This painting illustrates an incident in the life of Robert the Bruce (1274–1329). The Scottish king and his brother Edward, while campaigning against the English in Ireland, were retreating before a powerful pro-English army in Ireland. Bruce halted the army and prepared to fight in order to save a laundress, weak after childbirth, rather than abandon her to his pursuers. Bruce is the embodiment of compassion and, as the title indicates, humanity and the incident has been referenced in literature from John Barbour's poem 'The Brus' (completed in 1376) to Sir Walter Scott's 'The Lord of the Isles' (1815) and novel, 'Tales of a Grandfather' (1828).
Allan's dramatic image would have had immediate appeal for a public already familiar with Scott's colourful account of the event from that novel, '… just as King Robert was about to mount his horse, he heard a woman shrieking in despair … he was informed by his attendants that a poor woman, a laundress or washerwoman, mother of an infant who had just been born, was about to be left behind by the army … the mother was shrieking for fear of falling into the hands of the Irish …. At last he looked round on his officers with eyes which kindled like fire ''Ah gentlemen'' he said ''never let it be said that a man who was born of a woman, and nursed by a woman's tenderness should leave a mother and an infant to the mercy of the barbarians. In the name of God, let the odds and the risk be what they will, I will fight Edmund Butler rather than leave these poor creatures behind m''…'.
William Allan, a contemporary of David Wilkie, played a leading part in establishing a Scottish school of painting in Edinburgh both as teacher and practicing promoter of Scottish history painting.
Where to see this painting?
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Argyle Street, Glasgow, Scotland, G3 8AG
If you are planning a visit to see this painting, check with the collection first. Paintings can be moved at short notice.