One famous battle immediately springs to mind when you think about Robert the Bruce; The Battle of Bannockburn. A great victory for the Scots led by Bruce over the English foe. But before this Bruce’s path had been a hard one and he suffered many humiliations on the route to victory.
It all started with a bitter rivalry. While Edward I of England strutted around north of the border, demanding that nobles swear allegiance to him two men came before him who hated each other far more than Edward. Robert the Bruce and John Comyn, The ‘Red Comyn’.
Comyn and Bruce were supposed to be working together as guardians of Scotland under the watchful eye of Edward but this was an impossible situation and it came to a head in 1306 when Bruce stabbed Comyn to death at the altar of Greyfriars church in Dumfries. This event and Bruce’s subsequent crowning at Scone palace was a signal of intent to Edward, ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’!
Edward responded with fury, he authorised the raising of the ‘Dragon Banner’ a sign that no quarter would be given to Bruce or his followers. Back in Scotland Bruce was still trying to convince his fellow Scots that he was the man for the job. Many still supported Comyn and he would have a hard time uniting Scotland. With Edward’s knights marching north this was not a good time for the newly crowned king.
By the summer of 1306 Edwards army had made camp in Perthshire and had linked up with Comyn’s supporters north of the border, it was a formidable force and not one to be taken on lightly. Nevertheless Bruce set off to engage them and suffered a great defeat at the Battle of Methven. The English army was led by Aymer de Valence, Comyn’s brother-in-law. According to accounts of the battle Bruce arrived at the appointed place but then retired with his army to camp for the night. Under the feudal rules of engagement Valence would not attack however under cover of darkness he did just that and routed Bruce and his forces.
This was a sign for Bruce that his enemies were not intending to ‘play fair’ remembering the campaign of his predecessor Wallace he resorted to more guerilla tactics.
As we already know Bruce had made a few enemies when he stabbed Comyn. By far the biggest of these north of the Border were the MacDougalls a powerful clan who held the lands around Argyll. This clan was descended from Somerled a great Hebridean king and it’s testament to their power that they had inflicted heavy defeats on both the MacDonald and Campbell clans. They had been great Scottish patriots, unfortunately for Bruce though Comyn was related to the MacDougalls and so they had come out in support of Balliol and the English. With Bruce and his surviving army fleeing westward they ran out of the frying pan and smack into the fire where a large force of MacDougalls were sharpening their swords in anticipation.
When Bruce reached Strathfillan, just to the south of Tyndrum around a thousand MacDougalls were there to meet him, led by the son of Alexander the chief John of Lorne (also known as ‘John the Lame). Bruce was trapped! With Valence pursuing him and the MacDougalls blocking his path he was forced to fight. Bruce and his men were not prepared for battle and the result was a foregone conclusion. What few horses Bruce still had were cut down by the MacDougall axemen and many of his most valued allies such as Sir James Douglas and Gilbert Hey were wounded during the engagement. This rather fanciful poem gives account of the battle:
They thereupon withdrew. In this
There was no mark of cowardice.
They kept together; and the king
Was ever busy rescuing
The rearmost of his company.
With skill and valour there wrought he,
And safely all his men withdrew.
He daunted those that would pursue
So none durst leave their cloe array,
For he was never far away.
The fighting was desperate for Bruce, at one point cut off from his allies he was fighting alone against a small lochan. A MacDougall man attempted to pull Bruce from his horse by grabbing his cloak. Bruce killed him but lost his cloak in so doing. The dead MacDougall was found later still grasping the cloak with Bruce’s brooch still attached. This brooch is still in the possession of the clan to his day.
Bruce and a handful of men escaped with their lives. His army was now non-existent and he fled to the caves and into the history books!
He hadn’t finished with the MacDougalls though and in 1308 at the Pass of Brander Bruce took bloody revenge against the MacDougalls. Once again with the Black Douglas by his side he completely destroyed the MacDougall’s and finally put an end to Scottish resistance to his claim to the throne.
The place where Bruce’s darkest moment had come was named ‘Dail Righ’ or ‘The Kings Field’. Bruce had escaped by a hairs breadth (of maybe a brooch pin’s width). As Bruce had escaped he and many of his men threw any unwieldy heavy arms they had into a small lochan. Local legend has it that the king’s sword still lies beneath the surface. Whether its guarded by a ‘lady of the lake’ would be mere speculation.
About the Author (Author Profile)Rodger is the owner of www.scotclans.com, Scotland's largest clan site!
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