The Stuff of Nightmares!

Take a moment to imagine a space – eight steps long and as wide. You are crouched on a rough wooden platform. Bars of wood and iron form the sides of your enclosure. You perch, like some hunched, hideous creature, high above the ground. And the Scottish weather, in all its extremes and vagaries, is your constant companion. How would you stay warm and dry and sane in your strange nest? So lived Mary Bruce, sister of Scotland’s King Robert I for at least four of her eight years of imprisonment, hanging from the walls of Roxburgh Castle. It would have been the stuff of nightmares but, for her, it was real!
I had been to Roxburgh Castle before but until recently had not explored the high mound, sited between the confluence of two rivers, the Teviot and the Tweed, in the embattled Scottish Borders. And what history it has seen. Founded by King David I, the Scots held possession until the capture of King William the Lion when it passed into English hands.
During of the first War of Independence, it became Mary Bruce’s prison. How she must have longed to be rescued but the heavily guarded castle was beyond her brother’s capacity.
In time, it seems Edward II might have taken pity upon her plight, relocating her to another, probably more secure, place of imprisonment as the Bruce resistance grew in strength.
The Scots’ lack of siege equipment meant that castles had to be taken by subterfuge. And in February, 1314, Sir James Douglas and his men concealed their approach under dark cloaks. Legend tells that a sentry saw these moving figures and commented about the restless oxen in the fields below the castle walls. Over the walls, they clambered using hooks and ladders, taking the castle…
On the day of my visit, the surrounding fields could not have looked less sinister. A few jagged fangs, remnants of the massive rock walls, stood testament to the importance of this strategic site. And with so many layers of history, it struck me that a healthy imagination might be an important requisite for any visitor. Many castles, like Roxburgh, were demolished by the Scots only to be rebuilt by the English. Indeed, Edward III used it as his base in the ongoing wars.
Below the castle site, the rivers stretched out on either side; fishermen stood thigh-deep in the waters, intent on catching a few tasty salmon or trout for their dinner whilst couples strolled along the riverside path enjoying the idyllic afternoon.
I wandered about – carefully, for the nettles were waist-high in places. Perhaps the beauty of the vista might have sustained Mary, in some small way, in her hours of solitude and pain. Deprived of hope, the experience must have seemed an impossible torment to endure. But Mary Bruce survived this nightmarish experience. She went on to marry (twice) and when she gave birth to her son in 1316, it must have seemed nothing short of a miracle.

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2 thoughts on “The Stuff of Nightmares!

  1. Jo Woolf says:

    What a fascinating visit, Jeanette. I have often wondered how on earth Mary Bruce survived all that time, in such dreadful conditions. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Such awful cruelty. You are so right – to survive, marry, and give birth to a son is nothing short of a miracle.

  2. diaspora52 says:

    Thanks Jo! It was fascinating to see the same landscape that Mary would have looked out upon, Roxburgh is a special place indeed!

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