Spring Break Diaries: Days 12-14, the Borders and the Lake District

[Warning: this post is filled with stories of Scottish and English History]

[Warning: it is SUUUUUPPPPER long]

                -feel free to skip through and read what interests you

My next stop on my tour of Britain was the Borders and the Lake District. This tour would take me to places of great inspiration where some of the greatest writers, poets, and artist have come and lived, and I would follow their footsteps to see what they saw and feel what they might have felt.

I once again booked this tour through Rabbie’s, but this time it departed out of Edinburgh. The tour included: Steve the funny Scottish tour guide, Neal the English guide (there to help and keep Steve from picking on the English), a sweet retired couple from Texas, and a woman on tour from Switzerland. The cast was set and we were off.

Day 1

Our guide loved to tell stories and as we left Edinburgh he told us the abridged but more accurate version of William Wallace, Freedom Fighter, not the one Mel Gibson told in Braveheart. Little is known about the beginnings of William Wallace’s life so I don’t know how accurate this story is until the Battle of Sterling Bridge.

The Story of William Wallace

William Wallace was born into a wealthy family by 13th century standards. That pretty much meant that his family owned land and animals. He never knew his mother for she died in child birth, so he grew up with his brothers and fathers. The English were invading and wrestling for control of Scotland, and William’s brothers and father left to fight and defend. Sadly they never return and young William is left alone, orphaned and a seed of hatred for the English begins to take root in his heart.

William’s uncle then comes but he already has an heir, so as the spare William is sent to Dundee to take the cloth and become a priest.  William already belonged to the top 1% of his time, and in his studies through the church he learned to read, write, and speak four languages. He not only was one of the most privileged but also one of the most learned men of his time. For the majority of his adult life William Wallace is a priest. He stood above most men figuratively and literally. Legend holds that Wallace was 7ft tall, and most men of the time were 4ft 11in (they figured this based on his sword which was measured at 6ft 6in). Soon he was approached to join the Knights Templar and this is where William learns to fight.IMG_0827

One day when he is sparring William lands a punch on his opponent, but the strength of this giant is too great and the man is killed. William, a priest and man of God, had just committed murder. He is forced to leave and give up his profession; he is set adrift.  Then he meets Mary. Mary is a beautiful girl and love springs between the two. They wed and soon she is pregnant. Life is now good for William. He has a home and wife and a child on the way. So when the weather is ideal he leaves his home to go to a nearby loch to fish. On one such occasion he is coming home with his catch when two English soldiers appear on the road. The English had instilled a strong military presence in Scotland. The two soldiers ask about the fish and William points them in the direction of the loch, but the soldiers want William’s already caught fish. William had a choice to make to give up his dinner or fight. Well he wasn’t about to give anything of his to the English and so they fought.  During this fight William kills one of the Englishmen but the other gets away, and William is full of dread because killing an English solider is an act of treason; it is like an act against the King himself. To protect his family and life William heads north to hide. The sheriff and soldiers are unable to find him, so the sheriff resorts to the next best thing. Instead of finding William Wallace he will force William to return. The sheriff then captures the pregnant Mary and proceeds to torture, defile, and humiliate her until her spirit is completely broken and she is just an empty shell. He then drags Mary by the hair to the front of the village and gathers all of the people, finally he proceeds to speak loudly and tell graphically of all the atrocities he had performed and had others perform to her. Once this is done and the villagers look on, horrified, as the sheriff takes a knife and slits Mary’s throat.

Once Wallace hears of this his anger erupts. His hatred for the English reaches new heights, his vision turns red, and he vows to slay all of the English. His friends try to hold him back from his rampaging but Wallace is too strong; finally they resort to tying him to a tree for two days. Once Wallace’s anger is no longer blindly controlling him they release him from the tree. Wallace then gathers fifty men and trains them to fight. Wallace leadsIMG_1359 his band and massacres the English soldiers in the village. The sheriff sees the river of red English blood and throws himself at Wallace’s feet to beg for his life, but Wallace will show no mercy to the villain who slew his wife and unborn child. William Wallace gives the sheriff a painful death by slowly lowering him into a vat of boiling oil.

Once word of this reaches the English king, Edward I, he sends a cavalry of 300 strong and 10,000 foot soldiers to exterminate this nuisance of a rebellion. While the Scots had gathered 36 horsemen and 8000 foot soldiers. They would meet for battle at dawn; this is the first battle in the War of Independence, the Battle of Sterling Bridge. Wallace watches from the top of a hill as the English army slowly and carefully cross the wooden bridge to only to find themselves trapped on marshy ground. The Scots surrounded and cut off the bridge as an escape route and attacked the trapped Englishmen. Edward’s army was forced into the deep waters of the river and in one hour the Scots had cut down the English. The commander of the English army set the wooden bridge on fire to keep the Scots from following as they made their retreat. This great victory led to the outlaw, William Wallace, to becoming ‘Commander of the Army of the Kingdom of Scotland’, Wallace was now knighted and the Guardian of Scotland. The Scots are victorious and more men pick up arms to join the revolution, but Edward is furious and begins to lay waste to Scottish towns and villages. The nobility are united behind Edward and in the summer of 1298, King IMG_1387Edward marches his massive army counting well over 13,000 toward Wallace and the Scots at Falkirk. The Scots were grossly outnumbered, out classed, and under armed compared to the Edward’s army but they held their ground. (This is the famous battle scene from Braveheart.) The Scots formed schiltrons to stop the cavalry and the Welsh refused to attack. But when the Scottish nobles should have joined the fight, they turned on rode away, abandoning the battlefield. The English had a powerful new weapon, the longbow, and it was deadly. The iron-tipped arrows rained down and pierced through chainmail and armor. The Scots were falling and Edward sent in his knights to finish them off. Wallace managed to escape the carnage but the uprising was hacked into pieces.

Edward hated Wallace, whom had managed to defy him at every turn. A large price was put on Wallace’s head and an order was sent to the Scottish nobles to deliver Wallace to him. And on August 3, 1305 Wallace was captured and paraded, bound hand and foot, to London. Wallace was tried for murder and treason (which he denied for he never swore allegiance to Edward) and was to be given a traitor’s death- hung, drawn, and quartered. A huge jeering crowd surrounded Wallace as he was dragged through the muddy streets. He was hung four times, but still lived. He was then strapped down and disemboweled, but he still lived (barely). Wallace died by suffocation before his head was cut off. His arms and legs were sent to Scotland as a demonstration to the price of treason and his head was impaled on a pike above London Bridge. Wallace’s death sent a different message than what Edward intended. Instead of fear the Scots felt defiance and anger, and the story of William Wallace would move them to further their campaign for independence.


We arrived at our first stop, Sir Walter Scott’s favorite view and the first William Wallace monument. Scott is one of the most celebrated Scottish writers and in Edinburgh has the largest monument for an author dedicated to him. Everyday Scott would ride his horse to IMG_0823this view and sit there for twenty minutes and take it in. Famously, during his funeral procession, his horse led a thousand people and stopped at this view for twenty minutes where no one could budge him and all of these people were forced to wait. Then a little further down the road is a pathway. If you take this pathway and hike for a few minutes you will come across a large statue. The statue is of Wallace and is hidden and disguised (a bit like a Roman solider) so as not to cause trouble from the English. There you can sign a book, like a geocache, or write a note. I just signed my name and dated it but there were some funny messages, phrases, and thoughtful notes.

Our next destination for day one was Jedburgh for a coffee and restroom stop, but mostly to see Queen Mary of Scots’ home.  It is free to walk inside and see the gardens. They have on view Mary’s death mask, her letters, and many important documents that influenced the course of her life and death. Like much of Scottish and English history the story of Queen Mary puts to shame the drama filled soap operas on day television.

A Bit of Mary’s Story

Almost from the day she is born Mary is the Queen. Her father, James V, died when she was just six days old. King Henry VIII wanted to engage Mary to his son Edward, but this was denied and for most of her life Mary is prosecuted by the English for they fear her claim to their throne. Mary was raised in the French court and married the heir to the throne. She became the queen of two nations, and became an even larger threat to the Tudors. When her husband died Mary returned to Scotland, but the Protestant influence had grown and the Calvinist preacher, John Knox, despised the beautiful, Catholic queen. To help keep the peace within her country Mary decides that her next husband will be Protestant, and marries her first cousin, Lord Henry Stewart. He is an English noble and also shares Tudor blood, so that if Mary decided to go after the English throne she would have a strong claim. The current queen, Elizabeth I, was seen by many (especially Catholics) as illegitimate and they wished to see Mary crowned both Queen of Scots and England. With this marriage Mary would find her doom.IMG_0850

There are many speculations on the events that next occurred but popular opinion is that Mary was involved in the murder of her second husband. This is what I was told on how events unfolded.

Mary is pregnant with the future king and her husband sees his power slipping away. He is jealous and angry when Mary won’t give him the right to succeed if she died without issue, and when Mary is entertaining her Italian secretary, David Rizzo, (who was also Catholic and disliked by the Protestants for they suspected him of being a papal agent) her husband storms in. He accuses Mary of adultery and famously drags Rizzo through Holyrood Palace and proceeds to have his cohorts stab Rizzo 56 times in front of Mary’s eyes while he holds her down.  Not yet done he beats Mary and almost kills her and their child all in the hope that she will miscarry so he can be king. But Mary survives. She realizes that to protect the life of her child that she must stop her husband, so she turns to the Scottish lords and James Hepburn, a Scotsman. Mary agreed to the plan to assassinate Henry as long as it couldn’t be traced back to her. Her husband though fell ill and Mary went to him. She wouldn’t let him near their newborn son but restated her commitment to him and left for a friend’s wedding. In the early hours of morning, a huge explosion brought down the lodgings Henry was staying in. Henry’s body was found dead in an adjacent orchard, unmarked by the explosion with only a clock, dagger, rope, and chair at the scene. Who really planned the murder and took part is unsolved, but popular opinion of the day laid blame on James as the chief murderer and Mary as his accomplice. Scandalously, three months after the death of husband number two, Mary married James Hepburn, her last husband. In one version James was already her lover and Mary was fulfilling her promise by marrying him and in another James abducts Mary without her consent and rapes her to rob her any alternative but marriage. An infuriated coalition of Protestant and Catholic nobles confronts the new couple and Mary is forced to abdicate her throne to her infant son and James flees the country (he later dies insane in a Danish debtor’s prison). Mary tries to seek sanctuary but none is found and she is imprisoned for 19 years by the English before the order is given to behead her for treason. Mary was an unwilling bystander that became trapped in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, which led to her execution (Queen Elizabeth was reluctant to give the execution order for her cousin). Mary was never allowed to see her son again, and he was raised to show little care towards his mother. On his mother’s death he wrote Elizabeth I but raised no complaints. He was aware that Elizabeth had no heirs and that with her death he would gain the English throne. Mary’s death at the executioner’s block is a grisly tale, and is something fit for Game of Thrones. Mary asked for a French executioner and priest, but was denied both. Instead a nervous gardener with an axe stepped to the block. He missed Mary’s neck multiple times hitting IMG_0848her shoulders and back, causing her great pain and massive amounts of spraying blood. It was not a clean death. When he finally hit her neck the axe got stuck half way and he has to sawed it the rest of the way through. When the deed was done they picked up her head by her mass of red hair for it only to fall to the ground and roll surprising everyone and making the gardener faint. This happened because Mary suffered from baldness and had been wearing a wig. But as Mary said her death was her beginning because in 1603 James VI was crowned James I of England, uniting two nations. He later had his mother moved to be buried in Westminster Abbey among other monarchs and she rests besides Elizabeth I.


By now we were at the border. I had my feet in two places, one in England and the other in Scotland. This border stop was interesting; for one, it had great views but there was no welcome to England sign and the English flag had been taken down. On the other hand, IMG_0862the Scotland welcome sign was huge. The background was an image of their flag and colorful stickers covered it. Also on the Scottish side was the Scotland flag waving in the wind, a bright yellow ice cream truck, and a piper playing away. There was on the English side a sign welcoming visitors to Northumberland though.

The Story of the Scottish Flag

In AD 832 (before England and Scotland become a countries), Pictish King Angus II was going into battle to defend the small nation of Alba (Scotland) against one of the largest and mightiest Anglo-Saxon territories, Northumberland. The army of Angles and Saxons are led by King Aethelstans and they are hungry for Alba’s land. The Picts are largely outnumbered and they stare across the field they know that they face certain defeat. The IMG_0861night before the battle King Angus has a vision. The patron saint of Scotland, Saint Andrew, appears before him and Angus is promised triumph in the upcoming battle. The next morning Angus tells his troops of this vision, but it is almost impossible to believe with the terrible odds that are stacked against them. Then a sign sent from Heaven comes. In the clearest, bright blue sky you can imagine two white clouds come together to form a Saltire cross. With the blessing of Saint Andrew, Angus’ army is invigorated and become an unstoppable force with an iron will. They win the battle and defend their land. And a flag is born.


We are now past the border and on to Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda. When the Romans set up camp in Britain they like many others in history tried to conquer Scotland or as it IMG_0898was called at the time, Caledonia, but they couldn’t break past. When Hadrian became emperor he ordered a wall to be built to mark the line where civilization ends and separate them from these savages. The wall was five meters tall and ran coast to coast (80 imperial miles). It matches almost perfectly to the current border line and there are sections that you can still see, touch, and walk along. Not too far from one part of Hadrian’s Wall is an excavation site, Vindolanda.  The site is currently being excavated (the largest excavation site in Great Britain) and you can volunteer and take part in the new discoveries they find (this only happens April-September) or watch the archeologists work. It is the most extensive Roman fort and settlement along Hadrian’s Wall. You can see and walk through the ruins of the military buildings, stores, shops, houses, and two bath houses. They also have a museum on site that showcases many artifacts that they have found including a treasure trove of writing tablets.

We had a few more stops, like Hartside Pass (the Rooftop of England) in Cumbria that reaches a height of 1904ft and offers views across Solway Firth to Scotland. At the top of this hill, where there is nothing around but a nice little café you can stop, rest, and grab a piece of cake at. We then arrived in the Lake District and stopped in Keswick where we would be staying for the next two nights. IMG_0942

Day 2

I stayed at the Yew Tree Inn, a pretty B&B that is run by the sweetest couple and is known IMG_0954for its legendary (so large you can’t possibly finish it) English breakfast. Instead of black pudding they offer mushrooms and it comes with local bacon, sausage, eggs, toast, tomatoes, and beans in an incredibly large serving. I couldn’t even finish half and the next morning I just opted for poached eggs on toast.

Just a very short drive away was our first stop, a stone circle called Castlerigg. It is one of the earliest (3000 BC in the Neolithic period) stone circles in Britain well predating Stonehenge and Avebury. When I imagine a stone circle and what it was used for, I imagine a place that is filled with mystery and casts a magical atmosphere. Castlerigg sits high on a hill surrounded by dramatic panoramic views that have the mountains of Helvellyn and High Seat creating a backdrop. Then the mists roll in making the site a perfect setting for something you would IMG_0957see out of the movies, after many special effects. You don’t see this at Stonehenge. The site is free and hardly anyone visits, so you get an unobstructed view. You are also allowed to walk up and touch the stones, and on some you can even find old Viking runes carved in it. What is also really cool is that if you pull out a compass it will be perfectly aligned because the circle is located on a magnetic line.


What is funny about the Lake District is that like Scotland there in only one lake. In Scotland they are lochs, but because the Vikings were the ones to name them they all are meres or waters. One such place is Ullswater, our next stop.  Here we did a bit of hiking to see a 60 foot waterfall and along the way there were Monkey Puzzle trees (where the leaves look like bananas), money trees (where since Victorian times people hammered in coins into the bark of trees for luck and as an offering to the Fae), and Faery chairs (these were surprisingly comfortable and our guide called them the Circle for the Council of Elva).IMG_0971

As you drive through the Lake District or really anywhere in Great Britain you see dry stone walls everywhere. There is about 250,000 miles it covering the country side, the distance we are from the moon. They are built in a pyramid style A frame and use no binding agent. The material used is the rocks farmers found in fields and nearby, and the reason why they are everywhere is because of a land act in 1860 that made farmers mark off their property. A building race began in order to claim as much land as possible and it is said that a good man could build six feet of wall in a day. The walls last about 100 years and don’t disturb the environment.

As we drove we went through Kirkstone Pass on our way to Grasmere an area made for tourism and home to the Beatrix Potter museum.


Ghost Story of Kirkstone Pass

It is 1850. A young and happy couple lives a peaceful life with their little baby boy when one winter morning news arrives. The wife receives word that her father is gravely ill and fearing for his life she takes her son to see him one last time before he passes to the next world. The husband is concerned because of the snow, but he cannot travel with them because he has work in the mines.

While the husband is busily working deep underground the weather worsens and a massive snowstorm brews. He doesn’t realize just how bad the weather had turned and by the time he heads for home it has cleared. A week passes when he hears a knock at the front door. He hurriedly goes to answer it thinking it is his wife when to his surprise he finds his father-in-law hale and hearty. His father-in-law asks to see his daughter and grandson, but the husband says that he thought they were with him. Horror dawns and a search party is quickly sent out. The party shouts and digs through the snow but nothing, not a sight or trace is found. The husband and father-in-law break down in despair and cry with anguish when then in the distance they hear a baby’s cry. They follow the sound to a small cave blocked in by snow, and drop to their knees to start clearing the entrance. There on the floor they find a healthy baby swaddled in layers of clothes and next to him IMG_0980lies his mother, stark naked and blue with cold and death. The mother knew that there was no escape from the storm and to give her child his best chance she wrapped him in all of her clothes and used her body heat so that he might survive. When winter comes the next year the villagers claim to see a naked woman out in the cold warning those outside that a storm is coming. Today she is known in the area as the White Witch of the Pass who will come to protect and guide those lost in storms.


In Grasmere there are a lot of cute little shops, as there are in any lakeside tourist town. I grabbed lunch and enjoyed the nice weather and view of the lake.  Then I wandered around the town, looking in on the Beatrix Potter attractions and buying a delicious cone of cinder toffee ice cream. It was a relaxing stop that allowed us to just enjoy our surroundings.

The Tale of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter is best known for her children’s books like Peter Rabbit, but she is more than a beloved author.  Growing up she was incredibly introverted, she was so shy that her father took out of school and gave her a governess. And in this secluded environment she blossomed. Beatrix developed a love for nature and her governess encouraged her to get her stories published.

Beatrix stays hidden away from society, but she finds love in the letters written to her editor. They marry and she finds happiness, but then WWI comes and his life is snatched IMG_1369away. Beatrix joins the Red Cross and keeps supporting troops through the war. Then she returns home to the Lake District. There she finds that the Hardwick Sheep is becoming a dying breed and she becomes their champion, saving them from extinction, and they now roam all over the hills of the Lake District. She also works to preserve the landscape by working to set up the first national park in the United Kingdom (the Lake District is the first of 10). She finds love again later in life and marries, but WWII comes and she contracts TB. In her will she asked for her ashes to be scattered out into nature, in the places she loved most. She was a great woman, scientist, conservationist, and beloved author.  She is an fascinating woman to read about and there is a film based on her life that is good too.


We drove around Grasmere and made two other stops, both of them at homes of William Wordsworth. I was able to walk around his home and garden overlooking the lake and IMG_1101mountains. His home at Rydal Park was a bit different from others of his time because the ground floor had an open floor plan that allowed for a lot of natural light to stream in from the windows overlooking the garden. My favorite part of the inside was being able to go into his attic study where he spent much time writing. The garden was also wonderful and was the epitome of an English garden in spring. At the top of the garden is a little hut where he would sit and pace and gain inspiration. It is also believed that this is the spot that he wrote I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. Right below the hut is a field and it is named after his daughter Dora. Dora was always sickly and after her death he and his Wife Mary (they were well into their 80s) planted 77 daffodils on the hill for her remembrance.

The next Wordsworth cottage we stopped at was called Dove Cottage. This felt older, IMG_1094darker, and more cramped than the other one. In fact, the small first home of William and Mary and housed: Wordsworth’s family, his sister’s family, Coleridge’s family, and guests. In a little room above the buttery was where all of the children stayed. The space was small, so small that I don’t know how a twin bed could fit, let alone five children. Dorothy, the sister, found the small room cold, so in order to insulate it she glued newspapers all over the walls and the originals lasted until 1975. Along with going in Dove Cottage there is Wordsworth museum. I found myself at the arts and craft table spending too much time making water color paintings and writing a letter with a quill. When I left my fingertips were no longer recognizable they were so stained. Also in the town of this village is a gingerbread store that comes highly recommended and we were told that it is just fabulous. I didn’t personally have time to wander over but one of the passengers was kind and bought some for everyone to try. The gingerbread was very spicy but it got sweeter with each bite. Also since we entered the Lake District we had made a bet with our Scottish tour guide, if he called one of the lakes a loch we would get free ice cream. Now he was doing a really good job. The English guide lasted about 30 seconds on day one before he said loch, but the Scotsman was on top of it. Then when the day was almost over he said the magic word and we all got ice cream. Yay!

Day 3

Today was the last day in the Lake District and we were saying goodbye to Keswick. Before we left we went down to Windermere and took photos. The weather had been sunny up until now, but today was the day it would rain most of the way back to Edinburgh.


Our first stop was at Boulder Stone. It was a small pebble when compared to the mountain that it used to be part of in the Ice Age. But from where I stood it looked bigger than the IMG_1238house that landed on the Wicked Witch of the East. It stands alone with no trees or anything all that close to it and you can see the chalk marks that are left from rock climbers who free climb it. I did the sensible thing and took a steady ladder to the top. I have no idea how people could climb it because it is almost polished completely smooth from years of people rubbing it and sliding off it. At the bottom, if you wish, you and a friend can lie on the ground and actually reach under theIMG_1243 rock and touch each other’s hands. Once again I did the sensible thing and didn’t try this. Mostly because there was a little lake of mud and I was not inclined to spend my day wet and dirty. Also by the boulder is an upright with a perfect hole straight through it. The hole lets in the ray of the sun and is aligns itself between two mountain peaks.

The next stopping point was at Honister Slate Mine. This is the wettest spot in England and if the mist isn’t too thick you can see the tallest mountain in England, Scafell Pike. Many ambitious climbers will partake in the three day challenge where in three days they climb Bin Ness (Scotland’s tallest mountain), Scafell Pike (England’s tallest mountain), IMG_1278and Snowdon (Wales’ tallest mountain). I have now seen all three but I don’t think that I will ever do the three day challenge. I found the four park challenge at Disney World tiring enough.

We then headed down to Buttermere where we stopped for pictures of the crystal like lake that gave an almost perfect reflection of the sky and mountains. We made a lot of scenic stops like this along the way for photo ops. Such stops were at Crummock Water where we walked into a sheep’s pasture and came back on the bus smelling a bit like a barn, Loweswater, and Bassenthwaite Lake.


Our stop for lunch was at the English border town of Penrith where I grabbed fish &chips. And then our guide began to play some bagpipes over the speaker system in bus as we made our entrance back into Scotland.

History of the Bagpipes

Two thousand years ago, back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome an instrument much like the bagpipe was used in battle, much like drums are. The bagpipe found its way North and became firmly established in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. In Italy there are players who play the Zampogna, which is like Northumbrian small pipes. IMG_0989As their popularity spread for war marches and folk music they found their way to the British Isles. Where the Great Highland Bagpipe developed in Scotland and became what we all think of today when we hear the word. Some believe that the bagpipes found their way here as early as the settling of the Romans in the British Isles. The first mention of a bagpipe in Scotland is in 1314 from the Battle at Bannockburn where the Menzies claim to hold the remnants, but the instrument does not appear in written lore until 100 years later. Bagpipes found strong footing in Scotland in the 1700s when varying types began to appear.


Our last stop before we reached Edinburgh was Moffat. Here you can find the shortest IMG_1407street in Scotland (shorter than a van) and the narrowest hotel in Scotland. We pretty much used it for a rest stop. We were only an hour or so away and had time for one more story and it is one of Scotland’s most important ones, that of Robert the Bruce and James the Black Douglas. This version may not be entirely accurate but it was the way we were told and it made a good story. (I also did a lot of fact checking for all of the stories so they run more towards how events actually transpired.)

The True Braveheart, Robert the Bruce, and his Loyal Friend, James the Black Douglas

The gruesome death of William Wallace was supposed to stop the uprising Scots, but it had the opposite effect. The banner for Scotland’s freedom was picked up and the fight continued. There was a problem within Scotland though; there was no king to unite the clans. Two men were crowned as the guardians of Scotland, Robert the Bruce and John ‘Red’ Comyn. They were just one step from kingship and both had equal claim to the IMG_1195throne.  And they both wanted the title. Infighting began among the clans and the English took advantage. As these two men plotted, Bruce intercepts a letter meant for John Comyn and he demands a meeting on the borders. They meet in a church and bring their best knights, one being the Black Douglas, the greatest warrior in Scotland. Bruce lays out a deal to Comyn; he will offer Comyn his lands and titles if John Comyn kneels before him and claims Bruce his king.  There is not much for Comyn to ponder over for his pride is too great for him to ever bend on knee before a lowlander like the Bruce. Comyn pulls out a knife and attempts to kill Bruce in the House of God. A fight to the death and for the kingship ensues. The racket they cause sends the priest rushing out to see what the commotion is, and he is infuriated with the sight before him and damns the fighting lords. Comyn is distracted by this announcement and with an opening Bruce’s dagger finds its mark and Comyn is dead. The priest is shocked and stares at Bruce with condemning eyes and tells him that for murdering a man in the House of God he will receive a fate worse than death; he will be banned from the gates of Heaven, excommunication.  The severity of his deeds weigh mightily on the Bruce, with this he cannot be king. The Bruce exits alone and is attacked by Comyn’s men. Another battle commences and only two still stand, the Black Douglas and Bruce. The Black Douglas realizes that there is no other candidate for the throne and before word can spread of IMG_1321Bruce’s excommunication he rushes Bruce to be crowned. So at the Stone of Destiny, John the Black Douglas, crowns his king; but he is only a knight and the crowning was not official. The Black Douglas then escorts Isabel of Fife, married to John Comyn, Earl of Bunchan, to crown the Bruce again (Isobel’s family line had the right to inaugurate the kings of Scots). For six weeks the Bruce is king, then a letter from the Pope is spread and nailed in every town and parish, condemning the Bruce and all who follow him. A civil war begins. Through this civil war the Black Douglas teaches Bruce how to be a warrior, leader, and great king. When the civil war ends, the Bruce has united the Scots behind him to exterminate the English from their land. He has become a king of legend and his knight, the Black Douglas stands loyally behind him. For years they fight, taking back their homeland when all that is left is Sterling. For six months neither side is able to advance, they are in stalemate. Bruce and Edward II (by this time his father King Edward I has died) parlay. The battle will be decided by who holds Sterling, and the victor takes all. This meant that if the Scots won the English would all be sent back across the border, every soldier all over the country would have to leave; but if the English won they would have control of Scotland and the rebellion would be at an end. Edward’s army greatly outnumbers that of Bruce’s, but the Bruce has a strategy. He will torch the land the English march on so that the army will have no food, and he will poison all the wells so IMG_1399that they will have no water, and he will raise fortresses to the ground so they will have no place for defense. An English military war machine of 2,000 horses and 25,000 infantry, the largest force to ever invade Scotland, had arrived at Bannockburn; while the Scots numbered 6,000. The English might have been tired and haggard, but their forces were overwhelming. The Bruce had another plan. He had chosen Bannockburn for the natural obstacles surrounding it. He planned for a defensive encounter, the ground was soft and boggy and hidden pits were dug to break up cavalry charges.

The battle opened with an individual contest. Sighting a group of Scots in the wood, the English charged. An English Knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, caught sight of Robert Bruce. If Bohun killed or captured Bruce he would be a celebrated hero, songs would be sung of him and his chivalry, he would have glory. Spurring his warhorse he charged for the King of Scots. He lowered his lance as he bore down, but Bruce saw him. The king was now an experienced warrior and met the charge. The Bruce dodged the lance and raised his battle axe high, and with one powerful swing, he brought the axe down on de Bohun’s helmet splitting it open and striking him dead. The with the strength of the Scots’ king laid bare before their eyes, the Scots rose up with a battle cry and their strength increased tenfold as they met the English in battle. The Scots won the day and their morale was at its peak while the English’s was low. The next morning, at dawn, the Bruce made a speech invoking the power of Saint Andrew, John the Baptist and Thomas Beckett.

“At these words, the hammered horns resounded, and the standards of war were spread out in the golden dawn.” –Walter Bower

An abbot walked among the mass of Scots and blessed them as they knelt in prayer. The Scots would either win or die, they asked mercy only from God, for they would not flee nor fear death. The battle began again with a hail of arrows. The English found themselves hemmed in, and in the center of the filed a ferocious hand to hand combat between knights and spearmen hung in the balance. The Bruce joined the melee with his own warriors and the English were driven back. Edward II fled the battle field and was pursued by the Black Douglas, until he made it safely to his ship. The Scots had won! This battle was a turning point in the Wars of Independence that would last another 14 years.

Captured English lords were exchanged for the Bruce’s imprisoned wife and daughter, but a long fight still lay ahead for Scotland. Robert the Bruce and King Edward II both vied for the support of the Pope, but with the death of Comyn the Pope had turned his back on Bruce, his lieutenants, bishops, and all who followed him. Two years after the Battle of Bannockburn on April 6, 1320 Robert Bruce sent the Pope one of the most important letters in history, the Declaration of Arbroath. The excommunications were suspended but later confirmed, but this letter would shape nations, even the Declaration of Independence.

“We have been set free… by our most tireless prince, King and lord, the lord Robert… Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy… and make some other man who was well able to defend us our king… as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

In 1327 Edward II was murdered in captivity. The English made peace with the Scottish and renounced their claim, Bruce had won. In old age, the Bruce had fulfilled his mission, and he was dying. He called on his most loyal knight, James the Black Douglas, and made one last request. Robert tasked the Black Douglas with cutting out his heart and leading troops along with his heart into the Holy Wars, so that all of his sins would be forgiven. Two days later Robert the Bruce died and the Black Douglas does as was asked of him. The Black Douglas was older than Bruce, but he is like Achilles, the mightiest of all warriors, IMG_1201stronger than twenty men, a man who even death feared.  With a handful of troops he set off to Spain to fight the Moors with the heart of Robert the Bruce in a silver casket around his neck.

They joined King Alfonso XI of Castile in battle against the Sultan of Granada, Muhammed IV.  The knights they were with marveled at the famous Black Douglas for his face was unscarred from battle unlike theirs. At Teba they fought. The Moors feigned retreat pulling the Scots away from the Castilians, but when Douglas looked back he saw that his friend Sir William St Clair was surrounded. The Black Douglas turned and charged to St Clair’s aid, but found himself in the middle of a circle of Moors. He took the silver casket containing the heart of his friend and king and threw it into the thick of battle shouting, “Now pass thou onward before us, as thou wast wont, and I will follow thee or die.” All but two Scotsmen died on the battle field, the lone survivors allowed to live to tell those at home of the horrible loss that occurred. James the Black Douglas’ body was found in the middle of a large group of slain Moors and in his hand was the heart of Robert the Bruce. Muhammed IV and the Moors were so moved with the incredible determination and bravery of the Scots and Black Douglas when faced certain defeat that they sent their bodies and bones back to King Alfonso with a guard of honor. The remaining two Scots cut out their friend’s hearts and boiled down their bodies to take the knights’ bones and hearts back to Scotland.

The struggle for freedom that William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and James the Black Douglas fought shaped Scotland into a proud nation that would not allow itself to be repressed. And they were free.


This marks the end of the Spring Break Diaries, but not the end of my travels for April.


Helpful Hint: One of the greatest parts of studying abroad is that you learn so many new things about the culture, history, and people of the country you are visiting. I found it helpful to keep a journal to record notes and impressions I had on my adventures abroad. This is the best souvenir that I will bring home.