a church ... of the pomp of a new King being crowned ... and of a Scottish army cut to pieces by English knights. Yet it was to be the prequel to one of the most glorious chapters in Scottish history. And, on Ulster’s Rathlin Island, King Robert the Bruce’s refuge became his greatest inspiration, creating the legend which lives on to this day ...
1305: A bargain and a betrayal
Sir William Wallace was dead. Robert the Bruce and Sir John Comyn were now the two most powerful men in Scotland, and they both had a claim to the vacant throne. As we saw in Part One, there was also bad blood between them. Nevertheless, they made an agreement aimed at defusing their rivalry. If Robert became king, Comyn would support him. In return, the Bruce would cede all his lands to Comyn. If Comyn became king, he would give all his holdings to Robert. Comyn said, on those terms, he would support Robert’s bid for kingship but, in 1305, Comyn revealed the bargain to King Edward I “Longshanks” of England.
1306: Sixpence and spurs!
Robert was summoned to London by a furious King Edward I. However, the King did not strike immediately and he and Robert seemed to be playing a deadly game of cat and mouse. Perhaps Edward was waiting for the Bruce’s family to join him in London so that he could deal with the whole brood in one stroke. Then the Earl of Gloucester, a friend of Robert’s, sent him a coded warning, a sixpence and some spurs.The sixpence was used to tip the messenger and the spurs told the Bruce that the time had come to flee or die.
Thursday 10th February 1306: Daggers at Grey Friars, Dumfries
Robert returned to Scotland, enraged by Comyn’s treachery. He arranged to meet his old foe in the Church of the Grey Friars in Dumfries on 10 February, 1306. Given what followed, was the Bruce deliberately luring his enemy to his death? It seems unlikely; a church was a place of sanctuary and would act as a reassurance against violence by either party. Whatever the intention, things soon turned nasty. Daggers were drawn, Comyn fell and Robert fled from the church ‘like a man beyond endurance and beyond himself.’
Two of his companions who had waited outside – David Lindsay and Roger Kirkpatrick – learned what had happened. Robert seemed unsure as to whether Comyn was actually dead, he fled from the building and said “I doubt I have slain the Red Comyn!”. “You doubt?”, cried Kirkpatrick.“I mak siccar!” (Scots for “I’ll make sure”). Kirkpatrick and Lindsay rushed back into into the church and finished Comyn off. They may have struck the fatal blows but Robert carried the guilt of this double misdeed – murder and sacrilege.
27th March 1306: Bruce is crowned
The Scottish bishops, supporters of Bruce, absolved him of his sin. The Pope was less understanding; Robert was later to be excommunicated for sacrilege. Nonetheless, with Comyn gone there was no realistic rival to the throne. Consequently, Robert was crowned King of Scotland at Scone. He wore a simple gold circlet as the Stone of Destiny and the Scottish crown had been taken to Westminster by Edward I. The ceremony was attended by Scotland’s chief clergy: the Bishop of Glasgow, the Bishop of St Andrews and the Abbot of Scone. Bruce’s four brothers – Edward, Thomas, Alexander and Neil – were there, as were other Scottish nobles with names which are well known even today in Ulster: Lennox, Douglas, Haye, Barclay, Fraser, Somerville, Boyd and Fleming.
King Edward I of England retaliates – the Massacre at Methven
Edward immediately responded by sending a large army northwards. It was under the command of Aymer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke, one of the most famous knights in Christendom. When the Scottish and English armies met, at Methven near Perth, it is said that Robert offered to settle the matter by single combat. Pembroke agreed, but asked that they wait until the following day. Then, on 19th June 1306, the English broke the agreement and attacked at dusk. The unprepared Scots army was cut to pieces. It is said Robert only survived because he was wearing a plain surplice, rather than his royal one, and was therefore able to slip away unidentified.
Other fugitives were not so lucky. They were hunted down and executed in the most savage manner. Many of the nobles and earls who had attended Bruce’s coronation less than three months before were now brutally killed by the English army. To many, it must have seemed as if the Scottish cause was lost.
King Robert the Bruce on the run
So soon after the glory of his coronation, King Robert the Bruce was reduced to living the life of a fugitive. He worried about his family and decided to send his womenfolk to Kildrummy Castle in Moray and thence to Orkney. In the meantime, he and his remaining followers (about 200 men) moved south-west to Dunaverty Castle on the Mull of Kintyre where they were welcomed by Angus of Islay, Lord of Kintyre.
Autumn 1306 – Manhunt!
King Edward I of England sent orders for two powerful Lords on each side of the North Channel to lead the hunt for Bruce. Sir John de Menteith (Lord of Argyll), and Sir Hugh Bisset (Lord of the Glens of Antrim) were ordered to carry out sea patrols along the coastlines of both Scotland and Ulster.
Edward commanded that Bisset should prepare “as many well-manned vessels as he can procure, to come to the Isles and the Scottish coast, and join Sir John de Menteith in putting down Robert de Bruce and his accomplices there, and in cutting off their retreat”. A powerful English lord, Sir Simon de Montacute, was appointed as commander of a fleet “for service against the rebels lurking in Scotland, and in the Isles between Scotland and Ireland”. The English fleet patrolled the waters, from Skinburness in the Solway Firth to Ayr, on a constant yet unsuccessful search for Bruce and his men.
The Bissets in Ulster
Edward’s reliance on Sir Hugh Bisset may have been ill-placed. The Bissets had arrived in Ulster just 65 years before (in 1242) having been expelled from Scotland, and they acquired lands from Hugh de Lacy, the Earl of Ulster, from Larne to Ballycastle. Bisset made Glenarm his headquarters and built a castle there around 1260, on the site of today’s courthouse. And just nine years previously, in 1298, the Bissets had prepared an army to fight alongside Sir William Wallace against the English at the Battle of Falkirk. So Sir Hugh Bisset may well have turned a blind eye to Bruce’s stay on Rathlin, in order to protect him from King Edward I’s vengeance.
The Siege of Kildrummy Castle
Bruce’s wife Elizabeth, (the daughter of the Earl of Ulster) fled to Kildrummy Castle in the north of Scotland, along with their daughter Marjorie, Robert’s sisters and a battalion of Bruce’s men to protect them. The English laid siege to the castle which fell after a fire in the stores forced to defenders to yield. Among the men captured with the castle’s fall was Neil, Robert’s brother, who was hanged, drawn and beheaded.The women, accompanied by the Earl of Athol, managed to escape and fled towards Orkney. The Queen and her companions sought safety in St Duthac’s Sanctuary in Tain, Scotland’s oldest Royal Burgh. St Duthac had a connection with Ulster, having died in Armagh in 1065. His remains were then returned to his birthplace.)
The Fate of the Bruce women
If the ladies hoped for St Duthac’s protection, they were to be disappointed. The English captured them and Edward’s reputation for cruelty towards the Scots was reinforced by his treatment of Bruce’s wife, daughter and sisters. While captured knights could expect to be executed in the most cruel manner, the rules of chivalry were clear that women were to be treated with kindness and courtesy. Queen Elizabeth Bruce was held in what was effectively solitary confinement in Holderness, Yorkshire. Mary Bruce, Robert’s sister and Countess Isobel of Buchan were confined in open cages like animals for all to see. Marjorie Bruce, Robert’s 12 year old daughter, was also displayed in a similar cage in the Tower of London. One can imagine the impact upon Robert when he learned of Edward’s viciousness towards these helpless captives.
Autumn 1306 – Spring 1307: Bruce’s Refuge on Rathlin Island
Bruce and his men stayed at Dunaverty Castle for around three days, but, knowing that the English army were on their trail, they left Scotland in September 1306 for the isolation and safety of Rathlin Island …
The situation was intense. Bruce had murdered Comyn, the most powerful man in Scotland and his only rival for the throne; this action may have invoked the wrath of as many as two thirds of the Scottish population; King Edward I of England, leader of the most powerful army in Europe, was out to get Bruce, and to cap it all, Pope Clement V, arguably the most powerful man in the known world, had excommunicated him.
Robert the Bruce had been brought up on the Ulster-facing coast of Ayrshire, and his wife Elizabeth was the daughter of the Earl of Ulster, so he may well have been very familiar with Rathlin Island from a young age. At this point in his life, the isolation and security of Rathlin must have been very attractive, so in September 1306 King Robert the Bruce and his men fled from Dunaverty Castle on the Mull of Kintyre and headed across the North Channel to Rathlin Island.
Was it really Rathlin?
Yes it was. Two features on Rathlin – a cave, known as Bruce’s Cave, and the ruins of a castle known as Bruce’s Castle – are still there to this day. Both the cave and the castle have views towards Scotland, and even though there are three caves in Scotland which claim to be Bruce’s Cave, Rathlin is acknowledged as the true location by the best experts – the Bruce family, and the historian of the 1300s who first recorded the Bruce story.
The Earl of Elgin, 37th Chief of the Bruce Family
The Earl of Elgin, a direct descendant of King Robert the Bruce, says that Rathlin is definitely the authentic location. The Earl visited Rathlin about 40 years ago when he was President of the Boys' Brigade, on the invitation of his cousin, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill.
In an interview during 2006 with The Scotsman newspaper, the Earl said: "We think his cave is on Rathlin Island. I have been over there and it is pretty fantastic ... I was very intrigued by Rathlin. It seemed to me to be absolutely perfect because he (Bruce) knew the waters between Ayrshire and Northern Ireland very well because that was where he was brought up ... he was very much a seafaring man. There are currents at Rathlin and in the days of sailing you wouldn't have been able to approach it swiftly. He would have seen anybody and been able to defend himself ... "
We have been in correspondence with the Earl, who is thrilled that King Robert the Bruce is being remembered in Ulster, and we are hopeful that some of the Earl of Elgin’s family will take part in this year’s Bruce 700 commemorations.
John Barbour’s The Brus
But what about the writers and historians of the time? Much of Bruce’s story has been exaggerated over the years, but there is little doubt that he did indeed spend his period in exile on Rathlin Island. The best record of Bruce’s life was written by John Barbour (believed to have been the Archdeacon of Aberdeen, and often described as “the father of Scots language poetry”). His twenty-book epic, known as “The Brus” was first published in 1377. Here is the English translation of Barbour’s account of the refuge on Rathlin:
“in Dunaverty he dwelt three days and more. Then he made his men prepare to go over sea to Rathlin.
This is an island midway between Cantyre and Ireland, where the tides run as strong and perilous to sea-farers as is the Race of Brittany or the Strait between Morocco and Spain. They set their ships to the sea, and made ready anchors, ropes, sails and oars, and all things needed for a voyage. When they were prepared, they set out with a fair wind. They hoisted sail and fared forth, and quickly passed the Mull, and soon entered the tide-race. There the stream was so strong that wild breaking waves were rolling as high as hills.
The ships glided over the waves, for they had the wind blowing from the right point. Nevertheless had one been there he must have seen a great commotion of ships. For at times some would be right on the summit of the waves, and some would slide from the heights to the deeps, as if they would plunge to hell, then rise suddenly on a wave while the other ships at hand sank swiftly to the depths. Much skill was needed to save their tackle in such a press of ships, and among such waves; for, ever and anon, the waves bereft them of the sight of land when they were close to it, and when ships were sailing near, the sea would rise so that the waves, weltering high, hid them from sight.
Nevertheless they arrived at Rathlin, each one safely, and each blithe and glad to have escaped the hideous waves. There they landed, armed in their best fashion.
When the people of the region saw armed men arrive in their island in such number they fled hastily with their cattle towards a very strong castle in the country near that place. Women could be heard crying aloud and seen fleeing cattle here and there.
But the king’s folk, who were swift of foot, overtook and stopped them, and brought them back to the Bruce without any of them being slain. Then the king so dealt with them that they all, to please him, became his men, and faithfully undertook that they and theirs, under all circumstances and in all things, should be at his will. Also, while he chose to remain there, they would send victuals for three hundred men, and would hold him as their lord, but their possessions were to be their own, free, against all his men.
The covenant was thus made, and on the morrow all Rathlin, man and page, knelt and did homage to the King, and therewith swore him fealty and loyal service. And right well they kept the covenant, for while he dwelt in the island they found provision for his company, and served him very humbly ...”
Alliances and Strategies
Bruce was accompanied by powerful allies like his three brothers – Edward, Thomas and Alexander – James “The Black” Douglas, Robert Boyd and James Stewart (one of the Guardians of Scotland). Stewart, like Bruce, also had influential Ulster connections – he too married into the de Burgh family of Ulster (his wife was Egidia, the sister of Richard de Burgh, the Earl of Ulster), and Stewart owned a castle and estate in the Roe Valley and Lough Foyle. During the stay on Rathlin, Bruce’s men may well have visited mainland Ireland and the western isles of Scotland, forging agreements and strategies with local nobles and earls, most profitably with the Macdonalds of Islay, who made their fortune by supplying Scottish soldiers (known as Gallowglasses) to fight in numerous wars in Ireland.
The Legend of the Spider
So what about the famous spider story? Most people know the legend of how Bruce waited on Rathlin, in the cave, pondering his next move. A determined spider came into view, trying to build a web. Six times the spider failed, but it refused to give up and succeeded on the seventh time. This inspired Bruce to return to Scotland where he won a number of battles against the English, ultimately winning the Battle of Bannockburn and Scottish independence.
Sadly, most experts, including the Robert the Bruce Commemoration Trust, say that the spider is a myth created by Sir Walter Scott, “the world’s greatest storyteller”, in his 1827 book “Tales of a Grandfather”. This is the first time that a spider was ever mentioned in the Robert the Bruce story. Scott may even have taken the idea from the history of the Douglas family (in particular James “The Black” Douglas – one of Bruce’s allies who was also on Rathlin) which had been published in the 1600s.
The Return to Scotland
Spider or not, Rathlin is most definitely the place where Bruce sought refuge and found his inspiration to return to Scotland. He had also assembled an army of about 1000 men from Ulster, which, combined with the 200–300 men that had accompanied Bruce to Rathlin, gave him a formidable force.
By this stage Bruce and his men may have felt that they were becoming a burden on the Rathlin Islanders. So in February 1307, James “The Black” Douglas and Robert Boyd were sent from Rathlin on a reconnaissance mission to Kintyre and the Isle of Arran. Ten days later they were joined by King Robert the Bruce, his brother Edward and a force of about 300 men in 33 boats. They launched a successful surprise attack on the English army who had occupied their family home of Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire, in Bruce’s own Earldom of Carrick. The Bruces were back – but they had old Scottish enemies nearby.
Meanwhile the other two Bruce brothers who had been on Rathlin – Thomas and Alexander – led an advance party into Loch Ryan, near Stranraer, on 10th February 1307. They were to head for the other family Earldom at Annandale, near Dumfries. They had about 1000 men with them, but they were met by the army of their long-time enemy Sir Dougal Macdowall. The Bruce army was crushed. Thomas and Alexander were captured, along with William Wallace’s uncle, Sir Reginald Crawford, the Baron of Kintyre, two “Irish Kinglets” and Sir Brice Blair. They were all handed over to the English and were executed at Carlisle just one week later.
The Bruce Backlash – Guerilla Warfare
It is hard to imagine how King Robert the Bruce must have felt – by now three of his brothers had been executed, most of the nobles who attended his crowning had also been executed, and his wife, sister and daughter were all imprisoned in England.
The response of King Robert and Edward Bruce was a seven year campaign of relentless guerrilla warfare across Scotland. The campaign would reach its climax on the battlefield of Bannockburn in June 1314, and would bring them back to County Antrim in May 1315 in an effort to create a powerful Scottish-Ulster/Irish alliance, with the Bruces as the Kings of both countries.