McNamee, Colm. The Wars of the Bruces: Scotland,
England and Ireland, 1306-1329. Tuckwell Press, 1997.
This interpretation of the Scottish War of Independence arose from the
author's Oxford University dissertation, with a focus on the social and
economic impact of the Scottish incursions into the north of England,
especially after the stunning victory at Bannockburn in 1314. These punitive
raids were directed at winning English recognition of Scotland's
independence and the legitimacy of Robert the Bruce's kingship, not to
mention filling Scotland's depleted coffers with plundered English wealth.
McNamee revised and expanded this work to include sections on the wider
scope of the war in Scotland, Ireland, and the maritime world of the North
Sea. He observes that this celebrated conflict has been subject to much myth
making, with the Scots elevating their warrior-king Robert I to Olympian
status while the English tend to dismiss him as an opportunistic brigand,
though some view him with grudging admiration.
McNamee also argues that while there are several biographies of the major
characters, a broad synthetic analysis of this epic struggle and its
enduring legacy is long overdue. He attempts to bring a dispassionate
approach that places people and events in their proper historical context.
While he is able to increase the reader's understanding of the war's effects
upon British society, his depiction of the individuals involved is rather
two dimensional and stale. Fortunately, his impressive bibliography is a
necessity for the specialist and a treat for the enthusiast. It is clear
that he has a powerful command of primary sources, such as contemporary
chronicles and account books, especially for the north of England.
Unfortunately, the sections on Ireland and Scotland are less comprehensive
and highlight the overall 'cut and paste' quality of the book.
McNamee raises a number of interesting questions. Among these being the
persistence of resistance to the Bruce Monarchy by the deposed Balliol
faction, particularly the McDougals and the Comyns, throughout and beyond
Robert's reign. He also comments with some probity upon the Scots' lack of
engineering resources that would have enabled them to capture major cities
such as York or Dublin to use as bargaining chips. However lucrative the
Scottish hit and run raids were, they were not very effective in the short
term in forcing the English to negotiate a lasting peace. In addition,
McNamee does not neglect the role of Flemish and Baltic traders and pirates
who ably assisted the Scottish war effort. Regarding Ireland, McNamee argues
to some effect that the Bruce intervention there would have been much more
effective had it appealed to the disaffected Anglo-Irish barons rather than
promoting an impractical pan-Celtic alliance of Scot, Irish, and Welsh
against their predatory English neighbors. He also examines the sometimes
adversarial relationship between Robert the Bruce and his brother, Edward,
who sought to be King of Ireland and whose adventures there kept him from
causing trouble for his brother in Scotland.
The Wars of the Bruces
is primarily a thematic study with some meager attempts to provide a
narrative thread. McNamee's arguments are reasonable and his sympathy for
the suffering of the people of northern England, pawns in the Anglo-Scottish
power struggle, is sincere. One does find his criticism of Bruce's lack of
'humanity' puzzling since the Scottish king was merely taking the war into
the enemy's territory after years of similar conduct by the English in
Scotland. This book is a valuable adjunct to the existing historiography and
a credible corrective to some of the Bruce panegyrists, but does not in any
way supersede great narrative histories such as Evan Barron's The
Scottish War of Independence (1914); Thomas Costain's The Three
Edwards (1958); nor masterful biographies such as G.W.S. Barrow's
Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm, Ronald McNair Scott's,
Robert Bruce, King of Scots (1982) and Caroline Bingham’s Robert
the Bruce (1998), and should be read in this context.