Who was King Robert’s eldest brother

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.


Bruce’s birthplace

The birthplace of King Robert the Bruce has long been the subject of speculation. English sources have claimed he was born in England, a line occasionally backed up by Victorian Scottish writers, almost apologising for the fact Bruce did what he did. I can only assume the source of the English claims were intended, in some way, to lessen the embarrassment of the greatest army in Christendom being totally outthought and outfought on a field near Stirling in 1314. “Oh well, Bruce was an Englishman after all.” If so, piffle.  Bruce was born at Turnberry Castle, as far as I am concerned, without a doubt.

Quite simply there is no record of where King Robert was born. Consequently, that opened the door to all sorts of claims some of which, disturbingly, have been put forward as fact in school classrooms of all places.

In the absence of anything in the  records, historians are reluctant to dwell too much on the subject. Not being a historian I have the luxury of doing just that.

So how should we approach the issue. Well, the best way, as far as I can see, is by looking at it from two angles,  human nature and practicality. Let’s apply that to the one place that appears to have found a lot of favour south of the Border, Writtle in Essesx.

The reasoning seems to be that Bruce’s father was at the Coronation of King Edward the First in the summer of 1274. Bruce was also born that summer so the deduction seems to be that the birth must have occurred in England for Robert, who was Earl of Carrick, to be at Westminster. Writtle was owned by the Bruce’s so the story has developed that must be where Robert was born. Of course, it also ignores the fact the Bruces had at least a manor house in Tottenham.

Lets start with practicality. Edward’s Coronation took place on August 19. King Robert was born on July 11. Assuming both dates are exact, the young Bruce would have been 39 days old when the Coronation took place. That’s almost six weeks, plenty of time for dad Robert to have enjoyed the arrival and early days of his son and make the journey on horseback from Turnberry Castle to London for the Coronation.

It’s a long journey from Ayrshire to the English capital, a trip that would need plenty of planning if a heavily pregnant lady was travelling. It’s pretty fair to assume, Marjorie, Robert’s mum, even if she had wanted to head south, would not have been prepared to make the journey when she was seven months or more. It’s fair to assume such a trip would have been made via the Bruce lands ie from Carrick to Annandale, south to Yorkshire and then on to Essex. That’s a formidable trip on a cart, given it’s unlikely Marjorie could have gone on horseback. Bumpy potholed tracks, crossing the mountainous spine of England, a foreign country, with regular rest stops along the way, it’s likely the trip would have taken about a month.

So at the very latest that would have meant leaving Turnberry in March, still winter, and, given the seasons were much more pronounced in the thirteenth century, it would have made matters a whole lot worse, the party quite possibly having to travel on snow covered frozen ground especially high up the Pennines.

It just does not make any sense.

On the human nature side, we have to remember that Marjorie, by all accounts, was a determined woman used to having her way. Is it really likely that such a lady would want to have her firstborn son anywhere other than her family home? I doubt it.

She would want to be surrounded by the familiarity of Turnberry, family and the servants she knew well, safe in the midst of lands owned by her family for many years.

I doubt she would have wanted to give birth far away in a foreign land surrounded by people she did not know, perhaps even speaking a dialect she did not understand.

There may not be a historical record of where Robert was born but common sense insists it would only be Turnberry. I think it’s high time everyone acknowledged that. Everything does not have to be written down to be obvious. So let’s stop entertaining this nonsense that Bruce was born anywhere else, especially Writtle.