Today we venture deep into the rolling hills, inlets and rushing rivers of south west Scotland to the town of Dumfries, where a tiny band of volunteers are struggling to bring myth and legend to life for one of Scotland’s great heroes.
Last year, we were fortunate to meet with some of the Heritage Trust members and actually walk in the footsteps of Robert the Bruce. The Trust has published a trail of some 30 sites across the whole of the Dumfries and Galloway region. Robert’s family came from the area, both at Annandale and Lochmaben, and during a lifetime of war and struggle, he visited many times.
What do I remember of that day? The sun was shining – always a plus in Scotland, and the wonderful sense of comradery, of being with kindred spirits: something I will cherish forever. These lovely folk have a dream – to build a heritage centre and museum to commemorate King Robert’s achievements and links with the district. If you’d like to know more, please visit their website http://www.brucetrust.co.uk.
Let’s take a step back in time. It was here in Dumfries that Robert launched his bid for the Scottish crown – a conflagration of events which catapulted him onto the medieval world stage and the battle for Scottish independence which lasted from 1306 to 1328. Some would say the struggle continues to this day.
There is so much to this story…
Picture this… two men meet in a place of sanctity to discuss their bids for the crown – young, ambitious and powerful, firebrands both, with links to the area; scions of the two leading families vying for the top job. It’s a clandestine meeting given the power and might of their joint enemy, King Edward of England, but things get ugly as tempers flare. Robert the Bruce and the Red Comyn act out a centuries old family feud.
Who threw the first blow? No one knows but the Bruce’s men finish the job. The Comyn and his uncle lie dead, blood staining the altar of the Grey Friars’ kirk.
Knowing the dye is cast, Robert seizes the day. He and his men rush to take Dumfries Castle…
Now, I have been here several times but the site of the castle has always remained a mystery, so it was a huge treat to discover a municipal park where the mound and earthworks are still very much in evidence.
It was a great privilege also to visit the site of the Chrystal Chapel, founded for Christopher Seton – executed for his role, with others, in supporting Robert. The story of Christopher and his wife, Robert’s sister, is explored fully in my novel, Sisters of the Bruce. Having written about their love story cut short so tragically, I felt moved to be near the site where his execution took place. Here the veil between past and present is thin…just a breath, the slightest movement of air, separates us.
A short time after the capture of the Castle in 1306, Robert was crowned king but he soon became an outlaw on the run, following a disastrous defeat at Methven by English forces.
For years, I’ve wanted to see Glen Trool where one of the earliest battles took place. It’s in an out of the way place certainly for the Bruce and his men were in hiding. Both English and Scottish enemies alike were trying to hunt them down. With only his wits, a ruse, and the lay of the land to aid him, Robert enticed a large troop to travel along the edge of the loch. On the ridge above, his own supporters hovered, hidden, waiting for the sign to attack. Imagine… these desperate men, poorly-fed and ill-equipped, pushing boulders down on to the horsed troops forcing them into the chilly depths. There they were able to reap a harvest of arms and clothes and food from the dead and dying. A monument marks the site where Robert planned his strategy. It’s a rugged, beautiful place with only the sound of wind and birds for company – hard to imagine such savagery.
If you make it to the glen, there is a very comfortable hostelry close by, known for its good food and annual ale festival. If ghosts were afoot, we did not see them.
Further south you’ll find Whithorn, the site of King Robert’s final pilgrimage shortly before he died in 1329 – a fitting place to end our own pilgrimage following in this extraordinary man’s footsteps.