Bruce’s Choice

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries . . . 

So wrote Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar. He may  very well have been talking about Scotland’s heroes William Wallace and Robert Bruce. It is played out in the movie “Braveheart” when Wallace talks before the Battle of Sterling,  “. . .  Fight, and you may die. Run, and you’ll live; at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day  till that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom?”  Wallace was willing to pay the price of freedom but he was not in the position of Robert Bruce, the other lead contender with Balliol for Scotland’s throne.

There was another Scottish leader, the Caledonian, Calgacus who also gave a speech to his army before he fought the Roman general Agricola. It was recorded by Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law. Part of it reads, “We have neither fruitful plains, nor mines, nor harbours, for the working of which we may be spared. Valour, too, and high spirit in subjects, are offensive to rulers; besides, remoteness and seclusion, while they give safety, provoke suspicion. Since then you cannot hope for quarter, take courage, I beseech you, whether it be safety or renown that you hold most precious. Under a woman’s leadership the Brigantes were able to burn a colony, to storm a camp, and had not success ended in supineness, might have thrown off the yoke. Let us, then, a fresh and unconquered people, never likely to abuse our freedom, show forthwith at the very first onset what heroes Caledonia has in reserve. ”   Tacitus’s writing makes really interesting reading, allowing for a certain natural bias. Of course, it required translation, being written in Latin. You can find a good copy here.

Whether “the Bruce” was as weak and confused as portrayed in the movie is a matter of conjecture. He was born in July, 1274 to Robert Bruce, 6th Lord of Annandale and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick. The Bruce family (formerly de Brus) were a Norman family that came to Scotland with David 1. His grandfather, Robert was claimant to the throne of Scotland during the Great Cause. The Bruce family were long-time supporters of the English crown. When Edward awarded the crown to John Balliol, Robert joined Wallace in the Scottish revolt. He became a guardian of Scotland along with John Comyn but resigned a few years later because they did not get along. He then submitted to Edward “returning to the king’s peace”. During this time the family supported the English against Wallace and he was captured and executed.

But things started to change when Robert argued with John Comyn at Greyfriars Abbey and stabbed him. This was not a good thing, his father had died and he was in line for the throne. But now he was excommunicated by the Pope, a man more powerful than Kings themselves. The Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart, another key player in this drama, saw the necessity of Bruce getting to the throne and had him absolved. Robert moved quickly and was crowned King of Scotland at Scone on 25 March, 1306.

He met Edward at the Battle of Methven and was defeated. While on the run, at Strathfillian, Bruce was ambushed by the McDougalls (often joined by their relatives, the McDowalls, my ancestors). They had been on his side until he murdered John Comyn who was a relative. He barely escaped and went into hiding in Ireland. The next spring, Edward marched north again and captured his wife, daughters and sisters as well as Isabella MacDuff who had crowned him. His sister Mary and Isabella were hung in cages for four years. His brother, Neill was executed .

Robert returned in 1307, having found his strength in guerilla warfare, and defeated the English at Carrick. He went on to gain control of almost all of Scotland. Then he advanced into northern England burning every stronghold as he went. He had sent his brother Edward to Ireland to gain them as allies, but they only gained support from Ulster and Donal O’Neill. Although Edward was crowned as King of Ireland, he was killed at the Battle of Faughart in Louth. The Irish just couldn’t see where there would be a difference between being ruled by the English or the Scots.

Edward I died on the trip north to defeat the Scots in 1307.  In 1314, his son Edward II, moved north to break the siege at Stirling Castle in Edinburgh. His army was considerably larger than Bruce’s. Again, opportunity presented itself which Bruce was quick to use. The geography of the land was such that it would allow him to bring the English army into a vise-like situation, in short they would have no room to manouevre. Potholes were dug into the road which would force the army to bunch up into this position. It took two days for Robert Bruce to win the Battle of Bannockburn.  Edward was actually undone by his own wife Isabella who along with her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded England from France and  forced him to give up the throne of England to his son, Edward III. In 1328, Edward  finally recognized the right of Bruce to the throne of Scotland and recognized Scotland’s independence.


Fighting Without and Within

When the Romans left Scotland in the early 400’s, they left behind the remains of forts along Hadrian’s Wall, a system of roads and a series of buffer states they hoped would keep order in Britain. They had more pressing issues in Europe that would eventually lead to the decline and fall of a mighty empire.

The tale of Argyll on the west coast of Scotland, being invaded by Gaelic tribes from Ireland who then absorbed the Picts, has recently been challenged by archaeologists. There is no evidence on the ground of a struggle or of a different way of life than the one already there. It is now believed that Dal Riata (Dalriada), as the area was known, had a native population who spoke the same language (Gaelic) as their neighbors across the sea in Northern Ireland (some 12 miles away). The Romans used the term “Scotti” or “pirates”  to describe the Gaels in a derogatory way. They were known for harassing the Roman merchant ships along the coast. Around 563 A.D.,  the Irish monk, Columba followed and began to convert the Picts to Christianity.

Kingdom of Dal Riata  580-600 AD

Kingdom of Dal Riata 580-600 AD

During the Viking raids, in 839, the king of Dal Riata was slain and Kenneth Mac Alpin began his fight for the throne which he won in 847. Under Kenneth, the kingdoms of the Scots and Picts would unite and become known as Alba. During the late 900’s, many violent struggles for the throne began. One of these struggles was between Duncan I and Macbeth, one of his generals, familiar to us in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.  In 1057, Macbeth was killed by Duncan’s son, Malcolm III. Malcolm allowed people in England who opposed the rule of William the Conqueror, the Norman king, to settle in Scotland. This he did under a system of feudalism whereby land was granted in exchange for things such as military service. After Malcolm’s death in 1093, the Scots continued to fight England for their freedom often becoming allies with France.

During the reign of Malcolm’s successor, Alexander III (1249-1286), there was a time of piece and prosperity for Scotland. He married Margaret, daughter of Henry III of England but refused to recognize Henry as overlord of Scotland. He then went to war against the Norwegian king Haaken to regain control of the Western Isles. Haaken died and the Treaty of Perth was signed with his successor, Magnus which granted him the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Scotland retained the Western Isles and the Isle of Man .  An agreement was also made with the MacDonald Clan who had fought with the Norwegians. They were able to keep their lands in the isles by recognizing Alexander as their overlord. From this they greatly profited and soon became “Lords of the Isles”, strong enough to remain independent of the monarchy to a great degree.

Alexander’s wife Margaret died along with the three children he had by her and this left him with only his granddaughter Margaret as heir. She was being raised in Norway with her paternal family. Alexander remarried in 1285 to Yolande de Dreux who belonged to a powerful French family. Tragically, on his way to meet her in Fife, he met with an accident which killed him. Yolande, apparently pregnant at the time, had a child who was stillborn. This left the throne to Margaret, the granddaughter. Tensions rose when many of the Scottish nobles, including Robert Bruce I, protested rule under a Norwegian queen.

Alexander III

     Alexander III

The Norwegians applied to Edward I for help in gaining the throne. Edward agreed to do this with the condition that Margaret would marry his son. To this the Scots would not agree.The problem was solved when the child Margaret died on her way from Norway to Scotland.

During this time period, we know two things about my family although further research would without doubt uncover more. One, the family of my great great grandfather, William McDowell, had its origins in Galloway, home of the Lords of Galloway. And two, that John Gartshore, ancestor of my maternal grandmother, was granted land by exgambion by Alexander II, father of the above, for land in Kirkintilloch, Scotland between the years 1211 and 1231.



The Legacy

Sarah Clark McDowell had died in 1892 at the age of 71. She was followed shortly after by her daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth. William McDowell died in 1900. His will was the catalyst for me starting research on my mother’s ancestors. My aunt called me to ask if I would be interested in speaking to an Irish cousin in New York about this will. I did get a call shortly after from the cousin, Evelyn, telling me that she had grown up in Dublin and emigrated to New York. Eva, her grandmother was my great-aunt.

That will has a tender spot in my heart. There was something about the child-like writing on the envelope and the way it was neatly folded inside. The yellow color and the handwriting. And the incongruity of the heavy, glossy paper it had been printed on.

Well, first things first. Try to read and understand it. William was a man of some property at the time of writing, some of it rented out. The rented houses were left to the daughters except for Sarah who had died, the rent money was to be used for the upkeep of her children with the property passing to the youngest at age of majority. The farm was left to Alice and moneys were distributed to the various grandchildren. But the codicil, now there was something else. William had told Agnes that he did not remember what he had signed and he was alarmed about it. As it turns out, the codicil rearranged the disposal of some of the properties, making it more beneficial for the grandchildren. Nothing really untoward. My grandfather was to benefit by it.

The story of William’s death was a family legend. He went to town to buy a new scythe, a child ran in front of the cart, it overturned and William’s neck was cut by the scythe. What are the odds? I remind you that I had grown up with this story in various forms. It was purportedly my great-grandfather George Phillips, who had been murdered in his own driveway, a circle drive no less! His throat slit! (Sorry those are the words that were used.) George, however, died of typhus.

So, we look for Will’s death cert. Cause of death; hemorrhage and debility, length of illness, two months. It doesn’t take two months to hemorrhage to death. So that rules out hemorrhage as cause of death, though perhaps indirectly. The accident probably weakened him leading to his demise. At the time of the codicil William added James Fraser as another executor to the will, perhaps showing his lack of confidence in the others. I think his feelings were may have been concern for the state of his property and lack of trust in Walter Bates, Sophie’s husband. We do not know if Walter was actually tryin to gain control over the property but there is no doubt that he was a prominent figure in the family at the time. That may have been because he was the only male figure actually present at the farm and having been the farm steward he would take a managerial position unless there was a stronger character there.

William may have felt powerless in all this and panicked asking James to be another executor, though by more accounts James wasn’t too reliable himself. The larger picture is that Walter Bates did gain ground during this time . He seems to have been the one who did all the arranging for things and was at all the official occasions, such as Alex Frasers funeral. He sent my grandfather and his brother over to Canada. Sadly, we do not know how the particulars of the  will were served out but the probate served some 5 months later (not sure if this would be normal), left behind £2037.1.10 . That is equivalent to £57,600 today ($105,984C).  the economic status of that amount is $373,000 and the economic power of that amount is $1,520,000 (from the website Measuring Worth. Of course, there was the land as well which eventually got sold off. Lisheenamalausa, the farm was sold sometime in the 1930’s.

Beloved Sarah

Sarah McDowell, fourth daughter of William and Sarah was a dark, pretty girl, born sometime around her parents move to Tipperary from England.

Sarah McDowell

Sarah McDowell

Not much was written about her but she is described as “beloved” on the family gravestone. In 1884, she married James Fraser, son of Robert Cumming Fraser, a land agent from Aberdeen, Scotland. James is described in the memoirs as  ” a cattle dealer, a feckless man who made money and enjoyed spending it …”

In 1885, a son, Robert was born, followed by Margaret Isabella in 1887 and Rose Isabel in 1890. As stated before, Sarah contracted puerperal fever and died in 1893. At that point, Robert and Margaret were taken in by Sarah’s younger sister , Agnes in Dublin. Rose Isabel went to the Tilery, James apparently not fit to look after the children himself. By the 1911 census, the children now in their 20’s were back living with him on Charleville Road in Dublin. Robert Fraser emigrated to Australia, Margaret (Madge) married Thomas Finch who worked for the British Colonial Service . She lived for a period of time on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and had 3 boys. Rose (Isabel) sang on stage in London. James died in Dublin, 29 March, 1912.


Alice McDowell  became the mainstay of the farm at Lisheenamalausa, Tipperary in later years . There is no evidence that she married. She had a reputation as a cattle dealer in her own right and worked along side the men in the family. In 1901, we find her at the Tilery with four of her nieces Sarah Hansard, Isabel Fraser, maternally orphaned, and my two great aunts, Sophie and Evelyn, whose parents had also died. Isabel’s brother and sister were staying with my great aunt Agnes in Dublin and my grandfather Richard and his brother George were at the Kings Hospital School in Dublin. These were the siblings of Sophie and Evelyn.
I sometimes get a sense that things were sometimes a little wild  at the farm. Alice died “of the drink” you might say, cirrhosis of the liver and dropsy. That was in 1904. To me, this somewhat parallels the way that William died. He took off for some reason in a pony trap and ended up with his neck being cut. What had taken place prior to that is hard to tell but it appears there was some disagreement about the sale of the Tilery. The cart tipped and he apparently cut his neck on a scythe which he had just bought. He got home and had a large amount of cash on him. Later, talking to Agnes, he said he had been forced to sign something but didn’t know what it was about. To me, this hints at the possibility of dementia. But it is certainly understandable that William wouldn’t want to sell the farm. There was a codicil to his will but there seemed nothing untoward in it. A change in the way the properties were dispersed to his granddaughters and the addition of more executors.