July of 1304 Scotland found itself in the tightening grip of King Edward
II of England. Central to this struggle, Stirling Castle stood in
proud defiance at the headwaters of the River Forth which led deep into
the highland strongholds. For the clans of Stirling it was a time of
earnest struggle and sacrifice when the loyalty and bravery of the people
would be pressed to the extreme. Throughout Scotland names like
William Wallace and Robert Bruce found their place in the annals of time
as the battle for The Red Lion Flag swept like wildfire through hills and
valleys and across the moors.
As with all of history it
is often the most insignificant of lives that shine the brightest and are
soon forgotten. Though unacclaimed on the written page these shining
many kindle a legacy of fire within the hearts of untold generations to
come. The soul of this book was found in one such 'small' life
who stood shoulder to shoulder and raised the cry of defiance when silence
would have swallowed the land. Her name was Janet Olifant.
The university library was hot and lonely. Summer session had been
underway for nearly three weeks and most of the student population had
abandoned the labors of study in favor of vacation.
Having finished my reading
for the afternoon, I began browsing through the reference section in
search of useless bits of interesting information. Some days
earlier, I had spent an hour or so searching the microfiche of the New
York Times for issues corresponding with the birth dates of my family
members, just to see what had happened elsewhere in the world at the time
each of us was born; reporting my discoveries homeward had been a hit.
Today, I was looking, in
particular, for any item that would cheer my sister, Janet, who,
struggling under heavy personal burdens had telephoned earlier in the day
seeking sisterly comfort and companionship.
Rummaging through the
stacks, I came upon a sort of historical Who's Who and began looking up
other "Janets" whose lives might perhaps be chronicled there.
I found the entries limited, but in the midst of an otherwise futile
search, the brief story of a young girl from thirteenth-century Scotland
stood out from the volumes of other little known historical figures.
During the late 1200s and
on into the early 1300s, the clans of Scotland found themselves locked in
mortal combat with the lords and armies of Kings Edward I and II of
England, whose desire for conquest of the British Isles had turned once
again to the free lands neighboring to the north. The long years of
battle which ensued came to be known as the Scottish Wars of Independence
and marked some of the bloodiest, most heart-wrenching years in European
history. As with all times of extreme adversity, heroes and villains
gave rise to legends that continue to live in the annals of time.
Occupying only a small corner of the page before me, the meager entry of
four lines told of Janet Olifant, whose family, it seemed, had been called
upon to make the ultimate sacrifice time and time again as Scotland sought
to rid itself of the relentless British invader.
Repeatedly, over the years,
Janet Olifant's story has called to me; the knowledge of my own partial
Scottish ancestry bringing her back through the portals of time.
Then, in the fall of 1995 I decided to research her in earnest. I
found that, as with many obscure characters throughout the ages, few
specific facts exist about Janet. But, in bits and pieces scattered
throughout volumes of folk and historical rhetoric, her saga remained a
brief, but cherished testament to love, commitment, and bravery, the likes
of which became a revolutionary factor in the unification of the
once-scattered Scottish clans.
What is committed to paper
here is my most grateful effort to pull together and preserve for future
generations what remains of this one life that courageously faced the perils
of her time, leaving for us all a legacy of personal strength and beauty to
kindle a fire in our hearts as we face the tribulations of our own time in
this revolving story we call history.
As William struggled toward consciousness, darkness swirled about him.
His head rang with pain. He felt cold. It was difficult to
remember where he was; perceptions were blurred and thoughts arduous.
Slowly, he became aware of the mute silence of bodies all around, and the
reality of the battle invaded the numbness that flowed through him.
A reticent fog had settled
over the meadow near Falkirk, not a sound trespassed the stillness; even the
night birds and frogs had quelled their voices.
William tried to sit up; he
felt uninjured, though he knew that senses could be deceiving. He had
seen men, limbs hacked off, try to stand on legs that were no longer there.
He decided to examine himself more closely before allowing too much
Clearly, the fighting was
over, but looking around the battlefield, William wasn't certain which side
had been victorious. He judged that if the Scots had held the field,
surely there would be clansmen searching for the wounded among the dead.
He saw no one. A hasty departure seemed imperative lest he be
discovered alive. If Providence had delivered him thus far, he dare
Wetness, sticky wetness -
apprehension exploded within him.
"Strange, except for
this throbbing in my head, I feel fine, but I'm covered in blood."
With stiff fingers, he probed his chest, his arms, his abdomen.
Filling with panic, he thrust aside a body that had fallen across his
middle. To his amazement, the body sat up and looked around dazedly.
Focusing on William, it spoke.
"Brother, do we still
live?" it asked.
William answered. Seeing the condition of the poor lad, William came
to the realization that it was this fellow's blood that had covered him as
they lay together, unconscious while the battle raged.
Quickly, William tore a wide strip of cloth from his shirt and tied it
tightly around the stump of the man's arm. Then, lifting him to his
feet, he half dragged him across the meadow, toward the safety of the trees,
nearly one hundred yards away.
William knew that his wounded
companion would not last without proper care, and while a bit of strength
remained, they would have to travel as quickly as possible. If
Godspeed, they could make it to the River Forth by late morning and arrive
at Stirling Castle by nightfall.
Dark, swollen clouds filled
the sky as the first colors of sunrise bled across the horizon.
William's heart was overwhelmed with dread - to add to their troubles, a
storm was coming.
Driving rain pounded
relentlessly against the stone walls of Stirling. With every gust of
wind, its power increased tenfold as it thundered on the roofs and beat down
the meadow grass on the hillside above the orchard. The River Forth
overflowed itself in great torrents, which tore at its banks and carried
them away to end in the ocean some fifty miles to the south. The
currents would be rough tonight; a perilous time to be journeying by the
river, a most perilous time indeed.
Janet could not sleep.
Her dreams were tortured, and anxious thoughts would not leave her.
Every battle in this long war had been agony for all of Scotland, but for
Janet, the fray at Falkirk had been especially difficult.
Her mind drifted back to a
time only days before, to that beautiful spring morning filled with birds
and sunlight when her father and her dear brother, William, passed through
the gate on their way to join the gathering clans. The English had
laid siege to Falkirk, and it surely would be lost without reinforcements.
William looked so strong and proud to be riding beside their father.
Both men had seen battle before, but this was the first time that they would
face the same field.
From the balcony where she
stood, the rain felt soothing on her face. Somehow it made her such a
part of this black night that she almost found peace for a moment.
Reports from the battle had
not been good. The brave Scots descended on the British army, only to
find themselves outnumbered three to one. Janet tried to keep
believing that both her kinsmen would return alive and well, but in her
heart, she knew that it was not likely. Then came the news that
Falkirk had fallen and only a handful of Scotsmen escaped with their lives.
As hours passed, it became increasingly evident that her father and William
were not among the survivors.
Janet welcomed the rain; it
seemed fitting that the sky should share her grief. Below, the
courtyard flooded, and rivulets of water began to find their way through the
cracks in the mortar at the base of the porches.
"Father will be
so...", the words caught in her throat, leaving only a strangling
sound to ease the breath.
Suddenly, the sky became
bright as day as lightening split the darkness and found its mark in the
high meadow above Stirling Castle. In that brief flash, the ancient
foundation tree standing proudly atop the hill burst into sparks and flame
as the trunk cleaved in two and crashed to the ground, renting its brothers
as it fell. Even in the rain, Janet could see the fire ignited by the
lightening's touch leap into the night.
whispered as an unexplainable knowing welled up inside her.
Beyond the gate which met the
trail leading inland from the boat landing, two figures stumbled from the
shadows. Splashing through deep pools of water, they pressed through
the undergrowth by the retaining wall and crossed the open terrace to
collapse against the door. William, she thought, it must be
Hurriedly, she dried her face
and pulled the heavy dressing gown about her shoulders. Uncle Douglas
had been keeping a vigil of his own and had already sent for the physician
when Janet reached the top of the stairs. Below her, a man sat slumped
in a chair drawn up close to the fire; he was obviously in great distress.
"No, not William,"
she observed as she squinted into the dim light, "someone else."
Quickly descending the stairs
and crossing to where her uncle knelt, she stood looking down into the
tortured face of a stranger.
"Help me here,
girl." Reaching across the man's chest, her uncle handed her a
narrow roll of linen. "Come on, he's lost too much blood
Janet took the thin cloth and
wrapped it tightly round and round the mangled chest as her uncle held the
man forward. Once, from his delirium, unintelligible, painful sounds
rose in the blood-stained throat before the stranger again dropped into
"Now the stump,"
Uncle Douglas instructed, drawing Janet's attention to what she had not
noticed before - the blunt, open wound where an arm should be.
Her uncle had removed the
wet, soiled bandages and placed one of the large kitchen knives in the fire,
preparing to seal the wound as best he could while they waited for the
physician to arrive from the valley.
"William, has gone to
Tay." His words eased the anxious question on Janet's face.
"Is he all right?"
Janet asked, seeking assurance that her beloved brother had returned
"He is uninjured,"
her uncle reassured her as he poked the embers with the flat blade that was
beginning to glow red hot. "But your father..."
Janet interrupted, emotion choking off the words. "I saw his tree
Two hours passed before
William's familiar footsteps came through the door.
"There's no one in Tay.
It looks to be the Brits went through there yesterday. There's no help
for the lad."
Uncle Douglas answered, "I doubt he'll make it through the night.
He's chilled to the bone, and he's nearly bled himself to death.
What's more, if the Brits have taken Tay, you can be sure they'll be at the
gates of Stirling Castle as soon as they can muster. We'd best be on
the watch. For tonight, we've packed his chest and cauterized his arm
- that's the best anyone could do for the lad." Then, he turned
to William and said, "Go find John, and have him set a watch up
the valley. Tell him we'll bring him in before morning. Ask
Donald Erskine to warn the village at Bannockburn, and then you get some
rest while I wake the Stirling clans. There's not a man among us wants
to be killed in his bed. There's a wicked time coming upon us, and
we'd better be ready."
"Are you truly unharmed,
William?" Janet asked as she held her brother close.
"I am," he
assured her. "I took one awful wallop on the head and when I came
to myself, there were none but the dead all about me; not a living man in
sight. This poor lad had fallen across me. I guess he bled on me
so much, the Brits thought I was dead as well. I rolled him off and
saw he was still breathing.
"Suddenly, he sat
straight up and asked me if we were still alive. I told him we were,
and right then, we got out of there and down to the river."
William's eyes grew distant as he pulled his sister closer. "I
saw Father, Janet. He won't be coming home."
"I know, William,"
came her half-whispered answer.
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