Scotland's History Articles Robert the Bruce, King of Scots 1306 – 1329

Robert the Bruce, King of Scots 1306 – 1329

Robert the Bruce statue

"Let Scotland's warcraft be this: footsoldiers, mountains and marshy ground; and let her woods, her bow and spear serve for barricades. Let menace lurk in all her narrow places among her warrior bands, and let her plains so burn with fire that her enemies flee away. Crying out in the night, let her men be on their guard, and her enemies in confusion will flee from hunger's sword. Surely it will be so, as we're guided by Robert, our lord." Scotland's Strategy of Guerrilla Warfare ( c.1308)

Bruce was descended from ancestors in Brix, in Flanders. In 1124, King David I granted the massive estates of Annandale to his follower, Robert de Brus, in order to secure the border. The name, Robert, was very common in the family.

Born in 1274, Bruce was the grandson of another Robert Bruce, the failed claimant of the Scottish crown in 1290/2, and the son of yet another Robert Bruce. His mother, Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, brought him an ancient Gaelic lineage. Descended from the Gaelic Earls of Carrick, she was a formidable operator who apparently held Bruce's father captive after he returned from crusade, refusing to release him until he agreed to marry her.

Brought up at Turnberry Castle, Bruce was a product of his lineage, speaking Gaelic, Scots and Norman French. In 1295 he became Earl of Carrick and was no doubt convinced of his families entitlement to Scotland's crown.

Robert Bruce's struggle for the Scottish crown wasn't entirely an enterprise born of patriotism, and, although no doubt his attitude changed over the years, Bruce's motives do appear to be slightly more self-serving than that. The ascension of his family to royalty seemed more central to his long-term plans than Scottish liberation from English rule.

The facts speak for themselves. Both Bruce and his father supported Edward I's invasion of Scotland in 1296, hoping to gain the crown after Balliol's fall. They were understandably disappointed when Edward proceeded to install himself as king.

In 1297, Bruce, encouraged by Bishop Wishart, raised the standard of revolt at Irvine (the reason why he was absent at the Battle of Stirling Bridge). However, the rising failed and Bruce, rather than join Wallace after the Scots victory at Stirling Bridge, kept a low profile until he could determine what the English reaction would be.

Bruce was also absent at the Battle of Falkirk, in which Wallace's army was devastated, but seems to have made an effort to help by burning the town of Ayr in order to deny it to the English as they returned south.

In 1298, after the Scots defeat at Falkirk, Bruce and John Comyn replaced Wallace as Guardians of Scotland. They soon quarrelled however, Comyn being a supporter of Balliol's claim to the throne, and Bruce was 'replaced' a year later. He continued to fight on until it seemed Balliol was about to return, then, once again, he submitted to the English king, hoping for recognition of his claim to the throne.

So Bruce wasn't adverse to switching sides in pursuit of his goal, and this wasn't irregular practice amongst noblemen in pursuit of power at the time. The rhetoric of the Declaration of Arbroath, 22 years later – "For as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English" – was never Bruce's rhetoric, for he had appealed to English lordship on more than one occasion.

1304 was a crucial year for Bruce. His father's death made him the Bruce claimant to the throne, and the capitulation of the Scots in the face of English attacks ended hopes of a Balliol restoration. Edward I had conquered Scotland, but he wasn't expected to live much longer. Bruce started to seek allies.

On 11th February 1306 Robert Bruce met John 'The Red' Comyn at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. We don't know what they discussed, but an argument flared, swords were drawn, and Bruce stabbed Comyn before the high altar. Comyn's murder is not believed to have been premeditated; however Bruce was excommunicated and outlawed, whilst Scotland was plunged into civil war.

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There was no way back, Bruce realised he would have to start his rising, that force would now take precedence over diplomacy. Within six weeks Bishop Wishart gave him absolution and he was hurriedly crowned king at Scone on March 25th 1306.

It was disastrous start to his reign. Bruce had provoked civil war as well as war with England. One of his brothers was killed, whilst his sisters, wife and daughter were captured and imprisoned. In June 1306, Bruce's disorganised forces were defeated at Methven and he fled to the Gaelic west. There are accounts of Bruce hiding on Rathlin Island, off Ireland, and in the Hebrides Islands.

It is here that he passes into legend as the dispossessed king, hiding in the mountains and in caves, suffering hardship for the good of the nation. However, at this point Bruce was by no means the people's hero in Scotland. Very few bishops or nobles had been at his inauguration, and there is evidence to suggest that he threatened many his countrymen into supporting him.

It was then that Bruce changed tactics, and success followed. He turned out to be a natural guerrilla commander, winning small victories at Glen Trool and Loudon Hill. In 1308 he defeated the Comyn faction at Inverurie and took Aberdeen, establishing control over the Kingdom north of Perth and Dundee.

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He ruthlessly crushed those who opposed him, forcing them into exile, but he also knew how to reward those who came over to his side. The tide seemed have turned in Robert's favour and many of the common people of Scotland now turned to him as their only hope of salvation from English tyranny.

Luck was also on his side. Edward I, furious at Bruce, died within sight of Scotland on a march north to crush the rebels. His successor, Edward II, never a match for his father, sought a two year truce with Bruce. By 1313 Robert was powerful enough to issue an ultimatum to the remaining Balliol supporters – to join him or forfeit their estates.

Bruce's commanders now embarked on daring raids on the remaining English garrisons. Sir James Douglas surprised Roxburgh castle, inspiring Thomas, Earl of Moray, to take Edinburgh castle by stealth. In England, Edward II had to react. In 1314 he led a massive invasion force into Scotland, where they met the Scots army at the now famous Bannockburn, near Stirling.

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Bruce had chosen his ground carefully at Bannockburn, in the battle that ensued, on the 23rd and 24th of June, Bruce won a tremendous victory over a vast English army. Edward II, was nearly caught up in the catastrophe, and only just escaped.

Here was perhaps his greatest hour and the most enduring memory of Robert the Bruce – fighting for his nation's independence against a hugely superior English force and winning, just as Wallace had done at Stirling Bridge 17 years earlier.

Bruce was now in total control of Scotland, however, he still hadn't achieved his aim. Scotland's independence and Bruce's monarchy still hadn't been recognised by the English or the Pope, and this was essential if his rule was to have any credence in Christendom as a whole.

The Scots opened a second front when Robert's brother, Edward, invaded Ireland. Robert appealed to the native Irish to rise against Edward II's rule, and some have seen this as a cynical manipulation of Gaelic sentimentalism.

The Dark Age Kings of Alba had been intensely proud of their Gaelic-Irish origin and Bruce wrote as king asking them to free "our nation" (meaning both Scots and Irish) from English rule. Edward Bruce may also have had a reasonable claim to the Irish high kingship. He was supported by Ireland's most powerful king, Domnall Ua Neill, a kinsman of Robert and Edward through their maternal grandfather.

The invasion, however, was a disaster, as famine blighted Ireland, and Edward's bid for the high kingship ended when he was slain in 1318.

The whole expedition does show, however, just how ambitious the Bruce family were. The attack on English-ruled Ireland could be perceived as ploy to split English forces and, hence, better defend Scotland, but Edward Bruce did have a serious ambition to rule Ireland as the King. Would the Bruces have stopped at Ireland and Scotland? Or would Wales have been their next target, in a sort of United Celtic Kingdom?

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On the diplomatic front, the Scots appealed to the papacy through the famous 'Declaration of Arbroath', but to no avail. The papacy ignored the Declaration and English recognition wasn't forthcoming. Bruce, by now quite ill (possibly with a form of leprosy), accepted a 13 year truce with Edward II in the knowledge he would surely die before its end.

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However, another stroke of luck helped Robert to fulfill his ambitions. In 1328 England fell into crisis after the deposition and murder of Edward II. Seizing the moment, Bruce launched an invasion of northern England, threatening to annex it to Scotland. His challenge couldn't be ignored and the Edward III's government was forced to recognise Bruce's kingship and Scotland's independence. A year later, Bruce died.

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Bruces body is buried in Dunfermline Abbey, whilst his heart is at Melrose Abbey in the borders. It is buried with the inscription – "A noble hart may haiff nane es...Gyff fredome failyhe".

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