HE KING MET with many such encounters amidst his dangerous and dismal wanderings; yet, though almost always defeated by the superior numbers of the English, and of such Scots as sided with them, he still kept up his own spirits and those of his followers. He was a better scholar than was usual in those days, when, except clergymen, few people learned to read and write. But King Robert could do both very well; and we are told that he sometimes read aloud to his companions, to amuse them, when they were crossing the great Highland lakes, in such wretched leaky boats as they could find for that purpose. Loch Lomond, in particular, is said to have been the scene of such a lecture. You may see by this, how useful it is to possess knowledge.
At last dangers increased so much around the brave King Robert, that he was obliged to separate himself from his Queen and her ladies. So Bruce left his Queen, with the Countess of Buchan and others, in the only castle which remained to him, which was called Kildrummie, and is situated near the head of the river Don in Aberdeenshire. The King also left his brother, Nigel Bruce, to defend the castle against the English; and he himself, with his second brother Edward, who was a very brave man, went over to an island called Rachrin, on the coast of Ireland, where Bruce and the few men who followed his fortunes passed the winter of 1306. In the meantime the castle of Kildrummie was taken by the English, and Nigel Bruce, a beautiful and brave youth, was cruelly put to death by the victors. The ladies who had attended on Robert's Queen, as well as the Queen herself, and the Countess of Buchan, were thrown into strict confinement.
The Countess of Buchan had given Edward great offence by being the person who placed the crown on the head of Robert Bruce. She was imprisoned within the Castle of Berwick, in a cage. The cage was a strong wooden and iron piece of frame-work, placed within an apartment, and resembling one of those places in which wild-beasts are confined. There were such cages in most old prisons to which captives were consigned, who were to be confined with peculiar rigour.
The news of the taking of Kildrummie, the captivity of his wife, and the execution of his brother, reached Bruce while he was residing in a miserable dwelling at Rachrin, and reduced him to the point of despair. After receiving the intelligence from Scotland, Bruce was lying one morning on his wretched bed, and deliberating with himself whether he had not better resign all thoughts of again attempting to make good his right to the Scottish crown, and, dismissing his followers, transport himself and his brothers to the Holy Land, and spend the rest of his life in fighting against the Saracens. But then, on the other hand, he thought it would be both criminal and cowardly to give up his attempts to restore freedom to Scotland while there yet remained the least chance of his being successful in an undertaking, which, rightly considered, was much more his duty than to drive the infidels out of Palestine.
While he was divided betwixt these reflections, and doubtful of what he should do, Bruce was looking upward to the roof of the cabin in which he lay; and his eye was attracted by a spider, which, hanging at the end of a long thread of its own spinning, was endeavouring to swing itself from one beam in the roof to another, for the purpose of fixing the line on which it meant to stretch its web. The insect made the attempt again and again without success; at length Bruce counted that it had tried to carry its point six times, and been as often unable to do so. It came into his head that he had himself fought just six battles against the English and their allies, and that the poor persevering spider was exactly in the same situation with himself, having made as many trials and been as often disappointed in what it aimed at. "Now," thought Bruce, "as I have no means of knowing what is best to be done, I will be guided by the luck which shall attend this spider. If the insect shall make another effort to fix its thread, and shall be successful, I will venture a seventh time to try my fortune in Scotland; but if the spider shall fail, I will go to the wars in Palestine, and never return to my native country more."
While Bruce was forming this resolution the spider made another exertion with all the force it could muster, and fairly succeeded in fastening its thread to the beam which it had so often in vain attempted to reach. Bruce seeing the success of the spider, resolved to try his own fortune; and as he had never before gained a victory, so he never afterward sustained any considerable or decisive check or defeat. I have often met with people of the name of Bruce, so completely persuaded of the truth of this story, that they would not on any account kill a spider, because it was that insect which had shown the example of perseverance, and given a signal of good luck to their great namesake. Having determined to renew his efforts to obtain possession of Scotland, the Bruce removed himself and his followers from Rachrin to the island of Arran, which lies in the mouth of the Clyde. The King landed, and inquired of the first woman he met what armed men were in the island. She returned for answer that there had arrived there very lately a body of armed strangers, who had defeated an English governor of the castle, and were now amusing themselves with hunting about the island. The King, having caused himself to be guided to the woods which these strangers most frequented, there blew his horn repeatedly. Now, the chief of the strangers who had taken the castle was James Douglas, one of the best of Bruce's friends, and he was accompanied by some of the bravest of that patriotic band. When he heard Robert Bruce's horn, he knew the sound well, and cried out, that yonder was the King, he knew by his manner of blowing. So he and his companions hastened to meet King Robert. They could not help weeping when they considered their own forlorn condition, but they were stout-hearted men, and yet looked forward to freeing their country.
The Bruce was now where the people were most likely to be attached to him. He continued to keep himself concealed in his own earldom of Carrick, and in the neighboring country of Galloway, until he should have matters ready for a general attack upon the English. He was obliged, in the meantime, to keep very few men with him, both for the sake of secrecy, and from the difficulty of finding provisions.
Now, many of the people of Galloway were unfriendly to Bruce. They lived under the government of one MacDougal, related to the Lord of Lorn, who had defeated Bruce. These Galloway men had heard that Bruce was in their country, having no more than sixty men with him; so they resolved to attack him by surprise, and for this purpose they got together and brought with them two or three bloodhounds. At that time bloodhounds, or sleuthhounds, were used for the purpose of pursuing great criminals. The men of Galloway thought that if they missed taking Bruce, or killing him at the first onset, and if he should escape into the woods, they would find him out by means of these bloodhounds.
The good King Robert Bruce, who was always watchful and vigilant, received some information of the intention of the party to come upon him suddenly and by night. Accordingly, he quartered his little troop of sixty men on the side of a deep and swift-running river, that had very steep and rocky banks. There was but one ford by which this river could be crossed in that neighbourhood, and that ford was deep and narrow, so that two men could scarcely get through abreast; the ground on which they were to land, on the side where the King was, was steep, and the path which led upward from the water's edge to the top of the bank, extremely narrow and difficult.
Bruce caused his men to lie down to take some sleep, at a place about half a mile distant from the river, while he himself, with two attendants, went down to watch the ford. He stood looking at the ford, and thinking how easily the enemy might be kept from passing there, provided it was bravely defended, when he heard, always coming nearer and nearer, the baying of a hound. This was the bloodhound which was tracing the King's steps to the ford where he had crossed, and two hundred Galloway men were along with the animal, and guided by it. Bruce at first thought of going back to awaken his men; but then he reflected that it might be only some shepherd's dog. "My men," said he, "are sorely tired; I will not disturb their sleep for the yelping of a cur, till I know something more of the matter." So he stood and listened; and by and by, as the cry of the hound came nearer, he began to hear a trampling of horses, and the voices of men, and the ringing and clattering of armour, and then he was sure the enemy were coming to the river side. Then the King thought, "If I go back to give my men the alarm, these Galloway men will get through the ford without opposition; and that would be a pity, since it is a place so advantageous to make defence against them." So he looked again at the steep path, and the deep river, and he thought that they gave him so much advantage, that he himself could defend the passage with his own hand, until his men came to assist him. He therefore sent his followers to waken his men, and remained alone by the river.
The noise and trampling of the horses increased, and the moon being bright, Bruce beheld the glancing arms of two hundred men, on the opposite bank. The men of Galloway, on their part, saw but one solitary figure guarding the ford, and the foremost of them plunged into the river without minding him. But as they could only pass the ford one by one, the Bruce, who stood high above them on the bank where they were to land, killed the foremost man with a thrust of his long spear, and with a second thrust stabbed the horse, which fell down, kicking and plunging in his agonies, on the narrow path, and so prevented the others who were following from getting out of the river. Bruce had thus an opportunity of dealing his blows among them, while they could not strike at him. In the confusion, five or six of the enemy were slain, or, having been borne down with the current, were drowned. The rest were terrified, and drew back.
But when the Galloway men looked again, and saw they were opposed by only one man, they themselves being so many, they cried out, that their honour would be lost forever if they did not force their way; and encouraged each other, with loud cries, to plunge through and assault him. But by this time the King's soldiers came up to his assistance, and the Galloway men gave up their enterprise.