Robert the Bruce was born on the 11th of July, 1274, in Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire.
Robert de Brus was born on the 11th of July, 1274, into a noble family of Norman descent that had become one of the prominent families of the Scottish nobility. Just two years before Brucey’s birth, another famous figure who was set to play a major part in his life, Edward Plantagenet, had become King Edward I of England. The birthplace of Bruce is not certainly known, but the likely place was Turnberry Castle, his mother’s castle in Carrick, on the coast of Ayr. Alternative claims have been made for Lochmaben Castle in Annandale, which was the seat of the Bruce family and some sources give his birthplace as Whittle, in England.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the de Brus family didn’t have much imagination in naming him Robert, after this father and grandfather and great-grandfather, all the way back across six generations. He was the ninth of the name, but being the eldest of four brothers, a tradition that is still practiced today prevailed. However, he was not the ninth in succession as his paternal great-great-grandfather was called William (and significantly, his maternal great-great-grandfather was David, Earl of Huntingdon). The 3rd Lord of Annandale had no issue and Bruce’s great-grandfather became the 4th Earl. Bruce’s father was the 6th Lord of Annandale and his mother was Marjorie, the Countess of Carrick. His mother’s family was of a Gaelic-Celtic-Scots pedigree as her father was Niall (Neil or Nigel), Earl of Carrick and her mother, Margaret Stewart, daughter of Walter, the High Steward of Scotland.
It was that lineage on his mother’s side, which gave legitimacy to the claim to the throne of Scotland that he was later to make. By all accounts, Marjorie was a formidable operator who ordered the capture of Bruce’s father and refused to release him until he agreed to marry her. She was the Countess of Carrick in her own right and sought a suitably aristocratic husband for the title of Earl and to maintain the line. Robert the Bruce’s father, Robert de Brus, was of Norman descent, whose antecedents came from Bruis, (Brix) in Normandy. That was in an area between Cherbourg and Valognes, where the founder member of the family, Adam de Brus, erected a castle in the 11th Century. Reflecting the Normans’ Scandinavian origins, the Bruces were also connected to the Royal family of Norway, through marriage, and also had a noble line in Sweden.
The first Robert de Brus was then a Norman knight who most likely crossed to England with Duke William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, in 1066. A de Brus was granted lands in Yorkshire after the Battle of Hastings and the family added to that by acquiring considerable lands in Huntingdonshire. The first Robert de Brus in Scotland was he who travelled north with David I and was granted the Lordship of Annandale, in Galloway, probably between 1124 and 1130. A tiny charter still survives in evidence, albeit it’s not dated. It consists of a mere eleven lines of script, written on a strip of parchment measuring 6.5 inches by 3.5 inches. That Robert was a grandson of the Norman knight, the third of the name and responsible for strategic border territories on behalf of King David I. In such a manner, the Bruce family became one of the most powerful in Scotland.
The right of Robert the Bruce to the throne of Scotland derived from his grandfather, known as ‘The Competitor’, one of the claimants for the throne during the Interregnum, which was marked by the succession dispute between 1290 and 1292. That was when Edward I stepped in to interfere and judged that John Balliol had the better claim to be King of Scots. With that decision, Robert’s grandfather renounced the title of Earl of Carrick rather than swear fealty for it to Balliol. Robert the Bruce, ninth of the name, thus inherited the long held family title when he became the 7th Lord of Annandale. It is not clear if he did that in 1292, when his grandfather ‘resigned’ or in 1295, when his grandfather died. In any event, he became Earl of Carrick in 1292, when his mother died and his father had to pass on that inheritance.
It was the son who went to present his grandfather’s deed of resignation to King John I at Stirling in August. 1293. And it was there that Robert the Bruce would have offered the homage, which his grandfather and his father were unwilling to render. Feudal law required that the King should take possession of the title before re-granting it and receiving homage, and of course, Bruce had homage to offer for both Annandale and, in his own right, Carrick. Some histories suggest that the Sheriff of Ayr was directed to take Bruce’s homage on Baliol’s behalf, but as Balliol’s dispute with ‘Longshanks’ began in 1293, it may be doubted whether Bruce ever rendered homage.
Bruce’s grandfather’s claim rested on his being a grandson of Earl David of Huntingdon, a great-great-grandson of King David I and cousin of two earlier Kings, Malcolm ‘the Maiden’ and William ‘the Lion’. William’s line died out with the tragic death of Alexander III in 1286 and the failure of the ‘Maid of Norway’, daughter of Eric II and Alexander’s granddaughter, to make it to Scotland, when she died on route from Orkney. Thus, the line of succession passed legitimately to Earl David’s line. However, it’s difficult to argue with the judgement of Edward I as David had no sons and Balliol was a great-grandson of the eldest daughter, Margaret. Robert Bruce, the Competitor, was John Balliol’s second cousin (Balliol’s mother, Devorguilla, was that Robert’s cousin) and as John’s father had died, staked his claim on the basis of being of the same generation as Balliol’s father. In fairness, the decision could have gone either way, but there’s little reason to doubt Edward chose the man most likely to be bent to his will.
When Balliol abdicated, the succession was once more brought into question, but this time nobody was daft enough to ask Edward I for his opinion. Robert the Bruce’s father died in 1304 and the legitimate claimants still alive were John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who was a nephew of Balliol, and our man, Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick. Both men became joint Guardians of Scotland, but their rivalry meant theirs was an uneasy alliance. No doubt Bruce was convinced of his family’s entitlement to Scotland’s crown, but that probably took second place to his ambitions. Or, as seems more likely, the ambitions that were forced upon him by circumstance.
Nigel Tranter tells the story of Robert the Bruce up to this point in his novel, ‘The Steps to the Empty Throne’, the first part of a wonderful trilogy about the Bruce.