The ‘Good Sir James’ Douglas – a Proud Scottish Patriot

With the 700 year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn foremost in my mind this week, I found my way, on a pilgrimage of sorts, to the village of Douglas in southern Scotland. Why – especially with all the action up at Stirling?
Within St Bride’s church stands the tomb of one of Scotland’s bravest sons, James Douglas, guerrilla fighter for so many years during the War of Independence – trusted friend of Robert the Bruce and scourge of the English. So fearful a warrior was he with his hit and run raids that songs were made up, warning the children to beware, that the Black Douglas might come to get them in the night!
The stone church was quite small, humble almost in its current footprint, but obviously a much more substantial building in medieval times. I parked in the lane way and took the path up to the old cemetery where ancient gravestones stood upright, others had fallen asunder. It was a shock to find the door locked, but a sign pointed me in the direction of a cottage across the road. Soon I was back, sporting the heavy iron key.
Entering the cool confines, my footsteps echoed on the tiles. I was struck by the timeless essence of the place. Several tombs of the great Douglas family lay before me, resplendently carved stone effigies. On my left, Sir James lay, resting in his armour, sword and shield at the ready. I wondered what he might make of all the grand celebrations of the great battle at which he had fought so valiantly. I rested my hand upon his forehead and thanked him – for all his efforts, for his sacrifice.
Born in 1286 or thereabouts, young James was the son of Sir William Douglas, a valiant warrior in his own right who lost his life in the Tower. As an envoy of the English king, Robert the Bruce had been sent to take control of the castle in Douglas and, presumably, to take James and his mother into custody. Instead he chose to join Wallace and let James and his family escape, earning the iire of King Edward.
Later James became a squire of Bishop William Lamberton, travelling with him to Paris – a wonderful learning experience no doubt, and key to the lad’s safety. It must have become obvious though that he was not destined for the church. Years later, at an audience with King Edward, William Lamberton pleaded on James’s behalf for the return of the Douglas lands to its heir; these had been gifted to Sir Robert Clifford, an English knight. Edward went into a rage and James and his mentor were compelled to leave the interview quickly. He was to remain a landless, disinherited noble until 1314 and the Scottish victory at Bannockburn.
There is a wonderful tale of how James intercepted Robert on his passage in the hills north of Moffatt. Here he pledged his ardent support, in time becoming one of Robert’s most trusted lieutenants and a famed battle commander in his own right.
One of the stories, which has always fascinated me is that of the Douglas Larder. You’ll find this and more in ‘Sisters of The Bruce’. That this drama actually took place in St Bride’s church made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. For it was here that James and his faithful servant brought an end to English oppression in the village. The soldiers had gone to worship in the church, only to be set upon by the Douglas villagers. Then James led the raid back to the castle. The remaining garrison were quickly butchered and their heads thrown upon a fiery pile, along with barrels of ale and foodstuffs, forever known as the Douglas Larder. James then slighted the castle by poisoning the wells with dead horses. It was a savage attack of revenge for years of hardship endured by his people.
Castle Dangerous, the old castle of Douglas, lay further along the lane way. I drove through the village, eventually reaching a lovely loch. Pairs of swans with sets of fluffy grey signets floated along the reedy edges. In the distance, midst green fields and grazing sheep, the motte of the castle rose up. Upon its rounded crest stood a ruined tower. Close inspection revealed its more recent origin but it was an exciting finish to my visit – to walk upon the site of the Douglas Larder and to imagine the complex layers of history. I had the sense that James must have been well pleased with himself. Certainly, his father would have been proud.
The ‘Good Sir James’, as he was known by Robert, went on to carry out many feats of unimaginable bravado including the capture of Roxburgh Castle by subterfuge and daring. He shared Robert’s defeats and endured extreme physical hardship during the dark years on the run. But he never gave up hope and earned the great honour of carrying the heart of his king on its final crusade. There are so many aspects to his life that I cannot do justice to them here, but I was thrilled to have been able to pay my respects to a true hero of Scotland.

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One thought on “The ‘Good Sir James’ Douglas – a Proud Scottish Patriot

  1. Elspeth says:

    Wonderful story that the photos complement.

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