"Ah! Freedom is a noble thing!
Freedom makes man to have liking;
Freedom all solace to man gives;
He lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have none ease,
Nor aught besides that may him please,
If Freedom faileth."
With these words John Barbour, the old Scotch chronicler, begins his life of Robert Bruce, hero of the cause of freedom. In quaint verse he tells stories of the patriot's adventures for the sake of freedom, and it is because of these stories that Robert Bruce's name has lived and will live through the ages. His memory is not cherished for the battles which he fought, though he was a brave and skillful general, nor even for the political cause to which he gave his life, for he fought to keep Scotland separate from England, and the centuries have proved that it is for the good of both nations to be united. His memory is cherished because of these old stories, which show that to the minds of his countrymen the spirit of liberty and of patriotism was made perfect in Robert Bruce. Therefore we need not concern ourselves with all the history of England and Scotland at this time, although some day you must read the whole thrilling story in the works of Sir Walter Scott, but we can find out what we care to know about the patriot Robert Bruce by reading his story as it is told in the quaint old Scotch books.
By the death of the rightful heir the Scottish throne became vacant at about the time when the Swiss, far away in the center of Europe, were making their struggle for freedom, and Edward I of England tried to seize it. He even took the ancient Coronation Stone of Scotland and carried it off to England. But the Scottish people wanted independence and a king of their own, and a little group of them met in all haste and crowned Robert Bruce, who was the next claimant, King Robert of Scotland. It was a hasty ceremony, performed in the year 1306. The ancient crown was gone, but a slight circlet of gold was used in its place. The Coronation Stone was gone, and the robes of office, but robes were provided, and a patriotic churchman came forward with the banner of Scotland, which he had kept hidden these many years. Duncan Macduff, whose right it was as Earl of Fife to put the crown on the king's head, was over in England serving the English king, but his patriotic sister came riding across Scotland in all haste to put the crown on Robert's head. She was a bit late, and every one was very much surprised to see her, but it was a great joy to them all to have her lay the circlet on Robert's head, for it carried on the old custom. When the coronation ceremony was over, Sir James Douglas came forward and cast down some earth that he had brought from his own estates, in token that he gave his possessions as well as his body to the service of the new king, and others did the same, till there was a tiny mound of earth in front of King Robert.
There were a great many Scottish estates that were not represented in this little mound of earth, and King Robert must go about at once to strengthen his cause and try, by persuasion or by force, to win over more men to his side. For a time he met with many misfortunes. An English army was sent over the border to take him, and many Scots sided with them. All his expeditions and attempts met with misfortune, his friends were captured by the English, and the autumn of 1306 found the king of the Scots and his companions outlaws and fugitives in the mountains. Life in the barren Highlands was full of hardship, even if one were not in fear of his life, but when one was pursued from every side and must move hither and thither at every new alarm, it took on added trials. Yet Bruce's wife and several faithful ladies followed their lords into the hills, and there they lived through the autumn months. For food they ate roots and herbs and such venison as the men could get by hunting. By day they wandered through the moor, and at night they lay down on the bare ground and in the heather; and all this hardship they endured cheerily and bravely, for, as the old writer says, "it was not the Crown only, but their Liberty also that they suffered for; and not their own Liberty alone, but the Freedom of their Country and all Patriots."
But winter was coming on. The nights were too cold for them to sleep safely on the bare ground. Their clothes were tattered and torn; they had no shoes but such as they had made of deerskin. Besides, the English had heard of King Robert's hiding place, and he was no longer safe. The ladies could not endure the hardships that were before their husbands, and so they went sadly back to the towns, and Bruce and his followers turned toward the Western Isles.
On their way westward they came to Loch Lomond and wished to go across; but from the hills they could see no boats, till at last Sir James Douglas, hunting along the banks, found an old sunken boat. They pulled it out of the water and tried to stop up the leaks, and got it so that it would carry them with some safety. But it would only take three men at a time, and there were two hundred. To row them all across took a night and half a day, and all through those hours of waiting in the cold Bruce sat on the shore and told the men stories from an old French romance which he had read.
"The good king in this manner
Comforted them that were him near.
And made them games and solace
Till that all his folk were passed."
This, then, is our first picture of the patriot king, out on the lonely moors, an outlaw, hunted almost to death, in tattered rags, cheering his followers by his story-telling and never losing heart.
They came over Loch Lomond to a richer country than that which they had left, and the men went out to kill deer for food. Then word came to the Earl of Lennox, the lord of that manor, as he was riding abroad, that there were poachers on his estate, and he went to find them, and behold! it was his king. Then was the earl glad and welcomed him and his men joyfully and took them to his castle and gave them such food and shelter as he might, and they made merry. But it was not safe for Bruce to remain there. Vessels were got for him, and he and his men went over to the isle of Rachrin, which lies off the coast of Ireland, and there they spent the winter.
It was a long, weary time. Often the hearts of the men failed them, but their king cheered them and spoke to them often of the sorrows of their land under the tyrant, and told them tales of brave men of old who had been in great hardship but had come through safely. In the spring they could abide quietly no longer. News had come to them of the way their friends were being persecuted. Once more the party went over to the moors of Scotland, and here again King Robert was found out by the English, and parties were sent to take him. They closed in round his hiding place (he and his band were not at that time strong enough to meet them in open battle), and he divided his men into four companies, who should go out in different directions and meet the English as they were searching in small parties. This was the time when King Robert was in the greatest danger, for he was by some mischance left alone, and he was set upon by three men. By his great strength and bravery he escaped safely from them, and was wandering alone on the hills on the eastern shore of Loch Dee, when he saw before him a solitary cabin. This was the hill where, when they separated, he and his four bands of followers had agreed to meet again, and he went,—for he was sore weary and had been long without food,—to the door of the cabin to ask if he might enter and rest awhile. He found an old housewife sitting on the bench, and she asked him what he was and whence he came and whither he went.
"A wayfarer, dame," said he.
"All wayfarers are welcome here," said she, "for the sake of one."
"Good dame, prithee, who may that one be?"
"Sir," quoth the good wife, "that shall I you say. Robert Bruce is he, who is rightful lord of all this land. His foes are now pressing him hard, but the day is coming, and not far off, when he shall be lord and king of all the land."
"Dame, do you love him so well?"
"Yes sir," said she, "so God me see."
"Dame, lo! it is he by you here," said the king, "for I am he."
"Ha! "said the dame, as she curtsied before him, "where are your men gone, and why are you thus alone?" for even while she rejoiced at his presence, she was angered that he should be there alone and unprotected in her cabin.
"At this moment, dame, I have no men."
"That may not be," she said, "for I have two sons, strong and hardy. They shall become your men." While he was eating the homely fare which the good dame set before him, her two sons came in, and they knelt gladly before him and served him from that time forth.
This is the second picture which the old writers give us of Robert Bruce, showing the love his people bore him. Legend has yet a third tale that is even more well known than these two, so that every one, whether he knows anything else about him or not, knows the story of Robert Bruce and the spider.
This tells us that even to this brave king there came moments of discouragement. During the winter of his misfortune, word reached him that three of his four brothers had been killed by the English, that his wife was imprisoned, and that many more were suffering for his sake. He wondered if it was all worth while. Would it not be better if he went away to Palestine on the crusades and ceased to trouble Scotland by his presence? These thoughts came to him one day as he was lying in hiding in a tiny, forsaken hut in the mountains. As he pondered on this wise, he lay idly watching a spider that was working over his head. Six times it tried to throw its thread across to a beam, and six times it failed. Then the thought came to Bruce: "Six times I have fought with the English, and six times I have been defeated. Now we shall see what will happen the seventh time. If the spider succeeds, it shall be a sign to me that I shall succeed. If not—"
But he never had time to decide what he would do "if not," for the seventh time the thread went safely across, and King Robert rose with new courage and went forth to fight the battle of liberty for the Scotch; and legend says that from this time on King Robert never lost a battle.
After this winter of exile Bruce's fortunes changed. He fought many successful battles, and won over all Scotland to his side, save only the castle of Stirling. That he gained at last by the famous battle of Bannockburn. You will read about that, and about the peace with England, in your English histories. Before many years he was acknowledged by all Scotland to be king, and his Parliament sent communications to other powers, urging them to recognize the independence of Scotland. This is the way they ended one of these proclamations, "As long as one hundred of us remain alive, we will never consent to subject ourselves to the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honor, but it is liberty alone that we contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life,"—which shows that the spirit of Robert Bruce had entered into the whole Scottish nation.