Robert the Bruce on Rathlin

'If this small creature has the tenacity to keep trying till it succeeds, then so can I.'

Robert the Bruce was Scotland’s most famous King. Most people know of him and the equally famous spider. He had been crowned king of Scotland in the Abbey of Scone on the March 25, 1306, against the wishes of Edward I, King of England who wanted his own nominee to fulfil the role, and thus gain control of the sovereign state of Scotland. Consequently, Edward raised an army and invaded Scotland and drove Bruce into retreat.

The McDonnells of the Kingdom of the Isles were staunch supporters of Bruce, and so it was in this direction he headed after numerous setbacks and disasters. He had earlier sent supplies and arms to the castle of Dunavertie on the southern tip of the Mull of Kintyre, opposite to Sanda Island.

With a small band of supporters, including his right hand man Sir Robert Douglas, a man with a reputation as a ferocious warrior, and known as ‘The Black Douglas’ – they made their way to Loch Lomond, where the only means of transport which they could find was an old boat half sunken in the reeds. They baled it out and rowed across the loch, two by two. From there they made their way to the Firth of Clyde, and with the help of the Earl of Lennox they obtained galleys and followed the coastline to Saddell Castle on Kintyre, which was under the control of Angus Og McDonnell.

After a short stay here, they travelled on to Dunavertie Castle. They were not long here when Angus McDonnell’s men reported that English forces were on their way to besiege the castle.

Bruce had no intention of being cornered, and so with boats provided by McDonnell, he slipped away across the thirteen miles of turbulent sea, under cover of darkness, to Rathlin Island. Here there was a serviceable castle, which had been constructed by the Norman, John de Courcy.

However, he was well aware that English forces were at Carrick, on the Ayrshire coast, within sight of Rathlin, and were well capable of crossing the 50 odd miles under cover of darkness, even though McDonnell war galleys were more or less in control of these waters. His men made further provision for his safety in a nearby sea cave. This cave is only accessible from the sea, and a passing boat could miss the entrance.

The cave bears evidence of human habitation in the distant past. There is a manmade stone platform inside, which would give refuge safely above high tide level. It was whilst hiding in this cave that Bruce is reputed to have watched the spider make six attempts to spin a web across a gap – on the seventh attempt it succeeded. Bruce exclaimed to his men:

‘If this small creature has the tenacity to keep trying till it succeeds, then so can I.’

I think that there are descendants of this spider still living on Rathlin. In the summertime they spin enormous webs like fishing nets across cave entrances ten or 12 feet wide.

Bruce arrived on Rathlin in November 1306. He was now in friendly territory. His second wife was Elizabeth de Burgh, the daughter of the Earl of Ulster. The Bruces held substantial estates in Co Antrim, and Bruce sent word to his two younger brothers, Thomas and Alexander, to start raising raising recruits in Antrim, and also on the estates of James Stewart in Co Londonderry.

When the threat from English forces had receded, Bruce himself set sail from Rathlin for Garmoran in the West Highlands of Scotland. His sister-in-law Christiana of Mar was heiress to large estates here, and also in a number of Hebridean islands, including Uist, Barra, Rhum, Eigg and Gigha. With her support he gained many recruits to his cause, men who were not prepared to submit to foreign rule, and so by January, Bruce returned to Rathlin with a fleet of galleys, and an army of Isles-men and Highlanders.

His brothers had also raised several hundred recruits as well as gaining the support of Malcolm McQuillan of the Route. This is a large coastal tract of land, adjacent to Coleraine. When all were assembled on Rathlin, Bruce decided it was time to make his move.

He sent Sir Robert Douglas with a small party of warriors to the Isle of Arran, in the Firth of Clyde. Under cover of darkness and with the element of surprise, they took Brodick Castle and a considerable quantity of arms and supplies, which had just been landed there the evening before by English forces, and had not been put into store, as they did not believe that there was any immediate threat. None of the garrison survived. Bruce joined Douglas’s men ten days later with 33 galleys loaded with arms, supplies and dedicated Highland warriors, ready to do battle with the English invaders. Soon afterwards they made a landing on the coast of Ayrshire, near Turnberry Castle, close to the Bruce estates of Carrick.

Here Rathlin’s significant role ends, but, as history tells us, Bruce went on to fight a guerrilla war over the next eight years and finally regained the Kingship of Scotland at the battle of Bannockburn on June 24, 1314. In Scotland there are a number of caves known as Bruce’s. This is explained by his preference for living in forests and caves during his long campaign. He was only too well aware that however strong a castle was it could be breached and it then becomes a trap for those within.

By Augustine (Gusty) McCurdy

Supported by EU Programme for Peace & Reconciliation & Rural Development Council