Post-classical history




‘Potential is more than mass, decision and courage of more value than numbers, and energy the deciding factor.’

Hilaire Belloc

BRUCE HAD GOOD REASON to believe that few other aspirants to the Scottish crown had ever faced so many powerful and implacable enemies. Consequently, during the six weeks between 10 February 1306 when he killed John Comyn and his coronation at Scone, his energy was never more marked. This was essential for a man whom the English maintained had murdered Comyn because he would not join Bruce in fighting King Edward,1 someone with the effrontery to declare himself ruler of a country whose strongholds were all garrisoned by the English and the large majority of whose nobles supported the Comyns. As if this were not enough his sacrilegious act of murder had put him at odds with the papacy and much of the Scottish church. However tenuous his hold, Bruce’s declared heritage must also have seemed unpromising, for middle Scotland had been laid waste from ten years of war. In comparison, although Edward I’s Scottish campaigns had stretched England’s finances to breaking point, it remained a far more powerful and influential country than its northern neighbour.

In these six weeks Bruce set out to strengthen his base in southwest Scotland with his family’s estates at Carrick and Annandale as its core. These were opposite the western approaches from Ulster with whom the Bruces had traditional ties and from where they could bring reinforcements. The MacDonalds of the Western Isles were Bruce’s allies and their galleys could either bring him more men from the Outer Isles or if everything failed, place him safely on one of the remote islands or in Ulster. Along with his followers Bruce succeeded in obtaining a string of castles among which were Ayr on the west coast, Dumfries, Dalswinton and Tibbers in Galloway, and the trio Inverkip, Rothesay and Dunaverty that commanded the Firth of Clyde. These he prudently stocked with provisions and supplies. In Glasgow Bruce ordered all men of military age to be on twenty-four hours notice of mobilisation as he sent a formal request to Edward I that he should be recognised as king of Scotland. Unsurprisingly, Edward replied by furiously demanding him to return the castles he had seized, to which Bruce responded that until Edward acknowledged him as king he ‘would defend himself with the longest stick he had’.2

His next step was to adopt the revered mantle of kingship. Here Bruce received notable assistance from the one-time guardian of Scotland and staunchly nationalist Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart, who after absolving him for his crime provided vestments for his coronation together with a royal banner carrying the lion and scarlet lilies that Wishart had long been saving for such an occasion. As yet there was no crown and urgent orders had to be sent out to make up the circlet of gold to be placed on Bruce’s head.3

With so many enemies it was crucial that Bruce’s coronation should be as dignified and heavily supported as possible. In the event the Scottish church was well represented not only by Robert Wishart but by Scotland’s two other senior bishops, William Lamberton of St Andrews and David of Moray, while the bishops of Dunkeld and Brechin were probably in attendance, together with various abbots and other senior clergy. Foremost among the non-clerics were the four earls sympathetic to Bruce, Atholl, Lennox, Menteith and Mar, as well as Bruce’s own kin. A hundred lesser nobles attended, including Robert Boyd, Reginald Crawford, Neil Campbell and the teenage James Douglas, disinherited by Edward from the Douglas estates, who was to become Bruce’s foremost commander. As a ward of the English court the young Earl of Fife was unable to perform his hereditary office of crowning the new king but his aunt Isabel, married to the Earl of Buchan, who supported Edward I, seized her husband’s best horses and rode to Scone to act on her nephew’s behalf. She arrived a day late but on 25 March, forty-eight hours after the first inauguration placed the coronet upon Bruce’s head in a second ceremony. Scotland might have a fighting king again but he was as yet so weak militarily that when his wife Elizabeth heard the news of his coronation she exclaimed ‘Alas we are but King and Queen of the May’.

The chances of her fears being realised appeared all too likely when by 5 April the English king appointed Aymer de Valence, his own half-cousin and the Red Comyn’s brother-in-law, as special lieutenant in Scotland, and armed him with the widest powers. Valence was authorised to ride under the dragon banner which released him from the few restraints on warfare at this time; knights supporting Bruce lost their privileges of ransom and were to be regarded as outlaws: a terrible end awaited any of Bruce’s followers, or anyone found sheltering them. By June 1306 Valence had captured bishops Lamberton and Wishart who were only saved from hanging by their cloth, although this did not prevent them being despatched to England in chains. By 18 June Valence reached Perth, while Bruce was in the northeast raising support both from the Atholl and Mar estates and from among the followers of Bishop Moray. By such means Bruce managed to collect a sizeable military force of some 4500 men, although it was considerably smaller than Valence’s and lacked his armoured cavalry.

Bruce moved his men across to Perth where, no doubt exhilarated by all he had achieved so far, he showed a degree of over-confidence about his chances of defeating Valence, a man whom he probably did not respect highly as a commander. In the chivalric tradition Bruce rode to Perth’s city gates and challenged Valence either to come out and fight or to surrender, to which Valence replied that as it was late afternoon it was impossible to fight the same day, but that on the following morning he would accept the offer.4Bruce took him at his word and withdrew to Methven some six miles away to bivouac his troops for the night, neglecting in his confidence to set out pickets – an omission he came to regret. Working on the unprincipled advice given him by veteran Scottish commander, Ingram Umfraville, who now pledged himself to the English, Valence fell on Bruce’s men during the night of 18/19 June when they were either sleeping or dispersed. Bruce’s force was destroyed, although he and a group of knights managed to escape. Many of his bravest and devoted supporters were captured and under Edward’s orders sixteen were executed without trial, of whom two were drawn and quartered. Of the senior men only Thomas Randolph, a close friend of Valence, was pardoned on condition he promised to fight for the English. This was not all: at the same time the Prince of Wales moved north from Carlisle, subjecting the southwest lowlands to a reign of terror that cowed the inhabitants in an area where Bruce might normally have expected considerable support. In less than three months as king, Bruce’s army had been wiped out and many of his most notable followers killed or scattered. Yet worse was to come.

In early July 1306 Bruce sought refuge in Drumalban, the mountainous country between Perthshire and Argyll but, at a place near Tyndrum, Bruce’s remaining detachment was again defeated, this time by the Comyn supporter, John MacDougall of Argyll. At this he sent off his womenfolk, including the queen and his daughter Marjorie, on the party’s few remaining horses through the mountains towards Kildrummy Castle on Donside. Bruce appointed the Earl of Atholl, Neil Bruce (his brother), Alexander Lindsay and Robert Boyd as escorts to the party but on their way they learned the English were bringing up siege engines to invest the castle and decided therefore to move further north in the hope of taking ship to Orkney. It appeared to be a sensible decision for, although Kildrummy was an immensely strong fortress capable of withstanding a protracted siege, in early September 1306 the castle’s blacksmith, Osborne, set fire to the grain store in its main hall, thus guaranteeing its early surrender. For his treachery the English subsequently rewarded him in gold – molten gold which was poured down his throat5 – but with the fall of the castle Neil Bruce, Robert’s younger brother was captured to be subsequently hanged and beheaded.

However, the women and their escorts fared little better, for they were captured at Tain on the Dornoch Firth while they were staying at St Duthac’s shrine. At this time it must have seemed there was no escaping the English king for the Earl of Ross, who favoured the Comyns, broke the rules of sanctuary when he took them and handed them over to Valence.6 Most of the men were hanged and beheaded at Berwick while the women were sent south to Edward I under escort. There they met his full anger and the Countess of Buchan and Bruce’s sister, Mary, were confined in wooden cages jutting from the battlements of Berwick and Roxburgh castles, their only concession being the use of privies within the walls.7 There they were to stay in solitary confinement for the next four years. A similar cage was prepared at the Tower of London for Bruce’s twelve-year-old daughter, Marjorie, but the order was revoked and she was sent to a nunnery. Christina Bruce, whose husband Christopher Seton was hanged, drawn and quartered after being captured, was similarly lodged in a convent and Queen Elizabeth, wife of Robert Bruce but also daughter of Edward’s powerful supporter the Earl of Ulster, was placed under house arrest in spartan conditions where she was to remain for the next eight years.

In the meanwhile Robert Bruce and his small group of fugitives made their way via Loch Lomond to Dunaverty Castle near the Mull of Kintyre, where they were welcomed by Bruce’s friend, Angus Og (‘the young’) MacDonald of the Isles.8 From Dunaverty it is likely Bruce and his companions went to the Isle of Rathlin off the coast of Ireland or alternatively to Islay, the centre of MacDonald territory. More improbably he could have continued to Ulster itself. Although Rathlin was just six and a half miles long by one and a half miles wide and there were enemies all around him he would certainly have been able to use Angus Og MacDonald’s galleys to call on his estates for men and money in order to rebuild his strength. Wherever his winter base, by the spring of 1307 he had gathered enough strength to undertake a two-pronged attack on the mainland. Bruce himself with thirty-three small galleys went to Arran prior to making landfall on the Ayrshire coast while his two younger brothers, Thomas and Alexander, accompanied by Sir Reginald Crawford along with several hundred northern Irish recruits, made for Galloway, with the intention of creating a diversion to cover Bruce’s more northerly attack. On landing, Crawford’s party was ambushed and Crawford himself, together with Thomas and Alexander Bruce, were taken to Carlisle and hanged, drawn and quartered. The fact that Thomas Bruce had received serious wounds in the encounter did not save him from being spread-eagled on a hurdle and drawn by horses through the streets of Carlisle before being executed.

Meanwhile, Robert Bruce had arranged for a fire to be lit on the mainland coast if the local people were willing to join him. Seeing a fire his small band landed only to find it was not the work of his messenger, who appeared in a near frenzy telling them the nearby castle of Turnberry was garrisoned by 100 English under their commander, Henry Percy, while a further 200 were garrisoned in the adjoining village, and that Carrick was so thick with English soldiers no locals dared rise to assist Bruce. With so little to lose Bruce and his men opted to take the offensive. They surrounded the village and surprised its soldiers, killing them all except one man who alerted Henry Percy. Uncertain about the size of Bruce’s force Percy remained in the castle while Bruce captured much-needed supplies, including war horses, before moving into the Carrick hills.9

With his limited strength Bruce had little choice of tactics. Faced with such massively superior English garrisons and with the majority of Scottish nobles and their followers either continuing to support the Comyns or regarding Bruce as nothing better than a usurper following a lost cause, he had to remain in the rugged hill country and use the classic guerrilla methods of speed, surprise and elusiveness. Yet as Bruce’s handful of followers continued to avoid capture, small numbers of men started to join him, including one sizeable party of forty men commanded by Bruce’s former mistress, Christiana of Carrick. It was Christian who told Bruce about the fate of his womenfolk and the men who had been captured with them.

After despatching an escort to lead her back to her estate, legend has it that Bruce was so overcome by his misfortunes and the immensity of his self-appointed task to regain Scotland that he considered leaving the country for ever. When lying in a dark cave where he was accustomed to take his rest he noticed a small spider hanging from the roof by a thread. By agitated movements it attempted to swing on its thread until it could reach a wall and anchor itself before beginning a web. Six times he watched it swing and fall back before, on the seventh, it made itself fast. Bruce decided that if a little creature could so persevere the king of the Scots could do no less.

Whether or not inspired by the spider, from this time Bruce and his men conducted a series of breathtaking escapades against immeasurably stronger English forces commanded by Valence and his co-commander, Robert Clifford, who attempted to bring them into exposed positions where they could be destroyed. Bruce avoided their traps and through a combination of inspired tactics and notable physical energy even began to achieve a number of successes of his own.

Moving south into Galloway he established a base near Loch Trool within the deep glen of the same name. Warned of an impending attack by 1500 knights, Bruce and 300 spearmen successfully checked the horsemen before moving off into new fastnesses. The two English leaders directly involved, Sir Robert Clifford and Sir John Vaux, were so frustrated by Bruce’s escape that they came to blows as they blamed each other for the rebuff. Bruce went north and on 10 May 1307 at Loudon Hill, a rocky upthrust near Kilmarnock, with a force of some 600 men, he deliberately chose to meet massively superior detachments of cavalry under Valence. Bruce selected a strong natural position where he could not be outflanked and he made the ground even more hazardous by cutting trenches to impede the English horses. As they galloped towards the Scottish lines the English cavalry came upon his hidden trenches and were thrown into confusion; more than 100 riders were unhorsed and the Scots thereupon went onto the attack. At this the 3000 English gave way and along with their commander retreated to the protection of Bothwell Castle. Loudon showed Bruce’s evolving thought towards countering the offensive capability of English heavy cavalry. He selected a location where the opposing cavalry were funnelled onto a narrow front, and his man-made obstacles could both check their momentum and cause casualties at which his massed spearmen drawn up behind the three lines of trenches could themselves take up the initiative.

Just three days later Bruce and his men showed they had no undue fear of armoured horsemen for they met another large cavalry squadron, this time under Raoul de Monthermer, Earl of Gloucester and, despite superior English numbers, rebuffed them, forcing Gloucester to seek the protection of Ayr Castle. Such successes against those attempting to hunt Bruce down began to give new hope to others suffering from Edward I’s savage repression. Men reasoned that if Bruce could go on winning it would be far preferable to join him than become declared outlaws threatened under English law by drawing and hanging. The Lanercost Chronicle reported bitterly about Bruce’s gathering strength: ‘Despite the fearful revenge inflicted upon the Scots who adhered to Bruce the number of those willing to strengthen him in his Kingship increased daily.’10

From now on Bruce’s strategy became clear. He adopted the classic principles of guerrilla warfare devised by the Chinese General Sun Tzu eighteen centuries before by choosing engagements where the enemy appeared at a disadvantage, while at the same time attempting to give a sense of his own invulnerability. This approach was summed up later in the century by the following verse.

In hidden spots keep every store

And burn the plain lands them before

So, when they find the land lie waste

Needs must they pass away in haste

Harried by cunning raids at night

And threatening sounds from every height,

Then as they leave, with great array

Smite with the sword and chase away.

This is the counsel and intent

Of Good King Robert’s Testament.11

Through such successes, limited as they were so far, Bruce aimed to convince those living in the vicinity of his operations that he was sure to overcome his enemies and they would do well to give him any information they had about the English and their allies. James Douglas had already shown the king by his despoiling and burning of Douglas Castle that, when the local inhabitants were hostile to the English, without the protection of such thick walls the invaders were put at a distinct disadvantage. Bruce realised that if he adopted the tactic of taking similar fortresses and then destroying them he would not only enjoy local successes but commence winning back the country.

On 7 July 1307 the Scottish insurgents received the news they must have been most eagerly awaiting. In his sixty-ninth year their fearsome adversary Edward I died at Burgh-on-Sands just south of the border as he was bringing another large army into Scotland. In the last nine months of his life he either lodged at Lanercost Priory near Carlisle or stayed in the city itself, and although becoming increasingly weak physically he despatched an unending stream of urgent instructions on how to deal with Bruce.12 With the old king’s death Bruce knew the slacker direction of his son Edward Caernarvon (now Edward II) would soon be likely to work to his advantage. In fact when the English army came under Caernarvon’s command it only reached Cumnock in Ayrshire before returning to England. He was not to cross the border for another three years, thus giving Bruce the vital opportunity to challenge his most powerful Scottish enemies and extend his precarious fingerholds in the southwest to other regions of Scotland.

Edward II offered Bruce another bonus: on 13 September he replaced Valence, his father’s tough and energetic, if not over-imaginative, Lieutenant of Scotland, with John of Brittany, Earl of Richmond. As a commander Brittany bore no comparison with Valence: he switched from actively hunting the insurgents down to a policy of containment, based on holding the line of Clydesdale. This eased the pressure on Bruce whose base at the time was still so small that his guerrilla fighters had to survive on whatever food they could take from others. He seized the increased opportunities for manoeuvre, and moved to attack the MacDoualls in Galloway who had captured his two brothers and delivered them up for execution. So successful was he and so thorough was his wasting of their lands that many of their tribesmen were compelled to leave their Scottish homes and drive their livestock into the forest of Inglewood in Cumberland.

From Galloway Bruce continued his offensive by marching north and breaking through the English defence line on the Clyde and moving into the Western Highlands, although he took pains to cover his back by leaving his keen young commander, James Douglas, in command of the southwest. The erstwhile guerrilla leader had now moved into the open as far as his Comyn opponents were concerned. And as Bruce proceeded up the west coast gathering strength all the while, he continued to enjoy the priceless support of Angus Og and his fleet of galleys. Command of the sea enabled him to make both rapid and surprise raids on his enemies. Whilst on his way to the far north, where he intended to break the Comyn power, he forced the MacDougalls of Argyll and Lorne to ask for a truce. John of Lorne tried to avoid the anger of the English king by excusing himself, saying, ‘Robert Bruce approached these parts by land and sea with 10,000 men they say or 15,000. I have no more than 800 men.’13 In fact, Bruce was unlikely to have that many more soldiers himself, but his string of successes against the English, together with his combined use of land and sea, alarmed less determined men and helped to disguise his relative weakness.

Protected by his truce with the MacDougalls Bruce moved northeast through the Great Glen, where he captured Inverlochy at its southern end before taking Urquhart and Inverness castles in the north. Emerging at Inverness he joined forces with the Bishop of Moray, his constant and long-standing supporter in that region. By October 1307 Bruce was in a position to threaten the Earl of Ross, whose estates stretched across a large swathe of the northeast coast. Ross had been responsible for the capture of Bruce’s womenfolk but, putting aside any personal bitterness, Bruce offered him a truce until June 1308, which Ross accepted. Bruce’s decision to start his campaign against Ross in the autumn was soundly based for the uncertain weather and rough seas made any English attempt to send military assistance extremely difficult if not impossible. Like John of Lorne, the cautious earl also wrote to Edward II with excuses, but Bruce believed that if he could gain further military successes the earl’s allegiance was likely to change in his favour. With the Earl of Ross immobilised Bruce was now able to confront the Earl of Buchan, the greatest of the Comyn landowners, whose fertile estates stretched far along the northeast coast from the Moray Firth to Aberdeen. Bruce knew the proud Buchan was highly unlikely to offer terms and, as he drew near, Buchan duly came to meet him with his own army.

So far events had gone remarkably well for Bruce, whose forces were now joined by those of Sir William Wiseman and other knights of Moray. However, as he was about to make an assault on Inverurie, the capital of Buchan’s estates in Garioch, he became desperately ill, most likely the result of the strain and ceaseless exertions of his eighteen months’ campaigning. Encouraged by this, Buchan, supported by an English contingent and with others provided by David Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl and the Scottish baron John Moubray, threatened Bruce’s forces who were compelled to retreat from the lowlands south of Banff to the more wooded uplands at Slioch near Huntly. It was winter and snow lay on the ground; Bruce’s men were both cold and short of food while their leader, who lacked any medicine, remained very ill. However, Bruce’s only surviving brother, Edward led the party by Huntly to the Garioch where they enjoyed some support but Buchan followed up and in late January his troops surprised Bruce’s outposts and made ready for a full attack. At this Bruce, who had partially recovered, called for his horse and was lifted onto it. With a rider on each side to help him stay in the saddle he advanced and the king’s appearance helped to put the attackers to flight.

Bruce took further time to recover fully but, on 23 May 1308, his forces met and defeated Buchan’s close to Inverurie, following which he went on to destroy Inverurie Castle.14 Edward Bruce was given the commission to ravage the Buchan estates and of smashing the main Comyn power base. So thoroughly did he go about his task by breaking down castles, killing, destroying homesteads, slaughtering, burning cattle and corn, that it was said men grieved over the herschip (harrying) of Buchan for fifty years or more.15 Bruce was known for his comparative humanity and generosity but, like Edward I (and any successful medieval king), he showed he could also use terror effectively.

Bruce’s barbarous treatment of the east coast served not only to crush a great Comyn, who fled to England where he died within a year, but also as a powerful incentive to persuade others to come to terms. In the meantime James Douglas was extending Bruce’s control over Douglasdale, Upper Clydesdale and eastwards to Selkirk and Jedburgh. Douglas also captured Bruce’s nephew Thomas Randolph and brought him to the king, with the result that Randolph eventually became another of his notable commanders. During the summer of 1308 Bruce continued his conquest of the north by capturing and destroying further Comyn fortresses such as Tarradale on the Black Isle, Slains and Dundarg to the east followed by English strongholds at Elgin, Fyvie and Aboyne, and with the surrender of Aberdeen in July he gained a major seaport through which he could resume the trade of Scottish products, particularly wool, with Scandinavia.

By mid-August 1308 Bruce was ready to take on the MacDougalls of Lorne, for which offensive he ordered James Douglas to join him. To reach the MacDougalls Bruce had to move through a narrow pass at Brander which was flanked on one side by the steep slope of Ben Cruachan (1124 metres) while on the other the ground fell away sharply into an arm of Loch Awe. The MacDougalls planned to ambush Bruce by rolling large rocks upon him and his men and then driving them into the loch but the king forestalled them by sending Highlanders under Douglas into positions above the attackers and by stringing out his forces. The tumbling rocks were successfully avoided and as Bruce’s men charged uphill, the MacDoualls were assailed from above by Douglas’ Highlanders. They were unable to resist the double attacks and Bruce pursued them to their headquarters at Dunstaffnage Castle near Dunbeg which quickly surrendered and was destroyed. In mid-August Bruce sent his brother to Galloway on another campaign of devastation and killing, in the process of which the MacDougalls were driven out of the region and some were forced to look for refuge in England.

Bruce’s conquest over the Comyns and other Scottish nobles who opposed him became virtually complete when the Earl of Ross submitted on 31 October 1308. Bruce’s response was magnanimous. Ross was given back his lands together with the burgh of Dingwall and the lands of Creich in Sutherland. Such leniency gained its reward, for from now on Ross kept his promise to serve Bruce well and faithfully.

Within little more than a year Robert Bruce had transformed his military position. To the south he controlled a broad band of territory right across the country from Ayr to Roxburgh and Jedburgh. Galloway now paid him tribute and the MacDoualls there were scattered. Up the west coast in Argyll, he had defeated the chief branch of the MacDougall clan, while further north the Earl of Ross had become an adherent and, most importantly of all, the Earl of Buchan had fled to England. By conquest Bruce had forced many prominent members of the Scottish nobility to recognise him as king, but in private there were still a significant number, in addition to the Comyns, who doubted the legality of his claim to the throne.

While his achievements so far had been immense and gained against all the odds, the tasks still facing him were more difficult. A considerable number of castles remained in English hands, including those centres of power that stretched right across Lothian Scotland. Until the English garrisons were driven out of his land Bruce could never be recognised abroad as the legal monarch of an independent kingdom. Yet however difficult the task of clearing the castles might prove it was sure to bring him larger problems still. Despite the serious conflicts Edward II was experiencing with his nobles such action was bound before long to provoke the English king into sending overwhelming armies into Scotland both to relieve the castles, and to restore his military control there.

It had taken Bruce just eighteen months from spring 1307 until the autumn of 1308 to defeat his Scottish opponents (although some still opted to fight with the English), but he faced more than five years of further conflict before he would be brought to his ultimate test, the meeting of both countries’ national armies in a full-scale engagement. Such a great battle was not directly of Bruce’s seeking: his chosen policy so far was to continue with his guerrilla warfare while at the same time capturing and demolishing English fortresses. In face of every invading army Bruce still favoured the tactics used by Wallace before the great opportunity given him at Stirling Bridge and his more reluctant acceptance of battle at Falkirk, namely using scorched earth to cut off his enemies’ supplies thereby forcing them to withdraw, while in the process leaving themselves open to spoiling attacks. By such methods Bruce could take full advantage of Scotland’s geography to persuade the English the conquest of the country was not worth the frustration and expense involved and bring them to make peace on Scottish terms.


Such a prospect lay far in the future: not only were the vast majority of Scotland’s main castles still in English hands but Edward II continued to use his influence with the papacy and other European countries to prevent the recognition of Bruce as king of Scotland. Although by March 1309 Philip IV of France addressed Bruce as King of Scots, it was largely because of the French king’s wish for Scotland to join him on a planned crusade. Bruce’s predictable reply to such a request was that, once the English stopped ravaging his country, all Scotland would rally to the crusade. It was no coincidence that on the day following Bruce’s response to the French king, the first Scottish parliament to be held for eighteen years endorsed its support for him and declared Bruce the nearest heir of King Alexander III, denigrating John Balliol as an English puppet put on the throne by Edward I.16

In the same year military activity took a new turn when Bruce was required to face Edward II’s much-delayed invasion. The English king had come to terms with his barons sufficiently to bring his favourite, Piers Gaveston, back from exile and despatch major forces into Scotland. In fact Edward sent two armies north, one under the Earl of Hereford to Berwick, the other under Robert Clifford to Carlisle, but Bruce refused battle and with the unfavourable prospects of winter campaigning before them the English commanders proposed a truce. This was until March 1310 and was later extended to June because as the Lanercost Chronicle observed, ‘the English do not willingly enter Scotland to wage war before summer chiefly because earlier in the year they find no food for their horses’.17

Meanwhile, Edward II’s continuing problems with his nobles brought a surprising new twist, giving him a most powerful incentive to pursue the war with Scotland. The king faced fierce hostility from his nobles over his lavish gifts to Piers Gaveston, and from Philip of France who, furious at Edward’s neglect of his daughter, Isabella (Edward’s wife), had summoned him to Paris to justify himself. Edward II decided he could foil both challenges by gaining military successes in Scotland and accordingly a royal edict was issued for men to assemble at Berwick by 8 September for a new invasion attempt. (Piers Gaveston was, in fact, already in the north.) The army compared in size with any his father had led against Scotland although only three great barons, the earls of Cornwall, Gloucester and Surrey, answered the summons.

Characteristically, after devastating the country lying in the English army’s path Bruce continued to avoid battle. When the English moved from Berwick to Biggar in central Scotland they found no corn nor cattle within an area that had not only been wasted but was suffering from widespread famine. To add to their difficulties James Douglas hovered nearby eager to kill or capture any stragglers. On 28 October Edward II was compelled to lead his army back to Berwick, harassed all the time by Bruce’s raiders. The effectiveness of Bruce’s tactics was fully acknowledged by a chronicler, the so-called English monk of Malmesbury who wrote:

For Robert Bruce, knowing himself unequal to the strength of the King of England in strength or fortune, decided that it would be better to resist our King by secret warfare rather than dispute his right in open battle. Indeed I might be tempted to sound the praises of Sir Robert Bruce did not the guilt of homicide and the dark stain of treachery bid me keep silent.18

Edward (still accompanied by Piers Gaveston) continued to avoid the demands of his ‘Lords Ordainers’ by remaining at Berwick, although his army was now much reduced after many of the infantry had completed their forty days feudal service. He stayed there for the next six months, during which time he attempted to refurbish his castles in Lothian by contracting with leading English commanders such as Robert Clifford (at Berwick), Henry Beaumont (at Perth) and Roger Mortimer (at Roxburgh), to occupy individual fortresses for a set period of time, usually not less than a year. However by midsummer 1311, despite such devices, he was so short of funds that he was forced to return to London having achieved very little militarily.

Once Edward II and his men had gone, Bruce assumed the offensive by making his first major raid across the border, moving into Northumberland where he burnt and looted crops before returning to Scotland fifteen days later. This opened Bruce’s campaign of not only taking grain and livestock but extorting ransoms from the English northern counties, and so effective were his depredations in Northumberland that the county paid the enormous sum of £2000 as an immunity against any further raids until February 1312. One major advantage of these raids was that despite the valuable rewards such ‘soft targets’ brought virtually no risk to his soldiers.

Engrossed as never before in its civil war, England appeared to have no means of response. From mid-October 1311 until February 1312 Piers Gaveston was again banished and on his return Edward II sent him to York, whereupon the ‘Lords Ordainers’ decided to take military action. They assembled their individual armies and moved north against Gaveston, who surrendered to Valence, Earl of Pembroke, during May 1312. But as Gaveston was being moved into safe keeping he was captured by the Earl of Warwick and beheaded, at which the king – together with Valence who considered his honour had been compromised – took the field against the earls of Lancaster and Warwick. The king and Valence were successful and by October 1313 the majority of the estranged nobles indicated that they were anxious to make peace.

In the meantime, Bruce had both continued and extended his incursions. During July 1312 the parliament, meeting at Ayr, decided upon a large-scale invasion of England, and after crossing the border the Scottish forces sacked Lanercost Priory before moving on to Chester Le Street and Durham where they took immense booty. The leading men of Durham negotiated a truce to last for ten months until midsummer 1313 on the payment of £2000, with the additional humiliating condition that the Scots could retreat through Durham at their will. Fresh immunities were then granted to other counties but only upon the same heavy cash payments. Bruce’s campaign, savage as it was, was a disciplined one. Those who paid were spared, those who did not had their estates ravaged and they themselves were taken back to Scotland. The aim was twofold: to restore Bruce’s bankrupted kingdom and force the English to recognise Scotland; the former was so successful that within three years Bruce received more than £40,000 in tributes.19

Supported by such military successes Bruce continued with his political initiatives. On 29 October 1312, at Inchture near Perth, Bruce met with the envoys of King Hakon V of Norway and renewed the Treaty of Perth made in 1266 between the two countries, by which the Norwegians recognised the loss of the Hebrides in return for a perpetual annuity of 100 marks from the Scots. This restoration of links with Norway and that country’s recognition of Robert Bruce as king marked another step towards the normalisation of relations between Scotland and the rest of Europe. By now regular trade was taking place with the Hanseatic League and other principalities of the Low Countries as well as unofficial – but significant – trade with some northern English sea ports and, of course, with Ulster.

Within the country, two thirds of which was under Bruce’s control, the Scottish king won over David, Earl of Atholl, the son of John, Earl of Atholl, who had been hanged earlier by Edward I for supporting Bruce. Atholl’s lands were restored to him and he was appointed Constable of Scotland. At the same time Bruce’s nephew, Thomas Randolph, was created Earl of Moray with lands stretching between the earldoms of Ross and Atholl.

While Edward was embroiled with his barons, Bruce was able to continue with his dual strategy of making regular raids into northern England and continuing to take and destroy English castles in Scotland. Both elements yielded encouraging results. The raids were valuable because not only were they highly profitable but by terrorising the northern counties Bruce demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the English king. And by 1312 the number of castles under English control was being significantly reduced. North of the Tay, only Perth remained in English hands, with Stirling, Linlithgow and Bothwell occupying the line of the Firth of Forth and the Clyde; in the southwest Dalswinton, Dumfries, Buittle and Caerlaverock remained, while in Lothian, still mainly in English hands, the four strongest of all, Edinburgh, Roxburgh, Jedburgh and Berwick were unsubdued.

Taking and destroying such castles represented a mammoth task even for forces with heavy siege equipment. Without it, ingenuity and great daring were essential. In fact, it was the attempt to take one of these castles that led directly to the confrontation between the two countries at Bannockburn, although Bruce’s threat in November 1313 that his Scottish enemies had but a year to make peace or suffer perpetual disinheritance also made another English attack on Scotland highly likely. Efforts to take these remaining castles met with mixed fortunes. On 6 December 1312 Bruce and Douglas attempted to seize the great castle of Berwick using hemp scaling ladders that could be lifted at spearpoint and placed over the walls for the attackers to ascend; on this occasion they did not succeed for the garrison was alerted by a dog barking. One month later on 7 January 1313 Bruce joined the troops who were unsuccessfully besieging Perth: feigning a move away (to understandable jeers from the garrison), they returned secretly eight days later when he personally led the attackers across a shallow point of the moat. Bruce himself placed a rope ladder on the wall and was the second to climb it. Next to fall was Dumfries, starved into surrender by 7 February 1313, followed quite quickly by Dalswinton, Buittle and Caerlaverock.

Outside Lothian only two castles held out, Stirling and Bothwell. Bothwell could be safely ignored as its governor remained inactive, waiting to give his allegiance to whoever gained the upper hand, but Stirling, which Edward Bruce was ordered to assault, was far different. Its massive fortifications could withstand any number of attacks, whether the assailants were equipped with siege engines or not. Edward Bruce had none; his only option was to starve the garrison into submission. For three months he camped round it and succeeded in sealing it off but, impatient and rash as he was, this was the very type of warfare for which he was not suited. The castle’s governor was a Scot, Sir Philip Moubray, and he tempted Edward Bruce with the seemingly chivalrous proposal that ‘if by midsummer a year hence (1314) he was not rescued by battle, he would yield the castle freely’. Robert Bruce was away seizing the Isle of Man, and Edward accepted Moubray’s offer without bothering to consult the king.20

In mitigation, Edward Bruce might justly have thought the English king and his nobles would continue their warring and remain in no position to meet the challenge. But this was a rash assessment given that his agreement with Moubray was made for twelve months’ time. The English could hardly have ignored Bruce’s threat of perpetual disinheritance on his Scottish enemies but after things had been going so seriously against them, the agreement between Edward Bruce and Moubray gave a Godsent opportunity for relations to be patched up between the king and his nobles and for them to unite against the Scots apparently now ready to face them in open battle. On the Scottish side Bruce would have been understandably angry because of the challenge’s unifying effect on the English, but much more importantly because he had been put on the spot by it. Barbour had him remarking, ‘We are set in jeopardy to lose or win all at one throw.’21 The pledge had been given by a brother who on the male side was nearest in succession to Robert Bruce’s throne. Although Bruce had practised stealth and deception in his tactics against the English it was much more difficult for a man accused by many of being a usurper king not to honour his brother’s word. Bruce was thus put under fierce pressure to meet the English in open battle, however much it went against his painstaking and hitherto successful strategy. At least he retained the advantage of choosing the terrain – for by the agreement the English had to come to Stirling. The agreement also still left him some choice about the nature of the conflict. Theoretically he could rebuff the invaders and then move off without pursuing things in a life or death struggle. Whether in the heat of battle such an option would be left open to him was, of course, incalculable.

Over the intervening months the Scottish king’s chief task was to raise and train a force capable of meeting the English but he could also increase the invading army’s logistical problems by capturing the other great castles of Lothian, a task which would keep his own forces occupied and alert. Edinburgh was of principal importance; it was closest to Stirling and presented a vital revictualling point, whereas Roxburgh and Berwick (which was also a seaport) were good starting off points for any invasion but still over fifty miles south of Edinburgh, with Jedburgh the most southerly of them all. Outside Lothian the closest castle to Stirling was Linlithgow, half-way between Stirling and Edinburgh.

The taking of Linlithgow Castle owed nothing to Bruce’s eager commanders: it was achieved by a simple countryman named William Bunnock who conceived the idea of concealing eight men in a load of hay and jamming his cart under the portcullis. Bunnock himself killed the porter while those in the cart, along with others concealed near the gate, overcame the garrison. Roxburgh Castle fell to James Douglas during the night of Shrove Tuesday, 27 February 1314, who adopted the brilliant device of dressing his men in black cloaks and making them approach it on their hands and knees in the guise of the small black cattle of the time. The garrison was celebrating the last religious feast before Lent and Douglas and his sixty men were over the castle walls and among the roisterers in the great hall before they had time to react.

Not to be outdone, Thomas Randolph took Edinburgh Castle on 14 March. He and thirty men, all mountaineers, were led up the sheer crags by a certain William Francis, son of a watch-keeper in the castle. As a young man with a lover in the city he had regularly gone down one of the castle walls by rope ladder before descending the crags, and returned by the same route in the early hours of the morning. After one alarm when they thought they had been observed as they paused for breath on a ledge, Randolph and his men climbed over the castle wall as others created a diversion at the east port before the stronghold fell to his combined attacks.

Berwick Castle was not taken until 1318, and the English used it as a muster point for their cavalry before setting off to relieve Stirling Castle. Only two other castles remained uncaptured, Dunbar and Jedburgh. Dunbar was to play a vital part in the escape of Edward II after the battle but Jedburgh had no significant role.

With the fall of Edinburgh Castle in March 1314 the thirty-nine-year-old Robert Bruce had advanced his cause further than anyone could have imagined possible during the seven years since February 1307, when he and his small band of followers were fugitives in the Carrick hills. After a succession of victories all Scotland, except some pockets of Lothian, had come to acknowledge him as king, however many doubts might remain concerning the lawfulness of his claim to the throne, while his series of raids into northern England had not only confirmed his offensive powers but brought much-needed supplies and money to his impoverished country. Within Scotland at least three parliaments had approved the restoration of the country’s fiscal and judicial system and the Church continued with its strong support, while trade and diplomatic relations had all but returned to normal with Europe.

However, Bruce had by no means secured Scotland. Edward Bruce’s truce at Stirling Castle meant that the English had every motivation they needed to mount a major invasion. England still possessed the ability to assemble an army superior in both weaponry and numbers to any that Scotland could raise. It had, however, learned from its past mistakes, to use eastern sea ports such as Berwick and Dunbar, together with an accompanying wagon train, to keep the army adequately supplied during its northern campaigns. If Bruce could not find a way of defying such odds all his work could easily be reversed. If the English invasion was successful they could go on to rebuild their Scottish castles, restore their officials, reinstate the Comyns who accompanied them, purge the Scottish church of Bruce supporters and, if he were not killed, to arraign him like Wallace for his manifold crimes. With such an outcome Scotland’s chance of becoming a fully independent country would be lost. No wonder Bruce had never opted for such a confrontation.THE PATH TO BATTLE like Wallace for his manifold crimes. With such an outcome Scotland’s chance of becoming a fully independent country would be lost. No wonder Bruce had never opted for such a confrontation.

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