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Robert the Bruce

Battle of Barra - Inverurie 1308

The Battle of Inverurie, also known as the Battle of Barra, or Battle of Old Meldrum was fought in May 1308 in the north-east of Scotland. Though part of the wider Wars of Scottish Independence it is more properly viewed as an episode in a brief but bitter civil war. The battle was a victory for the Scottish King Robert Bruce over his chief domestic enemy, John Comyn, 3rd Earl of Buchan. It was followed by the Harrying of Buchan, a violent act of destruction, at least equal to, if not greater than, some of the excesses practiced elsewhere by the English. 

One by one King Robert knocked out his domestic enemies, beginning with the Balliol party in Galloway. From the south of the country he punched through the English held central lowlands, making his way by the western route through Argyleshire through the Great Glen towards Inverness and the north-east, towards the territory held by Buchan. He had under his command some 3000 men, at least according to a letter sent by the Earl of Ross to King Edward. It's almost certain that Buchan would have been unable to match such a force, but he was saved from immediate destruction when Bruce was overtaken by an unspecified illness, which kept him out of action for a considerable time. During this period much of his army melted away, leaving him with no more than about 700 men by the spring of 1308.

Although Buchan made some attempt to take advantage of the situation by attacking the king's camp at Slioch, his actions were at best desultory and half-hearted. Unfortunately the only accounts we have of the whole campaign in Aberdeenshire are from sources uniformly hostile to Buchan. In John Barbour's narrative he appears especially dim. It is certainly true that his skills as a soldier were at best second-rate, as he allowed the Bruce party to capture castles one by one virtually unmolested. But it also seems to be true that the forces at his disposal, especially his peasant levies, were unreliable, which explains the rapid collapse of his army in the decisive encounter of the northern war.

File:Battle of Bannockburn - Bruce addresses troops.jpgDuring his illness, King Robert was carried from place to place by his supporters. In May 1308, his army made camp at Inverurie near Oldmeldrum. On the 22nd Buchan gathered his forces, ready to attack Bruce the following day. The size of his army is unknown; but he at least had the advantage of surprise. However, when the attack came it was partial and un-coordinated, providing some additional support for the contention that he had little capacity as a commander. His army made camp at Meldrum, to the north-east of the enemy. At dawn on the 23d David de Brechin made a surprise attack on Bruce's camp. His men galloped over the bridge on the River Urie at Balhalgardy right into the streets of Inverurie. Taken completely unprepared, Bruce's sentries were quickly cut down, those who survived taking refuge in the nearby castle. It was the decisive moment which, if followed through, might have brought victory. But Buchan's main force was still too far away to take advantage of this opportunity. More seriously, Brechin seems to have been the only man ready for action, as the rest the army was at best half-prepared. Bruce, who was still ill, rose from his bed and prepared a counter-attack. As the enemy approached Buchan hastily drew up his forces astride the road to Inverurie, between Barra Hill and the marshes of the Lochter Burn. His unreliable feudal levies were placed to the rear, with the knights and men-at-arms taking up a position to the front. The levies seem to have been given the assurance that Bruce was too ill to take to the field in person; and their shocked reaction when he came into sight-in the fashion of El Cid explains why Buchan's army collapsed so quickly.

At dawn, let’s say on the 23rd of May, de Brechin launched a surprise attack, most likely by Souterford. Not only did the errant de Brechin surprise the King’s men, he took Buchan by surprise as the Earl’s main contingent was too far behind to back up any advantage he’d gained. As Buchan sensibly drew up his army between the Hill of Barra and the marshes of the Lochter Burn, two of Bruce’s faithful lieutenants got him out of bed, propped him on his horse and rode out to challenge the enemy. Legend has it that the Earl of Buchan’s feudal levies were so shocked at the appearance of Bruce, whom they’d been told was ill and no doubt dying, that they turned and fled “as far as Fyvie.” In any event, the battle was a bit of a rout

Buchan made some attempt to steady the line, but he too soon joined the flight, pursued by Bruce's men as far as Fyvie. The fugitive earl took his flight all the way to England, where he died the same year. The Battle of Inverurie ended active resistance to King Robert in Aberdeenshire. He was not, however prepared to risk leaving a potentially hostile district in his rear, and took drastic action which was to last in living memory for some fifty years beyond the event.

<Earl of Buchan

Immediately following the battle, Bruce ordered his men to burn to the ground farms, homes and strongholds associated with the Comyns during the violent and bloody Harrying of Buchan.

The Harrying of Buchan, also known as the Herschip (hardship) or Rape of Buchan, took place in 1308 during the Wars of Scottish Independence. It saw vast areas of Buchan in northeast Scotland, then ruled by Clan Comyn, burned to the ground by Robert the Bruce and his brother Edward, immediately following their May 1308 success at the Battle of Barra.

After his defeat at Barra, John Comyn, Earl of Buchan fled to England. Bruce's men chased him as far as Turriff, a distance of sixteen miles (25 km). Before heading south to lay siege to Aberdeen Castle  the Bruces "destroyed by fire his whole Earldom of Buchan", including all the castles and strongholds, principally Rattray Castle and Dundarg Castle

Bruce's men proceeded to kill those loyal to the Comyns, destroying their homes, farms, crops and slaughtering their cattle. Terrorising the locals, Bruce prevented any possible chance of future violent hostility towards him and his men. The Comyns had ruled Buchan for nearly a century, from 1214, when William Comyn inherited the title from his wife. Such was the destruction however, that the people of Buchan lost all loyalties to the Comyns and never again rose against Bruce's supporters. It took thirty years before John Comyn's successor to the Earldom, Henry Beaumont, made an appearance in the area. Between 1333–34 he repaired Dundarg Castle, which Bruce had destroyed during the harrying, only for it to be laid siege to and destroyed by Andrew de Moray in winter 1336. Finding little support, he left after the siege to England where he died in 1340. His son John refused the Earldom, ending the Comyn lineage and the first creation. 

Bruce himself was worn-out and suffering from leprosy. He died in 1329, aged 55 years.

The portrait of Bruce was of a series of portraits of Scottish kings, painted by the artist(s) from imagination, or contemporary paintings, some hundreds of years ago. In this one, Bruce looks like a 'Mountbatten', and the axe is ridiculous.  The painting of Bruce's address to his men, at Bannockburn, has them in modern day kilts, not yet invented in 1314.  What Bruce looked like can only be determined by building up a face on the skull. No likeness from his day has survived, neither has one come down of Wallace. Two people have built a face of Bruce based on the skull: the sculptor of the Bannockburn statue, and some forensic guy in England. The latter came up with a horrifyingly ravaged roundish face, balding, the face eaten away by leprosy.  The jury is still out on what it was that finally killed Bruce in 1329. On the one hand, his most expert biographers who spent their lives researching him, say if he had been a leper, due to his nature, he would never have exposed his children to infection, by allowing them to visit at Cardross (his son and betrothed, the daughter of the English king, visited him there after the ceremony of engagement. They were both under 12 years old.) The laws of Scotland were severe on lepers, no matter who you were, and many believe what he had was white leprosy, or psoriasis.

One French authority on leprosy after looking at the facsimile of Bruce's skull, said it was clearly leprosy. Others have said syphilis. It was either psoriasis or skin cancer in the form of basal cell carcinomas.  The historians of his time say whatever it was, it was the result of his time when he had to take to evasion, and slept rough in all weathers. Syphilis in Bruce's day was not the Syphilis of our time, but much milder. In Elizabethan times one person in five suffered that. It still could cause pitting of the skull from open sores. A Saxon woman's skull has been found all pitted with it.  Whatever Bruce had, it would first floor him to a bed. Then he'd rally, mount a horse with help, and carry on. In his final years, he went by cart on pilgrimages to various Scottish holy shrines for a cure, too weak to ride. He thought it was God's curse for his murder of Comyn, and for not going on a crusade against the Saracens, as he'd sworn to do as a knight. Hence why Douglas took his heart on a Spanish crusade.  The face of the Bannockburn statue was built from the skull, and collapsed cheeks and missing teeth all included.

"His figure was graceful and athletic, with broad shoulders; his features were handsome; he had the yellow hair of the northern race, with blue and sparkling eyes. His intellect was quick, and he had the gift of fluent speech in the vernacular, delightful to listen to."

Bruce's Seat at Barra

Another legend concerns the so-called ‘Bruce’s Seat’; a stone that King Robert is said to have sat upon as he directed the battle. That stone is now established by the roundabout on the Oldmeldrum by-pass, having been moved from Barra Hill. There is another stone associated with the battle, which is known as the ‘Grenago Stane’ or the ‘Groaning Stone’. The ‘Groaner’ can be found on the 14th fairway of the Oldmeldrum golf course – and on the club’s emblem or logo. The legend of the ‘Groaner’, which is really part of a long gone stone circle, has it that the Earl of Buchan lay down behind the stone, groaning and moaning about the loss of his troops.

'Bruce's Camp' had probably been a 'cattle camp' of Bronze Age date, but by mid-1st century AD this had developed into a bi-vallate contour fort: traces of the ramparts are still visible, and the central area measures about 600 feet east to west, and about 300 feet north to south. Traditionally the army of King Robert the Bruce encamped here prior to the Battle of Old Meldrum (AD 1308)

The fort now consists of a complete but weak rampart of tumbled stone with fragmentary remains of a similar rampart outside it. Both ramparts have been mutilated by tree clearance and planting and the outer can be traced only on the south and west.  This monument is situated in woodland at an altitude of 170m

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Last modified: 01/09/2013