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Issue 81 - The Clan Bruce

Scotland Magazine Issue 81
June 2015


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The Clan Bruce

James Irvine Robertson visits a powerful dynasty

Clan Bruce is of Norman origin. However, in this case one can go further. The progenitor of the family was Brusi, ‘a very peaceful man, and clever, eloquent, and had many friends.’ He was the third son of Sigurd the Stout, Earl of Orkney, who married a daughter of Malcolm II. Sigurd was a descendant of Fornjot the Giant King of Kvenland who was born about 160 AD.

When Sigurd's brother Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy after the Vikings took the territory over in 912, Brusi's descendant Robert built his castle at Brix, a few miles south of Cherbourg. De Brus accompanied William to England in 1066 and was rewarded with great estates. His grandson Sir Robert de Brus owned 94 manors in north east England and when King David I took the Scot’s throne in 1124 de Brus was granted the lordship of Annadale. Across the border in Scotland, Brus renounced his fealty to David during the war between King Stephen and his cousin Matilda for the English crown and the Scots king invaded England in support of his niece. At the Battle of the Standard in 1138, Brus fought on the English side and captured his own son who, with an eye on the Scottish estates, had remained loyal to David.

The 4th Lord of Annandale married a descendant of King David and this gave the family a claim to the Scots throne on the death of Alexander III's daughter Margaret of Norway. The 6th Lord became Earl of Carrick and on marrying the heiress and their son, the 7th Lord of Annandale, became King of Scots and led his nation to freedom from English domination and this gives his family a uniquely glorious place in the history of Scotland.

King Robert’s dynasty ended with his son David II who produced no heir. The crown was passed on to the Stewarts, carried by King Robert’s daughter Marjorie. In 1359, King David had granted a charter to Sir Robert Bruce, who had joined with Robert the Steward in Ayrshire to fight against the forces of Edward III and Edward Balliol, for the castle and manor of Clackmannan.

The King described this Sir Robert as his trusty and well-beloved kinsman and it is thought that he may have been a great nephew of King Robert. It is from him that the modern clan descends.

The Bruce family proliferated and various branches obtained estates in Fife, Stirling and further afield. They produced great men who contributed significantly to both Scotland and the United Kingdom. One historian listed some of them: ‘A Cardinal of Rome; Earls of Elgin, Kincardine, and Ailesbury; Viscounts Bruce; Barons of Gower, Brember, Brecknock, Abergavenny, Aberdare, Skelton, Bruce, Balfour of Burleigh and Kinloss; Lord High Chancellors of Scotland; a Chief Justice of England; Archbishops, Bishops, Baronets, a Master of the Rolls, Judges, Privy Councillors, Ambassadors, Envoys; Knights of the Garter, Bath, Saint Andrews, and St. Michael; Princesses of Wales, Duchesses of Chandos, Rutland, and Richmond; Countesses of Atholl, Mar, Ross, Sutherland, Cardigan, Perth, Devonshire, Hertford, and Airlie; Baronesses Percy, Beauchamp, Maltravers, Sayes, Bothwell, Mortimer, Brechin, and Cardross.’

Not every Bruce reached the highest honours of the land. In the centuries of social churn many became farmers, soldiers, worked in the new industries or emigrated in search of a better life, spreading the Bruce genes across the globe.

Head of the House of Bruce is Andrew Bruce, 11th Earl of Elgin and 15th Earl of Kincardine, who is as great and good as it gets in Scotland. His forebear Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed British Ambassador to the Ottoman empire in 1799. He was so appalled at the damage being inflicted upon the ancient sculptures of Athens that he obtained permission to take away and preserve those on the Parthenon. They now lie in the British Museum, a constant itch in the diplomatic relationship between the UK and Greece who would like them back.

His son did his best to balance the cultural books when he was British High Commissioner in China. In 1860, in a reprisal for the torture and execution of members of a peace delegation, he ordered the complete destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, destroying art and architecture of incalculable value and importance.

The Bruces were a Lowland family and so were not involved in the bloody rivalries that characterised the Highland clans. Although the various lairds had their enthusiastic armed followers, their tenants did not have to fight in order to keep their farms. In their part of Scotland lay deposits of coal and some of the Bruce lairds became rich. Sir George Bruce of Carnock built the ‘Palace’ at Culross and in 1575 established the first coal mine in the world to extend under the sea. It was considered one of the marvels of the British Isles in the early 17th Century but it was destroyed in a storm in 1625. James VI paid a visit and characteristically lost his nerve in the tunnel at the bottom and accused Sir George of treason. He was pacified when it was pointed out that he could return to dry land either along the undersea passage through which he had come or by a rowing boat that was waiting at the top of the shaft where the coal was loaded onto ships. His grandson, Alexander, collaborated with Huygens in the invention of a pendulum for a marine chronometer.

Another enriched by coal was James Bruce of Kinnaird. He spent his youth shooting game on his estate and, in 1768 disguised as a travelling fakir, took himself off to Ethiopia to discover the source of the Nile. After three years of adventures, he came home, told his story but it was so colourful that most people thought he’d made it up. He went back to his estate in a huff, married his neighbour’s daughter and when she died a decade later wrote a 3,000 page account of his travels in 1790. It turned out that he’d been telling the truth but he fell downstairs and died in 1794. The thriving ‘Family of Bruce International, Inc.’ today fosters clan spirit across the globe.