An Excerpt from Sisters of The Bruce


July 1306

A rider thundered along the track as if the very hounds of hell growled and slavered at his heels. Fiery rivulets of light streaked across the midnight sky. The air fizzled and spat and the heavens howled in despair. Now the rain came as horizontal shards biting into his skin. On he rode, driven by the horror of what lay behind him.

The rutted track came to an abrupt halt. The walls of the castle loomed large. Through smoky arrow slits, faint lights glowed. He clattered across the drawbridge, the beat of his horse’s hooves ringing in his ears. Manoeuvring his way through the small gap between the creaking oak gates, he fell from his mount. Though his skin was lathered with sweat, the man’s belly churned with an icy terror.

“A great host approaches!” he croaked, his voice, barely audible.

From the guards nearby, a frantic shout rent the air: “The English are coming!”

The ashen-faced household stumbled from their beds. Standing in tight-lipped silence, they looked to the chatelaine of the massive fortress of Kildrummy.

To be continued …

On Sibling Guilt

Writers often come to love their characters and I am no different. Sisters of The Bruce has taken over my life: I am completely and utterly under its spell.

Over time, I have grown to love these women as my own sisters. Their unique voices have penetrated my waking and sleeping life. And I am grateful for their intimate accounts ─ about themselves, their life and family ─ shared with us over the past few months; but what about the complex relationships between these siblings and their famous brother?

Have you ever wondered what Robert the Bruce was like, beyond the façade of hero king: the flawed man and brother to nine siblings, all of them equally fascinating? I wondered what Robert might say if he was asked those intriguing, difficult questions about his rise to power and how this impacted on his family. Today, a guest blogger, a mystery Scot, shares his vision of just such an interview with Robert the Bruce…

How do you view what happened to your brothers and sisters?

Of course on one level, I look back and feel guilt. Three brothers put to death for following me, and supporting my claim to the throne. Another killed in battle in Ireland.  Two of my sisters, my wife and daughter imprisoned, and cruelly treated.  You think I feel nothing? I do look back and wonder what it was all for? Would things have ended better had I never pursued my grandfather’s claim to the throne of Scotland? Perhaps it would for some of them, although the destruction of the Bruce family by John Balliol and the Comyns was certain if they had sustained control of Scotland. If we had supported the cause of England, perhaps we would have been well rewarded as a family, but at what cost to Scotland’s independence?

Never imagine I do not acknowledge that I led my family into great peril. It was my responsibility, but they answered of their own free will. They did what they believed to be right.

Is there anything that you would change with regard to your siblings?

Well what happens, happens and cannot be undone, but I do feel that I made a mistake with Alexander. I should have left him to study further at Oxford or perhaps in Rome or Paris. He had the nature to make a fine priest and in time he may have had an important role in the Scottish church. What was certain was that he was not cut out to be a soldier and follow me in the heather. I should have known that and not risked both him and Tom on the raid into Galloway. Alexander had begun to make his way in the church as a Dean of Glasgow Cathedral, and I think he could have played a great role as Chancellor or such. The important thing is to find the right roles for people and in Alexander I got it wrong.

For the rest, I can only say that they made their own choices, and I respect them for that.

 What about your relationship with your brother, Edward?

I cannot pretend that he was ever my favourite. Perhaps we were too close to each other, but I have always known that he was rash, intemperate and made too many enemies without thought or consideration. That is not to say that he was not brave or determined, but that is not enough for a king. In a sense it was ambition that ruined him or perhaps he competed too hard against me?

Jealous? Perhaps he was, though he never said so, and I knew that I could trust him in a fight. I do not regret the plan to invade Ireland, although he got embroiled there and seduced by the notion of High-Kingship. What should have been a short campaign became a distraction; although it served its purpose in showing the English that they were more vulnerable than they believed …

We leave it there, but perhaps you have your own questions of Robert the Bruce?

Mathilda and Margaret Bruce

Mathilda and Margaret are the younger sisters of Robert the Bruce. In bringing the past to life, writers often have to piece together the fabric of time, gathering up scarce facts into a pattern that makes visual as well as literary sense. For these sisters in particular, so rarely mentioned in history’s passing, I have created a fictional patchwork out of just a few intriguing scraps. When I found that Robert had named his two daughters, Mathilda and Margaret, I sensed a close bond must have underpinned such an act, especially since he was busy with politics and war, and the siblings were separated in age by almost two decades. Surely, a mystery lies therein!

Here Mathilda introduces herself to you, a lovely young woman, enthralling in all respects.

“What kind of a name is Mathilda, I ask you! My sisters told me I was called thus after many a grand princess of Europe and that one day I would hold court and marry a prince! Had she lived longer, I would have quizzed my mother: I cannot recall her features for I was just a wee bairn when she passed. And now, it seems my heart holds a space that only her smile can fill. But enough of such bleak thoughts, mothers die all the time as do their children and I was lucky indeed to have sisters who cared for me and my baby sister, Margaret, with such devotion.

My older sisters laughed when they told me that mischief was my second name and for a long time I believed them! I had to be watched by the maids for there were many dangers – hearth fires; drowning in the well; tumbling down turnpike stairs; being caught between hunting dogs, snarling over scraps in the Great Hall or trampled by the stallions out in the bailey when the riders galloped in from the hunt. Somehow my curls proved my saving grace for the flare of a flame or a streak of sunlight would fire them a startling red-gold and I would be whisked up into the arms of our cook or a stable hand, just in time. If they but knew ─ what I longed for was the peace and the quiet of my own company. I ran away often as a youngster but only to seek a shadowed corner where I could gather my thoughts. In a castle, quiet nooks are as hard to find as goose eggs when a fox is about …

The years have passed and I have grown, tall and lithe as a spring-green sapling: my body has blossomed, too. Once, I wished to be free of these stifling castle walls, but gone are those childish whims and fancies. Our garrison shouts and grumbles over the scything clash of metal as the men practice their swordplay and prepare for war. Servitors engage in the raucous tasks of survival ─ killing and salting beasts; grinding oats; hammering shields and helmets. Even our priest’s laughter has a flinty chill to it. Fear curdles bellies and the weary strain on pallid faces makes me want to look away. 

Tell no one but I would give anything, at this very moment, not to be a Bruce. Dread lies still and close like an adder about to strike. King Edward sends his English horde against Scotland and my brother, Robert. The accursed ‘dragon’ flies upon its flag: its message reeks of blood ─ no mercy for man, woman or infant. And now, we must flee north or the beast’s breath will scour our skin and its teeth crush our bones …”





Mary, sister of Robert the Bruce.

Mary Bruce joins us today. Pay attention or you might lose your way amidst the maze of draughty corridors, deep within Turnberry Castle’s early morning gloom …

“So you want to know my story? Walk with me for there is much I must do. Don’t dawdle and gawp! My brother, Edward, is waiting for me down in the stables. Robert’s away ─ he loves to hunt, but he’s too busy to join us as usual. He left hours ago: off to manage the Bruce estates, a task which will take him clear across Scotland and down into England. I mind not. He grumbles overmuch and tells me I must listen to my elders! All he and Grandfather ever talk about now is how Scotland must have a Bruce on the throne and Robert is destined to be king, no matter how hard the fight nor how long. I would go to war with them, but they do not want me, even though I can outride most men and my arrow eye is keener than most! On and on, their talks run into the night, when they should be feasting on the hind that we brought home from the hunt.

The stables are this way! I love the teeming warmth. Mind that stinking pile over there and see those stallions, walk too close behind them and you’ll be kicked clear into next year if you don’t take a half a care! Here’s my grey beauty! Rides like the north wind; jumps higher than the moon …

Edward’s not about ─ still wenching, no doubt! Pass me the brush, and I will tell you a few tales while we wait. You asked me about my life here. If I had to be cooped up in our solar, embroidering this or that gown with my sisters, learning Latin or unraveling some useless Greek conundrum with old Dughlas, our tutor from the abbey, I would go mad.

I know the best routes out of the keep, can run fast and low, and sneak back later in the day ─ to a mess of trouble usually. I pay scant heed, and do and say as I will! Words run off me like rain off metal. I am a Bruce and none shall forget it! Most times, you’ll find me down here or over with the great hounds; hunting with my goshawk up in the hills or practicing bow and sword down in the bailey with the castle garrison. Always looking for trouble, so Father says! He threatens me with the dungeon; tells me I must hold my tongue, but then his eyes crinkle with the hint of a smile for he sees much of Mother in me. God’s blood, I miss her, dead this past year! A daughter of Carrick and as forthright and brave as the wildest Pict but simmering with mischief, she was! Edward and I always made her laugh and our antics set the household talking.

Now the only talk is of war and what lies ahead. The wailing pipes stir our hearts, and the drums sound their blood-beat across Scotland. King Edward of England looms over us. People tremble at his shadow for he is a mighty warrior, wily too, but I am not afraid. I am ready for whatever comes …”