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Chapter XXIV. The Progress of the War

A mile or two after leaving Berwick the cart had left the main road running by the coast through Dunbar to Edinburgh, and had struck west by a country track. But few houses were met with, as the whole of the country within many miles of the sea had been harried and devastated by the various English armies which had advanced from Berwick. After proceeding for some miles they came to a point where the track they had been following terminated at a little hamlet among the hills. Here they left the cart, making an arrangement with one of the villagers to drive it back on the morrow into Berwick. They were now beyond all risk of pursuit, and need fear nothing further until they reached the great north roads running from Carlisle to Edinburgh and Stirling. Cluny therefore resumed male attire. They had no difficulty in purchasing a couple of swords from the peasants of the village, and armed with these they started with Marjory and the two women over the hills. It was early autumn now; the weather was magnificent, and they made the distance in quiet stages, and crossing the Pentlands came down upon Aberfilly without meeting with a single danger or obstacle.

It needs not to describe the joy of Archie's mother at his return. The news spread like lightning among the tenantry, and in an hour after the wayfarers reached the castle men and women could be seen flocking over the hills at the top of their speed to express their delight and enthusiasm at their lord's return. By nightfall every tenant on the estate, save those prevented by age or illness, had assembled at the castle, and the rejoicings which had taken place at the marriage of their lord were but tame and quiet beside the boisterous enthusiasm which was now exhibited.

Although Marjory had at first been welcomed for the sake of her husband, the fact that she was a Kerr had excited a deep though hidden hostility to her in the minds both of those who had been her father's vassals at Aberfilly, and the old retainers of the Forbeses at Glen Cairn. The devotion and courage which she had shown in the defence of the castle and in the enterprise for the rescue of their lord swept away every vestige of this feeling, and henceforth Marjory ranked in their affections with Archie himself, and there was not a man upon the estate but felt that he could die for her if needs be.

After a week's stay at home Archie rode away and joined the king, taking, however, but four or five retainers with him. Bruce received him with extreme warmth. He had heard of his capture, and the news that he was condemned to die at Berwick had also reached him, and he had no doubt but Archie had shared the fate which had befallen his own brothers and so many of his bravest friends. His pleasure, therefore, equalled his surprise when his brave follower rode into his camp. Many of Archie's friends assembled as soon as it was known that he had arrived; and after the first greetings the king asked him for a recital of the means by which he had escaped from the fate decreed him by Edward. Archie related the whole story, and at its conclusion the king called to his attendants to bring goblets and wine.

"Sirs," he said, "let us drink to the health of Mistress Marjory Forbes, one of the bravest and truest of Scotch women. Would to Heaven that all the men of our country were animated by as noble and courageous feelings! Our friend, Sir Archibald Forbes, has indeed won a jewel, and I take no small credit to myself that I was the first who advised him to make Mistress Kerr his wife."

The toast was given with enthusiasm; but Archie afterwards protested against the king assuming any credit to himself in the matter, since, although it was true that he had advised him to marry Mistress Mary Kerr, he had wished him to abandon, for her sake, Mistress Marjory, the niece of Alexander MacDougall, who had set him free from her uncle's hold of Dunstaffnage.

"Now, Archie," the king said, when they were again alone together, "I suppose, seeing that you have come hither without your following, that you wish for a time to remain quiet at home, and seeing that you have suffered severe imprisonment and a grievous risk of death in my cause, methinks you have well earned the right to rest quiet for a while with your brave lady. At present I can dispense with the services of your retainers. Most of the low country is now in my hands, and the English garrisons dare not venture out of their strong places. The army that the King of England collected to crush us has been, I hear, much disorganized by his death, and the barons will doubtless wring concessions and privileges from his son before they spread their banners to the wind again. From all reports the new king has but little of his father's ability and energy, and months may elapse before any serious effort is made against us. I am despatching my brother Edward to join Douglas in subduing Galloway, and during his absence I shall be content to remain here in the field with a small following, for the English governors of the towns will, methinks, stand only on the defensive, until a strong army marches north from England. When Galloway is subdued the lowlands will be all in my hands save for the English garrisons, and I shall on Edward's return set myself to punish the Comyns and the other traitor nobles of the north, who are well nigh all hand and glove with the English. So long as Scotland has such powerful enemies in her midst she cannot hope to cope with the forces which England can send against her. Alone and united the task is one which will tax her strength to the utmost, seeing that England is in wealth and population so far her superior, and Edward disposes of the force of Ireland, of Wales, and of Gascony; therefore my first task must be to root out these traitor nobles from among us. When I move north I shall need your company and your strength; but until Edward has cleared the English out of Galloway, captured the strongholds, and reduced it to obedience, you can stop in Aberfilly, and there at times, when I have no enterprise on hand and can take a few days, I will come and rest if you will give me hospitality."

So until the following spring Archie Forbes remained quietly and most happily at home. Several times the king came and stayed a few days at Aberfilly, where he was safe against surprise and treachery. Not long after Archie's return home, Father Anselm arrived, to Archie's satisfaction and the great joy of Marjory, and took up his abode there.

In the spring Archie, with his retainers,joined the king, who was gathering his army for his march into the north. During the winter Galloway had been subdued, and Douglas being left in the south as commander there, Edward Bruce joined his brother, around whom also gathered the Earl of Lennox, Sir Gilbert de la Haye, and others. The position in Scotland was now singular: the whole of the country south of the Forth was favourable to Bruce, but the English held Roxburgh, Jedburgh, Dumfries, Castle Douglas, Ayr, Bothwell, Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Stirling, and Dumbarton. North of the Forth nearly the whole of the country was hostile to the king, and the fortresses of Perth, Dundee, Forfar, Brechin, Aberdeen, Inverness, and many smaller holds, were occupied by English garrisons.

The centre of hostility to Bruce, north of the Forth, lay in the two great earls, the Comyns of Badenoch and Buchan, and their allies. Between them and Bruce a hatred existed beyond that caused by their taking opposite sides. Comyn of Badenoch was the son of the man Bruce had slain at Dumfries, while Buchan hated him even more, since his wife, the countess, had espoused the cause of Bruce and had crowned him at Scone, and was now shamefully imprisoned in the cage at Berwick. It must be supposed that Buchan's anger against his countess was as deep and implacable as that of Edward himself, for, as the English king's most powerful ally in Scotland, he could surely have obtained the pardon and release of his wife had he desired it. On the other hand, Bruce had a private grudge against Comyn, for upon him had been conferred Bruce's lordship of Annandale, and he had entered into possession and even occupied the family castle of Lochmaben.

The king and his army marched north, and were joined by Alexander and Simon Frazer, with their followers. They marched to Inverness, which, with various other castles in the north, they captured. All of these castles were, when taken, destroyed, as Bruce had determined to leave no strongholds in the land for the occupation of his enemies. He himself could not spare men to hold them, and their capture was useless if upon his retirement they could again be occupied by the enemy. Returning southward they were encountered by an army under Buchan, composed of his own retainers and a party of English. This force was completely defeated.

To the consternation of his followers Bruce was now attacked by a wasting illness, which so enfeebled him that he was unable to sit on his horse; it was the result of the many privations and hardships which he had undergone since the fight at Methven. His brother, Lennox, the Frazers, and Archie Forbes held a council and agreed that rest for some time was absolutely necessary for the king, and that sea air might be beneficial to him. They therefore resolved to move eastward to the Castle of Slaines, on the sea coast near Peterhead. That such a step was attended by great peril they well knew, for the Comyns would gather the whole strength of the Highlands, with accessions from the English garrisons, and besiege them there. The king's health, however, was a paramount consideration; were he to die, the blow might be fatal to Scotland, accordingly the little force marched eastward. They reached Slaines without interruption, and as they expected the castle was soon surrounded and besieged by the forces of Buchan, who had been joined by Sir John Mowbray and Sir David de Brechin, nephew of the King of England. For some time the siege went on, but the assailants gained but little advantage, and indeed trusted rather to famine than force to reduce the castle.

Weeks passed on, and although his followers thought that he was somewhat better, the king's health improved but slowly. Provisions now began to run very short. When they had come nearly to an end the Scots determined to sally out and cut their way through the vastly superior strength of the enemy. The king was placed in a litter, his mounted knights and followers surrounded him, and round these the footmen formed a close clump of pikes; the hundred men from Aberfilly formed the front rank, as these could be best relied upon to withstand the charge of the English horse. The gates were thrown open, and in close ranks the garrison sallied out, forming, as soon as they passed through, in the order arranged. So close and serried was the hedge of spears, so quiet and determined the attitude of the men, that, numerous as they were, the men of Buchan and the English lords shrank from an encounter with such adversaries, and with the banner of the king and his knights flying in their centre the little band marched on through the lines of the besiegers without the latter striking a blow to hinder their way.

Without interruption the royalists proceeded to Strathbogie. The satisfaction of the king at the daring exploit by which he had been rescued from such imminent peril did more for him than medicine or change of air, and to the joy of his followers he began to recover his strength. He was then moved down to the river Don. Here Buchan and his English allies made a sudden attack upon his quarters, killing some of the outposts. This attack roused the spirit and energy of the king, and he immediately called for his war horse and armour and ordered his men to prepare for action. His followers remonstrated with him, but he declared that this attack by his enemies had cured him more speedily than medicine could have done, and heading his troops he issued forth and came upon the enemy near Old Meldrum, where, after a desperate fight, Buchan and his confederates were defeated with great slaughter on Christmas day, 1307. Buchan and Mowbray fled into England. Brechin took refuge in his own castle of Brechin, where he was afterwards besieged and forced to surrender.

Bruce now marched into the territory of Comyn, where he took a terrible vengeance for the long adhesion of his hated enemy to England. The whole country was wasted with fire and sword, the people well nigh exterminated, and the very forests destroyed. So terrible was the devastation that for generations afterwards men spoke of the harrying of Buchan as a terrible and exceptional act of vengeance.

The castle of Aberdeen was next invested. The English made great efforts for its succour, but the citizens joined Bruce, and a united attack being made upon the castle it was taken by assault and razed to the ground. The king and his forces then moved into Angus. Here the English strongholds were all taken, the castle of Forfar being assaulted and carried by a leader who was called Phillip, a forester of Platane. With the exception of Perth, the most important fortress north of the Forth, and a few minor holds, the whole of the north of Scotland, was now in the king's hands. In the meantime Sir James Douglas, in the south, had again taken his paternal castle and had razed it to the ground. The forests of Selkirk and Jedburgh, with the numerous fortresses of the district, were brought under the king's authority, and the English were several times defeated. In the course of these adventures Sir James came across Alexander Stewart, Thomas Randolph, the king's nephew, who, after being taken prisoner at Methven, had joined the English party, and Adam O'Gordon. They advanced with a much superior force to capture him, but were signally defeated. O'Gordon escaped into England, but Stewart and Randolph were taken.

This was a fortunate capture, for Randolph afterwards became one of the king's most valiant knights and the wisest of his counsellors. After this action Douglas marched north and joined the king. The latter sternly reproached Randolph for having forsworn his allegiance and joined the English. Randolph answered hotly and was committed by his uncle to solitary confinement, where he presently came to a determination to renew his allegiance to Bruce, and henceforward fought faithfully and gallantly under him.

Galloway had risen again, and Edward Bruce, with Sir Archie Forbes, was detached to reduce it. It was a hard task, for the local chiefs were supported by Sir Ingram de Umfraville and Sir John de St. John; these knights, with 1200 followers, met the Scots on the banks of the Cree, which separates the countries of Kirkcudbright and Wigton, and although greatly superior in numbers, were completely defeated by the Scottish pikemen, and compelled to take refuge in the castle of Butele. Edward Bruce and Archie continued the task of subjugating the country; but St. John having retired to England, returned with fifteen hundred men-at-arms, and with this strong force set out in pursuit of the small body of Scots, of whom he thought to make an easy capture. Then occurred one of the most singular and brilliant feats of arms that took place in a war in which deeds of daring abounded. Edward Bruce having heard from the country people of the approach of his adversaries, placed his infantry in a strong position, and then, with Archie Forbes and the fifty men-at-arms who constituted his cavalry, went out to reconnoitre the approach of the English. The morning was thick and misty. Ignorant of each other's position, the two forces were in close vicinity, when the fog suddenly lifted, and Edward Bruce and Archie beheld close to them the overwhelming force of St. John, within bowshot distance. It was too late to fly. Edward Bruce exclaimed to Archie:

"There is nothing for it but to charge them."

"Let us charge them," Archie replied.

The two leaders, setting spurs to their horses, and closely followed by their fifty retainers, dashed like a thunderbolt upon the mass of the English men-at-arms, before these, taken equally by surprise, had time to form, and burst clean through them, overthrowing and slaying many, and causing the greatest confusion and surprise. Riding but a short distance on, the Scots turned, and again burst through the English lines. Numbers of the English were slain, and many others turned rein. A third time the Scots charged, with equally fatal effect. The English were completely routed. Many were killed and many taken prisoners, and the rest rode for England at their best speed. History scarcely recalls another instance of 50 men routing in fair fight 1500. This extraordinary success was followed by a victory over Sir Roland of Galloway and Donald of the Isles on the banks of the Dee, the Lord of the Isles being made prisoner; and eventually the whole country was reduced to obedience, with the exception of one or two garrisons, no less than thirteen castles being captured, in addition to the victories gained in the field.

Galloway being restored to order, Archie Forbes returned home, and remained for two or three months with his wife and mother. He was then summoned by the king to join him again, as he was about to march to reduce the region over which his deadly foes Alexander and John of Lorne held sway. The country into which the royal army now penetrated was extremely mountainous and difficult, but they made their way as far as the head of Loch Awe, where Alexander and John of Lorne, with 2000 men, were gathered to dispute the passage. The position was an extremely strong one, and the Lornes were confident that it could not be forced. Immediately to the north of the head of the lake rises the steep and lofty mountain Ben Gruachan. From the head of the lake flows the river Awe connecting it with Loch Etive, and the level space between the foot of the mountain and the river is only wide enough for two to ride abreast. This passage was known as the Pass of Brander, and the Lornes might well believe that their position was unassailable.

Before advancing into the pass Bruce detached Douglas, with Sir Alexander Frazer, Sir William Wiseman, and Sir Andrew Grey, with a body of lightly armed infantry and archers. These, unnoticed by the enemy, climbed the side of the mountain, and going far up it, passed along until they got behind and above the enemy. The king ordered his main body to lay aside all defensive armour so that they could more easily climb the hill and come to a hand to hand conflict with the enemy. Then he moved along towards the narrow pass. As they approached it the men of Lorne hurled down a torrent of rocks from the hillside above.

With a few heavy armed men Bruce pushed forward by the water side, while Archie Forbes led the main body up the hillside. The climb was stiff and difficult, and many were swept down by the rocks hurled by the enemy; but at last they came to close quarters with the foe, and a desperate struggle ensued.

In the meantime Douglas and his party had attacked the defenders from the other side, at first showering arrows among them, and then falling upon them with sword and battleaxe. Thus attacked in front and rear, the men of Lorne lost heart and gave way. On both sides the royalists pressed them hotly, and at last they broke from the hillside and fled down to the river, intending to cross by a wooden bridge and destroy it behind them, but before many had passed Douglas with his followers arrived upon the spot and seized the bridge, cutting off their retreat. Great numbers of the men of Lorne were slain, and the survivors made their escape up the mountain side again. The Lornes themselves were on board some galleys on Loch Awe, their intention having been to land in Bruce's rear when he was fairly entangled in the narrow pass. On witnessing the utter discomfiture of their followers they rowed rapidly away, and landed far down the lake. Alexander fled to England, where he ended his life.

Bruce now advanced through the country of Lorne, which, having never suffered from the English raids that had over and over again devastated the rest of Scotland, was rich and flourishing, and large quantities of booty were obtained. Dunstaffnage was besieged and captured, and having received hostages from all the minor chiefs for their good behaviour the king and his army returned to Glasgow.

In the following spring a truce was negotiated by the intervention of the King of France between the belligerents; but its duration was but short, for so long as English nobles held estates and occupied castles in Scotland breaches of the peace would be constantly occurring. Bruce besieged the castle of Rutherglen, near Glasgow; but Edward despatched the Earl of Gloucester to raise the siege, and as Bruce's army was still small he was forced to retire at his approach.

In February, 1309, the clergy of Scotland assembled in a provincial council at Dundee, and issued a declaration in favour of Bruce as lawful king of Scotland. In this document they set forth that although Baliol was made king of Scotland by the King of England, Bruce, the grandfather of the king, was always recognized by the people as being nearest in right; and they said: "If any one, on the contrary, claim right to the aforesaid kingdom in virtue of letters in time passed sealed, and containing the consent of the people and the commons, know ye that all this took place in fact by force and violence, which could not at the time be resisted, and through multiplied fears, bodily tortures, and various terrors."

This document was sealed by all the bishops, as representing the clergy. A similar document was drawn up and signed by the estates of Scotland. Therefore, henceforth Bruce could claim to be the king not only as crowned and by right, but by the approval and consent of the clergy and people of Scotland. A few months afterwards James, the Steward of Scotland, whose course had ever been vacillating, died, and his son Walter, a loyal Scotsman, succeeded him. He afterwards married the king's daughter Marjory, and became the founder of the royal line of Stuart.

G. A. Henty