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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter IX


AFTER the expatriation of Baliol, the two most potent houses in Scotland were those of Bruce and Comyn; the former represented by Robert, the grandson of the Competitor, and the latter by Red John, ex-Regent and Lord of Badenoch, who, in right of his mother, Marjory, sister of Baloil, the Competitor, also claimed to the true heir of Alexander III. Both Bruce and Comyn had submitted to Edward; but both were actuated by a desire to escape from thraldom, and by a hope that some turn of fortune’s wheel would place them at the head of their country’s affairs, and promote their own personal interests: for, though Comyn had shown no small amount of patriotism whilst Regent, and Bruce afterwards evinced its possession in a high degree, neither of them, at this time, seems to have exemplified anything better than selfishness. It was their own private advancement, at all events, and not the public good, that they primarily aimed at.

According to some of our historians, the two noblemen, who were awkwardly in each other’s way, entered into a secret compact, in virtue of which Comyn agreed to waive his own rights to the Crown, and support the claims of Bruce, on receiving from the latter the earldom and estates of Carrick. [Ayloffe’s Calendar of Ancient Charters, p. 295; Wyntoun, vol. iv., p. 992, and vol. ii., p. 122.] It appears also that, about the same time, Wallace, still uncaptured, was busy organizing a new insurrection, of which Bruce was to be the leader, and was to be negotiated with by means of his brother Edward; and that evidence of the projected movement fell somehow into the possession of the Lord of Badenoch. There is a traditional proverb still current in Lochaber, that “While there are trees in a wood there will be deceit in a Comyn” – a characteristic of the race which Bruce’s rival exhibited in an aggravated form. Personal antipathy between the two men intensified their family feud, and no doubt helped to shape the course pursued by Comyn. He had proof that the Lord of Carrick, though acting the part of a courtier in London, still aspired to the Crown of Scotland – witness the sealed instrument surrendering his estates in order to secure that coveted object. He had also reason to believe that Bruce was about to conspire with the proscribed traitor, Wallace, for the purpose of securing the same result. To betray Bruce’s rebellious schemes would, Comyn fancied, be a sure and speedy way of ruining his detested rival; and, Bruce once out of the way, the road to Edward’s favour – perhaps also to the Crown of Scotland – would stand open to the House of Badenoch.

Comyn, by a despatch, revealed all to the King. [Wyntoun, vol. ii., p. 123.] “To the Tower with Bruce!” roared the enraged monarch, on reading the epistle. Yes – when he is caught. Warned by his kinsman, the Earl of Gloucester, that there was a storm at hand, Bruce, accompanied by a small retinue, hurried on horseback from London, never drawing bridle till he had crossed the Border. Whilst thus fleeing in hot haste, he was not aware of Comyn’s treachery till that was revealed to him in a singular way. On the travellers approaching Lochmaben, they observed a youth coming from an opposite direction; and, as he appeared desirous of avoiding the, Bruce caused him to be seized, when it was ascertained that he had lately left Dalswinton Castle with letters from its lord, the Red Comyn, to King Edward. When such was found to be the case, Bruce, without any delicacy, broke the seals, and his worst suspicions were realized. It was Comyn that had brought him into danger at the English Court; and, in these new despatches, the King was further informed of Bruce’s designs, and urged to get rid of him. Burning with indignation, and at the same time faint with fatigue, Bruce, at the close of a seven days’ journey, reached the Castle of Lochmaben [Sir James Balfour’s Annales of Scotland, vol. i., p. 88; and Wyntoun, vol. ii., p, 127.], where he found his brother Edward [Barbour, vol. i., p. 127.] and a devoted friend of the family, Robert Fleming, with whom and others he took counsel as to his future conduct.

All lamented that the schemes of the patriotic party had been disclosed prematurely; and all agreed that it would be extremely rash, in their unprepared state, to precipitate a collision with the King. To temporize awhile, and wait the issue of events, seemed to be the wisest course; and accordingly Bruce did not blazon abroad the perfidy of Comyn, or his own danger in consequence, but proceeded quietly to Dumfries as if nothing had occurred.

His presence there occasioned no surprise. The two justiciars – whose jurisdiction extended over Dumfriesshire and Galloway – were preparing, with all due formality, to hold their first Court of the Castle of Dumfries; and it was only in accordance with custom and duty that the Earl of Carrick should appear, with other barons and freeholders, to do suit and service to the representatives of the King. [Hailes’s Annals, vol. i., p. 294; and Carruthers’s Lectures on Scottish History, delivered in Edinburgh, 1859.] According to the generality of our historians, Comyn proceeded to Dumfries for this purpose of his own accord, never for once supposing that he would there meet with the man he had so deeply injured, far less suspecting that that man knew full well by what false friend he had been betrayed. One old chronicler, however, states that Bruce “trysted” Comyn to meet him in Dumfries; that the latter, as if dreading the result, demurred, but made his appearance at length, after Nigel Bruce had gone for him to the Castle of Dalswinton. At all events, the two noblemen did meet in the town; and their interview was a most eventful one, altering, as it did, the current of history, and affecting the inhabitants of this island throughout all time.

On this ever-memorable day, Thursday, the 10th of February, 1305-6, the streets of Dumfries are full of people. As the feeble sun rises above Criffel top, its rays fall slantingly upon many a bold baron, through the Lochmabengate, across, the bridge, and along High Street – all tending towards the seat of justice, and viewed with admiring interest, or sometimes with ill-concealed dislike, by the burghers of the town and the country folks of the neighbourhood. When the glimmering sun is a degree further westward, the streets are half deserted; for the Court has been opened, and the grave justiciars, in the hearing of a glittering throng, are trying some trembling defaulter on a charge, it may be, of stouthrief, homicide, or treason against his High Mightiness King Edward.

Two barons, for some reason or other, though within the Burgh, have hitherto withheld the homage of their presence from the Court. They encounter each other near the Port of the Vennel; and if any curious residents in that ancient thoroughfare are looking from their casements, they may see the two patricians embracing and kissing each other, and conclude that they are loving brothers in heart if not by blood. Fraternally affectionate they seem; but their appearance presents such a contrast that they cannot long be looked upon as near kinsmen. Both are tall and powerful men; but one is in the flush of early manhood, with a noble set of features and dark complexion

[Scott, in describing Bruce at a later period, says: -

“His locks upon his forehead twine
Jet black, save where some touch of grey
Has ta’en the youthful hue away.”

Lord of the Isles.], whilst the other is a little past meridian, and wears a somewhat sinister visage, the expression of which is not enhanced by its hue of flaming red. The latter would perhaps be recognized by some of the spectators as John Comyun, Earl of Badenoch and Lochaber, seeing that he often resides in the town, and his complexion is peculiar; but scarcely any would identify his youthful companion as Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale and Carrick. If the orb of day, as poets fancy, evinces sympathy with the mundane scenes it looks upon, it ought, as these two men passed from the street and entered the precincts of the neighbouring church, to have withdrawn momentarily behind a murky cloud, since “a deed of dreadful note” was about to be done, leaving as evidence, an altar dappled and desecrated by human blood; and then it ought to have shone forth with redoubled effulgence – emblematical of the way in which Scotland, as a result of the sacrilegious homicide, was to rise from bondage and darkness into liberty and light.

Angry words fall from both the barons ere they enter by the southern gate into the sanctuary of the Greyfriars; and it is Comyn, we may be sure, that initiates their walk in that direction, from a belief that the rising rage of Bruce would be calmed down by the sacredness of the place. Instead of this being so, it waxes higher and higher. Bruce by-and-by charges Comyn with having tried to compass his death, and with having, to promote his own selfish ends, sacrificed his country. Comyn prevaricates; and, as the accusations are emphatically repeated, meets them with a broad denial: the words, “It is a lie you utter!” break from his lips; and the next moment the dagger of Bruce is at his heart. Comyn falls – never, alas! so red before, now that the crimson tide of life is flowing over his prostrate frame. Under the influence of overmastering passion, Bruce had thus perpetrated the fatal deed; and his demeanour and speech betray regret – remorse, as he hurries out of the sacred edifice.

The clash of the weapons and the wail of the friars brought a crowd of people to the Church and its environs; and as soon as it was generally known that the Red Comyn and his aged relative had been slain, their friends cried out for vengeance. Bruce and his friends were thus put upon their defence. Swords were drawn by both sides, the burial ground of the Monastery becoming the theatre of battle. The struggle was sanguinary, though brief, and ended with the thorough defeat of the Badenoch party, and of the few English soldiers who assisted them.

The Earl of Carrick was thus, step by step, led to abandon a policy of compromise and procrastination for one of decision and vigour. His flight for life from London – his affray with Comyn – its fatal issue, which he had not premeditated – the encounter that ensued, bringing him into direct collision with the English – their overthrow, and that of the Comynites: all these incidents, like so many links in the chain of destiny, bound him over to a bold line of action. He entered Dumfries without any fixed resolve – ready, perhaps, if others led the way, and favourable circumstances ripened their projects, to join them in striking a blow for Scotland’s freedom and the Crown; but the events of the last few hours, culminating in those that immediately preceded them, so mixed up his country’s interests with his own, that they became henceforth inseparable; and instant war, open and undisguised, was alike the dictate of self-defence and of patriotism.

If Bruce, after the conflict at the Monastery, had time for thought at all, we may well suppose that some such reflections as are here expressed passed across his mind. We find him instantly afterwards acting in accordance with them. The sacred fane built by the pious Devorgilla was the scene of the first incident in this day’s drama of death – its chief victim her own near relative; the “still and peaceful” churchyard attached to it became tumultuous with the second act; and the third and crowning one changed a quiet court of justice into a place of blood and strife. The conquering party of Bruce surged onwards to the Castle, in which the judges were still sitting; but some of the discomfited fugitives had gone there before them, carrying the astounding news of the revolt, and preparing the Court and garrison in some degree for what was to occur. To close the gates and man the walls with such few soldiers as remained were all the defensive steps that could be taken. “Since the gates are closed, and we have no engines to beat them open, let us try fire!” “Fire! fire!” was shouted by some of the assailants, and the words were taken up by all. The potent element – better key to the rusty locks than any smith of the Burgh could have forged – was soon brought to bear upon the huge oaken gates; and as these began to crackle with the heat, and their utter destruction was seen to be only a question of time, the men of war and of law, who constituted the garrison, agreed to surrender at discretion, and did not before much blood was split. [Hemingford, vol. i., p. 220.] Whilst that day’s sun, which had looked upon many extraordinary scenes in Dumfries, occupied the Nick or Pass of Benerick before finally sinking below the neighbouring ridge to rest, its ruddy gleam irradiated the free standard of Bruce as it floated proudly and defiantly from the turrets of the fortress. When it rose on the following day, not an Englishman was to be seen, except such as had fallen into the hands of Bruce: all out of durance vile had evacuated the town, taking with them across the Border the tidings of Comyn’s death and of Scotland’s resurrection.

For about ten years the Castle Dumfries had almost continuously been occupied by a foreign force, and the inhabitants of the town, though not subdued, been held in thraldom; and it must have been with a sense of relief and a feeling of exultation that the latter found themselves once more tasting the sweets of liberty. Were we writing a romance instead of a history, we might here introduce a notice of the civic parliament’s first meeting after the ever-memorable 10th of February, or report the gossip of the good burghers when they met in the marketplace, showing how congratulations were exchanged on account of the expulsion of the common enemy, and the prospects of their country acquiring its independence. Language of this nature would be freely indulged in by men of all ranks: the misery of the usurpation – the successful manner in which it had been assailed – the boldness of the young Baron, on whom the mantle of Wallace appeared to have fallen – the peril in which he was placed, by arraying against himself not only the might of the English monarch, and the revengeful fury of Comyn’s friends, but the thunderbolts of the Pope – the chances of the town being again plundered and taken by the Southrons, and also of being anathematized wholesale because of the bloody deed which had defiled its altars – all these topics would doubtless be discussed at the Council Board and in the streets; but as no record exists of the language used on the occasion, that must just be left to the fancy of the reader. Forebodings of coming disaster would, we may suppose, mingled with and check the existing joy; and full surely dark clouds were to obscure the firmament, and blot out for a time the sun of freedom that was now brightly shining.

We pause not to analyze the act by which the Scottish hero was so suddenly thrown upon his own resources. Some have called it murder; but even in modern times, when human life wears a sacredness of which our ancestors knew little, such a deed would be reckoned justifiable homicide. It is clear, we think, that it was unpremeditated; if Bruce had deliberately resolved to slay Comyn, he would certainly never have followed him into the church, but would have escaped the guilt of sacrilege – then deemed of a deeper dye than murder itself – by stabbing his victim in the street, or after decoying him to some private place in the neighbourhood. Apart altogether from the grand results with which it is intimately associated, the slaughter of Comyn was an act that may be palliated, if not defended, by a reference to the base treachery which provoked the affray in which he fell. If Comyn had been an honourable rival, whom Bruce with “malice aforethought” dispatched with his dagger, the memory of the latter would have been loaded with eternal infamy; but it was at worst only “the wild justice of revenge,” inflicted on the spur of the moment, under strong provocation: and while these considerations lead us to palliate Bruce’s conduct, we cannot without an emotion of pity call up the figure of the slain ex-Regent, who had in his day done the State some service, lying beside the Greyfriars’ altar all disfigured and gory: -

 “Cut off even in the blossoms of his sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
With all his imperfections on his head.”

From that bloody scene to the glorious seizure of the Castle of Dumfries was a bold and rapid transition; and thirteen months afterwards the chief actor in both was crowned King of Scotland in the Royal Palace of Scone – though he had to battle bravely, and pass through many vicissitudes, eight years longer, before the emblem of sovereignty was firmly secured upon his brow. [Appendix E.]

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