Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 11

You will be naturally curious to hear what became of Edward, the brother of Robert Bruce, who was so courageous, and at the same time so rash. You must know that the Irish, at that time, had been almost fully conquered by the English; but becoming weary of them, the Irish chiefs, or at least a great many of them, invited Edward Bruce to come over, drive out the English, and become their king. He was willing enough to go, for he had always a high courageous spirit, and desired to obtain fame and dominion by fighting. Edward Bruce was as good a soldier as his brother, but not so prudent and cautious; for, except in the affair of killing the Red Comyn, which was a wicked and violent action, Robert Bruce, in his latter days, showed himself as wise as he was courageous. However, he was well contented that his brother Edward, who had always fought so bravely for him, should be raised. up to be King of Ireland Therefore King Robert not only gave him an army to assist in making the conquest, but passed over the sea to Ireland himself in person, with a considerable body of troops to assist him. The Bruces gained several battles, and penetrated far into Ireland; but the English forces were too numerous and so many of the Irish joined with them rather than with Edward Bruce, that King Robert and his brother were obliged to retreat before them. The chief commander of the English was a great soldier, called Sir Edmund Butler, and he had assembled a much greater army than Edward Bruce and his brother King Robert had to oppose to him. The Scots were obliged to retreat every morning, that they might not be forced to battle by an army more numerous than their own. I have often told you, that King Robert the Bruce was a wise and a good prince. But a circumstance happened during this retreat, which showed he was also a kind and humane man. It was one morning, when the English, and their Irish auxiliaries, were pressing hard upon Bruce, who had given his army orders to continue a hasty retreat; for to have risked a battle with a much more numerous army, and in the midst of a country which favoured his enemies, would have been extremely imprudent. On a sudden, just as King Robert was about to mount his horse, he heard a woman shrieking in despair. “What is the matter?” said the King; and he was informed by his attendants, that a poor woman, a laundress, or washerwoman, mother of an infant who had just been born, was about to be left behind the army, as being too weak to travel. The mother was shrieking for fear of falling into the hands of the Irish, who were accounted very cruel, and there were no carriages nor means of sending the woman and her infant on in safety. They must needs be abandoned if the army retreated. King Robert was silent for a moment when he heard this story, being divided betwixt the feelings of humanity, occasioned by the poor woman’s distress, and the danger to which a halt would expose his army. At last be looked round on his officers, with eyes which kindled like fire. “Ah, gentlemen,” he said, “never let it be said that a man who was born of a woman, and nursed by a woman’s tenderness, should leave a mother and an infant to the mercy of barbarians! In the name of God, let the odds and the risk be what they will, I will fight Edmund Butler rather than leave these poor creatures behind me. Let the army, therefore, draw up in line of battle, instead of retreating.” The story had a singular conclusion; for the English general, seeing that Robert the Bruce halted and offered him battle, and knowing that the Scottish King was one of the best generals then living, conceived that he must have received some large supply of forces, and was afraid to attack him. And thus Bruce had an opportunity to send off the poor woman and her child, and then to retreat at his leisure, without suffering any inconvenience from the halt.

But Robert was obliged to leave the conquest of Ireland to his brother Edward, being reached by pressing affairs to his own country. Edward, who was rash as be was brave, engaged, against the advice of his best officers, in battle with an English general, called Sir Piers de Birmingham. The Scots were surrounded on all sides, but continued to defend themselves valiantly, and Edward Bruce showed the example by fighting in the very front of the battle. At length a strong English champion, called John Maupas, engaged Edward hand to hand; and they fought till they killed each other. Maupas was found lying after the battle upon the body of Bruce; both were dead men. After Edward Bruce’s death, the Scots gave up further attempts to conquer Ireland.

Robert Bruce continued to reign gloriously for several years, and was so constantly victorious over the English, that the Scots seemed during his government to have acquired a complete superiority over their neighbours. But then we must remember, that Edward II, who then reigned in England, was a foolish prince, and listened to bad counsels; so that it is no wonder that he was beaten by so wise and experienced a general as Robert Bruce, who had fought his way to the crown through so many disasters, and acquired in consequence so much renown, that, as I have often said, he was generally accounted one of the best soldiers and wisest sovereigns of his time. In the last year of Robert the Bruce’s reign, he became extremely sickly and infirm, chiefly owing to a disorder called the leprosy, which he had caught during the hardships and misfortunes of his youth, when he was so frequently obliged to hide himself in woods and morasses, without a roof to shelter him. He lived at a castle called Cardross, on the beautiful banks of the river Clyde, near to where it joins the sea; and his chief amusement was to go upon the river, and down to the sea in a ship, which he kept for his pleasure. He was no longer able to sit upon his war-horse, or to lead his army to the field.

While Bruce was in this feeble state, Edward II, King of England, died, and was succeeded by his son Edward III. He turned out, afterwards to be one of the wisest and bravest kings whom England ever had; but when he first mounted the throne he was very young, and under the entire management of his mother, who governed by means of a wicked favourite called Mortimer. The war between the English and the Scots still lasting at the time, Bruce sent his two great commanders, the Good Lord James Douglas, and Thomas Randolph Earl of Murray, to lay waste the counties of Northumberland and Durham, and distress the English as much as they could. Their soldiers were about twenty thousand in number, ah lightly armed, and mounted on horses that were but small in height, but excessively active. The men themselves carried no provision, except a bag of oatmeal; and each had at his saddle a small plate of iron called a girdle, on which, when they pleased, they could bake the oatmeal into cakes. They killed the cattle of the English, as they travelled through the country, roasted the flesh on wooden spits, or boiled it in the skins of the animals themselves, putting in a little water with the beef, to prevent the fire from burning the hide to pieces. This was rough cookery. They made their shoes, or rather sandals, in as coarse a way; cutting them out of the raw hides of the cattle, and fitting them to their ankles, like what are now called short gaiters. As this sort of buskin had the hairy side of the hide outermost, the English called those who wore them rough-footed Scots, and sometimes, from the colour of the hide, red-shanks.

As such forces needed to carry nothing with them, either for provisions or ammunition, the Scots moved with amazing speed, from mountain to mountain, and from glen to glen, pillaging and destroying the country wherever they came. In the mean while, the young King of England pursued them with a much larger army; but as it was encumbered by the necessity of carrying provisions in great quantities, and by the slow motions of men in heavy armour, they could not come up with the Scots, although they saw every day the smoke of the houses and villages which they were burning. The King of England was extremely angry; for, though only a boy of sixteen years old, he longed to fight the Scots, and to chastise them for the mischief they were doing to his country; and at length he grew so impatient, that he offered a large reward to any one who would show him where the Scottish army were. At length, after the English host had suffered severe hardships, from want of provisions, and fatiguing journeys through fords, and swamps, and morasses, a gentleman named Rokeby came into the camp, and claimed the reward which the King had offered. He told the King that he had been made prisoner by the Scots, and that they had said they should be as glad to meet the English King as he to see them. Accordingly, Rokeby guided the English army to the place where the Scots lay encamped.

But the English King was no nearer to the battle which he desired; for Douglas and Randolph, knowing the force and numbers of the English army, had taken up their camp on a steep hill, at the bottom of which ran a deep river, called the Wear, having a channel filled with large stones, so that there was no possibility for the English to attack the Scots without crossing the water, and then climbing up the steep hill in the very face of their enemy; a risk which was too great to be attempted.

Then the King sent a message of defiance to the Scottish generals, inviting them either to draw back their forces, allow him freedom to cross the river, and time to place his army in order of battle on the other side, that they might fight fairly, or offering, if they liked it better, to permit them to cross over to his side without opposition, that they might join battle on a fair field. Randolph and Douglas did nothing but laugh at this message. They said, that when they fought, it should be at their own pleasure, and not because the King of England chose to ask for a battle. They reminded him, insultingly, how they had been in his country for many days, burning, taking spoil, and doing what they thought fit. If the King was displeased with this, they said, he must find his way across the river to fight them, the best way he could. The English King, determined not to quit sight of the Scots, encamped on the opposite side of the river to watch their motions, thinking that want of provisions would oblige them to quit their strong position on the mountains. But the Scots once more showed Edward their dexterity in marching. by leaving their encampment, and taking up another post, even stronger and more difficult to approach than the first which they had occupied. King Edward followed, and again encamped opposite to his dexterous and troublesome enemies, desirous to bring them to a battle, when he might hope to gain an easy victory, having more than double the number of the Scottish army, all troops of the very best quality.

While the armies lay thus opposed to each other, Douglas resolved to give the young King of England a lesson in the art of war. At the dead of night, he left the Scottish camp with a small body of chosen horse, not above two hundred, well armed. He crossed the river in deep silence, and came to the English camp, which was but carelessly guarded. Seeing this, Douglas rode past the English sentinels as if he had been an officer of the English army, saying, — “Ha, Saint George! you keep bad watch here.” — In those days, you must know, the English used to swear by Saint George, as the Scots did by Saint Andrew. Presently after, Douglas heard an English soldier, who lay stretched by the fire, say to his comrade, —“I cannot tell what is to happen to us in this place; but, for my part, I have a great fear of the Black Douglas playing us some trick.”

“You shah have cause to say so,” said Douglas to himself.

When he had thus got into the midst of the English camp without being discovered, he drew his sword, and cut asunder the ropes of a tent, calling out his usual war-cry — “Douglas, Douglas! English thieves, you are all dead men.” His followers immediately began to cut down and overturn the tents, cutting and stabbing the English soldiers as they endeavoured to get to arms. Douglas forced his way to the pavilion of the King himself, and very nearly carried that young prince prisoner out of the middle of his great army. Edward’s chaplain’ however, and many of his household, stood to arms bravely in his defence, while the young King escaped by creeping away beneath the canvass of his tent. The chaplain and several of the King’s officers were slain; but the whole camp was now alarmed and in arms, so that Douglas was obliged to retreat, which he did by bursting through the English at the side of the camp opposite to that by which he had entered. Being separated from his men in the confusion, he was in great danger of being slain by an Englishman who encountered him with a huge club. This man he killed, but with considerable difficulty; and then blowing his horn to collect his soldiers, who soon gathered around him, he returned to the Scottish camp, having sustained very little loss.

Edward, much mortified at the insult which he had received, became still more desirous of chastising those audacious adversaries; and one of them at least was not unwilling to afford him an opportunity of revenge. This was Thomas Randolph, Earl of Murray. He asked Douglas when he returned to the Scottish camp, “What he had done?” — “We have drawn some blood.” —“Ah,” said the earl, “had we gone all together to the night attack, we should have discomfited them.” “It might well have been so,” said Doug1as, “but the risk would have been too great.” — “Then will we fight them in open battle,” said Randolph, “for if we remain here, we shall in time be famished for want of provisions.” — “Not so,” replied Douglas; “we will deal with this great army of the English as the fox did with the fisherman in the fable.”- “And how was that?” said the Earl of Murray. — Hereupon the Douglas told him this story:— “A fisherman,” he said, “had made a hut by a river side, that he might follow his occupation of fishing. Now, one night he had gone out to look after his nets, leaving a small fire in his hut; and when he came back, behold there was a fox in the cabin, taking the liberty to eat one of the finest salmon he had taken. ‘Ho, Mr Robber!’ said the fisherman, drawing his sword, and standing in the door-way to prevent the fox’s escape, ‘you shall presently die the death.’ The poor fox looked for some hole to get out at, but saw none; whereupon he pulled down with his teeth a mantle, which was lying on the bed, and dragged it across the fire. The fisherman ran to snatch his mantle from the fire-the fox flew out at the door with the salmon; — and so,” said Douglas, “shall we escape the great English army by subtilty, and without risking battle with so large a force.”

Randolph agreed to act by Douglas’s counsel, and the Scottish army kindled great fires through their encampment, and made a noise and shouting, and blowing of horns, as if they meant to remain all night there, as before. But in the mean time, Douglas had caused a road to be made through two miles of a great morass which lay in their rear. This was done by cutting down to the bottom of the bog, and, filling the trench with faggots of wood. Without this contrivance it would have been impossible that the army could have crossed; and through this passage, which the English never suspected, Douglas and Randolph, and all their men, moved at the dead of night. They did not leave so much as an errand-boy behind, and so bent their march towards Scotland, leaving the English disappointed and affronted. Great was their wonder in the morning, when they saw the Scottish camp empty, and found no living men in it, but two or three English prisoners tied to trees, whom they had left with an insulting message to the King of England, saying,” If he were displeased with what they had done, he might come and revenge himself in Scotland.”

The place where the Scots fixed this famous encampment, was in the forest of Weardale, in the bishopric of Durham; and the road which they cut for the purpose of their retreat, is still called the Shorn Moss.

After this a peace was concluded with Robert Bruce, on terms highly honourable to Scotland; for the English King renounced all pretensions to the sovereignty of the country, and, moreover, gave his sister, a princess called Joanna, to be wife to Robert Bruce’s son, called David. This treaty was very advantageous for the Scots. It was called the treaty of Northampton, because it was concluded at that town in the year 1328.

Good King Robert did not long survive this joyful event. He was not aged more than four and-fifty years, but, as I said before, his bad health was caused by the hardships which he sustained during his youth, and at length he became very ill. Finding that he could not recover, he assembled around his bedside the nobles and counsellors in whom he most trusted. He told them, that now, being on his deathbed, he sorely repented all his misdeeds, and particularly, that he had, in his passion, killed Comyn with his own hand, in the church and before the altar. He said that if he had lived, he had intended to go to Jerusalem, to make war upon the Saracens who held the Holy Land, as some expiation for the evil deeds he had done. But since he was about to die, he requested of his dearest friend and bravest warrior, and that was the good Lord James Douglas, that he should carry his heart to the Holy Land. To make you understand the meaning of this request, I must tell you, that at this time a people called Saracens, who believed in the false prophet Mahomet, had obtained by conquest possession of Jerusalem, and the other cities and places which are mentioned in the Holy Scripture; and the Christians of Europe, who went thither as pilgrims to worship at these places, where so many miracles had been wrought, were insulted by these heathen Saracens, Hence many armies of Christians went from their own countries out of every kingdom of Europe, to fight against these Saracens; and believed that they were doing a great service to religion, and that what sins they had committed would be pardoned by God Almighty, because they had taken a part in this which they called a holy warfare. You may remember that Bruce thought of going upon this expedition when he was in despair of recovering the crown of Scotland; and now he desired his heart to be carried to Jerusalem after his death, and requested Lord James of Douglas to take the charge of it. Douglas wept bitterly as he accepted this office, — the last mark of the Bruce’s confidence and friendship. The King soon afterwards expired [at Cardross]; and his heart was taken out from his body and embalmed, that is, prepared with spices and perfumes, that it might remain a long time fresh and uncorrupted. Then the Douglas caused a case of silver to be made, into which he put the Bruce’s heart, and wore it around his neck, by a string of silk and gold. And he set forward for the Holy Land, with a gallant train of the bravest men in Scotland, who, to show their value and sorrow for their brave King Robert Bruce, resolved to attend his heart to the city of Jerusalem. It had been much better for Scotland if the Douglas and his companions had staid at home to defend their own country, which was shortly afterwards in great want of their assistance. Neither did Douglas ever get to the end of his journey. In going to Palestine, he landed in Spain, where the Saracen King, or Sultan of Granada, called Osmyn, was invading the realms of Alphonso, the Spanish King of Castile. King Alphonso received Douglas with great honour and distinction, and people came from all parts to see the great soldier, whose fame was well known through every part of the Christian world. King Alphonso easily persuaded the Scottish earl, that he would do good service to the Christian cause, by assisting him to drive back the Saracens of Grenada, before proceeding on his voyage to Jerusalem. Lord Douglas and his followers went accordingly to a great battle against Osmyn, and had little difficulty in defeating the Saracens who were opposed to them. But being ignorant of the mode of fighting among the cavalry of the East, the Scots pursued the chase too far, and the Moors, when they saw them scattered and separated from each other, turned suddenly back, with a loud cry of Allah illah Allah, which is their shout of battle, and surrounded such of the Scottish knights and squires as had advanced too hastily, and were dispersed from each other.

In this new skirmish, Douglas saw Sir William St Clair of Roslyn fighting desperately, surrounded by many Moors, who were hewing at him with their sabres. “Yonder worthy knight will be slain,” Douglas said, “unless he have instant help.” With that he galloped to his rescue, but presently was himself also surrounded by many Moors. When he found the enemy press so thick round him, as to leave him no chance of escaping, the earl took from his neck the Bruce’s heart, and speaking to it, as he would have done to the King had he been alive, —“Pass first in fight,” he said, “as thou wert wont to do, and Douglas will follow thee, or die.” He then threw the King’s heart among the enemy, and rushing forward to the place where it fell, was there slain. His body was found lying above the silver case, as if it had been his last object to defend the Bruce’s heart. This Good Lord James of Douglas was one of the best and wisest soldiers that ever drew a sword. He was said to have fought in seventy battles, being beaten in thirteen, and victorious in fifty-seven. The English accused him of being cruel; and it is said that he had such a hatred of the English archers, that when he made one of them prisoner, he would not dismiss him until he was either blinded of his right eye, or had the first finger of his right hand struck off. The Douglas’s Larder also seems a very cruel story; but the hatred at that time betwixt the two countries was at a high pitch, and Lord James was much irritated at the death of his faithful servant Thomas Dickson; on ordinary occasions he was mild and gentle to his prisoners. The Scottish historians describe the Good Lord James as one who was never dejected by bad fortune, or unduly elated by that which was good. They say he was modest and gentle in time of peace, but had a very different countenance upon a day of battle. He was tall, strong, and well made, of a swarthy complexion, with dark hair, from which he was called the Black Douglas. He lisped a little in his speech, but in a manner which became him very much. Notwithstanding the many battles in which he had fought, his face had escaped without a wound. A brave Spanish knight at the court of King Alphonso, whose face was scarred by the marks of Moorish sabres, expressed wonder that Douglas’s countenance should be unmarked with wounds Douglas replied modestly, he thanked God, who had always enabled his hands to guard and protect his face.

Many of Douglas’s followers were slain in the battle in which he himself fell. The rest resolved not to proceed on their journey to Palestine, but to return to Scotland. Since the time of the good Lord James, the Douglasses have carried upon their shields a bloody heart, with a crown upon it, in memory of this expedition of Lord James to Spain with the Bruce’s heart. I formerly, when speaking of William the Lion, explained to you, that in ancient times men painted such emblems on their shields that they might be known by them in battle, for their helmet hid their face; and that now, as men no longer wear armour in battle, the devices, as they are called, belonging to particular families, are engraved upon their seals, or upon their silver plate, or painted upon their carriages. Thus, for example, there was one of the brave knights who was in the company of Douglas, and was appointed to take charge of the Bruce’s heart homewards again, who was called Sir Simon Lockhard of Lee. He took afterwards for his device, and painted on his shield, a man’s heart, with a padlock upon it, in memory of Bruce’s heart, which was padlocked in the silver case. For this reason, men changed Sir Simon’s name from Lockhard to Lockheart, and all who are descended from Sir Simon are called Lockhart to this day. Did you ever hear of such a name, Master Hugh Littlejohn? Well, such of the Scottish knights as remained alive returned to their own country. They brought back the heart of the Bruce, and the bones of the Good Lord James. These last were interred in the church of St Bride, where Thomas Dickson and Douglas held so terrible a Palm Sunday. The Bruce’s heart was buried below the high altar in Melrose Abbey. As for his body, it was laid in the sepulchre in the midst of the church of Dunfermline, under a marble stone. But the church becoming afterwards ruinous, and the roof falling down with age, the monument was broken to pieces, and nobody could tell where it stood. But a little while before Master Hugh Littlejohn was born, which I take to be six or seven years ago, when they were repairing the church at Dunfermline, and removing the rubbish, lo! they found fragments of the marble tomb of Robert Bruce. Then they began to dig farther, thinking to discover the body of this celebrated monarch; and at length they came to the skeleton of a tall man, and they knew it must be that of King Robert, both as he was known to have been buried in a winding sheet of cloth of gold, of which many fragments were found about this skeleton, and also because the breastbone appeared to have been sawed through, in order to take out the heart. So orders were sent from the King’s Court of Exchequer to guard the bones carefully, until a new tomb should be prepared, into which they were laid with profound respect. A great many gentlemen and ladies attended, and almost all the common people in the neighbourhood; and as the church could not hold half the numbers, the people were allowed to pass through it, one after another, that each one, the poorest as well as the richest, might see all that remained of the great King Robert Bruce, who restored the Scottish monarchy. Many people shed tears; for there was the wasted skull, which once was the head that thought so wisely and boldly for his country’s deliverance; and there was the dry bone, which had once been the sturdy arm that killed Sir Henry de Bohun, between the two armies, at a single blow, on the evening before the battle of Bannockburn.

It is more than five hundred years since the body of Bruce was first laid into the tomb; and how many many millions of men have died since that time, whose bones could not be recognised, nor their names known, any more than those of inferior animals! It was a great thing to see that the wisdom, courage, and patriotism of a King, could preserve him for such a long time in the memory of the people over whom he once reigned. But then, my dear child, you must remember, that it is only desirable to be remembered for praiseworthy and patriotic actions, such as those of Robert Bruce. It would be better for a prince to be forgotten like the meanest peasant, than to be recollected for actions of tyranny or oppression.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00