Robert de Brus 1st of Scotland part two

The Brus Confrontation with John III Comyn

by Jim Henderson

Greyfriars church, Dumfries

The law of tanistry permitted both Comyn and Robert to lay claim to the vacant throne of Scotland. On the 10th February 1306 a meeting was arranged between the two men in the grounds of Greyfriars church Dumfries that resulted in an argument contesting the right of succession to the Scottish throne.

During the argument, Robert, who was passionate about his claim, struck a first blow at Comyn and, it is alleged, that one of his followers finished off the deed. For this crime, Robert was excommunicated by Pope Clement V (1305 – 1314) but immediately he set in motion his claim for the throne, being crowned at Scone on the 25th March 1306 by the Countess of Buchan. This coronation caused considerable resentment amongst Balliol and Comyn supporters.

King Robert I of Scotland with his followers now began a series of skirmishes with the English and supporters of Balliol, attempting to drive the English out of Scotland. With his previous experience of the crusades in the Holy Land, Robert developed a skill of guerrilla fighting, leading his men in surprise attacks against the English and Scottish clans, especially the Comyns who supported the English King Edward I.

William Wallace. Credit Getty pictures

This was also against the background of Sir William Wallace, whom Bruce had supported, and his awful death for treason in London on the 23rd August 1305 by being hanged, drawn and quartered on the orders of Edward I.

Later in 1306 Robert and his small army was ambushed and defeated by the Earl of Pembroke (Aymer de Valance 2nd Earl 1295-1324) at Methven near Perth on the 19th June.

Robert managed to escape and with the remains of his small army fled to the Highlands. Historians recorded that Robert and his troops were involved in another battle [Dalrigh] in mid-August, and were defeated at Tyndrum by the Clan McDougal, descendants of Somerled and cousins of John Comyn (3rd Earl of Buchan 1259-1308) together with the English army. Robert and his troops were caught in a valley, trapped between both parties, but he and some of his troops escaped via the Kintyre peninsula and went into hiding for some time.

[The famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, (1771 – 1832) assumed that they travelled via Lochranza because he learned that Bruce had been at Brodick Castle]

In fact the group travelled the entire length of Kintyre to Southend, where a friend, Angus Og chief of the McDonald clan, offered them hospitality in his castle near Dunaverty, a building that no longer exists. Fearing, however, that the McDougal clan and English were still in pursuit, they took possession of a local craft, probably the ‘Birlinn’ the next day and sailed for Northern Ireland to an area of Ulster, where his mother had contacts and where family friends, the Bissetts, offered them shelter in his castle on the Island of Rathlin.

(The Ayrshire historian, Neil Oliver, in a television programme, claimed that Bruce had spent time on Islay and fathered a child. The same programme completely ignored the fact that Robert de Bruce and his followers had been on Arran before beginning the struggle at Turnberry. Despite much research nothing of this claim has been established.)

This time in Ireland began a long period of inactivity with the morale of some of Bruce’s men being affected by inaction and boredom and missing their families who they had not seen for many months. As a result, Robert had time to reflect and learn from his recent experience whilst towards the later part of 1306 a number of other supporters and members of Scottish clans joined the group on Rathlin.

Rathlin Island. Credit: Belfast Live

It is also alleged that, while sheltering in one of the island caves, Robert witnessed a spider making several attempts at spinning its web. Robert took the spider’s attempts as an omen-if at first you do not succeed try and try again. This saying, incidentally, was part of Robert’s speech to his men before the battle of Bannockburn.

The myth, of the spider is, however, legendary. As many as 5 caves lay claim to be the origin, including: Bruce’s Cave at Kirkpatrick, Dumfrieshire; Drummadoon Cave on Arran; Uamh-an-Righ cave at Criagruie and Omeynagulman Cave, also on Rathlin Island. It is however, Bruce’s cave on Rathlin Island that is the strongest contender, this myth being passed down from father to son by the Brus family.

This encouraged Robert to begin another attempt to regain the Scottish crown.

(This account, fact or fiction, is supported by the historical records of Ayrshire, the Boathouse Visitor centre on Rathlin Island and descendants of the Bruce family).

During the later part of January 1307, two of Robert de Bruce’s staunchest supporters arrived in Rathlin, Sir Robert Boyd and Sir James Lord Douglas who volunteered to sail with 20 men to investigate the strength of the English on the Island of Arran.

Around the same period Robert’s two younger brothers, Sir Thomas Brus and Alexander Brus – Dean of Glasgow led another group of 700 men from Ireland bound for Loch Ryan. Their mission was to attack the English supply route from Carlisle.

To be continued next month in part three. Arriving in Arran

Featured image shows a Birlinn Galley. Credit: Portencross Castle