Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Comyns 2

Last year I promised future post(s) covering the Comyn family, their rise to pre-eminence, prior to their rapid eclipse by Robert I.
Well here we go.
First I would like to draw attention to an excellent book, by Alan Young,
which was published in 1997, “Robert the Bruce’s Rivals: The Comyns, 1212 – 1314”,
As previously discussed in this blog the Comyns have over the years received an extremely bad press and Alan Young set out to redress this balance and as he states in the conclusion of the first chapter;
“A Comyn perspective is necessary to test the Bruce –oriented version of thirteenth-century Scottish history and the Comyns’ traditional role in it as traitorous rivals to Robert Bruce”.
However one reviewer did remark that; even a book dedicated to the Comyn family history could not escape the shadow of Robert the Bruce in the title.
Prior to this book it was necessary to trawl through numerous books, papers and articles, for the average person to get a perception of the Comyns, and even then it tended to be less than flattering.

Some histories maintain that a Robert de Comines, who came over with William the conqueror in 1066 and was awarded lands in Northumbria for his services, was the founder of the Scottish dynasty. The name may derive from the area of Comines, in the French/Belgian border area. Other sources say the name is derived from the herb cumin, and that, this was the origin of the three sheaves on the coat of arm. The real origin may be a combination of both or none.

Alan Young believes that the Comyns were not of a “noble” family like the Bruces, but that their origins were as humble clerks, from the Bayeux or Rouen areas.
Like many of the new aristocracy of Scotland the Comyns arrived in the train of David I during the 1120s. William Cumin was David’s chancellor, and appears to have obtained advancement for his nephew Richard, prior to returning to England to pursue his ecclesiastical ambitions. Richard had lands in the north of England and was granted lands in southern Scotland by David; he also obtained further land by marriage to Hextilda. (Who was the granddaughter of Donald Bane, giving the Comyns their first claim to the Scottish throne). Throughout his life Richard’s importance to the Scottish crown grew, and the evidence indicates that he was a close advisor of David and his son Earl Henry, as well as Malcolm IV and William, increasing his land holding and being appointed justicair of Lothian in the 1170s.
So by the time of his death in 1179 he was a very important man whose families’ future was inextricably linked to the fortunes of the House of Canmore.
Richard was succeeded by his son William who continued his good work.
William consolidated and expanded the family land holdings in southern Scotland, and continued to be a close adviser of King William, he witnessed numerous Royal charters and participated in diplomatic missions, particularly in relation to the sometimes difficult relations with England. William was sheriff of Forfar by the end of the 12th century, and was appointed to the senior justiscairship of Scotia (Scotland north of the Forth) in 1205.
This was probably and effort on behalf of King William to enforce royal authority in the north, which had been difficult and unruly throughout the Canmore era.
William did not have long to wait for trouble, and 1211 saw a Mac William uprising, lead by Guthred, to press the claims of the House of Moray to the crown. At the head of a large royal army William with the support other northern lord suppressed the rebellion and captured Guthred. The King then came north to consolidate the victory and take hostages as a guarantee of future good behavior.
Following this success William, who appears to have been acting in the temporary role of warden of Moray, was rewarded with an influential marriage to Marjory the heiress to the earldom of Buchan. He therefore became the first “Norman” earl, by several decades, and moved the Comyns in to the first rank of Scottish nobility. This was truly a symbiotic arrangement, because whilst the Comyns attained their dynastic advancement, the crown acquired an “enforcer”, who was now ideally placed and willing to deal with any further disturbances to the Kings peace in the north.
This was Williams second marriage, it is not known who his first wife was, but the offspring of that marriage would found the line of Badenoch, and the offspring of his marriage to Marjory would be earls of Buchan.
As Alan Young states;

“ By 1212 the Comyns had real power – the Comyn century had begun!”

Monday, August 3, 2009

Robert the Bruce

I am currently working on a post(s), about the Comyn’s, but it requires quite a bit more work.
Some of you may be wondering what there is to say, about the “losers”, that takes so long, but I believe there are several important aspects of the history of the Comyns, which help explain the actions of Robert, after the battle of Barra. Also they deserve to have their side of the story told.

I do not intend to do the same for Robert the Bruce, he has been well served by biographers, and his life and adventures are told in countless volumes. I will however offer this list of my favourites.

Firstly are the two “classics”, one medieval the other modern:

“The Bruce” - by John Barbour. (The one I have used during my work on this blog is the Canongate Classics 1997 edition edited and translated by A.A.M. Duncan). There are also a number of versions available in various formats online.

“Robert Bruce & the community of the Realm of Scotland” – By G.W.S.Barrow ( Edinburgh University Press 1988 edition)

“Robert the Bruce” - by Ronald McNair Scott (Canongate 1988)

“Robert the Bruce” – by Caroline Bingham (Constable 1998. This book was completed just before her death )

“On the trail of Robert the Bruce” – by David R. Ross (Luath Press 1999 This is the tale of David’s personal journey on the trail of Robert the Bruce – he did have a motor bike [David that is])

For those who may find the histories a little dry there is always Nigel Tranter’s “Bruce trilogy”. Whilst generally historically accurate, it is also a “ripping yarn”, of daring-do, as Robert and his lieutenants win Scotland’s freedom, “which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”.

I would like to close by quoting from the forepiece of Caroline Bingham’s book

“His faults were of his time, his virtues were all his own”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Aberdeen Update

Firstly August 2, is a big birthday day in our family.
It is my father’s, my niece's and nephew’s birthdays.


Now to Aberdeen.
I wanted to let you know that I have received a reply to my e-mail, for information, from Aberdeen City Council. My request has been passed to the relevant department, so I hope to have some information, in the near future, regarding the statue of Robert the Bruce, to share with you.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Aberdeen and Scottish Independence

W. Stanford Reid, opens his 1954 paper “Trade, Traders and Scottish Independence”, with the comment that since the time of Barbour the war had been viewed in terms of the battles, sieges and the leaders, and that the economic elements had been largely ignored.
However; no matter how good the leaders, and their soldiers, they can never succeed, unless they can get the materials of war, and disrupt the enemy’s ability to do the same. So unless you have the ability to get “stuff” the war is lost.
In the previous post I discussed the granting of the freedom lands to the City, and the fact that this was for some great service to the cause, but not for fighting at Barra or storming the castle.
In this post I would like to look at how the good citizens of Aberdeen (and their allies) helped Robert get the stuff he needed, often by taking it from Edward.
Aberdeen was one of the major Scottish trading ports, and the first to be liberated by Robert; in fact it would be several years before any of the others fell. (Dundee 1312; Perth 1312; Leith 1314; Berwick 1318).
So the capture of Aberdeen sometime in the summer of 1308, gave Robert a control of a major port, with established European trade connections. Aberdeen had a large Flemish trading population and also had good relations with the German cities of the Hanseatic League.

England had maintained a navel blockage throughout the war, but much of the time it was redundant, because English land forces controlled Scotland and garrisoned its major castles and ports. The capture of Aberdeen would radically change this situation, with its large Flemish population and northerly location, it would prove difficult to blockade.
The Flemings generally had little love for the English, and were willing allies of Scotland. That they would defend their rights and freedoms was demonstrated early in the war when they fought to the last man defending the Red Hall, during Edward I’s sack of Berwick in 1296. It was said that they offered the fiercest resistance of all the defenders.
Aberdeen quickly established itself as the main trading an supply base for the Scottish cause, and the “legitimate trade”, quickly broadened into privateering, if not outright piracy. With Aberdeen as a Scottish base, Scottish, Flemish and Hanseatic vessels preyed on English commerce. They would bring the captured vessels to Aberdeen where there was a lucrative trade in “laundering” wool. (This involved the removing of the English customs seals, or cockets, and replacing them with Scottish ones.) Presumably, with the willing assistance of the Scottish customs officials. The wool was then taken to Europe and sold as legitimate Scottish produce. The captured vessels were generally sold on the continent, but I am sure some were sold or retained in Aberdeen and put into Scottish service.
Scottish and European traders also traded with England, and although Edward made efforts to limit this trade, it would appear that for many English merchants “business was business”. Goods were purchase in England under various subterfuges and then shipped to Scotland.

Throughout the war Edward II would attempt to limit the effectiveness of Aberdeen’s merchant/priveteers, through blockade, naval activity, and diplomacy, none of which were particularly successful. English diplomatic efforts did finally separate the Scots and Flemings in the 1320s, but by then it was too little too late, because Scottish forces, already controlled much of northern England as well as Scotland.
Had Edward immediately made a concerted effort to re-take and garrison Aberdeen, he may have been able to limit the effectiveness of Robert’s campaigns. But; not only did he fail to act effectively in this matter, he also left his remaining Scottish allies to the mercies (or otherwise) of Robert.

So with Buchan ravished, Comyn power smashed, and the lifeline to the continent in place Robert turned his attentions to his other Scottish enemies. More in a later post.

700 years ago the NE and Aberdeen in particular occupied a pivotal role in Scottish and European events, a position unsurpassed until the advent of the North Sea oil industry, which saw Aberdeen again step fully onto the European stage, as the oil capital. Last year it was decide to suitably commemorate Aberdeen’s crucial relationship with Robert and the Scottish cause, and Aberdeen City Council instigated a competition to design a statue of Robert I. Alan Herriot was the winner with an equestrian statue of Robert holding the charter to Aberdeen. My latest understanding is that the site for the statue will be outside Marischal College. 

This subject is vast and for those interested in more details, the article mentioned in the introduction is excellent. Also Colm McNamee dedicates a whole chapter in his book the “Wars of the Bruces”, to “The North Sea Theatre of the War and the Towns”, his book is on this blog's recommended list.

For those interested in Aberdeen’s long maritime history a visit to Aberdeen Maritime Museum, where Oldmeldrum resident, John Edwards is Keeper of Science and Maritime History, is a must. 
Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Shiprow. AB11 5BY. Telephone: 01224 337712

Monday, July 20, 2009

Of Comrades and Bon Accord

One of the problems with the Battle of Barra is knowing who participated. Everyone loves a winner so we have no shortage of candidates who “assisted” the King, and a dearth of those who supported the Earl.
So who were the “lesser” men who participated?
I have come up with some possible participants on the Royal side, but none for the Earl of Buchan. (No surprises there then!!)

Names which in later years would be synonymous with the north east, Keith and Gordon, are often credited with receiving their lands for service at Barra, but in May 1308 they still served the “dark side”. (That is not to minimise their later service to the King, – Keith would be one of the heroes of Bannockburn).
One who received NE lands in the 1320s was William de Irwyn (Drum), who is said to have joined Robert in 1306, and served him throughout the war, becoming his armour bearer and later secretary. Although there is no direct evidence of his presence it is reasonable to assume that as the King’s armour bearer he would have been at Robert’s side at Barra, and if the tales of him requiring to be held upright in the saddle by two men were true, one would surely have been William.

Another likely candidate is Gilbert de la Hay of Erroll, later to be High Constable of Scotland. Gilbert is said to have been with Robert from the start and was amongst those who came north with him in 1307.
An interesting tale is retold by the Rev. John Davidson, in his 1878 Inverurie and the Earldom of the Garioch, of an Inverurie farmer named Benzie, (I’m sure he meant Benvie – see everyone loves the winner!!!!!!) who with his eleven sons assisted Robert at Barra. He concedes that the tale is very similar to the founding legend of the Hays.
That legend tells of the battle of Luncary in the year 980, when Kenneth III, was battling a Danish invading force and his army fled, until confronted by a father and his two sons carrying plough shears. They taunted the fleeing Scots with their cowardice, compelling them to return to the fight, assisted by their three plough wielding countrymen. With the Danes defeated and the kingdom saved from invasion, the father is said to have sat down exhausted and wounded, crying out Hay! Hay!, which became the family name. Needless to say this tale probably contains little truth, because like many of the Scottish aristocracy the Hays were Norman, and did not arrive in England till 1066, so could not have assisted Kenneth. The tale may incorporate, and embellish, the family history of an older Celtic line that was assimilated through marriage. The Hay arms are three red escutcheons (shields) on white, which are said to represent the father and two sons.

Malcolm Earl of Lennox, is also reported to have travelled north with the king, and is another possible participant.

The Rev. Davidson also mentions a document as follows:
“ It is a formal declaration by an antiquarian of credit, that he had perused documentary evidence of the facts connected with the Fergusons of Inverurie, now a widespread family. One writing bore that Walter Fergus of Crichie received hospitably in his own home the great avenger of his country, King Robert Bruce; and with his three sons and dependants, in the memorable battle of Inverurie, in the year 1308, afforded ready and manly aid, on account of which distinguished assistance King Robert gave him ample possessions of the adjacent lands of Inverurie”
I have found no other reference to the above.

One of the outcomes of the victory at Barra was the capture of Aberdeen, probably sometime in July/August 1308.
Local folklore has the citizens of Aberdeen rushing to the aid of their king and assisting in the defeat of the Earl of Buchan. Another tale has them storming the castle and killing the English garrison. It is said that the origin of the city's motto," Bon Accord" was that it was the watch-word for the citizens engaged in the taking of the castle.
However there is no historical evidence for these stories, which may have been a way to explain Robert's endowment of the "freedom lands"* to the city, in the 1319.

I believe that the endowment was given for the many services the city performed after it's liberation by the royal forces. (There will be more about Aberdeen’s contribution to the war in a later post).

So in the final analysis we can only be sure of the main protagonists, the Bruce brothers on one side and Comyn, Moubray, and Brechin, on the other. It is highly unlikely that the citizens of Aberdeen participated, but there is a good probability that William de Irwyn and Gilbert de la Hay were with their King.
As for the others?; well my money is on James de Benvie leading the final charge. :)

* The freedom lands of Stocket were given to the city in 1319 and were the foundation of the present day "common good fund".
For information on the Freedom Lands see:

Further details of the freedom lands,  see Aberdeen city council web site.

NOTE: The battle of Inverurie mentioned above is the same as the battle of Barra.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I am just inserting a nonsense post as a bit of fun, especially for those of you who “twitter”. Twitter is a micro-blogging site where you provide updates, but they are limited to 140 characters. (You can find me there @ ChauvinOn)

I am researching a post on the Comyns, and I came across this paragraph in Fordun. *
The murder of John Comyn was covered in earlier posts, so I will not belabour the details.
“The same year, after the aforesaid Robert had left the king of England and returned home, no less miraculously than by God’s grace, a day is appointed for him and the aforesaid John to meet together at Dumfries ; and both sides repair to the above-named place. John Comyn is twitted with his treachery and belied troth. The lie is at once given. The evil-speaker is stabbed, and wounded unto death, in the church of the Friars; and the wounded man is, by the friars, laid behind the altar. On being asked by those around whether he could live, straight- way his answer is : — " I can." His foes, hearing this, give him another wound ; — and thus was he taken away from this world on the 10th of February"
It is interesting how the use of a word can change.
The word is derived from Old English “atwiten” to reproach.
* John of Fordun was a 14th century Scottish chronicler who died around 1384. His work was very supportive of the twin heroes Bruce and Wallace, at the expense of the "villains" Balliol and the Comyns

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bruce’s Seat

Well I have been very lax in posting, and this post is at least 6 months overdue. I am only going to touch briefly on Bruce’s Seat, because its history and its move to its current location have been covered in several earlier posts.

When I visited Oldmeldrum last year I had the pleasure of meeting John Pirie, a driving force behind the memorial, who was able to tell me some history of Bruce’s Seat. Unlike today, the earlier footpath between Oldmeldrum, and Boutie, went around the eastern slope of Barra hill and the stone was located just off this path. John said he remembered it from childhood, and when in the 50’s the area was ploughed-up, the large stones were removed and placed in heaps, he marked the spot of this special stone. Half a century later he was able to identify it and help with its recovery and relocation as the centre piece of the battle of Barra memorial. ( John described the location of the stone as follows: Going up past Red House to the hill and straight on it was about 300m on just over the first fence dead ahead.)

The eastern slop of Barra hill viewed from the golf course.
Red House is in the centre.

Heaps of stones dot Barra hill as evidence of the 1950's agricultural changes. These are viewed from the present footpath looking westward. Bruce's seat was in a similar heap but to the east.

The start of the present day footpath located behind "Blankets"

Thanks to John for all his assistance.

Well that’s it for this one; I hope the next post is not so delayed.