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.
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.
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.
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.