So, who was Robert the Bruce’s eldest brother? Does it matter, anyway?
As far as I know, there is no definitive family birth line handed down by history. In fact, some of Bruce’s sisters’ names have disappeared over the years. The late Geoffrey Barrow in his excellent book Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, has a family tree which posts the sons as Robert, Edward, Neil, Thomas and Alexander. I have noticed one or two authors seem to imply Edward came along after Robert.
Does it matter? Certainly not for those involved at the time. But for posterity’s sake, I think so.
I’m not sure I agree with Barrow and those who lean towards Edward as the eldest brother. I have found no reasoning for that conclusion other than, perhaps, the fact Edward survived much longer than the others.
I’m fairly convinced Neil was Robert’s eldest brother. To argue the case, firstly I would turn to Scottish traditions. There was a long established way of naming children, used by a majority of families in Scotland. It was still in use at the time of the Great War and, who knows, may still be in use in some parts of the country today.
The eldest son would be named after the paternal grandfather; the second son after the maternal grandfather; and the third son after the father. In the case of daughters it was the same except that the eldest was named after the maternal grandmother.
I confess I don’t know how long this has been in practice but I have found it in families from the 1400s. Why it was adopted, again I have no idea. It may simply have been easier to identify families if the names were carried on. It may have been out of respect for elders.
Of course, in many cases, like the Bruces, it wouldn’t work out completely given that the eldest sons were all called by the same name, Robert in the Bruces. If we accept the tradition, then they were open to options for the third son.
But the second son would have been named after the maternal grandfather, ie Robert’s mum Marjorie’s dad in the Bruce family. And his name. Well, it was Niall. Given that Marjorie appears to have been an extremely forceful woman who may well have been the power behind the throne, so to speak,I’m pretty certain she would have wanted a son to have her father’s name and that would have been the second son given there was no certainty there would be any more boys.
It may be we are seeing the first evidence of that traditional Scottish way of naming children.
A second point springs to mind. After his rout at Perth in late June, 1306, Bruce escaped with only a small party which included his wife, daughter and other ladies who, for some reason, were still with him. Bruce, according to Barrow, gave all the horses to the ladies and sent them off to Kildrummy Castle north west of Aberdeen. He put them in the protective hands of brother Neil.
Surely, Robert would only have entrusted his loved ones to the protection of the person he appreciated most, all the more so as Kildrummy was a key castle, well provisioned, which he would have been desperately keen to hang on to. Arguably that may well have been his eldest brother.
Edward, we know, was a hothead who caused Bruce more exasperation than anything else over the years and it was his impatience which saw him killed in the end.
Alexander, we know was more a man of learning, a scholar and Dean of Glasgow, while little seems to be known about Thomas.
Neil’s initial defence of Kildrummy seems to have been excellent, even when the future Edward the second was leading the besiegers. It was still holding out in September and might well have continued to do so for some time but for a blacksmith name Osbourne who accepted a bribe of “as much gold as he could carry” to help bring the siege to an end. Osbourne set fire to the great hall which was full of provisions, forcing the garrison to surrended. Neil was hung and quartered.
I can’t really see him being the youngest brother. I can see him as the brother Robert grew up with longest; the eldest brother Robert trusted more than the others and the brother who believed in the family right to the throne of Scotland.
It’s all subjective of course and, no doubt, others will find flaws in the arguments. But there will have to be a compelling case put forward to make me change my mind.
Doug Archibald. Views are personal and not necessarily those of the Bruce Trust.