THE records of Bruce's
early life have perished, but it is almost certain that he was born at
Turnberry Castle, the home of his mother, on 21st March, 1274; and as
there were no Academies or Universities in Scotland in those days, it is
highly probable that he received at least the rudiments of his education
at Crossraguel Abbey. He owned extensive estates in Carrick, in
Annandale, and in Yorkshire, but his chief inheritance was his claim to
the Scottish crown. There was another claimant—the Red Comyn, connected
with Balliol; but Edward I. was minded to keep the crown to himself.
Under these circumstances, Bruce, it is supposed, made overtures to the
Comyn for his support, which the latter betrayed to Edward. Apprised of
his danger by a friend sending him a purse and a pair of spurs, Bruce
fled from London, and arranged for a meeting with the Comyn in the
Church of the Greyfriars, Dumfries. There the quarrel between the two
came to a head, and Bruce in a moment of passion stabbed his rival,
which was followed up by Sir Roger Kirkpatrick, with the
well-known-response—"Tse mak siccar"
Bruce was now outlawed
both by Church and State, and felt that his only chance of safety lay in
"Audacity." He therefore set out for Scone, near Perth, and there, at
the age of 32, assumed the crown. But what a poor coronation his was!
There was no historical crown or sceptre, for Edward had taken these
away; and no "Stone of Destiny" on which the Scottish monarchs used to
be enthroned, for it was also taken away; and no enthusiastic crowds of
nobles and gentry to cry "God save the King!" As Bruce's Queen remarked,
sadly enough—"They were merely playing at Royalty." And so indeed it
proved. In a few months, his forces were defeated, his Queen a prisoner,
his brothers slain, his friends scattered, and himself an exile with a
few followers on Rathlin—an island off the coast of Antrim, 6 miles long
by 1½ broad, with a population in these days of some 500 persons.
But this was the extreme
ebb in Bruce's fortune. Soon •the tide began to flow, and it never
ceased flowing till it carried him to Bannockburn and the throne of an
independent kingdom. Accepting the seven times repeated attempt of the
little spider to fasten its thread to the rafters as an omen from
heaven, Bruce in the spring of 1307 crossed over to Arran, and thence to
Carrick; and who that saw that poor fleet of fishing boats with his men
on board, rowing over in the dark from King's Cross Point on the Bay of
Lamlash to the Bay of Maidens, could have fancied that they carried our
Scottish Caesar and his fortunes ! And yet so it was. The very light
that guided him, it was afterwards believed, was a fiery pillar like
that of the Israelites of old ; and this belief was a true one.
And now began a brilliant
series of uninterrupted successes, making that period of Scottish
history a very romance. First, the garrison quartered in Turnberry
village was cut off. Then Percy, who held the Castle, abandoned it in
disgust, after burning the old Abbey of Crossraguel by way of revenge.
Then Douglas Castle, Roxburgh Castle, Dunbarton Castle, Linlithgow
Castle, Edinburgh Castle, one :after the other, fell before him, leaving
only Stirling Castle, which the governor promised to surrender by the
end of June, 1314, if it was not previously relieved.
When Bruce began this
career of success, Edward I. arose in his wrath, and vowed never to rest
till Scotland was finally subdued. He had, with his army, reached a
village within three miles of the Scottish Border, where, however, he
was awaited by a greater Warrior than himself. But before he died, he
made his son swear to carry on the war, and take his body along with
him. But Edward II. had little stomach for
fighting, and so he returned to London, and buried his father in a grand
tomb still to be seen in Westminster Abbey, where a Latin inscription
declares him. to have been "Malleus Scotorum"—the hammer of the Scots.
And so indeed he was. But the anvil in this case outlasted the hammer,
and a great many more hammers since.
At last, Edward
II. was driven, as a point of honour, to make
an effort to relieve Stirling Castle, and recover the conquests of his
father. And thus it came to pass that on Monday, 24th June, 1314, the
military strength of England found itself facing the military strength
of Scotland, on the big sloping braes of Bannockburn. The disparity in
numbers was great—100,000 against 39,000. But this was-more than
counterbalanced by the oyer-confidence of the English and the folly of
their King, as matched against the bravery of the Scots and the skill of
In the fight that
followed, we are called to notice several things about our Carrick hero
which speak well for him, And first, there is his piety, which not only
caused him to-throw himself fervently on God, but called on his soldiers
publicly to do the same. Then, his skill in the choice of ground; then
his personal prowess; as seen in the duel with De Bohun; then his
watchfulness, which first detected the secret march of the English
towards Stirling Castle; and finally, his wisdom in adopting the old
Hebrew custom of asking the men themselves to decide whether they should
fight or not. For Burns's words in "Scots wha hae" are true to fact; and
before the battle was joined, Bruce made intimation to his men that he
was quite willing to retreat if they so wished it. But the cry was
unanimous to remain and fight it out to the end.
The policy of Bruce, with
his smaller force, was to act on the defensive, leaving the attack to
the English. He drew up his men in hollow squares or circles, the outer
spearmen kneeling, while the bowmen shot from within. It was the
formation of Waterloo, and had all Waterloo's success. It was the first
appearance, on a great scale in our history, of "that unconquerable
British infantry" before which the chivalry of Europe was fated to go
down. And the result, as every one knows, was a great victory for the
Scots, which practically settled the question of our national
About a mile south of
Dunbarton, there is a farmhouse by the road side called Castle hill,
with a rocky knoli crowned with trees beside it. Although hardly a stone
remains on it, this was the site of the ancient Castle of Cardross,
where Bruce died, June 7th, 1329, aged 55 years. He died of a skin
disease, brought on by his early hardships. One of the pleasures of his
old age, we are told, was to take a sail in his yacht towards Turnberry,
where he was born; and one of his latest acts was to build and endow an
Hospital for lepers at King's Case Well, near Ayr. When he felt himself
dying, he called his old comrade, Sir James Douglas, to him, told him he
had been a great sinner and had shed much blood, but that he had meant
by way of atonement to go and fight in the Holy Land against the Moslem.
Would Sir James go in place of him, and carry his heart along with him?
Sir James promised to do so, although on his way he fell in Spain, in a
battle with the Moors.
King Robert's body now
lies in Dunfermline, and his heart in Melrose Abbey. But he himself is
enshrined in his people's hearts as "the good King Robert.'' He was the
people's king. They had stood by him in his days of adversity, and he
ever after stood by them. And it was this district of ours that gave him
birth, and laid the foundation of the old saying—"Carrick for a man!" He
made Scotland a kingdom instead of a province; and in many a dark
passage of our after history, such as Flodden, people sighed for the
master hand that knew how to rule and fight.
Oh for one hour of Wallace
Or well-skilled Bruce to rule the fight,
And cry "St. Andrew and our right!"
Another sight had seen that mom,
From Fate's dark book, a leaf been torn,
And Flodden had been Bannockburn!