The Bruce Family in Scotland and Ireland


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

The Bruce family was one of the important and renowned Scottish families. However, their ancestors were English knights that King David invited to settle in Scotland. Robert Bruce played a key role in winning the battle of Bannockburn and granting Scotland’s independence for three centuries. It was then time for him to do great things.

The 'Tyninghame' copy of the Declaration from 1320 AD.
The Bruce family invaded Ireland and tried to build an independent Scotland with all the battles they took part in. (Image: Scotland barons/Public domain)

Robert Bruce tried his best to reunite the Celtic world and keep Scottish independence. Naturally, Ireland and Wales were places he looked for alliance in. In 1306, he wrote to the Irish king for that, highlighting the shared roots of Scots and the Irish. That did not work, and in 1315, after he won the Battle of Bannockburn, he decided to invade Ireland.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Seeking Irish Alliance

Robert was married to the daughter of the Earl of Ulster, and he knew Ireland well. Around 1315, after his wife had died, Donal O’Neill approached him to get help for conquering the western part of Ulster. Their ancestors used to rule most of the northern half of Ireland. Robert sent his brother, Edward Bruce, to help O’Neill in Ireland.

Edward set up his base in Ulster, where many Irish leaders joined him. After raiding the midlands and the south, he eventually was acknowledged as the king of Ireland, even though he had not conquered Dublin yet. Robert heard the news and decided to join Edward and start the Bruce invasion.

Learn more about prehistoric Ireland and the Celts.

The Bruce Invasion

The brothers marched to Dublin but could not get the city. So, they went further south to Munster to fight an Anglo-Irish army and part of the O’Brien family. The O’Briens were fighting mainly because another faction of the O’Briens was backing the Bruces. They lost the battle and had to retreat to Ulster.

Robert had to go back to Scotland, and Edward could not do anything in the one and a half years of stalemate. In 1317, as Edward was doing nothing, Donal O’Neill was drafting an important document: the Remonstrance of the Princes.

The Remonstrance of the Princes

Irish princes sent the Remonstrance of the Princes to Pope John XXII to solve their public relations problems. They first denied the validity of the papal bull Laudabiliter, which allowed the English king to invade Ireland for church reunification. They used the Book of Invasion to trace their heritage back to Spain, thus liberating themselves from English rule. Furthermore, they wanted Edward as the Irish king.

What happened next? The pope ignored the draft, and the rebel princes were excommunicated. Edward waited until 1318, but then was fed up and marched south for battle at Faughart, near Dundalk on the coast. However, he was defeated and killed. This was the end of the Bruce invasion. A big reason for their defeat was the lack of unity and alliance in Ireland. The lords would just turn against each other and support or fight Edward.

Learn more about Celts and Picts in Scotland.

Declaration of Arbroath

Even though the Bruce invasion lost the battle, it left an important impact behind: Declaration of Arbroath. In 1320, Scots wrote the declaration to show the Pope that their ancestors were also Spanish and that they wanted their king, Robert Bruce, to come back. Consequently, Pope John XXII lifted Robert Bruce’s excommunication.

Around 1375, a long poem was written in Scots to commemorate the achievements of Robert Bruce. About 100 years after that, another poem was written about the deeds of William Wallace – the main character of the movie Braveheart.

King Robert I of Scotland and his wife, Isabella of Mar.
When Robert was killed, and the invasion failed, the Declaration of Arbroath was written and sent to the Pope as another attempt at independence. (Image: Forman Armorial (produced for Mary, Queen of Scots)/Public domain)

The Scottish authors suddenly realized that they should keep a full archive of Scottish history, but they did not have accurate information about what had happened in the past. They wanted to write about Macbeth, who ruled 300 years earlier, but there was no source. Thus, they began to make up stories and wrote down what they believed had happened.

As a result, the Macbeth that Shakespeare writes of is very different from the real Macbeth, who won the throne in a just battle, the way all Scots did back then. He then ruled successfully for 17 years and even left his kingdom once for a pilgrimage trip to Rome, leaving Scotland in the hands of his wife. The contradiction between the fictional and the real Macbeth shows how much the history that these Scottish authors have written has altered.

The Bruce family set the building blocks of Scotland’s independence, even though it took a long time to bear fruit.

Common Questions about the Bruce Family in Scotland and Ireland

Q: How did Robert Bruce know Ireland so well?

Robert Bruce’s wife was the daughter of Earl of Ulster. So, Robert had a good knowledge about Ireland.

Q: Who was Edward Bruce?

Edward was another son of the Bruce family. When his brother, Robert, agreed to help the O’Neill family, Edward was sent to Ireland.

Q: What was the Declaration of Arbroath?

In 1320, Scots wrote the declaration to show Pope John XXII that their ancestors were also Spanish and that they wanted their king, Robert Bruce, to come back. Consequently, the Pope lifted Robert Bruce’s excommunication.

Keep Reading
Roman Conquest: How Did Life in Britain Change?
Pre-Christian Ireland: The Scholarly Views
The Origins of the Celtic Picts