Certainly his mustachioed turn as the only three-dimensional character in Mel Gibson’s 1995 Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart – here was a man who actually gave some thought to choosing between the competing needs of his family and his country – left him branded a faint-heart next to Mel’s single-minded Wallace. And we should not forget Bruce’s other famous mentor – the spider who supposedly persuaded him to try, try and try again in his early days as king when his cause seemed lost. It would be fair to say, in terms of popular perception, that drawing inspiration from a tenacious arachnid and the doomed, short-lived ‘win-one-lose-one’ Wallace does not augur well for King Robert’s claims to greatness.
Needless to say the life of the man is rather different to the one we vaguely think we know. Ambitious, decisive, charismatic, and possessed of a breath-taking military genius, Bruce brought his small, peripheral kingdom to such a pitch of martial prowess that it dominated the island of Britain, earning international renown for the king and his generals.
At the same time, the propaganda circulated throughout the courts of Europe on King Robert’s behalf should be far more widely known as some of the earliest – and finest – medieval articulations of the right of a nation to self-determination. The stirring lines of the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) - ‘It is not for glory, riches or honours that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man loses but with his life’ - are as potent today as they were 700 years ago.
But for all that such propaganda is lyrical and impassioned, it played fast and loose with reality because Bruce possessed some of the more problematic attributes of greatness so often exemplified by military leaders in the past (and far from unknown in the present). His unfailing determination and tactical genius were employed in the service of a ruthless and self-seeking ambition to be king, one that did not baulk at the wholesale terrorisation of parts of Scotland once home to a powerful family which also had a claim to the Scottish throne and whose head Bruce murdered on the high altar of a church.
Forcing his fellow countrymen to choose between himself, a murdering usurper, or the occupying English regime, King Robert nearly split Scotland apart. And yet he too suffered much as penance for his vaulting ambition. The story of his early trials and tribulations as king seem to owe more to fiction than fact, his brothers and friends brutally executed, his womenfolk taken off to face indefinite imprisonment in England, he and only a handful of men forced into the heather, unsure where they would find their next meal or who to trust. That he found the strength to carry on, never mind to release in himself an extraordinary talent for turning even the most limited of resources into ingredients for victory stands as an example of one of the most spectacular turn-arounds in history. And in saving himself and his crown, he ultimately saved a nation from extinction.
It’s a rip-roaring tale, no doubt. But how does Bruce’s story really touch us, 700 years on in a very different world? Robert the Bruce was a great king and phenomenal military leader because he did not succumb to defeatism, but used anything and everything to build success out of nothing. He did not follow, but led from the front, with only an inner belief, an ability to take advantage of even seemingly hopeless situations, and the charisma to persuade others that the impossible was possible too. In other words, even if he never actually met a spider (sorry, folks!), he certainly had the guts to try, try, and try again. That is something that might inspire greatness in us all.
By Fiona Watson