The Black Douglas or Good Sir James Douglas was a staunch ally of Robert the Bruce. He became a skilled and battle-hardened knight, known for his courage and his ferocity.
James Douglas was born in 1286. The young James was sent to safety in Paris. His father, Sir William Douglas the Hardy, was a supporter of Wallace who died a prisoner in the Tower of London when his son was 12 years old. The Douglas lands were taken by Edward I and given to Robert Clifford. James Douglas became the squire of William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews. When Lamberton took Douglas to the English court in 1306 to petition for the return of his birthright Edward I reacted angrily and Douglas was forced to return to Scotland empty handed.
The 20-year-old Douglas met Robert the Bruce on the road near Moffat. Bruce had killed Red Comyn and was on his way to take the throne. Douglas offered to fight alongside Bruce. They fought a guerrilla war against Edward’s men and their own Scots enemies.
In 1307 Douglas harried the English forces in Douglasdale. His attack on the English garrison in his family seat, Douglas Castle, had become legendary.
Douglas and his men hid with the help of a local farmer until Palm Sunday. Most of the English soldiers left the castle to attend mass at the nearby church. With a cry of ‘Douglas! Douglas!’ the Scots attacked. The English soldiers that survived were dragged back to the castle’s cellar. There Douglas had them beheaded. Their heads were left atop a heap of broken wine casks and food stores. The gruesome pile was set alight and Douglas had the wells salted and poisoned with the bodies of dead horses as the castle burned.
The massacre became known as ‘the Douglas Larder’.
Douglas and small force took Roxburgh Castle in 1314. They crept up to the castle under cover of night and scaled the walls with rope ladders on hooks. The captured castle was ‘slighted’ so it could not be used in future by Edward’s men.
James Douglas fought alongside Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. Bruce made Douglas a ‘knight banneret’ (a knight who could lead men in battle under his own banner) on the morning of 24 June. After Bannockburn, Douglas cut a bloody swathe across the English border – burning crops and villages, and terrorising the local population. It is said that mothers in the north of England would sing to their children:
Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,
Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,
The Black Douglas shall not get ye.
To the English he was ‘Black Douglas’ - a terrible bogeyman. To the Scots he was the Good Sir James Douglas - a great lord who became one of the Bruce’s most trusted lieutenants.
When Bruce lay dying in 1329 he asked Douglas to take his heart on crusade. James Douglas and a handful of Scots knights took Bruce’s heart to Spain where Douglas died fighting the Moors at Teba. His bones and heart were returned to Scotland and buried at St Bride's Kirk, at Douglas, Lanarkshire.