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Favourite stories from Scottish History

Since this is the year of Heritage, History and Archaeology, what are your favourite tales from Scottish history? I'll start the ball rolling with the tale of Bruce's Heart.

I was born in Dunfermline, and people there are proud that it is the resting place of King Robert I The Bruce. His grave can be found in the parish church attached to Dunfermline Abbey, under an impressive 19th Century bronze. But Bruce's tomb had been lost for centuries before it was re-discovered in 1818. While the new parish church was under construction, a skeleton was found covered in lead and wrapped in cloth of gold. On examination, it was determined that this must be the skeleton of Robert the Bruce, because a hole had been cut in his chest to remove his heart.

Bruce had won the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and as one of the most famous and greatest knights in Christendom he swore that when Scotland was secure he would go on crusade to the Holy Land. However war continued against Edward II of England and it was only when the king of England was deposed and his son crowned as Edward III that a peace treaty was finally signed, the Treaty of Edinburgh - Northampton in 1328. By this time King Robert was very ill, and in 1329 he died. However to keep his promise, his heart was cut out and placed in a casket. This was given to his most famous knight, Sir James Douglas, also known as the Black Douglas and a commander of part of the Scottish forces at Bannockburn. With a group of knights, he planned to join an international crusade. When this failed to materialise, they instead sailed to Spain to fight against the Moors in the Reconquista. 

Douglas and his party joined the army led by King Alfonso XI of Castile. They became part of the Christian forces attacking the castle at Teba. During the siege, the Scottish knights became involved in a fight with part of the Moorish army. At first the Moors fled, but Sir James and about 10 companions got too far ahead of the Christian forces. The Moors noticed this and turned, surrounding and cutting off the Scottish knights. This is where legend sets in, because we can't know what happened now, but it is said that Douglas took the casket on its chain from around his neck. He swirled it above his head and threw it into the heart of the Moorish forces, shouting "Go before us in battle as you have always done before". The Scots party charged into the battle, and were slain to a man. 

The surviving Scottish knights retrieved the bodies and the heart. They boiled the flesh from the bones and returned the skeletons and the heart to Scotland for burial. The skeletons were interred in churches on the properties of the nobles families, Sir James in the St. Brides Kirk in Douglas, but Bruce's heart was buried beneath the High Altar in Melrose Abbey. It was lost along with many other religious artefacts during the Scottish Reformation but was rediscovered in the 1920's and reburied, though the location was not marked. In 1996 during construction work a casket was discovered and scientific enquiry showed that it contained human tissue of the appropriate age. In 1998 it was finally laid to rest under a marker in Melrose Abbey as the King himself had wished. 

I have always enjoyed the real history around this, and the fact that it helped to inspire one of the great works of Scottish literature, "The Bruce" by John Barbour. It also lets more people know about Sir James Douglas, one of the heroes of the Wars of Independence, as well as a very nice beer under the name "The Black Douglas".


  • ParsmanParsman Member ✭✭✭
    OK a second tale from Scottish history for this year. This time, I will tell the story of the oldest set of royal regalia in the United Kingdom - the Scottish Crown Jewels, better known as the Honours of Scotland.

    The Honours of Scotland consist of 3 pieces, the Crown, the Sceptre and the Sword of State. The Crown probably dates back to before 1540 and may have existed in the reign of James IV from pictorial representations. It was certainly worn by James V when his queen consort was crowned in 1540 because some work on it was done then to bring it to it's present form. The gold and the pearls used in it all come from Scotland. The Sceptre was a gift from the papacy to the King of Scots in 1494 and the Sword was also a papal gift in 1507.

    The regalia were used for the coronations of Mary, Queen of Scots, James VI and Charles I. So far, so good but after this the story becomes interesting. Charles I, despite having the distinction of being the last ruling monarch of Great Britain to be born in Scotland, at Dunfermline Palace, was not what you would call a very good king. In fact his relationship with his Scottish kingdom was always fractious and it was partly his attempts to impose bishops on the Scottish church and financing the wars this caused that led to the English Civil War. At first, the Scots sided with the Parliamentarians which helped lead to Charles I's defeat. However there was a change of heart from Scotland after the king was taken into captivity and a secret treaty was signed between Charles I and the Scottish government. However their alliance fared badly militarily and Charles ended up being executed. The Scots then crowned his son Charles II using the regalia, but he proved no more lucky in war than his father, and he ran away to the continent.

    The Scots fought against the troops of the English Parliament in what became known as the War of the Three Kingdoms, but they were defeated time and again and eventually had to fall back on Dunnottar Castle in North East Scotland. Here the Scottish Army was besieged. Among their baggage train were the Honours of Scotland, which they hoped to protect as Cromwell had ordered the royal regalia of England to be broken up or melted down. Dunnottar was an almost impregnable fortress, on a plug of rock surrounded on 3 sides by water and with only a narrow, steep path to its gates. But its defensible position also made it difficult to supply. It was however quite a civilised siege and visitors were allowed to pass the lines. As a result, a plan was made to smuggle the Honours out of the castle and to safety.

    In March, 1652, the Honours of Scotland were wrapped up and lowered over the walls of the castle onto the beach below. There an older woman waited with a basket full of seaweed collected from the beach. She hid the Honours in the basket and set off for the nearby parish of Kineff, where her mistress was married to the parish minister. Together they dug a hole in the floor of the parish church and hid the Honours, covering them with earth and a flagstone. The jewels stayed hidden there until the restoration of the British monarchy with Charles II in 1660. They have not been used to crown a monarch since, and were even lost for a time in Edinburgh Castle before being found by Sir Walter Scott, the famous novelist, to celebrate the visit of King George IV in 1822. They have been on display in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle ever since, though they were taken out and presented to Queen Elizabeth following her coronation in 1953. Since the restoration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the Crown has been present at the opening sessions of the Parliament. 500 years on, the Honours of Scotland still represent the Kingdom.
  • [Deleted User][Deleted User] ✭✭✭✭
    edited March 2017
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  • ParsmanParsman Member ✭✭✭
    Not done a story for a while, but gave a talk about Clan history and culture for a summer school at the local university this week and one of the stories I told was about how my clan got their name. There is a dull version and a bloodthirsty version but I prefer the more clever and/or romantic version, which I will relate here now.

    Back in the 12th Century, Somerled was a great Lord in the West and Islands of Scotland. He was allied to Olav the Red, the Viking King of Man and the Isles which controlled most of the islands and some of the coast from Skye to Man. Somerled wanted to marry Olav's daughter, Ragnhild. Olav had high hopes of his daughter's wedding however and kept saying no. Despite this the two men were allies and one day Olav asked Somerled to help him with an attack on rebellious subjects on Skye. The night before they sailed for the attack they met and beached their boats on the strand. This is where my Clan's ancestor joins the tale.

    Maurice MacNial was on of Somerled's followers and he had come up with an idea to help his lord marry Ragnhild. That night, he crept onto the boat of the King of Man. He proceeded to make holes in the bottom of the ship which he then filled with a mixture of tallow and butter which would keep the water out for a while. He crept back off the boat and then he cut enough wooden dowels to fill the holes he had made. 

    Next day the two ships sailed off on their way to Skye. But in the middle of the sea, the action of the waves on the tallow and butter mixture began to wash it away, and the holes began to let in water. Like many seafarers of his time, Olav couldn't swim and as the boat began to slowly fill he shouted to Somerled for help. Before he could answer Maurice interrupted saying "What will you give my Lord if he saves your life?". The desperate King answered "Anything!". Maurice asked "Even your daughter's hand in marriage?". The King shouted "Yes, even that!". With that Maurice leapt onto the King's boat and drove his ready prepared dowels into the holes. The boat stopped filling with water and they were able to reach dry land and make proper repairs.

    Whatever the truth of the whole story, Somerled really did marry Ragnhild and had children who were the founders of major Scottish Clans. According to legend, Maurice became known by the sobriquet "An t'saoir" which means "the carpenter". Ever after that his descendants were known as Mac An t'saoir" or "Sons of the Carpenter", which in English is MacIntyre.
  • Sweetheart Abbey, New Abbey in Dumfries & Galloway has to have one of the most heart warming romantic stories in Scottish History.

    Cistercian Monks named it Dulce Cor in memory of Lady Dervorgilla, who founded the abbey in tribute to her beloved husband, John Balliol.  In 1268, Lord John Balliol died and his grieving widow, Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway, had his embalmed heart placed in an ivory casket and is said to have carried it with her everywhere.

    She undertook many charitable acts in her late husband’s memory which included founding the Cistercian abbey of Dulce Cor (Latin for ‘Sweet Heart’) in 1273. When she too died in 1289, Dervorgilla was laid to rest in front of the abbey church’s high altar, clutching her husband’s heart to her bosom.  An effigy of Lady Dervorgill can still be seen today in the abbey.

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