Edinburgh is my spiritual home. To return always feels like a homecoming. Almost a decade ago, I came here with my husband and youngest son to live and work. It was a life changing experience – one which gave us many resoundingly-happy memories of the beauty of the city and its extraordinary people. As in the past, my hosts were gracious and kind and long suffering, taking me to old haunts and new.
Apart from reviewing past connections, I was keen to enjoy all the Festival Fringe could offer. But in the final two weeks of my journey, it was important to touch base with the foundation story of ‘Sisters of The Bruce’.
Here are some of the small trips made, using Edinburgh as a base.
Stirling and its surrounds are a beautiful part of Scotland. I won’t bore you with copious descriptions, suffice to say that Scotland is God’s own country and Stirling sits at its southern core. The focus of our journey was the nearby Isle of Inchmahome and its priory. It is the resting place of the Mentieth family. Some of you will know its most famous son, Sir John Mentieth, by his reputation, as the man who engineered the capture of William Wallace. But the long history of the Mentieth family has always been linked with the Stewart family, the great Stewards of Scotland, and later, Robert the Bruce.
Before King Edward I forced the hands of the Scottish nobles, the Mentieth family had always been Scottish patriots. Indeed, Sir John’s signature was later added to the Declaration of Arbroath. It’s an unpopular view today given the romantic mishmash and poor historical data in the movie ‘Braveheart’. That such a brave man as Wallace should have died in the manner that he did remains one of Scotland’s most enduring traumas, but this was the medieval age and men’s lives were held cheaply.
When Robert the Bruce gained power, he sought to unite the country. Sir John Menteith had remained firm in his suport of King Edward, but was brought back into the fold as it were, by the betrothal of Robert’s niece, Ellen of Mar, to his son, also named John. Ellen was the daughter of Kirsty Bruce, one time countess of Mar.
In visiting the priory, I hoped to explore the connections between the Stewart, Mentieth and Bruce families. Within the chapel house, Sir Walter Menteith, known as ‘ballioch’ or freckled, and his wife lie entwined in a loving pose – the intimacy held within the stone carvings is evident, surprisingly delicate and most definitely heart-rending. Perhaps here in the old church, Ellen of Mar lies as well. The isle is an extraordinarily tranquil place, midst huge old firs, a watery loch and forested mountains.
Our journey took us to the village of Denny where a medieval hill fort was being constructed by a group of friendly, well-informed re-enactors. The palisade walls were constructed of newly-cut timber and the tents within the fort were manned by people exhibiting the craftmanship of the medieval period. Folk were able to try their hand at archery and throwing axes as well. Being able to see the dimensions of the fort was very interesting and offered me a realistic perspective.
Our next journey took us to Lochmaben and its castles, old and new, both Bruce strongholds. ‘Sisters’ tells their story. I had also wanted to see Torthorwald Castle for this was the family seat of the Carlyles and Robert’s youngest sister, Margaret, married Sir William de Carlyle. Next stop, Dumfries – where we followed the trail to the now defunct Greyfriars church. It was here that the murder of the Red Comyn took place. Many of you will already know this story, but if not, it is explored in all its complexity in my novel.
On a lovely sunny day, we found ourselves at the site of the Battle of Halidon Hill which was lost by the Scots in 1333. Hugh Ross, husband of Mathilda Bruce, died here along with many others. We walked the lanes and looked over the rolling hills where so much death had taken place. There were no echoes only the lonely cries of the seabirds. Retracing our steps, on our left lay the calm blue waters of the North Sea where several fishing boats went about their business; one hill farm was quite interesting for it had hundreds of low, arched huts for raising pigs.
Next stop, over the English border to Flodden where thousands of Scots died along with their king. The year was 1513.
After such sadness, the beautiful red sandstone abbey at Melrose was our destination, to pay our respects to Robert the Bruce, for it is believed that his heart is buried there in a lead chamber found on the site.
To refresh my memory, we travelled over the Forth Rd bridge to the Royal Kingdom of Fife to see its most famous abbey, burial place of Robert the Bruce.
It’s always a treat to visit the stunning glen of Roslin, site of a Scots victory, with its 15th century chapel and much older castle, ancestral home of the Sinclair family. Having stayed in the castle many years ago, I was fortunate indeed to have my first ghost sighting down in the gloomy cellars. But now, my thoughts were on the connections with the Bruce family. Mathilda Bruce married the son of the Earl of Ross; several generations on, one of her descendants was the famous Sir Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney.
Travel is not all about history. At an old pub in the village, we had the best meal. Scots restaurants often serve pies with the meat and pastry separate – a fulsome, tasty mix served with a hearty dollop of mash and freshly-cooked vegetables. Most folk do not consider the origin of their meal, but pies are one of the older forms of cooked food – often served at markets – a kind of medieval takeaway and therefore worthy of my research.