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Issue 59 - The Noble Bruce

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


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The Noble Bruce

We look at the history of Scotland's great surnames

The origins of this great Scottish surname actually lie off of the British Isles, as Bruce was a name carried to England in the great wave of migration from Normandy following the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Bruce family originally lived in Normandy although the exact location of the place from which the family name is derived is under dispute, (as might be expected from such a prominent name). The traditional interpretation is that the name is derived from the place name Brix, in La Manche. It is argued, however, that there is no real evidence in support of this, and that the name is actually derived from the place name Le Brus, in Calvados. In either case, the roots of the name are hereditary.

The evolution of Anglo-Norman hereditary surnames was a result of the population growth and the development of record keeping in the feudal system of the middle ages. People began to adopt an additional name to distinguish themselves from others of the same first name. Often they took the name of a place or landmark where the person was born or lived. Before English spelling was standardised a few hundred years ago, spelling variations of names were a common occurrence.

Elements of Latin, Norman French and other languages became incorporated into English throughout the Middle Ages, and name spellings changed even among the literate. The variations of the surname Bruce include Brywiss, Broyse, Bruice, and many others.

A vast array of historical documents has been searched for evidence of the Bruce family. The earliest record of the name was found in Yorkshire, where Robert de Bruis settled on lands granted him by Duke William of Normandy, William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England. He was given those lands in return for his support at the Battle of Hastings, where William defeated the Saxon nobility and killed King Harold, the last Saxon King of England. Robert de Bruis was granted 94 manors in Yorkshire. His son Robert de Bruys travelled north with Earl David of Huntingdon who later became King of Scotland and was granted large estates in Annandale, Scotland about 1150.

Robert de Bruys had two sons: Robert and William. Robert, who became known as Robert the Bruce, would later claim the crown of Scotland and unite Scotland against the English. He defeated the English army soundly in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. As a result of this battle Scotland gained its independence from England as declared in the Treaty of Northampton (1328).

King Robert the Bruce died the next year at Cardross and he was buried in Dunfermline.

Although he had instructed one of his most trusted followers to bury his heart in the Holy Land, they were stopped in Spain and therefore returned to Scotland. His heart is buried at Melrose.

Like many of the other great clans, after the English triumphed in the Battle of Culloden and Highland sheep were introduced in the 1790s, the power and holdings of the Bruce clan were greatly reduced. With the widespread depression, vast numbers of clan members left their traditional homes for large urban centres or foreign lands.

For many, the hostile political, economic and religious environment of the time forced them to board ships for distant British colonies in the hopes of finding land and opportunity, and escaping persecution. The voyages were expensive, crowded, and difficult, though, and many arrived in North America sick, starved, and destitute.

Those who did make it, however, were greeted with greater opportunities and freedoms that they could have experienced at home. Many of those families went on to make important contributions to the young nations in which they settled.