King Robert the Bruce and Rathlin Island

Robert Bruce was born on 11th July 1274 at Turnberry Castle on the Ayrshire Coast, overlooking Ailsa Craig. His mother’s family owned lands in County Antrim between Larne and Glenarm, and in 1286 his father had agreed an alliance with a number of powerful people in Ulster and Scotland (including William Wallace’s father Malcolm, and Richard de Burgh, the Earl of Ulster), known as “The Turnberry Band”. This agreement asserted the claims of the Bruce family to the vacant Scottish throne.

Background, Marriage and Murder

Decades of English invasions and Scottish rebellions had taken their toll on Scotland. The King and his heir had died and a number of claimants to the throne emerged, including the Bruces. After his famous victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, William Wallace was defeated the following year at Falkirk and was later captured and executed. During these years the Bruces adopted a policy of “wait and see”, sometimes siding with the English and sometimes opposing them. King Edward I “Longshanks” had captured the Scottish crown jewels and the famous Stone of Destiny in 1296 and took them to London. Scotland was now under English occupation.

Robert Bruce married Elizabeth de Burgh, the daughter of the Earl of Ulster, in 1302 and by 1306 the two strongest claimants to the throne of Scotland were Robert Bruce and his cousin (and enemy) John Comyn. However, Comyn betrayed Bruce to King Edward “Longshanks” I of England, and the furious Bruce met with Comyn in February 1306 at the Church of the Grey Friars in Dumfries. Daggers were drawn and Bruce stabbed Comyn, who died from his wounds. Charged with both murder and sacrilege, Bruce and his followers headed for Scone Palace where, as the man with the strongest claim to the throne, he was crowned as King of Scotland in a simple ceremony led by Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow.

From Rathlin to Bannockburn

In the months that followed, Bruce and his people were fugitives in the land, so much so that in Autumn 1306 they sailed from the Mull of Kintyre to Rathlin Island, where they stayed until Spring 1307. The stay on Rathlin is recorded in some detail in Barbour’s Bruce, written in 1377. Two features on Rathlin – Bruce’s Castle and Bruce’s Cave – are there to this day, but the famous spider story is more than likely a later legend.

Energised, and with renewed determination from their time on Rathlin, Bruce and his men returned to Scotland, winning a series of battles against his enemies during a successful seven year campaign of guerrilla warfare. During this time Bruce’s exploits and his clever tactics united the families of Scotland behind him, and in June 1314 he won Scottish independence at the Battle of Bannockburn.

The Bruces in Ireland

Bruce’s ambitions grew. In early 1315, Robert wrote to “all the kings of Ireland”. In this famous letter he asserted that “we and you, and our people and your people, share the same national ancestry … common language and common custom …” with the aim of “permanently strengthening and maintaining inviolate the special friendship between us and you …”. This letter is generally seen as Robert the Bruce preparing the way for the next phase of his war against Edward II of England – a new front in Ireland – and to install his brother, Edward Bruce, as King of Ireland. In Ulster, Domnall O’Neill, who may actually have been a distant cousin of the Bruces, helped to rally other Ulster kings to the Bruce cause by writing another famous letter. (O’Neill was the first to style himself as “King of Ulster” – in a letter to Pope John XXII he described himself as “Dovenaldus Oneyl rex Ultoniae”. Domnall was succeeded by Hugh Reamhar O’Neill, owner of the famous silver seal which is acknowledged as being the earliest example of the symbol known today as the Red Hand of Ulster)

Soon after Robert’s letter, the three and a half year Bruce military campaign in Ireland began. Edward Bruce arrived in Ulster on 26th May 1315 with a force of 6,500 men. Many of the Ulster chiefs initially joined with Edward Bruce and he was crowned King of Ireland at Knocknemelan near Dundalk around 2nd May 1316. He was joined in Ulster by Robert the Bruce in September of the same year, who arrived at Carrickfergus with around 7,500 men and remained until May 1317. However their brutal campaign, which at one stage looked like expanding into Wales, failed.

So Robert returned home, and Edward was killed in the Battle of Faughart, just south of Newry, on 24th October 1318. The Scottish army retreated to Carrickfergus before going home, and the dream of a Scottish–Irish alliance was over. Robert would later make two return trips to Ulster, in 1327 and in 1328.

Arbroath, Dumbarton, Dunfermline, Melrose

The Declaration of Arbroath, the great document of Scottish independence, was written on 6th April 1320, a date which has recently become “Tartan Day” in the USA. The Declaration was signed by Scotland’s most powerful men and was taken to Pope John XXII at Avignon by Sir Adam Gordon. So in 1324 the Pope recognised Robert the Bruce as King of Scotland, and in 1328, at the Treaty of Northampton, Edward III of England finally acknowledged Scotland as a nation and Robert the Bruce as its King.

Bruce died at Cardross in Dumbartonshire on 7th June 1329, but his dying wish was that his heart should be carried by his great friend Sir James “The Black” Douglas (who had been with Bruce on Rathlin) to the Crusades. So his heart was removed from his body and was embalmed, whilst the rest of his body was buried at Dunfermline Abbey. Douglas was killed in Spain, and Bruce’s heart was returned to Scotland where it was buried at Melrose Abbey. You can visit both abbeys today and view the monuments and burial places.

Robert the Bruce is one of the most famous Scots of all time. Spider or not, his career, his life and the future of Scotland were transformed forever following his refuge on Rathlin Island. Rathlin Island can rightly claim to be “The Birthplace of Bannockburn”.

“... Highlanders and Islemen, and many Ulstermen, fought on the side of Bruce on the field of Bannockburn ...”
from A Popular History of Ireland by Thomas D'Arcy McGee.