Was It Really Rathlin?

Verifying Rathlin Island's connections with King Robert the Bruce

“… the isle of ‘Ratherin’ or Rathlin. This rugged and solitary island had afforded shelter to Robert Bruce, in the year 1306, when he was yet but Earl of Carrick, and when his patriotic resistance to the English in Scotland had made him a proscribed man …”
from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume 5 (1857) pages 4 & 5

Some people are sceptical about Bruce’s refuge on Rathlin. Although the famous story of the spider is probably a later legend, there is little doubt that Bruce did indeed come to Rathlin Island from 1306–1307.

Cave and Castle

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. There are three caves in Scotland which claim to be Bruce’s Cave. These are at Kirkpatrick Fleming (Dumfries & Galloway), Drumadoon (Blackwaterfoot on the Isle of Arran) and Craigruie (near Stirling).

The Bruce Family

The Earl of Elgin, 37th Chief of the Bruce Family and 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 and we are hopeful that some of the Earl of Elgin’s family will take part in the Bruce 700 commemorations.

John Barbour’s The Brus

Much of Robert the Bruce’s story has been exaggerated over the years, but 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 ...”