Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Riddle of Robert the Bruce

#15 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge
R: Ruis, Elder in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet. 

Elder, called the”Queen of Herbs” for its usefulness in herblore, the "Fairy Tree" (like the rowan), and the "Bore-tree" was often planted at the back door as rowans were at the front, the belief being that its presence would prevent evil from entering. In fact, there actually is an aroma in the leaves that repels flies, so not a bad thing to have near food preparation areas! Its position outside also made it handy for getting twigs to make into crosses over lintels, to prevent evil from entering the byre (barn). Every part of it was used: take out the pith of the branches to use as tinder, and you had fairly straight, hollow cylinders to use in bellows, flutes or pipes (the fairy folk supposedly loved instruments made of that best). The bark, berries and blossoms were used in various remedies—modern scientists have found that it may be efficacious in treating influenza—for any number of ailments, from irritated eyes, kidney problems, epilepsy, wounds to warts! Hearse-drivers carried whip-handles made from the wood, to ward off evil influences. One sign of a witch (who could turn herself into an elder tree) was her use of a broom made from that wood, instead of the usual ash decent housewives used. Revered by the Druids as another symbol of rebirth and regeneration, elder was demonized by early Christians, who said both that it was cursed for being the tree Judas had hung himself on and the one on which Christ was crucified. My granny once remarked dryly that whoever had that notion clearly didn’t know the tree—it was far too small and lightweight to have borne the weight of a grown man, let alone caused Christ to groan under its weight on His way to Gethsemane. 
The fragrant white blossoms could be eaten, and the red to purple berries made into jams, jellies, medicines, wine, and a light champagne that thanks to a lawsuit from the French wine-makers,  is now referred to as a cordial. These are only part of the folklore associated with this bountiful tree.

When I was thinking of what to write about for the letter R, the word “riddle” popped into my mind. Other than the riddling game used down through the centuries, the best known today the contest between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum, the first Scottish name that came to me connected to riddles/riddling  was Robert the Bruce. With William Wallace and Rob Roy MacGregor, he is one of the Three Great Heroes of Scotland. A noble descended from families in Scotland, Ireland and England, Robert was both a patriot and yet was believed by many to be a turncoat (although Mel Gibson got it wrong: there is no evidence whatsoever that he betrayed Wallace outside of the script for Braveheart, a movie marred by its many inaccuracies. I refrain from a rant about that with difficulty!) A man who wanted to go on Crusade, Bruce was excommunicated for sacrilege. Merciless in harrying his enemies, by the end of his reign he was called “King Robert the Good.”

So who was this enigma? He was born into a time when Scotland was in thrall to King Edward of England, whose officials were merciless in pillaging it and its people.
"Toom-Tabard," John Balliol
Matters were not helped by some confusion as to who should rightfully be the Scottish King; for a time, the Crown rested upon the brow of John Balliol, derisively nicknamed “John Toom-tabard,” because he was so weak he was like an empty suit. Edward I of England easily manipulated and then imprisoned him, and forced the Scottish nobles to sign a “Rag-roll,” swearing their allegiance to him. Both Robert’s grandfather and father, within a few days of each other, resigned their claims as descendents of King Donald I, in favor of Robert, whose biggest rival was Red John Comyn, descended from two Scottish kings, nephew of Balliol, and related to Edward by marriage. The Comyn family had dominated the northeast of Scotland for 150 years. Apparently, the two claimants for the throne were like oil and water, especially when they were appointed joint Champions of Scotland. It’s said that Bruce offered Comyn a secret bargain: Red John could have all the Bruce lands, and Bruce could have the crown after a successful uprising—and Comyn agreed, with no intention of fulfilling his side of it.

14th Century Brass Spurs
One of the difficulties with being a prominent noble suspected of plotting to become King was that Bruce was required to spend time in Edward’s court. One summer night in 1305, Robert was getting ready for bed when he heard a knock on his door. Opening it, his squire found a small leather pouch on the sill. It contained English coins with Edward’s face graven on them, and a pair of spurs. No one was in sight.

Something about the bag made Robert certain that it had been left by his friend, Sir Ralph de Monthermer, who had not dared leave a written message. What was the meaning of the riddle posed by those objects? Bruce, later called a master of warfare, unraveled its meaning: he could remain, and be imprisoned (and probably executed) within twelve hours or twelve days—or he could flee on horseback to Scotland. He chose the latter, his squire at his side.

In February 1306, at the Greyfriars Abbey in Dumfries, Bruce met Red John before the high altar, accusing him of treachery. After a furious altercation, Comyn lay in his blood. Sacrilege and murder had been committed…Excommunication by the Pope was certain. Bruce had two paths: become king or outlaw. 

King Robert I, Coronation
Six weeks later he was crowned at Scone, his coronation presided over by Bishops Robert Wisart of Glasgow (who would later convince the Pope to lift the excommunication), and William Lamberton of St. Andrews. Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, arrived a day later. Because traditionally Scottish kings were crowned by MacDuffs, Bruce agreed to be crowned again by her as representing her six-year-old son. 

This does not mean that Bruce had won; he had still to force the English out of Scotland, gain recognition of Scotland as a kingdom in its own right instead of a land ruled by outsiders, and win over the majority of his people, many still committed to other factions.

Bruce & the Spider at the Cave
There are two other famous tales of Bruce, probably dating from this period. One (also attributed to other leaders) is that while hiding in a cave or hidden room, he sees a spider spinning its web. Seven times it tries to span the opening, and seven times, it fails; the eighth attempt is successful, and Bruce decides that he too should persevere. 

Another is that in Galloway, near the Motte of Urr, he was challenged by an English knight, Sir Walter Selby. As the two were fighting, the clash of their swords and grunting brought the wife of a man named Sprotte from where she was preparing the morning porridge. Whether she tackled the Englishman or simply pulled out some of his hair, she brought him to his knees. To her disgust, Bruce refused to take advantage of her aid to kill Selby. Instead, the two men declared a truce and went to her home for some breakfast.
Horn Spoon
Placing a bowl of porridge in front of Bruce, and one spoon, 
Mistress Sprotte stated that she wadna feed a Sassanach under her roof. Robert said, “Then go out and run roond the fields, for by the time I empty the dish, you may hae won mair land for your and yours, when I win a' of Scotland.” His hostess shot out the door, and it is a historical fact that later the Crown awarded twenty acres to her family, which they held for the next 500 years. One condition of that was, should a king of Scotland come that way, the Sprottes of the Mound would have a bowl of porridge ready for his eating!

May you discern the true meaning of the riddles in your life, whether or not you eat porridge!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. I have deleted the comments attached to this post because they had nothing whatever to do with it. I don't mind if you like or dislike what I write, and say so, but please don't use my writing for completely unrelated material. Thank you.


If you would like to comment on a particular post or my blog, please click below it in the window; you can then preview, click on a profile such as Anonymous, and add by clicking on "Publish." Thank you!