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"Why was Robert I so successful between 1308 and 1314"

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

1989

Synopsis:  This essay describes the change in fortunes for Robert I after the winter of 1307 and the reasons for those changes - both political and military.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

This period in Scottish History is best described as exciting. For adventure this period has no equal. On his return to Scotland Bruce engaged in a style of campaign (guerrilla warfare) which was to remain unchanged until Bannockburn, and from then after. Indeed many people wrongly regard this period as being a prelude to Bannockburn itself.

Until the death of Edward I, in July 1307, Bruce never seemed to have any luck, with defeats at Methven and Dalry, and the loss of 3 out of 4 of his brothers and most of his supporters. Indeed when he returned to Scotland in 1307 and learnt of the gravity of the misfortunes he had suffered he could rest in the knowledge that with the imminent death of Edward the butchery would soon be at an end.

Bruce's first concerns, on his return in 1307 were to secure Galloway and then the North i.e. the fastnesses of Lochaber, Buchan, Sutherland and Ross. Bruce landed in Carrick in February 1307, from where he learnt that his Brothers Thomas and Alexander had met with a crushing defeat at the hands of the MacDoualls and had been beheaded. Bruce was now in a very serious position and it was at this time that he made a momentous, indeed revolutionary decision: he would revert to guerrilla warfare instead of trying to beat the English at their own game, i.e. pitched battle. Bruce was the first of the senior Scottish nobles to realise this and to this, in my opinion, could be attributed his success from then on.

Based in Carrick and Galloway Bruce made small scale raids in order to harass and spread panic among the English garrisons. He could from there, as his fame spread, recruit supporters until he was strong enough to break out into the lands north of the Forth where he could get many more followers and more space to manoeuvre. The English commanders under Aymer de Valence had a hard time keeping communications open between the castles in the Southwest and the East, Edward although a dying man was always eager for news of how the campaign was going sending letters demanding more news and impatient for success.

Edward became increasingly angry at the failed English attempts to capture Bruce. In contrast Bruce was slowly winning the initiative and in April succeeded in defeating a large English force in Glen Trool. This was quickly followed in May by the avenging of Methven when Bruce defeated Aymer de Valence at Loudoun Hill followed shortly by the defeat of the Earl of Gloucester. Here, as at Glen Trool and Loudoun Hill, Bruce showed the tactical skill with which his name was to become synonymous. The picking of his battleground and the deployment of his troops were masterly so negating the larger and superior English forces.

At last Bruce was having his long awaited success and with this an increase in his support within Scotland. Bruce seems to have stayed in the South West until September taking a more aggressive policy than he had done before Loudoun. With the death of Edward in July, the style of rule which Scotland was under changed radically.

On August 25th Edward of Caernarvon the new king retired South with the great expedition which had been planned by his father not to show his face North of the Border for three years. The effect of this was to leave Bruce free to deal with his main Scottish enemies, the Comyns, the MacDoualls of Galloway and the Lords of Argyll.

A force under the command of James Douglas was left to recover Douglasdale, upper Clydesdale and the Forest as far as Jedburgh which he did with great success; while Bruce at the beginning of September marched North, gathering recruits in Lennox, Menteith, Fife, Strathearn, Atholl and Angus as he went, with a squadron of galleys sailing up Loch Linnhe in support.

'Lame' John of Lorn felt himself to be threatened by Bruce's actions and agreed to a truce knowing full well that he would receive no help from Edward II. Bruce attacked Inverlochy castle which fell at an unknown date and then swept north through the Great Glen taking and destroying Urquhart and Inverness castles and burning Nairn.

These actions left the earls of Ross and Sutherland exposed and in a very difficult position. As such they were left with no option but to make a year long truce with Bruce. Secured by this truce, Bruce moved East and in November unsuccessfully attacked Elgin and threatened Banff. At this important juncture, when the capture of the entire North of Scotland was within his grasp, the king (de facto as well as de jure) contracted a serious illness, caused by the strain of the past year and a half of rough living. This gave John Comyn time to gather a large force enabling him to take back some of the land lost. The king was forced to withdraw from the damp coastal lands of Buchan to the wooded lands near Slioch were he was able to hold a defensible position. Bruce's condition was causing concern with winter deepening and with not enough food to feed the 700 men under his command. At this point (Christmas Day) the earl's men drew near and an archery battle ensued with no conclusive outcome. The earl withdrew only to return a few days later, again they found Bruce's force too strong, indeed able to retire in good order to the Garioch.

The king eventually recovered and during the first three months of 1308 he took the castle of Balvenie and destroyed Duffus castle. He then drove towards the Black Isle and destroyed the castle of Tarradale forcing the earl of Ross to retire. Bruce was further helped by the capture of the earl of Sutherland's castle of Skelbo by troops belonging to William Wiseman one of his Northern supporters. A further attack was made on Elgin but again without success.

The above information comes from a worn and in places illegible letter from the sheriff of Banff to Edward II telling of the situation as it stood in the North and Northwest.

Bruce finally routed the earl of Buchan at the battle of Inverurie. The date of this battle is one of the principal problems in interpreting what little evidence is available to the historian. From the available evidence a date between March 23rd and March 26th is possible. Whatever the date it is clear that Bruce was willing to leave Buchan unsubdued at his back while he attacked Elgin whereupon being repulsed he doubled back so tempting John Comyn out and destroying his army at Inverurie. After the battle Bruce set about laying the lands of the earl and those loyal to him to waste in the 'herschip' of Buchan. Bruce was now finally in control of the North after the earl of Ross submitted to him in October.

Within a year of his return to Scotland Robert I was now in possession of a huge belt of Scottish territory. The reclaimed lands stretched from the Ayrshire coast to Jedburgh. Galloway was paying tribute and between the Forth and the Mounth English and their adherents were confined to the defensible castles and burghs while North of the Mounth the English had been expelled - apart from at Aberdeen and Banff -. However, before Bruce could set about clearing the English from Scottish soil he had to deal once and for all with the MacDougalls; the rulers of Argyll, and the chiefs of Galloway, namely the MacDoualls and the MacCans. Bruce had to subdue this area as it was vital for the ruler of Scotland to have control of the western approaches to the Realm.

The Argyll campaign is a very good example of the problems inherent within the study of the early, critical years of Robert I's reign. The problem stems from the inability to assign the campaign to a particular year. It seems that the barons of Argyll did not support the lord of Lorn, very like the refusal of the Moray landowners to support the earl of Ross. The truce between Bruce and John MacDougall had expired by the middle of 1308 and Bruce led a large force into Argyll in order to bring MacDougall to heel. He was met at the Pass of Brander by John of Lorn and a large force of Argyll men aiming to do what Bruce had done in Glen Trool to the English. Bruce however was not going to be caught so easily and sent a troop of Highlanders under James Douglas to climb the slopes of Ben Cruachan in order to get above the ambush planned by Lame John of Lorn. When Bruce's troops came into view along the pass they were attacked by a hail of stones and arrows from the slopes of the Ben. Immediately afterwards hey were themselves attacked by Douglas. This action caught the Argyll men by surprise and as they were now being attacked from the front as well as behind they broke and fled. Bruce followed this victory up by taking the castle of Dunstaffnage.

While Bruce was dealing with Argyll his only surviving brother Edward overran Galloway in a campaign noted for its savagery. It was however a brief campaign and many Gallovadians were slaughtered. Dungal MacDouall was driven out with all his kin and many other local chiefs were slain. Edward Bruce however failed to eject the English garrisons and it was not until 1313 that the final castle fell.

By the autumn of 1308 the three districts where Comyn and Balliol loyalty was strongest, namely Buchan, Argyll and Galloway were under the control of the king. The king now also had control of the safest port in the North, namely Aberdeen, and had started the long struggle to retake the English held castles with the capture of Forfar, the first major English held castle south of the Mounth.

Bruce was finally able to hold his first Parliament in the spring of 1309 which shows the confidence and support which he was gaining all the time. It also saw the resumption of Franco-Scottish relations.

1309 saw the resumption of a dour struggle between the Scots and the English garrisons, unsupported by Edward II, which fell through stratagem, starvation or surrender. Edward II, embroiled in domestic troubles, let the garrisons fend for themselves. By the end of 1309 the chief castles still in enemy hands were in the South, with the Southeast very strongly held although the English position in the Southwest was very weak.

Bruce's tactics for taking castles were novel in the extreme. The Scots had no English style siege equipment and had to rely upon skill and ingenuity. A castle should be surprised at night and an entry forced with rope ladders fitted with grappling hooks. In this way the major castles of Perth, Edinburgh, Roxburgh and others were taken until the only one left was Stirling. The story from here I feel needs reviewing. The usual story is that a year long truce was agreed between Edward Bruce and Sir Philip Moubray. However this story comes only from Barbour and it is unlikely that a year would be agreed to, for, after Bannockburn at the Cambuskenneth Parliament the lands of those Scots who had fought for England were forfeited. It should be noted that there was an announcement made a year earlier informing people that their lands would be forfeited unless they came to the kings peace and I think that Barbour is confusing this with the truce. So in reality Edward had only a few months to prepare although he had agreed to an expedition in principle for 1314.

Once Bruce was relatively secure in Scotland he began to show the Northern counties of England what he meant by "defending himself with the longest stick that he had". In successive raids into England the Scots plundered and looted with relish. The English counties, with no help forthcoming from the South, were left with no option but to arrange truces in order that they could avoid further attack. It has been estimated that over 20,000 was collected from the English counties in order that they would be safe from the Scots.

In looking at the success of Bruce we can see that it was due to an excellent military brain and with a mixture of incredible luck and good strategy mixed with inept English governing and generalship it is not surprising that he succeeded. However it is my opinion that Bruce would never have succeeded if Edward II had been half as good as his father.

Ewan Innes, November 11 1989