Robert the Bruce and Ireland’s last, Scottish high king

700 years ago, after the Battle of Bannockburn, the countries united to fight England. We should cherish the links that were forged

Robert the Bruce: fresh from his victory at Bannockburn. Photograph: Max Milligan/AWL/Getty

Robert the Bruce: fresh from his victory at Bannockburn. Photograph: Max Milligan/AWL/Getty

 

The Irish and the Scots may be deadly enemies as Scotland vies with the Republic for that vital third qualifying spot, behind Germany and Poland, for Euro 2016. But it was all so different 700 years ago.

The year was 1315, and a life-and-death struggle was under way involving the Scots and Irish. Not only were the two peoples on friendly terms, and united against a common enemy – the English – but the Irish had also just set up a Scotsman as their high king.

The Scot in question, who would be Ireland’s last high king, was the younger brother of Robert the Bruce, fresh from his great victory over the English at Bannockburn.

It may seem strange now that the Irish should choose a man from Scotland to follow in the footsteps of Brian Boru, but it only goes to show how closely entwined the Irish and the Scots were in medieval times.

The very name Scotland – from Scotia, the “Land of the Scoti” – is an ever-present reminder of that connection, because, in the Latin of the early Middle Ages, a Scotus was an Irishman, and the homeland of the Scoti was Ireland.

It was only when an Irish dynasty, Dál Riata, of Antrim, gained the ascendancy in northern Britain that the territory gradually became known as the land of the Scoti and therefore Scotland was born.

But the idea that the Scots and Irish were a single people lasted long after Scotland began to emerge as a separate kingdom. Back in the year 1005, shortly after he became high king of Ireland, Brian Boru adopted the title Imperator Scotorum, “Emperor of the Scoti”, and there is evidence to suggest that he saw himself as overlord not just of all Ireland but of all the Gaels, including those who lived across the North Channel.

That is why, when Robert the Bruce seized the throne of Scotland in defiance of the English in 1306, but was forced into exile on Rathlin Island, off the Antrim coast, he wrote a letter to “his friends” the Irish.

He reminded them that they and the Scots “stem from one seed of birth” and share “a common language and common customs”; and he offered a permanent alliance against the English, their would-be conquerors.

That alliance culminated in the inauguration of Robert’s brother Edward as high king of Ireland in the summer of 1315. And although the Bruce family was, on the surface, thoroughly Anglo-Norman, Edward and Robert Bruce were of Gaelic extraction on their mother’s side and had close connections with the Gaelic world of western Scotland and the Hebrides.

Edward Bruce’s reign as high king of Ireland did not last long. In October 1318, as he marched south from his power base in Ulster to try to overrun the lands of the English colonists in the hinterland of Dublin – what would later be known as the Pale – he risked a battle with an English army just north of Dundalk, at Faughart, losing his life and, with it, his Irish kingdom.

He was an unlucky general. His invasion coincided with the Great European Famine (1315-17), and as appalling weather and three consecutive harvest failures brought widespread hardship, disillusion set in among his Irish supporters. The annals ruefully observe that, during his reign, “falsehood and famine and homicide filled the country, and undoubtedly men ate each other in Ireland”.

But his inauguration as Ireland’s last high king, 700 years ago this year, was living proof of a legacy of Irish links with Scotland that deserves to be remembered and cherished.

Those links are explored at The Irish-Scottish World in the Middle Ages, a symposium at Trinity College Dublin on September 18th and 19th. Events are free and open to the public, although some have already sold out. For further information see tcd.ie/history/bruce700

Seán Duffy is professor of medieval history at Trinity College Dublin

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