You have read that the two "competitors" who had the strongest claim to the Scottish crown were John Balliol and Robert Bruce.
Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale, was an old man while all these disputes took place.
In 1295, at the age of eighty-five, he died at his castle of Lochmaben in Dumfriesshire. His son, known as Bruce Le Viel, Earl of Carrick, although he had fought bravely against the Saracens in the Crusades, was a weak man, who liked better to stay peaceably in his English home than to fight for a crown which he might possibly never win.
"Have we nothing else to do but to win kingdoms for thee?" Edward I. had asked him in scorn, and Bruce Le Viel never put forward another claim.
When his eldest son, Robert, was seventeen, he gave up to him the earldom of Carrick, which had come to him through his wife, and until his death in 1304 he spent most of his time peacefully in England, leaving his sons to do battle for his Scottish property and the Scottish crown if they chose.
At Writtle Manor in Essex, an estate of his father's, Robert the Bruce was born on July 11, 1274.
His father's ancestors were of the noblest chivalry of France. De Brus, a Norman baron, who took his name from the lands of Breaux, in Normandy, came over with the Conqueror. Bruce's mother, daughter of the Earl of Carrick, was descended from the fighting Celtic chiefs of Galloway.
The Bruce boys, Robert, Edward, Thomas, Alexander, and Nigel, were brought up in England, and educated as English knights.
They must have grown up to hate Balliol, who had got the crown which their grandfather had claimed, and which King Alexander had promised that a Bruce should wear.
Still more must they have hated Balliol when he seized their father's lands in Annandale, and gave them to his own friend, John Comyn; at the same time taking from Robert, the young Earl of Carrick, the earldom which his father had given to him only a short while before. And Robert the Bruce, who was a strong man, and feared no one, must have scorned the Toom Tabard, who, although he wore the crown of Scotland, yet allowed the English king to order him about as a big boy orders his fag at school.
Yet, while he was a lad, and even when he was a man, at first we cannot find that Bruce had any great love for the land for which he was later to fight so nobly. He would have loved to be a king—what boy would not? But it was only of the crown of Scotland that he dreamed, and not of Scotland's freedom.
Historians in our own days say hard things of him, because sometimes he fought for Edward of England, sometimes against him just as it suited him best, so they say.
They may be right, yet Bruce was placed in very much the same position as the boy whose parents are Scotch, but who has been born in England, educated at an English public school, and at Oxford or Cambridge, and who is asked to play in the English XV. against Scotland.
And so Bruce played for England, and against the very land of which he wished to be king, as his father and grandfather had wished before him.
Of the two older Bruces Edward had always felt fairly sure. But the young Earl of Carrick, the tall, strong, handsome youth, who seemed to have no fear, and who bore himself so proudly, kept him anxious.
He did all he could to bind Robert the Bruce to him. For his services he praised and rewarded him. In 1296 he spoke of "the great esteem he" (Edward) had "for the good service of Robert de Brus, Earl of Carrick." In the very next year he "feared for the faithlessness and inconstancy of Sir Robert de Bruys." And Bruce gave him reason to fear, by joining, for a short time, the side of Wallace. In 1298, when Edward came to Scotland to overthrow Wallace, Bruce burned down the castle of Ayr, lest Edward should take it, and retreated into the wilds of Carrick, whither he knew that an English army could not follow him.
For this Edward punished him by marching through Annandale, taking the Bruces' castle of Lochmaben, and wasting their estates.
A few weeks later, Robert the Bruce was again fighting under the English banner. But in 1299 we find him trying to drive out the English garrison placed by Edward in the castle of Lochmaben. Once more, in 1304, he changed sides. He was in charge of the English guns which battered against Stirling Castle, and which were to put an end to Wallace's struggle for freedom.
Perhaps it was at Smithfield, where, on an August day in 1305, he saw Wallace martyred for his country, that the heart of Bruce changed in its feelings to Scotland.
But of that we do not know.
There is an old story that, after one of the battles that Robert the Bruce had helped to fight and win for England, he sat down to eat with his hands still stained with the blood of the Scots he had slain. "Look at the Scotchman eating his own blood," said one English soldier to another. And Bruce was filled with shame, because he knew that what the man said was true.
Bruce's hatred to Balliol he had handed on to Balliol's nephew, John Comyn, called, from his red hair, "the Red Comyn." Comyn was the son of one of the other claimants to the crown, and his mother was a sister of John Balliol.
More than once Comyn had defied King Edward, and he was always ready to pick a quarrel with Bruce.
In 1299, at the sleepy little town of Peebles, on the Tweed, there was held an election of guardians for Scotland. The guardians chosen were Robert the Bruce, Bishop Lamberton, and the Red Comyn.
During the council meeting of the Scottish nobles who made the choice, hot words passed between Bruce and the Red Comyn.
A chronicler tells us that Sir John Comyn "leaped on Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and took him by the throat," and that John Corny; Earl of Buchan (Sir John's uncle), leaped on William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews, "and they held them fast until the Steward and others went and stopped the scuffle."
In January 1306 Robert the Bruce was at Edward's court in London, one of the finest-looking of the noble knights there.
Edward must have felt about him rather as does a man who has tamed a lion, and who is never quite certain whether it will not again one day turn upon him and kill him. Yet there seemed no reason for mistrusting the lion, who had fought for him so bravely, and who for some years had served him so well.
But from Scotland there came bad news for King Edward. The Red Comyn wrote and confessed that he and Robert the Bruce had been plotting together.
To Comyn, Bruce had said: "Give me your lands, and I will help you to win the crown for yourself; or take my lands, and help to make me king."
Comyn had agreed to take Bruce's estates, and to help him to win the crown, and had solemnly sworn to tell no one of their compact.
But not even kings or bishops in those days thought it wicked to break their oaths or mean to break their promises.
The Comyn saw a fine chance of avenging himself on his old enemy the Bruce, and told Edward the whole tale.
Edward promised to reward Comyn, and, in a great rage, sent for Bruce.
To all the king's questions and accusations Bruce answered so wisely and so pleasantly that the king's rage was softened. Until he got more news from Scotland he decided to do nothing, but forbade Bruce to leave the court without his leave.
One night, as the king and some of his lords sat over their wine, the king told the lords that he did not mean to delay any longer, but was going to have Robert the Bruce put to death on the morrow.
The Earl of Gloucester, a cousin of the Bruce, heard this. To Bruce's house he sent a trusty messenger with twelve silver pennies and a pair of spurs.
"My lord sends these to you," said the man, "in return for what he, on his side, got from you yesterday."
Bruce guessed rightly that his cousin's message meant that he must fly. He gave the money to the messenger, sent his thanks to the earl, and got ready to start for the north.
It was bitter winter weather. The ground was white with snow, and they say that Bruce had his horse, and the horses of his secretary and groom who rode with him, shod with the wrong ends of the shoes foremost, to trick his pursuers.
But, however they may have been shod, the horses did their journey well. In fifteen days from the start they were safely over the Border.
In the wild moorland country of the Western Marches they met a man plodding along on foot.
From his dress, and from the way he walked, they took him to be a Scot.
"Whence come ye?" asked Bruce, "and whither do ye go?"
The man began to tell lying tales, and the Bruce had him searched. Letters from Comyn to the king, advising that Robert the Bruce should at once be put to death, were found on him. Without more ado the messenger's head was struck off, and the Bruce and his men galloped onwards.
The man began to tell lying tales.
It was now six years since the scuffle between Bruce and Comyn had taken place at Peebles. On February 10, 1306, they met again.
The Bruce arranged a meeting at the church of the Greyfriars at Dumfries, and there accused the Red Comyn of his treachery and broken faith.
"You lie!" said Comyn, and blows followed hot words.
We do not know who struck the first blow at Peebles it certainly was Comyn—but daggers were drawn, and the Red Comyn fell, stabbed, before the altar.
As Bruce hurried out, his face showing the horror of what he had done, he met two of his friends, Lindsay and Kirkpatrick.
They eagerly asked how it was with him.
"Ill," said the Bruce, "for I doubt I have slain the Comyn."
"You doubt!" cried Kirkpatrick, "then I'll mak siccar!"
Rushing into the church, Kirkpatrick and Lindsay plunged their daggers into the wounded man's body, and also slew his uncle, Sir Robert Comyn, who tried to save him.
The church of the Greyfriars was desecrated. There was blood on the altar steps, the blood of a murdered man.
Robert Bruce had now not merely the English king for an enemy, and for enemies all the powerful friends of the man he had slain. The Pope of Rome and all the priests of the Romish Church were against a man who had committed what was to them so horrible and unpardonable a sin.
There was no going back for him now. No longer could he doubt and daily. Not only had he to fight for a crown and a country—he had to fight for his own life.