The Bruce was born on 11 July 1274, probably in Turnberry Castle. He was descended from Scots, Gaelic and English nobility. His mother, Countess Marjorie of Carrick, was heir to a Gaelic earldom.
Robert’s grandfather, Robert Bruce ‘The Competitor’, was one of the claimants to the Scots throne. Bruce’s father, Robert de Brus of Annandale, fought in Wales for Edward I, was made governor of Carlisle Castle and fought on Edward’s side at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296. The Bruces refused to support John Balliol’s kingship and stayed close to Edward I. Balliol gave Bruce lands to the Comyns.
In 1298 Robert the Bruce became a guardian of Scotland alongside his great rival John ‘Red’ Comyn of Badenoch, and William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews. When Bruce and Comyn quarrelled Bruce resigned as guardian. In 1302 Bruce submitted to Edward I and returned ‘to the King’s peace’. Bruce married Elizabeth de Burgh.
Robert the Bruce’s father died in 1304. Bruce now had a viable claim to the throne. On 10 February 1306 Bruce met John Comyn of Badenoch at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. A fight broke out, daggers were drawn and Bruce killed Red Comyn by the altar. The Pope excommunicated Bruce but Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, absolved him and made plans for Bruce to quickly take the throne. On 27 March 1306, Isobel of Fife, Countess of Buchan, crowned Bruce at Scone. His inauguration was small and hastily arranged but Robert Bruce was now King of Scots.
To Edward I the usurper King Robert was an uprising to be crushed. Edward’s reprisals were swift and brutal. Bruce was defeated at Methven. His wife, daughter and sisters were captured and imprisoned in England. Countess Isobel was locked in an iron cage at Berwick while Bruce’s brothers were hanged, drawn and beheaded. Bruce fled Edward’s wrath and spent a long winter hiding on the islands off the west coast and Ireland.
Bruce began a guerrilla war and struck at his enemies. His forces defeated Edward’s men at Glen Trool and Loudon Hill, then Edward I finally died in July 1307 - Bruce now faced Longshanks’ son, Edward II.
Bruce attacked his Scots enemies – destroying Comyn strongholds along the Great Glen and harrowing Buchan and the north east. His men cut a bloody swathe through Galloway and the south west.
One by one Scotland’s castles fell to Bruce and his supporters. Bruce had the castles ‘slighted’ – walls were torn down and defences were raised to the ground - the fortresses were made useless to an invading English army. As more castles fell more nobles pledged support to Bruce.
In 1314 Bruce watched Edward II’s army march toward Stirling Castle. Edward II had been given a year to relieve the besieged English force at Stirling or surrender the castle. Their forces met at the Battle of Bannockburn on 23 and 24 June 1314. Thousands died as the Scots defeated Edward’s army. The river was choked with the dead as Edward II fled the field and returned to England.
Bannockburn was not the end of Bruce’s struggle but it was a turning point. Captured English nobles were traded for his family and King Robert I gained international recognition. The Scots took the final English stronghold at Berwick in 1318 but Edward II still claimed overlordship of Scotland. Two years later the Scots sent a letter to the Pope – the Declaration of Arbroath – as part of an ongoing battle of words.
In 1327 Edward II was deposed by his Queen, Isabella. He was murdered in captivity. The English made peace with the Scots and renounced their claim of overlordship. The Black Rood, taken by Edward I, was returned to the Scots. It seemed that Bruce had finally won.
Robert the Bruce retired to Cardross near Dumbarton on the Firth of Clyde. He lived peacefully in a comfortable mansion house until his death on 7 June 1329. He asked that James Douglas take his heart on crusade. Bruce’s body was buried at Dunfermline Abbey, by his wife Elizabeth’s side, beneath an alabaster tomb. Bruce’s heart was finally buried at Melrose Abbey.
In the 1370s the Scots poet John Barbour wrote of Bruce, the hero-king, in ‘The Brus’.