A discussion of what precipitated the Scottish Wars of Independence invariably begins with a story of the untimely death of King Alexander III of Scotland—probably because it’s a good one.
One dark and stormy night (March 19, 1286) Alexander makes an impulsive decision that will impact the future of his kingdom in a way he could never have imagined. Anxious to return to his new young bride, the (randy) forty-year-old king ignores the advice of his companions and braves the fury of the storm. When he subsequently falls off a cliff and dies, he leaves Scotland without a direct male heir. The crown was to go to his young granddaughter “the Maid of Norway,” but disaster strikes again when the six-year-old girl dies on her journey to Scotland in 1290, leaving the throne up for grabs.
At one point there are fourteen claimants for the crown of Scotland (see a list and family tree here). The two with the best claim were Robert the Bruce (known as “The Competitor,” the grandfather of the future king) and John Balliol. Balliol had the better claim from a strict primogeniture standpoint, but Bruce was a generation closer “in blood.”
To prevent a civil war between these two powerful families, the guardians of the realm (basically the interim government), invite King Edward I to arbitrate. This was akin to inviting the proverbial fox to watch the chicken coop. Edward arranges for a court to be set up with 104 auditors who eventually decide in Balliol’s favor. King John is anointed king in 1292, but his reign would prove be a troubled one and—thanks to Edward who’d asserted himself as his overlord—lacking in authority. A virtual puppet king, King John earns the derisive nickname of “Toom Tabard” (interpreted as empty coat or jacket).
In 1297, King John attempts to assert some control by renouncing his homage to Edward. But the English king quickly strikes back at Berwick-upon-Tweed and then defeats the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar. King John is forced to abdicate for himself and his son, leaving the gate open for his nephew John “The Red” Comyn, Lord of Badenoch.
In that same year, William Wallace begins his heroic “risings,” using revolutionary military tactics that Bruce will adapt to even greater success later. After a series of small skirmishes, Wallace hands the English a momentous defeat at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11, 1297.
Wallace is named Guardian of Scotland. But a year after Stirling Bridge he suffers defeat at the Battle of Falkirk. He resigns as Guardian in favor of Robert the Bruce and John “The Red” Comyn. Nominally (at least in Bruce’s case) supporting the absent King John, the rivals are eventually joined by William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews. Not surprisingly, the joint guardianship doesn’t last. By 1302 Bruce has resigned and made his peace with Edward. By 1304, under threat of English invasion, Comyn, too, makes his peace with the English king. Edward’s peace, however, did not extend to William Wallace. In 1305, Wallace is captured and killed in a particularly gruesome manner. If you’ve seen Braveheart, you get the gist.
So fifteen years after the death of the Maid of Norway, we are right back where we started: Edward asserting control and a struggle between the rival Bruce and Comyn/Balliol factions. No one knows what precipitated the violence, but on the February 10, 1306, Robert Bruce stabbed John “The Red” Comyn before the high altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, setting off the rebellion that would eventually make him king and win Scotland’s independence.
The Highland Guard series spans this important period in Scotland’s history, opening with the death of Wallace in 1305 and ending with the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where Bruce’s defeat of Edward II wins Scotland’s de facto independence from England (although the English would not concede this point until the signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328).
The years between Bruce’s crowning and Bannockburn can be loosely separated into five periods: the fight for survival, the battle with England, the battle with Scotland’s nobles (civil war), the battle for the borders (border raids), and the recovery of Scotland’s castles still garrisoned by the English. These periods provide the inner framework for the Highland Guard series.
The first book, The Chief, centers on Bruce’s decision to make his bid for the crown and ends with his coronation. The Hawk is about Bruce’s fight for survival, seeing him flee Scotland, taking refuge in the Western Isles, and ultimately winning his crown back by a series of military defeats over the English (aided by the timely death of King Edward I). The Ranger focuses on Bruce’s battle to win Scotland’s nobles and vanquish his enemies (namely the Comyns, MacDowells and MacDougalls).
How Bruce went from “usurper,” to outlaw, to one of Scotland’s greatest kings and heroes is an amazing story of perseverance, ingenious military command, tragedy (Bruce lost three of four brothers, numerous friends, and saw his wife, daughter and sister—the later in a cage—imprisoned in England for years) and luck.
One of the keys to Bruce’s success was his adopting of the “guerilla” warfare tactics used by Wallace—what I call pirate tactics. Bruce was one of the greatest knights in Christendom and abandoning the code of chivalry for furtive tactics was a significant shift in the history of warfare, and one that could not have been made easily. The tension is illustrated by Bruce’s nephew, Sir Thomas Randolph, who justified his temporary defection to the English by accusing Bruce of fighting “like a brigand in stead of fighting a pitched battle as a gentleman should.” (see resources: Scott, Robert the Bruce, pg. 111)
But to defeat the superior forces of the heavy mounted English knights, Bruce understood that he needed to take away their advantage. As we learned in Vietnam, guerilla warfare does this. Bruce refused to meet the English in pitched battle until he was ready to do so at Bannockburn.
It seemed reasonable to me that if you want to fight like a pirate, you might look to the West Highland descendents of the greatest pirates of all—the Vikings. This is the genesis for the idea of the Highland Guard.
:: 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge (William Wallace defeats Edward I)
:: 1306 King Robert I (The Bruce) crowned
:: 1314 Battle of Bannockburn (Robert the Bruce defeats Edward II)
:: 1493 Lordship of Isles forfeited
:: 1513 Battle of Flodden Field (Invading Scots defeated by English)
:: 1542 Mary Queen of Scots born
:: 1543 Mary crowned
:: 1557 John Knox begins Reformation
:: 1567 Mary Queen of Scots abdicates to her son James VI
:: 1587 Mary Queen of Scots beheaded
:: 1587 General Band
:: 1592 Bonnie Earl of Moray murdered
:: 1594 Battle of Glenlivet (Huntly defeats Argyll)
:: 1597 Chiefs must provide charters for their land
:: 1603 Battle of Glenfruin (MacGregors defeat Colquhouns)
:: 1603 Union of the Crowns James VI of Scotland and James I of England
:: 1605 Guy Fawkes tries to blow up parliament
:: 1609 Statutes of Iona
:: 1625 Death of King James
:: 1692 Glencoe
:: 1746 Culloden
As mentioned in the Author’s Note of The Chief, Bruce did not have a “best of the best” Special Forces unit of Highlanders. But he did have a meinie or personal retinue, which included Robert Boyd, and other close cohorts like Christopher Seton, Alexander Fraser (Christina’s brother), Thomas Randolf, James Douglas, Edward Bruce and Neil Campbell. And in one of those serendipitous moments that sometimes happen in research, I found a mention of “Donald” son of Alistair (the inspiration for the hero in The Hawk) who led a chosen “warband” of Islemen appointed by Angus Og MacDonald to protect Robert the Bruce on his return to Scotland after taking refuge in the Isles in 1306.
What is also clear is that early on Bruce recognized the importance of the West Highlands. Indeed, at the seminal battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Bruce led a division of Highlanders and Islesmen against the English. Many of my “Highland Guard” were said to have fought along side him.
Bruce’s military genius might have made him king, but his recognition and ability to unify Scotland by forgiving his enemies made him a great one.
Summarizing a couple hundred years in a few paragraphs is perhaps doomed to gross over-simplification, but I think it’s useful to try to put the MacLeod trilogy in context of the major social and political shift that was taking place in the Highlands at the end of the 16th and into 17th Century—the period around the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England on the death of Elizabeth I.
In 1493 the Lordship of the Isles was forfeited to the crown, ushering in an era known as Linn nan Creach, the Age of Feuds and Forays, which ended around 1616-1620. The Lordship of the Isles represented the height of Gaelic political power and culture in Scotland. From the mid-fourteenth century until the forfeiture, the Lords of the Isles under the leadership of clan Donald effectively ruled a large part of the West and the Isles independent of the rest of Scotland. The chiefs basically obeyed the Scottish king at their pleasure. But with the forfeiture, the chiefs became tenants of the crown rather than vassals of clan Donald. The removal of the authority of clan Donald coupled with the weak central government and its inability to exercise control over the remote Highlands let loose the bloodshed and feuding from whence the era gets its name.
By the late 16th Century the “Highland problem” was coming to a head. Subduing the wild Highlands had become the fervent policy of King James VI, first by statute and then by colonization and coercion. Upon assuming full power in 1587, the king began to enact a series of laws intending to (1) curtail the power of the chiefs (2) strike at the heart of the Gaelic culture and (3) take control of clan lands.
The first of the major acts, the General Band in 1587, required the chiefs to provide surety for their clansmen and present themselves before the king every year in Edinburgh. In other words, in an effort to control the lawlessness of the Highlands, the king was holding the chiefs accountable for the unlawful deeds of their clansmen.
Ten years later, in 1597, in an effort to gain control of clan lands, the king ordered the chiefs to provide charters for their land—land that had been held by the clans for hundreds of years—with the deliberate intention of forfeiture. The king was convinced that the Highlands were an un-mined source of gold from which to fill his depleted coffers. This statute would also provide the foundation for his policy of colonization (which plays prominently in Highlander Unmasked).
In 1609, key Highland chiefs were kidnapped on a ship and held until they agreed to the king’s demands codified as the Statutes of Iona. The Statutes of Iona struck right at the heart of the Gaelic culture by proscribing many of the traditions of the clans. For example: restricting the number of guardsmen and birlinns, proscribing the bards, and ordering the chiefs sons to be educated in the lowlands. Although the Statutes were not immediately adhered to, by 1616 the Privy Council had made it policy. The Statutes were the beginning of the attempt to eradicate Gaelic culture which we would see brought nearly to fruition over a hundred years later following the Highlanders defeat at Culloden.
Although Lowlanders might grudgingly admire the Highlander’s battle skills, the “wyld, wykkyd Heland-men” were thought of as “barbarous and evill disposit pepill.” (The latter quote is from an Act of Parliament.) The Highlands were largely viewed as a foreign place separate from the rest of Scotland. It is not surprising then that many of the laws focused on destroying this alien culture. Not only were there prohibitions on the number of birlinns, the number of fighting men, bards, sorning (the housing of fighting men by the clansmen) and calps (payment due a chief on death of clan member), but the heart of any culture—its language—was systematically eroded. By 1616 no heir would be allowed to inherit unless he could read, write and speak English. Eventually, after Culloden, speaking Gaelic would be banned.
The political shift was equally dramatic. Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries out of this period of unrest following the forfeiture of the Lordship were clan Campbell (under the head of the Earl of Argyll) who along with Clan Gordon acted as agents for the state at the expense of Clan Donald, the former Lords of the Isles. But behind this local shift in power from Clan Donald to Clan Campbell was the strengthening of the central government (the king)—especially with the Union of the Crowns and the king’s increased naval power—at the expense of the clan chief. By the end of the era, the “barbarian” Highland chiefs had begun to adopt more lowland ways and were much more willing to submit to the authority of the king, including a movement from feuds and warfare to paper—i.e. litigation.
The political and social tensions facing the Highland chiefs as they fought to hold their power and way of life are what drew me to this period. In the MacLeod trilogy, spanning the years 1599-1608, I tried to show a progression of these tensions. In Highlander Untamed, Rory MacLeod, Chief of MacLeod, is the powerful Highland chief chaffing at the restrictive bridle his king seeks to impose on him—even so, Rory largely ignores that he has been “put to the horn” (declared outlaw). By Highlander Unmasked Meg espouses what has become a reality—the waning power of chief against a stronger king who could no longer be ignored. The subject matter of Highlander Unmasked itself is the Highland struggle against King James’s efforts at colonization. By Highlander Unchained the king’s authority is more accepted. Highlander Unchained also explores the alien customs and way of life of the Highlands, as well as the perception of Highlanders as barbarians. Significantly, Lachlan Maclean of Coll would be one of the last generation of Highland chiefs who was unable to read or write in English. It was an end of an era indeed.
My second trilogy (spanning roughly 1606 to 1609) focuses on the shift in power to Clan Campbell and the growing influence of the Earl of Argyll. History has painted the Campbells, and Archibald the Grim, the 7th Earl of Argyll in particular, with a black brush. But the clan was a large one with numerous branches, and I suspect whether you reviled Argyll had something to do with whether your name was Campbell. Highland Warrior looks at the infamous feud with the MacGregors from the Campbell point of view and Highland Outlaw presents the MacGregor side. Highland Scoundrel focuses on the feud with the equally powerful Clan Gordon (headed by the Earl of Huntly). You can read more about Archibald the Grim in the special features section for Highland Warrior.
Some of Monica’s Favorite References:
» Alexander Nicolson, M.A., History of Skye, Maclean Press, 2001.
» I.F. Grant and Hugh Cheape, Periods in Highland History, Barnes and Noble Books, 1997.
» I.F. Grant, Highland Folk Ways, Birlinn Limited, 1997.
» John L. Roberts, Feuds, Forays and Rebellions, Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
» Julian Goodare, The Government of Scotland 1560-1625, Oxford University Press, 2004.
» Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Penguin Classics, 1984.
» Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, Birlinn Limited, 2002.
» Hamish Haswell-Smith, The Scottish Islands, Canongate Books, Ltd. 2004.
» Elizabeth Craik, Marriage and Property, Aberdeen University Press, 1984.
» Keith M. Brown, Noble Society in Scotland: Wealth, Family and Culture from Reformation to Revolution, Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
» Edward H. Peck, The Battle of Glenlivet, Kall Kwik Leatherhead, 1994.
» Elizabeth Ewen and Maureen M. Meikle, Women in Scotland c. 1100-c.1750, Tuckwell Press, 2002.
» Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer, Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community, Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
» Evan MacLeod Barron, The Scottish War of Independence, Barnes and Noble, 1997.
» Ronald McNair Scott, Robert the Bruce: King of Scots, Barnes and Noble, 1993.
» G.W.S. Barrow, Robert Bruce, And the Community of the Realm of Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
» E.J. Cowan and R. Andrew McDonald, Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Medieval Era, Tuckwell Press, 2000.
» R. Andrew McDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland’s Western Seabord, c.1100-c.1336, Tuckwell Press, 2002.
» Donald Omand, The Argyll Book, Birlinn Limited, 2006.
» John Sadler, Scottish Battles From Mons Graupius to Culloden, Canongate Books, Ltd, 1998.
» Pete Armstrong, Bannockburn 1314: Robert Bruce’s Great Victory, Osprey Publishing, 2002.
» Michael Brown, Bannockburn: The Scottish War and the British Isles, 1307-1323, Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
» Michael Brown, The Wars of Scotland 1214-1371, Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
» I.F. Grant, The MacLeods, The History of a Clan, Faber and Faber Limited, 1959.
» Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, Murder Under Trust: The Crimes and Death of Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean of Duart 1558-1598, Tuckwell Press Ltd., 1999.
» Alastair Campbell, A History of Clan Campbell Volume 2, Edinburgh University Press, Ltd, 2002.
» Raymond Campbell Paterson, The Lords of the Isles, Birlinn Limited, 2001.
» Ronald Williams, The Heather and the Gale, House of Lochar, 1997.
» Oliver Thomson, The Great Feud, Sutton Publishing Limited, 2000.
» Ian Grimble, Clans and Chiefs, Birlinn Limited, 2000.
» Ronald Williams, Sons of the Wolf: Campbells and MacGregors and the Cleansing of the Inland Glens, House of Lochar, 1998.
» A.A.W. Ramsay, The Arrow of Glenlyon: The Life of Alasdair MacGregor of Glenstrae, a Highland Gentleman of the Sixteenth Century, John Murray, 1980.
» Ruairidh MacLeod, Building Dunvegan Castle, Halmac Publishing, 1993.
» Stuart Reid, Castle and Tower Houses of the Scottish Clans 1450-1650, Osprey Publishing, 2006.
» Martin Coventry, Castles of the Clans: The Strongholds and Seats of 750 Scottish Families and Clans, Goblinshead, 2008.
» Chris Tabraham, Scottish Castles and Fortifications, Historical Scotland, 2000.
» Keith Durham, Strongholds of the Border Reivers: Fortifications of the Anglo-Scottish Border 1296-1603, Osprey Publishing, 2008.
» Michael Brown, Scottish Baronial Castles 1250-1450, Osprey Publishing, 2009.
Clothing & Weaponry
» Herbert Norris, Tudor Costume and Fashion, Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.
» H.F. McClintock, Old Highland Dress and Tartans, Dundalgan Press, 1949.
» Matthew A.C. Newsome, Early Highland Dress, Scotpress, 2003.
» Tobias Capwell, The Real Fighting Stuff: Arms and Armour at Glasgow Museums, Glasgow City Council (Museums), 2007.
» James Drummond, Ancient Scottish Weapons and Highland Targe Shields, www.scotpress.com, electronic copyright 2004.
» www.rampantscotland.com (great source for information about the western isles with links to most isle sites)
» www.ordinancesurvey.co.uk (These maps cannot be beat—amazing detail!)
» www.rps.ac.uk (records of Parliament)
» www.ltscotland.org.uk/scottishhistory/middleages/medievallife/index.asp (good basics)
» www.geograph.org.uk/ (goal to photograph every inch of UK!)