Robert the Bruce and Bannockburn: Rab McNeil’s Scottish Icons

IN 1314, Robert the Bruce won Scotland her independence and so is a great source of shame to many Scots today. Those of a certain age recall that the heroic national leader was never mentioned at school, unless by an unusually patriotic primary teacher, having first ensured no one was listening at the door.

Of course, as the Bruce existed at a time of no newspapers, we lack a full picture of the arguably great man. Our attitude to others is largely determined by appearance, and the Bruce statue in Stirling shows a magnificent figure, while some modern recreations depict a right bawheid. He was reportedly 6ft 1in, while his mortal enemy, Edward I, was 6ft 2 in. Give the English an inch …

It’s typical of Scotland’s admirably irreverent humour that a celebratory banknote featuring Bruce on horseback, with his peculiarly glaikit-looking footsoldiers pressing in around him, was frequently defaced with the heroic leader saying in a cartoon bubble, “Stoap shovin’, will ye!”

That shovin’ took place at Bannockburn, still Scotland’s most celebrated victory (after 3-2 at Wembley in 1967), and brought us the aforementioned – whisper it, children – independence. But we’re running ahead of ourselves so, as the page goes all wobbly and blurred, let’s return in time to 11 July 1274 and the birth of baby Boab at Turnberry Castle, Ayrshire, or possibly Lochmaben, Dumfriesshire. The medievals were never big on detail.

READ MORE RAB: Ally MacLeod: Scottish Icons, by Rab McNeil

As you’ll be aware by now, nothing Scottish is Scottish, and the Bruce’s ancestry is Norman, with the name coming from a place called Bruis, now Brix, in yonder France.

That said, it was 150 years before Boab’s birth in Scotland that his ancestor, also Robert, arrived here with his old pal David I and received lands in Annandale.

Boab’s (not being disrespectful, it’s to differentiate him from the plethora of Roberts) grandfather, Robert (see what I mean?) de Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale – and, er, Lord of Hartlepool – was a claimant to the Scottish throne, due to some genealogical jiggerypokery with the aforementioned David I’s tribe.

Alexander III’s sudden death in 1286 triggered a struggle for power between Robert’s granda and John Balliol (and 11 others). In one of history’s dumbest moves, England’s wicked Edward I was asked to choose Scotia’s next ruler. He picked Balliol, and promptly proceeded to stamp all over his autonomy.

That was never going to play well. The leading Scots noblemen formed an alliance with France, and even attacked Carlisle, prompting Edward I to come north and commit particularly atrocious revenge on Berwick, sparing, according to one chronicle, “no one, whatever the age or sex”.

Later, after Edward had put Balliol in the Tower of London, young Bruce, then 22, joined the Scottish resistance, addressing his Annandale knights thus: “No man holds his own flesh and blood in hatred, and I am no exception. I must join my own people and the nation in which I was born. I ask that you please come with me and be my councillors and close comrades.”

READ MORE RAB: Loch Ness Monster. Rab McNeil’s Scottish Icons

After William Wallace’s defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, he was succeeded as Guardian of Scotland jointly by the Bruce and John Comyn, a nephew of Balliol’s with a strong claim to the throne. They were never besties, and in 1300 Robert jacked it in.

There followed a period of submission to Edward’s “peace” by Scotland’s leaders, apart from Wallace, and in 1305 Comyn supposedly forfeited his claim to the throne to Robert – then betrayed this agreement to Big Eddie.

Bruce arranged a meeting with Comyn on 10 February 1306 in the Chapel of Greyfriars Monastery, Dumfries. A fight broke out, and Bruce stabbed Comyn at the high altar. Painful. Wasting no time, he claimed the throne and was crowned king at Scone on 25 March 1306, standing before the great banner of the kings of Scotland, and wearing robes that had been hidden from the English.

Edward marched north again. His son, Eddie II, captured Bruce’s family at Kildrummy Castle. Bruce’s brother Niall was hanged, drawn and quartered. His sister Mary was kept in a wooden cage erected on the walls of Roxburgh Castle. His wife Elizabeth was held under severe conditions of house arrest in England.

To round off a rotten time, Edward I’s forces defeated Robert in battle at Methven, forcing him into hiding, possibly in the Hebrides, though legend says a cave on the island of Rathlin off Ireland’s northern coast. Here, he took inspiration from a spider that never gave up hope as it weaved its web.

Returning to Ayrshire, our superhero Spiderman organised a fightback, defeating the English at Loudon Hill and devastating the lands of Comyn in Buchan with considerable brutality. In March 1309, he held his first parliament at St Andrews, and the victories kept coming, all the way to Jun 23-24, 1314, at Bannockburn near Stirling.

With Edward I rotting in hell, Eddie II was the new chancer, coming north with 20,000 men against Bruce’s 6,000. No contest. It started with Henry de Bohun fancying his tattie by directly attacking Robert, who nonchalantly cleaved his head in two with an axe.

After skirmishing on the first day, the second saw the English unexpectedly attacked by the Scots as they approached in marching rather than battle order, with their archers at the back.

English military success had traditionally rested on the cowardly use of archers rather than going toe to toe in a proper square go. Now they found themselves confronted directly by Robert’s soldiers. Their losses were described as “huge”. The rest is history.

After 15 years as Scotland’s king, including an attempt at creating a “Pan-Gaelic Greater Scotia” with Ireland, Robert died on 7 June 1329, at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton. English chroniclers tried making the cause of death leprosy, the “unclean sickness’, but this has been disproven.

His physician blamed it on a rich diet, particularly the eating of eels. It seems that, after such an action-packed life, he just slipped away.

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