HOPE YOU have not forgotten, my dear child, that all the cruel wars of Scotland arose out of the debate between the great lords who claimed the throne after King Alexander the Third's death. The Scottish nobility rashly submitted the decision of that matter to King Edward I of England, and thus opened the way to his endeavouring to seize the kingdom of Scotland to himself. It was natural that such of the people as were still determined to fight for the deliverance of their country from the English, should look round for some other King, under whom they might unite themselves, to combat the power of England.
Amongst these, the principal candidates, were two powerful noblemen. The first was Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick; the other was John Comyn, or Cuming, of Badenoch, usually called the Red Comyn, to distinguish him from his kinsman, the Black Comyn, so named from his swarthy complexion. These two great and powerful barons had taken part with Sir William Wallace in the wars against England; but, after his defeat, being careful of losing their great estates, and considering the freedom of Scotland as beyond the possibility of being recovered, both Bruce and Comyn had not only submitted themselves to Edward, and acknowledged his title as King of Scotland, but even borne arms, along with the English, against such of their countrymen as still continued to resist the usurper. But the feelings of Bruce concerning the baseness of this conduct, are said, by the old tradition of Scotland, to have been awakened by the following incident. In one of the numerous battles, or skirmishes, which took place at the time between the English and their adherents on the one side, and the insurgent or patriotic Scots upon the other, Robert the Bruce was present, and assisted the English to gain the victory. After the battle was over, he sat down to dinner among his southern friends and allies, without washing his hands, on which there still remained spots of the blood which he had shed during the action. The English lords, observing this whispered to each other in mockery, "Look at that Scotsman, who is eating his own blood!" Bruce heard what they said, and began to reflect that the blood upon his hands might be indeed called his own, since it was that of his brave countrymen who were fighting for the independence of Scotland, whilst he was assisting its oppressors, who only laughed at and mocked him for his unnatural conduct. He was so much shocked and disgusted that he arose from table, and, going into a neighbouring chapel, shed many tears, and, asking pardon of God for the great crime he had been guilty of, made a solemn vow that he would atone for it by doing all in his power to deliver Scotland from the foreign yoke. Accordingly, he left, it is said, the English army, and never joined it again, but remained watching an opportunity for restoring the freedom of his country.
Now, this Robert the Bruce was held the best warrior in Scotland. He was very wise and prudent, and an excellent general; that is, he knew how to conduct an army, and place them in order for battle, as well or better than any great man of his time. He was generous, too, and courteous by nature; but he had some faults, which perhaps belonged as much to the fierce period in which he lived as to his own character. He was rash and passionate, and in his passion he was sometimes relentless and cruel.
Robert the Brace had fixed his purpose, as I told you, to attempt once again to drive the English out of Scotland, and he desired to prevail upon Sir John, the Red Comyn, who was his rival in his pretensions to the throne, to join with him in expelling the foreign enemy by their common efforts. With this purpose, Bruce requested an interview with John Comyn. They met in the Church of the Minorites in Dunfries, before the high altar. What passed betwixt them is not known with certainty; but they quarrelled, either concerning their mutual pretensions to the Crown, or because Comyn refused to join Bruce in the proposed insurrection against the English; or, as many writers say, because Bruce charged Comyn with having betrayed to the English his purpose of rising up against King Edward. It is, however, certain, that these two haughty barons came to high and abusive words, until at length Bruce forgot the sacred character of the place in which they stood, and struck Comyn a blow with his dagger. Having done this rash deed, he instantly ran out of the church and called for his horse. Two friends of Bruce were in attendance on him. Seeing him pale, bloody, and in much agitation they eagerly inquired what was the matter.
"I doubt," said Bruce, "that I have slain the Red Comyn."
"Do you leave such a matter in doubt?" said one, "I will make sicker!"--that is, I will make certain. Accordingly, he and his companion rushed into the church and made the matter certain with a vengeance, by dispatching the wounded Comyn with their daggers. His uncle, Sir Robert Comyn, was slain at the same time.
This slaughter of Comyn was a rash and cruel action. It was followed by the displeasure of Heaven; for no man ever went through more misfortunes than Robert Bruce, although he at length rose to great honour. After the deed was done, Bruce might be called desperate. He had committed an action which was sure to bring down upon him the vengeance of all Comyn's relations, the resentment of the King of England, and the displeasure of the Church, on account of having slain his enemy within consecrated ground. He determined, therefore, to bid them all defiance at once, and to assert his pretensions to the throne of Scotland. He drew his own followers together, summoned to meet him such barons as still entertained hopes of the freedom of the country, and was crowned King at the Abbey of Scone, the usual place where the Kings of Scotland assumed their authority.
Everything relating to the ceremony was hastily performed. A small circlet of gold was hurriedly made, to represent the ancient crown of Scotland, which Edward had carried off to England. The Earl of Fife, descendant of the brave Macduff, whose duty it was to have placed the crown on the King's head, would not give his attendance, but the ceremonial was performed by his sister, Isabella, Countess of Buchan.
Edward was dreadfully incensed when he heard that, after all the pains which he had taken, and all the blood which had been spilled, the Scots were making this new attempt to shake off his authority. Though now old, feeble, and sickly, he made a solemn vow, in presence of all his court, that he would take the most ample vengeance upon Robert the Bruce and his adherents; after which he would never again draw his sword upon a Christian, but would only fight against the unbelieving Saracens for the recovery of the Holy Land. He marched against Bruce accordingly, at the head of a powerful army.
The commencement of Bruce's undertaking was most disastrous. He was crowned on the twenty-ninth of March, 1306. On the eighteenth of May he was ex-communicated by the Pope, on account of the murder of Comyn within consecrated ground, a sentence which excluded him from all benefits of religion, and authorized any one to kill him. Finally, on the nineteenth of June, the new King was completely defeated near Methven by the English Earl of Pembroke. Robert's horse was killed under him in the action, and he was for a moment a prisoner. But he had fallen into the power of a Scottish knight, who, though he served in the English army, did not choose to be the instrument of putting Bruce into their hands, and allowed him to escape.
Bruce, with a few brave adherents, among whom was the young lord of Douglas, who was afterward called the Good Lord James, retired into the Highland mountains. The Bruce's wife, now Queen of Scotland, with several other ladies, accompanied her husband and his few followers during their wanderings. There was no way of providing for them save by hunting and fishing. Driven from one place in the Highlands to another, starved out of some districts, and forced from others by the opposition of the inhabitants, Bruce attempted to force his way into Lorn; but he found enemies everywhere. The MacDougals, a powerful family, then called Lords of Lorn, were friendly to the English, and attacked Bruce and his wandering companions as soon as they attempted to enter their territory. The chief, called John of Lorn, hated Bruce on account of his having slain the Red Comyn, to whom this MacDougal was nearly related. Bruce was again defeated by this chief. He directed his men to retreat through a narrow pass, and, placing himself last of the party, he fought with and slew such of the enemy as attempted to press hard on them. Three followers of MacDougal, a father and two sons, called MacAndrosser, all very strong men, when they saw Bruce thus protecting the retreat of his followers, rushed on the King at once. Bruce was on horseback, in the strait pass betwixt a precipitous rock and a deep lake. He struck the first man a blow with his sword, as cut off his hand and freed the bridle. The man bled to death. The other brother had meantime grasped Bruce by the leg, and was attempting to throw him from horseback. The King, setting spurs to his horse, made the animal suddenly spring forward, so that the Highlander fell under the horse's feet, and, as he was endeavouring to rise again, Bruce cleft his head in two with his sword. The father, seeing his two sons thus slain, flew desperately at the King, and grasped him by the mantle so close to his body, that he could not have room to wield his long sword. But with the heavy pummel of that weapon the King struck this third assailant so dreadful a blow, that he dashed out his brains. Still, however, the Highlander kept his dying grasp on the King's mantle; so that, to be free of the dead body, Bruce was obliged to undo the brooch, or clasp, by which it was fastened, and leave that, and the mantle itself, behind him. The brooch, which fell thus into the possession of MacDougal of Lorn, is still preserved in that ancient family as a memorial.