The Great Escape – Northeast Scotland 1306

 In the eerie gloom, a band of riders ─ Robert the Bruce’s female kinfolk ─ fled from Kildrummy Castle. Behind them, the great English host of six thousand battle-hardened men came bearing the feared Dragon flag: no mercy to be shown towards prisoners. On the west coast, Robert was already on the run and was lost to them. Scotland’s fate hung in the balance.

Through enemy territory, the fraught band pushed northwards to seaports where they might gain berths to Orkney or perhaps further afield to Norway where the eldest Bruce sister, Isabel, was a dowager queen. They rode hard for the coast near Tain. Hot upon their heels, the Earl of Ross – a Balliol adherent, now on the side of King Edward ─ and his force followed.

Darkness fell. The band could go no further and took refuge ─ sanctuary as it were ─ in the stone chapel of St Duthac. Soon after, the earl’s men dragged the fugitives out. Screaming in fear and outrage, the women witnessed the slaughter of their retainers. Before too long, the group was dispatched southwards to King Edward, Hammer of the Scots.

So the story goes …

Today’s blog references that perilous escape and subsequent capture near Tain. During one of my trips to Scotland, I journeyed to Kildrummy Castle to imagine that panic-filled flight and the terrible siege which followed. But my thoughts were with Kirsty and Mary Bruce, Robert’s sisters; his wife, Elizabeth; and eleven-year-old daughter, Marjorie; as well as Isobel, Countess of Buchan, on their frantic flight to safety.

It was a natural progression then for me to continue north, past Inverness and up the coast to the lovely town of Tain with its gracious stone houses and old church, beside which stands an ancient chapel. This may have been St Duthac’s hermitage, for legend has it that, after a truce was negotiated, King Robert bade the earl to build a church near the chapel. There, the monks were to pray for his incarcerated womenfolk in perpetuity: all costs to be undertaken by the earl.

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A mystery held me spell-bound that day. Another ancient stone chapel sat on a rise within the Tain cemetery — a more isolated location closer to the shoreline. No one I asked seemed to know for sure which of the two chapels might have been the original one in which the women sheltered. Both were ruined, filled with fuchsia bushes and other shrubbery, and silent ruins always seem to capture the atmosphere of the past.

Logically, if one follows the legend, the chapel nearby the Tain church should be the correct one. However, the chapel close to the sea resonated with me: the women were trying to escape to the coast and the sight of the sea must have proved a bitter disappointment ─ to be so close, yet so far from safety.

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Many years later, Queen Elizabeth was making a pilgrimage back to St Duthac’s chapel to thank him for answering her prayers for their safety; all of the Bruce kinfolk were exchanged for ransomed knights after the victory at Bannockburn in 1314. Sadly, she died en route falling from her horse near Cullen on the northeast coast of Scotland. Her organs were buried in a small church and her body was taken to Dunfermline Abbey for a royal burial: another huge loss for Robert, King of the Scots.

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My own pilgrimage offered more questions than answers. However, where history and resources permit, I hope to follow the paths taken by Robert’s sisters. To walk in their footsteps is indeed an honour and a privilege.  

www.sistersofthebruce.com

www.robertthebruce.info

 

Medieval Scotland and Orkney

 You might wonder what connection there could be between my novel, Sisters of the Bruce, and Orkney but the legends and stories which litter history can be quite illuminating. One such tale relates to this fascinating collection of islands to the north of Scotland. Here the Laird of Halcro is reported to have offered Robert the Bruce sanctuary in those missing months at the end of 1306 and early 1307.  

Earlier in 1306, Robert had been crowned King of Scots at Scone in central Scotland, but he was soon on the run after the devastating rout at Methven. Where did Robert and his small band of supporters find safe refuge from the hostile English and Scottish forces which were scouring Scotland?  One option, off- touted, suggests the Isle of Rathlin which sits within easy distance of both the Mull of Kintyre and the coastline of Northern Ireland. This would have been a safe temporary measure to be sure, but to my mind, it was far too dangerous a place for a longer period of much-needed respite. I will leave you to ponder on one of history’s abiding mysteries.

Some of you might be thinking Orkney was part of Scotland ─ as it is today ─ but its cultural and historical origins were more closely aligned with Norway. Orkney was a Viking settlement from around 700AD onwards. It was not until 1231 and the death of the last Norse earl that the earldom passed to the son of a Scottish earl, the Earl of Angus. At one stage, Inga ─ the daughter of the deceased King Eric of Norway and his queen, Isabel, the sister of Robert the Bruce ─ was betrothed to Eric, Earl of Orkney and Caithness. These intriguing links with the Bruce family proved beguiling to me as a writer.

Medieval Orkney was still owned by Norway and the earl owed his allegiance to the Norse king. It was  much later in the 15th century that Orkney was pledged as part of a dowry by Christian I, King of Norway, for his daughter’s betrothal to James III of Scotland. The money was never paid and Orkney passed into Scotland’s care and control. By 1472, it was formally annexed by the Scottish crown.

During my visits to Orkney, I have been struck by how the islanders’ past links with Norway remain a defining aspect of Orcadian life. Orkney is one of the most evocative places to visit with its imposing burial mounds, brochs and the ancient site of Skara Brae. Image

Located in Skaill Bay on the west coast of the main island, Skara Brae is a Neolithic village which was exposed in a wild storm back in the 19th century. Since then, it has been the subject of intense archeological exploration bringing this extraordinarily homely site to life.

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Image One of the many things I love about Orkney is the freedom with which you can wander around the host of standing stones without the confines of fences. Some stand as markers beside roadways whilst others form silent circles. To take in these extraordinary sights on your own at sunset is the stuff of dreams.

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A Strange Kettle of Fish — Scotland and Norway Part Two

In following the life and times of Lady Isabel Bruce, who became Queen of Norway in 1293, my research took me to the beautiful city of Bergen. The historic trading that occurred at the time suggests that Scotland was very much linked by the North Sea with Norway, Germany and Flanders — modern-day Belgium.

Throughout her life, Isa, as I know her, must have wandered through the markets and along the Bryggen Wharf. There, she would have heard a myriad of accents: from far-off Byzantine and the Baltic; the enterprising German towns such as Lubeck and from even further afield, Scotland and England.Image

Whilst the Hansa — a famous, German trading conglomerate — operated in many cities around the North Sea including Berwick-upon-Tweed, then a Scottish town, and Aberdeen, their links with Norway had been problematic for generations and it was accepted that they could only operate within quite severe social, economic and political restrictions.

The German merchants were keen to gain trading privileges in Bergen but found the Norse kings extremely wary. Norway’s greatest resource was fish ─ as well as fish oil for lamps ─ which was an essential trade item across the continent. The Catholic Church decreed the eating of fish on Fridays and fish, in its dried form, made a safe and easy export into inland towns and villages far removed from the coast. But Norway needed grain, flour, malt, ale, and wool and, from the 12th century, German merchants imported these goods as well as resins such as tar from the Baltic region. And tar was critical to the ship building industry.

ImageA series of ambivalent negotiations occurred until, in 1294, King Eric ─ Isa’s husband ─ concluded another treaty ceding even more privileges to the Germans but a year later, he tightened the reins and banned unions of foreign merchants. It seems the traders pushed the limits whenever they could, and in 1299, all trading in Norway was restricted to certain towns.

In the early 1300s, relations went from bad to worse, under King Haakon who succeeded his brother, for the Germans were taken to task in Bergen for exceeding their privileges, trading beyond the city limits as well as failing to pay their tithes over many years. Throughout the early 14th century, this conflict simmered until 1332 when hundreds of German merchants were killed in the course of riots in Skania, an area much fought over by Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

By way of contrast, from the 12th century onwards, the kings of England chose to welcome the Hansa to their shores and gave them permission to attend internal trade fairs as well as set up trading posts at many coastal ports such as Hull, Lynn and Yarmouth. The English monarchs also borrowed from German merchants and, in 1339, the crown jewels of England were reportedly pawned to a merchant from Cologne. Over time, the aggressive wars of the Anglo-Norman kings had proved an expensive exercise!

By 1342, King Magnus Eiriksson ─ the grandson of King Haakon ─ ordered the German merchants out of Bergen. Less than a decade later, the Black Plague reached Bryggen Wharf and decimated the town’s population and its royal administration. With the demise of their opposition, the German merchants returned in 1360 and set about organising a powerful Hansa trading base from Bergen.

Some of the Hansa Kontors had their own armies to protect their interests and many conflicts ensued over the following centuries. The history of the Hanseatic League intrigues me, especially seeing the organisation continues to this day, though in a much altered form: you might like to explore this for yourself in greater detail.

Many of these altercations with the German traders would have formed part of the backdrop of commercial life in Bergen. No doubt, Isa ─ who lived on into her eighties amidst the 1350s ─ would have had a keen awareness of these intrigues during her time in Bergen. I wonder what she would have made of it all.

One of the fascinating museums in Bergen is the Hansa Museum which charts the extraordinary history of Norway’s fishing industry from medieval times until the 18th century.

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From around 1360, the Hansa merchants acquired the right to purchase goods from the northern regions of Norway, including the Lofoten  Islands. In return for fish, they exchanged  a year’s supply of grain, flour, malt, wool and fabrics. Fish oil from Lofoten was produced from cod livers which were placed into barrels to ferment and boiled several times. Fish oil was primarily used for lamps. It was not until the 18th century that it was used for medicinal purposes. To get a barrel of livers required about 250 to 400 cod, though the amount of oil varied. Mid18th century, between 6000 and 7000 barrels were delivered annually to Bergen. The barrels also had to be made of oak, otherwise they would leak.

ImageThe men, upwards of 2000 middle-class Germans, worked and slept in unheated premises, for fear of fire. Fortunately, their assembly rooms where they ate and spent their leisure time were heated.

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.And for the travellers amongst you, here are some views of the exquisite Lofoten Islands.

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