Medieval Scotland and Norway – Part One

Robert the Bruce’s older sister, Isabel, became Queen of Norway in 1293 when she married King Eric. She lived for the most part in Bergen, but probably travelled around Norway in her royal duties.

Scotland’s connection with Norway is an interesting one with its social, economic and political links. Many of you would know that much of western Scotland was under Scandinavian influence for many hundreds of years. And the vestiges of the Norse language, customs and beliefs remained long after their influence waned following the Battle of Largs and the subsequent death of King Haakon.

Scotland’s Lord of the Isles was of Norse origin and his power was still evident well after 1314. At the Battle of Bannockburn, his forces supported Robert the Bruce and helped to clinch the mighty battle in Scotland’s favour.

As trading partners across the North Sea, strong economic links were forged between Norway and Scotland. Scotland exported a wide range of goods including salt, hides, honey and wool, and Norway reciprocated, sending timber, furs, stock fish, amber and birds of prey. Most notable was the highly-organized, international trading conglomerate, the Hanseatic League, which operated in both countries, consolidating formal trading links.

Many of the great families traded as well and the Bruce family was no different, exporting goods from their properties in Scotland and England.

Politically, the countries were linked through marriage: all of which has been covered extensively in previous blogs.

‘Sisters of the Bruce’ follows the life of Isabel Bruce in Bergen and, in order to bring this part of the tale to life, I was fortunate enough to make trips to various parts of Norway and Sweden. Today, the fabulous city of Bergen is the focus of my blog.

To reach Bergen from Oslo, the journey can be made by train. I believe it is one of the great railway trips of the world.



The city of Bergen lies on the south western coastline of Norway, nestled within a number of mountains.


Being a university town, it has a lively atmosphere but at its core, there beats a strong medieval heart. Its port continues to thrive and the Bryggen — the wharf area, filled now with shops and a fascinating market — is home to the unique wooden traders’ houses separated by intriguing alleyways. The area adjoins the more ancient Holmen, home to a range of medieval buildings including the imposing Haakon’s Hall.





Long gone now, the great Kristkirke Cathedral, which was situated at the rear of the Holmen, was the site of many royal marriages and burials. The Maid of Norway and her mother Margaret, daughter of King Alexander III of Scotland,  are believed to be buried there. Now only a grassy plot remains: silent, empty of its former grandeur.

Haakon’s Hall had its roof replaced following a much later explosion but its foundations contain chambers with vaulted ceilings and the Great Hall offers a wonderful vision of the past.



Image Given that it rains quite a lot in this coastal community, its wealth of museums serves the city well. My favourite was the Bryggyn Museum, offering a feast of  archeological and medieval details.

My visit was far too short and I knew that I would have to return to Bergen time and again, following the intriguing tale of Lady Isabel Bruce.

Ten Amazing Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Here are some of my favourite tips based on my own writing experience. It certainly isn’t an exhaustive list but will do for starters.

Tip One

  • Know thy self

I think how you approach writing historical fiction depends a lot on your personality. Have you ever thought about whether you are a ‘big’ or ‘small picture’ person?

A ‘big picture’ individual might like broad sweeps of history and miss some of the finer but important aspects of a story. ‘Small picture’ individuals might swamp themselves with so many facts, like formulating a mosaic, that they cannot start, let alone finish, a novel of such breadth. Be selective in what detailed descriptions the story really needs for it to flourish. ‘Less is more’ in historical fiction. Find a good balance and pace your self so that you can indeed finish your manuscript in a timely fashion.

My ‘big picture’ nature led me to struggle with containment.

Tip Two

  •  Decide what type of historical fiction you are going to write at the beginning and identify your audience

There are over 30 different time periods across 20 centuries and some may go even further back in time. Is it an adventure, a biography, a fantasy, an epic, a romance or mystery/crime thriller? Does it have a military or nautical flavour? Know your audience or niche beforehand and your novel will grow from a strong foundation.

I wrote my novel ‘Sisters of The Bruce’  purely because of my complete and, dare I say it, obsessive fascination with the Bruce family and their extraordinary story. It was only afterwards I was surprised to see that there were a number of historical fiction stories written about sisters. Had I known earlier, it certainly wouldn’t have changed my path, but  it was an object lesson in doing more research beforehand on the market.

Look also at the broad historical context of your story and any contemporary elements. The Battle of Bannockburn, when Scotland vanquished a much larger and better equipped English army, is critical to my story and I look forward to visiting Scotland for the 700 year Anniversary of the battle which will take place in June 2014. Thus my audience is anyone of Scottish heritage around the world as well as those who enjoy a good dollop of medieval history.

Tip Three

  •  Find a period in time with which you have a heart connection

Mine is medieval Scotland but this has grown to include much of northern Europe for many of these countries were linked economically as well as politically. Weaving a story across such a broad landscape requires close attention to detail across multiple settings and sound research skills. I often feel like a vigilant, bright-eyed rodent nosing the midden heaps of the past for tasty morsels, some long forgotten bit of information which will add a twist to my story.

Tip Four

  • Learn to write well

Sounds obvious doesn’t it but, if you can, do a creative writing course or series of smaller courses and your story will flourish. Marry up your best creative efforts with fascinating characters who have their own story to tell. Use well-constructed sentences with robust nouns and powerful verbs, and limit unnecessary adverbs. Vary your sentence lengths. Avoid repetition.

My creative writing bible, which I cannot recommend highly enough, is ‘The Little Red Writing Book’ by Australian author, Mark Tredinnick.

Learn from other writers in your genre. Hilary Mantel’s works are outstanding for their breath-taking descriptions and exquisite eye for detail. Other authors like Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick and Edward Rutherfurd write extraordinary historical fiction, weaving authentic texture into a complex tale to bring it to life. It’s no easy task!

Tip Five

  •  Look for conflicted characters

Flawed individuals with an array of strengths and weaknesses make for great stories. Draw out those flaws and human traits for that is what your reader will identify with in the midst of an unfamiliar setting.

Tip Six

  •  Undertake good, strong research and develop an effective system for storing data

This is critical to your story for many historical fiction readers wish to be educated as well as entertained. Keep in mind that some of your readers may also be keen students of history and may be looking for your story to bring what they know to life. I have put down many a historical fiction novel because the facts have got in the way of a good story. If you must take history into your own hands, make sure you fess up at the end, offering logical reasons why you chose an alternative path.

Try to complete your research before you start writing your novel. I once killed off a character then had to write her back into the story when further research showed she was very much alive and well and later gave birth to several children.

Another challenge for me is what to do with the research I’ve gathered: how to record and store it. I’m rubbish at it! Scribbled notes on napkins and loose paper are nigh on useless if you can’t locate that critical fact with ease. It’s a huge time waster!

 Tip Seven

  • Read the most accurate historical texts on your topic for an overview 

Get recommendations on texts from a variety of historians. Their views might differ and present intriguing perspectives. Previously unknown characters may come to light in your search. I like to pick over bibliographies to find new authors. Read social histories for this information will bring your subjects to life. Don’t forget children’s picture books as well: these can provide a visual layer of vital knowledge.

If you can, visit the countries that interest you. Nothing beats wandering around castle ruins at the end of the day. Look at the broad landscape which, most likely, will not have changed too much. That skyline of mountains will be what your characters saw as they looked out of the castle arrow slits. See how the sun shapes the landscape and where the shadows lie. Feel the wind on your face … and the ghosts at your back.

Tip Eight

  •  Immerse yourself in the culture through reading

Your 21st century eye will pick out the different values towards women, labourers, livestock, home and hearth, war and death. Reduce contamination from the present by thinking about what might/might not have been invented at the time.

Make no apology for the values of the past for this will surely date your book and bring the reader back into this century. Values evolve for a reason due to the economics and politics of the time. Accept this and move on.

Tip Nine

  •  Get inside the skin of your characters to understand their lives

Understand the roles and manners and language of the time. Steer clear of writing dialogue that is so authentic that it is incomprehensible to your reader. English plainly spoken and easily read is best. Sometimes the sense of a different time can be captured in how a sentence is structured. Look for more subtle ways in language and setting to bring out the difference.

 Tip Ten

  • Identify the themes within your story

Draw out the broad human impulses: jealousy, betrayal, avarice, love, passion, pride, honour, humility and desire for power. These will bring your tale to life and form points of congruence for your reader. Mastery over one’s destiny and survival against all odds are issues that are pivotal to the human condition and the genre of historical fiction can teach us so much by exploring the dips and peaks of past experience. Distinct differences between then and now fascinate and intrigue us, but it is the emotional connection that we seek with our ancestors: from that comes continuity and hope.

Robert the Bruce — His Birthplace

Some believe that Robert the Bruce was born at Writtle in southern England. Now this was one of the Bruce manors, inherited from his grandmother, Lady Isabel de Clare. However, most Scots would opt for Turnberry Castle which belonged to Robert’s mother, heiress to the ancient Celtic earldom of Carrick. And it is said that the more likely person born at Writtle was Robert’s father. I tend to favour the latter because of Robert’s grandmother’s stronger connection with England; perhaps a need to oversee the running of her inheritance might have taken the family to Writtle as well as her other property in the area, Hatfield Broad Oak.  Needless to say the fact that most of the males in the Scottish line of Bruces were called Robert leads to considerable confusion.

Writtle was once a royal manor. All that remains is a big oak barn which is still in use and the grounds now house an extensive educational facility. I came across this picture in a museum at nearby Guilford which reflects the manor during its time as a royal hunting lodge. Forgive the flash, but the artist’s impression offers an idea of the possible style and layout of the buildings


The small village of Writtle is a pretty place of old buildings set around a traditional central park. Most of the buildings would seem to date from a later period.


There is of course an old flint and stone church with the obligatory Yew trees set amongst the gravestones, to ward off evil spirits I expect.


Turnberry Castle, as many of you would know, lies in ruins. The land surrounding it which would have held the immediate castle is taken up with Turnberry Lighthouse and the surrounding grounds which would have supported outbuildings and probably a  village, are now the site of the famous Turnberry Golf Course.

I think it is a travesty that such an important heritage site lies largely ignored. Having been to the amazing facility at Urqhart Castle, something similar could be done close to the site of the castle at Turnberry. Perhaps the owners of Turnberry Golf Course could act as co- sponsors or at least offer the donation of a small corner of the land for such a worthwhile  national project.

Another fascinating aspect  at Turnberry relates to its use in WWII where the area was used as an airfield. Current access from the main road to the castle ruins crosses the old runway.  Here are some photos of Turnberry Castle and a walk I took along the coast from Maidens Bay. This route would have been followed by the Bruce and his men in their  fateful attempt to recapture Turnberry Castle in early 1307.

Maidens Bay Scotland


Turnberry Shore Scotland

Turnberry Lighthouse and Ailsa Craig Scotland

Turnberry Castle Ruins Scotland

Turnberry Castle ruins Scotland


A Sarcophagus or Cenotaph – if it’s all the same to you?

Have you ever written a blog and then thought, deep in the middle of the night of course, something you wrote was not quite right: well, incorrect to be exact. What was I thinking? Here I am to fess up before some more knowledgeable person corrects me with a generous dollop of glee.

To be sure I did know this fact – tucked away somewhere in a dusty, do-not-delete file in my brain – but the writer in me got carried away, imagining Robert the Bruce, in his sorrow, leaning against his family’s sarcophagus mourning the death of his grandfather. A  touching vision indeed, but it couldn’t have taken place unless he was a time traveler!

For a start it’s not a sarcophagus: it’s a Cenotaph which is more of a memorial and was completed much later in honour of the Bruces.

I’m actually on holiday at present, enjoying the sun and sand of New South Wales glorious coastline and therefore don’t have my normal historical texts to hand. Perhaps I could blame my glitch thus wise – a touch of the sun or too much vino!

So a quick Google search this morning tells me the Cenotaph was constructed in 1521 and it did stand on the floor of the Guisborough Priory. It was removed in 1540 and dismantled but most of its parts were recovered and reassembled in the 19th century where it was displayed in Saint Nicholas’s church, as it is today, next to the ruin. There is more to this story of course, but it is an ongoing  testament to the Bruce family that such a memorial was constructed and that it survived Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

I stand corrected. Now where’s the sun screen and let’s hit the beach!



Robert the Bruce – His Family’s Origins (cont)

What happened to successive generations of the Bruce family after their arrival in England – but before their move to Scotland in the 12th century? It seems fortune smiled upon them with lands granted in Yorkshire where they prospered, mastering the export trade in wool and iron at Hartlepool.
Many years ago, I set out on my travels to follow the Bruce story and this is a visual record of my adventures. Yorkshire is a glorious place with the likes of Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby to explore. Nearby is Staines, home to Captain Cook, renowned sea-faring explorer of Australia’s vast eastern coastline
My destination was Skelton-in-Cleveland to locate the old moated castle of the Bruce family. Now, a grand manor house sits proudly on the site.


Adjoining the property was an old church, and it was from its grounds that I took the above picture, wondering all the while about the past and

present inhabitants.



Guisborough is another important place connected with the Bruce story in the area. William de Brus established a priory and it is here that successive members of the family were buried: the last being Robert the Bruce’s grandfather, the Old Competitor. The old priory lies in ruins, having been sacked and burnt on a number of occasions, sometimes even by the Scots. The main devastation, however, would have come with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.



The now peaceful grounds show raised outlines of former structures. Off to one side, within a grove of stately trees lies a burial site where the bones of those who had lain in crypts beneath the stone flags of the priory’s floor, have been amassed in a low mound. Perhaps somewhere amidst that jumble lay the bones of William de Brus and other members of the Bruce family.

Beside the priory stood an old church where the Bruce family sarcophagus now rested. Whether the earthly remains of later Bruces resided within was a matter for conjecture but the carvings show a fascinating glimpse into medieval symbolism. A tiny part of me did wonder whether Robert had ever leant against this sarcophagus, perhaps where it stood on the floor of the great priory, mourning the death of his grandfather.


Continuing our story — back in the 12th century, a Scottish prince by the name of David, sought sanctuary with the English court. He made friends with a group of young nobles and when he returned to Scotland, as its king some years later, he took them with him to bring peace to the wilder parts of the country.
It was King David I of Scotland who transported many aspects of Norman feudal life to Scotland: as well he brought in French religious bodies to develop safe refuges for travelers, and hospitals such as Soutra in southern Scotland. To some extent, he was following in his mother’s footsteps: consolidating the power of the Roman Papal church and diminishing the hold of the Celtic church. Margaret Canmore was later canonized to be Scotland’s first saint – St Margaret.
This was how one branch of the Bruce family came to be granted lands in Annandale in south west Scotland in the 12th century. And the rest, as they say, is history …

Robert the Bruce – His Family’s Origins

The origin of the Bruce family often seems shrouded in mystery. However, there appear to be two distinct groups of thought. Some believe that the de Brus family, as it was originally known, was of Flemish origin, but others suggest that they came from Brix in Normandy: a land annexed from the kingdom of France by Vikings back around 900AD. These Vikings originally came as warriors but soon settled with their families and integrated into French society through intermarriage. They vigorously took on the key elements of French feudal society, particularly its civil administration and legal processes and the country’s religious adherence to the papacy in Rome.

Scots often play down this element of the Bruce story as if the Norman influence somehow might diminish the loyalty of the man who wrought Scotland’s independence from England’s grasp. I, on the other hand, believe it adds a richness of dimension and character to a man whose family’s roots were imbedded in Scotland for over two centuries and whose maternal heritage included the ancient Celtic earldom of Carrick – but more of this in forthcoming blogs.

Today I want to tell you about a personal quest of mine. In 2006, I was lucky enough to visit the site of, what many believe to be, the original Bruce manor house or castle.

Located in the Cotentin area of western Normandy, the area appeared quite hilly, rugged almost, and the old village of stone houses and small shops nestled within a forest of trees.

Having read so much about Robert the Bruce, and with my own family connections, I found the whole experience to be very moving as if I had stumbled upon the very essence of the Bruce story. Here it was the early de Brus’s must have had those difficult family conversations about their future and one younger son opted to follow the path of William the Conqueror to England. Others remained behind. Their descendants remain in France today and perhaps still resided within the beautiful chateau which stood before me.

It was a day of misty rain, soft and fresh upon the skin, and the trees dripped a slow insistent beat into puddles on the pavement. Earlier, I had stopped at the Mairie’s office to ask directions and my appalling French was answered with bewildered looks by the staff. Eventually, someone deciphered my requests for the old Bruce castle and I was directed to go past the old church and down a lane. The sturdy stone building, weathered grey with time, rested amidst its walled graveyard. As I wandered past, my eye caught the myriad of

flowers which adorned the lichened tombstones.

A sign on the stone wall of the chateau’s gate proclaimed to the world the Bruce family’s connection with the site. I must admit to being taken aback by this. For a start, I hadn’t expected a sign written in English and with the characteristic thistle emblazoned upon it. The chateau, which was closed to the public, looked to be a very elegant family home. A statue of the Madonna stood in the gardens which held a gentle, welcoming wildness. Sadly, the ruins of the original castle or manor house lay in the grounds some distance from the chateau itself so were not visible.IMG_2033

I stood there, wondering about past and present residents, my mind whizzing over the pieces of connecting history and this serendipitous finding of the Bruce chateau. It had taken a lot to digress to this small village and I only had a short time before moving on to the joys of Dinan and Mont St Michel in Brittany. I was thankful to have been able to make this pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Bruce family where another precious piece of the historical puzzle slipped into place for me ─ a seismic shift that I have never forgotten.