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Issue 25 - From caverns to castles (Robert the Bruce)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


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From caverns to castles (Robert the Bruce)

Robert the Bruce is arguably Scotland's greatest monarch, Mark Nicholls sets off on his trail

In a sheer and imposing cliff made of vivid stone, high above the River Kirtle in the south of Scotland, is the opening to a cold and dank cave. So legend has it, this was the lonely, desolate home of Robert the Bruce for three bleak months in the winter of 1313.

The King of Scots was in hiding from the forces of the English king, Edward II. These were desolate times for a man who was arguably Scotland’s greatest monarch.

The story goes that within the confines of this cavern close to Gretna, and, at the time accessed only by a rope hung from the top of the cliff, Robert the Bruce found the motivation to continue his fight for independence for Scotland.

That inspiration came from the most unlikely of sources. Within the half-light of the cavern Bruce, according to the legend, was mesmerised by a spider attempting to build a web.

The spider would spin the web and then fall. Yet the spider had a natural inner strength to persevere and kept climbing up and falling and re-climbing to spin its web until it had achieved its goal.

Within the loneliness of that cave, Robert the Bruce learned the most basic of morals: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Whether fact, or historical metaphor, the analogy was that Bruce kept on trying, and this for a man who had seen four brothers, dozens of other relatives and many more of his followers butchered by the English during the brutal conflict.

When King Robert left the cavern, he raised the army that was to achieve one of the great Scottish victories over the English, defeating Edward II’s forces at the Battle of Bannockburn on midsummer day 1314.

How distant that warm summer victory must have been to the wintry chill and isolation of the cave above the River Kirtle. The cavern is still there above the waters of the river. Anarrow bridge now links it to the bank for visitors to peer into the cave that is said to have offered a Scottish king so much inspiration 700 years ago. There is little documentary evidence to support the story, but this is a truly picturesque spot and an ideal starting point to seek out the sites associated with Robert the Bruce.

Six miles west of New Galloway on the A712 you can see Bruce’s Stone, a granite boulder on Moss Rapploch marking the spot where he defeated the English in 1307.

In the centre of Dumfries a plaque on the wall in Castle Street marks the position of Grey Friars Monastery where Robert the Bruce stabbed his cousin John ‘the Red’ Comyn in 1306 in an argument that eventually decided who would be the next king of Scotland.

There is also the site of his stronghold at Castledykes in the town.

At Lochmaben by Castle Loch, you can see the one-time aristocratic seat of his family. Note also the striking statue in front of Lochmaben Town Hall.

The ruins of the castle there now actually date from the 14th century.

There is also Glenuce Abbey, which Bruce visited, and the remains of his Motte and Bailey castle in the pretty town of Annan, where he was Lord of Annandale before becoming King of Scotland.

Bruce was born in July 1274 in Turnberry Castle into one of Scotland’s most powerful families. Through marriage, they were descended from David I of Scotland, and thus had a claim to the Scottish throne. However, more than a decade after Robert’s birth, the Bruce family lost out to their cousin John Balliol in the disputed succession, with the new king swearing fealty to Edward I of England.

Later, amid uncertainty in Scotland and the two countries at war, the Scottish throne was again at the centre of a family feud.

Bruce met his cousin John Comyn in Grey Friars Monastery in Dumfries in February 1306 where an argument ensued and Comyn was killed.

A month later Bruce was inaugurated as King of Scots, the start of a reign that was to be spent locked in battle with the English.

His greatest victory was Bannockburn, near Stirling, eventually leading to a degree of independence from England in 1328 through the Treaty of Edinburgh.

King Robert died at Cardross in July 1329 and his body buried in Dunfermline Abbey. At his request, his heart was taken on a Crusade, but later returned to Scotland for burial in Melrose Abbey.

After his death, the wars of Scottish Independence resumed in 1332 and continued until 1357.

Around Dumfries and Galloway a major campaign is under way by the Robert the Bruce Commemoration Trust to establish a visitor and education centre dedicated to the monarch.

There is support for such a venture but at this stage a funding shortfall.

Doug Archibald from the Trust said: “The aim for us is to raise awareness of the Trust and establish a visitor attraction.

“Throughout the whole of Scotland, to our eternal shame, we do not have a centre dedicated to Robert the Bruce.

“We have the Bannockburn visitor centre but that is more about the battle.

“We should have a special centre dedicated to the Bruce Family, and what better place to have it than in Dumfries where there are several locations close by that are related to Robert?

“He is a most important figure in Scottish history, perhaps our founding father. If Comyn had not been killed, Scotland’s story would have been quite different.”

The 700th anniversary of the murder of John Comyn fell on February 10, 2006, and the trust organised a series of events to mark the occasion, possibly with a reenactment in Dumfries.

There are also plans over the next 12 to 18 months to establish formal Robert the Bruce Trails across Dumfries and Galloway. These would link several sites related to the Scottish King.

Robert the Bruce Commemoration Trust:

Robert the Bruce’s Cave: Off A74 at Kirkpatrick Fleming by the River Kirtle, admission 50p, children 35p, tel: +44 (0)1461 800 285 or visit

Lochmaben Castle: One mile south of Lochmaben by Castle Loch, admission fee, tel: +44 (0)131 668 8800 Glenluce Abbey: Two miles north-west of Glenluce off A75, admission £2, child 75p, tel: +44 (0)1581 300 541