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Face to face with Robert The Bruce

FIRST, allow me to record the date.

It is June 28 in the year of our Lord 1314. Now let me try and describe where I am. In short, I do not know. This is country with which I am unfamiliar; a landscape that is alien to me. There are soft hills, many trees and streams in spate, for there has been much rain of late. It is a warm and muggy day. Clammy you might say. I can feel cold sweat trickling down my body. There is no sun to be seen in the low sky.

I have two travelling companions. They came for me in the night, as I slept in my bed in the Canongate. They are men of few words and many grunts. One is bearded, the other has a face furrowed with scars. I was told to gather my things, in particular my writing implements and parchment aplenty. I write verses to amuse those sorely in need of amusement.

I did as I was bid, for, though I was inclined to protest, they held a blade to my throat, which suggested that it would not be wise to test their resolve. They had brought a horse for me, a docile black beast, for I have none. What need is there of a horse when you live among hogs? "Where are you taking me?" I demanded. At first, neither fellow answered. Eventually, the bearded one said: "You will learn soon enough. Now keep your trap shut and ride, for we have far to travel and little time at our disposal."

And so we rode, as fast as darkness would permit. Our route took us west, following the Forth as it narrowed, past the crossing at Queensferry and then on to Linlithgow, which I surmised might be our destination. But as the dawn came up and the land grew light we skirted the town. Here, not so long ago, the English had camped before the battle, before the world as we knew it changed.

Ah yes, the battle. That was four days past and what I know of it I have gained from those fortunate to survive; those still in fear of their lives. The details were shrouded in haar but there was no doubt as to who had triumphed and who had suffered.

The Scots, I learned from a man in a tavern in a close in the Lawnmarket, had routed the English. Though outnumbered two to one, Bruce - I shall come to him in a moment - and his men had out-thought and out-fought them. The Scots, it was said, had asked God for mercy and he had granted it them. Why the English had neglected to do the same I doubt we will ever know. What is clear is that with God on their side, the Scots fought as if they could not lose, as if one way or another they would gain their reward. "None fled for fear of death," was how the man in the tavern put it before he drained his ale and sloped off into the night.

With daylight came the awful truth. Every hamlet we encountered was bereft of life. They were like mutilated corpses, all dignity lost. Clearly, something terrible had happened, but by whom and for what reason? I inquired of my two keepers but they rode sullenly on, as if they had an appointment they dare not miss.

"Where are you taking me?" I asked again. And again there came no response. We stopped to water and feed the horses and set off once more at a brisker pace. "Not long now," said scarface suddenly. I could see a tower in the distance and smoke from myriad fires.

It was near noon and I was tired and hungry and not a little irritable. We had reached a camp that stretched as far as the eye could see. I could tell from the men's plaids and their russet hair that they were countryfolk of mine. But were they friend or foe? With we Scots you're never quite sure. For many decades we have rattled each other's cages, fought and killed one another as often as anyone else. Not the least of our inventions may be disputation.

But this was no time for reflection. My abductors wrestled me from the horse and hustled me into the tower. "Bring him over here," a voice said. To whom it belonged I could not immediately say but I was heartened when it added: "And give him something to eat and drink and we can begin. The quicker the better."

Then I set eyes on him for the first time. It was Bruce, Robert the Bruce. How did I know? The fact is I didn't for sure. But there was something in his bearing, something in the way he spoke, that convinced me. He had a beard that was in need of trimming. His face was lined and his brow wrinkled. He moved slowly towards me, as if in pain. He was 40 years old and looked much older.

"I will speak," he said, "and you will write. For what has happened here must be chronicled, so that in the future people will know the history of their inheritance and how they came by it. You may ask questions, and I may answer them. But be aware, impertinence will not be tolerated. When all is said and done you are a mere scribe and I am a king. Ours is not a relationship of equals."

Whereupon he laughed. "You know," he said, "what passed here a few short days ago?" I shrugged, hoping to indicate that I had some idea but not the whole story. Bruce stroked his beard. "We defeated them, slaughtered them, the English," he said. "They threw everything they had at us. Archers. Knights on horseback. Welshmen. They say there were 20,000 of them. Who could be bothered to count? There are not 20,000 of them now. Countless of them lie in the Bannock Burn, crushed to death as they retreated or drowned under the weight of their armour. They couldn't get away fast enough."

"What of Edward, their king?" I asked. "What of him?" said Bruce, with a contemptuous sneer. "I wanted him to be taken alive but he ran like a hare with a fox at its back. Couldn't see him for stour. My men are looking for him as we speak but I fear he has scampered hameward to think again. He was seen in Stirling and sought refuge in the castle. But Mowbray, its keeper, advised him not to linger. I'm told - who knows whether it's true - that Mowbray told him to get lost. Be that as it may, Stirling's now ours. As soon will everywhere else be."

Bruce rubbed his hands in what I can only describe as glee. His watery eyes stared icily at me. "Are you getting all this down?" I nodded.

The battle, he recalled, had raged over two days but there was never any doubt who would win. On the first day, the 23rd, the English had made an attempt to outflank the Scots, in the hope possibly of cutting off their escape route. It seemed then that Edward was more inclined to fight than Bruce.

"Have you heard tell of a knight called de Bohun?" asked Bruce. "An impetuous fellow by all accounts. Thought he could end the battle before it had begun. I was in the woods on my own on my wee horse. I looked up and there was Bohun, lance at the ready, charging toward me. All I had to defend myself was a battleaxe. Just managed to avoid his first attack then I stood up in the stirrups and swung the axe and - as we say in Carrick - raucht him a dint. His heid was split open and he fell deid. Mair to the point he ruined a perfectly good axe."

It was, by all accounts, a decisive moment. Led from the front, the Scots bided their time. In war as in life it pays not to be too impatient. The English, added Bruce, were tired. Before their arrival at Bannockburn they had endured two forced marches and suffered two devastating defeats. Bruce's army, meanwhile, was continually attracting new recruits, emboldened by the king's inspirational leadership and the prospect of giving Edward a bloody nose.

"He got that all right," said Bruce. "I suspect we'll no' see his likes again. Having said that, were it not for Seton, who knows what might have happened."

"Seton?"

"Sir Alexander Seton, you numbskill," said Bruce. "Do you no' ken anything? I suppose he's what you'd call a turncoat. One minute he's on one side, the next he's on the other. He was with the English but he probably thought that if he stuck with them he'd be forever a loser. And then what prospects did he have? He came over to us in the night after the first day. Said the English were down in the dumps. Low morale and all that. Also said that we should attack first. Edward, Seton reckoned, was going to try and outflank us. So in the end we outflanked them and, well, the rest is history."

Bruce shook his head, as if in amazement. Seton, I could see, would be well rewarded for his change of heart. Clearly, the king could talk about the battle until the cows came home. But I wanted to ask about something else, his alleged murder of Comyns, his rival for the throne. Had he really done such a terrible deed? Tentatively, I raised the question: was he the cold-blooded killer that many people believed him to be?

The king grimaced. One word from him and I would be dragged out and hung, drawn and quarter'd, like brave, unfortunate Wallace, my bits and pieces put on public display for all to view. Victory, however, had made him generous and he indulged me.

"Dinnae get me wrong," he said, "Comyns was a b******, and I don't mean in the illegitimate sense of the word. Couldn't be trusted for a minute. I hated him and he hated me. But did I stick a dirk in him at Greyfriars' Kirk in Dumfries? That's for me to know and you to find out. What I will say, is that I did not tell Roger Fitzpatrick, who is a good man, 'I doubt I have killed the Red Comyn.' Nor did he say to me, 'Do you doubt? Then I'll mak siccar', and thereafter finished him off. Where do such stories come from? Who tells such lies? We're mired in myth. In the new Scotland we must divest ourselves of such delusional thinking. We must face reality. Ours will never be a land flowing with milk and honey, of that much I'm certain."

Mention of myths emboldened me to ask Bruce about the story of him hiding in a cave from his enemies when he witnessed a spider making its web. Was it true? Humour drained from the king's face. Obviously, this was not a legend with which he was happy to be associated. In my mind's eye there was a hangman's noose around my neck and the axe that did for bold Bohun hovering above my head. "I have a country to build and a nation to unite," said the king. "There are wounds to be repaired and a future to plan for. We are free at last from the English yoke. Now we have no-one but ourselves to blame for our failures. We must put the past behind us and look forward. Who we are is no more of the first importance. What is, is who we want to be.

"And all you can ask me about is a spider. You are nothing but a tick on the hind of a heifer. Your task now is to tell our children and grandchildren what happened here at Bannockburn. To the victor goes not only the spoils but the claim of glory. Tell it badly and you may never leave this place. Do it well and, who knows, the post of court jester could be yours."

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