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Wars of the Bruces
A Book Review
by John Shepherd


McNamee, Colm. The Wars of the Bruces: Scotland, England and Ireland, 1306-1329. Tuckwell Press, 1997.

This interpretation of the Scottish War of Independence arose from the author's Oxford University dissertation, with a focus on the social and economic impact of the Scottish incursions into the north of England, especially after the stunning victory at Bannockburn in 1314. These punitive raids were directed at winning English recognition of Scotland's independence and the legitimacy of Robert the Bruce's kingship, not to mention filling Scotland's depleted coffers with plundered English wealth. McNamee revised and expanded this work to include sections on the wider scope of the war in Scotland, Ireland, and the maritime world of the North Sea. He observes that this celebrated conflict has been subject to much myth making, with the Scots elevating their warrior-king Robert I to Olympian status while the English tend to dismiss him as an opportunistic brigand, though some view him with grudging admiration.

McNamee also argues that while there are several biographies of the major characters, a broad synthetic analysis of this epic struggle and its enduring legacy is long overdue. He attempts to bring a dispassionate approach that places people and events in their proper historical context. While he is able to increase the reader's understanding of the war's effects upon British society, his depiction of the individuals involved is rather two dimensional and stale. Fortunately, his impressive bibliography is a necessity for the specialist and a treat for the enthusiast. It is clear that he has a powerful command of primary sources, such as contemporary chronicles and account books, especially for the north of England. Unfortunately, the sections on Ireland and Scotland are less comprehensive and highlight the overall 'cut and paste' quality of the book.

McNamee raises a number of interesting questions. Among these being the persistence of resistance to the Bruce Monarchy by the deposed Balliol faction, particularly the McDougals and the Comyns, throughout and beyond Robert's reign. He also comments with some probity upon the Scots' lack of engineering resources that would have enabled them to capture major cities such as York or Dublin to use as bargaining chips. However lucrative the Scottish hit and run raids were, they were not very effective in the short term in forcing the English to negotiate a lasting peace. In addition, McNamee does not neglect the role of Flemish and Baltic traders and pirates who ably assisted the Scottish war effort. Regarding Ireland, McNamee argues to some effect that the Bruce intervention there would have been much more effective had it appealed to the disaffected Anglo-Irish barons rather than promoting an impractical pan-Celtic alliance of Scot, Irish, and Welsh against their predatory English neighbors. He also examines the sometimes adversarial relationship between Robert the Bruce and his brother, Edward, who sought to be King of Ireland and whose adventures there kept him from causing trouble for his brother in Scotland.

The Wars of the Bruces is primarily a thematic study with some meager attempts to provide a narrative thread. McNamee's arguments are reasonable and his sympathy for the suffering of the people of northern England, pawns in the Anglo-Scottish power struggle, is sincere. One does find his criticism of Bruce's lack of 'humanity' puzzling since the Scottish king was merely taking the war into the enemy's territory after years of similar conduct by the English in Scotland. This book is a valuable adjunct to the existing historiography and a credible corrective to some of the Bruce panegyrists, but does not in any way supersede great narrative histories such as Evan Barron's The Scottish War of Independence (1914); Thomas Costain's The Three Edwards (1958); nor masterful biographies such as G.W.S. Barrow's Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm, Ronald McNair Scott's, Robert Bruce, King of Scots (1982) and Caroline Bingham’s Robert the Bruce (1998), and should be read in this context.


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