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A New View of the War of Independence


THE part played by the North of Scotland in the War of Independence has been consistently ignored by Scottish historians. They have always taken it for granted that the War of Independence was won by the Lowlands of Scotland, though they have not explained how and whence Bruce obtained the adherents who made his early successes, and consequently his ultimate success, possible. Professor Hume Brown, in his history, does not discuss the point. Mr. Andrew Lang observes: But we still ask, how did he achieve any success? The nation as a whole was not yet with him (that his later forfeitures of his enemies proves) ; patriotism, properly speaking, was as yet rudimentary. The Commons had fallen away after Wallace’s death; of the nobles some were indifferent, many were bitterly hostile, holding Bruce in deadly feud. Rome, since 1304. no ally, was now an embittered foe, because of Bruce's sacrilege, and he lay under excommunication—then, and much later, a terrible position. Who composed Bruce’s forces while he wandered in Galloway? A few knights, probably, with some hundreds of broken men from Kyle, Annandale, Carrick, and the Isles. Sir Herbert Maxwell, writing of Bruce’s campaign against the Earl of Buchan, says: ‘For several months after this we hear no more of either Bruce or Buchan. It is quite likely that Buchan’s inactivity was the result of the growing popularity of Bruce and the idea of independence. failing some such reason, it seems amazing that such a favourable chance of capturing or crushing the of the Scots was allowed to slip. It seems clear, therefore, that these writers are unable to explain who formed the armies which Bruce led to victory. Mr. Andrew Lang, however, goes a step further. In an appendix to the first volume of his history, headed ‘The Celts in the War of Independence,’ he says: ‘The War of Independence was won by the Lowland Scots (in origin many of English descent) lighting under the standards of leaders more or less Norman by blood. There is not, I think, historical evidence to support so emphatic a statement.

Bruce’s ultimate success was made possible— indeed was secured, not by the support which he obtained from the Lowland Scots or in the Lowlands, but by the support he obtained in the north and in the other parts of Celtic Scotland. At the first glance this may seem a rash statement, and I do not wish to be understood to imply that Bruce obtained no support in the Lowlands. But it seems to me that the centre of his strength was in the north and not in the south, in Celtic and not in Lowland Scotland.

It is remarkable that no fortress of importance in the Lowlands of Scotland was captured by Bruce or his adherents until 1312. In that year Buittie, Dalswinton, Caerlaverock, and Lochmaben were captured; Perth, Dumfries, and Linlithgow fell in the following year, and Roxburgh and Edinburgh about the same time. Dundee was certainly in English hands as late as 1312, while Stirling and Bothweil did not surrender until after Bannockburn. On the other hand, by the middle of 1309 Scotland north of the Tay, with the exception of Perth and Dundee, was entirely in Bruce’s hands, were the Celtic part of Scotland south of the Tay was held by Douglas and Edward Bruce, and formed the base from which the Scots carried the war into the enemy’s country.

When Bruce was crowned at Scone in March 1300, he had no more devoted adherent than David de Moravia, Bishop of Moray. The bishop was a member of the powerful and patriotic house of Moray, the only noble house which had stood by Wallace after the surrender of the Scottish nobility on 9th July, 1297. Immediately Bruce was crowned King, the Bishop of Moray preached a Holy War throughout the length and breadth of his diocese with such effect that the men of Moray flew to Bruce's standard. After Methven the bishop had to flee for his life, and Edward issued peremptory orders to his Generals in Scotland to make every effort to effect his capture. The bishop, however, succeeded in reaching Orkney, and there, as I shall endeavour to show, he almost certainly met Bruce in the winter of 1306-1307. The old Scottish historians have it that Bruce spent that winter in the island of Rachrin, though the English chroniclers state that he went to Norway, and that Rachrin itself was the property of a close ally of the English King. The English fleet, too, was scouring the western seas, leaving no nook or cranny unexplored in its efforts to find him. The English version of his flight to Norway is, therefore, the more likely to be true; but it did not find much acceptance in Scotland until the recent discovery of documents, which show that Bruce’s sister was married to the Norwegian king. That discovery at least confirms the English statement that Bruce did spend the winter of 1306-07 in Norway.

In the spring of 1307 Bruce landed in Arran, whence he made his famous raid on the south-west of Scotland, which culminated in the victory of Loudon Hill. Now there is in existence a letter written from Forfar on the 15th of May of that year, in which the writer says: ‘Sir Robert Bruce never had the goodwill of his own followers, or of the people at large, or even half of them, so much with him as now. And they firmly believe, by the encouragement of the false preachers who come from the host, that Sir Robert de Bruce will now have his will. If Sir Robert de Brus can escape any way or towards the parts of Ross he will find them all ready at his will more entirely than ever. Now what does that mean? It can only mean that there was a movement on Bruce’s behalf in the north and north-east of Scotland prior to the Battle of Loudon Hill, and that the preachers were at their old work of stirring up the people to support his cause. In the previous year we have it on Edward’s own authority that the Bishop of Moray had roused ‘the flock of his bishopric’ by preaching a Holy War. The bishop had fled to Orkney. Bruce had sought an asylum in Norway. And as soon as the winter is over, we find Bruce trying to rally his own men of Carrick to his support, and ‘preachers’ rousing the north. The obvious conclusion, therefore, is that Bruce’s descent on the south-west of Scotland was no mere accident, no forlorn hope, but was part of a plan arranged at Orkney or Norway with the Bishop of Moray, that plan being that Bruce was to raise his own earldom of Carrick, while the bishop raised the province of Moray. Bruce’s exploits and successes are a matter of history; but that these formed only a part of a well-laid plan has never hitherto been suggested. If confirmation of the existence of such a plan is needed, we find it in another well-known fact, Bruce’s expedition to the north in the autumn of 1307. Previous writers have dealt with that expedition, but have failed to explain it. Mr. Lang says: ‘Bruce moved to the north, where, as the Forfar letter shows, he had hopes of finding partisans; while Sir Herbert Maxwell observes: 'He moved northwards in order to raise the people in the national cause.’ But why northwards? Why not to the east or to the midlands, where he would have been in touch wiih his victorious friends in the south-west? And what hopes of finding partisans had he? Why in the north were the people showing signs of rising in his favour prior to the Battle of Loudon Hill? Because he was a hunted fugitive in the southwest? There is only one possible answer. The north held out no indefinite hopes. The north was ready; his friends had done their work. Bruce’s presence alone was required to fan the flame they had kindled into a fierce blaze. Then, as for centuries before and for centuries later, the north was the home of desperate causes. So Bruce answered the call, hastened north with a few trusty followers, and, by so doing, won the independence of Scotland.

It was in September or October 1307 that Bruce crossed the Grampians. Barbour makes him meet there Sir Alexander and Simon Fraser, ‘with all the folk that with thaim had,’ and immediately proceed to Inverurie. At Inverurie Bruce fell ill, and lay for several weeks in danger of his life. His force was not yet large, Inverurie was not well protected, and the Earl of Buchan and Sir David de Brechin were at hand with a large following. So Edward Bruce deemed it advisable to remove the sick King to the greater security—and the greater hardships—of the hill country of Strathbogie. Buchan and de Brechin followed; the latter attacked Bruce’s outposts, and Bruce, rising from his sick-bed at the news of the brush, led his men against his foes, where they lay in fancied security near Inverurie on Christmas Eve, 1307, not on 22nd May, 1308, as later historians have averred. For, as we shall presently see, Bruce was in the Earl of Ross’s territories on the latter date. The victory of Inverurie was followed by the ‘Hership of Buchan,’ by the capture of Aberdeen, and by the winning of the whole of the modern counties of Aberdeen and Kincardine to the cause of Independence. By the end of July Bruce’s lieutenants had completed the work so well begun, and in all Scotland north of the Tay only Dundee Castle and Perth were held for England.

Now, two questions immediately arise. Why did Bruce strike first for Aberdeenshire? And how did he attain such success with a force which Barbour, whose numbers are usually to be trusted, places at 700 men? The answer to the second question is to be found in the answer to the first. Aberdeenshire had always been friendly to Bruce and to the cause of Independence. Bruce himself as King, as well as by descent from the Earl of Huntingdon, was feudal superior of the Earldom of the Garioch, while he was at the same time the naturai guardian of his nephew, the youthful Earl of Mar, then, and for several years afterwards, a prisoner at the English court. For Bruce’s sister Christian had married Gartney, Earl of Mar, who died in 1306, leaving her a widow with two young children, while Bruce himself had married in 1295 Gartney’s sister Isabel. The Earls of Mar and the Bruces had for many years been closely connected; and, indeed, when the elder Bruce was a competitor for the Crown, the Earl of Mar, Earl Gartney’s father, was his chief supporter. So it was natural that Bruce should expect to find adherents in Mar and the Garioch. Mar, too, was one of the ancient Celtic earldoms, and as it lay close to the Province of Moray, it had in all probability received the attention of the Bishop of Moray and his fellow ‘preachers.’ For in the Forfar letter, above quoted, the writer states, on the authority of ‘Sir Reginald de Chen, Sir Duncan de Ferendrauth, and Sir Gilbert de Glenkerni, and others who watch the peace both beyond and on this side of the mountains,’ that the people are ready to support Bruce.

Immediately after the Hership of Buchan, Bruce advanced into the Province of Moray. Here the influence of the Bishop was at once apparent. The whole country ralhed to Bruce’s side, the castles held for England were captured or gladly surrendered, and the very officials whom Edward I. had appointed in September 1305 to govern the north in his name came over to Bruce. Inverness Castle, the principal fortress north of the Spey, was taken by surprise, probably before Bruce’s actual arrival, as the whole district was strongly in his favour, and had a brave and capable leader in the person of Alexander Pilche, the colleague and chief lieutenant of Andrew de Moray in 1297. This Alexander Pilche was a burgher of Inverness, and a man of great influence in Moray. He remained constant to the cause of Independence until its seemingly final overthrow in 1303, when, like many other Scotsmen, he was compelled to accept the inevitable. With him Edward followed his usual practice of endeavouring to conquer his greatest opponents by trusting them, and we find him Governor of Inverness Castie for England in midsummer, 1304, though by the following year he stems for some reason to have been out of favour. In him Bruce found a staunch supporter, and it was probably owing to his influence and skill that the Castle of Inverness fell so easily. For the rest of his life Alexander Pilche was high in Bruce’s favour, and he subsequently died Sheriff of Inverness. Bruce found the Castle of Inverness a place of great strength, and ordered it to be levelled with the ground in order that no rallying-place might be left to the English faction in the north.4 For the Earl of Ross was still Edward’s man.

From Inverness Bruce marched at the head of nearly three thousand men against the man who, little more than a year before, had given signal proof of his loyalty to England by violating the Sanctuary of St. Duthac in Tain, and surrendering Bruce’s Queen to Edward, the Earl of Ross. Him Bruce speedily brought to terms. During April and May he marched through Ross, Sutherland, and Caithness, and when the Earl showed signs of resistance, a threat to lay waste his territories proved effectual. With the example of Buchan before him, the Earl agreed to a truce till 1st June, 1308. These things we know from a letter still in existence from, the Earl himself to Edward II. But if the Earl looked for help from England he looked in vain, and at last he made a formal and complete surrender to Bruce at Auldearn, near Nairn, on the 31st October, 1308. Bruce treated him generously, gave him a new grant of all his lands, and granted him, in addition, the lands of Dingwall and Ferncrosky. From that time onwards the Earl of Ross was one of Bruce’s staunchest friends and supporters.

The surrender at Auldearn marks the conclusion of Bruce’s campaign in the north. It had been a wonderfully short and a wonderfully successful campaign. Indeed, so strongly was the north on his side, that it had been, at least north of the Spey, a practically bloodless campaign. A few English garrisons driven out, and perhaps one or two slight skirmishes with the Earl of Ross’s men prior to the truce in April or May, provided the only fighting worthy the name. The witnesses to the Earl’s surrender peffiars show best the extent to which Bruce had the north behind him. The first witness is the patriotic Bishop of Moray, and the second, Thomas Bishop of Ross, whose appointment to the see Edward I. had himself approved in 1297. Then follow, among others, no less than three of the Sheriffs whom Edward I. had appointed for Scotland north of Aberdeen in September 1305, viz.: Sir John de Stirling, Sheriff of Inverness, Sir William Wiseman, Sheriff of Elgin, and Sir Walter Berkeley, Sheriff of Banff. Sir John de Stirling was a landholder in Moray, but, it is interesting to observe, he had in 1291 leased from Sir Robert Bruce, lord of Annandaie, all Bruce’s land in the Barony of Inverberwn. Sir William de Haya, who was Edward’s sheriff at Inverness in 1295-96, is also a witness, as are also Sir David de Berkeley, and Sir John de Fenton. Sir David de Berkeley was, of course, an adherent of Bruce from the very first, while Sir John de Fenton appears to have been of the family of Sir William de Fenton, who married Cecilia Byset, one ot the co-heiresses of the last Bvset of Lovat. The document is also witnessed by Walter Heroc, Dean of Moray, William de Crewsel, precentor of Moray, and ‘by many other nobles, clerics, and laity, assembled at same time and place.’ These signatures prove that the north of Scotland, noble, cleric, lay, and official, was strongly on the side of Bruce and independence. Thus by the close of 1308 all the Highlands proper — the most Celtic part of Scotland — had once again thrown off the English yoke. Barely three years before Edward I. had made what he deemed a final settlement of the Highlands, yet at the first opportunity the church, the nobility, an the people declared for Bruce, the very sheriffs who governed for England abandoned her cause, and the greatest magnate in the Highlands, who was bound by the closest ties of interest and policy to England, who had wronged Bruce more deeply than any other man in Scotland, was compelled, whether he liked it or not, almost as soon as Bruce appeared in the Highlands, to sue for pardon. These facts speak for themselves, but it may be pointed out as a further indication of the real attitude of the north, that from 1297 to 1303 Scotland north of the Spey had been absolutely independent. In the latter year Edward in person crushed all resistance in the north, but the very men he had appointed to govern in his name had, most of them, been prominent on the patriotic side down to 1303. Like the vast majority of Scotsmen elsewhere, they had no choice but to become Edward’s men when in 1303-1304 Scottish Independence seemed at last to be finally crushed. But the English conquest took no firm hold of the north, for the people were not Lowland Scots in origin mainly of English descent, and they had all the old Celtic preference for a king of their own race. Bruce was in their eyes the rightful King of Scotland. He claimed the throne by virtue of his descent from the old Celtic kings; his mother wa« a Celtic princess in her own right, and his own earldom of Carrick was a Celtic earldom. And to crown all, only three years had elapsed since the north had last met England in battle. Then the north had been beaten but not subdued. And, as we have seen, there were not wanting patriotic spirits to keep the fire smouldering.

The results of the adherence to Bruce of Scotland from Caithness to the Tay were far-reaching. With the north behind h:m Bruce was able to proceed with the task of wresting the Lowlands and Argyle from English hands. Between November 1308 and March 1309 he subdued the latter, while his brother Edward secured Galloway. Affairs proceeded so favourably that on 16th March he was able to hold his first Parliament, that Parliament which met at St. Andrews, and drew up the letter to the King of France declaring that Bruce was now King of Scotland. The record of that Parliament is exceedingly interesting. Three of the great Celtic Earls were present in person, the Earls of Ross, Lennox, and Sutherland, while the other Celtic earldoms of Fife, Menteith, Mar, and Buchan, and the earldom of Caithness, whose heirs, the record states, were in ward, were represented. Bruce’s tried and trusted friends, his brother Edward, James the Steward, Donald of Isla, Gilbert de Haya, Robert de Keith, Thomas Randolph, Sir James Douglas, Alexander de Llndesay, William Wiseman, David de Berkeley, and Robert Boyde, are also specifically mentioned, while the names of Alexander of Argyle, Hugh, son and heir of the Earl of Ross, and John de Menteith, ‘and the Barons of the whole of Argyle and Innisgall and the inhabitants of the whole Kingdom of Scotland.’ complete the record. Thus, of the twenty-four names mentioned specifically in the document, no less than fourteen are representative of the ancient Celtic Kingdom of Scotland, while several of the others are more or less connected with the north. Some doubts have been expressed as to the trustworthiness of the record, but the names it gives are confirmed in a striking manner by the events I have narrated. The Earls of Ross and Sutherland, Hugh, son and heir of the Earl of Ross, William Wiseman, and David de Berkeley, are all mentioned in the contemporary documents from which I have compiled my narrative, as having been, by 31st October, 1308, of Bruce’s party, while of the remaining names that of Alexander of Argyle is the only one doubtful.

The events I have just narrated, and the names I have given, prove, I think, that Celtic Scotland had declared itself for Bruce at the crisis of his fate, and three years before he made any headway in the Anglicized Lowlands. He could only have made the headway he did in Celtic Scotland in so short a period by the support of the people of the country. It follows that the people who won the War of Independence were not, as Mr. Lang says, 'Lowland Scots (in origin mainly of English descent) fighting under standards of leaders, more or less Norman by blood,’ but the inhabitants of the Celtic part of Scotland fighting under leaders, many of them Celtic, and under a king whose mother was a Celtic countess, and who claimed the crown by virtue of his descent from a Celtic king. And I do not think it can be disputed that, if Bruce had not secured the support of the north in 1308, the independence of Scotland would not have been won. From the north he obtained men and staunch support when he needed both most. From Celtic Scotland in the west his armies raided England. From Celtic Scotland in the north and west he captured one by one the strongholds or the Scottish Lowlands. For it cannot be denied that it was not until he had Celtic Scotland behind him that the strongholds of the south fell. Lanark was held for England as late as October 1310, while in 1312 the whole of the Lothians and a large part of Scotland south of the Forth were in English hands. There were English garrisons in Berwick, Roxburgh, Edinburgh, Stirling, Bothwell, Linlithgow, Dunbar, Yester, Luffenok, Dirieton, Kirkintilloch, Selkirk, Jedburgh, Livingston, Lochmaben, Bulttle, Dalswinton, Dumfries, Caerlaverock, and Cavres, as well as in Perth and Dundee, and English sheriffs still ruled in Berwick, Roxburgh, Edinburgh, Haddington, Linlithgow, Stirling, and Perth.

It is interesting to observe that the narrative as 1 have told it is borne out by Barbcur, in a passage often quoted, but always with the comment that nothing is known of events in the north. The passage is as follows (the poet has just described the Hership of Buchan):

‘The King than till his pess has tane
The north cuntreys, that humbly
Obeysyt till his senyowry.
Swa that be north the month war nane.
Then thai his men war euirilkane.
His Lordschip wot ay mar and mar.
Towart Anguss syne gan he far;
And thoucht sone to mak all fre
That was on the north halff the Scottis Se.’

An interesting sidelight on the views I have advanced is that the only two parliaments which Bruce held prior to Bannockburn met in the old kingdom of Celtic Scotland, the one at St. Andrews in 1309 and the other at Inverness in 1312. The latter was an exceedingly important parliament, and one which would in ordinary circumstances have been held in the capital of the kingdom. It was the parliament at which Bruce in person met the envoys of the King of Norway and ratified with great solemnity the treaty made between the Kings of Norway and Scotland in 1266. As befitted the occasion, Bruce was attended by a great retinue, the most important members of which were witnesses to the treaty. They were the Bishops of Aberdeen, Moray, Ross, and Caithness, and the Earls of Ross, Athol, and Moray. Though the Earl of Moray was Thomas Randolph the witnesses unmistakably are all representative of Celtic Scotland.

I do not desire to exaggerate the part played by the north of Scotland in the War of Independence, nor to lay myself open to the charge of holding a special brief for the Celts. But the facts I have stated show how important was the part played by Celtic Scotland in the War of Independence, and that it was the old kingdom of Celtic Scotland which really maintained and ultimately won that struggle. For I think I have shown that there is sound historical evidence for the view that in the north of Scotland, Bruce found his earliest and staunchest supporters; that the north declared for and stood by Bruce while the Lowlands were as yet lukewarm or hostile; and that, therefore, to the north was his ultimate success due.

Evan M. Barron.


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