When Hope Fades and Darkness Descends!

Today we explore the extraordinary potential of human endurance.

In 1306, Mary Bruce – Robert’s sister – was imprisoned in a cage on the external walls of Roxburgh Castle on the war-torn Scottish border. When King Edward handed down his sentence, it was not for some finite period but for the rest of the prisoner’s life. Mary was a noblewoman: now, she faced the cruel rendering of her existence – lower even than an animal; a spectacle for the villagers and soldiers to revile. Had she been a precious sow, a farmer might have treated her better.

Come with me into Mary’s world! Take eight steps; turn, take another eight, and you will feel the dimensions of your life narrow in a heartbeat. On the floor, a wooden bowl holds the remnants of your meager supper, oozing with its grey slick of grease. Behind you, there is a curtained privy – a hole in the wooden floor to take your waste. Fear makes you press your face against the icy metal bars. Though rage sours your soul and words, it will make not a jot of difference!

Here is a special treat- an excerpt from Sisters of The Bruce:

“Mary was bone-weary. Caged now for almost a year, the extraordinary effort of will required to stay alive was taking its toll. All the previous night, a vicious north wind had blown, shaking the rickety structure. Fear and pain kept her awake. The thin blankets did little to keep out the bleak cold. Her limbs ached interminably. Her fingers and toes had begun to twist just as the branches of trees always exposed to strong wind. Strange lumps formed on the joints and no amount of rubbing eased their throbbing. Lest bleak despair overtake her once more; Mary forced the thought from her mind. Blankness was the only way to deal with this evil.

For a long time, she cursed everything and everyone. King Edward and his armies took pride of place in her litany of hate, closely followed by the Earl of Ross. Her family did not miss out either upon her vitriol – Grandfather for his false dreams of kinghood and Robert for taking the Scots crown as his own, placing them all in such jeopardy. Spoken in anger so long ago, it seemed St Malachy’s curse might have rent the curtain of time once more. Now, fate had brought the Bruce family to its knees; they would all wither and die.

Within her accursed cage, Mary focused her angst upon those enemies closest to hand. Lice crawled in her lank hair and over her body, finding homes in damp, dark places. Rough splinters in the wooden planking dug into her bones and sharp burrs in the thin woollen covers scratched at her skin. At night, the nipping, teasing fleas, which infested her bedding, made her scratch and rip at her skin and by morning her sores would fester and weep. Frigid air whistled up through the hole of her privy, piercing her most private regions with its icy, probing fingers.

In these, the middle years of her womanhood, Mary longed for the warmth of human touch and words, softly spoken, but her only friends now were the sparrows and other tiny birds which could fit between her bars. They came to eat the crumbs of dry crust from her dinner. On the floor of her cage, Mary lay quite still with her face as close to the tiny creatures as possible to absorb the lightness of the warm, feathered bodies and fragile legs. In their bright, beaded eyes, she saw the wild freedom of the skies. They were so dear to her, more familiar even than the faces of her own family. She named them all. Chittering and chirping, they spoke of trips made far and wide and gratefully drank the hot tears which dripped from the end of Mary’s nose, pooling onto the rough furs.

Sometimes, sleet beat its fine, staccato rhythm on the iron bars and entered her small haven, sending icy darts to chill and pierce. When the sun shone, the stark beauty of the snow hurt her eyes and soul. Winter gales rocked the little house until it seemed it would be caught and taken into the belly of the howling tempest. She wished it would fling her far from this accursed fortress. To escape the scant physical comfort, pain and misery, Mary’s thoughts soared with the wind and rode the spirals and dips with her fellow travellers, the birds. Such freedom rendered her speechless with joy, but then she had little need for words.

Out of necessity, Mary’s longing to see home and family was banished to some remote corner of the soul where the sharp spikes of grief could be laid to rest, to mourn in peace. She would be here in her cage until death, her most likely rescuer, claimed her. Only then might her spirit find its way home.”

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Mary Bruce endured four years in her cage, followed by a further four years of imprisonment – a testament to her courage and resilience in such perilous circumstances. Empowered by Scotland’s miraculous victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, her brother negotiated her release in exchange for captured English knights.

Mary returned home, a damaged woman no doubt. She later married, twice, and bore a son.

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Could you have endured Mary’s heart-breaking circumstances? Adapt or perish – it’s a simple choice!

In the Footsteps of the Scottish Diaspora

Very soon, I will embark on a journey to Canada, following the ghostly voices of the past. Come with me and share the journey of a lifetime!

Over the next few months, I plan to tease out the crucial themes of resilience, resourcefulness, hope, courage and endurance which have inspired generations of Scots for over 700 years – to understand the gritty mindset of the Scots immigrant.

If you think this is a step too far from Robert the Bruce and his family, think again, for it was Robert’s determination to overcome the brutal catastrophes of the Scottish Wars of Independence which allowed him to rise against all odds. Where would Scotland be today without the spiritual mantra of “Try try again!” instilled into wee snippets at the knees of their grandmothers?

Many of us grew up with the story of Robert in a damp cave with a spider which, sadly, historians now attribute to Sir James Douglas. Nae bother, but how do they know this, I wonder?

Regardless, it is an inspirational tale where Robert – cold, hungry, unwell and in the depths of despair – is inspired by a small arachnid. The spider spins a new web, again and again, without hesitation, after the brisk wind tears it to shreds.

Why is this tale so compelling? Isn’t it human nature to want to give up when events transpire against us? Why didn’t Robert just give up the idea of an independent Scotland? His forces were scattered; his family and supporters killed or imprisoned; his wealth and lands usurped by others. Even his health was failing in the unforgiving conditions of life on the run with little food and warmth, always just a hare’s breath away from capture and death.

In his darkest hour, a faint glimmer of hope must have surfaced. Perhaps he gained a vital insight into the energising nature of hope which forces us forward, step by slow step, inching toward our goals.

From then on, Robert fell back upon the strategies inspired by his family before him: to chip away at challenges, to break problems down into bite-sized pieces, to succeed through dogged persistence. Above all, he chose never to give up. No wonder he inspired Scots to survive against all odds, to rise to greatness, to become some of the world’s finest writers, inventors, engineers, adventurers and explorers – many of whom forged new lands and helped to found nations such as Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Alba gu Brath – Scotland Forever!

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The Ill-fated Life of Marjory Bruce, Princess of Scotland

Robert the Bruce’s daughter by his first wife, Isabel of Mar, experienced a tragic life by anyone’s standards. The child was left motherless at birth, whilst her father was caught up with the vicious war between Scotland  and England.

Logic suggests he would have entrusted her care to his sister, Christina – or Kirsty as I know her in Sisters of The Bruce, who had not long married Garnait, heir apparent to the Mar earldom. At Kildrummy Castle, in Scotland’s far north east, Kirsty may well have been at Marjorie’s birth and borne tearful witness to Isabel’s tragic demise.

Marjory’s relationship with her father may have proved to be an ambivalent one for she would have scarce known him from his sparse visits north. But when Garnait died, Robert was granted wardship of the new Earl of Mar – Donald, Kirsty’s young son, then he would have had greater official time to visit Kildrummy, and his young daughter, to oversee the running of the earldom.

By 1306, Robert was crowned King of Scots but the Bruce fortunes were at low ebb following his defeat at the Battle of Methven. Robert and his supporters were scattered to the wind and his female kinfolk escaped north.  Shortly thereafter,  an English army bearing the feared Dragon flag approached the great castle of Kildrummy. Along with her stepmother, Queen Elizabeth, and her aunts, Kirsty and Mary, Marjorie escaped north. Kildrummy was placed under siege.

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Kildrummy Castle Scotland

Kildrummy Castle Scotland

The frantic women rode onto Tain where they were captured. They were taken before King Edward who pronounced sentence. Mary Bruce and Isobel of Buchan, a  Bruce supporter, were imprisoned in cages as was Marjory. The eleven-year-old was placed in a cage on the walls of the Tower of London. The child would have been not only in fear of her life, but traumatised by the winds, the height and the cold. To add to her fear, she must have heard the lions roaring from Edward’s menagerie. Eventually, Edward responded to his queen’s calls for clemency: Marjory was transported to a Gilbertine nunnery at Watton in Yorkshire whilst her aunt, Kirsty, was dispatched further south to a convent at Sixhills. There they remained in solitary confinement for eight years until their exchange in 1314 for English knights, held hostage after the victory at Bannockburn.

This young princess of Scotland languished in the care of nuns, known for their loyalty to England and by default, hostility to Scotland. How did this affect her, you might ask? Friendless and alone at such a vulnerable age, far from home and nurture, it is likely she experienced chronic loneliness and an abiding fear for herself and her family. Such grave and sustained psychological damage might have caused debilitating bouts of depression and anxiety for anyone exposed to such trauma.

Later in 1315, she married  Sir Walter Stewart whose family carried the ancient heritary title of Steward.  One gets the sense that this was a politically motivated marriage, for her father badly needed an heir and his wife, Elizabeth, was past her best childbearing years.

History tells us so little of Marjory’s personality or mental state but the circumstances around her death suggest that things were not well with her. Heavily pregnant, she was out riding a short distance from Paisley Abbey when she fell from her horse. Why would she ride so late in her pregnancy? Was this mere recklessness or an indication of some more dire intent?

Marjory  was taken to the Abbey where she died.  Reports from the Abbey suggest that a Caesarean section was performed. Was this done by a physician, miraculously on hand, or a monk, I wonder? What desperation must have guided them to take the child of a dead woman. Religious views at the time held that a child had to be birthed so that it could be baptized. Or were there considerations that this was the grandson and sole heir of Robert, King of the Scots?

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Marjory’s son was named after his grandfather and later founded Scotland’s famed Stewart dynasty.  Her solitary tomb stands in Paisley Abbey, a solemn tribute to her ill-fated life.

The Tragic End of William Wallace

In 1305, Sir William Wallace was captured in early August, just north of Glasgow. King Edward 1 had put a price on his head and ordered the Scots’ nobles to deliver him. But the Hammer of the Scots soon lost patience with their tardiness: no one wanted to bring in Scotland’s hero. Eventually, a prisoner from the captured Stirling garrison was reputed to have given details of his brother’s whereabouts in the Wallace camp which led to William’s capture. Initially, he was held at the imposing fortress of Dumbarton on the Clyde, under the auspice of its sheriff, Sir John Mentieth, before being taken south to Carlisle.

In London, he was bound hand and foot, and paraded before the crowd. For years, Wallace had terrorized the English and now, their fear knew only righteous outrage.

On the 23rd day of August, he was tried at Westminster for murder and treason. Wallace saw this for the farce that it was and proclaimed his innocence. He had never bent the knee to Edward but he knew what awaited him – the traitor’s death!

He was strapped to a wooden hurdle and dragged through the streets to The Elms at Smithfield.

One day last year, I was wandering around the Smithfield area and came across this plaque with its simple inscription. The hackles rose on the back of my neck. I hadn’t been consciously looking for the site but it had found me. It was chilling reminder of the horrific experience that Wallace endured.

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Whoever had devised this punishment went for maximum pain and suffering. Firstly, Wallace was hung but not unto death. Gasping for air, he was taken down, then emasculated and eviscerated; his bowels burnt before his eyes. His head was cut off and his body hacked into four pieces. These segments were dispatched around England and Scotland: to Berwick, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Perth and Stirling, whilst his head sat upon a spike at London Bridge for all to mock. Thus was King Edward’s power and dominion.

Many of you will have seen the movie, Braveheart, but much of the actual history was obliterated to make the story more commercially viable. There were no shenanigans of any kind between Wallace and Prince Edward’s wife, Isabella of France. In 1305, she was only 10 years old and she did not marry the king’s son until 3 years after Wallace’s death.

What other misinformation from this production has found its way into the common view of history? The scene at the Battle of Falkirk was erroneous for Bruce, at that time, was on the other side of the country, razing Ayr into submission for the rebel Scot’s forces. Robert the Bruce knighted Wallace and fought with him in many skirmishes. He also defended William’s right against usurpers in 1299: to keep his lands when he left for France with a deputation to negotiate the release of King John Balliol who was in Papal custody.

It is true that Robert at times negotiated truces with Edward but this was an agreed medieval practice which, in essence, allowed opposing forces to regroup their forces and finances. In medieval times, the Scots, that most pragmatic and resilient of races, had to break many of their oaths to the more powerful kings of England, believing that they were not bound by an oath given under duress. No doubt, the death of Wallace was a defining moment in Robert’s life, as well as the deaths of three of his brothers and countless other Scottish patriots, all of whom received the same traitor’s death. The sacrifices made by these individuals inspired his efforts to regain Scotland’s independence.

Scotland’s brutal, bloody history has ignited the imagination of the world for seven hundred years. There is simply no place for alteration or enhancement.

Find out where Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried – www.robertthebruce.info

Deep within the Scottish Borders, Melrose Abbey is believed to be the burial site of Robert the Bruce’s heart.  Many years ago during some renovations, a lead casket was unearthed. With some ceremony, this precious relic of the King of Scot’s heart was later interred in the grounds.

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Legend has it that Robert requested his heart be taken to Jerusalem so that he might fulfill his cherished desire to go on Crusade as a matter of honour. To complete this pilgrimage, Sir James Douglas was entrusted with the precious relic which he wore, encased within a silver casket, around his neck.  Along with a number of Robert’s closest supporters, he set out by sea. Eventually they found their way across Spain but, at Teba, a violent clash occurred with a Moorish force.  Mortally wounded, Douglas tossed Robert’s heart to his compatriots in a final heroic gesture. To carry the heart of the man was to carry his soul and spirit!

Why would anyone want to have their heart or other organs removed from their body and buried separately? It’s not our custom but in medieval times it was a commonly revered practice. The heart in particular was associated with courage and the conscience of man, central to human affections and Robert must have been compelled by these beliefs. Sometimes, places held particular significance and so various body parts were consigned to them. In this case, Robert must have held a deep attachment for Melrose Abbey.

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Another king whose heart was buried separately was Richard I whose ‘lion’ heart was buried in Rouen Cathedral, an indication of his strong Norman ties.

Owing to the frequent ravaging of the Borders by invading armies, Melrose Abbey is a now a gracious ruin but there is much to encourage visitors, not-withstanding the awe-inspiring words written in old Scots on the small tomb of the King of Scot’s heart.

‘A noble hart may have nane ease gif freedom failye’.

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We head north now to the Royal Kingdom of Fife to another abbey where the bodies of many kings and queens of Scotland rest. Robert was preceded by his wife, Elizabeth, who died several years earlier en route to the chapel of St Duthac (see previous post)

At Dunfermline Abbey, further tribute is paid to Robert with his name inscribed in large letters around the church’s tower. Once again, it appears his body was uncovered during renovations; remnants of its cloth of gold shroud suggested noble origins. Later, King Robert’s body was interred beneath a fine marble stone tomb, carved by Thomas of Chartres and transported to Scotland via Bruges. Whenever I’m in Scotland, no visit feels complete without my own pilgrimages to the abbeys at Melrose and Dunfermline. Perhaps you might like to join me?

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